Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Earlier this year, the CEO of Tesla motors and billionaire futurist Elon Musk announced his other company—Space X—has an ambitious plan. This company would send two people in to space, who would then fly around the moon. In doing this, these two people would be venturing further into space than human beings ever have. For Musk, this isn’t just about science or exploration. He sees it as much much bigger. As a contribution to the human race. "Life,” he says. “Life needs to be more than just solving problems every day. You need to wake up and be excited about the future, to be inspired and want to live."[i] Without something to for us humans to look forward to, to be inspired by. Life is incomplete. To say the least.
Whatever your thoughts on space travel may be, this eccentric billionaire is right about something. We humans are future-oriented creatures. We humans can look ahead, plan, work towards goals and outcomes, which sets us apart from most—if not all—animals. Whether it’s career, whether it’s the health and welfare of a family. Whether it’s a dream for retirement. Fame, fortune, life accomplishments, or even something like a just society. Whether it’s for short term survival, or long term projects, our lives tend to be motivated by what we believe we’re working towards. A future that inspires us. That motivates us. That makes us want to live.
We’re future-oriented creatures. And while that can be a wonderful thing, it can also be destructive.
I remember when I was an intern at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver. Sitting with a woman in her mid-forties, who needed surgery on account of her heavy drug use. Looking at me, tears in her eyes say, "my life wasn't supposed to be like this." This woman didn’t grow up in poverty, or an abusive household. In fact, she was on her way to a scholarship at an Ivy League American school. She wasn’t clear on how she got there, but soon she found herself on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Addicted to heroin. Of course, wasted potential is always a sad thing. But the saddest thing was that the life, the dreams she had set out for herself had been completely destroyed. Without a future, she was hopeless. And she wrote herself off entirely.
And this woman wasn’t alone. It’s a more extreme example, but it can happen to each of us. For those of us who’ve grown up or lived lives in poverty, the stress of worrying about whether or not we’ll have enough to survive tomorrow can be enough to finally kill us. Or for those of us who suffer from depression, I know one of the worst feelings is being without a hope that motivates or inspires us to get up in the morning. Still for others it might be the career we always wanted, but never actually panned out. Or retirement ends up being a time where we lose the focus and purpose our jobs can give us. Or the relationship or family we always imagined ourselves having. But never actually lives up to our expectations. Or our relationship with our children or grandchildren, isn’t what we’d always hoped it would be. Or maybe it’s just the uncertain state of the world that makes us worry about our lives. And the lives of our children. Regardless of what it is. The future slips out of our grasp.
We’re future-oriented creatures. We need something to inspire us and make us want to live. And without it, the future can imprison us just as easily as it can motivate us. Or empower us. And without that sense of a future, we can become anxious. We can give ourselves over to worry. We can fall in to despair.
Without a future that inspires, we can fall in to despair. This is the exact situation we find in this morning’s scripture passage.
"After these things," begins this morning's scripture passage. "After these things the word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision." Somehow, God speaks. And somehow Abraham hears. "Do not be afraid," God says to Abraham. What is Abraham afraid of, exactly? "And Abraham said to God "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You've given me no heir, Abraham continues. So a slave that we've adopted in to our family's going to be my heir." Abraham's afraid because he's got no children. And the terrorizing part is that the biological clock isn't just ticking--it's run out of batteries. This may not seem like a big deal to us, but to Abraham and his culture, legacy is everything. And your real legacy is your heirs: your children, your offspring. Abraham would take the phrase "children are our future" quite literally. And they have to be your own, biological children--can't be adopted. Because your genes are your only shot at immortality. No children of your own, no future. God says to Abraham, "be not afraid," because he is. He's terrified because he looks at his life, childless, landless, and he's become hopeless. Future-oriented creature that he is.
Now, we might expect God in a story like this to just snap some fingers and boom--baby, huge family, land. But it doesn't work like that. God doesn’t just give Abraham what he wants. God doesn’t work like that. In the scriptures, or in our everyday lives. But instead of giving him something to Abraham. God takes something away.
