“Courage for the Journey”

                                                                   June 19, 2011


Genesis 12:1-9

Romans 4:1-8, 16-17


Next Sunday our church will join with other congregations across the country—many of them part of the United Church of Christ—in an event sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance called “Faith Shared.” This event has the dual purpose. It will celebrate the “Abrahamic faiths”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it will lift up the importance of interfaith understanding and cooperation at a time when such understanding and cooperation are ridiculed and maligned and Muslims in particular are disparaged and threatened.

Over the course of the summer, my sermons will draw heavily from the book of Genesis, and it is a bit of serendipity that this morning’s Old Testament lesson was the story of the call of Abraham.

In his best-seller book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, (available in our church library), Bruce Feiler, says that “God’s words at the beginning of Genesis 12 are among the most arresting in the Hebrew Bible, a transforming fracture in the history of humankind. All of Abraham’s children, whatever their orientation [–Jewish, Christian, Muslim—], agree on one thing: God speaks not just to Abraham with these words, God speaks to every person.”[i]

We are at the beginning of something monumental here—even the beginning of all of Western history.

And God is still speaking today to the children of Abraham, calling us into new relationships with each other, calling us to new depths of understanding and cooperation. God speaks to the children of Abraham even at a time when relationships are often strained or broken.

Now, let’s be honest. As is often the case, what might be considered dangerous or radical, unorthodox or heretical someplace else is not here. It’s easy to stand up before a United Church of Christ congregation in Iowa City and speak about the need for interfaith cooperation. We are, after all, members of the Consultation of Religious Congregations, the organization of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations in this area that for years has facilitated people of different faiths talking together and working together.

This is Iowa City. This past week in New Hampshire, however, several people seeking to be President of the United States spoke with suspicion and a general lack of understanding about Islam—one candidate even compared Muslims to Nazis and Communists. Anti-Muslim speech and actions continue across the nation. There’s still enough anti-Semitism to go around as well.

And late last week I discovered that an organization called “Rapture Forum” has listed us on their “Apostasy in Churches” web page because our participation in the Faith Shared event.

So, if not in this particular space, at least in the public square it does require a degree of courage for us to be a voice and a force for positive interfaith relations, maybe even here in Iowa City.

And it’s not just the need for productive interfaith relations that calls for our courage.

In an age when change comes rapidly and is often thrust upon us, where will we find the courage needed to live successfully?

In desperate times when change is demanded of us, where will we find the courage needed to enter a future that is always unknown?

This morning we heard the beginning of the story of Abraham and Sarah—two people who, in spite of age, in spite of circumstance, found the courage that their call required.

Their story is thousands of years old.

            It has been told countless times.

                        And yet it still speaks to our lives if we will listen.

Scenes from their story have been painted and drawn by numerous artists.

And if we look closely, we will see something of ourselves and perhaps understand our own lives in new ways.

Look at Abraham and Sarah. God calls the most unlikely people.

In Ur of the Chaldees, five days down the river from Babylon, Terah and his family catch the attention of God. It’s not much of a family, really. One of Terah’s sons is dead. Another, Abraham, is married to Sarah; and Genesis describes her this way: "Now Sarah was barren; she had no child."

Terah takes his family toward the land of Canaan. But when they reach the city of Haran, as Genesis puts it, they settle there.

Abraham settles in Haran.

            He settles for life as he knows it.

                        He settles for what comes to him.

It isn’t much of a life, really. While ages in the Bible might not reflect our modern way of counting the years, Abraham, we are told, is 75. Sarah, his wife, is ten years younger. They have no children. They are, even at this age, still living with Abraham’s father.

This family, as one person put it, has “played itself out.”

Sarah is barren, and that barrenness is a metaphor for hopelessness. This family has no future, no place to go.[ii] They have settled.

That’s always the temptation, isn’t it? To “settle.”

We’re tempted to settle in our twenties, thirties, forties.

Congregations were tempted to settle in the 1980’s, the 1990’s, the past decade.

When we decide that more of the same will be all that we will ask of life;

When we decide that life as we know it is all that we will want or ask of life;

We have settled.

If barrenness is a metaphor for hopelessness, barrenness is also the arena of God’s action. Remember how Paul put it in his letter to the Romans? “God gives life to the dead and calls into existence those things that do not exist.”

Those who are hopeless;

            those who are without a future;

                        those who are afraid;

                                    really, people like you and me at some point;

these are the people whom God calls.

We are the people whom God seeks out.

Look at us—as individuals, as a congregation. Look at Abraham and Sarah settled in Haran.

God calls the most unlikely people.

Listen. God speaks a word into our settled lives. “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go . . .’”

Something—or Someone—unsettles Abraham, troubling the waters of his life.

Something convinces him.

Something convinces him that even now the future holds more promise than the past or the present. Someone convinces him that something great could come out of the nothing that his life has been.

Abraham finds courage.

Or maybe we could say that courage finds Abraham.

What does the voice of God sound like?

It might be the voice that we hear in our deepest discontent, when we are least satisfied with life as it is, when the pain of the present is finally too much.

