“By faith Abraham obeyed the call to leave his home for a land which he was to receive….so he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he settled as an alien in that land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob. For he was looking forward to a city whose architect and builder is God.”
First, may I say how happy Marlene and I are to be here with you all, seeing again so many familiar faces and so many not so familiar. Perhaps you are here to see what an Emeritus looks like. We are grateful to Andrew for the invitation. Not that he hasn’t tried. But we have discovered that the cliché is true. Retirement is busier. I suppose I could add grateful to the Bears that they won enough games that they didn’t have to play today. That would have presented a real agonizing decision. That said, let us take a look again at some old familiar words and what they may have to say to us at the turning of another year.
A fellow named Andrew Costello wrote words that always speak to me at this time. “Maybe this year I’ll be happy. Maybe this year things will get better. This year I resolve to lose fifteen pounds. This year I resolve to spend more time with the kids. This year I resolve to spend more time with God. But then I sober up. Before you know it, I’ll probably be back to my old tricks again. Today I’m fresh, brand new, just in from the bakery, but four days from now….the same old me…a stale jelly donut. So this year, I decided I am going to be disappointed in myself early, so I can enjoy the remaining 364 with a clear conscience.”
Now I would be the last to deny the importance of a little self-evaluation from time to time, effort to amend flaws and generate new habits. But I doubt that viewing life largely as a personal reform effort is terribly helpful and healthy. Entirely too compulsive and guilt inducing. One thing is sure, however: how we view life, how we understand the meaning of our days here, is as central to our joy and happiness as anything.
So I take us this morning back to a very different picture of life at its best. It is the picture found in the story of Abraham, the spiritual father of Judaism and Christianity. It might surprise you to know that Abraham is far and away the most mentioned Old Testament character in the New Testament, more than Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah. His name appears 75 times. Why? Because the faith of Jesus is intimately related to the faith born in this far more ancient figure. Faith understood as the willingness to risk, to leave nation, tribe and family, that is, to leave the safe, the secure, the known, on behalf of a dream of a new and better future.
And it was indeed the same faith which fired a young carpenter, a son of Abraham, to leave family and familiar village to confront strangers, fishermen and tax collectors, and challenge them to go with him to shake the world. He had read the story. We should remember that what we call the Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible. Even as it was his followers’. So it was the same faith which charged up a Paul and Barnabas to march across the map of the Empire, to risk their lives that others might learn the same courage and hope.
He went out, not knowing where he was going. To begin with I have always found it a comforting story since it insists that this faith is available to any age, whether Jesus’ 33 years or Abraham’s 75. Oh, I just got a birthday card signed by a bunch of friends wishing me a happy eightieth. Which is by far the earliest I ever got a birthday greeting. I will save it for next December.
Yet on the face of it, a strange story, indeed a crazy story. Here is a man, as I say, seventy-five years of age, who enjoys the comfort and convenience, safety and security of one of the more advanced civilizations of his time, who hears a word from this strange and unfamiliar god asking him to leave it all, leave his country, his tribe, his home and head out he knew not where, for another land.
Gods weren’t supposed to act that way back then. The gods of Haran, or any of the other peoples of that time, existed to secure and maintain the status quo, reinforce the authority of the powers in place, keep everything neat and safe. And they didn’t travel. But this strange new God counters all that with one word, “Go!” Get up, Abraham, leave all the comfort and security, the familiarity and luxury of your hometown, leave your relatives and friends, the old
gang you’ve hung around with for years, everything that has made your life so same and secure. Leave it all and head south, out across the burning deserts where there are no Interstates and Holiday Inns, no tour guides and air conditioned buses. Go, Abraham, Go.
So, in fact, this is one of the most revolutionary moments in the history of human thought and experience. Where he lived, people never left home, never, unless they were forced to. Home was a highly ordered, civilized social system, which included a specific land, a specific ethnic group, a structured family life, all presided over by a hierarchy at the top of which stood the powerful political and priestly class. Everything to make life possible, safe and reasonably comfortable was in place. And the gods of land, nation and family guaranteed the security of it all. Why would anyone want to abandon that?
