ON OUR JOURNEY NOW
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Text: Genesis 12:1-4
Biblical scholars seem to agree that these few verses from Genesis are crucial to the whole biblical collection. Regardless of how one sees the historical and geographical details of this ancient story, it is a vital word for what is sometimes called salvation-history. In the course of these four verses the course of life is changed forever. That’s a pretty dramatic claim for such a small story, and yet, I believe it is legitimate. Here is an example of the redeeming, transforming power of God for those who choose to follow, and, indeed, through them this power is spread to ends of the earth.
Walter Brueggemann and others insist we put this tale into a context that is drawn from the first eleven chapters of Genesis. So, we look back. What does happen in the beginning? God brings forth creation, including humankind, and calls it good. The story goes that God is content to live in sweet communion with all creation, including humankind, in a kind of joyful innocence. But Paradise is lost. Humans become restless. We want more. We give into temptation and, in course, lose not only our innocence but that sweet communion with our Maker. We find ourselves wandering the earth, surviving by the toil of our hands and the sweat of our brow. I know the old story says that God threw us out of the garden, but I think the truth is that we spoiled the experience ourselves in our desire to be as God, rather than simply to be with God.
Because God honored our freedom to choose, the story rambles on with one difficulty piled on another. Cain slays his brother Abel in the first religious dispute. Lamech kills anyone who touches him. The whole of humanity becomes so rotten that God decides to wipe the slate clean with an enormous flood, and to start over. But, because Noah is willing to listen to God’s dismay and follow God’s direction to build a boat, his family and all the critters he can cram in the ark are saved. Of course, he doesn’t live up to God’s expectations either, exposing himself in drunken shame. His kids have their own problems. And then we come to the tower of Babel, where foolish folk think they can build a tower that will take them directly to God, where they can move in right next door. The scene is bleak; any hope that humanity will find its way back to God through acceptable channels seems impossible.
With today’s text, God embarks on a new strategy to bring her people close again. Brueggemann says, “The one who calls the worlds into being now makes a second call. This call is specific…The call is addressed to aged Abraham and barren Sarah. The purpose of the call is to fashion an alternative community in creation gone awry, to embody in human history the power of blessing. It is the hope of God that in this new family all human history can be brought to the unity and harmony intended by the one who calls” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 105.) God reaches out and touches human lives, calling them to work with her to bless again creation with its original blessing.
Now we see that Abraham and Sarah are not young. The story says they were both around 75 when their journey begins. I realize that’s not so old by the standards in our congregation, but it is certainly not the usual time for pulling up roots and starting over. It’s a time to settle in and enjoy the fruits of your labor – family, friends, the retirement you worked so hard to make possible. It seems to me that Abraham and Sarah could be Lionel and Diane or Lynn and Marilyn or Jin and Jane or Paul and Sachiko – good, solid folk without any world records or Nobel prizes, but salt of the earth, the kind of people you can depend on and like to hang out with. Oh and let’s not forget that Sarah was barren. So, God calls the most improbable characters imaginable to this great journey with its great promise of fulfillment. Regular folk, settled in for the duration, aged, barren –how would the promise ever be delivered by these folk? And yet, this is whom God chooses. People like you and me.
In actuality, the background to these verses tells us that it was originally Abraham’s father, Terah, who took off from Ur of the Chaldees, called by God to move to Canaan. But the background also tells us that, having wandered several hundred miles northwest, up the Euphrates River valley, Terah got tired and settled down in Haran. In Terah’s defense, he was supposedly 70 when he fathered Abraham and he lived to be 205, so it’s not so hard to imagine that he got tired on this journey and wanted to rest. So, Abraham grew up in family that started out to follow God’s lead but gave up before the journey was done. We have no idea how this family story affected Abraham and Sarah, but when God came to them with a call and a promise, they simply responded in faith. They went as God had told them.
Brueggemann calls this is a fundamental story of both promise and faith; a story of God’s amazing grace and the human capacity to believe. There is so much more to life than God’s children have embraced and God wants them to have it all. We only have to believe in the promise and claim it. Bruggemann writes that “Promise is God’s mode of presence in these narratives. The promise is God’s power and will to create a new future sharply discontinuous with the past and the present. The promise is God’s resolve to form a new community wrought only by miracle and reliant only on God’s faithfulness. Faith as response is the capacity to embrace that announced future with such passion that the present can be relinquished for the sake of that future” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 106.)
Can you imagine such a call, such a promise? Can you imagine forming such a community – “wrought only by miracle and reliant only on God’s faithfulness?” “Dan, Melanie, Kathy, Thelma, Alex and Nana, Jim and Elizabeth, Rick, go from your country and your kindred and your [parents’] 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 curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” How might we respond to such a call to leave behind family, position, job, social network to travel to a strange land we’ve never seen and know next to nothing about? Would we say “yes” to the journey? Would we be ready to travel? This call is counter-intuitive. We’d prefer to journey toward comfort, success, security. Dan Clendenin says, “Most of us want to journey from the unknown to the known, from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, from the strange and the unpredictable to the safe and the secure, and from mere promises to human guarantees” (Daniel Clendenin, “The Longest and Hardest Journey,” journeywith jesus.net, March 14, 2011.) Talk about giving up something for Lent!
It is not surprising that we might be given this text as part of our Lenten journey. As we look inside ourselves, as we take stock of how we live these lives which we have been given, as we consider what it means to be loved and blessed by God in her grace, we need also to consider what it means to follow God’s call to be God’s people, to respond to Jesus’ call to be his disciples, to live into the Spirit’s call to be the church. The call is terrifying and exhilarating. In writing of the risks, Clendenin observes that Abraham “…journeyed from present clarity into a future of profound ignorance. [He] journeyed from what he had to what he did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange.” He continues, “With his journey into the unknown, Abraham embraced ignorance, relinquished control, and chose to live with confidence in God's promise to bless him in a new and strange place…He had to leave not only his geographic place. He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger.” Abraham and Sarah not only had to turn their backs on a comfortable past, they had to open themselves to a strange, exciting new future in which the whole creation - not just special privileged parts - was blessed and reconciled to God.
Can you imagine such a journey, such a commitment for yourself, for our faith community? What if our journey is to leave behind what we have, what we know, what is familiar, in order to live into the promise that God holds for us? What if God is inviting us to embrace the unknown, to relinquish control and put our trust in God’s promise? Could we do it? Could we commit ourselves to such a journey? What we face in this Lenten season is that the most difficult journey is not a geographical journey, it is the journey inward to know ourselves as we are known by God, to love ourselves as we are loved by God, to trust that wherever our journeys take us, God goes with us all the way. On our journey now, Clendenin invites us to explore “the complex geography of the human heart.” He says, “Our ultimate journey is to move from a self-regarding heart curved in on itself to an other-regarding openness to the love of God, a love for others, and a love for all [God’s] world.”
God’s call to us to be on our journey now must manifest something like that. We explore our own heartland so that we may discover how it is common ground with the heartland of God, that land in which love for God, for others, for self, for the whole creation is the only way of life. This exploration will inevitably take us out of our comfort zones, beyond the things we can order and control. It will take us to new and strange territory. It is a journey frightening and fulfilling. It is a journey of promise and faith. It is a journey of grace and trust. It is a journey that will take us home. Let us then take stock. Let us take a helping hand as well. Let us open our minds and hearts and our lives so that God might move in us and through us. Let us be on our journey now. Amen.
1Now 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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.