"Into the Unknown"

February 23, 2020

 

“Into the Unknown”

 

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

                                     (Genesis 12:1-9, NRSV)

 

            We finally feel settled.  After all, it has taken us well over a year to locate the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood of the perfect Atlanta suburb.  It even has a basketball goal in the driveway and a wooden two seater swing in the back yard.  It might as well have my initials carved on the front door.  This house is made for me – made for our future life together, I am convinced.  One-bedroom apartment life in downtown Atlanta is way overrated, after all.  With too many people, too much traffic and too little space, the time has come for us to think more long term as a newly wedded couple. 

 

            The year is 2005 and the housing market is booming. It is a buyers’ market, indeed.  Our weekends are now consumed with driving the outside perimeter of Atlanta in search of our dream home, or perhaps our starter dream home.  In our search, I soon realize that a cynical perfectionist and an eternal optimist is not the best personality pairing when it comes to the home buying process.  With arguments ensuing daily- I wonder if we will ever find a home we can both agree upon.  The odds are highly unlikely.  With growing resentment towards the process, I often think to myself, “We’ll be retiring in this cramped apartment at this rate.”

 

            Sometimes in life, miracles do happen.  Pulling into the driveway of 821 Foxcroft Trail we know without a doubt we have found our home.  Although the flowerbeds lining the front of the house are barren – we see colorful pansies basking in spring’s nearing sunlight.  Although the kitchen walls are lined with the ugliest flowered wallpaper one has ever seen – we envision a modern kitchen with clean lines and an open concept – a space that would put any HGTV kitchen to shame.  Although the back deck is peeling and cracked, our minds see a renovated deck, complete with outdoor furniture and a grill for late afternoon BBQ’s. The only thing this old house needs is some tender loving care.  And we are the perfect owners to give it the love it so deserves.

 

            With mortgage payments now in the financial mix and a considerable amount of work needed on our new home, we take on the challenge of do-it-yourself home repair and cosmetic upgrades.  With Jacob’s handyman skills and my knowledge of construction from my Dad’s side of the family, we are up for a challenge. From the moment we sign the final document on our new home, our weekends and weeknights are consumed with making this house our home.  We take countless trips to the Home Depot, often times three of four trips a day.  We spend late nights painting our stairwell and entryway to the “Rent” Broadway soundtrack. We eat plenty of take-out food, trying out all of the new neighborhood restaurants. Painting the guest bedroom, I can’t help but smile and wonder if it might one day become a nursery or playroom.  I imagine long walks around our lush neighborhood with children in tow and perhaps even a dog one day.  Our dreams are coming true. 

 

            Over the next 9 months we strip wallpaper and re-paint every surface of the house.  We stain kitchen cabinets and pull up old rotten laminate floors. We replace sagging pergo floors with new soft carpet in the den. We replace old miss matched appliances with new shiny stainless steel ones.  We scrape wooden shutters for days and repaint the entire exterior of our house by hand.  We plant flowers.  We fix the broken walkway.  We put up a new modern front porch light.  We install a new mailbox, complete with our name printed on the side.  We are home at last.  

 

            “What do you think about moving to New York, I mean if I were to get a job there”, Jacob says to me one afternoon.  Now I will have you know, we are now in our tenth month of home ownership. And happy, I might add.  My immediate response is not sermon worthy, but you might be able to imagine.  He informs me that in a moment of frustration with his current job, he applied for a job in NY just for the fun of it.  “They want to fly me up – Thursday for an interview,” he says with disbelief.  “Well,” I say, adjusting my response and my perspective.  “I might not hate NY.  Let’s see what happens, okay?”  From this pivotal conversation that afternoon to this very moment, we are still in awe over the Spirit’s sense of calling and movement in this crazy, unpredictable life.

 

            I wonder if Abram and Sarai feel the same way in our story this morning?  God calls them to a new place, in a very inconvenient time in their lives.  After all, Abram and Sarai are not 26 and 28 years old at the time when God calls them to a new endeavor.  Abram is 75 years old.  Abram and his family have made a life for themselves in the land of Haran.  I am sure they have been members of the same synagogue for some time.  Perhaps they are quite involved in both their faith community and close with their extended families.  I imagine Sarai enjoys the fact the she knows all the faces at the local market and where to get the best catch of the day.  They know their neighbors and have parented countless neighborhood children over the years.  By modern-day standards, Abram and Sarai should be downsizing to a condo on the beach or planning a Mediterranean cruise - not leaving their country.

 

            In the theological publication “Journey With Jesus”, author Dan Clendenin describes Abram’s call and the perplexities in his family’s decision to follow God into the unknown.  Clendenin states, “Abraham left Haran in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why, except that God had commanded him.  He acted whole-heartedly without absolute certainty. [1] In doing so he defied both the inner propensities of human nature and the outer pressures of cultural conformity to cling to the familiar, the self-serving, and the broad and easy road.  Abraham journeyed from what he knew, to what he did not know, from what he had to what he did not have, from the comfortable to the strange and the unpredictable.  He journeyed “like a stranger in a foreign country” (Hebrews 11:8-9).  Today, most everything in our culture, education and employment encourages us to journey in the opposite direction: from the unknown to the known, from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, making every effort to remove the strange and unpredictable in order to guarantee the safe and secure.  We demand certainty and act timidly.”[2]

 

            I wonder if Abraham harbored any of the same doubts we might, should his story have taken place in 2020?  Settled, secure and comfortable, God comes to Abraham and says, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.  ‘I will make you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you, I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The text then reads, “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him.” [3]  The text does not indicate a struggle of will or doubt.  Abraham simply responds to God’s call without hesitation.

