Come, O Breath

a sermon on John 11; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11

 

“O mortal, can these bones live?”

This question in our first reading may match some of our sad uncertainty of these days: What about all these people, all these bodies, all these valleys where death is lingering?

IMG_150Except where we continue watching as things get worse and death spreads, wondering what will happen with the sad uncertainty, I suppose our first reading had sad certainty. Bones stay dead. Can bones live? No. Perhaps our uncertainty still means possibility. Yet, even too late, the question is asked over bones, so it must mean something more than impossibility.

It’s striking that this question is an interaction between God and a mortal, a theological engagement about death. Many of us turn to church and religion as part of seeking answers in such moments and especially these days. For things beyond our usual comprehension or worldview, as we yearn for clarity to relieve some of the sad uncertainty, we cry out of the depths and we ask God.

But in this Bible reading, it is God who asks. God questions the prophet Ezekiel, “O mortal, can these bones live?” We want answers. We want to know what will happen or why it happened. We turn to God most deeply for that, for our Why questions. The sad inquiry in the face of death are questions we ask, not questions we want God to ask of us. At that point we’re not wondering what to do; it’s too late for us to do anything. So we want to know what God is going to do about it.

To flip it around the correct direction, two faithful sisters who meet Jesus had a sick brother, Lazarus. Mary and Martha ask Jesus, ask God for help, for healing. These are also our faithful prayers and deep longings, wanting cures, care, assistance.

But what they wanted didn’t come to pass. Jesus seemed to fail to show up to help. Lazarus died.

So Martha and Mary both press the next degree of sad questioning, this time as a lament: “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” They seem sure that this outcome was avoidable, that it didn’t have to end up this way. Something else could’ve happened, and not only could’ve, but our faith in God says should have.

We have this inner sort of confidence. We expect to know the right answer and can judge what is best. It’s hard on us generally, because things so frequently don’t go how we want.

In these days that’s exacerbated. I’ve found one of my refrains this week is that none of us really knows what’s right, and we’re all trying to do something right. We’re wanting to figure it out. Nobody is trying to do wrong. For my part, it’s made me a bit more humble, less judgmental, and more grateful. It makes me say to each of you: thank you for what you’re doing. These are hard days and you are trying hard. So thank you. You’re doing okay, as right as you can. Even if that’s not enough, never enough, thank you for what you’re doing.

And yet at this point in the crisis, it may not be going how we want. We’re trying, but right now it isn’t clear things are turning out very right.

So that puts us back to the theological question and the sad uncertainty, pointing out it didn’t have to be this way, wondering if we expect good things from God, then where is God’s action.

In the Gospel story, our questioning is met by Jesus with at least three responses. The first two are to the sisters. And they are very different responses to our human questioning, but both important answers from God.

One answer is teaching, rejuvenating of faith. It is invitational. Jesus reminds Martha that Lazarus will rise, that death has no dominion, that resurrection and life are in Jesus. Martha knows these answers, and so this is an opportunity for her to rededicate herself and be held by her faith when Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?” Yes, I believe.

We can ask that belief today. You trust that God is our good Creator, the eternal one, bigger than our present conundrums and struggles. We are an Easter people, gathered around a cross to display that death will not have the last word, that when death has done its worst, it will be undone, and better things are to come. We look to the risen Jesus. Life wins. These days it may be vital to remember this grounding of our faith: do you believe this? Yes, I believe.

It’s the reason we repeat creeds and statements of faith in worship, so we can be reminded of who our God is and put those words again on our own lips: yes, I believe.

If that intuitive reassurance seems like the move from us back toward God, then the second response from Jesus may illustrate the move in the other direction, from God to us and our human condition.

Mary voices the same question, of wanting more from God’s presence. And Jesus goes with her. Physically. Goes with her to face death. to the tomb. Goes with her emotionally, a word at its root about how we are moved out from where we are to another. God goes out to where we are as we confront the hardness. Jesus weeps. This is a God of empathy, moving into your sorrows, a God of compassion, with you in suffering, God who goes all the way into death with you and for you. Maybe it’s why we like the little verse “Jesus wept” so much, because it isn’t about us trying to make our way to God, but the kernel of God knowing us and our experience.

But of course we don’t just need a God who recognizes our problems and feels bad about them. We most of all need a God who will do something. So the third response from Jesus and God is to call Lazarus out of the tomb, to undo death. These bones can live, mortal. God answers God’s own question. In the end, if we’re asking Why questions of God—why did it happen? why didn’t he keep his friend from dying?—God doesn’t look back. God instead responds with action, with Now What answers.

I don’t know much to say about that in these current events when we’re looking for God, waiting with deep longings. Jesus didn’t work on the sisters’ timeline or respond how or when they wanted. We’d like some clearer action of life right now. We wish and pray for it. The story doesn’t resolve those rationalizing questions, it just moves to God’s final answer. Before the big picture and final answer, I don’t think this is just that we are looking in the wrong places, that we have inaccurate expectations of God’s work.

We still look for explanations. For example, I like that the breath in Ezekiel comes from the four winds, from every corner of the earth. So I was wondering this week if there’s something of God’s Spirit that is a shared international spirit these days. We have global attention and concern. Our compassion and godly empathy know no national boundaries. On smaller scale, these have been days filled with neighborliness, with kindness, with creative sharing of life, even as we’re physically separate nevertheless having a sense of connectedness that is far beyond usual. God may well be working in that. It may be godly.

But it’s not enough of a solution that we all have a new appreciation of life and our relationships and simple things. That’s nice, but it’s not enough that something positive comes out of this. We need more answer from God. We need to overcome. We need life, to breathe safely and at peace.

As we are experiencing the risk of breath, when shared breathing contains possible contagion, of breath bringing death, for the third week in a row I find myself referring to God’s good purifying breath that comes to you to give you life.

I take that as the small miracles of every single breath you take, God constantly renewing and breathing life into you. We take that as the hope of ventilators in these days, sustaining life. And maybe sewing masks to protect life.

But we also take it as something more, something we can’t see and experience right now but that is the ultimate promise of God’s action and God’s response to deadly crisis. The bones will live, set free from death. Breath will come into them.

While we wait, we can keep trusting in that to come. For now, maybe there’s something in the Romans reading. God’s Spirit has already been put into you.

The passage goes on to say “you have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but a spirit” of relationship. A spirit of love. A spirit of peace. A spirit of life. (8:15)

You are filled with God’s Spirit, in-spired so that you don’t fall back captive to fear. The gospel message is so often “do not be afraid,” from the Bethlehem shepherds to the Easter tomb, from the lips of Jesus, for all of our troubled hearts, that message then and for these days now isn’t that there’s nothing to fear. Of course these are fearful days. But when you are scared, God’s Spirit fills your hearts so that you aren’t confined by those fears. You are freed in hope, in faith, inspired to continue on, knowing there is more.

These bones will live. Come, O Breath.

 

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A God Not Far Off

sermon on John9; 1Samuel16:1-13; Psalm23

 

I haven’t been out much this week. You probably haven’t either.

I was surprised on Monday to find I couldn’t get my bulk flour or oats or even coffee at the co-op, with those aisles covered up and sealed off. I was surprised at empty shelves around the store. I guess I was also surprised the fruit was still sitting out. Those surprises were seeing in person what we’ve heard on the news.

More personally unsettling was a gas station errand Wednesday evening sensing I was supposed to be nervous. I dashed inside before another customer could go in, and tried not to touch anything, using the PIN pad with my knuckle, intensely eager to wash my hands after.

That’s a strange, sickening feeling for me, this fearful avoidance of contact. It may not be unjustified for interacting with these days. But I don’t like it.

It struck me this being fretfully apart from the world is the opposite of God, who interacts with and makes use of and blesses our world, a full contact God. Our God is not separate from here. God is not an austere, blank, clean isolation chamber, those sterile all-white rooms without so much as a speck. Not holy or heavenly to make earth off-limits as too corrupt and besmudging God’s pure goodness. If that’s your view of God and heaven and what’s right, you need to be re-grounded.

Now, I know this contrasts with our recent instructions and practices. A backward love, we hear and know this a time for no-contact. But when you turn to church, it isn’t for repeating the crisis or lessons on safety. You get that plenty elsewhere. That’s not what you need to hear now. Especially right now as we don’t get to do it ourselves, we reiterate relational trust in our up-close-and-personal God. I believe we’re desperately needing the God who comes into our condition, even when it’s messed up.

This is a God who gets dirty. It’s a gorgeous gross image in the Gospel story today, of Jesus smearing spitty sloppy soil on a guy’s face. It echoes God the Creator in the beginning stooping down and scooping dirty hands to mold an earthling. Our God doesn’t have well-manicured fingernails, but has crud packed under there. Again, for saliva and God’s contagious goodness, God blew the breath of life into that earthling’s mouth and lungs.

This also appears in the mucky work in gardens that continues seasonably in these otherwise foreign days, the obscurely hopeful life-givings of a creative God who sticks seeds into the damp, clumpy soil to bring new life, to wait for spinach and peas to sprout, grow, produce.

In the Gospel story, Jesus stoops into the dirt, spits, mushes it around, gets his fingers goopy and muddy. He is creating from the mess, forming it, reforming it. God is hands-on with this world, involved and committed to all of this earthly, earthy, fleshy stuff. Miraculously, even filth and contamination, the worldly troubles, are taken as God’s problems…That’s not how I want to say that, though: there’s much we see negatively that God somehow still uses for the positive. Even the bad can become good.

A man was born blind in the story. That’s bad. The disciples want to look for fault, to examine sin. The authorities look for contagion by association, they want nothing to do with Jesus or the man. They’re trying to distance themselves. But Jesus isn’t assigning blame or trying to rationalize it. Instead he sees an opportunity to reach out. Not exempting or excluding blessing, Jesus takes this as a place of good, a place of God.

God, of course, is always involved in our world, in our lives, in our bodies. This God we know in Jesus is born into our bodies. This God in Jesus also goes on to die in our bodies. Nothing of our lives is separate from God. Not from messy beginnings, not through confusing and disrupted middles, not all the way to frightful or fragile finales. God is not just by peaceful waters but also guiding through deadly valleys. Wellness is not closer to godliness, nor is illness or disease apart from God.

There are strong, valid, vital reasons we are quarantining, with very very good intentions, to be helpful and caring. But in these isolating days and so much difficult uncertainty, through the fears that make us wary of the presence of other people, afraid to go into a gas station, that make us try to scrub-scrub-scrub off remnants of others, when it seems best, seems responsible, or is straight up the rule that we should or must avoid physical contact, it is more necessary than ever to say that God is not separate, not cut off from us, not held back through the bad or good, not apart from the realities of your life and what this world is facing. God is face-to-face, arm in arm, with every breath, fully embracing you and this world.

God who in Jesus got dirty and got bloody for this creative life-giving work certainly can’t keep his hands off of you and won’t let you go.

Except with medical workers, that level of contact is currently off-limits for us, even as we know it’s the right thing and miss it. I saw a post this week attributed to Pope Francis looking forward to “when we hug again, when all the shopping together will seem like party, we will go back to laughing together.” We recognize now is neither how our embodied lively touchy-feely God is, nor how we want to be.

It’s with this God still operating in our lives, turning our bads to goods, that I relate to a couple roles in our Old Testament reading. The first is the young person, David, so unexpected to be chosen by God that he didn’t even bother coming to the special gathering, the church service for commissioning and ordaining. Out alone, he felt far from the action. But God went out to claim him. It was totally unknown then, but he went on to become the greatest leader in his nation’s history, in spite of a whole muddy trough of his faults and failures.

In these days, when we long for answers and clarifications of what is going to happen and when, maybe in the anointing of young David there’s also a sense that in unexpected ways, far from feeling like you’re an important part of the action, without any idea of the ending, God is working. There aren’t qualifications that mean readiness and ability, nor details that render God incapable. God keeps bringing us to what God is working for.

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leftover ashes, olive oil, fresh mud

I hope you’ll get the chance during this service or at another moment to participate in the prayers and blessing for marking with oil. It’s a dual sign. On one hand, oil was the primary medicinal component in ancient times, applied for healing and relief and cleansing. But also, with the Hebrew word Messiah and the Greek word Christ, anointing was a sign of being chosen for God’s work, like young David. This anointing is a reminder God is both working healing in you and for the world.

The other meaningful role I notice in our Old Testament reading was that it started with an old person in fear. Samuel felt the risk. He’s scared, and with good reason, that it would cost him his life. But God offered the assurance it will be okay, promised to be with him.

Our version from the story Bible had God saying, “I’ll help you,” but in the biblical text God says “get going and I’ll show you what to do.” I don’t like the verb “help” for God. God isn’t a “helper.” God is the primary actor. God may work with our assistance or God may work through our lack of willingness. Again, the God who is not separate from disease, who doesn’t see a disabled person as worse off but as better, this God isn’t just along for the ride to give a boost and a little help.

I don’t know why God doesn’t say it clearer, but somehow we discover through days like this that God is showing us what to do, like for old Samuel. We don’t know beforehand, we worry maybe the whole time, but God is showing us.

In this week really not going how any of us wanted or expected, even the alternative plan didn’t go how I aspired. I have felt in these days that you could use spiritual care and need a pastor. So I thought that this week I would get the chance to call some of you, to hear how you’re doing, and maybe to say a prayer.

Well, that plan fizzled. Instead I was endlessly futzing with reconfiguring things to make them function a bit. It was tedious and frustrating, but then somehow that was part of the way ahead God was showing. In this thing that I didn’t expect and was worried wasn’t going well or being what was needed, people still began to reconnect with online gatherings, to delight at seeing faces, to share in some grief, and some strategizing and coping, and also to notice the good. Maybe as you’ve also come to see, it was more blessing than I would’ve anticipated. It’s not my muddled efforts, but how God is working in this moment. You are receiving from God now through a livestream as dispersed but connected community. I wouldn’t’ve chosen it but somehow (I guess) it was a way God was showing us what to do. Or even if it wasn’t, God is still bringing about the good and sustaining life.

That’s also to say that we’re not just here for a list of ideas on how we can feel helpful and in the action.

These days may not go how we want or what we would plan. They may fill us with fear. We may have very little sense of direction, for ourselves or how this will turn out. We may not be sure of our role. It may be so very unnatural. What we do may not seem important or helpful, much less very godly and loving, and we will function with faults and failings.

But our God is always striving for life, for the good of our bodies, for the good of our world. God knows the way ahead and will show you, through the fears, and guide you into life. You may have glimpses and hopes of that now, or you may feel like you can’t see it at all and are desperately down. But in either place, God is with you, in the mud and muck and very physical reality of your life. God comes to assure it will be okay. More than that, it will be good.

 

bulletin, including prayer and blessing for anointing:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/6fiyj7lpnr9vzsj/A03%2022%20creation%20covid.pdf?dl=0

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A Sermon Not About Coronavirus

on Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4

Of course I’m going to talk about coronavirus.

I continued hoping I wouldn’t need that focus for this sermon. At the start of the week, I was feeling fear was the larger problem, and continuing to talk about it just increased our anxiety. I think that’s still some truth. But this became the main thing, and practically the only thing we talk about.

I don’t like topical sermons, and this won’t be one. This isn’t about coronavirus; it’s, as always, about God and you. I also want to say, coronavirus still isn’t most important thing. If we could have a fraction of this response to climate change, we’d be addressing a more drastic issue with longer consequences. And yet, even holding that level of concern, I don’t make every sermon about climate change (while questioning myself for not doing so). There are many other important issues for us here. But we don’t always talk about racism or immigration or hunger, or even about carpet colors and coffee! Some churches try to filter all the messages through sex, but that’s not really church, then.

That’s because we talk more broadly about life. To say it more clearly, it is not us talking, but God speaking into each and every one of our lives, channeled through the Bible readings, meeting the context of our lives. Today and evidently for some weeks to come, the context into which God is speaking is amid conversations and concerns and planning affected by coronavirus.

So to begin hearing God’s word and God’s will and God’s perspective for our current context, I turned to the reading from Exodus.

When the Israelites were wandering in the desert and parched and longing for relief from their thirst, we may say that their situation is like us looking for help with coronavirus, for a cure, to some sort of solution and relief. They worried for their families and complained of having left behind life in Egypt and were yearning and begging for a return to normalcy and security. (Little did they know that this was less than three months in to what became 40 years of wilderness wandering.)

While hoping our displacement won’t be so long, we too—maybe before this has even really begun—are wishing for normalcy, for March madness basketball games and late night TV and simple grocery shopping and not having to think so much about hand sanitizer and toilet paper. (Sheesh.) For my overwhelmed self, I wish for some other topic of discussion, something else on the news. Instead of this consuming preoccupation, I’d even take other bad news at this point.

We might relate that the Exodus story raced from one crisis to the next. At the end of the previous chapter was when God gave them manna because they were complaining of hunger, and the chapter before that they had just come through the Red Sea and escaped Pharaoh’s army.

Coronavirus is affecting us more—maybe both in real danger and in emotional saturation—but we are accustomed to being inundated from one alarming worry to the next. We’ve got our usual cadre of refugees and gun violence and political campaigns and natural disasters and cancer and all.

Like the people in the Exodus story, we had been griping and complaining, sometimes reasonably and sometimes not. But all of it has taken a back burner, it seems. Of course those other stresses and griefs haven’t gone away, they’ve just been further burdened and overwhelmed.

At least for the meantime (and it seems like these times are mean), we’re stuck wandering in the wastelands of COVID-19, finding ourselves isolated (or self-isolated as the redundant term now has it) in a deserted place thirsting for relief.

In this place, we cry out in fear. We cry out in hope. We cry out wishing it were different. We cry out longing just to go back to normalcy. We cry out in anger at life not being what it should. We cry because we’re panicked; we’ve lost our strength and capacity and direction.

I found myself this week in tears as I pedaled, even though it was a pleasant spring pedal. I found myself crying at my desk, though I had lots of work I wanted to be doing. I found myself crying in the mirror in the morning, even after a good night of sleep. It’s just been too much, and constantly too much. It’s been my upset, and worry for how you’re dealing with it. It’s been concern for what will happen within our congregation. It’s been trying to keep up with changes that come repeatedly, endlessly. It’s been so much uncertainty.

So, yes, I feel our situation has some semblance to the thirsty people in the wilderness, crying out.

I also want to say that I feel church is important in this moment. One of my particular sadnesses and perplexities is how we continue with this vital thing we do and are and which we offer here when it becomes less easy to do so.

We’ve continued to admit as a staff that we’re one of those places where people congregate (and are, after all, called a “congregation”). And we trend older than the overall population, meaning we have higher risk as we try to do our thing. And this is a place where we’re accustomed to contact—sharing close and caring greetings, sharing food, sharing life.IMG_1462

As we’re making our own way through wilderness and crying out to God, I wouldn’t say that the main point of the Exodus reading was the water from the rock. It’s not the miracle, per se. Our faith isn’t an alternative to science and reason and precaution. The importance in gathering today isn’t that we’re going to pray and beg and cry out loud enough that God will wave a magic wand stick to break a vaccination from the rock, a miracle cure.

We gather because God does hear our cries, because God travels with us. Most of all, it’s because we need to hear from God. We need a response. We are stuck in bad news and we desperately need good news. That makes this an essential service, one of the very last places I’d wish to have shut down.

Like with the woman at the well, Jesus meets us and is responding, knowing our very ordinary details, the ins and outs of our relationships, our personal as well as societal crises. Jesus is present with us and for us, embracing closely the fullness of who you are, not excluding or keeping away because of those things, certainly never practicing social distancing with you.

Jesus is responding with his own presence, which is the very gift of life, life far beyond the sort of life that cowers from germs and warily follows all the precautions. This life is not subsumed by what is dangerous and deadly but confronts it and overcomes it, life that lays down but can’t be lost and won’t lose. This resurrection promise blows the Spirit of Jesus into you, a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that is a contagion of wholeness and of wellbeing over and against all the isolating threats. That’s not to pretend that Jesus is an inoculation, some sort of protective cover that keeps us from sickness.

But he is very much more. Today he is present in the promise of living water, water from the rock to sustain you, water of the baptismal font that claims you for life. He is present at this table. Even as we gather cautiously, trying to avoid contamination, it is worth it because here he gives himself, his life, his body, his very lifeblood in and for you. He is present in each other as this Body of Christ. We greet each other with the peace of Christ, a peace we can’t find in keeping to ourselves, can’t give from ourselves. His peace comes to be with us and is offered between us, even if not with handshakes.

And this embodied good news then takes on flesh in us. I wish we could gather, not diminished and dwindled, but in even greater numbers today, because we need it. We need the assurance beyond coronavirus. We need to know, to be reminded, to gain confidence that life wins, even if it feels like a distant eventuality.

That’s also how we hold the words from Romans today. We don’t need to hunt for suffering, to prove endurance and build character, so that we can find our way to hope. Right now we know suffering. So God draws us toward hope. We become confident even while afraid, and come to know that fear produces a yearning that pulls us to God, and God will not disappoint us.

I hope that is true for our trembly lives, for these days that have had so much consternation and upset, the bombardment of the news and turmoil of so many changes to our rhythms and expectations. For those of you who are most fearful or who are most at risk, I hope you can find some strength, some endurance, some way ahead through the Spirit poured into your hearts.

As church together, I hope we also find ways to offer this goodness and care and love and life.

A set of words that were especially meaningful and helpful for me this week came from a sociological history book that measured during plagues of the early centuries of Christianity that Christian care and nursing, even without medications, cut mortality by two-thirds. They were invested in the promise of life and in Jesus’ words that “I was sick and you visited me.”*

Again, a blog post from ELCA Advocacy offered meaningful and helpful words to me this week, that when “our anxiety and uncertainty tempt us to curve inward and fixate on self-preservation, as church in this pandemic, we can also shine a light on impacts for our most vulnerable neighbors. As a church for the sake of the world, committed to God’s call to love and serve our neighbor, we turn our attention to those who will be most impacted by what may be massive disruptions.”**

Besides those broad and indirect words, some of the best words of my week came from a member here. As I’d been fretting about how we were going to get to be church and to carry on and receive life and be life, I got a note offering for our congregation and the community that she and her family would be available to deliver groceries or medicine to those shut inside who couldn’t get out.

That is a version of really seeing, of knowing our reality, of Jesus coming to touch us, embrace us, and bring us to new life.

Thank you, dear people. I don’t like this, but we’re going to be okay. I’m confident.

 

(prayers)

Well, God, our prayers—like everything else these days—are mostly about coronavirus.

So we pray for those who have the disease, for those most at risk and vulnerable, for those who are working hard to prevent the spread—from government officials to health care workers, to those responding at home.

We pray for all that radiates out from the virus—for people, especially in nursing homes and care facilities that are shut up and unable to have visitors and will suffer from isolation, for those who are suffering because of missing work and income, for students out of rhythm without school, the plans we lament are interrupted, for the panic and fright and stress of so much overwhelming news.

We pray for our congregation as we both try to go through this together and also experience disjunction. For those gathered here, for those joined by watching.

And for the rest of our lives. For all the joys and sorrows we face. For medical concerns, for insurance to approve medication to slow cancer, for preparing for surgery, for all dealing with dementia, for those who are awaiting medical test results, all who are fraught with anxiety, especially young people, for Amanda Huff moving to start a job in Paris, for signs of spring and hope, in bird song and sprouting bulbs and worms and more, for spirits lifted by music and laughter, for all that you see we need and know we are, and hold in your embrace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

 

* The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, pp73-94

** https://blogs.elca.org/advocacy/elca-advocacy-in-time-of-covid-19-pandemic/

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Blessed to be a Blessing

sermon on Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3

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There are no songs with this sermon. I guess that means there’s no song and dance routine.

I gave out all my stars. Neither are there visions or dream appearances. There’s no sandy beach up here or special visitors who might secretly be angels in disguise to sneak in with the Word.

There’s just the plain old Word.

“The LORD said to Abram, ‘Get up, get going, take yourself, go from your country and all you know. I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing.’ So Abram went, as the LORD told him.”

We’re not told how the Word of promise comes to Abram. The LORD said this to him, but it doesn’t say how God told him. In a voice from the clouds? Some quiet inner conscience that he just knew in his heart to be true?

We’ve been given a different perspective and different scale for this, somewhat unfortunately, since we live from an age where “the medium is the message.” Even though the story doesn’t have anything to say about how the LORD said these things to Abram, for us it would make a difference. The razzle dazzle of a catchy song and dance might have lasting memorable impact. Something really phenomenal—like a thundering voice from the skies—would probably carry extra weight.

For good or ill, this fits with our readings from last week, as well. That talking serpent in the garden maybe feels to us extra eerie, or maybe we’d also listen if a serpent started speaking. Probably partly why we wonder so much how the devil appeared to tempt Jesus is that it makes a difference if he looked powerfully ominous or if he was tricky as some best friend to be trusted.

The unfortunate edge for us means the message is frequently lost due to the medium.

Even when we have big production feature films that promote Christianity, they pale next to the secular blockbusters. I went through a time in life where friends tried to convince me to listen to the current Christian music, ridiculously claiming it was as good as the stuff I was listening (as if anything could be as good as Bob Dylan). Christian pop wouldn’t hold a candle to the regular chart toppers. And, of course, corporate culture can bombard us with manipulative advertisements; I read this week that the average TV watcher “is hit with about 25,000 commercials per year” which probably means that the God of the Bible has a lower level of contact than Mike Bloomberg does with almost all of us.*

Of course, there’s a dual disclaimer that, first, Christian companies are also in it more for the money than the message. Second and more importantly, with our incarnational God who so loves the world, with the Spirit who blows where she wills, such distinctions of categorical barriers distort. No medium—no movie, no music, book, person, or walk outside these doors can be declared apart from God.

Still, to make the promise explicit, it does raise the peculiar question that if Abram had a smartphone to distract him, would he have ever gotten the message from God? Not just Abram; if God is speaking to you, will God be able to get through?

That’s accentuated in its difficulty, I fully admit, because the clearest way that God is speaking to you is through me, the voice of your preacher, bearing God’s Word for you and to you. If Christian movies and music and other facsimiles and knock-offs of our best media are mediocre at conveying the message, how in the world can you get it only listening to an occasional 10-minute dose from an obtusely unimpressive beard-o, reading from a manuscript without much glitz or glamor, blathering about something that may strike you of dubious importance anyway? It’s remarkable that any message from God cuts through the noise to make it to our ears, almost unbelievable that any of us ends up believing anything from God at all.

To the original point, however it was spoken or declared or came to him, Abram heard this message from the LORD. “Go, away from your home. I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing to all the families of the earth.”

Abram heard this word of promise, and he trusted it. We might question what would make him trust that the earth would be blessed through him. Almost as foremost on our minds is the question of how that promise would convince him to abandon all he knows, to become a wandering Aramean, never to have a homeland again, never get to settle, exiled and emigrating, never to see the fulfillment of this promise.

Maybe that’s another historically accidental downside for us, that living post-Enlightenment, we are always on the hunt expecting proof. Some of us still like saying “facts matter,” and we put confidence in the scientific method that makes data statistically provable. Abram didn’t have proof to verify the promise. He had trust in its veracity. Even without the promise directly coming to fruition within his lifetime, he maintained his confidence, his trust in God. God keeps God’s promises, and the promise grabbed Abram and claimed him to that degree.

It wasn’t just those external circumstances of unfulfilled promise that caused the difficulty, that failed to offer results. It’s also from Abram himself. It says, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead.” (Romans 4:20, 19).

As he goes on, God’s blessing certainly isn’t proven by Abram’s life. He’ll try to pass off his wife as his sister, not once but twice in order (as he sees it) to protect himself, but prostituting her along the way. He’ll also be manipulated and, to an extent, prostituted by that wife. For a more typical difficult detail of life, in the end he’ll have to bury her. Abram goes on to play favorites with his sons. That will leave him estranged from the poorly-treated less-favored elder son. But he’ll also nearly murder the favorite younger son, who from then on will apparently never speak to him again. (With good reason!) So much for the direct part of this promise of him being a father. And for him being a blessing to the nations, he’ll do a mediocre job at advocacy, sticking up for vulnerable people in a town to a point, but then giving up and leaving them to be wiped out.

This is all to say that the promise of the LORD is bigger than Abram. It’s more than he can see or will get to see.

The even larger point is that this isn’t an old Bible story about one guy. This is about you. Today, here and now, God is speaking this promise to you. It takes its own tone and key as it takes on flesh in your life, but it is the remarkable and nearly unbelievable word of the LORD that comes to you even through my voice, cutting through the distracting details or so-called evidence that would try disprove it. God says to you, “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.” God is calling you into new being, calling into existence from you something that does not yet exist. God is re-creating you.

In this political year, we could note that the theological term for this also happens to be “election.” The Spirit blows where she wants, and she wants to choose you. You are God’s preferred candidate for this campaign. In this Word right now, you are receiving God’s vote. God chooses you. God elects you for this role.

With that, we don’t need to imagine that God’s voice is inevitably telling you to pack your bags and leave home, like Abram. But we could agree that you don’t know exactly where this will take you, what it will mean for your life. That wording is in the Hebrew version of Genesis, too, not only telling Abram to “go” but telling him to “go to himself,” that he’ll find himself as he goes. You, too, will find yourself in new ways as you go with this blessing.

Like Abram, you may not see the end of all that this promise means. Like him, there’s probably plenty to get in the way. You may not be the best with your family and may keep messing up. You may have many poor interactions. Your efforts for social justice and advocacy may remain lackluster. You may face suffering and death. No, you will face suffering and death.

And yet God’s promise to you is reiterated, a persistent promise that is for you, yourself, for your own sake, and is also how God stretches on beyond you for the good of others, on to the whole world. You are blessed to be a blessing.

Even though you can’t say all of what that means, in this simple small sermon you’ve received the Word of the LORD, elected with God’s blessing and God’s calling for your life, brought into new existence.

As a response, I invite you to pray with me the prayer in your bulletin:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Hymn: We’ve Come This Far By Faith (ELW 633)

* The Market as God, Harvey Cox, p199-200

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