Last weekend, I was in Cooperstown, New York. This is the place where I learned what it was to be a parish priest, where I fell in love with the vocation, and where I’ve been stretched and challenged within an inch of my life to do my best at that job. The places (geographically) where great pain is experienced and lived through are sites of enormous comfort. When I return to Cooperstown, or Grand Lake, or Durham, I feel like the rocks and trees and wooden siding of buildings understand me and are full of those powerful memories–they’re witnesses to the battles fought.
People are witnesses, too, of course, and they can be a comfort, but there’s something about buildings and mountains and lakes and particular bits of earth (on which one stands and remembers a vantage point) that is somehow deeper, perhaps because of their stability and unchangingness. The unsettling thing is that even cities, buildings, and bits of earth change. You remember your backyard growing up as a place of great meaning, but when you return to your childhood home decades later, it’s almost unrecognizable–the trees have grown so that the sun is not at all the same, the new owners have re-modeled the flower beds; it’s not the same place anymore, the place you knew is lost.
God promises, though, that he is the same yesterday, today and forever. In this week’s Epistle lesson, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, we hear the witness of faithful people in the past who believed and trusted that, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (v. 8). This is what the church’s Gloria Patri says (“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, amen.”).
The first part of Hebrews 13 recalls Abraham, Joseph, and the prophets by their faith-filled acts: Abrahahm “show(s) hospitality to strangers, for by doing that (he) entertained angels without knowing it” (v.2); Joseph was first sold into slavery, then was imprisoned unjustly (v. 3) but didn’t turn away from God because of his circumstances; and the prophets, fairly described as “those who are being tortured” (v. 3) exactly because they refused to turn from God–to renege on God’s promise of being unchanging himself.
“Let marriage be held in honor by all… for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.'” (vs.4-5) The witness of Christian marriage is an effort at humans committing–in God’s strength–to be faithful to each other despite changes in themselves and their circumstances. This is the commitment that God makes to us–that he will never leave or forsake each of us, that he will be with us when we have no home like Abraham, or when we are isolated like Joseph, or when we are being persecuted like the prophets. God remains the same, even when we change and when our worlds change.
“Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
(BCP service of Compline, pg. 133)