Friday, April 8th, 2011
Title: We are Sojourners Not Vagabonds
“Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11, English Revised Version) This is not our home. We live in a world where people are constantly on the go. They feel that time is their enemy. They hustle to make money and then can’t remember where they spent it or when. But we are homemaking sojourners. Life is difficult and too short. Everything is constantly changing and it’s very hard to adapt. We wonder if we have what it takes just to survive, let alone live life to its full.
I meet new people all the time who have stories about where they’ve come from, what happened, and how they plan to survive. But most of the stories lack any orientation. Orientation is a function of the mind involving time, place, and personhood. This world’s sense of orientation is based on personal wealth, ego, and isolation. Because their orientation is in Christ, Sojourners make different kinds of homes.
Brian Walsh and Stephen Bouma-Prediger describe the mind of our age in terms of a vagabond: “The vagabond is a pilgrim without a destination; a nomad without an itinerary. The vagabond journeys through an unstructured space; like a wanderer in the desert, who knows only of such trails as are marked with his own footprints, and blown off again by the wind the moment he passes, the vagabond structures the site he happens to occupy at the moment, only to dismantle the structure again as he leaves. Each successive spacing is local and temporary—episodic.” (Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, pg. 252) A vagabond has lost their orientation. There is no particular destination, and no need to arrive on time.
When the Apostle Peter said “abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” we can be sure he wasn’t just talking about sexual lust. All lusts begin with desire, and our desires are interwoven with our imaginations. The things we long for in our waking dreams. Imagination is a powerful thing. It can be filled with fear and hate or with love and empathy. Walter Brueggeman said, “The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.” (Beyond Homelessness, pg. 315-316) When we stop praying for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done we start working to build our own kingdoms and do our own thing.
Sojourners are People of the Book. Our orientation, our worldview, the operating manual, however you want to say it, comes from what God says we are in the Bible. And here’s the thing about God’s Word, it’s not just a bunch of facts or information that we memorize. Being God’s people means attending to the things Jesus taught us. What we think about, what we say, how we love, and who we belong to all matter in the long run. How long is this gonna take? The duration of our lives.
As People of the Book we develop memories that sin had robbed from us in the past. It does not matter how many good things happened to us in life when we were vagabonds, because we lacked orientation. If we found fifty bucks on the street it would be gone by sundown, spent on the riverboat or on lotto tickets. But as sojourners we remember everyday where God has brought us from, and where He has promised we are going.
Sojourners don’t travel alone. In one sense we all stand alone before God. We can’t repent of anyone else’s sins, and we can’t carry the weight of another’s soul. But God has us traveling and living in the real fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As vagabonds, there was some occasional fellowship as it helped us get what we wanted. Free love, free food, free room and board occasionally and free opinions, but in the end we really didn’t mean to be committed to each other. Love was always too strong of a word. Love involves trust and vulnerability, and vulnerability brought up pain. But as a sojourner, we live out a type of commitment that is truly impossible without the Spirit of God. We learn the price of mutual regard and become willing to pay it (like the sign says out in the lobby). It costs a lot to live like this. It cost Jesus Christ his life. And when Jesus said to follow by denying ourselves and taking up the cross, we can be sure that knowing Him involves commitment.
The third mark of a sojourner is in hospitality. As a vagabond attempting to survive, we were taught that protecting our possessions and hiding them away was the only way to keep them. We learned as consumers that enough was never enough. New toys grow old by the next year, and real security was in grabbing as much material and space as possible as a way of gaining leverage for future purchasing. We picked our guests very carefully and spread our influence and reputation wisely. Sojourners think of their possessions very differently. They begin with a confidence that God has provided just what was needed in the past, is providing what they have now, and will provide as needed in the future. For this reason, what they have has been freely given and so they freely give it away. They work hard and instead of marking time in terms of money, they are grateful for each day they have to be able to serve.
Hebrews 13:2-3 says: “Do not forget or neglect or refuse to extend hospitality to strangers [in the brotherhood–being friendly, cordial, and gracious, sharing the comforts of your home and doing your part generously], for through it some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner, and those who are ill-treated, since you also are liable to bodily sufferings.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly thought to myself “there certainly aren’t any angels around here.” But such an attitude lacks all imagination. The text is not telling us to be on the look out for people with hidden wings or halos under their hat, but to never overlook the stranger in need. We should be reminded of Lot in the book of Genesis. The Lord’s messenger came to him when he lived in the wicked city of Sodom and brought him the warning that would save his family. I find that when my heart is not cold, the Lord regularly uses complete strangers to bless me with kindness and gratitude.
More important than angels, we can’t forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35-36 that he comes to us as the least of these hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. Hebrews 13:3 calls us to true empathy. We don’t just feel bad for prisoners, we remember them as fellow prisoners. When we encounter injustice, and there is plenty to go around, we remember that we ourselves suffer easily. Sojourners care about justice: housing for the homeless and low income, fair wages that come not just at the employer’s convenience, and care for Creation instead of exploitation.
Wendell Berry reminds us that, “The health of nature is the primary ground of hope—if we can find the humility and wisdom to accept nature as our teacher.” (Beyond Homelessness, pg. 319) With new eyes to see we can look around at the good earth God has created and realize that for all we may have done to harm her, she is still here to sustain and teach us.
God calls us by name in His Son Jesus Christ, and with this call to be His people we know who we are. The God who created this world has not abandoned us. He calls us to be a People of Imagination who do not succumb to this world’s disorientation; to the life of a short minded vagabond. We are meant for love and community, not simply survival.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice