I don’t want to go…

A sermon from when God drops into the life of one man and calls forth a movement people, based on the Narrative Lectionary Year 1.

Genesis 12: 1-9

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. ~Lao Tzu

Here are some questions I have about this story:

How did Abram even hear God?

How did he know it was this God? His God? We’ve come to call our God the God of Abraham… the God of the ancient Israelites but that story has yet to be told… How did Abram know God’s voice?

How do we know God’s voice?? How do we discern when it really really God calling us out?

And how would you respond to a call like Abram’s?

I’m going to tell you the truth. This week. This moment. After the sting of the flood story still fresh in my memory, with nothing more to go on than an ambiguous blessing… If I were Abraham I’d say no.

If I were Abraham, I’d say: I don’t want to go. 


Think about all that Abraham has to lose… according to chapter 11 of Genesis his family had lived for hundreds of years in the land of Ur of Chaldean and then moved in his adulthood to Haran where they have just build a life together. He and Sarah and their siblings and his family and her family, they had land and livelihood, livestock and belongings… in other words… some amount of stability.

There are other stories of a call to action, for a people to migrate that make sense to me later in our biblical story… when we come to the exodus story – for sure – those folks are going to want to escape the tyranny of Egypt… and later when the Israelites find themselves under siege they have no choice but to move into exile… but this. This is the beginning of the story – this feels like the defining moment of being asked to be a moving people – a people who God will never stop calling to move, to transform, to change direction and to change the world, this is the moment God makes a promise that will take generations to unfold, a promise that still hasn’t come completely to fruition. It’s a mighty calling requiring so much of them… so much of us…

I think I might say: I don’t want to go.

How many of you know something about Dr. Who?

At the crux of this story that spans generations there is a constant character called the Doctor…  similar to our biblical heroes, this character’s age and how time passes in his story is unclear, but the story goes that he is an ancient character that has moved forward and backwards in time for something like 1000 years… I love a lot of things about this story… it’s a great adventure and I love the way it delves into the concept of time and history, what’s written in stone and how the story can be changed with the simplest encounter… but the piece I love the most is the transformation the Doctor goes through every few hundred years…

This is a TV show that has spanned years and if you were cynical you might write these transitions off as a clever way to change up actors and still keep a storyline intact but these transformations are written into the story as a heartbreaking necessity… there comes a time the world requires that the Doctor take on a new form, a new identity, even a new personality… his memories remain somewhat intact but he goes through a process of transformation… of regeneration… that requires him to let go a great many things go so he can live into the future…

This clip is of the Dr.… right before he is transformed (regenerated), and he knows he must go, and he knows he will still be, but he also knows that things will never be the same… I don’t want to go… 

It’s such a natural response when we face a great change isn’t it?

Can you think of the times you’ve encountered great change?

When you’ve made a move or changed professions?

Become a parent or partner?

When you’ve said yes even though you felt unqualified and unprepared?

When you’ve had to move forward into an unknown future?

What gave you courage to move forward? Why did you say yes?

Sometimes we go because we’re naïve – we go because we hear this story, we hear this promise:

I will make of you a great nation (tribe, family, community)

I will bless you.

I will make your name respected…

You will be a blessing.

We move forward because we believe in the blessing and want to be a blessing… and we trust a story that isn’t yet written and we have no idea that it’s going to be much harder and heartbreaking than we can imagine…

When I got to the end of my three years in seminary I sat with a panel of professors, my advisor and a couple of other Profs. I had invited… and one of them asked me towards the end of our lovely conversation, almost in passing, “was there anything I would have done differently?” and without thinking twice I said, “yeah, I wouldn’t have come.”

