(a sermon for February 21, 2016, the 2nd Sunday in Lent; second in a series, based on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Philippians 3:12-4:1)
The older I get and the longer that I continue on in this vocation of ministry the more I have come to understand that to be a pastor is to be something of a gypsy.
By that, I mean that it is sort of the nature of this job to move around; oftentimes a lot. For instance, in thirty-plus years of ministry I’ve been blessed to have served five churches in three states; but what that also means is that at least on five different occasions, our whole family has had to pick up and move to a brand new place: to a new church, yes, but also to a new community in a new house; with new schools, new stores, new traditions and new routines. And let me tell you, folks, that’s a real challenge for everyone involved; honestly, I don’t know how military families do it, and with all due respect to other church traditions, that’s why I’m very glad to be in a denomination that doesn’t automatically transfer you every few years!
The upside of all this (and there are a great many “upsides”) is that to experience the church in all its multi-faceted tradition and glory cannot help but be spiritually enriching! Moreover, our moving around afforded each one of us in our family opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise had; I’m a big believer that God puts us where we are for reasons we can’t begin to imagine at first. But if there’s a downside, in all honesty, it has to be that living the pastoral life often makes it much more difficult to be settled and to put down roots. Oh, certainly, wherever you end up being called, you have a home: you have a beautiful place to live; you have a neighborhood with friends and colleagues; and hey, you’ve got a built-in church family that loves you and that you love! It’s all good – very good! – and it’s the wonder of God’s call on your life, and truly, the glory of being able to bloom in the beauty of where you’re planted (!); but still sometimes you wonder where, after all is said and done, you’re going end up; when after you’ve gone where you supposed to go, where you’re going to live and what’s going to be home for you! It can all be rather distressing; and that’s one reason why, back when my daughter was in college and we were just moving here, when someone would ask where she lived she’d answer, “My family lives in New Hampshire, but I live in the moment!”
I say all this so that you will know why I can also say I understand why Abram responded to God the way he did in our Old Testament reading this morning. “’Do not be afraid, Abram,’” says God to Abram in a vision. “’I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’” And how does Abram respond? “’O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Understand, friends, this is no simple answer; this is the biblical equivalent of Abram rolling his eyes before the Lord and saying, “Really? Seriously?”
For you see, this is not the first time that God has made such a promise unto Abram: the first time, back in chapter twelve, God had already called him to go from country and kindred and his father’s house to a place yet to be determined! “’I will make of you a great nation,’” God assures Abram, and “’I will bless you, and make your name great.’” And, of course, Abram went (with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot along with him); and at 75 years old, no less! It was a difficult, if not altogether improbable journey; but they did go, by faith and bolstered in the assurance the promise made would soon be the promise fulfilled. However, as we pick up the story today some time has passed and Abram is not above questioning the motives of the Almighty! As The Message translates this, “God, Master, what use are your gifts as long as I’m childless… see, you’ve given me no children, and now a mere house servant is going to get it all.”
We answered your call, Lord… we did everything you asked! We’ve faced famine, there’s been a war, there’s been some family issues along the way… but we’ve stuck with it! So where is this reward you keep talking about? The question, of course, is why Abram would deign it proper to speak to God in such a way: maybe it’s a bit of disbelief creeping into to his weary mind, or perhaps it’s genuine curiosity on Abram’s part as to how God’s possibly going to pull this one off! Either way, what’s clear is that Abram and Sarai, at a time when the both of them really ought to be savoring the twilight of their years, are instead now in the thick of a long journey with no particular destination; and they want to know where they’re going to end up, and how this “great nation” God keeps promising is ever going to be, given their current trajectory (not to mention their demographic!).
At the heart of it all, you see, all Abram wants to know is simply if they’re ever going to have a real home…
…which, come to think of it, is a question we all ask sooner or later.
You see, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve spent the years moving from place to place, or if we’ve spent our whole lives living in one town or even one house. Moving takes place in a wide variety of ways in this life, and eventually, all of us come to the point of wanting to know… needing to know… where it is we’re really going and what it’s going to be when we get there. Recently, I heard about someone who’s retiring at the end of this week after many years at work at the same job; and this woman’s got plans! Next day after she’s officially retired, she’s going to visit their grandchildren; next it’s off to Florida for a while; and then there are plans to sell her home and come to New Hampshire full time. She has a life to live, you see, and it’s just beginning! Contrast that to the father of an old friend of mine who, after over 50 years working in the same office at the same job, quite literally got his gold watch, packed up his personal belongings, went home… and never really did anything else ever again, except pass the time! There was no longer any drive in him nor any purpose in his life: sadly, for him there was no place left for him to go, no journey ahead for him; and in truth, it killed him!
The point is not that everybody has to have a grand scheme of how retirement’s going to work out, nor should any of us ever know exactly how life will unfold; that’s part of the “sweet mystery of life,” and its joy. But we all need and yearn to have a purpose for that life, a destination, if you will; even if we don’t know exactly, as of yet, how we’re going to get there. And we are lost without it! This is particularly true of our spiritual journeys, friends: what’s the old expression? Socrates, I think: “The unconsidered life is not one worth living.” Well, there is much to consider when we live unto faith, from matters of day to day morality and personal ethics to the bigger questions of what it all means, and where you and I fit into the expanse of the cosmos. And the thing is, once we think we’ve got one question answered, there’s always another question to take its place! There are always questions, and the fact is, even if we’re walking with God – especially if we’re walking with God – the answers we seek are going to take us in directions we don’t expect, nor for which we always feel particularly equipped or prepared!
That’s why it is good news, indeed, that “for the love of it all,” God never lets go of the promise, nor does God leave us alone on the journey.
It is for me one of the most beautiful moments of Abram’s story: in which God brings Abram outside and says, “’Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’” (I love that little qualifier!) “’So shall your descendants be.’” Don’t worry, Abram… you’re going to have a big family, just wait and see. And later on in this story, you also have this vision given to Abram of a land “from the river of Egypt to the great river… [of] Euphrates” given to his descendants. In other words, this might not happen all at once; this plan, this vision will likely take time to come to fruition. But it will happen; and I will be with you and your children as it does.
We’re told that Abram “believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” What’s interesting here is that in the ancient Hebrew, the word that’s used here for “believed” is emunah, which actually translates better as “trusted,” and suggests a faith that is steady and persistent. So in other words, Abram trusted God for the long haul; knowing that even though the way ahead would still be fraught with dangers and uncertainty, Abram would move ahead with the certainty that God’s promises would be fulfilled; and this was considered by God to be the truly faithful response.
We also see this in our Epistle reading this morning from Philippians, in which Paul is writing about his own journey of faith; his determination to live his earthly life with a “citizenship [that] is in heaven,” living ever and always in expectation of “a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” For Paul, it is a journey that has its own share of “unknowns,” and as it is for any one of us who seek to adhere to the model of Jesus Christ in our own lives, it can be an arduous one as well. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal,” says Paul, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
In other words, as believers (or as those who trust, if you will), there is a pathway we follow, and a destination we seek; that of a life truly lived in God’s light and glory. But though the way may be difficult at times, and the pathway might seem to us to meander far from where we expect, we stay on course, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead… press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.” Keeping on the journey, walking and living as we have been called to do, secure in our salvation and the sure and certain promise, extended to us from the very beginning: that by God’s grace and endless love, there will always be a home for us.
As some of you may know, last spring we discovered over the winter just previous, a rather large tree had fallen on the roof of our camp in Maine; which not only set us on the task of repairs, but got us all thinking about that time when, way down the road (but not quite as far as it once seemed!), we’ll be retired and that place could potentially be at least a three-season home for us. So we’ve got ideas, and plans… and very creative dreams (!); along with the full knowledge that not every one of our ideas will come to pass in exactly the way we’re expecting. It’s quite a process, and one that is ongoing, but however things unfold, there is incredible comfort in knowing that when the time comes, we’ll have a home.
In the meantime, however, we have this journey of life, living and faith on which God is leading us; and as we go, we have this promise from God that we will not be alone on that journey; that we will have the strength we need for when the way is difficult, the hope that will sustain us when we begin to feel as though all has been lost, and the joy in knowing that in God’s infinite love and care, made real to us in the person of Jesus Christ our Savior, we’re never lost completely, and best of all, as we like to say here in the United Church of Christ, wherever we are on life’s journey, we’ll be welcome… and we’ll always have a home.
Such a great promise, and a wonderful gift God gives to us “for the love of it all.” So what else can we say in response but…
…thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN.
c, 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry