(Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16)
You ever have this happen to you – in pre-pandemic times, of course? Maybe you’ve got an important business presentation on the 27th floor that starts in a matter of minutes. Or maybe you’re booking it up to your apartment to catch the start of the game. Or maybe you’re scrambling to get to the top floor of the hospital to see your newborn granddaughter for the first time. Either way, there you are, standing in the lobby of the business skyscraper or high-rise apartment or downtown hospital, facing the same obstacle that millions of people face every day – the dreaded elevator. All that stands between you and your final destination are a few buttons and some steel doors. If only it were that easy!
You push the “up” button and wait for what seems like an eternity for your elevator to arrive. And when it does, the doors open to reveal a dozen or so passengers, all with a shell-shocked look on their face as if to say, don’t get on. You know what they’ve been through, but you get on anyway.
Looking at the long list of buttons, you notice that just about every button between where you are and where you’re going glows orange. Which means, of course, that you’re about to be treated to an agonizing game of stop-and-go; on and off. And if you’re really lucky, something in the system will foul up and your elevator will go down before it goes back up. At long last, you arrive at your floor of choice; although what awaits you there is an impatient group of business clients, or ten minutes of your game gone, or, horror of horrors, a grandchild who’s already been seen by the other set of grandparents.
Unless you happen to be ten years old with a lot of time on your hands, elevators are not an occasion for much fun. Nevertheless, we put up with them because we’ve been led to believe that we have no choice. But that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Perhaps you’ve heard or even experienced what are called “Destination Elevators.” Unlike traditional elevators, these come equipped with special computer programming that gets you to your destination much more efficiently.
Here’s how it works: Say you want to get to the ninth floor of a busy office building. You simply walk up to a computer kiosk in the lobby and type in the number 9. The computer analyzes your request and uses sophisticated software to figure out the most direct and efficient way to respond to all elevator demands in real time. It also calculates the optimum route for each car, based on where passengers are and where they’re going. Weight sensors in the cars estimate the number of passengers on board to determine whether to first drop passengers off before picking up new ones. After all that, which happens instantaneously, the computer directs you to the elevator to take and gets you to your destination in one half the time of a traditional elevator.
Perhaps you’ve had a chance to ride one of these destination elevators before. I did a number of years ago in Kansas City, and I’m pleased to say it worked as advertised. Technology can be pretty amazing, can it not? We’ve seen it happen in other instances. Google Maps shows you the quickest route and steers you around traffic. Uber and Lyft send a rideshare to your location in no time flat. You and I, we spend large chunks of our life trying to get from where we are to where we need to be, and it sure is nice when life works out like that.
Which is why our scripture reading today seems to stand in contrast to this. This section of Hebrews, probably the most heralded chapter of the book, is commonly referred to as the “cloud of witnesses.” And in this cloud we find a long litany of stalwarts in the faith: Abel, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, the kings and prophets, even the Hebrew people themselves. All were trying to get from where they were to where they needed to be. But they didn’t have the benefit of a destination elevator or Google Maps to make the journey as quick and easy as possible. In fact, it was the exact opposite. They had no idea where God was leading them. They had no clue where the journey was going.
And there appears to be one person in particular that the writer wants to focus on; someone standing at the very front of this “un-destination elevator:” After the great King David, there’s perhaps no one more revered in the Hebrew faith than Abraham. It was Abraham whom God appeared to out of nowhere one night, taking him outside and showing him a star-studded sky that would equal the number of his descendants. It was Abraham whom God called to lead his chosen people in the early years. And it was Abraham whom God gave, at the ripe old age of 100, a son – Isaac, who would begin the storied family lineage that would last for generations upon generations.
And how was Abraham able to accomplish this? According to Hebrews, it was the familiar refrain: by faith. He spells it out quite eloquently, in fact:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out…
…and catch this last part…
He set out not knowing where he was going.
Now let’s think about that for a minute, and let’s really think about it; because so often these stories we come across in the Bible become so routine for us when they are actually anything but. Abraham did all that he did, followed God like he did, and he didn’t have a clue where God was leading him. He had no idea what things would look like ten, twenty, fifty years down the road, other than he and God would be there together. No destination elevator, no Google maps, no GPS tracking system.
You know, I find it interesting how over the years we’ve applauded Abraham for his un-destination faith, even though this is the very thing we tend to frown upon in our day and time. We, the culture of the strategic plan, the society of “having it all figured out,” Tell me, what’s the first question we lay on graduates every year at this time? Where are you going? What are you going to do with your life? Going through life without a destination in mind, without any goals? We tend to view that as reckless, irresponsible.