Don’t get me wrong… I loved seminary, I loved the way it stretched and challenged me, I loved the community that we created there, I loved the way my faith was deepened and my identity was shaped in what was really such a short but intense time… but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that if you had sat down my naïve and hopeful twenty-something, small town Iowa self and said:

“The next three years will be harder than you can imagine. You will be confronted by all the ways in which you fall short, you will have to face your own inner demons and make peace with the broken parts of yourself if you have any hope of loving others in a whole and pastoral way… your sense of call, your faith and the gifts that you think you’re bringing to ministry will feel inadequate in the face of the overwhelming loss and the deep needs you will actually encounter… your theological notions, all your ideas about who God is and how God works in the world will be deconstructed and put to the test and then in the midst of practicing ministry you will be invited to reconstruct something from the rubble, you will struggle to find your voice and hold on to it, your family will be stretched and your marriage will end… you will have to confront some things and let go of some things and you will rediscover who you are again and again.”

I told them, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have said, no, I don’t want to go…”

Isn’t that the true story of all the hardest and best parts of our lives? That had we known how hard the work — the job of parenting, of adult care-giving, of loving someone besides ourselves, even truly loving ourselves would be – if we knew up front what it would require us to give and give up we would never agree to take even the first step into the great unknown… and that’s crux of it… later on, after Abraham has already begun the journey, God tells Abraham, it’s going to be a struggle… its going to be a long, long journey, a journey that included bondage and exile, wilderness and famine… “days will come that I couldn’t feel farther away.”

I don’t know about you but there are days in which God truly does feel far away. We continue to fight with one another, in our churches and in the world… we’re still, thousands of years after this story is told and recorded, we are still arguing over who this blessing… this blessing we are reading and preaching and praying about this morning, belongs to. And it’s not just this blessing we fight over, the religious community is as polarized as the politics in this country. I read article after article about how the church is dying, how we don’t know how or simply don’t want to be relevant, how folks are continuously wounded and rejected… it’s a terrible story and I’m so tired of this story… of this life-sucking narrative… but in many ways it’s an easier story to tell than the great-unknown story staring at us from the future…

After Abraham agrees to follow God’s instructions, after he has already made his way south towards the land of Canaan God take Abraham outside and says,

“Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to Abram, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham trusted God; and God recognized Abram’s righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6)

There are billions of stars, in our galaxy alone, and the ones we look up and see are light years away – some of them already dead and others just being born… what an amazing ancient analogy for our contemporary eyes… there is more to life, there is more living and dying and more hope and struggle, there is more time and space and creation than we can possibly see… and the only thing to do is stand in wonder… to be amazed.

Recently I was painting at a conference in Atlanta and Brian McLaren was talking to mostly progressive mainline folks (like myself) about some of things that we must let go of if we are going to live into the future God is calling the church… if we are not only to survive but to be a life-giving movement of God’s love in the world… I can’t remember everything he listed that would help get us moving but at one point he said, “we have to give up our cynicism.” And man, I almost dropped my paint stick… give up cynicism?! Dude, I love cynicism … I am at home in my cynicism… I am comfortable in my progressive, self-righteous cynicism… to tell you the truth, I’ve been cynical about Brian McLaren… it was like being doubly convicted!

And yet, Immediately, I knew he was right… If I am going to live a life of faith, if I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and believe God is calling us into a transforming future then I’m going to have to lay down my cynicism and put my wide-eyed wonder on and trust God.

Can we trust God with this infinite human story that doesn’t end with us? Can you? What must you leave behind in order to move on? What will you say in answer to God’s call? Will you stay or will you go?doctor

(562)

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Making promises…

Our biblical story for this week is Genesis 12:1-9. The epic Genesis story of God suddenly drops into the day to day reality of one man’s life. God chooses Abraham, and never really tells us why. God chooses Abraham and “invites” him on a great journey. There are times I’m up for a grand adventure, but in this story, if I were Abraham, I’m not so sure I would go.

Why in the world would I pack up my comfortable life on the word of a God I don’t know and have never met and wander the land for the rest of my life on the promise of a future I can’t possibly conceive of? 

It’s so hard to go, it’s so hard to move forward, to say yes to an unknown future and an unknown God. Would you stay or would you go? We will wrestle with your answers in worship and as our fall season of covenants and promises continues to unfold.