Remember how Abraham expressed his doubts to God. "You have given me no offspring," Abraham said. Back in chapter 12, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. But all he's got is an adopted slave. Here God responds. "Abraham," he says. "This guy won't be your heir. It'll be somebody who carries your genes." And then it says that God takes him outside into the night air. It's pitchblack, no electrical lighting obscuring the view, so the stars are like white pinholes in the sky. "Look," says God to Abraham. "Look up. You can't even count how many stars there are in the sky. This is gonna be the size of your family." You can imagine yourself as Abraham. Staring up at the majesty of creation. Surely, if God could create this, surely God could have a part for me to play. Abraham’s going to have a child of his own. If you read on in the story, you’ll find that comes in quite an unexpected way. But God promises that he’ll have his heir. This child of his own.
And the amazing thing is that in hearing this news, Abraham’s heart opensIt says Abraham “believed God.” Not just an idea, but the idea is that he trusted God. He put his heart to God, and trusted his future to him entirely. And, it says, “God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Fearful, anxious of a future he couldn’t control. God removes the burden of Abraham’s future. And he’s able to trust his life fully to God. Here and now.
Like Abraham, so many of our own fears and anxieties come from worries about unfulfilled potential, and lost opportunities. They come from our grief over what might have been. And our worries about the future might or might not hold for each of us. But we can’t control the future. The future is beyond our control. That’s probably why it’s so frightening and anxiety-inducing.
But we don’t believe that the future belongs to us, anyway. The future, says our scripture, says the broader story of the Bible, belongs to no one but God. Abraham here is actually the paradigm for Christian faith. He’s the example our tradition points to. In the book of Romans. St. Paul connects Jesus to Abraham. Jesus gave up his future to God, to the point of his death on a cross. Which usually says “that’s the end.” Death means no future. But even in Jesus own teaching, “if you want to keep your life, you’ve got to learn to give it up.”
Abraham’s life-giving discovery wasn’t that he’d get any future he’d ever wanted or wished for. But he discovered that true freedom is found in giving the control of our future away. Giving our future over to God. In doing so could go into his old age without fear, without making sure everything turned out right because he gave up his future to God.
In working with this scripture this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Martin Luther King Jr. And his final speech before his assassination. King was in Memphis on behalf of striking garbage workers. He was on the receiving end of multiple threats. But he refused to back down:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"[ii]
What we see in King is deep faith. That Abrahamic faith. That willingness to give one’s future over to God to live fully in the present. God took the burden of the future from King’s shoulders and gave him courage in its place.
See, we’re not responsible for making sure our lives turn out right. We’re not responsible for making the world turn out right, either. This is just something we don’t have the power to do. Because the future belongs to God. And there’s incredible freedom in finding this. When we’re no longer responsible for the future, for making things turn out right. We can actually be present here and now.
Yes, to live by faith is to believe that the future belongs to God. And that we can trust God with our lives. Because we believe that God’s end game, the meaning and purpose that we’ve been made for is the flourishing of all creation. For the broken world mended, hearts made whole, all things made new. Death to the old world of fear, anxiety and mistrust, and resurrection. For each of us to experience life in the full here and now, and forever. It’s what Elon Musk was talking about. God’s future is something that inspires us, makes us want to live. Even when the four walls seem to close in on us with no way out. The future belongs to God.
That part, that destiny part is God’s job. But our job is to trust God, here and now. And we do so by following in the same path he’s pioneered for us. By loving unconditionally, giving of what we have and of ourselves without fear of not having enough. By learning, and becoming more and more like him with each step of the Way. Each step on the path towards salvation. As that great poet, T.S. Eliot once wrote: “Ours is in the trying. The rest is none of our business.”[iii]
Ours is in the trying. The rest, the future, the outcome belongs to God. It's none of our business. And that’s good news.
[i] I saw this quote posted on Facebook by a friend, and made sure to save it but can’t find the original.
[ii] Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm
[iii] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” 1940.