Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Kathy and I have been in and out of Washington over the past several weeks, but from what I can tell there have been two big stories in the District this summer. The biggest occurred last week when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post from the Graham family. The other took place in July when the New York Times Magazine’s Mark Lebovich published his exposé of Washington’s power culture, appropriately entitled This Town.
I don’t yet know enough about Washington to comment much on the sale of the Post, but about Lebovich’s This Town I have a more informed opinion. For one thing, the book is full of hilarious and apt observations, such as the description of D.C.’s permanent elite as “a political herd that never dies or gets older, only jowlier, richer and more heavily made-up.” He’s talking about the nation’s capital, but he might as well be describing Beverly Hills.
And that leads to my other claim to expertise on hype and glitz. Having grown up in and around Hollywood, I could be said, along with Ronald Reagan, to be one of the few Americans who has lived in the two American cities that each refer to themeselves as “this town.” Before Lebovich’s Washington book there was the late Julia Phillips’ wonderful Hollywood tell-all, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. In my first year here at the Cathedral, people often asked me how I was adjusting to Washington after having lived in Hollywood and its environs most of my life. “What adjustment?” I’d reply. “They’re both exactly the same place.”
Power, status, and fame are not new values in American culture or for that matter in human society. But they are becoming increasingly elevated and intertwined in our national and personal lives. At their best, of course, both Washington and Hollywood embody enduring human and American aspirations: government of, by, and for the people in “this town,” and the artistic expression of human visions, hopes, and longings in the other “this town.” But at their worst both places can come to represent power, status, and fame as ends in themselves. The great Oscar Levant once defined a celebrity as “someone who’s famous for being well-known.” You could say the same about Washington’s cave dwellers. Proximity to power becomes its own reason for being.
There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!” [Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p. 24]. Most of us are like the man on the horse—galloping somewhere, we’re not sure where. Once when I got on a freeway and realized I was going in the wrong direction, my wife Kathy said, “Yeah, but we’re making great time.” Once you get up to speed, it’s hard to keep track of where you’re headed. And so it is with the power and celebrity cultures of modern American life. Where are we going? What hopes and values do we organize our lives around?
The real problem with the twin idols of power and fame (and their close cousin money) is that they are so beguiling. Here is the problem posed by Hollywood and Washington: life in “this town” can be so attractive and comfortable that we can begin to feel at home there. And one thing that makes people of faith uneasy even in beautiful places is the nagging knowledge that—as beautiful as it is—“this town” is not where we finally belong.
Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews [Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16] is one of my favorite bits of Scripture—I asked that it be read at my installation as dean here—and it gives us a theological way in to this conversation. In the eleventh chapter of the letter, the writer of Hebrews tells us that our forbears organized their lives around their faith, which he describes as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In his view, what made the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel different from everyone else around them was their interior sense that the “this towns” of their day were not their real home. They were being drawn forward by God to a new place—a place we might call not “this town” but “that town”—and they made their journey meaningful by striving to make the world more loving and compassionate now. People of faith don’t just look forward to a heavenly city. They strive to remake the earthly city in the image of the one that calls them forward. Here, again, is how the anonymous writer of Hebrews puts it:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. [Hebrews 11:13-16]
I suppose this reading speaks to me so powerfully because it articulates that holy restlessness that marks all the people of faith I have ever known. We use the word “faith” loosely in American culture, as if it somehow suggests magical thinking. But when the writer of Hebrews talks about faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” he’s not suggesting that believers are essentially deluded wackos walking around in the world as if they were at a gigantic Comic-Con. He is instead naming that holy restlessness. We know that as attractive and alluring as the world’s most beautiful centers of power, status, and fame might be, they are not finally the real thing. We are being drawn forward to another place—not “this town” but “that town”—one centered on the things that matter: holiness, love, justice, compassion, peace. As Hebrews puts it, we desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called our God; indeed, God has prepared a city for us.
All people of faith are restless in the “this towns” of this world. For Christians, our restlessness is best shown in the life and ministry of Jesus. In today’s Gospel [Luke 12: 22-40], Jesus tells his companions,
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
If your treasure is in “this town,” you have your reward. If your treasure lies ahead in “that town”—that better, heavenly country—then your reward will be a life lived striving to make even “this town” look and feel and behave like heaven on earth.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love the world. I love my new home town of Washington as I love my ongoing home town of Los Angeles. I love all the glitzy, alluring, wonderful things American culture can provide. But as a follower of Jesus, I know that neither D.C. nor L.A. nor the values they represent are where I finally belong. You and I will never know why some of us are content with the satisfactions of “this town” while others are restlessly drawn to something that lies beyond—“that town.” But we do know that the life of faith is not an escape from the world. The life of faith is a deeper engagement with things as they are, helping shape them to become what God intended they should be. Christians don’t live in a fantasy. We live in ultimate reality.
Today’s Scriptures ask us several questions that each of us must answer for ourselves, on our own. Which city do you want to inhabit, “this town” or “that town”—the better, heavenly one? What are you doing to remake “this town” in the image of that city that lies ahead? And where, exactly, are you going? Are you like the rider whose horse is in charge of the process? Are you heading in the wrong direction but making great time?
Those who are satisfied with the rewards of “this town” have their treasure now as measured in power, status, and fame. Those who desire a better, heavenly country have their treasure in working with others to make “that town” they seek a reality in the here and now. What treasure would you rather have? Who would you rather be and be with? “This town” or “that town”? The roads are open before us, and the choice, as always, is ours. Amen.