As you might imagine, my mind is focused upon our upcoming pilgrimage. Thirty of us will depart this Friday to the land of our Christian roots: Turkey and Greece. I like to believe that each pilgrim is responding to some sort of a call from God– to see, to listen, to learn, to be transformed in some way. Who knows what experience(s) God has in store for us? Who knows what relationships will be made while we are sojourners?
Pilgrimage certainly opens one up to unforeseen blessings. For example, when the FHC group went to the Holy Land in 2009, we worshiped at the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and met many Christian brothers and sisters. Since that meeting, our church has become a supporting congregation to their vital ministry called Bright Stars of Bethlehem whose work gives hope to a despairing young Palestinians living within the confinement of a 40-foot wall surrounding their city.
Now we did not head to Palestine with the intention of carrying home those people in our hearts. We could not have anticipated how blessed we’d be by their Christian witness. We could not have imagined then that they too would be blessed by our support. But God is a God of surprises. God calls us to risk, to get moving, to step out in trust, and to see where that risk will lead us.
That truth could not have been more true for anyone than it was for Abraham, the one who would become Father to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The beginning of God’s covenant – God’s New Deal – with humanity starts right here in Genesis 12 with Father Abraham. This is where God gets really personal. God initiates a surprising relationship with the cosmos through a particular family, through this particular man, Abram. God chooses Abram and his posterity for a relationship that will not end. Many scholars say Genesis 12:1-9 is the pivotal text, or fulcrum, in the Hebrew Scriptures because of the dramatic transition that takes place.
Why was this new relationship with a chosen people needed? The first 11 chapters of Genesis showed us a compassionate God who created all things good. God worked at relationship with a people who would not listen nor cooperate. We leave chapter 11 at the Tower of Babel – people confused and in chaos, unable to listen to God or to one another. If we stopped reading at there, we would end the story believing there was no hope for the future of humankind. But that was not the last word.
Without much fanfare, God breaks into the narrative with a new word, by saying to this 75-year-old man, “GO! Get going! Leave!” The Hebrew word for this is “Lekh Lekha, and it is an imperative.
“Abram, Go! from the land of your birth, from your people, from your own home, to a new land I will show you. Leave! For I have made a new plan that includes the blessing of all humankind. And this plan will come through a new people I am birthing: Israel. You and Sarah will be the father and mother of all people.”
I bet Abram and his family were surprised that he was the one chosen. God’s choices of servants never seem to rely on human potentiality. God takes risks on us. God even risked being changed by entering into a covenantal relationship with humanity, which frankly had been very disappointing thus far.
First, there were Adam and Eve. Did they ultimately obey? Not so much. Naked and ashamed was how they left paradise.
Then there were Cain and Abel. That sibling rivalry ended in murder and mayhem.
God tried with Noah. Was Noah faithful? We-e-ll, sort of – as long as we don’t dwell on the crazy story of Noah’s drunkenness and sexual impropriety with his daughters after the ark landed on dry ground.
And finally, in chapter 11, the people of the earth became hell bent on building the Tower of power.
So God put down his chips on Abram hoping that maybe this one would listen and obey.
Out of a life of security – a nice home, good friends and family, the economic stability of a wealthy region – Abram and Sarai were called. Out into the absolute unknown – not sure where they were heading or for how long. Abram could not have known that he was embarking on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Abram gathered up all his worldly goods, and headed out toward the wilderness. He began his pilgrimage, his faith journey, like we all do: by taking the first step, and in our hearts knowing that it would not be easy.
Abram’s kinfolk must have thought he was crazy.
We hear stories of people who, against everyone else’s better judgment, have headed out beyond their secure lives, out of their comfort zones, risking their reputations and savings accounts. Biographies of most saints and spiritual leaders tell the story of him or her hearing an undeniable call deeper than they could rationally explain: the Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, St. Frances, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Mother Teresa, and Ghandi – just to name the biggies. They all had encounters with the Divine voice calling them to risk it all and “Go!”
Once one hears that voice, there is no going back. God’s call will be an irritant, like a pebble in your shoe. Our deepest longing as a child of God is to live a life of meaning. Therefore, God’s call is to LIFE ( L-I-F-E) – to blessing, to wholeness, to healing, to be a blessing to others.
For one man I know, the call to Go was to leave the job that was squeezing the life out of him. He knew that if he did not finally risk the security of his paycheck, his joy for life would ultimately drain away.
For one friend, the call to Go was to leave a relationship. A relationship she knew was reducing her to fear. But she had become more afraid of being alone than of staying with a person who was unable to love her as she deserved.
For another young woman, the call to Go meant that she would not “cash in” on her Ivy League education. That pedigree could have guaranteed her social status in the world’s eyes. But her deepest call she knew was to serve the poor. She gave up the prestigious route of securing for herself “the good life” for the not-so-glamorous vocation of serving people who lived homeless.
There’s a wonderful poem I heard just yesterday by German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s as if it was written with Abraham in mind.
“Go to the Limits of Your Longing” (transl by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
-Rilke’s Book of Hours, I, 59
At some poin,t we must put forth one foot and follow that voice. As Pastor John has said before, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is fear.” Faith is risk. It’s crazy talk to most people to witness someone walk away from “security” into the country Rilke calls serious LIFE. Faith is traveling with God into the night–not certain where God will lead, but knowing that we will not walk alone.
At a bleak but pivotal moment in Israel’s history, God intervened with a new way. God continues to call us to new horizons, to new lands, to new possibilities for hope.
This portion of the text ends by telling us that Abram journeyed on by stages.
Whatever stage of your faith journey you are currently in, I tell you, it is sufficient for God to use you. Are you in the infancy stage in your faith? Or maybe the rebellious adolescent? Perhaps you’ve been at this faith enterprise for years, but today you find yourself in a stage of dryness in need of new life.
We aren’t called to have arrived at the “promised land,” but to stay on the journey. God says if you start along the path, people will be blessed by your faith – even if you think or feel the amount of faith you have amounts to a hill of beans.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. says Rilke
Stay engaged. Accept the faith you have right now, and be open to what might be.
God knows you – who you are, who you can be, what you can do with the amount of faith you have. (I can name at least 12 people in this congregation who embraced their calls to facilitate one of the Kerygma bible studies – with fear and trembling. And their response to that call became a blessing to others.)
Henri Nouwen wrote: “Each of has a unique mission – not to save the world, solve all problems, or help all people. But to respond to our unique call – in our families, our work, our churches, and our world around us.”
So, pack up your stuff, or better yet, leave behind your baggage – whatever you need to do. I suspect that you know what that is.
Go, get going.