I was a terrible Boy Scout. I couldn’t tie knots, I hated standing at attention, and I didn’t like going door to door selling candy and lightbulbs. It took me two years to reach the first level of achievement, which is “Tenderfoot”, and that’s about the time I dropped out. I did like to camp, though, or at least I thought I did until our first campout in a rainstorm when I awoke to find my sleeping bag was soaking in an inch-deep pool of water. Later, I earned a polar bear merit badge for camping in sub-zero temps under a foot of fresh snow, but in general my experience of Scouting dampened my enthusiasm for sleeping in a tent.
Last evening, I drove up Golden Gate Canyon to check on our Sunday School families camping out under the stars. Or under the rain clouds, as it happened. Everyone looked pretty happy, though, and I was given guided tours of elaborate tents with roomy vestibules and plush air mattresses near the shower facility that looked like it should appear on the cover of architectural digest. I did some serious re-thinking about camping and may pull my tent out of storage soon.
In our reading from the book of Hebrews, we were reminded that the patriarch Abraham lived in a tent. Not just Abraham, but Abraham’s wife Sarah and their son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob. That’s three generations of camping. It’s not that these great ancestors in our faith were so fond of tents or were by nature nomads, it’s just that they were following a promise and they knew their final destination was still ahead. As the author of Hebrews said, “they were looking for a homeland.”
We don’t really know who wrote the book of Hebrews. Many people believe it was the Apostle Paul, but there is no good evidence to indicate that is so, and it remains one of the many mysteries surrounding the origin of our scriptures. Chapter 11 of Hebrews is known as the “faith chapter”, just as 1 Corinthians 13 is known as the “love chapter.” Lots of heroes of the faith are celebrated in this chapter, one by one, as inspiring examples for us to follow. And perhaps most important among them is Abraham, sitting in his tent, filled with faith and hope and assurance of God’s promises but never actually seeing them come to fulfillment. That’s a lot of camping, and the more cynical might conclude that it was for nothing.
Abraham was looking for a homeland. Think about all of the people who are doing that today. We call them refugees, and many of them live in tents, also. One of the most inspiring moments on Friday night during the parade of nations for the Olympics occurred when a team of refugees, led by a woman from Sudan, entered the auditorium. The crowd rose to its feet, recognizing the incredible determination of those ten athletes who have no homeland during a worldwide competition that emphasizes the national pride of all participating countries. In May, a twelve-year-old Syrian refugee named Hanan Dacka carried the Olympic Torch through the capital city of Brasilia and said, “Today I don’t feel like a refugee, but like any other Brazilian girl carrying the torch.” She moved to Brazil last year from the Zaatar refugee camp in Jordan which houses over 80,000 men, women, and children in small canvas tents. Hanan is one of more than 3,000 Syrians who have been welcomed by the people of Brazil and have found a new homeland.
The writer of Hebrews talks about all of those forebearers who struggled in difficult circumstances and manage to survive because they had their eyes set on a future where they would live in peace. Then it is stated that while they desired a better country, it was not a physical one here on earth, but a heavenly one. I’m not sure that Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or any others listed in the Hebrews Hall of Fame would agree with that. Ancient Jewish ideas of heaven were not as clear or vivid as those we find in the later Christian scriptures. I’m pretty sure Abraham and Sarah headed out with their tent and the idea that God had a real, physical place in mind for settling them, and that is in fact what happened, eventually. The author of Hebrews engaged in the practice of spiritualizing, and the reason was to encourage new believers in times of great difficulty by assuring them of an afterlife. It makes sense, but that practice has continued in the form of Christians avoiding social justice and the real, physical needs of people by patting them on the head and telling them that everything will be better in heaven.
Mike Tupper is a pastor in the denomination that I formerly served and which continues to bar LGBT persons from ministry and does not allow its clergy to perform same-sex marriages despite the civil opportunity to marry in our country. Mike spent six months during the past year sleeping in a tent to symbolize the injustice of closed doors for those who are kept outside of the church. During those months, I saw pictures of his tent in the rain and the snow as he took his demonstration around the country and refused to go indoors to enjoy a soft bed. He is looking forward to a day when justice and inclusion will characterize the church he loves. But for now, it is still just a dream.
Why do people keep pressing forward against great odds and in the face of strong opposition to work for a better future? What causes people to leave a dangerous homeland and seek a better life for their children? What propels others to deny their own comfort to seek justice for those whose opportunities are fewer based on race or gender or orientation or any other human difference?
Hebrews 11 begins by stating, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.” Things that are unseen by most people are seen clearly by those who live in hope and are assured deep inside that life can be better for themselves and for others. By acting as those things that are not yet have come to pass or certainly will, they are creating a place where all things good and right are possible.
I grew up three miles from the brink of Niagara Falls. One of the stories from the era of 19th century Niagara Daredevils is about a French acrobat named Charles Blondin. Blondin set up a one-thousand foot long tightrope that stretched from the United States to Canada above the Niagara Gorge. He crossed over several times, to the amazement of a crowd of many thousands. At one point he stopped to cook an omelet on a small stove that he carried across with him. When he prepared to make yet another crossing, this time with a wheelbarrow, he quieted the crowd and pointed to a man who had been shouting encouragement. He asked the man, “Do you believe I’m the best acrobat of all time?” And the man said “Yes, I do!” And Blondin asked, “Do you believe I can push this wheelbarrow across the rope?” And the man replied “Yes!” “With a man in it?!” “Yes, yes!” And then Blondin said to him with a smile before the hushed crowed of thousands, “Climb right in!” According to the legend, he declined the invitation.
Faith is more than a mild or even strong belief. It is action. It is choosing to live and act in ways that are in line with our hopes for a better future. We are motivated by “things unseen,” and we trust in a power beyond ourselves to transform our world. In doing so, we follow in the way of Jesus, who according the first verses of the Gospel of John made his dwelling among us. Literally translated, he “tabernacled among us” which is a fancy way to say he pitched his tent in our midst. May we not be afraid to be like Jesus, giving of ourselves and forsaking our comfort and even privilege, for the greater purpose of seeing God’s realm here on earth as in heaven.