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Bold Blessing

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on March 20, 2011.
The Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12:1-4a

The story of Abram’s call in Genesis 12 is short but plainly said:  Abram heard the Voice and answered. When he acted on the instructions from the Voice and obeyed, his life was transformed and the rest, they say, is history. Other than a vague belief in the promise, it’s hard to imagine he had an idea when his life ended all that was set in motion as his life continued to speak generation after generation, across the boundaries of culture, language, race, and time itself.

We call him “Father Abraham,” but we’re not alone in referring to him as such. As a child growing up in a Baptist church, there was never any mention of others who claimed Abraham as their own. Even the early Hebrews we considered simply as “those who lived before Jesus” and not from a separate religion all their own. Maybe that’s like the first time as a child you realized others beyond your immediate family could lay claim to your mother or father or grandfather or grandmother. The discovery was there were persons wholly unknown to you who count your loved one as a dear friend and to whom your loved one was equally fond.

In this case, there are millions upon millions of persons who lay claim to Father Abraham … Jews, Christians and Muslims alike who revere this ancient man who heard God calling and answered. Writer Bruce Feiler has opened up this discussion in our day when the three great religions that claim Father Abraham as their own are in a constant struggle over ancestral land and the supremacy of faith.[1]

God’s terse command to Abram living in the Babylonian land we now call Iraq has been translated and commented upon over the years in various ways with different meanings as simple as “Go,” Go forth,” “Get Thee out,” “Go for yourself (implying for your own benefit),” or my favorite, “Go-you-forth.”  A 13th century Jewish mystic interpreted the text as “Go to your self, (or, know your self),” implying Abraham must do what every journeyer ends up doing along the path by seeking to understand himself inwardly as part of the journey itself.[2]

I

This ancient story is a model for faith that gets re-enacted everyday somewhere, anytime a desert nomad crosses an unmarked border from one country to another in search of a land of promise. Such a desert nomad may believe he’s following an inner impulse planted there by God. He hopes to find shelter along the way and water to stave off his thirst. Some bring their families with them and it’s danger they hope to avoid. There are life-threatening fears on the goat trails they follow so the husband may try to pass off his wife as his sister or even his daughter if it helps them avoid danger.

Thus, Abram’s hard journey is repeated around the world … not only those who risk their lives crossing the Sonoran desert of our own great Southwest, but we can’t forget those in boats filled with Africans that cross the Mediterranean Sea hoping to land safely on the southern shores of Europe huddled in the leaking hulls of boats as they flee starvation or tribal death camps headed to freedom.[3] Maybe it pulsed in the hearts of the thousands of immigrants and journeyers who heard the siren song a century and a half ago to “Go west,” hoping to find land and a chance at a new life. “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.’ So Abram went …” (Genesis 12:1, 4).

Abram was busy living life when he was called by God. Know there’s great mystery here and all we can do with this is reflect upon how significant that truly was. How else do we explain how we are moved in life to head down a particular path whether it’s going to school to train or it’s saying “yes” to a relationship above all others and make a home for yourselves. Maybe it’s as simple as the core life decisions you make about what values you will adopt. You make choices, then those choices make you and life is built solely on the platform of those things. Some look upon life as purely the making of decisions and that the future is actually created out of those decisions.

II

This story is built on a framework of God’s grace and blessing. It’s what Fred Buechner called, “a crazy, holy grace … Crazy because whoever could have predicted it?”[4]

One of my strongest self-aware moments of blessing came when I traveled back home for the funeral of my mother’s aunt. I drove to North Texas where I spent the day immersed in the love and care of my family. It felt like home because I knew them all and was known and felt a sense of belonging in my multiple roles as son and grandson, cousin and nephew, and as the middle brother of three sons. The service was what you might expect, songs and hymns from the faith, a sermon of remembrance. There was melodious organ music with floral arrangements spread all across the front of the funeral home chapel giving the moment the requisite sounds and smells. When all the music ended and the words had been properly said, we loaded up in our cars to take the short trip out in the country to the Cottage Hill Cemetery which was a quaint white-framed Methodist chapel surrounded by a few acres of headstones.

In the torrid heat of the summer afternoon where the wind blew you as dry as dust, I remembered this cemetery for other funerals as we’ve traveled there faithfully with each loss over the span of my life. Walking in straight lines between the headstones so as not to walk on graves we walked out to the corner of Cottage Hill where my family was gathered. An empty grave awaited us along with a tent awning as our only shade from the punishing Texas heat.

As I stood there listening to the pastor say his last words of Scripture, I realized I was in the one location in the world where geography and story were joined. I looked around and read headstone after headstone from where I stood and remembered them all. I stood vigil with my brothers and my father and my uncle and felt a part of a family.

For the first time this all had meaning to me as I understood something of what John understood about Jesus, that Jesus knew where he had come from and where he was going.[5] That moment of clarity with my family standing among the family gravestones helped me see myself in time, as part and parcel of a living, dynamic family connected to the generations that have preceded me in the past and with a future possibility of generations that none of us can begin to predict.

III

This is our heritage. This is our story. This man, this family … as God calls them and they respond are acting out a spiritual drama that all of us are called to live. Like Abram and Sarai, we too are wanderers in life seeking to hear the Voice and to act in faith to our calling.

What can we learn from Abraham this morning? First we discover that God’s kind of security is not some static sort of thing; rather, God’s calling is always dynamic involving response and movement. We’re not allowed in God’s kingdom to sit on a pew like a sack of rocks. Nowhere is it implied or insinuated if we faithfully read the whole of the Bible. Instead of giving him something to hang onto, something steady that would ride securely through all the movement that change implied, God gave Abram a call to adventure and the promise to provide. “Get thee up from this place,” the Voice said, “and go to the place that I will show you.” No settling down, no “nesting” – he was forever on the move after this and that seems to be the essence of God’s partnership with humankind.

John Claypool points us to Jürgen Moltmann’s recognition that this is not just another of what some would call epiphany religions, those religions that feature some internal religious insight or clarity but that builds no bridges to life as it’s lived in real time. Instead Moltmann writes that we worship a God who has called us to an exodus life.

“Along the way,” we might say, we realize God has called us to live the adventure of faith where changes and movement are not regarded as enemies to be resisted, but the way God works and calls human beings to fulfillment. God’s idea of security is not to sit still and possess something no one else has nor is it to remain static. We are travelers on an adventure full of surprise and challenges headed toward some goal beyond the present that beckons but is as yet unattained. Father Abraham helps us see that to answer the call of God is to accept that we’re issued sails to catch the breeze of God, not anchors to tie us down![6]

In Abram we learn perfection is not a prerequisite before God beckons us to come along for the adventure. From the very beginning we come to see that God chose Abram, not because he was already living faith, but so that he could live faith. God didn’t even hold out for better to come along. God called and Abram agreed and the adventure began. We’re called to trust God and follow our adventure wherever God might take us.

Frederick Buechner recalls a low time in his life when the Spirit broke through to him in an unusual way. “I remember sitting parked by the roadside once,” Buechner writes, “terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter’s [anorexia] and what was going on in our family.” As he was sitting there lost in worried thought, he noticed a car that seemed to come from nowhere. His message from God, the word he most needed to see at that moment, was found on its license plate: T-R-U-S-T.

Buechner describes the difficulty of putting such an experience into words. “Was it something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? Or was it, the word of God?”

Speaking of this incident awhile afterwards, the owner of the car came forward and identified himself as the trust officer of a local bank. Eventually he presented Buechner with the license plate that bore the word he so desperately needed to see that day: T-R-U-S-T. Buechner placed the license place on a bookshelf where he could be reminded daily to trust God. “It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.”[7]

Fellow travelers in life, this is our heritage. This is our story. We are children of Abraham every time the Voice calls and every time we heed the call. No matter where the Voice might lead, the promise of Abram’s is ours that we will have companionship, as God is our fellow traveler. To such we are called … let us go now to live the adventure.

[1] Bruce Feiler, Abraham, A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, New York: William and Morrow, 2002

[2] Sandee Barwarsky, “Hearing God’s Call,” Talking About Genesis, A Resource Guide, Introduction by Bill Moyers, New York: Doubleday, 1996, 81

[3] Adapted from Stephen Paul Bouman, “Marias full of grace,” Christian Century, 2/8/05

[4] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, New York: Harper and Row, 1982, 57

[5] John 13:3, paraphrased

[6] Claypool, Ibid. a version of this sermon also appears in his book, Glad Reunion, Meeting Ourselves in the Lives of Bible Men and Women, Waco: Word Books, 1985

[7] Timothy K. Jones, “Frederick Buechner’s Sacred Journey,” http://www.thewords.com/articles/buech2.htm