Into the Unknown…with God

+In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen

Now the Lord said to Abram and Sarai, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-8

Good morning! It’s great to see you on this Sunday morning when priests throughout the Episcopal Church and others who go to work early on Sunday morning are bleary-eyed from the time change. It’s a sacrifice I’m personally happy to make if it helps those of you who will go to secular jobs on Monday morning adjust better. I should add to the list of those affected by the time change all parents of young children. My children never seemed to get the memo when we moved back and forth between Standard Time and Daylight Savings time. In the spring, they had a hard time waking up to go to preschool, and in the fall, they woke up the Sunday after the time change at the usual hour – and couldn’t understand why their parents told them to go back to bed.

Our two older children – the parents of our four grandchildren – report that their experiences are the same as ours. Paybacks are hell, aren’t they? It will be a tough week this coming week in Brooklyn and in Worthington, Ohio.

Since I’ve brought up my grandchildren, I want to talk about one of them – the only girl – our granddaughter, Jane Lena Applegate Fairbanks. It’s a big name for a child who’s three, going on four, but sometimes it doesn’t seem big enough for a person with as big a personality as she happens to have. (As an aside, I promise I won’t tell stories about my grandchildren every time I preach. Since I am doing so today, I promise to listen to the stories about your children and grandchildren whenever you want to share them, and I further promise to ooh and aah over their pictures. If you don’t have children of your own, the same applies to nieces, nephews, and pets of all kinds!)

Anyway, back to Jane. In the olden days, Jane is what would have been called a pistol. From the very beginning, she’s been full of sass and confidence. I have been praying that she’ll still have these qualities when she hits that point – research says it starts at about 12 years old – when girls start to lose their confidence. She’s got some awfully powerful women around her – and a number of supportive men around her, too – so maybe she won’t miss a beat.

We last saw Jane in late December. Since her father, Randy, is a Jew, we celebrated both Hanukah and Christmas, lighting candles, decorating the tree, eating potato latkes, and exchanging presents. For Jane, this past holiday wasn’t so much about religious observances as it was about Disney’s Frozen. She got a Frozen dollhouse, and the two dolls (or action figures), because, you see, she already had the musical dress. Of the two female protagonists, Jane has decided that she’s Anna. But – as only young kids can do – she is also Elsa sometimes – especially when it comes to singing the songs. All I can say is watch out, Idina Menzel! Jane is coming for you.

I still have a vivid memory of her singing along to the theme from Frozen II – the song, “Into the Unknown”. If you have somehow been able to miss the Frozen experience, kudos to you. To fill you in, Frozen II is about how Elsa, the Snow Queen, is summoned by a mysterious voice calling out to her. In response, Elsa sings the theme song. Let me quote the second stanza and the refrain:

“You’re not a voice, you’re just a ringing in my ear
And if I heard you, which I don’t, I’m spoken for I fear
Everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls
I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls
I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you
Into the unknown . . .”

Elsa (Idina Menzel) repeats the phrase, Into the Unknown, twice more, each time belting it out with greater force and passion. Now, with apologies for the ear worm, I want to talk about Abraham and Sarah. They are the key characters in the first lesson we read from Genesis, and in the lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I’ve got two good reasons for doing this.

The first reason for talking about Abraham and Sarah is a compelling one. The reason is the troubling rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and in this country. The trend began across the pond several years before it spread to the U.S. In an article published five years ago now in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an essay entitled, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” He reported then on a blizzard of incidents. These incidents have not abated since Goldberg wrote his article. Just this week, The New York Times had a piece about what’s been happening in Alsace – an historical cradle of French Judaism, where Jews have lived since the Middle Ages. Last year there were 50 incidents targeting Jews in Alsace. Cemeteries, schools and village walls were painted with swastikas or obscure references to the Third Reich. Jewish tombs have become particularly easy targets in a region with an uneasy relationship to a troubled wartime past and a penchant for voting far right.

In this country, which for years was an astonishingly non-anti-Semitic place, incidents have recently multiplied. In the first six months of 2019, the Anti-Defamation League – the Jewish civil rights group – counted 780 cases that include vandalism, arson, and the distribution of white supremacist propaganda at synagogues and other Jewish institutions. In July of 2018, when I was serving as an interim in Carmel, IN, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla was vandalized. The graffiti, which comprised a pair of Nazi flags and iron crosses, was spray painted on two walls of a brick shed. On the grass in front of one of the Nazi flags, there were burn marks in two places, and a portion of the graffiti bore a black burn mark, too. The night it happened I joined other religious leaders: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim at the synagogue to say, Never Again.

