Habitation and Homelessness: My Sermon on Citizenship

Having offered some unsolicited homiletic advice last Saturday, I thought today I might share a rare example of my own preaching: a sermon I delivered last month in Denver, to set up a four-class series at Covenant Village of Colorado on the history of Christians engaging with the wider culture. For the Sunday evening vespers service, I meditated on the story of Abraham and his heirs via the words of Psalm 105 (which we read responsively throughout). I hadn’t thought about this homily since Election Day, but it seems as relevant now as then.

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek
the Lord rejoice. (Ps 105:1-3)

The Blue Ridge Mountains
One more Blue Ridge picture…

This fall we’re homeschooling our kids while I’m on sabbatical in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The last couple weeks, my wife has been talking to them about verbs, or what they call “action words.”

Isaiah and Lena are six, so their favorite “action words” tend to be run, jump, and play.

Psalm 105 opens with some pretty great action words of its own: rejoice, glory, sing, give (thanks)

But if we’re being honest, we should admit that we don’t always say these verbs with our whole hearts. It’s hard to sing in the midst of pain and suffering, to give thanks when you’re out of work or a loved one is ill.

Many of us who grew up in the church struggle to know how “make known” and “tell of” God to a changing society, to a people that seems to finds Christianity uninteresting, irrelevant, or even repugnant.

And especially for white Christians like me, it seems like our joy is too often tinged with anxiety about the future. Consider what the Public Religion Research Institute found in its 2015 American Values Survey. When asked if America’s best days are ahead of it, members of most religious groups said yes: Catholics, black Protestants, non-Christians, non-religious. Only two disagreed: white mainline Protestants (55% no) and white evangelical Protestants (60% no).

So today, and the rest of our time together these next two days, let’s try to follow the psalmist’s instructions:

Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones. (Ps 105:4-6)

Seek the Lord and his strength, by remembering what he has done. Tomorrow and Tuesday we’ll do that by looking to the continuing story of God’s people. But tonight we’ll start with Scripture, and the man named in verse 6.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan… (Gen 12:1-5)

Molnár, "Abram's Departure"
József Molnár, “Abram’s Departure” (1850) – Wikimedia

I never fail to be amazed by Abram’s response. “Go… to the land that I will show you”? Abram already has land — and a lot invested in it after 75 years of living there. And he’s never seen the land he’s promised. But the text reports simply: “So Abram went…” No questions, no doubts.

Now, keep in mind that Abram wasn’t traversing desert or wilderness. His route took him through the Fertile Crescent, the lush birthplace of civilizations. How many times must he have pitched tents for the night and wondered, “Isn’t this land good enough?” But he keeps moving, and by the end of verse 5, he’s in Canaan…

…and by the end of the chapter, he has already moved on, become an “alien” in Egypt, and then been kicked out of Egypt.

Already we see one of the great themes of Hebrew Scripture: land and exile. To be repeated again and again, even as Jewish history continues beyond the biblical account.

In the early 20th century, the philosopher Martin Buber extended this pattern to all of human history. He suggested that humans pass through epochs of habitation (when “humans live in the universe as in a house”) and epochs of homelessness (when we live as if “in an open field without even four pegs to put up a tent”).

So if you’re feeling a bit “homeless” in American culture right now, know that it’s nothing new. And maybe not so bad: habitation implies “habits” — some of which ought to be broken.

But it’s rarely pleasant to feel so exposed. So let’s remember how God’s word came again to Abram, for it’s a word we badly need to hear again:

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” (Gen 15:1-7)

“Do not be afraid…” The Lord reassures Abram not only that his descendants will have the Promised Land, but that his heirs would be as many as the stars in the night sky. Or as the psalmist put it:

He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant forever,
of the word that he commanded,
for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan
as your portion for an inheritance.” (Ps 105:7-11)

But right there in Genesis 15, in between the covenantal promises, is another promise: “…your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years” (v 13). Again we hear the theme: land and exile, habitation and homelessness.

When they were few in number,
of little account, and strangers in it,
wandering from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another people,
he allowed no one to oppress them;
he rebuked kings on their account,
saying, “Do not touch my anointed ones;
do my prophets no harm.” (Psalm 105:12-15)

We were reading the story of Passover in church last weekend, and it struck me again that the instructions are to eat in a hurry, dressed and ready to leave. Perhaps that’s a posture we should always have in mind as we live in this world, where God’s people continue to sojourn, “wandering from nation to nation.”

David Roberts, "Departure of the Israelites" (1829) - Wikimedia
David Roberts, “Departure of the Israelites” (1829) – Wikimedia

The pattern continues with the rest of the psalm: from Jacob living “as an alien” in Egypt to God remembering his promise and returning the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the promised land. Let’s conclude with the final four verses:

For he remembered his holy promise,
and Abraham, his servant.
So he brought his people out with joy,
his chosen ones with singing.
He gave them the lands of the nations,
and they took possession of the wealth of the
that they might keep his statutes
and observe his laws.
Praise the Lord! (Ps 105:42-45)

Under Joshua, the heirs of Abram retake their Promised Land, and they build a kingdom under David and Solomon. But the pattern continues… First the ten tribes of Israel are scattered by one empire, then the two of the southern kingdom are sent into exile by another. Another, later psalmist speaks of sitting by the rivers of Babylon, and weeping at the very thought of Jerusalem as he is taunted by his captors.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? (Ps 137:1-4)

But indeed, the reason that we can read these words is that the Jewish people did learn to sing God’s song apart from Zion. Babylon is where Judaism becomes Judaism – as those exiles write down their scriptures and, lacking a temple for priestly worship, begin to train rabbis to teach the word of God.

Even more strikingly, as they formed that identity — one that would survive the final destruction of the temple and diaspora after diaspora — they also demonstrated engagement with non-Jewish culture. One of their greatest prophets sent advice to exiles in Babylon.

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer 29:5-7)

And prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Malachi began to speak of God establishing “new heavens and a new earth,” of drawing all peoples to his holy mountain, of sending a Messiah who would be far more than a Jewish nationalist ruler.

So this is Abram’s story, and it’s the Jewish story. But it’s also the story of Gentiles like us: for if we’ve found our identity in Jesus Christ, we are heirs of God’s promises to Abram.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:27-29)

So as we prepare to spend a couple of days thinking about the vast array of historical options available to Christians seeking to live in the world but not of it, let’s keep in mind three takeaways from the story of Abram and his heirs:

Lastman, Abraham's Journey to Canaan
Pieter Lastman, “Abraham’s Journey to Canaan” – Wikimedia

1. If habitation and homelessness have always been part of the story of God’s people, then don’t be surprised when you go through such transitions yourself. Nothing in Scripture promises security, stability, and certainty. What is promised is that God will be faithful. For you are the stars in the night sky that Abram saw; you are heirs to the promises God made to him — the trials and the joys.

2. You are heirs, but the inheritance was never land — even for Abram. When he first came to Canaan, that patriarch lived in tents, a fact that struck one New Testament author as highly significant:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God…. All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:8-10, 13-16)

While we are indeed to seek the welfare of the earthly city and make our God known in a way that the world understands, our citizenship is in a heavenly city.

3. And our citizenship in that city comes through Jesus Christ, not land, nationality, political ideology, social status, or anything else that humans like to put boundaries around. Our identity is not defined by borders that shift, but by the eternal Word at the center. As long as we keep that in mind, we can continue to sing the praises of Psalm 105 with gratitude and joy.

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek
the Lord rejoice. (Ps 105:1-3)

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