Text: Genesis 12:1-4
Lent II Sermon
The fall semester of 1986 on the campus of Southeastern Theological Seminary a dedicated professor sought out an energetic student to attend his 8 AM guitar, hand bells, and recorder music class. This certain professor lamented how hard it was to get students, who are awake and fun, in his 8 AM classes. His plea caught me at a weak place: “Come on Nancy, I need some fun people in this class.” Who doesn’t like being called fun? I was hooked. “Sure, I’m in” I responded. But as a last thought, I turned to this dedicated professor and said, “You know I can’t read music.” He knew I played the guitar, but that was it. He replied, “If you can count, you can play hand bells, and don’t worry about the recorder.” Ok, I thought. And so I set out for the strange land of church music.
If my memory is correct we started out with hand bells. It was a disaster. Don’t believe someone who tells you that if you can count, you can play hand bells. It’s not true! After that first week of class of me trying to master counting to four while ringing a bell, the dedicated professor suggested I come back to class when we moved to the recorder. So that’s what I did. Likewise, several class sessions into that, the compassionate professor said, “If you can just learn to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, I’ll pass you on the recorder.” Now, mind you, I was taking this class as a pass/fail. Finally, I rejoined the group for the last third of the class for the guitar part, and even though I could play the guitar, my technical style was called into question by my beloved professor.
To that dedicated seminary professor, welcome home, Michael. I know you are not surprised to see me in the pulpit rather than the choir loft.
This story is not just a welcome story for my dedicated and beloved seminary professor. It actually has something to do with our biblical text for this second Sunday in Lent. This week, our journey through Lent invites us to reflect on those moments in our lives when we have found ourselves being asked to pick up our lives and travel to an unknown place. Now I will acknowledge, my being asked to go to that unknown land of church music can hardly be compared to God calling Abram and Sarai to leave everything they knew, pick up all their belongings and travel to an unknown place. No offense, Michael. Nonetheless, I, too, had begun a journey.
“The journeying motif as a characteristic act of biblical faith has many examples. Abram’s journey to Canaan will be followed later by Jacob and his children traveling to Egypt to find food security, and the children of Israel will reverse that journey 400 years later as they throw off the shackles of servitude and head for the Promised Land. Judah will lose that same land and will be carted off in the exile, from which it will return three generations later. In the New Testament, the birth of Jesus will involve a journey for his parents, both to Bethlehem before his nativity (Luke) and after with his parents down into Egypt (Matthew). The gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as symbolically re-enacting the wilderness sojourn of the children of Israel as Jesus moves towards the culmination of his ministry in Jerusalem. After his crucifixion, it is at the end of a journey to Emmaus that those who had walked with the Risen Christ recognized him. And in Acts, Paul, like Jesus, is repeatedly engaged in long journeys to the far-flung corners of the empire following God’s leading to carry the Good News to the Gentiles. The overarching lesson which pervades the scripture is that following this God, who comes as uncontrollable Wind in both testaments (ruach and pneuma), requires a kind of unsettled, at times rootless, way of life characterized by detachment from people, places, and things upon which we might otherwise be dependent.”(Political Theology Today, Timothy Simpson)
The story of the Bible is all about journeying to unknown places.
Setting out on a journey in 2017 is a bit different than it was when Abram and Sarai set out. Today, we program our GPS ensuring that we will take the easiest, or most scenic, or most direct route. We plan our journey searching the Internet for specific information on good places to stop and visit, even calling ahead for reservations at the best restaurants and hotels. For some trips we even get insurance in case something happens and our plans get altered. Abram and Sarai had none of this. Rather they become the very paradigm in scripture for faith in God because of their openness to a summons out of their own familiar surroundings, believing themselves to be safe, wherever they were going, in the care of the One who summoned them.
I will confess that as I read this text I had one of my more cynical moments of reading scripture. The text says: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who troubles you I will trouble…’”
Sarcastically/skeptically, I thought, it sure is easier to uproot your life and that of your family and set out for an unknown place when you have the assurance from God that all will be great. Isn’t it true? If God were to say to you, “Hey, if you pick up your life and go to this place that I will eventually show you, I will bless you and make your name great. I will even make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and anybody who causes you trouble, I will take care of them.” Wouldn’t you be at least inclined to think about it? But what if God said, “Go from your place of familiarity and comfort, where you know everyone and everyone knows you, to an unknown place that I will eventually reveal to you but let me tell you now, it’s going to be hard. There will be some very difficult days. You will have hardships. People won’t respect or care about you. There will be times when you are lonely and feel as though no one understands you. And when it’s all over only a few people will remember who you were.” Well, you get my point and maybe even my cynicism. And yet, this story of Abram and Sarai uprooting their lives and setting out to an unfamiliar and unknown place with faith in the One who has summoned them is at least intriguing and at best inspiring even for people living in 2017 with GPS’s and the Internet.
Yesterday, along with some of you, I attended the Annual Open House at the Islamic Association of Raleigh. I thought of this story when Imam AbuTaleb asked the question: What does it say to us that we are so afraid to step into a place of worship that is unfamiliar to us? Or into a conversation with someone who is different from us? As I looked around the packed room at all the non-Muslims who had the courage to show up to a very unfamiliar and strange place, to stand in solidarity with a group of people who are the targets of hate in our nation, I thought about how we were possibly following the path of Abram and Sarai. No, none of us had to uproot our lives and travel by foot a great distance to be there carrying our belonging on camel back. But maybe some of us had to uproot some of our stereotypes or travel some theological distance to make the journey. Maybe there were a few brave people there who set aside a small amount of fear to show up. They set out bearing witness that love is stronger than hate and fear. They gave witness to the truth that God is still calling us to go to some very unfamiliar places.
This story of Abram and Sarai has significant relevance in our current political climate. Most significantly, Abram and Sarai were immigrants. It should not be lost on us that our “community of faith sprang from the faith of a stranger who was following God. When he came to his new place, he did not assimilate but held fast against social pressure to the God who had come with him. How can we who look with pride at Abram’s trust in embracing this call and not welcome the stranger, the immigrant today? Who are we to be proud and thankful that he did not jump into the “melting pot” but held onto his beliefs and yet look down our noses at the strangers in our midst who want to hold on to their sacred traditions instead of just assimilating into the American way? Why are we, who know the promise of God in this text to bless the nations through this stranger, so certain that “our” strangers who just moved in across the street won’t likewise enhance and benefit our community?” (partially quoted and partially paraphrased, Political Theology Today, Timothy Simpson)
Whether some people can see it or not, God is still blessing our nation through the stranger and the immigrant and those who put their trust in a God who is still calling us to set out for unknown places. If we want to take this narrative to heart then maybe we could ask ourselves where we are being called to get up and go and become a stranger ourselves in someone else’s space.
God is still calling God’s people to set out for unknown and unfamiliar places. To uproot ourselves from those places of identification which keep us in a safe bubble. God is still calling us to set out for unknown and unfamiliar places—places where we are being asked to form new alliances, places that will require of us to take deeper risks, places where our trust in the One who summons us is greater than our fear, places where we might find ourselves to be the minority.
When we respond to God’s call and set out for these unknown places trusting in the One who summons us, we probably will not experience greatness as Abram and Sarai were promised—we may even experience hardship and difficulty—but we, for certain, will have experiences that shape us in ways we could never imagine—experiences that will stay with us for a lifetime. Experiences that reorient our lives but bring a little more of God’s commonwealth here on this earth, a place desperate for God’s people to respond to God’s calling.
Today, our sacred scriptures ask us about our capacity to risk setting out for new and unfamiliar places. Will you risk setting out for some unknown and unfamiliar places?