These are deeply troubling events. The fact that they have been directed against Jews is certainly troubling. (It is, after all, only seventy-five years since the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army – only seventy-five years since the Holocaust ended.) But they are also disturbing because they are a telling example of how we human beings behave whenever a group of people is labeled and marginalized as “other” – whether that label has been applied to Armenians, or Muslim Bosnians, or Bosnian Croats, or the Tutsi in Rwanda, or Muslims (or people mistaken for Muslims) in this country after 9/11, or gay, lesbian or trans people, or, most recently, the Chinese during the current coronavirus panic.

And since the Christian church has played a significant role in the persecution of the Jews and others down through the centuries, it’s critical that we know and understand the story of Abraham and Sarah, whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims claim as their spiritual ancestors. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three “Abrahamic Faiths” – religions that claim to be inheritors of the promise God made to Abraham that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” How we understand what those ancient words mean as we begin the third decade of the 21st Century makes a great deal of difference.

The second reason to talk about Abraham and Sarah is it fits with our theme for this Lenten season about stories. The text from Genesis is the story of a journey. Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories, a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” In the lesson from Genesis this morning, a man goes on a journey. In fact, an entire clan goes on a journey: Abraham, Sarah, Lot, and a considerable entourage which includes servants, and shepherds, and Lot’s family and friends. This enormous party begins the move 500 miles southwest to Canaan. God sends Abraham, Sarah, and the others on a journey that will have a huge impact on the history of world religions and on the history of the world itself. Many have said that chapter 12 of Genesis is the most important turning point in the Hebrew Bible. Through the first eleven chapters of Genesis, God struggled again and again with a violent, corrupt and rebellious people.

Now God decides to take a risk on humanity using a new strategy. He chooses to be in relationship with Abraham and Sarah. God’s plan is that through blessing Abraham and Sarah, all the people of the earth will be blessed.

God says to them, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” The passage we read is a Torah portion that is read every year in the synagogue. It is known as the Lech L’cha portion, which can best be translated from the Hebrew in the imperative: “Go! Get going!” Think about what God was saying to Abraham and Sarah, “Go! Separate yourself from your community, from the land of your birth, from your people, from your own home. Go to a new land that I will give you. You and Sarah, although she is barren now, will be the parents of a great nation.” It’s an absolutely remarkable promise, given that Abraham is seventy-five and Sarah is not far behind. “I will give you descendants who will become a great nation.” Talk about Into the Unknown!

The command to get going is challenging enough; the promise God makes is ridiculous. By any objective evaluation, this family is at a dead end. There will be no children. Nevertheless, Abraham and Sarah listen to God’s voice, pick up, and leave the settled security of home. They abandon the orderly, predictable, safe life they have established, and head out into the future without knowing where they are headed. What they know is that God wants them to go, and that God will be with them on this journey wherever it ends. What they could not have known is that, by responding to God’s, “Go! Get Going!” they would set the whole world on a new trajectory.

The story contains two very important ideas. The first idea is that God calls – that God summons people to journeys whose destinations are not always clear. The second is that faith, Biblical faith, is an act of following. It’s not about believing certain things about God. It is about trusting God and letting go of security, safety, and routine. Faith is about setting out to follow. 
Having faith is not as easy as it sounds, and Abraham and Sarah found out just how hard it could be after they had traveled for a while on their journey. So, we have the basic components of the story: God calls Abram and Sarai from a settled life in Haran. They go, trusting that God will do what he has promised them.

I doubt that you will be surprised when I tell you that Abraham and Sarah’s story has prompted a lot of commentary and more than a few interpretations. We start, all of us – non-Jews, pagans – those whom Paul calls the ungodly – in exactly the same place that Abraham did. Abraham and Sarah were minding their own business in Haran, settled in for the long haul. But when God called them, Abraham and Sarah had faith in God’s promises. And so their journey began.

Paul writes (in the passage from Romans), “Abraham and Sarah are the ancestors of all people everywhere who trust in God. If there’s anything that can break down the walls that divide us from one another, perhaps it’s what we have in common – what we share – will people of faith have faith even though the way forward is unclear?”

This is a time in the life of All Saints’ when the words “community of faith” take on particular meaning and when we are called to trust God to lead us into an unknown future. Let me end with this from Henri Nouwen, “If we want to have all our bases covered before we act, nothing exciting will happen. But if we dare to take a few crazy risks because God’s asks us to do so, many doors, which we didn’t even know existed, will be opened for us.”

God said to Abraham and Sarah, and God says to us, Lech L’cha – Go! Get going! Into the unknown, with me.