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A Confident Wandering

August 8, 2016

“A Confident Wandering” Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 © 8.7.16 Ordinary 19C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Those of you of my generation and earlier may remember a song by Dion called “The Wanderer.” It was about a guy who roams from town to town, looking for pretty girls, who to him were all the same. He vows never to settle down, but stay as far away from commitment as he can. If he starts falling for a woman, he’ll get in his car and leave. He’s a wanderer, who goes through life without a care.

Not exactly a positive figure or a good role model. Walker Percy describes another sort of wanderer, namely his character Will Barrett: “At his best, he was everything a psychologist could have desired him to be. Most of the time, however, it was a different story. He would lapse into an unproductive and solitary life. He took to wandering. He had a way of turning up at unlikely places…. Most of this young man’s life was a gap (The Last Gentleman, p.18). Will Barrett did not know what to think, says Percy, so he became a “listener and a watcher and a wanderer” (p.16).

Wanderers like these are suspicious characters, unproductive types who shun commitment, who are maybe a little mentally unbalanced. Synonyms are “stranger,” “nomad,” “transient,” “temporary resident.” By contrast, you no doubt join me in preferring stability, being rooted and grounded, collecting steady paychecks, having a permanent address, making vows and keeping them, staying put even if the going gets rough and our responsibilities are hard to bear. We don’t skip town and roam around and around or if we do, it’s on a vacation and for a change of pace.

So we may have a bit of a hard time accepting the way the author of Hebrews describes people of faith. As heirs of the saints of old, we are nomads, wanderers, transients, sojourners, strangers. He asks us to accept that there is a kind of wandering that is purposeful and intentional. The writer J.R.R. Tolkien once famously said: “Not all those who wander are lost” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_that_is_gold_does_not_glitter), and the preacher of Hebrews, as well as his people, would agree. “Not all who wander are lost.” They may be doing it on purpose, they may be moving along the road, traveling on, because that is who they are or who they are called to be.

The great gospel song captured the notion of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, a journey along a road in an alien world: “This world is not my home/ I’m just passing through/my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue./The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,/and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” The things we say, the way we say them, the customs we follow don’t seem quite right to the world, which expects us to be fully assimilated and squeezed into its mold, instead of being an enclave of Zion, a distinctive neighborhood that is nevertheless global in scope. We retain or are supposed to retain an accent of somewhere else, a sort of oddness that the world is uncomfortable with.

Let me suggest a couple of ways in which we are or might be distinctive and odd according to the usual standards of the world. For one, we’re informed and inspired by the past without being captive to it. The Hebrews took the bones of Joseph with them, linking themselves physically to the memory of Egypt, both its accomplishments in the rise of Joseph and in the sorrow when there came to the throne a Pharaoh who did not know him. The stories of the forebears were whispered, as it were, from the patriarch’s remains. Those tales helped them interpret their present experiences as they moved forward, sometimes by fits and starts, at other times with purpose and confidence.

Particularly in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, we value the past, but we are committed to the new, as God leads us. Our slogan, which I have repeated many times from this pulpit, is “Reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God.” That is not the mission statement of people who stay put, but of those on the move for God. We reach for the future. As Frederick Buechner once observed: “Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp” (http://www.frederickbuechner.com/blog/2016/8/1/weekly-sermon-illustration-just-beyond-our-grasp).

You may know the adjective “peregrine,” which means “wandering, traveling, migrating.” Those who follow Christ are a peregrine Church, never settled, always on the way to somewhere else, writ large, namely, God’s future. Some synonyms for “peregrine” are suggestive of our mission and the character of our common life: alluring, colorful, curious, different, fascinating, unusual, enticing, extraordinary, striking. We ought also pay attention to the opposites of the word: boring, common, dull, ordinary, uninteresting, usual (http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/peregrine). A peregrine Church—wanderers through the world while being not of the world—asks questions, explores new vistas, finds ways to create and sustain interest. We are curious, not satisfied with the same old same old, the typical responses given by the usual suspects.

The 20th century African American writer Langston Hughes was a wanderer of this sort. It’s been said of him: “He was not so absorbed in his own purposes as not to notice what was going on around him.… Langston Hughes is that kind of traveler who seeks after little, and, so, discovers much to wonder at” (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1956/12/13/hughes-i-wonder-as-i-wander/). In like manner, we are people who notice and wonder and ask how God is present in those things and people and places we notice and wonder about.

Something else in that characterization of Hughes is helpful. “He was not so absorbed in his own purposes…” That’s another quality of the wandering, peregrine people of God, how we are distinctive and odd in the eyes of the world. We may and do have institutions, buildings, traditions, and doctrines, but we don’t invest too much in them. Like everything, they are temporary, even though sometimes we act as if they will last forever, even if we pretend that they are worth fighting about and vilifying brothers and sisters in Christ to protect. Circumstances and demographics change which lead to the demise of denominations. Doctrines and confessional statements prove to be silly or dangerous or both or else not true to the witness of Scripture to the will of God in Christ. Buildings literally crumble or burn or become too expensive to maintain. But if there were no denominations or buildings to meet in or doctrines to insist on, the Church would not stop being the Church. Because the Church is none of those things, but a people on the way, who are headed to their homeland, a better country where there is a shining city whose builder and maker is God himself.

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, in their book Resident Aliens, provide a good one paragraph summary of our journey: “The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression…. When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train. As disciples, we do not so much accept a creed, or come to a clear sense of self-understanding by which we know this or that with utter certitude.  We become a part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone” (Will Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas in Resident Aliens, 49-52, quoted at https://jeremyberg.wordpress.com/tag/resident-aliens/).

All along the way, we the Church are energized and sustained by the gift of God, which is faith. We are by it enabled to see the present with new eyes, to be convinced of things not seen. By faith, too, we treat God’s future as a present reality, as having concrete substance, even though we don’t know its exact shape. Because we do know that the same God whose Word called the cosmos into being will direct and order our lives. Thus, in one scholar’s phrase, our pilgrimage is a “confident wandering.” We are tethered to the New Jerusalem, our better country, by faith and hope, the assurance God gives that the coming world of peace, justice, and compassion is real, though now it is hidden from sight, glimpsed only on occasion.

I close with the beautiful lyrics of a hymn found in Glory to God, the new PC(USA) hymnal. May they shape our lives in the coming week and indeed for a long time to come. “Faith begins by letting go, giving up what had seemed sure, taking risks and pressing on, though the way feels less secure: pilgrimage both right and odd, trusting all our life to God. Faith endures by holding on, keeping memory’s roots alive so that hope may bear its fruit; promise-fed, our souls will thrive, not through merit we possess but by God’s great faithfulness” (“Faith Begins by Letting Go,” Carl P. Daw, Jr., 1995).

To which I say “Amen.”

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