Go! That’s an incredible word to hear. And no one in their right mind would have blamed Abraham if he had politely responded, “No thanks, God, whoever you are. I am quite content right here with my restaurant business and sixteen kids and bowling league on Thursdays and the local pub. I’m really not up to such a crazy adventure.”
But he didn’t. He got up and went. And, says the old story, so began for us a new way of understanding life, a new kind of faith. Faith as journey, leaving the past behind, ever going somewhere with your life. “Forgetting those things that are behind, stretching forward to what lies ahead,” writes Paul, the apostle.
This means first of all that real faith is not primarily a matter of believing some things, creeds, doctrines, things preachers tell you that you must believe or you are in real trouble.
This means that faith is not a passive stance toward life, an acceptance of whatever comes, leaving everything to God. Like the elderly woman who was very ill and was visited by her physician one day. He checked her over, prescribed some drugs, and then said in parting, “Now, Martha, you must try to trust in God.” She responded, “Oh, doctor, do you mean it’s come to that.”
This means that faith is not some kind of moral perfection, flawlessness. This man is to prove exceedingly human and flawed
in the course of his journey again and again. When he gets to Egypt he is so afraid the authorities will kill him in order to take his wife, the most beautiful woman in the world, to the Pharaoh’s harem, that he lies, he passes her off as his sister. Faith is not arrival.
So what is it? In the first place this faith does involve going out. Now, thank God this has nothing to do with going out to dinner five nights a week like we did in the holidays just past. Not that kind of going out at all. Faith, in this old story, involves the conviction that God calls us, each one of us, yes even this day to new responsibilities and opportunities, challenges and gifts with each new day, new year no matter our age or circumstance. Retire nothing, we say over at Westminster Place.
In many ways it was a faith like this that built this land of ours. Unlike those they left behind, who were content to hold on to what they had, hunker down and play it safe, so many of the immigrants who made this land were willing to believe that God had a new future for them here, were willing to “go out,” at the urging of some inner call like Abraham of old. It is amazing how our national and personal psyches have been shaped by this sense that life must be going somewhere.
Life as going out. The sense that at no stage is it over or finished. An English psychiatrist has put it this way. The secret of perpetual youth is to grow old. Life can only keep young by always advancing. The man of thirty keeps fresh by surrendering his athletic championships to develop his individual power and character; the healthy young mother is infinitely younger than the girlish of the same age. The woman of forty-five whose interests have been centered in her family, will remain young only by advancing to the phase in which she lets her interests spread to wider concerns of human life around her. The man of fifty-five need never be on the shelf if he voluntarily leaves the struggle for power to younger men, and is content to contribute to society the wisdom gained in the ripe experience of years. There are fresh instincts ready to spring forth at every re-birth of life, like the young phoenix from the dead ashes of the old. By welcoming these we remain young, by advancing with age we achieve perpetual youth.”
There is always another Promised Land out there to which God calls us. You’ve surely known people of this spirit and faith,
people who never settle in to sameness of habit and routine, but who always remain open to the future and new possibilities. I have.
Opera star Beverly Sills wore a piece of jewelry with the initials “I.D.T.A.” engraved on it. When a friend expressed concern that she was going to stop singing to become director of the New York City Opera, as she in fact did in 1979, she pointed to the initials, which stand for, “I Did That Already.” Having sung for so long, she felt it was time to move on. She didn’t want to repeat, again and again, what she had mastered and experienced. She felt a new sense of purpose in moving on to unexplored terrain.
But it is so easy to begin to see life as staying put, just hanging on to where we are, no longer believing that there is a special future to which God still calls. The late George Burns got it right. He said, “Some people practice to get old. The minute they get to be sixty-five or seventy, they sit down slow. They start taking small steps. I can’t die. I’m booked.”
Faith means going out….into the unknown. Ah, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare would say. The reason we find it hard to move out into the new is because we learn to feel safe and comfortable where we are, with whom we are, doing what we have learned to do.
Understandable, given the uncertainty and sense of vulnerability of the times. It is an unpredictable, threatening, constantly changing world we live in, and the drive and passion for some safety, some secure harbor for the body or mind, is completely understandable. One man comments recently that he watched a four year old neighbor riding his tricycle on the sidewalk, with helmet, elbow and knee guards, gloves, and he fell to wondering how he himself in his day had even survived to adulthood. Understandable.
But there is a problem here also. The passion for security can lead to the avoidance of necessary risk, the unwillingness to take the right kind of chances, to go into the unknown. But it is what real life is all about, is it not. To march off to school the first time is scary. To leave home for some monster university is scary. To seek out a partner for life is scary. To take on the responsibilities of family is scary. To seek a vocation that is challenging scares. To let the children leave for their own lives is scary. To break off a career of 40 years is scary. To entertain learning a new skill is scary. To become involved in some mission beyond your own culture is scary. To take a new look at a relationship gone stale or
routine is scary. Some one said to his spouse. “Let us live again. Let us love again. Let us share the deepest secrets of our hearts. You go first.” Real life, the life of faith, is scary.
But to live with faith means to embrace all these risks of life with courage. Home and kindred and country are important. But they are not meant to protect us from life, nor will they. If we insist on staying in one place, emotionally, intellectually, real life can pass us by.
And certainly this is reality. With each day’s light, we do set out not knowing where we are going. Oh, we may have a pretty good idea. Our calendar or date book may be full. But this little book guarantees nothing. Life has its strange and unpredictable twists and turns. Interruptions happen which are important and unavoidable. No matter how we plan and attempt to secure the day, we truly do not know for sure the way ahead. People and problems and puzzles lie in wait that we can in no way anticipate. To insist on sameness and security, is to be unprepared for God and reality and life.
To me, a woman by the name of Grace Waring has always been a stellar example of this “going out not knowing” faith, a faith which is able to embrace the unexpected. She lived a life more common in the 19 hundreds. She had seven children and twenty-three grandchildren before she died in her nineties. No easy life. After three children by her first husband, she nursed him through incurable tuberculosis. Left penniless, she went back to teaching kindergarten. Some years later she married again to a widower who had four children. One son-in-law was killed in an accident and left two children. A daughter was divorced. Then she discovered that her second husband had cancer. Quite remarkable story. But not for what happened to her, but for what she did with it, made of it.
One would have understood if through it all she had become a bit weary and discouraged, if not depressed and bitter. But through it all she remained a figure of unbounding energy and power, whose influence on thousands around her was enormous, uplifting. The secret of her life. Her acceptance of it as journey into the unknown with God. She once wrote, “…if we are to live at all we must accept the risks. Why not seize life in all its glory and not be afraid of what comes? One thing I have noticed is that seeking security and safety seldom brings it – certainly not the spiritual kind.
I feel we must go on our journey head up, not crouching or cowering, and take what comes in the strength God always gives.”
Finally in our story, faith means going out into the unknown…and living there in tents. “By faith he settled as an alien in the land which had been promised him, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob.” Why? Because with this response to the call of God, there came the recognition that the journey of faith has no end this side of the final call to that city whose architect and builder is God. In other words, faith means accepting life as journey into the unknown all the way to the end.
How much better the faith of Abraham, this curious combination of trust and courage, of rest and risk, vision and unknowing. The willingness to place the day in God’s hands, but not in passivity and resignation. The willingness to place the day in God’s hands precisely so that we may seize the hours as they approach, respond creatively and courageously to their challenge, fill them with hope and energy whatever they bring. To march into the future prepared to be surprised, able to embrace whatever comes, knowing that God and good go before us. Surely this is the truly “saving” faith? So “go.”