A People of Uncommon Grace
For audio, click this link: https://soundcloud.com/emsworthup/september-14-2014-10-18-22-am/s-PFTgl
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. 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. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
God said, “Go,” and Abram went. Abram left behind everything he knew and departed for…well…an undisclosed location. But Abram went. Having absolutely no clue where they would end up and trusting that YHWH would tell them when they got there, Abram packed up his family and his servants and everything that they could carry, and set off in the direction of Canaan. Well, I’m not sure that Abram knew what direction they were headed, but the text tells us that’s where they headed. And as if to make sure we do not miss the implication of Abram’s decision, the text carefully catalogs for us all that Abram left behind. Country. Family. Friends. Inheritance. All of it left behind, everything familiar fading away. All of it becoming less and less visible in the dust kicked up by Abram’s group of pilgrims, trudging away from Haran.
Perhaps at the beginning, as they were packing everything up, Abram and Sarai felt something like excitement growing. We can imagine that feeling, particularly those of us in middle age or later. Just imagine the opportunity to do something completely new. Imagine a life shaped by a promise from God that from now on your life will matter beyond the small circle of the familiar. After all, God said, “I will make of you a great nation…I will make your name great.” Greatness! At age 75? Who wouldn’t feel incredibly pumped at the prospect of a completely reinvented and renewed life?
But at some point in the journey, I’m sure the atmosphere changed – maybe early on or maybe a little bit later when it became crystal clear that there was no going back to Haran even if they could figure out how to get back there. Whenever it was that they reached that point, I imagine that there was a certain level of grief for Abram and Sarai. Grief for all that they had left behind. Grief borne of the realization that there was no going back to the comfortable and familiar. Grief for all that was left behind them even with the promise of God shining before them. We know that feeling, too, don’t we? When the initial excitement of something new or something different wears off and we have to acknowledge that the world as we knew it is forever changed – we cannot help but grieve. It is the worst kind of homesickness when you finally come to grips with the fact that you can’t go back. That’s why people hate change – even a good change — so very much. Change never happens without loss attached.
And what happens to Abram and Sarai establishes a theme that is replayed again and again throughout the Bible. In the Old and New Testament, it’s a familiar pattern. When God calls people in Scripture, they never, ever, ever get to stay where they are. Spiritually. Physically. Geographically. They always have to let go of something. Just like Abram and Sarai. Moses has to give up a cushy job with his father-in-law. The people of Israel have to leave the familiar food and routine of Egypt and subsist on manna while wandering in the wilderness. Jonah has to give up his visceral hatred of people from Nineveh and go to a place he despises. The disciples give up everything to follow Jesus and they do it before they have anything like a real clue what Jesus is about. Even Saul has to undergo a radical renovation of his heart and soul, and receive a brand new name, before he can begin the difficult work of blessing the new Christian communities. It happens throughout the entire Bible. In order to respond to God’s call, you have to give up something, and it’s usually something that you’d really prefer to keep, thank you very much. There’s no way around it. In fact, throughout Scripture, God does God’s best work with people who have become a little unglued and a whole lot disoriented. That’s small comfort, I know, when you are the one who is being undone, but there it is.
So they didn’t know where they were going, and they mourned what they were leaving, but God couldn’t have been more clear about WHY Abram and Sarai were making the journey. To be a blessing. God was ready to create a family of faith whose sole purpose is to bless others. And several millennia later, that is why we are here. That is what we are called to DO. To be a blessing to the whole world and even to the North Boros of Pittsburgh.
Now you may not have the lofty ambition of becoming a great nation or have your picture on the front page of every newspaper, but I don’t think you would be here this morning if you didn’t want to be a blessing in some small way. That’s why we’ve been in conversation for the past six weeks in our New Beginnings meetings. The question before us is not how we can save our church. The question before us is not how to get new members or get more dollars. The question before us is not how we can become a bigger church or a more famous church or even a better church. The question with which we are wrestling is – how can we, the sons and daughters of Abraham, be a blessing to our community, our city, our world?
Do you want to be a blessing?
Well, first of all, you’re going to need to let go of stuff that is important to you. Like pretty much everything that you think defines you, whatever it may be – family, home, material comforts, money. You don’t have to give everything away or move to another city. But you do need to loosen your grip on what makes you comfortable. And none of those things can matter so much to you that you choose what is familiar versus what is God. Jesus knew this very well when he says, “Those who hold on to their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.” He wasn’t kidding. And God wasn’t kidding around with Abram when God told him and Sarai to get moving.
Do you want to be a blessing?
If you do, you’re going to have to trust that even when you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going, it’s not the end of the world or even the end of you. You’re going to have to learn to walk by faith with your eyes closed. Even if you peek, it probably won’t help much. As Abram will tell you, dealing with YHWH means dealing with some ambiguity and confusion. Maybe a lot of ambiguity and confusion.
You’re also going to have get over the idea that you have nothing to offer because you’re too old to change or too frightened. You may not receive the miracle of giving birth in your 80’s – and personally, I’m very hopeful that God does not have that sort of surprise in store for me – but when you believe that God can certainly work through anyone and everyone, you’ll be amazed at what God can pull off. Even with little old you. Sarai laughed like a hyena when God promised her a baby. Don’t laugh at God. Maybe laugh with God, but never at God.
Do you want to be a blessing?
Every once in a while, you’re going to have to stop moving and hunker down in one place. Not to give up on the journey, but to rest. And wait. And pray. And listen for God. And wait some more. While you’re waiting, you may want to build yourself some kind of altar to remind you of how far you’ve come and how far you need to go. Church buildings are a kind of altar, I think, but they are not the only kind. But don’t get too attached to any particular holy site, because the odds are good that you’ll have to leave that alter behind when the next stage of the journey begins.
Do you want to be a blessing?
Here’s a really hard fact of the matter. You’re going to have to accept that the journey isn’t about you or what you want or the blessings you need, but about God’s purpose to bless all people. Abraham was not called to be a blessing for only a particular family or a particular country or even for a particular faith. The great nation of Abraham was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
No matter where it is we are going as a church family, we can trust that our mission is as simple as this – we will be blessed if we are a blessing. There’s no roadmap for how to do that. In fact, there isn’t even a road. We make the road by walking it together.
Just a little more than 24 hours after preaching to you last week about heart break, my own heart shattered. My dear friend and mentor, Reverend Jannie Swart died very suddenly on Monday afternoon while playing Frisbee with students on the lawn over at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. You may remember that Jannie preached here at Emsworth a few months ago. I know at least a few of you remember Jannie’s sermon because you quote bits of his sermon back to me every so often. One of the stories he preached about when he was here was how he told the people in the church he served in Oil City that for as long as he was their pastor, nobody would dare to utter the word, “program” in his presence. Many of you have been mindful ever since to avoid that word. Another of you also reminded me recently of another famous Jannie line. That evangelism is nothing more and nothing less than beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. Jannie was more than just quotable. Jannie understood better than anyone I’ve ever met the challenges the church faces in post-Christendom.
I met Jannie shortly after being called here to Emsworth when he led a missional church group of pastors who met monthly up at Camp Crestfield for a year. His teaching, for me, had the effect of shaping my ministry during my early months here at Emsworth. He helped, particularly, in shaping my understanding of church mission as not a committee of the session or a check we send overseas or even the good projects we do in partnership with non-profits and other agencies here in our community. All of those are good and important things to do. But Jannie was convinced that mission is nothing more and nothing less than a movement of God that began with the women running from the tomb to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, and which invites us – all of us – to be swept up in that same movement that is still all around us now. Jannie said that all of us are missionaries in our communities, in our schools, in our work, in every place we spend our time. Jannie believed that our task as Christians is to look for ways in which God is already at work in the world and to get in on that action. The first question is always – where is God in this? And the only way to see God’s movement is to be in relationship with other people, to listen to them, to accept them wherever they are in their journey, to offer hospitality and be hospitable. Then – and only then – can we serve them.
At his funeral on Friday, one person said that, like Nelson Mandela with whom he served and worked for many years in South Africa, Jannie was a “man of uncommon grace.” Which is true. But the most poignant question for us who mourn all that Jannie was for us and all we have lost in his death came from Sheldon Sorge of Pittsburgh Presbytery who said in his eulogy, “How can we go back after Jannie has changed our lives?”
The answer is, we can’t. And when we are tempted to forget what we learned from Jannie that our mission as God’s people is to be in relationship with one another, we will promise to remind one another.
And we can remind one another with this story of Abram and Sarai. Because God didn’t tell them to build a church and hope that people would find their way to them in order to be blessed. God sent them out with nothing but a promise that God would guide them to the places and people so they could be the blessing. It is a promise for us too, as sons and daughters of Abraham. We can be a people of uncommon grace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.