Thomas J Parlette
“Moving Beyond the Status Quo”
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
Status Quo is an interesting term. Its classic definition is “the existing state of affairs, especially regarding social or political issues.” Or, as Ronald Reagan once said, “Status Quo, you know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.”(1)
He was right, I suppose. Some people are quite happy with status quo, they would like things to say just the way they are. And others work hard to change the status quo. Whether you are happy with the existing state of things or whether you want to change the mess we’re in, determines whether we hear the term status quo as positive or negative.
Whether you love it or whether you hate it, sometimes Status Quo is needed. For instance, in Jerusalem and Bethlehem the status quo has been codified and enshrined in an actual document known as the Status Quo, capital letters. It’s a 250 year-old understanding between religious communities that applies to certain sites in those two cities.
One of these sites is the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the place that enshrines what is believed to be Golgotha, the place Jesus was crucified, and one of the sites tradition says was the burial place of Jesus.
Although no Protestants have any voice whatsoever in the administration of the church, at least six other religious entities do: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox. As you might imagine, getting all six to agree on anything is almost impossible.
But thanks to the Status Quo agreement, however, things have generally been quiet. Nothing changes. Not the least little thing. Ever. Except in the very rare circumstance that all interested parties agree. The most famous example of the power of the SQR – Status Quo Rules – at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Immovable Ladder – capital letters.
This ladder has accrued virtually the same revered and honored status as the other relics of the church. It is located above the entrance to the church. According to Wikipedia, it was first mentioned in 1757 and has remained in that location since the 18th century, aside from being temporarily moved on two occasions. The ladder is referred to as immovable due to an understanding that no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders.
The Immovable Ladder is governed by the principles of the Status Quo agreement.
Sometimes fights break out. This is what happened in “The Case of the Rooftop Chair.” Some monks were sitting on the roof, and one brother wanted to move his chair into the shade. Others objected, citing the SQRs. A fight broke out, punches were thrown, and the Israeli police were called in to restore order. Eleven monks – Egyptian and Ethiopian – were involved and some were hospitalized.(2)
The occasional skirmish notwithstanding, the Status Quo Rule seems to work pretty well in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And as much as we chafe at the status quo sometimes, our latent fondness for the status quo is deep-seated and often expressed in the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Even the Apostle Paul admonished his readers in Corinth to stay the course – “Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” There it is. A biblical Status Quo Rule straight from the chief apostle himself.
And yet todays passage from Hebrews presents us with some of our faith ancestors who were daring enough to move beyond the status quo and follow God’s call.
These verses today are part of what is known as “The Faith Chapter of the Bible.” The preacher of Hebrews was addressing a Christian community under a great deal of stress and harassment, so the whole book revolves around the theme of keeping our faith in God. Chapter 11 begins with those immortal words defining faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Then, in the verses that are left out of the lectionary, the Preacher reminds us of Abel, who offered a sacrifice to God. And Enoch, who pleased God. And Noah, who listened to God and built an ark despite the jeers and taunts of his neighbors.
But the two main figures who dominate the Faith Chapter of the Bible are Abraham and Moses, both of whom were called to move beyond the Status Quo and venture into the unknown as they followed God’s lead. For as Karl Barth once said, “Faith in God’s revelation has nothing to do with an ideology which glorifies the status quo.”(3)
Moses of course, was called by God to move the Israelites out of their status quo as captives in Egypt and begin the journey to a land that God would give them.
But our verses for today deal with Abraham, who we also heard about in our passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah gives us a tutorial about the nature of faith and leaving behind the status quo.
The first thing to note about Abraham is that he obeyed. God poked Abraham in the ribs and said, “I’m tired of the same old thing, let’s go try something new.” And Abraham said, “OK. What?
And God said, “I’m going to give you a new home, a new land – for all of your descendants.” And Abraham said, “OK. Where?
And God said, “Well, I can’t tell you that, but I promise, it will be great.” And Abraham said, “OK – if you say so. Let’s go!”
Even though they had no idea where they were going, Abraham and Sarah obeyed God. The first lesson about faith – obey God.
The second lesson for us is tied to the first – Abraham and Sarah actually “set out”, the scripture tells us. Meaning, they had the audacity to do what God called them to do, even though they were unsure about what that would entail. That is a very difficult thing to do. When we decide to do something different and leave the status quo behind, we want to have a reasonable idea of what to expect – where are we going, how will we get there, how long will it take, are we prepared for the journey? All of these questions are well worth asking. Yet when describing the nature of faith to the Christian community, the Preacher of Hebrews uses Abraham as an example to follow.
Sometimes faith is about obeying God and setting out on the journey call you to take, even though the answers you crave may be a little murky at the beginning. Uncomfortable, I know – it is for me too. But that’s what Abraham and Sarah do. They hold on to the assurance of things hoped for. They cling to the conviction of things unseen.
Retired pastor Bud Ruggia has written: “One of my insights after years of ministry is that the church fails far more often by asking too little of its people than by asking too much. Jesus did not ask us to put a cross-shaped sticker on our car; he asked us to pick one up and follow him.”(4)
And that’s exactly what Abraham and Sarah did.
The third thing that Abraham teaches us about faith is the importance of trust. The heroes of faith that are mentioned in Chapter 11 of Hebrews all trusted God. Moses trusted God when he faced off against the most powerful man in the world at the time – and God did not let him down. Abraham trusted in the Lord when he was told to lay his son Isaac on an altar as a sacrifice – and God came through again, providing a ram as a sacrifice instead.
Abraham trusted that God would deliver on the promise of a home for his descendants – even though he couldn’t see exactly how that was going to come together. And it all begins with a willingness to leave behind the status quo.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to moving beyond the status quo – besides the fear of the unknown- is a little thing called tradition. The sometimes audible, sometimes inaudible voice that says “But this is what we do, this is what I know. We’ve done it this way forever. We’ve always supported that missionary or given to that program or agency. Our family has always lived here. Everyone in my family goes into education…or music…or the medical sciences. That is our tradition.”
And tradition is a good thing. It’s a great way to make and preserve memories and ritual and identity – in our own families and in our church family.
But we must also give God room to call us to do something we haven’t done before, to lead us on a new journey, or a new project or a new adventure.
I like how Jaroslav Pelikan put it in an interview with US News and World Report back in 1989. He drew a distinction between Tradition and Traditionalism. He said:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead.
Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.
Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.
Traditionalism supposes that nothing new should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”(5)
Abraham was guided by his tradition – his living faith that let God speak in his moment. He was able to move beyond the status quo and follow God into a new future. And God did not let him down.
Over the past few weeks it has been difficult not to see all the things in our country and our world that need to change. There are many ways that we need to move beyond the way things are and do something different. It finally seems that there may be some momentum behind changing our gun laws so we can keep do something about the epidemic of gun-related violence we have seen this summer. I am praying some progress is made. I hope we can address the way our mental health system works with those who need help, as that is also part of the violence problem. And there are so many others ways in which we need to move away from our status quo. I don’t mean to leave any out, but you could choose immigration, racism, white nationalism and white supremacy, our healthcare system, our problem with addiction, the need to make social security actually secure or just simply trying to make sure the people of our country, our state, our city of Rochester have enough to eat and a decent, affordable place to live. There are countless ways that we need to move beyond the status quo of how it is.
John Steinbeck once wrote “A dying people tolerates the present, rejects the future and finds its satisfactions in past greatness and half-remembered glory.”(6)
However, a living people listens closely to voices like the Preacher of Hebrews calling the people of God to hold onto faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Because as people of the way, we have the assurance that God does not leave us to wallow in despair. We live with the conviction that God will act, through us and through God-fearing people everywhere – even though we don’t quite see how that will come together just yet.
We hold onto these assurances and convictions so that we may move beyond the status quo toward what Peter talked about in his second letter: “We look for – and speed the coming of- the new heaven and a new earth, where justice is at home.” We look for that time when “The Peaceable Kingdom of God” that the prophet Isaiah foretold, will be a reality.
May it be so – sooner rather than later.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. HomileticsOnline, retrieved July 16, 2019.