In fact, we take it a step further by not only expecting a destination but making everything about that destination, where the journey is nothing more than a means to the end. I remember a college roommate I had years ago. When I met Tom he was a junior, studying pre-med. Two full years out from graduation and he was already in conversation with various medical schools about his first semester course load. But Tom was also mapping out a second career after practicing medicine, so he was considering the ministry and gathering information on divinity schools. And even that probably wouldn’t be forever, so in Tom’s “free time” he was volunteering as a student defender in the campus legal program, anticipating the day when he’d go to law school and study to be a public defender. For Tom, it was all about the destination.
I often wonder if there’s a little bit of Tom in all of us. I know there’s some of him in me. We gladly hop on board the destination elevators in our lives, looking for the quickest and most efficient way to get where we want to go. Any hesitations, any distractions leave us flustered, impatient, anxious. Which means we get so focused on where we are going that we never seem content with just sitting back and enjoying the ride.
Contrast that with Abraham, who gave his complete trust to a God whose mind he did not fully know, whose desires he did not fully comprehend, whose plan he could not fully understand. Contrast that with God’s people, who set out from Egypt thousands of years ago, bound for a land flowing with milk and honey. But they didn’t take the direct route, did they? No, they wandered around that Sahara desert for forty-some years until they finally got where God had been directing them all along. Is it any wonder that the writer of Hebrews says over and over again that every person in that great cloud of witnesses did everything they did “by faith?”
I wonder how our faith today might better resemble this cloud. So much of the Christian journey, and American Christianity in particular, is about the destination – be it heaven or having a blessed life or being a “successful” church, whatever that means. But I’m not sure those are the kinds of destinations we should be working toward. In our church we’ve been working toward a different kind of destination, one that is more of a vision than a location. You may recall that six years ago our session approved a vision statement with five guiding principles undergirding it. Do you remember them? You’ll find them printed at the bottom of the third page of your bulletin this morning. I’m wondering if you’d read them aloud with me:
Create space for children and youth to fully engage in the life and leadership of the congregation.
Foster a strong congregational identity and vitality through life-changing, relational mission.
Transform our understanding of how best to utilize our facilities, campus and financial gifts toward future-focused ministry.
Nurture a culture of caring and vibrant spiritual growth both in and out of the church.
Welcome and actively embrace the broken, uncertain, and doubting.
Now these five guiding principles are just as pertinent now as they were six years ago because, again, the destination we seek is more of a vision than a location. A good vision is one that sends you in a particular direction without being so specific about the destination that you lose sight of the journey that gets you there. Perhaps these pandemic times are a good time for us as a congregation to revisit these guiding principles and see where they might lead us now.
And I think that, as we do that, we come to realize what the writer of Hebrews certainly understood, what all of those caught up in that “cloud of witnesses” understood – that when it comes to God and our faithfulness to God, it is less about where we’re going and much more about who we go with, the relationships onn the journey – us and God, us and each other. If anything, it’s those relationships we build and grow as a community of faith that make the eventual destination worth the while.
Imagine with me a busy airport before the pandemic – maybe Atlanta or Chicago or New York or even Charlotte. Let’s say it’s a day or two before a major holiday,. The concourses are slammed with people, so tight that you have to clutch your bag close so it doesn’t get knocked down. People are moving briskly, some even running at a full sprint, trying to get to their gate on time. As you walk down the concourse you see the mosaic of destinations hanging above the gates, all just a single flight away from the place where you stand: Birmingham. Minneapolis. Phoenix. Paris. Tokyo. So many places to go, so many destinations beckoning us to come.
And then you spot a family of four, sitting in a group of chairs around the snack bar. They must be traveling somewhere for the holidays, but unlike everyone else they don’t seem to be in a rush. Mom and Dad are reading a magazine and talking about the cover issue. Brother and Sister are tossing a small ball back and forth, seeing how many times they can do so without dropping it. They all talk and laugh and seem perfectly at ease. You witness this scene and are struck by how out of place it feels; that in the midst of such chaos, people so focused on where they’re going, here are some who are literally just along for the ride. They’ll get to where they’re going eventually, and they’ll enjoy it when they do. But for the time being, they’re just enjoying each other; and perhaps that is the greatest journey of all.
Someone once said this:
The truth is that God’s will for us isn’t bound up in the final destination, be it heaven, a career choice or even a particular ministry. God’s will is for us to be in relationship with God, to trust God with everything in our lives and to live each day in God’s presence.
That’s why I doubt we’ll ever find anyone in that heralded cloud of witnesses on a destination elevator. I think they’ve shown us pretty convincingly that God prefers hanging out in the community of believers and in the faith that leads us there. And we may not always know where the “there” is. And that’s okay, as long as we go together. Beloved, that is what makes all the difference.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.