Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Destination: Unknown" - September 16, 2018

Text: Genesis 12:1-9

One of my good friends in ministry preached his last sermon last Sunday.  Well, I’m sure it’s not his last sermon, but it was his last sermon at his church, his last Sunday at the church, and he is retiring.

He came to our Ministers Council meeting in Des Moines on Thursday as his last official duty.  I think he came mostly to see colleagues before moving, and it was good to see him.

People make a lot of plans for retirement.  Retirement itself may or may not go according to plan, but most people give it some thought and get ready for it.  You put away money in a retirement account.  Maybe you go to a couple of planning for retirement seminars.  There are pension considerations and insurance considerations.  How do you take Social Security?

And then, do you stay where you are or do you move?  Do you downsize?  Do you move into a condo?  Do you get on the waiting list at Northcrest?  Do you head for a nice retirement community in Florida or Arizona?  Or do you think about the snowbird routine, living in a place like Ames but escaping for a couple of months in the cold of winter?

And then, what do you plan to do?  Travel, hobbies, volunteer, spend time with family, maybe look after the grandkids?  For some, that’s not enough and they may take a part-time job to stay busy.  For others, continuing to work may be more of a financial necessity.

My friend and his wife are moving to Illinois, their home state.  He is from the Chicago area and his wife is from a small town downstate – and their annuity will go a lot farther downstate, so that’s where they are going.

A number of you are in retirement, others are getting closer and maybe thinking about it.  Well, our scripture today has to do with a couple in their golden years, Abram and Sarai.  But the way they spend those years is not what we might expect.

Following the Narrative Lectionary, we are making our way through the Old Testament this fall.  The first 11 chapter of Genesis look at life on a cosmic scale – things like creation, the fall, and the flood, which we looked at last week.  Starting with chapter 12, we look at one particular family and it all starts with Abraham, or Abram as he was first called.

“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.”  75 years old, looking forward to slowing down a bit maybe, looking at retirement community options, getting ready for the annual Senior Center benefit, when God speaks to him.  “Go to a land I will show you.”  And it means go immediately.

Of course it was difficult to just up and leave.  And of course it is shocking thing is that Abram didn’t even know where it was God would show them.  But we might miss the first part.  “Go from your country and kindred and your father’s house.”  Family relationships meant everything.  There was the nation and then the tribe and then the clan and then your immediate family – your father’s house.  3 generations might live together in the same house.  Abram and Sarai would be leaving everything.

75 years old.  Can you imagine doing what they did?  They don’t know where they are going, what they will find there, what life will be like.  They don’t know how long this journey will take.  They can only imagine the danger ahead. 

We do all we can to minimize, if not eliminate, the unforeseen.  If we go on a trip, we have it all mapped out.  We have our GPS system and google maps to tell us exactly where we are and exactly how to get where we are going.

We are not people who do well with risks.  If you are like me, you don’t make a big purchase without researching it.  When it comes time to buy a car, I read Consumer Reports and various car websites for weeks.  We don’t like to sign up for a class unless we have a scouting report on the professor and expect to get a decent grade.  We want to know what we are getting into.

But for all our trying to control things, life just cannot be controlled.  For all our efforts to minimize risks and figure out the future and manage what is coming down the road, we can’t do it.  The unexpected always comes into play, and while we may not be quite as clueless as Abraham and Sarah, we don’t have quite as good a handle on the future as we may think.

There are all kinds of doorways to the future in life, events that usher in the unknown.  Going off to college, graduating, getting married, seeing your children go off to college, buying a house, and yes, retiring.  These are events that can change the course of our lives.  So can illness and divorce and getting laid off.

If we look back on our lives, most of us would not have come close to predicting the twists and turns our lives would take.  Looking forward, we would seem to have little in common with Abraham and Sarah.  Setting out, not knowing where they were going?  At an advanced age?  We cannot imagine that.  But looking back, we realize that we are more like them than we might think.

They were headed to a land that God would show them.  That is exactly where we are headed.  We do not know where we will be at some point in the future.  Many of you did not know that the land God would show you would be called Iowa.  And it is even possible that a few years from now you will live here in Ames, perhaps living in the very same house you are in now, and yet things will be so different you will for all intents and purposes be living in a new land.

While we may not know exactly where the road is leading and what conditions we may find, God has given us the ability and the freedom to make choices and at least decide which road we will take.

There was an incident reported in the newspapers a while back about a bus driver in the Bronx.  He simply drove away in his empty bus one day and kept going.  He wasn’t going anywhere in particular, he was just going.  No one knew where he or the bus were until he was picked up by police several days later in Florida.  He told police that he was just sick and tired of driving the same old route, day after day, month after month, year after year, and he decided to drive a different route and go on a trip.

As he was being brought back to New York, it was clear that the bus company was having a hard time knowing what to do.  By the time he arrived back in the Bronx, he was a genuine celebrity and a crowd of people was on hand to welcome him.  When the company announced it would forego legal action and give the man his job back if he promised not to pull a stunt like that again, cheers went out in the Bronx.  Clearly, there were a lot of other bored and unhappy people around who would have loved to do what this man did.

