But the arrival of Father Jeff has brought other consolations. For eight years I have been living with priests who didn’t know any of the music, TV shows, or news stories that I grew up with. Until Fr. Jeff came along, if I said, “that reminds me of a Beach Boys song,” our assistant pastors might ask me “what boys?” or “what beach?”
Now, Fr. Jeff will just start to sing the song!
Of course I have the same problem preaching to a congregation of different ages and backgrounds. From time to time I mention a TV character or popular song and the younger half of the congregation gives me a blank stare.
But this morning I think I can mention a song most of you have heard, called “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Although John Denver wrote it in 1966, it’s a catchy tune and you still hear it on the radio from time to time.
The song opens with the words “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go.” All three of today’s readings turn that into a question for each of us: “Are your bags packed? Are you ready to go?”
As the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says, all three of the readings at Mass today “require us to live in a state of departure.” Our bags are packed with faith, with what God has said to us, and we are ready to face the accounting God will require of us.
The second reading is probably the best passage about faith in the whole New Testament, but it’s a commentary on the best passage about faith in the whole Old Testament—the story of Abraham.
The author of The Letter to the Hebrews is writing for a community of Jewish Christians. They already know the whole story of Abraham, so the point of today’s text must go beyond that. The scripture scholar F.F. Bruce says that it points out that in Old Testament times “there were many men and women who had nothing but the promises of God” to rely on, “without any visible evidence that these promises would be fulfilled; yet so much did these promises mean to them” that they lived their whole lives in their light.
“Their faith,” writes Professor Bruce, “consisted simply in taking God at His word and directing their lives accordingly.”
The second reading gives us the famous stories of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, while the first reading turns to another chapter in the history of salvation, the Exodus from Egypt, the Passover. Here a promise was not fulfilled in the future but immediately, as the Chosen People were delivered from Pharaoh’s armies.
And the first reading reminds us that even the glorious victory of the Passover night was a fulfillment of earlier promises made to Israel by the Lord. Her escape from the slavery of the Egypt, the text begins, was made known beforehand.
One verse jumps out at us in this regard: “The deliverance of the righteous and the destruction of their enemies were expected by your people.”
In the two stories, the life of Abraham and the first Passover, we see the way our own faith plays out.
Sometimes, like Abraham, we do not see God’s promises to us fulfilled. He never saw, obviously, that his descendants would be as many as the stars of heaven and as the grains of sand on the seashore. But he believed the promise, and lived his life by it.
Sometimes, like the people Moses led to freedom, we get to see God’s promises in action. What we believed he would do, he did. We experienced what we hoped and prayed for.
But note two important points here: first, in both situations, we must have faith. Faith precedes the answer to prayer. The answers to prayer rarely if ever produce faith. If we pray without expectation, we’re really not engaging with God at all.
Second, when there’s no visible answer to prayer we cannot surrender our faith. It took centuries, perhaps millennia, for God to fulfill all his promises to Israel with the coming of the Messiah. His time is not our time any more than his ways are our ways.
It’s all summed up in the opening words of the second reading today: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
What does all this mean for our daily lives? Obviously, we’re being taught a lesson not only about faith, but also about trust and patience. But the Gospel goes one step further, and tells us that people of faith live by faith.
Faith guided Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and his people, each and every day. They were ready for whatever God wanted to do.
Faith must also move us to be ready for what God wants to do with us. We don’t know whether or lives will be long or short, peaceful or troubled. But we know in faith what he plans for us—a life lived with faith in his promises, a life on which we can be judged without fear.
Constancy is a word that sums up the Christian’s daily call. And faith in what God commands and promises is what makes it possible over the long haul.
So today we just ask ourselves: Are my bags packed? Am I ready to go?