“So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.”
It’s been said that this single verse from Genesis represents “the pivot on which [all of] history turns,” in that up until this point, the Biblical story is all about the universal story of our humanity in the sight of God; regarding humanity’s very creation and its subsequent fall from grace. But now it becomes this very specific story of God’s efforts to lead his people back; it’s the start of the whole history of this “great nation” called Israel, and the beginning of a story of divine salvation that has its culmination in Jesus Christ! And the beauty part is that all of it hinges on the response of one rather obscure 75 year-old man who, truth be told, was fairly gladly headed toward his retirement years; and this without having much of anything at all to show for it!
The thing about this particular biblical story, friends, is that we do tend to portray Abram – or Abraham, as he’s known later on – in very heroic terms: the brave man who boldly answers God’s call to go a far country; setting out on a journey to the unknown while waving farewell to kith and kin, all for the sake of this noble quest of a “great nation” and a blessing that would not only extend to him and to his future heirs, but also to “all the families of the earth.” When we read it that way, it feels to us like the stuff of great adventure – it’s Homer’s “Odyssey,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Trek” all rolled up into one (!) – but ultimately that doesn’t really tell the story at all! For look closely, and what you really have here in Genesis is a long and protracted narrative of this elderly nomad out in the wilderness – just a wandering shepherd, really – with no prospects, no heirs and no land to speak of, save for a small patch of scrub brush that his late father had left him; and yet who heard God’s call along with God’s promise of great blessing and moreover, believed it. And so, amazingly, “Abram went, as the LORD had told him,” with wife Sarai and nephew Lot in tow, setting off toward the land of Canaan.
And the rest, as they say, is history… and, yes, blessing.
Of course, it all didn’t happen overnight; for that matter, it didn’t all happen over the course of a lifetime! Read on in Genesis and you find out that the journey of Abraham and Sarah was indeed fraught with, shall we say, “bumps in the road.” Turned out that Canaan was not their final destination; the whole time they were there they lived like strangers in a foreign country, living in tents and always ready to move. There were years of famine spent in Egypt, during which time Abram sought to pass off Sarah as his sister rather than his wife to save his own skin; eventually Lot went off on his own to do his own thing which also led to some amount of strife in the family; what’s more, there was political and social intrigue in spades; and then there was that whole matter of Abram’s promised descendants being as many as the number of stars in the sky or grains of sand on the beach, which was interesting that given by this time Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 and they still didn’t have any children!
Frankly, it was enough for even the most stalwart follower of God to throw in the towel and to say, “enough is enough already!” But here’s the point and the good news: Abraham and Sarah held fast to the promise. No, it wasn’t all happening in the way and on the schedule they would have wanted, and they could have certainly done without all the problems they were still facing on the way. But it was happening; the blessing was real and it was unfolding right before them! Somehow, you see, Abraham and Sarah understood that this promise of God was also a call; a call for them to move forward, to go where God was leading them and to do the things that God had set forth for them to do along the way. And they also understood that despite the twists and turns and occasional setbacks, and as hard as it was at times to accept or to understand, all those promised blessings would be revealed… on the journey.
And if you want a word for that, friends, it’s faith… as Paul defines it in our reading from Hebrews this morning, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
You know, one of the great things about our having been focused over the last few weeks on how you and I are “blessed to be a blessing;” is that we’ve been able to really celebrate the multitude of ways God has blessed us as persons, as people and especially as the church! But the thing is, what we learn in Abraham’s story is that blessing always goes hand in hand with faith; and the truth is that where God’s promises are concerned there will almost always be some sort of journey, some sort of adjustment, even some sort of change involved which will require from us faith. And that’s where the challenge enters in for us: for whereas blessing is easy and good and wonderful to receive – and even better to share – the faith that is required for us to get there can often be rather daunting for us, if not downright difficult!
David Steele, in a book entitled “History, Herstory, Ourstory,” affirms that most of us have fairly clear, if somewhat mistaken, ideas of what having faith looks like. “We’re pretty sure,” he writes, “that if a person has faith, he’s gonna be pretty well off. She’ll have a nice family, the kids will turn out well …but most of all, [they’ll] feel secure and know PEACE OF MIND.” But when Abram responds to God’s call “to leave the familiar and set off on a great adventure …he takes on new challenges, new headaches. His life becomes more complicated, less secure. He moves into the unknown. God never lets him settle down. And the Bible calls that Faith!” In the end, Steele says, “our ideas that faith means a whole lot of peace and quiet, prosperity and tranquility don’t hold much water when we get to looking at Abraham.”
Simply put, our blessings come from God and they are revealed and received as we walk with God on this journey of life: but to hold fast to God as we make our way through the inevitable and countless twists and turns we’re going to encounter on the way requires our faith. But understand that when I’m talking about faith here, I’m not referring to a mere belief in God; this is not some spiritual/intellectual exercise that says that since I know that God exists then all I have to do is sit here and wait for any and all blessings to shower down upon me (!). To seek God’s blessing is ultimately not to engage in “pie in the sky” wishful thinking! No, when I talk about faith being required, I’m talking about the faith of Abraham who believed God; who heard God’s call to go and then “set out, not knowing where he was going,” but always knowing that God’s promises were real even as the journey went on and on; “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
In other words, he did it: old Abraham, and Sarah along with him, took the leap of faith, answered God’s call and then held fast to God in every step that followed; and because of this, nothing would ever be the same again! And that’s important, not only in terms of the biblical story, but also for our lives; yours and mine: as Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, “Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don’t know you have enough faith when the needle doesn’t leap on a lie-detector test as you say, ‘My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home.’ You know you’ve got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step toward the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.”
Or to put it another way, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18); or, “be doers of the word and not merely hearers,” (James 1:22); or, for that matter, “where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) To have faith, you see – to believe God – means that your life is directed accordingly.
I say all this to you this morning because it seems to me that if we’re truly “blessed to be a blessing,” then that requires of us more than mere lip service; and ultimately – and don’t misunderstand me here, especially given that this is Stewardship Sunday, after all (!) – it requires even more than our pledge cards, our offerings and our commitments of time and talent; for while those are very good things indeed, and we do thank you so much, in truth all of this represents one step of a larger journey on which each one of us here is traveling. “To be a blessing,” you see, requires our whole lives; not just the “Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m.” part of our lives, not simply the “spiritual piece” that we seek to fit into all the rest of the commitments that fill up our daily lives. No, this requires everything, beloved; it means that each one of us are to devote ourselves to taking what we’ve been given in such abundance by God on the journey of our lives and then letting it be transformed into opportunities for God’s work to be done with and for others. It’s living our lives in such a way that when God calls, we… go!
Now, if that sounds hard… well, it is! Also unnerving at times, often inconvenient and sometimes even exhausting! But here’s the thing about our “believing God” and actually stepping out in faith: the blessings revealed on that journey of faith are only exceeded by the wonder of what happens when those blessings are shared. And I know that’s true because I’ve seen it. Like, for instance, when someone who’s been struggling and lonely and trying to make sense of what’s been happening in their lives comes into this sacred place and finds support and friendship; like in one of those beautifully “unscripted” moments we have around here when one of our kids completely derails the minister’s children’s message for the day, and yet somehow manages in utmost clarity to say or do exactly the thing that needs to be said and done at that moment; like when there’s some sort of need or some manner of emptiness emanating from within or without in this family of faith and beyond – but then, suddenly, miraculously, joyfully and lovingly, the need is met and the emptiness is… gone.
Friends, in my two and a half years as your pastor I’ve seen this unfold here time and time again; moments of miracle and wonder that came about because God’s blessings received became God’s blessings shared. I’ll say it one more time: at East Church by the grace of God and to the glory of Jesus Christ we are truly blessed to be a blessing! But that having been said (again!), we also need to know that our journey as God’s people here on Mountain Road is only just beginning; that there are many blessings that even now God is calling for us to share in the months and years ahead.
It’ll be a long road, to be sure, and it’s apt to be challenging for us as a congregation; and yes, it’s going to take a fair amount of commitment – financial and otherwise – as we go (don’t think we’re completely done talking about stewardship, folks!); believe me, it is going to require faith for us to start out on this next part of the journey, and moreover for us to keep going where God will be leading us. But they don’t call us “the little church that can” for nothing; and besides, won’t the blessings we receive on the journey and by faith be well worth the effort?
So, then… let’s go!
And may our thanks be to God as we do!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry