Waiting and Preparing
This past week I read a book called Front Desk by Kelly Yang, which is about the struggles of a Chinese family who emigrated to the US. They work cleaning a motel, struggle to learn English, and barely scrape by, after leaving their families, language, and good jobs in China behind. But they’re very clear that they have made these sacrifices and more in search of something better. They wanted their daughter to have the chance of a better life. They wanted her to be free of the Chinese government’s oppression.
That’s an incredible amount of faith: to go to a country you don’t know, where there’s a language you don’t know, and where you can’t do the highly-skilled job you were trained for and so you struggle to survive.
It’s similar to the faith described in Hebrews, and also in Jesus’ teachings that we read this morning. Abraham trusted God enough to go to a land he didn’t know, where he didn’t speak the language, all because God made this extravagant promise that this land of Israel would one day be his and his descendants’, when he had no children and no prospect of having children! His, when he was a wandering shepherd! Admittedly a very prosperous one, but he could never in a million years shepherd enough sheep and goats and camels to buy all the land he’d been promised outright. But still he followed God, and waited.
And Jesus describes the waiting of faith, although with a different image: he talks about servants, waiting for their master to return from a feast, except no one knows exactly when he’ll be returning. They know that he’ll return, but not when. They just have to be ready.
Maybe ‘make ready’ or ‘prepare’ is a better term for what I mean, because when I say that we’re ‘waiting for God,’ the word ‘waiting’ conjures up waiting in line at the bank, or waiting for a telephone call, or waiting in the waiting room at a hospital to hear how the surgery went. There’s nothing to do but sit or stand, watch the minutes tick by, and hope it’ll be your turn soon to see the teller or hear news of your loved one or whatever. This waiting that we do for God, though, isn’t some passive thing, where we let the clock tick down until finally something good happens. No, we’re making things ready, same as the servants preparing for their master’s return: we’re doing our best to make sure everything is spick and span, that things will be just as the master wants them, and that we’ll hear the knock when it comes. We’re making sure that we are ready: that we are doing everything we can to be ready to meet the returning Master.
But that sounds too much like it depends all on us, that if we can just bustle around and prepare enough then we will be all set, and that’s not right, either. So back to the image of Abraham we go, waiting for God to give him the promised land, waiting for God to give him the promised son and heir. Both of those things were utterly out of Abraham’s control. Nothing he did could make them come faster; nothing he did could make them happen at all, in fact. He could only wait for God to give them to him and to fulfill the promises he received.
Faith encompasses both of these truths. We can only wait, for faith now and its results are both in God’s hands. They are both acts of grace, given to us freely. They are nothing we can earn or work towards, only gifts. And also: we can only act, faithfully, to prepare for what is to come. There is no waiting around, assuming it will all be all right and so there’s no need to do much of anything. The world’s rather a mess, in case you hadn’t noticed. There is much to do, out there and in ourselves, where we’re so full of greed and fear and anger and ill-informed good intentions that it spills over into the world and creates such a mess out there. We are called to step into that mess, inside ourselves and around us. And we’re not told to bring our own strength and our own love into it, but instead to bring God’s love and strength and mercy; we’re not called to fix the world all by ourselves, with our own broken tools, but instead to act with God’s love and mercy flowing through us.
I’d like to leave you with a quote from the Talmud, which is the Jewish collection of writings on Scripture: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”*
That is, we are called to love now, to step out in faith in the world around us. Like Abraham, we may never see the fulfillment, may never see the fruits of our labor. We may never see in our own lifetimes the final end to God’s promises of mercy and justice and healing, but that does not mean that we are released from this work. We step out in faith. We love. We pray and worship together. We lay down the groundwork for generations to come, trusting in God to complete the promises someday–even if we don’t see it before we die, we know that they will be fulfilled.
Alleluia, and Amen.
*Specifically, this quote by Rabbi Rami Shapiro seems to be a combination of writings by Rabbi Tarfon and Pirkei Avot as well as of Micah 6:8. (I used the sourcing information from here [page 7], but it’s hard to tell the exact source for sure)