Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dare to Ask

Genesis 15: 1-6

                The young man probably stuck out like a sore thumb in the not-so-busy Prague bus station.  He waited in front of the #4 bus stop for the bus his host had promised would take him back to the village he was visiting.  His host, a friend who had been an exchange student in the States the year before hadn’t been able to accompany him on this trip into the city to see the sites, but had diligently helped John study the bus map the night before.  John knew he was right on track.  Mostly.  His walk through the former Jewish ghetto had taken him a little longer than he had planned, so his plan to catch the 5:00 p.m. bus that Saturday night didn't quite work out.  But “No worries,” he thought.  When John and Kryštof had come to town just a few days before, they had taken the #4 bus home at 6:00 p.m.  With just 40 minutes to wait for the next bus, John pulled out the book he had been carrying around for just this kind of occasion.
                Thirty minutes later, though, he wasn’t quite as nonchalant.  Bus #2 had come and gone, and as one might expect about fifteen minutes before it left a line started to form.  Only ten minutes before his bus was to leave, not only wasn’t there a line forming, there wasn’t even a bus yet.  Five more minutes passed and still no line and no bus.  Then the nearby church bell tolled the hour.  Six o’ clock in the evening and STILL there was no #4 bus to take him back out to the village about forty miles out of the city.  What was a tourist, a non-Czech speaking tourist, to do?
                Well, sit.  Of course.  Maybe the weekend bus schedule was a little different, and the 6:00 p.m. bus really came at 6:15 p.m..  Oh no?  Well, maybe 6:30 p.m.  Oh no?  6:45 p.m.?  7:00 p.m.?  Surely it would come at 7:00 p.m..  But it didn’t.  Now what was a tourist to do?  A tourist proud of his navigational skills that had proved useful all day in a foreign city.  A tourist who wasn’t really ready to admit that maybe he didn’t know everything there was to know about traveling on his own.  A tourist who DEFINITELY didn’t want to seem weak, ignorant, exposing his lack of confidence that was growing with each passing minutes.  What’s a tourist to do?
                What is a traveler to do?  A traveler in Prague trying to find the way home, a traveler  in the ancient world?  Abram has been traveling a long time, about 20 years.  He was called out of the land of his ancestors and followed God’s voice to Canaan, to a land God promised to fill with his children and his children’s children.  But Abram, whose name means “exalted father,” isn’t, a father. I mean, time is passing and the reality of not seeing the promise come true is weighing down on him.
                He has followed God’s voice from his homeland of Ur, near the present day Persian Gulf, up to Haran near the modern day intersection of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, down to Canaan, but then out to Egypt when a famine struck the land.  He came back to Canaan settled in the land, but had to leave for a while to free his nephew who was taken captive in war, again, back to what we know as Syria, before returning to Canaan.  All along the way at least two or three other times, God continues to speak the promise “[F]or the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (13:15-16) 
After their journey across deserts and mountains comes to an end, I begin to imagine Abram and Sarai a lot like John, stuck in Prague, sitting in front of bus spot #4, waiting, waiting, waiting for what they know is to come, but just isn’t.  Still there are no offspring so numerous they equal the grains of dust on the earth.  There isn’t even ONE child.  What’s a traveler to do?
John eventually got up from the bench.  It was cold.  It was growing later and later.  The sun was completely down and as it dropped so did the temperature.  He didn’t know a soul in Prague nor have a clue how to find somewhere to stay if he needed to.  He had to admit that bus #4 didn’t look like it was coming.  With no Czech words to really speak of he made his way to a little booth where people were buying tickets and tried to figure out how he was supposed to get home.  He pointed at maps, repeated the name of the village where he stayed, the next largest town whose name he could remember, held up four fingers to try to explain he needed bus #4, ANYTHING to get some help with this next stage of his journey.
All of which is pretty much what Abram finally breaks down and does himself.  Back in Canaan with Lot resettled, in comes the word of God in a vision to Abram, one more time, “Do not be afraid…your reward shall be very great.”  Back in Canaan with Lot resettled, Abram finally gives in, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me for I continue childless?!?!?”  Abram finally lifts up his voice.  He has followed God faithfully and without question this far.  He has moved his wife, his servants, his nephew across thousands of miles.  They have lived in the land they were told would be their land.  They have moved to Egypt in search of food.  They have come back to Canaan.  They have lost Lot in war.  They have found Lot in foreign lands.  They have lived quietly and faithfully waiting for promises to come true, and still, and STILL they have no child.  Definitely not a whole dustbowl of them, not even one.  Abram stands in front of God in a vision, pointing to the map that was the plan, holding up fingers to show how he thought this all would go, frustrated, dejected, uncertain, and desperate. 
Here is the exalted father about as defeated as we will see him.  This is the great ancestor of faith about whom we learn in Sunday School, but this isn’t how we usually think of him.  He’s usually so faithful, so sure, so confident in what has been promised.  Or at least that’s how we remember him.  But here in this story Abram isn’t so confident.  He isn’t so perfect.  He’s a little more, oh, I don’t know.  Familiar!  He looks a lot more like what I see when I look in the mirror, when I look out at the church.  He looks like someone trying to figure it all out.
And it's right here in the middle of Abram’s vision in which he FINALLY voices his question, it’s right here where God not only repeats the promise to Abram one more time, but it’s right here where Abram is reckoned as righteous.  It’s right here that God looks at him and recognizes his faithfulness of so many years, listens to his question, probably his anger or at least frustration, and welcomes his engagement in the relationship.  It's right here that God names Abram's faith as righteousness.
It isn’t the traveler who sits on a cold bench at bus stop #4, proud of how well he navigated the city all day long, who solves a problem in foreign land.  It isn’t the traveler who thinks he knows it all and can do it all completely on his own who learns about the bigger bus station with one more bus back to the village if he can run and catch it.  It isn’t the traveler who tries to do it all on his own who finds his way home.  It isn’t the traveler who keeps his questions all bottled up inside, huddled alone in the dark night of the journey who looks righteous.
When did we get so scared of not knowing?  When did faithfulness start to look like unquestioning, mute mental ascent to doctrine?  When did righteousness turn into leaving our thoughtfulness, even our doubts behind?  Abram did a lot of quiet following.  He heard God’s command and God’s promise and stepped out on faith I can barely imagine to travel all over the world he knew and even beyond what he knew.  He did everything that was asked, and then even a little more trying to expedite the fulfillment of God’s promises.  Yet it wasn’t in his silent following that he was declared righteous.  It was in his questioning.  It was when he spoke to God.  It was when he brought the rest of himself to the relationship. It was when he talked with God, prayed to God, raised his deepest, darkest fear to God, that Abram and his faith is reckoned as righteous.
Righteousness in God’s eyes, faith at its fullness, is not equated with blind faith, checking one’s brains and questions at the door.  God wants a relationship.  God blesses (and uses as a blessing!) those who show up and participate in the life of faith.  At some point in the story of God’s relationship with creation we started to elevate the faith of those who never doubt, those who are able to write off the things that don’t sit well with them, those who can accept every piece of doctrine and tradition that has been handed to them by previous generations, and we began to say that “they” get it.  They are righteous, but I am not.
God bless them.  God bless the ones among us and those outside of these walls who can honestly and faithfully accept what has been told to them.  Really, God blesses them.  But God also blesses those who question.  What we see here in the story of Abram is that righteousness isn’t so much how strongly we believe everything that has been passed on word for word, it’s that we show up to the relationship - - with our confidence, with our certainties, AND with our doubts and our questions.  Abram grew, his relationship with God deepened, not because he sat in silence, stewing and wondering what was going to happen, not for following blindly what he didn’t understand, what he had trouble believing, what didn’t seem possible.  Abram grew, his relationship with God deepened, it was even reckoned unto him as righteous when he finally opened his mouth and spoke, when he engaged God on the journey of faith, yes, even when he QUESTIONED what was going on.
                This morning we begin a new year of our education ministry.  The children, this year as young as 2, will meet their new teachers and begin to forge new friendships in faith.  Adults have volunteered to teach them, often with a healthy dose of fear and uncertainty that they don’t know enough themselves.  New Bible studies are forming.  Networks youth ministry is getting started. Soon adult Sunday School topics will be announced.  Our ministries of faith formation and spiritual growth are getting underway.  The journey is starting; the circuitous walk of faith is continuing.  May what we do be reckoned as righteous.  May we not seek so much fill our doubts with doctrine, to silence curiosity, but to raise our questions, voice our fears, and deepen our relationship with God.


liz said...

What a helpful way into Abram's story -and ours. Blessings on the preacher and the hearers (and readers)

Rev Nancy Fitz said...

I trust it all went well today.