Thoughts on the call of Abraham...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 22, 2012.  They are part of my on-going series re: the essential stories of the Old and New Testament that I am sharing during the summer.  Please join us if you are in town @ 10:30 am.

Have you ever had one of those days when no matter what you did it seemed wrong? Or out of whack? Or just plain weird?  Do you know what I mean? 

·         You try to say something witty and it just comes out stupid…

·         You think you’re doing something useful but it just annoys your loved one…

·         Your attempt at kindness just ticks people off…

·         Or even physical things seem unruly and uncooperative…

When Dianne and I were away on vacation in Canada, one day we went into a David’s Tea Shop – a great specialty store that is always fun to explore – and from top to bottom it seemed like we were jinxed.  I started to look through their travel mugs – really cool things – and before I knew what was happening I was knocking down row upon row of neatly stacked tea cups.  And when Di came to help me, it just got worse. 

Then I spilled a free tea sample down the front of my shirt, got my sunglasses tangled up with my wallet and even the lovely young woman clerk who was helping us wound up spilling a bunch of expensive herbal tea all over the place.  When I went to pay for things, apparently my wallet had become something out of “The Exorcist” with credit cards and cash flying out of it all over the place – onto the floor, the counter and beyond – in a totally bizarre way.  We left the store to walk down the street – and Dianne kicked over one of those A-frame blackboard, vendor signs on the sidewalk.  At dinner the waiter lost our order – apparently it just evaporated – because 45 minutes after being seated, when I asked, “Any clue when we might be served?” the young waiter looked at me like I was crazy and said: “Did you order something? I mean really?”

None of these things was horrible.  I mean, let’s be real:  we could be in Afghanistan, right?  Or in a car accident when we leave worship or who knows what?  And I’m not trying to make a series of my minor hassles into something earth-shattering like the world revolves around me, ok?  And, at the same time, I’m just saying that some days are better than others. 

Mary Chapin-Carpenter sings a song that goes:  Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes it all falls together baby, sometimes you’re just a fool in love – sometimes you’re the Louisville slugger, baby, sometimes you’re the ball, sometimes it all comes together and sometimes you’re gonna lose it all.  Do you know what I mean?

And here’s where the stories of Abraham and Sarah can be instructive because they tell us in a variety of ways that the goal of faithful living ISN’T just about getting it right.  No, the heart of faithful living is facing our failures – and challenges – and moving into and beyond them with the trust that God is truly present with us even when we don’t feel the Lord.  In Hebrews, a sermon sometimes attributed to St. Paul, we read:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

In another translation this becomes:  faith is the turning of dreams into deeds by trusting God’s love beyond all evidence and moving forwardI love that!  Not easy to do, not something that most of us can accomplish over night and certainly not a discipline celebrated or nourished in our throw-away culture.  But this notion of faithful living can make a huge difference in a world beyond our control and lives that are sometimes broken or troubled of just plain weird, yes? 

So this morning I want to review with you three key truths about the story known as the call of Abraham because it just might encourage you to keep moving forward by faith in your life.  Our Jewish forbearers have played with these stories for millennia and learned how to face and embrace incredible adversity from them, too so maybe the time has come for us to do likewise.

You see the story known to us as “the call of Abraham” sets the tone for everything else that follows when it comes to faithful living. That’s why it is crucial that we wrestle with it:  it shapes and forms the Old Testament, it defines the writings of St. Paul and continues to be both a spiritual and literary metaphor throughout world culture.  Even John the Baptist in the time of Jesus makes reference to the call of Abraham.  So please notice that this story includes these three important details:

·       First, the father of what was to become Judaism, Abraham, grew up in Babylonia – modern day Iraq – as a city-dweller from a pagan, idol worshipping family.  He didn’t start out as Jew, but discovered a new way of being faithful over the course of his life. 

·       Second, in time Abraham’s new insights inspired him to leave behind everything he knew – his family, his city, his profession, his religious tradition and his comfort zone – in order to wander in the wilderness and mountains for the rest of his life.  His new faith called him to move in very new directions including dying to his former self.

·       Third, Abraham’s faith was not a private or personal matter:  it had implications for his wife, Sarah, his servants and household members like Hagar and Ishmael and ultimately the whole realm we now think of as the Middle East.  As the Community of Iona likes to say, faithful living does not separate the world into the sacred and the secular, worship and work, prayer and politics.  George MacLeod, Iona founder, said:

This spirituality rests on the conviction that God’s Spirit permeates the whole of life – ‘every blessed thing’ – for in this way of faithful living God is to be encountered and experienced in the busy daily routine of our lives and through our relationships – our pain and sorrow as well as our joy and celebration – and not just in tranquil moments and remote, beautiful places…

So let’s talk together about these details in the life Abraham, ok?  What is his story telling you about what faithful living?  Let’s start with detail number one:  Abraham used his life experiences to help him better understand God’s will. 

·      Think about it:  he didn’t have the scriptures nor did he have an established tradition.  To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, Abraham learned to listen to the wisdom of his life. “I discovered,” Buechner wrote:

That if you keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it… your life will open you up to extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so common place but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not… but all the more fascinatingly because of that… And if I were called up to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say it would be: listen to your life.

·       What does this say to you about a living faith that listens carefully to our lives and how they cause us to change over the years? 

Do you know what they call something that doesn’t change over time?  Dead…

The second detail in the story of Abraham’s calling suggests that to live a faithful life, he had to leave behind everything he once knew and owned:  some might say he had to be born again or that he had to die to self and learn to trust God in a radical way.  Christians speak of the mystery of the Cross in this fashion noting that only when our old lives join the Lord’s in a spiritual death like his are we then set free to join him in a spiritual resurrection as well.