Sometimes that voice speaks to a whole community, an entire people.

This spring it seemed as though that voice was speaking/calling throughout the Middle East. Egyptians, Yemenis, Libyans, Syrians in discontent and dissatisfaction rose up to demand change. They found—and they continue to find—and incredible courage in the face of bullets, bombs, beatings, and torture.

The voice of God speaks to the human heart, reminding us that imprisoned bodies and spirits are not God's plan for human life. The human aspiration for freedom spurred on by the voice of God saying this is not as it should be. “Go.”

Sometimes that voice speaks to individuals.

The voice of God whispers that there is something more beyond what we have and what we are.

Have you ever had the nagging feeling that your life is not as it should be, not as you want it to be?

Retirement comes and you ask: “Now what?”

            You finish school and wonder what comes next.

Or you wake up in the middle of the night asking, in the words of the old Talking Heads song: ‘Well, how did I get here?”

Listen carefully to the voice that speaks in your discontent—it may be the voice of God.

And sometimes, sometimes by the grace of God, that voice speaks to a congregation.

Listen carefully. It is possible that you are hearing the voice of God in your dissatisfaction.

Yes, it is a voice that calls for a response, a voice that urges change.

To Abraham and Sarah the voice of God says “Go.”

Don't settle.

Don't think life is over yet.

Don't accept the cards you have been dealt.

Listen. Into our hopelessness, God speaks a word that leads to courage.

The word that God speaks invites us into the future.

A lot of people don’t like talk about the future. They know that as soon as we start talking about “the future” we are talking about the unknown, the uncertain. Tennessee Williams said: “The future is called ‘perhaps’ which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the important thing is not to let that scare you.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it? The future scares so many people. Some people think that a future in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews work together even with our differences is a scary future.

Receiving the promise of the future entails leaving behind the certainty of the present. Abraham and Sarah are asked to leave their country, their clan, and their family. Because we have a finite amount of time and energy, taking on new projects always involves giving up some old ones.

A promise carries with it the sense of “maybe.” What is promised “may be”—but when, where, and how?

Abraham hears that God will make of him a great nation—a great nation of childless Abraham and barren Sarah. They believe the promise, and their belief is the only guarantee they have.

In our own time we watched as South Africans met with resistance, violence, and death in their struggle against apartheid. But they believed the promise. When and where and how the promise would be fulfilled was not as important as moving toward the vision of life with dignity and equality.

The witness is that the promise of God can be trusted.

And we trust by faith. Faith is not certainty, but the willingness to take a chance on the vision that you have.

Abraham and Sarah, yes.

            But also you and I.

                        We are all invited into the future.

Now lift up your eyes and look! There go Abraham and Sarah.

They settled in Haran, a name that means crossroads. At a crucial crossing point they make the decision to hear the unsettling word of God and go.

In the eternal human/divine dialogue, our response is as important as God's word. Abraham’s midlife crisis is a familiar phenomenon, but his response to it is not. Most of us gripe about our lives and fantasize about making a radical change. But how many among us actually heed our soul's call to “go forth.” . . .Abraham and Sarah demonstrate the power of faith to overcome cynicism, despair, and defeatism at any age.[iii]

“So Abraham went. . .” is how Genesis puts it.

Went trusting in the promise of God.

            Went hoping for the blessing of God.

                        Went with nothing more certain than faith.

“So Abraham went . . .” Those three words describe the action that set the course of Western history. Abraham went and began to lay the foundation for Judaism and, later Christianity and Islam. Abraham went, and that made all the difference.

Abraham and Sarah take with them all their possessions and set out for a new land. The fear that they must have had will never completely vanish. But along with the fear, they have the promise that calls forth courage. Along with the fear, they have the vision of a great nation, the hope of a blessing that will be their strength.

What might it mean for us to respond to the call of God today?

We will, each of us, set out in different directions, following our own vision for life. And we will, all of us together as a congregation, find a common direction, a common vision to pursue.

What we call "mission" is the pursuit of a vision of the realm of God: feeding the hungry, sheltering those without homes, welcoming refugees, creating cooperation across racial lines, developing a society that brings forth acts of peace, compassion, and mercy—sharing and showing the love of God.

The life of faith is a journey.

There go Abraham and Sarah. They “journey on by stages.” Now and again they stop on their way to the land of promise to worship the God that speaks in discontent, the God whose words are as much challenge as they are comfort, the God who can be trusted to bring life out of death, calling new things into being.

From Abraham and Sarah, we have learned that the journey characterizes the life of faith. Jesus indicated that our Christian discipleship would be a journey when he said to men and women: “Follow me.”

Sure it's scary at times. The future is always unknown. Change is always difficult and demands courage. When we follow in faith, the necessary courage develops within us.

Lift up your eyes and look. There go Abraham and Sarah. And the whole long line of the fearful faithful.

And—you see it, don't you?—with the vision of God's new life ahead of us, we're following right along.

[i] Bruce Feiler, Abraham, pg. 38.

[ii] Walter Brueggeman, Genesis, Interpretation Commentary

[iii] Naomi Rosenblatt, Wrestling with Angels, pg. 105.