We Tell the Truth About Ourselves                                                                                  (At Friendship this is how we describe our time of Confession.)

Loving God, you have called us as your people,

but we don’t always want to be your pilgrim people,

called to be on the move,

from simple to complicated,

from safety to insecurity,

from comfortable to strange,

from what we know, to what we will never fully understand.

We don’t want to face where we fall short,

We don’t want to name the places,

we’ve dug in our heels and refused to be moved.

We don’t want to know the ways,

we keep the world from becoming safe and just for all of your children.

The journey from the homes we’ve made for ourselves

to a new home in you is not a journey we can make alone,

we need to know you are with us on the winding road, O God.

 

(540)

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From Preservation to Promise

A sermon from the bookends of the flood story, based on the Narrative Lectionary Year 1.  Genesis 6:16-22 & Genesis 9:8-15

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. ~W. Edwards Deming

The book of Genesis is our story of beginnings… not simply one beginning but many beginnings… the opening words of Genesis are often read as “in the beginning” but really, the Hebrew says, in a beginning… and then those chapters that unfold offer us not one but two creation stories… two beautiful songs that tell a story of beginnings… they are lush and epic stories about God bringing order over the deep and unknown, about primordial waters, air and planets being shaped into a life-giving biosphere of beauty…

We might read our story today, this story as flood and promise, as another creation story, or a new creation story…

In the Ancient imagination … when God separates light from darkness and pulls back the water, creating a space for earth to flourish one might imagine this creation as a sphere, a fragile Eco-system dependent on interconnectivity – compassionate and communal care-giving… and this is how the story goes for some time, but eventually the earth evolves, or rather devolves, into chaos. Genesis 6:11 tells the story of a world gone terribly wrong, the earth has become corrupt and violent, and so, in deep grief and regret, God tells Noah to build an ark, a vessel that will preserve the seeds of a new life, a new creation, and then the corruption and chaos of human destruction causes creation to collapse on itself – the waters of the deep enter the safe haven of God’s creation, and God does not save it.

God does not save it, but then, after 40 days of rain and 150 days of swelling, after chaotic waters of the deep consumed the earth, Genesis 8:1 says that God remembers Noah and the hope of a new creation that is preserved in the arc… God remembers Noah and sends a mighty wind… A ruach… The same word used to describe God’s breath that first moved the waters in the world’s creation, to dry the waters. Then, in the part of the story we read this morning, God makes a startling promise…

When I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow [I’ve set in the sky] is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

This ancient flood story is imbedded in a tradition of primeval stories told by and for the people of God as a way to make sense and meaning of the world and how God is at work in the world – the same way Jesus uses parables to make sense of how God is at work and who God is calling us to be . There are over 200 hundred ancient flood stories. They are found across centuries and in every culture and they reflect the fragility of the world, the deep desire for human preservation and the tremendous forces of creation, both natural and human to be both life-giving and life-destroying. Many of the flood stories, some much older even than ours, are stories about warring Gods and selfish Gods, there are stories about pragmatic Gods who flood the world for the sake of population control.

Our story is unique because it’s a monotheistic story… A story with just one God… More than any other story in the bible, the story of Noah and the great flood demonstrate the ancient Hebrews’ wrestling with how to hold the harsh realities of their lives together with the goodness of creation in one God… In our flood story God is complex and even confusing… God calls creation good, God is also angry, grieved, even absent for a time… But then God preserves and remembers and God makes a way for new life to flourish… Even after all the pain and destruction and waiting, in chapter 8 of Genesis God tells us that the people haven’t changed, human beings continue to have the capacity for both good and evil… It’s as if the flood doesn’t accomplish anything… It didn’t change the hearts of human beings but from the ancient Hebrews’ perspective it changed the heart of God.

Instead of reading this story as a crime and punishment, what if it’s an invitation to move, like God does, from preservation, to promise? What if it’s an invitation to enter the story and wrestle with our own ideas about who God is and how God works in the world? This is the first of many covenants that God makes with God’s people… A covenant is two sided agreement, it’s a living breathing promise that requires a response, a relationship… A decision to move towards God.

