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A Better Country


Text: Hebrews 11:1, 13-16

Some years ago, on a beautiful August day at the national conference center in Chautauqua, New York, I listened to the outstanding preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor. In her sermon, Barbara spoke of doing something that I have been considering for quite some time. She spoke of giving away the metaphor of “journey” to describe our Christian life. She was ready to give it away, she said, because she was no longer using it.

Barbara noted how easy it was for the “journey” metaphor to keep her always looking ahead and never looking around, satisfied with what God is doing right now. When we are on a “journey” of faith, she argued, we are always waiting for what God will do next, next week, next year, when the economy will be better, when she finally graduates, when he is employed again, when she beats the addiction.

With our feet always moving forward, it is difficult to notice the subtleties of God’s grace in the here and now. Barbara decided that she was weary of her feet tapping, always waiting to get on with her sacred “journey,” so she had decided, most graciously, to give away the “journey” metaphor.

Throughout her sermon, I sat there and did my quiet, white “Amen” to most everything Barbara was saying. In so many ways, she was dead on. How many marvels of God’s grace do I miss each day because my feet are on the move, my mind is planning out tomorrow, and I do not take time, to paraphrase the words of the old prophet, to “be still and know who is God”? How many times have I thrown dirt on the burning bush of God’s revelation because it was time to “get on with it”? Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am someone who lives by the poetic urging of Robert Frost, “And miles to go before I sleep.”

So, certainly, I do not need to take on someone else’s “journey” metaphor. And yet, being frugal by nature, I thought to myself, if Barbara no longer wants to keep her “journey” metaphor and she is giving it away for free, well, I just cannot pass up that kind of bargain. So, I took it and stuffed it in my suitcase and no sooner had I opened my suitcase to unpack then the preacher from Hebrews said, “Gary, grab hold of that ‘journey’ metaphor and come with me.” I did and I was so glad that Barbara was willing to give it away – if only for a while. Who knows when she will call and want it back?

At first, I wondered why the old preacher from Hebrews was so insistent. For the eleventh chapter of Hebrews begins not with the “journey” metaphor, but with the metaphor of “faith” that I preached about the Sunday before last. If anybody ever asks you for a great definition of faith, quote this preacher: “Faith is the conviction of things hoped for, the assurance of things unseen.”

And just when you think you are going to hear more about this “unseen” thing called faith, the preacher in Hebrews introduces the “journey” metaphor. “Faith,” says the old preacher, looks something like Abraham and Sarah heading out on a “journey” to God knows where long before GPS. By “faith,” Abraham and Sarah not only left town, they decorated the traveling nursery when all their friends were putting deposits down on retirement homes.

Something about “faith,” says the Hebrews preacher, gets us moving on a journey toward God’s future. “Faith” points us to God’s promise, even if we cannot grab hold of it in the present moment. All of these ancient kin of ours headed out on a “journey” of “faith,” because as the Hebrews preacher says, “They . . . desire a better country.”

Something about “faith” is like a “journey” to a “better country” that is as mysterious as Hamlet’s “undiscover’d country.” By faith, we journey toward Jesus who gave us the vision of a “better country” and taught us the dance steps of “faith” from the time he came out of the waters of Jordan until the dark day he hanged on the gallows of Golgotha.

Some say that such talk of going on a “journey” of “faith” to a “better country” is religious fantasy at best or at the very least a diversion from living fully in the here and now. I could not disagree more. All three metaphors ground us in the here and now, inviting us to walk into, right now, the future that God is pulling into the present.

Southern slaves knew about that “journey” of “faith” to a “better country” in the marrow of their bones. Their “sorrow songs” or what we now call “spirituals” sang of a “journey” into God’s future that their bodies could not yet match.

“These spirituals were born in the fields, among the hoed rows of cotton and tobacco,” writes Craig von Buseck. “They sprang to life among the salty wharves of the Atlantic harbor and the Mississippi bayou. These songs rose to heaven above the whine of the sawmill and the roar of the waterfalls that drove them. From the painful cries of the slave woman, enduring yet another violation by the master, these ballads arose.

“Slaves gathered secretly to encourage one another and to cry out to God for freedom. This activity was against the law, and they knew that a severe beating or even death could face them if they were caught. But the joy and peace that they received from heaven in these meetings made it worth the risk they faced here on earth.”

In these “sorrow songs,” slaves would remind themselves, “we are not slaves; we are the apple of God’s eye, made in God’s very own image.” They would sing of a good and benevolent God, who heard the cry of the Hebrew slaves when they were under the thumb of Pharaoh. They would remind themselves that they were not inferior to the white man, just as the Hebrews were not inferior to the Egyptians.

Long before Barbara was giving it away, the spirituals were using the “journey” metaphor to sing of God’s ultimate triumph over evil, including crossing over the evil river of slavery into freedom. As embers glowed in the evening fire, deep in the forest, they would sing this “journey” to “a better country” song:

Deep river -- my home is over Jordan, Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground. Don't you want to go to that Gospel feast, That promised land where all is peace. Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

Those who sang this song knew that they would go home that night to face the same miserable realities of slavery. They were not engaging in collective wishful thinking. They were engaging in collective “faith” building, singing their faith into being against the very heart of evil, trusting in God’s justice and mercy, in a time and place when there was no justice and there was precious little mercy. They were reminding each other that the “journey” of “faith” is not over until they arrive in “a better country” that is shackle-free.

No wonder the slaves listened so often to the old preacher from Hebrews who set the “journey” metaphor on fire when he preached: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2).

The slaves kept “faith” alive by trusting in the “journey” metaphor, by crossing that “deep river” to a “better country.” Thank God, I picked up Barbara’s expended “journey” metaphor. Slaves knew that you can never have too many.

Not to hoard something that should be shared, you are welcome to borrow it anytime.

[Tommy sings, “Deep River”]

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