by The Rev. Ted Thornton
My text this morning comes from our Epistle, The Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, verse 16: “...for he has prepared a city for them.”
And, two chapters later - 13:14 - we read a more extended development of this image, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
A city! According to the author of Hebrews, the Christian dream from the beginning has been an urban one, a community marked by all the features we'd expect from a city: cooperation and interdependence chief among them, and as a Christian city, defined further as a place where its citizens practice loving charity one with another.
Let’s listen to those lines again: “For he has prepared a city for them," and, "here we do not have an enduring city.”
These lines strike my ear at a time when they are especially hard to hear. When Covid struck, and more recently when Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, I, like many of you perhaps, began to feel even more acutely than usual the sense of impermanence that pervades our human existence on this planet: a military attack on a democratic country on top of a potentially deadly virus that just won’t go away, the relentless poisoning of our global biosphere, the senseless loss of life as people armed to the teeth with high tech weapons take life after life in our streets, churches, shopping centers, and homes, political, social, and cultural turmoil and divisiveness in our society, perhaps the worst since the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Yes, at times like these, I often succumb to what the Buddhists call a sense of the extreme impermanence of existence: a penetrating reminder that nothing this side of the grave lasts forever and, sometimes it seems, most of the good things hardly any time at all.
But then into these dark thoughts comes the lovely reminder of God’s promise. Our solace and salvation, Hebrews tells us, is our faith, based on God’s promise in scripture that all of us are in perpetual motion toward a perfect “city that is to come,” however that phrase may translate for each of us. For us Christians, beginning with the author of Hebrews, that city which is to come has been a heavenly version of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem? Jerusalem which to date has been sacked and burned to the ground over and over again by its neighbors near and far? Even the Mongols from far off East Asia raided it. There has been nothing permanent about the earthly Jerusalem to report in our telling of its story. Throughout its long history beginning in the fourth- millennium BC, Jerusalem has been attacked fifty-two times, captured and recaptured forty-four times, besieged twenty-three times, and completely destroyed twice.
Jerusalem? No, not the earthly, finite, transient, and vulnerable Jerusalem of our times. Not that Jerusalem, but "the city that is to come.” What a beautiful vision (if visions are to be trusted)!
Whatever we make of Jerusalem’s often grim history, it is true that cities are the result of relationships, relationships hewn from the trust - the faith - that human beings can cooperate and come together to build healthful, nurturing, and secure communities for the mutual benefit of all.
This morning, I find myself looking back nearly fifty years ago to my years in Divinity School and one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known. His name was Dieter Georgi. Dieter was a German émigré to this country, a minister and New Testament theologian.
But, it wasn’t in college or seminary that Dieter Georgi became a scholar. He became a scholar, he used to say, at the age of fourteen, in 1944 and 1945 as whole swaths of his homeland of Germany were being reduced to rubble in the wake of the Allied advance. Much of that time he remembered spending on the move from bunker to bunker to escape the bombing raids. He was still too young to fully fathom the horror Hitler had been wreaking upon Europe or to be held responsible for any of it. He saw his home town of Frankfurt go up in flames. And, he was in an underground shelter in Dresden when the “firestorm” destroyed that city. These experiences taught him that the essence of life is impermanence, and the essence of faith is what Christian theologians call theologia viatorum: the theology of pilgrims, wayfarers, a people and a theology in perpetual motion, never at rest, always on the move. What this means is that our search for an understanding of God and God’s purpose is never complete this side of the grave. God is never revealed all at once, only by degrees as we journey through life. The best we can do is put ourselves on the path and journey on.
Our atheist friends think we’re fools. They always have. Yes, as Paul tells us in the first century, “we are fools for Christ’s sake (First Corinthians 4:10).”
Whether one is religious or not, the lesson seems to be that nothing stands still and none of us is ever everything we can be; and that, therefore, we should never seek refuge in static dogmas about ourselves, about others, or about this changeable “city” we call our world: no final judgments about anybody or anything. We are never complete; we are never finished products, not on this side of the grave anyway.
Dieter’s experience instilled in him an acute sensitivity to change, a critical capacity for anyone who aims to become a genuine historian or theologian. And, his experience, mediated through his teaching, cemented my own twin loves of history and theology. Dieter was the best teacher of both disciplines I’ve ever known. His principal lesson was that we’re always on the road, always in flux: this is the chief reality of life.
As Heraclitus taught the Greeks, we never step into the same river twice. So, we’d best be humble about any conclusions we’re tempted to draw about one another, and, we’d best nurture a healthy tolerance for ambiguity, a quality, it seems to me, that is in desperately short supply in our world today.
Dieter Georgi’s favorite novelist was William Faulkner, who, he used to say without a trace of irony, was also in his view America’s greatest theologian. One of his favorite Faulkner novels was The Reivers. Like many great novels, the story is about a journey, this one to Memphis in a stolen (or “reived”) automobile. There are many hilarious misadventures on this journey.
Along the way, the car gets traded for a racehorse who, it turns out, always comes in last because he likes to look at the other horses. His owners finally get him to win by slipping him one of the more innovative performance enhancing drugs out there: administered on the sly, of course, and rumored to be a sardine. The story is a metaphor for life as movement, life as surprise, life as a joyride, a joyride none of us asked to be put on and for which none of us has full permission.
Faulkner’s metaphor of life as a journey from one state of impermanence into another is a good fit for all our readings this morning. Notice that in our reading from Genesis when God promises Abraham an eternal line of descendants, the promise does not include what might happen to those descendants along their way through history. It doesn’t include what they will suffer, what adversities they will endure, only that the line of descendents will persevere; it will endure.
And maybe that’s the point: to persevere, to endure. The late Harvard University Chaplain Rev. Peter Gomes used to say that the most fundamental truth is perseverance in the face of human folly.
Implicit in Jesus’ warning in our reading from the gospels today - to be watchful, to be alert - is the discipline of perseverance. To me perseverance is best summed up in our frequent advice to one another to “hang in there,” to endure and in watching out for the return of the master to prepare ourselves to welcome the promised kingdom, God’s new and lasting reality, again, "the city that is to come.”
Jesus’ call for us to be alert, or, literally in the original Greek, to be watchful for the return of the master doesn’t contain a foretelling of what might happen to us while we wait, watch, and remain on alert through our years walking this earth. There is nevertheless a great blessing attached to being watchful. The Greek word Luke uses in 12:37 we translate as “watching” (or being alert) is the present participle γρηγοροῦντας (do you know any males named “Gregory?” They’re the “watchful ones”).
Jesus says, “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes.” More importantly, in asking us to be watchful for the return of “the master,” Jesus is asking us to be alert for signs that God is already at work in our worldly, our secular cities.
Another of my old teachers (still alive at the age of 93) is Harvey Cox, most famous for his 1965 best seller, The Secular City. That title and an insufficiently incomplete reading of the book led many to associate Cox with the “God is Dead!” movement of those times as people started looking for ways for us to carry on without God. Cox, who is an American Baptist minister as well as a theologian, says his original title was not “The Secular City” but “God and the Secular City.” His publisher thought the longer title wouldn’t sell as many books and insisted on the shorter one. But, it’s the longer one that gets at Cox’s real point: that God has not removed herself from the saeculum, the lifetimes of earthly cities and their citizens, but is already hard at work creating “that city that is to come.”
This coming week do your best to comfort someone, especially someone who appears to be in doubt or seems to be losing faith. Encourage them to be watchful, to be alert, to hang in there: in short, to become good “Gregories.” Encourage them to look for signs of God already at work on that “city that is to come” right here and now in our secular cities where people are working to heal, help, feed, shelter, and sustain others.
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