God told Abram: “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you.
(Preached on Sunday, March 12, 2017)
When we make our plans to travel somewhere, the destination is usually the first thing we determine. Which airport I fly out of, which airline I take, and where I have my layover – these are particulars about which I am flexible; but my destination – that is the given, the known. God’s itinerary for Abram, by contrast, was very detailed about his point of departure, but the rest was rather vague. “Leave behind everything familiar,” God says to Abram. “Go to the land that I will show you.” (Take note: God does not say the land I have shown you.) Abram has to leave before he knows where he is headed.
This story of Abram and Sarai, the father and mother of our faith, (actually of three of the great faiths of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), reminds us that life is movement. Everything that is alive is moving. As soon as movement stops, life stops. But there is something in us that tries hard to position things just the way we want them and then hold things still. We long for that illusive sense of security. But to our spirits, it is like death.
Abram and Sarai most likely lived about 2,000 years before Jesus. Only a few hundred years before this, a very different people on a far away island raised the massive slabs of stone which we know as Stonehenge. Unlike Britain at the time of Stonehenge, Mesopotamia, in the north of what is now Iraq, was a highly developed civilization of proud cities and temples, literature and astronomy, legal codes, medical skills and massive irrigation schemes. For most of the residents in Haran and Ur, they would have considered that they were living at the center of the universe. Much like New Yorkers today! This was the center of economic, political and military power in the ancient world. Yet Abram and Sarai clearly felt more like outsiders than insiders. They were somewhat like the gypsies of Europe or the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia today: people who had lived in the land all their lives, but who are still viewed as outsiders, not part of the in-group, because of their different lifestyle. That lifestyle is one of constant movement, never fully settled and stable in one place. Abram was a Semite herdsman; living in tents with his small tribe, moving from place to place to find feed for his cattle, sheep and goats.
But this move, this radical leaving of his homeland where he had grown up with his father and brother, where he had met and married his wife, where he had lived for 75 years, this move was about more than just finding good pasture for his livestock. There is something about this journey to a new land that he takes because he needs to change in order to become the fullest self, for the benefit of himself and others. This transformation is to secure his commitment to the generations to come. If he stays in Haran, there won’t be any requirements to start fresh and anew. Life as Abram knows it would remain the same, and others would miss the journey that needs to be started.
How do you think Sarai responded when Abram boldly proclaimed: “We’re leaving!” Can you imagine the conversation that might’ve ensued? “Why are we moving at our age?” “Because God told me to.” “How do you know God told you?” “God spoke to me.” “Oh, and did God say where we’re going?” “No.” “You mean, you don’t know?” “I don’t know. God will show me.” “Well, what if in wherever, they rob us and take advantage of us?” “I imagine God will protect us.” “Well then, how can we be made into a great nation if we don’t have any children?” “I suppose God will have to give us a son.” “At our age?” “Yes, even at our age.” “Abram?” “Yes, Sarai?” “I think you’re suffering from senility.”
Our tendency as human beings, in any period of history, is to fear change, to reject it, and to not move forward with it. I am not suggesting that we tear up our insurance policies, empty our retirement funds, and move away. I am simply saying that when we look for life, purpose, and fulfillment in security, stability, and safety, it is like looking for a party in a cemetery. We’re looking in the wrong place.
Security, stability, and life only come from the hands of God. They only come from trusting in the guidance and care of God. Faith is a long trip, a journey. For Abram and Sarai, faith was putting themselves in the hands of God, willing to go on a journey into the unknown, wherever God would lead them. Faith was trusting God against the anxiety of uncertainty. There would be many difficulties. The troubles would not magically fade away, mistakes would be made, there would be moments when faith would seem extremely fragile in a rough existence. The promise that they would be the forebears of a great nation must at times have seemed like a ridiculous dream. At times they would doubt and misread the signs of God’s will. But they kept on the journey and reached the Promised Land.
Abram and Sarai help us journey further into Lent by helping us think about our own life’s journey. Is there some place where you have been holding out against life’s relentless movement and flow? Maybe you are resisting changes that are happening in your family or loved ones. Maybe you are denying a restlessness with your vocation. Maybe you are afraid of facing changes in your body or your health. Maybe you are repressing long-buried parts of yourself that are struggling to come back to life. Listen deeply. Do you hear God’s call to leave the dead certainties of what you know and step out toward a new place God wants to show you? Can you bring your fears into the light of God? Can you place your feet on the faith that God will meet you in the midst of the movement of life, more than in the stagnation of your security? Can you walk in the assurance that nothing will ever be able to separate you from the love of God? If so, with God’s strength, you are ready to move fully into life, to discover untold blessings, and to be a blessing to the world.
Now you may not feel up to the task. Certainly Abram probably did not feel up to the prospect of leaving all that was familiar to him at the age of 75 and traveling to who knows where on the vague promise of a God he could not see. Even more, Sarai who did not hear God’s voice except through Abram, probably did not feel up to the task. A childless old man and woman were hardly the likely beginning for a great nation that would be a blessing to all the peoples of the world.
This certainly seems to be something of a pattern with God. It seems that God is always calling us to leave what is explicit and known and sure in our lives to venture out into the unknown future. Not only did God move Abram, God also moved Joseph to Egypt; then God moves the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. The Israelites were scattered in the Diaspora. Jesus left everything he knew, unspeakable glory to live among us and share God’s love with us. Jesus called disciples to follow him and they left their lives behind to do so.
Perhaps something of that uncertainty is captured in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus when he compares the movement of the winder to “everyone who is born of the Spirit.” If we are willing to allow the Spirit to fill our sails and guide our ship, we cannot predict where that wind will take us. That is what it means to live by faith – to trust God and not our own knowledge or wisdom or insight.
Contemplative monk Basil Pennington tells the story of the last time he had breakfast with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He asked her, “Mother, give me a word of life to bring to my brothers in the monastery in Massachusetts.” Mother Teresa looked at him with those penetrating brown eyes – pools of love that invite you in to rest in their quiet depths. Finally, she said, slowly and with great emphasis, “Father, tell them to pray that I do not get in God’s way.” What a powerful and important word that is for all of us. Far too often our lives bear so little fruit because we are ever getting into God’s way with our own plans, our own doings, or our own fears.
We live in a world as unlike Abram’s as it is possible to imagine. Yet we are like Abram in one crucial respect: we don’t know what’s ahead for us in this 21st century or beyond. We haven’t a clue. Before us is an earth burdened with pollution and an expanding population. We face a climate that is changing dramatically every day and we have no clear understanding what that means for all life on this planet. Violence continues to increase and more walls preventing community are going up every day. The world economy seems to baffle even the most expert among us and we face threats to our social stability that our forebears never imagined. But although we are as ignorant as Abram was about the future, we have one thing Abram did not have. We have this old, old story – his story – to inform us, inspire us, and guide us. We also have the teaching of Jesus to Nicodemus: “You must be born again – from above.” When you give up your own will to follow the will of God, you are made new. Instead of having control, you give up power. Instead of knowing your destination, you try to be faithful during the journey. Instead of being sure of yourself, you become sure of God. That is how you walk with God into an unknown future.