Consider how often we live into preservation mode… How often we shore up all that we have in order to keep the flood waters at bay… Whether it’s because we’ve never had enough or have lived so long in excess that we have become greedy, suspicious, even violent in order to hold tightly to what we believe will save us only to find ourselves drowning in regret… How often do we let our fears corrupt our ability to be gracious, or brave or to give away love without treating it like a transaction? God looked at Noah and said “you, you’re the only faithful one – I will hide you away and preserve your life… How often do we hide away the most precious thing we have to give, to the detriment of all those around us?

The world, not unlike the world of our ancient story, can be hard and harsh… Human beings have shown, even in the last few weeks, such capacity for evil… But it is not only in far away places where there are be-headings and bombing in which our striving for self-preservation has won out over our ability to see one another as human… It happens in our own hearts as well. I knew a woman once who was in love with a man who couldn’t believe her, she shared her whole self with him, promised she loved him and did her very best to demonstrate that love. But every day he would poke holes in her promise, he would question every story, sure there was more that she wasn’t saying, he would not accept her love without suspicion and did not want to share her with anyone else. Eventually the holes he poked corrupted her love and she ended the relationship, his desire for self- preservation, to protect himself, won out over his desire for love.

The covenant God offers is a risky proposition, it requires the willingness to loosen our grip on self-preservation and truly believe that we are loved by God along with all of creation… It requires trust to relinquish our powers of destruction and begin the hard work of reconciliation, it requires courage to stand in the mud alongside those who are suffering and get our hands dirty insisting we see the rainbow and are holding ourselves, and God, to it’s promise.

Amen.

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Standing In the Mud

At Friendship Presbyterian Church where I am the pastor we are starting our second year on the Narrative Lectionary offered by the good people at workingpreacher.

flood waters

com. Eachweek I’m hoping to post notes, a bit of liturgy and, after it’s preached, my sermon (if it’s of the manuscript variety). This Sunday we kick off the fall season by going back to the beginning, to the genesis of our story…

We will hear two portions of the epic and ancient flood story (Genesis 6:16-22 & 9:8-15), it is a story about life and loss, about preservation and destruction, about a wild God and God’s wild creation. So come, come and stand in the mud with us and wrestle with this promise: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 

How do we stand in the mud and live, hope, and believe this promise?

In the midst of beheadings and war zones, in the face of fear and hatred and with the ugliness of racism, and xenophobia on display all around how do we participate in this covenant? How do we recognize our own part the world’s destruction and human despair? Wouldn’t it be easier to blame the divine? Wouldn’t it be easier to hide our heads in the sand, than to put our hands in the muck and mud and plant seeds of a new creation?

 What is our part to play in making God’s promise a reality? 

For starters… We Tell The Truth About Ourselves                                                       (At Friendship this is how we describe our time of Confession.)

Fear rises like the floodwaters of ancient days,

We turn inward,

absorbed in our own pain,

groaning in our suffering,

groping in our anger,

the darkness of despair threatens to wash over us.

If we look outward the world seems to be going under with the tide,

The complexity of power goes unacknowledged,

it is brandished and misused,

We struggle to love well,

to resist deceit, hatred and violence.

Rising, rising waters of hopelessness threaten to engulf us.

 Make good on your promise O God; do not let these floodwaters consume us.

And this will be our Blessing:

You are made in God’s image,

you are beautiful creatures of wisdom and promise,

you are forgiven

and you are chosen.

But God’s promise isn’t for you alone; it is for all of creation.

Carry this blessing with you,

let this promise inspire hope in you,

and all whom you encounter,

make it a symbol of freedom,

flying in the face of indignity, pain and injustice,

make it a call to action, for justice and peace,

until all of creation can breathe the deep breath of God’s promise.

 

If you would like to use my words please feel free, 
but give me a shout out! 
Something akin to © Shawna Bowman 
at shawnabowman.com is perfect :)

(2044)

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