 

            I, however, cannot say our experience of the Spirit’s call is like Abraham’s.  With an enormous hesitation and immense doubt, we struggled.  But God, “we just bought this house, and it’s so cute now.”  But God, “we love our church, our neighborhood - our friends.”  But God, “we’ll be alone – separated hundreds of miles from our families.”  But God, our connections and networks are here.  We will know no one.”  But God, “the North is so cold!”  “But God!”  “But God!”  “But God!”  As Believers of the faith, we are good at excuses.  With rationale, sensibility and the art of justification, we are pros at convincing ourselves to remain with what is comfortable and easy.

 

In a few days, we will begin the Lenten journey together as a faith family. During this time, might we sense the Spirit’s gentle nudging in our lives.  Abraham’s call is unique.  God calls him to go, to uproot- to move to a new place where he will be blessed and bless others in the process.  Though God may not be calling us like Abraham to a new physical location- perhaps God is calling us to places of renewal.   Perhaps God is calling some of us to engage in a new opportunity.  Maybe God is calling some of us to new ideas of what it means to be successful.  Maybe God is calling us to see those we love in a new way.  Perhaps God is calling some of us to new attitudes of love.  Maybe the call for some of us is to deep, inward God-given peace. Whatever God is calling us to do, or to be, or embrace, may we listen with open hearts and open eyes, ready to respond.

 

 “God is still Speaking”, the United Church of Christ motto reminds us.  What an appropriate word of hope to us as we doubt, question, and strive to experience God’s presence.  The God of Abraham is still speaking, just as loudly today.  The question for us is, “Are we still listening?”  Are we finding moments in our day and in our lives to connect?  Are we observing the world and those around us through God’s spirit of love?  Are we putting more value on the things that we own and the things that we do, rather than in the person God has created us to be?  In our listening and responding, we remember the promise to Abraham when God proclaims, “you will be a blessing to others.”  When we respond to the Spirit’s call to leave behind debilitating attitudes, we bless the lives of those around us.  When we respond to the Spirit’s call to new ministries or service opportunities, we bless the lives of those we encounter.  When we respond to the call of seeing the world through God’s movement, we bless those around us as we engage in justice and kindness.  

 

            One of my favorite heroines of the faith is a Baptist woman visionary named Fannie Exile Scutter Heck.  Born in 1862, Fannie Heck is given the name "Exile" in memory of her birthplace to which her mother, Anna Callendine Heck, had gone for refuge from Morgantown, Va. (currently West Virginia) because of the Civil War. In later years Miss Heck herself added “Scudder”, the maiden name of her mother's grandmother, Jane Scudder Chadwick. She was proud to be a descendant of the Scudder family, famous for its American ministers and foreign missionaries.[4]

 

            According to historians, Fannie Heck was a risk-taker and one who walked closely with God.  A modern-day Abram perhaps, I imagine that Fannie Heck listened often for God’s voice and direction in her life.  Heck is widely known for one of her most famous quotes about faith. Heck once said, “There is risk in change.  But, there is greater risk in standing still.”  As we listen for God’s call, are we willing to take a risk, so that we might discover abundant life?  Are we ready to see and experience life anew that we might bless those around us?  God is still speaking.  God is still moving.  May we have the courage to answer and to follow the Spirit, even into the unknown. May it be so.  AMEN.   

                       

 

 

 

Pastoral Prayer 

 

God of love and peace,

 

We praise you for you are our beginning and our destination. You are with us during every step of our journey. Forgive us when we miss the signs of your presence and turn away from joyous encounters you offer.  Help us to quiet the anxieties of our hearts and minds that we might sense and know your everlasting peace.

 

During our darkest days, remind us of your hope. Remind us of your power to bring light from darkness.

 

We pray for the condition of our world this morning. We pray that where there is violence, we would find a peaceful solution.  Where there is hunger and thirst, we would find resources to quench and to satisfy.  In this time of worship and this week, may we be sensitive to your leading.  Draw us closer to you and to one another. In the name of Christ we pray. AMEN.

 

 

 

[1] Warren Goldstein, William Sloane Coffin Jr.; A Holy Impatience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 185)

 

[2] Daniel B. Clendenin; www.journeywithjesus.net; 2001-2010

 

[3] Genesis 12:1-4 (New International Version)

 

[4] James, Minnie, Kennedy. Fannie E.S. Heck: A Study of the Hidden Springs in a Rarely Useful and Victorious Life, 1939.  (Catherine B. Allen; Laborers Together with God, 1987.)

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