Genesis 12: 1-5; Hebrews 11:1-13, 12: 1-2
I am someone who, generally speaking, loves flying. Granted, the seats are more cramped these days, and I’m not my best self when my flight is delayed. And I’m more of a fan of taking off than landing. But flying is still enough of a novelty for me that there’s something about cruising along at 35,000 feet at 500 miles that I find captivating.
And it’s not just the flying, either. Before I’m even airborne, I find the whole airport experience to be intriguing – once I get past security. The rocking chairs and random bookstores and overpriced merchandise I’ll never buy. And most of all, all the people. Single folks, families, big groups. Wear everything from business attire to bahama shirts. Moving at speeds from a casual stroll to a full-blown sprint. Dragging suitcases with wheels, or small children, or both. People I know I’ll probably never see again in this lifetime.
And I’m always fascinated by all the destinations at the various gates along the way: Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville. New York City, St. Louis, Phoenix. Seattle, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Detroit, Louisville, Houston, Sioux Falls. It’s wild, thinking that what amounts to a glorified metal tube with carpet and windows can be the launching pad to so many different places. At each of these gates, people standing in line, handing off boarding passes, strolling down tarmacs with an agenda and a plan. They know their final destination. They know where they’re going.
Quite a different experience from the traveler we encounter in our scripture today. The 11th chapter of Hebrews is one of the more heralded parts of the New Testament; a “Who’s Who” of the Bible greats and how they followed God “by faith.” A cloud of witnesses, it’s called. And the one who gets the most press time in this cloud of witnesses is none other than Abraham, the guy who started it all way back in the Genesis passage Rebecca read earlier.
It was Abraham whom God appeared to out of nowhere one night, taking him outside and showing him a star-studded sky that would number his descendants. It was Abraham whom God called to lead God’s chosen people. And it was Abraham whom God gave in his and his wife’s old age a son – Isaac, who would begin the storied family lineage and all those descendants God had promised.
But the thing we are being asked to make note of today is not Abraham’s journey itself, but the way in which that journey began: a very curious beginning; as the writer of Hebrews tells us:
By faith, it says, Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out…
…and here’s the part I want us to pay attention to…
… he set out not knowing where he was going.
Now let’s chew on that for a moment, shall we? Because so often these stories in the Bible become so routine, so second-hand to us, that we often miss what’s right in front of us. What does it mean, do you think, that the very foundation of the faith that you and profess begins with God appearing to an unsuspecting 75-year old man and saying: Abraham, I want you to pack up everything, all your family and all your belongings; and I want you to go on a trip from which you will never return. Oh, and did I mention that I’m not going to tell you where you’re going, either?
You know what that’s like? That’s like walking through a gate at the airport and boarding the plane when there is no city’s name displayed above it. Just wherever the plane takes you, that’s where you’re going to go. It’s like standing at the starting line of a 10K race and having no idea where it finishes – you’re just going to run until you think it’s over. It’s like piling into the family car for the summer vacation with all preparations made – the car is all packed, the pet sitter lined up, the kid who’ll mow your grass and get your mail. The one thing you don’t have figured out is where the vacation actually will be. No room reservations, no address to plug into the GPS. You literally don’t know, as you’re pulling out of the driveway, whether you’re going to turn right or left. That doesn’t sound terribly smart, does it?
And yet, this is what Abraham does. And isn’t it curious that we’ve lifted him up as a paragon of our faith because of this? I mean, where else does one get a pat on the back for running a race without a finish line, or leaving on vacation with no destination? Going through life without an agenda, without an end goal – we characterize that as reckless, irresponsible, selfish.
I mean, we tell our children from day one, do we not, to do their best in school and do all kinds of extracurricular activities because – why? – because it’ll look good on a college application. And when we get into that college? We make the best grades and apply for the best internships, because a solid transcript coupled with a strong resume will help us land a good job. And when we get that job, is that it? No! We put in overtime and go above and beyond so we can make partner, or get the big salary, or get a promotion – or get all of those things.
So much of our lives in the first world is destination-driven. Achieving to succeed. It is a huge part of our collective cultural mindset.
So what in the world do we do with Abraham – embarking on some life-long journey without having a clue where he’s going, all because God put him up to it. Just go, and don’t worry about where you’re going, Abraham, because God will lead you there – some day. Don’t worry about the finish line, Abraham, because God will show it to you – eventually.
I mean, would you sign up for that? What does it mean to set out in faith not knowing where we’re going?
Before he retired, my father used to work for the Olympics. I don’t know how many of you knew that about him. From Atlanta all the way to Brazil, some eleven winter and summer games, he helped with the massive communication infrastructure those games required. Swimming was one of his sports, as was hockey and curling. I have an appreciation for curling most people this side of the Canadian border do not because of my father.
Dad is a lover of history, so he once asked if I’d ever heard of the unique race that was part of the original Greek Olympics; one that was categorically different from all the others. Most of the races, like today, were about finishing first; but there was one event that had nothing to do with where one finished. It wasn’t even about a destination. The winner of this particular event was the person who finished with their torch still lit.
A torch – a burning flame. Now think about that. If that’s the race you’re in, are you really concerned about whatever finish line is in front of you? No – your focus is all on the torch, doing whatever you can to keep it burning. Whatever to keep the flame lit.
See, I can’t help but wonder if that might have something to say to us about the kind of faith that Abraham and all the others in this “cloud of witnesses” are being celebrated for. So much of our Christian faith tends to mimic our culture’s destination-obsession; be it getting into heaven or living a blessed life. We make a finish line out of something that God never intended it being. And when we get there, or think we get there, we take on a role that is not ours to take on. We convince ourselves that we’ve arrived. That we are complete. That the journey is over.
How crazy is that, given that one of the patriarchs of our faith was sent by God on a journey and didn’t even know where he was going? How could we ever say we’ve arrived if Abraham and all those others couldn’t say the same?
No, my friends; the Christian journey has never been solely about the destination. It’s about something else – or, more precisely, someone else. As we read in Hebrews:
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us run with perseverance the race set before us,
looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….
Folks, you and I are on a journey – a journey of faith. It’s about keeping the flame on our torch lit. And that flame is none other than Jesus himself – the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” He is our goal, he is our destination, he is our finish line.
And because of that, we never “arrive;” we are never “done.” We are always works in progress, doing our part to build a portion of God’s kingdom on earth. And the minute we think we have arrived is the minute that flame starts to go out. The minute we lose sight of what – of who – matters most.
I wonder what this all might mean for us as we seek to be church together, knowing full well that so much is changing around us, that part of being church today is admitting that our old ideas of what our destination was aren’t relevant anymore – and being comfortable in knowing that that is okay. How do we seek to be church to the world when it’s not all about the destination?
I think about the elders we’ve ordained and installed today – Anne, Kyle, Madeleine, Janet, Neal. And the fact that, while these folks will have tasks aplenty in their time on session – chairing a ministry team, approving budgets, serving communion, all the things – perhaps their greatest leadership will come in helping our church figure out where God is leading us. How’s that for a bullet point on a job description! Helping our church live into its “Abraham-ness,” setting out on the journey knowing only that God goes with us every step of the way.
Back in a sermon this past summer I spoke about a book by Presbyterian pastor Tod Bolsinger called “Canoeing The Mountains,” and how people of faith thrive in a world that is not as we once remembered it. Kind of like going on a journey and not knowing the destination, I guess. What I said then, I think, very much applies here today – and not just for our newly-ordained and installed elders, but for each and every one of us. How do we go forward in faith, not knowing where we’re going?
- We listen – deeply. We do more listening than talking.
- We take in our surroundings. We see what is begging to be seen, not just what we want to see.
- We learn what we need to let go of in order to grab hold of what needs to be held.
- We trust one another. We assume the best, not the worst, in each other.
- We realize that our best learnings, our most impactful growth, come when we fail. And so we are not afraid of failure.
- And in the end, we keep our focus on what truly matters: whether the kingdom of God on earth has been served because of who we are.
Now I know all of this can be unsettling. I know that it’s not the way we typically roll in this world we’ve created for ourselves. But here’s the thing – what the world needs most from the church these days is not a group of people who have it all figured. Truth be told, those are the ones they should be most suspicious of, offering quick fixes and easy solutions and an unnerving certainty about who is right and who is wrong, who is “in” and who is “out”…..
No, what the world needs – what we need – is a community who loves each other deeply and whose sole promise to each other is to go on the journey wherever it leads. Don’t get me wrong – the church needs to be active, moving forward. But what matters most is that we go together.
And when you think about it, isn’t going together a whole lot better than just getting somewhere?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.