May 7, 2017

Church of Peace, UCC

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 12:1-9 (Choir Exchange Sunday)


Journeying By Stages


This is how it begins: The LORD speaks to Abram and says,“You have to get out.”


You’ll notice, the LORD our God does not tell Abram where to go; the destination is To Be Determined. “First, get up. Leave your country and your family,” is what God says to this seventy-five-year-old. Again and again, throughout the whole history of our faith, the stories begin with God issuing an order of eviction. Get out of this holy garden. Get out of your homeland and don’t look back. Get out of this Pentecost house filled with the fire of the Spirit. The stories begin with the same demand: Get up and leave.


These days, people all over the world are leaving their homes in order to live. In Afghanistan. In Syria. In Nigeria. In the Philippines. We are becoming a world of refugees, which means most of our sisters and brothers know what it is to live between these two truths. One: We cannot stay in our homeland. Two: We don’t know where we’ll end up.


It is also the case that this call to get up and go to God Knows Where could come to any of us. It is has probably happened to you, and if it hasn’t, it probably will. Sooner or later we all learn what it is to leave our homes before we are ready. Even if you have lived here your whole life. Even if you go to a church named for the Two Rivers of this community. Even if you go to a church that stayed at the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth when it could have been easier to leave.


Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you could be forced out.


If you learn this once, then you know it forever. So we don’t need our faith to teach us this; life will do that on its own. We need a faith that will teach us what to do next.




Today our story begins when the LORD speaks to Abram and says “You have to get out. Go from your country and your family to the land that I will show you. There I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you, and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you, I will curse, and by you, all the families of the earth shall bless.” This is the promise of God.


It’s what happens next that mystifies me. Two things, really. Abram does two things when the LORD makes him get out, and neither of them are to protest. What kind of call story is this?! Come on, when God calls on the prophets to speak, there’s usually some sensible resistance. Don’t you think I’m too young? asks Jeremiah. How can I be pregnant? asks Mary. I gotta tell you, I appreciate this concern. I know the prayer that goes, “You are God and I am not. But are you sure about this?” This is a good prayer. And it is not Abram’s prayer.


When God calls Abram, the first thing Abram does is gather up his family, their possessions, their slaves, and they leave. According to verse four, “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.” So matter-of-fact. So gutsy, and obedient, and indisputable. God said “Go” and Abram went.


They journey through the land of Canaan, and there are Canaanites already living there. But the LORD appears to Abram and promises to give the land to his descendants, and if this makes you suspicious of this storyteller’s agenda, me too. How would the Canaanite version of this story would go? Would they portray Abram as a settler appointed by God or as a conquerer who forces them out? It’s a problem.[1]


In our story, Abram does two things. First, when the LORD says “Go” he does. He begins this journey without knowing where it might end. But the second thing Abram does is he keeps stopping along the way to worship God. When the LORD “gives” him the land, Abram stops and builds an altar because look, we are standing on holy ground. Then he moves on to the hill country, and there he builds an altar to worship God. Then they journey on by stages toward the Negeb.


The novelist E.L. Doctorow once said this about writing, but I think you could say the same thing about faith. He said, “Writing [or faith] is like driving a car at night. You can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It’s like journeying by stages: keep going into the dark, keep seeing the light that’s in front of you.


Notice how Abram’s faith holds together the bothness of two parts: Traveling and stopping to worship. Obeying a command and imagining a promise come to life. Heading out into the unknown, no complaints, and considering the possibility that we could find our way. Imagine where we could live!




So you can understand why this story of Abram gets told in order to encourage us in our faith. I’m sure you have heard the instructions before: Believe even when you cannot see. Obey even when you’re not sure where God is going with us. Believe, and trust, and obey. The writer of the New Testament Book of Hebrews says,“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This is the faith of Abram that allows him to go when God says “Get out.”


But what if our faith is more than this? More than the obedience to follow… More than the assurance that things might work out… Our faith is nourished by the strange and sparkling decision to stop and see, this is holy ground. More than believing that things might work out, what if our faith makes us see the possibility that things could be magnificent? God is still imagining.


I think this might be what Abram is up to when he build the altar then builds another one. It’s as though these altars are sites of conspiring with God. “Conspiring” literally means breathing together, bringing our imagination into harmony with the imagination of God, sharing the same hope. Stop and build an altar today even though tomorrow, who knows where we’ll sleep?


My grandma was an artist. She was also married to a minister, with roots as a Methodist before becoming UCC. This meant they moved a lot. If I had her life, I think I would never get all the way unpacked. Can’t we just live out of boxes? You know we’ll be moving again next year. “Why even bother decorating?” is something any reasonable person might say. But not my grandma. She cared about curtains and table cloths. And if I remember the legend correctly, in one of the parsonages they lived in, she painted a mural of the town on the walls. (Of a parsonage!) Who does this?


That’s like building a sand castle too close to the shore; you know the tide’s going to come in and knock it down in a few hours. That’s like building an altar here before the next stage of the journey. It’s like setting out a banquet table in the middle of the wilderness. Who does this? We do.


It is not too late for us to be made to leave, called to get up and go God Knows Where. This is exactly what our faith is made for. We have the faith to trust and obey, and put on our shoes and follow, because nobody gets to stay here forever.

But our faith is more than this too. Now in this moment, we can stop and imagine what is possible. Behold the shimmering creativity of the Spirit. Let our dream join up with the dreaming of God. Let our songs of praise join in the singing of God. See right now, we’re on holy ground. Amen.

[1] I am grateful to Amy Allen for raising these questions.

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