March 8, 2020
Painting in the Dark – March 8, 2020
Sermon from March 8, 2020
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17
I don’t know about you, but I struggle sometimes with the implications of having faith in God. It’s not that I doubt whether God loves me, or whether Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God for humanity – those ideas rest pretty well in my head and my heart. Where I have trouble is with the next step: making it real. If I have faith in God, what am I called to do? How do I follow faithfully?
We find one answer in the reading this morning from Genesis, one of the most remarkable demonstrations of faith in all of Scripture. We’re told almost nothing about Abram before this reading, other than his origin story. He and his extended family were living in Ur of the Chaldees in lower Mesopotamia, present-day southern Iraq. Abrah’s father, Terah, took Abram and his wife, Sarai, and their nephew, Lot, to go to Canaan, modern-day Israel, though we’re not told why. But the extended family stopped their journey early and settled in Haran, in upper Mesopotamia, somewhere in northern Iraq or Syria.
So, his father dies, and Abram apparently is minding his own business when he hears the voice of God calling him to complete the journey his father began. God tells him to take the family and all their herds and possessions and go … somewhere – “the land that I will show you,” God says (12:1). God promises Abram land, and worldly success, and descendants – that God will make of Abram “a great nation,” one so important that “in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2-3). And then comes the all-important next line, which is simply this: “So, Abram went, as the Lord had told him” (12:4). Really? No questions? No clarifications? He just went. And because of that, and because of Abram later formalizing his covenant, he became for us the paragon of right relationship with God, as Paul explains in the reading today from Romans. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (4:3).
I love the Abraham story. And, I struggle with it – because it might imply that if we really have true faith, then the directions for our actions are crystal are clear. For me, at least, discerning what to do with our faith is a lot more complicated than that. I think it’s like raising kids. My mother has a great metaphor for raising kids, something that’s stuck with me for years. She says, “Raising kids is like painting in the dark.” You do the best you can; but in the moment, you really can’t see what the outcome is going to be.
Well, I do think God gives us some guidance in how to paint in the dark, how to follow the calls we hear faithfully. For me, three suggestions, or maybe three “best practices,” come to mind, and I think we can see each of them playing out in our church family’s life right now.
Here’s the first best practice for following God faithfully: Listen together. Maybe, like Abram, some people get a direct order from the Almighty that’s so clear, there’s no need for questions. But for most of us, and especially when the stakes are high, I think we do best when we take the risk to share our calls with each other and listen with more than two ears.
There’s a great example of that happening among us here. At this moment, we have four people from our congregation who are following a call toward ordination as deacons or priests – Rita Kendagor, Jean Long, Ryan Zavacky, and Adam James – and others are at an earlier stage in the listening process. I think that’s amazing. It’s a testimony to these individuals’ faithfulness in responding to God’s claim on their lives – and, it’s a testimony to the power of having others walking with you as you listen to discern what God’s calling you into. They’ve each talked with me, or Fr. Jeff, or Mtr. Anne, or Deacon Bruce – or, more likely, all of us. And they’ve each spent hours talking and listening with the members of our Discernment Commission, a group of powerfully faithful souls committed to helping others hear God’s call. That community of listening hearts is essential, because I think when God asks something significant of us, God comes to us in the people around us, helping us hear what the next step should be. So, when you’re trying to act faithfully, when you’re trying to paint in the dark, find other faithful folks; and listen to God, together.
Here’s another best practice, I think: Act first in love. As our presiding bishop, Michael Curry likes to say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” And often, that means acting in ways that are going to cost us something. We follow a God who came among us, as the Gospel reading today says, ready to “be lifted up” on a cross in order to lift all of us up into eternal life (John 3:14). So, we shouldn’t be surprised that following that model of love is costly.