Sometimes, we just need a change.  We need something new – we need to do something different, go somewhere different, be someone different.  Often, God can be in these times of feeling unsettled.  Choices we make and changes we make often come in God’s Time.  As God led Abraham and Sarah, God leads us in making choices and making changes and setting out on new journeys, whether it is a journey to a new place or a journey to a new way of living or a journey to a new understanding of God and ourselves and others.

The journey is not always easy.  It can involve struggle.  A long trip to an unknown destination couldn’t have been easy at Abraham and Sarah’s age.  It’s not easy at any age.

Pam Tinnin said that as she was considering entering seminary at age 47, the idea of graduating and trying to get a church at 50 was overwhelming.  She remembers talking about this with her older sister and saying in a rather anguished voice, “But if I go now, I'll be 50 years old when I graduate.”

Her sister asked her, “Well, how old will you be if you don’t go?”  That seemed to help put it in perspective for her.  She went to seminary, and has now served churches in Kansas and California.

God’s call to Abraham seemed overwhelming.  “Leave your home, go to a place I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation.  In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  All the families of the earth.  Pretty heady stuff.

We couldn’t really blame Abraham if he said, “God, I think you’ve called the wrong person.  Why don’t you go find somebody else?  I am too old.  Sarai and I are too set in our ways.  And more to the point, God, it just doesn’t seem like a good plan to have an older, childless couple be parents of a great nation.”  

We may feel overwhelmed by what is before us; we may feel that God is calling us to do the impossible.  But what we need to know is that if God has called us, if God is with us, then we are up to the challenge.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great Baptist preacher, said, “Always take a job that is too big for you.”  How’s that for a philosophy of life?  If God has given us a dream, if God has given us an opportunity, God will be with us.  We never know what we can do, never know what God can do through us, until we try. 

Now, there is a lot to be said for permanence, a lot to recommend it.  There is certainly a lot to be said for stability.  But it is possible to be so focused on maintaining things as they are that we are led astray.  We can be so committed to maintaining things the way that they are, the way they have always been, that we can lose sight of our purpose, lose sight of what really matters.

This is certainly true for the church.  It is possible to make caring for the institution more important than caring for souls.  This doesn’t have to happen, of course, but we all know that it can happen and does happen.

It has been argued that the ancient Israelites actually were healthier, spiritually and ethically speaking, when they were journeying than when they sought permanence.  By one way of looking at it, they knew God best when they were building temporary shrines in the countryside, and they turned from God when they built Jerusalem and became devoted to property, wealth and power.  That is a story that has repeated itself countless times over the centuries.

God called Abraham to go.  That is about the gist of the call, just go.  Go to a place that I will show you.  No roadmap, no GPS, no reservations, just go.  He is 75 years old.

15 or 20 years ago, Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis used to have a weekend travel special.  On Friday, you could get their special for some insanely low price – for something like $249 you would get two round-trip air tickets and two nights lodging at a good hotel.  The catch was, you didn’t know where you would be going.  That was half the fun of it; it was an adventure.  You might end up in Spokane or San Diego or Memphis or Pittsburgh.  You didn’t really know where you were headed; you just agreed to go.

What you did have was a guarantee of a decent place to stay and you knew what the cost was.  You might not want to move to San Antonio, but it could be a fun place to visit.  You could even enjoy Cleveland for a weekend, and you knew you would be back home in a couple of days.

Abram and Sarai had no such guarantees.  They didn’t know where they would live, they were pretty sure they would never be back, and they did not know the cost.

Our journeys and our new beginnings may be the result of choices that we make – choices to go to a new school, take a new job, begin a new relationship.  Choices to set off at age 75 on an entirely new undertaking.  We may not know all of the details, but we generally have an idea of what to expect and what the cost may be.

I mentioned that permanence can lead us astray, but in a broader sense, this is probably a moot point because permanence may not really be possible.  The journeys we take do not all involve loading up the car or getting on an airplane.  There are journeys of the spirit, journeys of life that we take, sometimes whether we want to or not.  Even if we live in the same place our whole life, there will be journeys to take.  There will be change.

I think back to my first year in college.  I had a double major: chemistry and political science.  That was not at all a good combination and lasted less than one semester.  I went with chemistry.  I was going to be a chemistry professor, or maybe get my chemistry degree and go on to law school, do something like environmental law.  Minister was not really on the top 10 list.  But as it turned out, I did not know what the future would bring.

While students are at ISU, your major may change, your friends may change, and there is a good chance that where you live will change.  But even more than that, who we are and what we value and our goals and aspirations and commitments change.  And you may realize now that I’m not just talking about students; I’m talking about all of us.  What will not change is that God will be with us.

A television documentary showed blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing.  That sounds impossible – I mean, it’s hard enough if you can see.  Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught how to make right and left turns. Once they had that down, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them, shouting, “Left!” and “Right!”  As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course, and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skiers' word.  For the blind skiers, it was either complete trust or catastrophe.

That is a picture of the Christian life.  There are times when we are, in reality, blind about what course to take.  We cannot see what is ahead.  Or what we can see is only blurry.  We must rely on the One who can truly see.  Christ’s presence and Spirit give us the strength and direction we need for the journey ahead.

We are not just marching into darkness, we are marching in the light of God.  We do not know exactly where the journey is leading us, but we know the One who is with us on the journey.  And that is enough.  Amen.

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