Strangers and Aliens

Psalm 146

Hebrews 11:13-16

July 1, 2012

Park Ridge Community Church, Park Ridge, IL

It’s a basic human question:

In whom do you trust?

Before we know how to string that sentence together, before we can speak, it’s one of the questions we have to answer:

What makes you feel safe?

Where do you place your hope?

In whom do you trust?

Four years ago, we were invited to a picnic at church friends’ house for the Fourth of July. They lived in Wayne, IL, a suburb that was designed to give people room to their rambling homes and a couple horses.

By the time it was dark, time for fireworks, I wondered how my daughter Zora, then just a little under two, and completely exhausted, was going to handle this.

It turns out that our friend, a retired airline pilot, and Vietnam helicopter pilot, held an annual (slightly illegal) enormous home-grown fireworks display, which he liked to shoot off from the back porch in the direction of the barn (and just so you know: no animals were harmed: they had long ago given up their horses).

Of course, we were on lawn chairs out between the porch and barn, with the result that most of the show was right over our heads. I tried to remind myself that my friend had spent his professional life responsible for hundreds of airline passengers, so we were, I hoped, safe.

But, back to the tired girl in my arms. Nothing short of miraculous, she fell asleep in my arms. It might have been the result of many things: a late bed-time; hours of chasing our hosts’ big friendly dog around; too much ice cream. But I decided to take it as a sign of good mothering skills. She must trust me, I though, to sleep away quietly in my arms while bottle rockets went off above our heads.

On that fourth of July, four years ago, we were in the same place, and a different place, as a country.

Just like now, it was election season. We were working our way to the fall’s decision between Obama and McCain. (In fact, I remember that the husband and wife who hosted us that night, were at such odds with each other about the election that year that they had to stop talking to each other about it. My church congregation was similar)

But the economic disaster that hit us that next all wasn’t on our radar yet.

Our dollar bills say, “In God we trust”.

But, if you had asked me four years ago, I would have said that for many of us (often myself included), “In God we trust” came with a footnote:

“In God I trust…but…note that this is because in God’s infinite grace and wisdom I live in this particular country, with free and fair elections; currency that holds its value; a booming economy; a stable stock market; a passport that can get me out a jam if I’m traveling…”

For many Christians in the US, our sense of trust in God and country can get so tangled that its hard to figure out which is which.

Honestly, it’s been a hard four years for our identity as American, for that feeling that we are the greatest nation on earth. I’d imagine that most of you do feel pride in being Americans. That most of you do still feel like there is something unique and wonderful and blessed about this country. I do too.

But, I’m also one of the older members of Generation Y. And, to be honest, we’ve been hit hard. I’m not trying to whine. I know that other generations have faced incredible challenges. But there are some nagging worries when I look at the future.

I’m going to warn you in advance that this might feel a little controversial. But I resonated with this scene in a new TV show this week, Aaron Sorkin’s new show, “The Newsroom”.

At the beginning of the show, a successful news anchor, Will MacAvoy, is seated on a university stage between two news commentators, one liberal, one conservative, and a moderator is taking questions for them from students. The two commentators go at it as you’d expect. But Will remains moderate and quiet. He won’t take the bait. Until a student asks him, “  Is America the greatest country?” And the moderator pushes him. And he sort of explodes. He responds (angrily) to the student who asked, and says, no, he doesn’t think there is evidence to support that the United States is the best country on earth. He quotes statistics about where we rank in education, and health, economically. It’s a bleak picture.

So, where do we put our trust? In God? Or in country?

For the writer of Psalm 146, this is a no brainer. Trust in God or in Princes? He’ll take God, thank you very much. Princes are  only human, mortal, made from dust, to dust they reutnr, and so do all their plans and programs and policies.

Of course, for ancient Israel, this was a controversial thing to say. Their national identity was perfectly intertwined with religious identity. The judges, the kings, the princes were appointed by God, anointed by the priests and prophets.

They had, as a nation, a direct mandate from their God,  from YHWH, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah…

But even with that founding and inheritance, that identity as God’s own country was still abused by strings of fallen, fallible rulers, who overstepped their role as God’s appointed leader; and forgot in whom was their trust.

The psalmist reminds us, it’s a good thing we put our ultimate trust in God: God’s policies and priorities remember the people the authorities often forget: the hungry, the prisoner, the disabled, the lowly, the resident alien, the orphan and the widow.

These were the people in the ancient world who were the most likely to be abused, the people no one was looking out for (maybe things haven’t changed so much in 30 centuries)

Now, I’m guessing that we represent something of a socio-economic spectrum here today. At the same time, if you will eat 3 meals today, and sleep in a safe place tonight, you are among some of the more blessed people in this country; and definitely in the world today.

And if Psalm 146 suggest that God places priorities on the outsiders (and we are, in many ways, the insiders) why ought we to trust in this God? Is God looking out for us?

Here’s the thing: we, too, in a way, are strangers and aliens.

Maybe we don’t feel like it. We feel like we are right where we belong. Even our religious heritage: it’s the historic majority in our country. And here we sit this morning, worshipping openly in a church that stands, quite literally, at the center of town, a place of prominence and authority.

But when Hebrews was written, it wouldn’t have been a church at the center of town. If you visit ancient Roman and Greek towns, the center of town is the temple of the local deities. Christians, by not joining in worship at those temples were opting out not just of the religious life  (and Jews, for that matter) of their communities but the civic life of their communities.

That, in fact, is also our spiritual inheritance: being wanderers, strangers and aliens. In the book of Hebrews, a letter to the Christian communities scattered throughout those Roman and Greek towns, there is a beautiful summary of the lives of all their spiritual ancestors: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, all the way through to Moses as he leads the people from Egypt to the promised land. All of them, wanderers. They went from country to country looking for a place of their own. And in the middle of this is where the author of Hebrews pauses to remind us of our religious heritage.

(reread passage)

In a physical sense, they were looking for a home, a land God has promised them. And that promise didn’t come true for generations afterward.

But the physical wandering was also a reminder that to follow God means we are looking for a home. We know that something is not quite right with this world. And we long for things to be aGod intended. As God created them. A place where we feel safe, secure. We are looking for a time and place in history where all of God’s work and intention will be fulfilled. In whom do you trust? In God alone…

And while, on one level, we are citizens of a country, even as we celebrate that, and eat apple pie and ice cream, and grill, and sit through fireworks displays, and cheer…

our fellow citizens of God’s kingdom are scattered throughout the world, strangers and aliens, like us, even in their own lands: in Mexico, in Guatemala; in Iraq; in Syria; in North and South Korea; in Greece; in Indonesia; in Egypt; in Kenya; in South Africa. In every corner of this world, the people of God.

And so our primary allegiance is to that reign of God. Which means that in our lives as citizens of this country, God’s  priorities are our priorities. There’s no right answer, no one Christian answer, in terms of candidates or parties or policies. Except that each of us is called to ask ourselves how our whole lives and all of our decisions: social, economic; spiritual; political ; how they each line up with God’s priorities.

We are strangers and aliens. But this is not bad news. It means that our trust is finally in God, always faithful, who was is and will be. And God has called us out, from east and west,north and south, gathered us in and embraced us, blessed us to be a blessing to the whole creation.