This morning, we’re experiencing an example of that kind of faithful action, of giving something up for the sake of others. As you all know, our nation and our world are trying to manage the risks of infection with coronavirus as new cases appear in new places daily. We know we can take important steps to keep ourselves and others safe, things like washing hands well and frequently, staying home when we’re sick, and coughing into tissues, not our hands. But here in a church community, we have to discern how to act faithfully given the reality that some significant parts of our common life revolve around physical intimacy. We hug a lot here. We shake hands a lot here. And every week, we share this deeply intimate meal of Holy Communion, where the sacramental mystery involves receiving God’s own self in our own hands, taking Jesus’ body into our bodies, and all from a common plate and cup.
There’s always some risk of infection in that, despite the steps we take to use hand sanitizer before Communion, and to wipe the chalice carefully – and, for you, trying not to dip your fingers in the wine when you intinct. So, we’ve had to discern how to act first in love as we respond to the risk of coronavirus infection. We’ve decided – for now – to stop touching each other in the Peace and other greetings, to stop passing the collection plates, and to stop serving the consecrated wine during Communion. I particularly don’t like that last one; and I’m guessing for many of you, it will be upsetting not to receive the cup of salvation. But we’re taking this step in order to act first in love. Here’s what I mean: Honestly, many of us are at pretty low risk of infection. But many of us – because of age or compromised immune status – many of us are at higher risk. And we need to protect those at risk, even if it means giving something up. That’s the loving action to take.
OK, here’s the third best practice for following God’s call faithfully, the third tip for how to paint in the dark: Take the step. Listening together is essential, and choosing the path of sacrificial love is key. And then, we have to go, even though we can’t quite see where we’re going. “You must be born from above,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. What? “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks. (John 3:3,9) I’m not sure how to do that, or where it will take me, if I step out and follow you, Nicodemus is thinking. I’m a religious leader, and it might cost me a lot to follow this rebel who turns over tables in the Temple and claims to come directly from God. I get it, Jesus tells him. Take the step anyway.
If you want to see that kind of faith in action, you can look right across the street. Six weeks from today, we’ll kick off a new worship opportunity at HJ’s called “Trailside,” a chance for people who probably wouldn’t be here otherwise to find their path with God. The service there will start at 10:45 a.m., and the worship will involve most of the same things that happen in worship here: praising God in song, reading the Bible, hearing a sermon or a kids’ sermon, proclaiming our ancient faith, praying for ourselves and our world, and sharing Holy Communion. But the music will be more accessible and familiar to modern ears, with keyboard and guitar rather than organ. And the person leading all this won’t be an ordained person, at least not yet. Jean Long, our minister for children, youth, young adults, and families – one of the four people I mentioned on the path to ordination – she’ll be the worship leader. And the preacher here at 10:15 will go across the street after the sermon to preach at Trailside … with just notes, not a text, trusting the Spirit to blow hard enough to keep him from falling on his face.
Now, if you know me at all, you can probably figure this is not exactly in my comfort zone. Dr. Tom has done worship like this in several places, thank God. But not me. And certainly not Jean Long. And not the people who will be serving as hosts for this experience that we’ve never done before. We’ve heard a clear call, that now’s the time to create a new way to draw people into the loving family that is St. Andrew’s, to open a new door in a new facility into a new experience of praise and refreshment and thanksgiving. Everything tells me the time is right … but … Jesus, how can these things be? I get it, Jesus says. Take the step anyway.
The direction God asks us to take is not always clear. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, God’s call is like the wind: powerfully present but invisible, and impossible for us to control. We don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going, any more than we can see the future that lies ahead for us, any more than we can see the picture we’re painting in the dark. But, like Abram, we go ahead and take the next step. We listen together, we choose the path of love, and we go. We go without guarantees that each step is right. But we go with the guarantee that the purpose is right, because the purpose is God’s and not our own. And we go with the guarantee that what awaits us at the end of the journey is right and a good and joyful thing– in fact the very best thing: God’s embrace and God’s empowerment, forever. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (John 3:16). With that as our promise, we can rest assured that, if the steps we take are faithful, the trail will take us there.