·       So what does this part of the story hold for you?  What have you had to leave behind – or know that you will have to leave behind but haven’t yet – in order to be faithful to God and self? What has had to die in order for the Spirit of God’s life to be reborn in you? 

·      Here’s one thing that has become important for me:  I have had to leave behind the notion that I am in charge.  And I mean in charge of my life – although there are times when I am – but also my leadership in Christ’s church, my marriage, my family and even my body.  I’m not very good at this type of spiritual surrender, mind you, and almost as soon as I pray the Serenity Prayer about letting go and accepting God’s leadership, I am back trying to grab things into my own hands control over everything again.  But, like Abraham, I’ve discovered that letting go – dying to self – is essential for faithful living. Once again Buechner is instructive when we writes:

What I mean is that if we come into a church right, we come to it more fully and nakedly ourselves, come with more of our humanness showing, than we are apt to show in most places.  We come… with muck on our shoes – footsore and travel-strained – with the dust of our lives upon us, our failures, our deceits, our hypocrisies… and we come knowing we are strangers in exile… for wherever it is that we truly belong, whatever it is that is truly home for us, we know in our hearts that we have somehow lost it and gotten lost. Something is missing from our lives that we cannot even name – something we know best from the empty place inside us all where it belongs.  So we come here to find what we have lost.

What are you thinking?  How do these words in relationship to Abraham’s experience speak to your notion of living faithfully?  What does it mean for you to embrace God’s call to leave everything behind and die to self?

Just one more detail, the third realization of this story, which says that your faith – my faith – our faith always carries with it implications that reverberate throughout creation.  We truly are not islands unto ourselves – private citizens in some cosmic marketplace on a shopping binge – where we can do whatever we choose whenever we want.  No, we are women and men and children whose lives touch one another – and make a difference for good or evil, too – so we best acknowledge this truth and handle it with a measure of responsibility, yes?

·       Do you know the story of Abraham’s wife Sarah?  What implications did Abraham’s faith have for her life? 

·       What about Hagar and Ishmael – do you know their stories – and what Abe’s faith meant for them? 

·       Now think of your own life, how has your faith mattered?   Are you conscious of the way it touches the lives of others?  Who are they and why is this something sacred?

One of the most important pastoral theologians in my later life is M. Craig Barnes.  He is the Professor of Leadership and Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who simultaneously directs their doctoral depart while serving as the Senior Pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church.  He is neither an ivory tower academic with no experience in the local church nor a burnt out old clergyman waiting for retirement.  He is a faithful pilgrim seeking to share his experience and wisdom with other clergy who want to help their congregations live more faithfully and authentically. In his book, The Pastor as Minor Poet, he makes reference to the gospel passage about John the Baptist that we heard earlier. 

You may recall that John had sensed a call to ministry NOT as a priest in the temple of Jerusalem – that is where his tribe and training told him he was to serve – but instead he, like Abraham, had to head out into the wilderness.  And after his own wandering and searching, John started to baptize people – lots of people – in the Jordan River.  It was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  It was a ritual act of cleansing.

·       But John wasn’t happy with most of the people who came to him – he thought they were phonies – who were more concerned about appearances and putting on a good show than actually changing their lives. 

·       So he challenged and chastised the crowds saying:  Look, your play-acting does not make you faithful like Abraham. 

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Barnes goes on to make this pastoral observation that I want you to listen to carefully:

The Baptizer was frustrated with the crowd who came to be baptized but did not repent or change their way of life.  But as every pastor who carefully watches his or her parishioners knows, it isn’t that people don’t want to make changes to live righteously (that is with integrity and compassion.) They are simply too addicted to the sin that separates them from God. So the crowds in our church often do exactly what the crowd at the Jordan did. They come to worship, pray the printed confession of sin (in the bulletin) and hope that this liturgical act will wash away their sins. 

He goes on to say that most of us have other programs for self-help and improvement in our lives, too like trying a new diet, yoga, cutting down on our drinking or finding a person who will love us in just the right ways:  then things will be better.  But the truth is none of these things bring salvation; they don’t bring us happiness nor do they heal our wounds.  For here’s the thing:

·      John the Baptist believed that when the Lamb of God finally arrived, the One who could take away the sins of the world, he would do so with an ax and fire and a whole lot of judgment. That’s exactly what he tells the crowd, right? 

·      But listen to the pastoral wisdom Craig Barnes has discerned after almost 40 years of living ministry:  There is no salvation in such judgment.  Salvation only comes through a loving Savior who finds us and takes upon himself our lost condition.  As our poetry claims:  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the pure compassion of the Lord.” (II Corinthians 5: 21)

Abraham is a model for faithful living.  He shows us how to listen to our own lives and mature.  He insists that everyone has something that must die and be changed in a radically upside down way.  And he is clear that when we live deeply by faith, we touch and change the lives of others. 

“Churches,” brother Barnes tells us, “are filled with people who try to find their worth by making themselves necessary when… what they really yearn for is to be cherished.  (Well here’s the truth: no one finds self-esteem by being necessary. It comes only through being loved.”

God’s grace, beloved, is abundant – never-ending – and always with us whether we feel it or not.  Some days are better than others, but God’s love is forever - just ask Abraham.


Black Pete said…
Sometimes you get the bear. Sometimes the bear gets you.

I use this one a lot...
RJ said…
I like it...

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