I remember when I got accepted to Duke for my undergraduate education. The invitation felt like a dream come true. I was so ready to leave home and start my “adult” life, I was beyond thrilled to be able see Duke basketball games in person, I was eager to start my studies so that I could take on that big job, and I knew I would have a ton of fun. As I packed my bags, I felt like the world was full of promise and hope and I just knew I was going to have an awesome college career. And truthfully, my college experience was one of the best experience of my life on so many levels – one where I learned so much more than I expected, I made lifelong friends, I experienced my first sense of call to ministry, and I did in fact enjoy many a basketball game. But that first year of college was nothing like the picture looking back now. I had an awful freshman roommate, I struggled with the rigor of classes at first, I had a hard time finding a group of friends I really liked, there were multiple things I either tried out for our wanted to be invited into that I was not, and there were times that I wondered what in the world I was doing there.
As I listened to our Old Testament lesson today, I wondered how much Abram felt the same way about his own journey. The very short passage from Genesis says, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘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. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” At first glance, Abram’s invitation sounds awesome! He is invited on a journey with God and he is promised that God will bless him, will give him plenteous offspring and power, and that he will essentially be famous. Who wouldn’t want to pack up their earthly belongings and hit the road with that kind of invitation? The upcoming journey sounds like one full of promise, hope, and abundant joy.
Of course, there are a few slight indicators of how hard this journey might actually be. First God tells Abram to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house – all without a map of where they will be going. “In traditional societies the kin group is the source of identity, economic benefit, security, and protection. To leave such a fundamental social network is to put a great deal at risk.”[i] And then there is the text that we do not read today. In the verses immediately preceding this text, we are told that Abram’s father has just died. We all know what the death of a parent can do to a person, and can at least imagine the intense grief Abram is working under when he says yes to God. And there is more that we do not read today. The text immediately after where we stop also tells us that Abram is about 75 years old at this point. So a man well beyond the prime of life, who is in the midst of grief, who has probably long sense lost hope of bearing any children should be able to guess that this journey would not be all roses and rainbows.
And in fact, we know that the journey is not as hope-filled as our lesson makes the journey out to be today. This man whom God says will be blessed and be great hits all kinds of bumps along the way. If you remember, Abram passes off his wife as his sister several times so as to avoid danger to himself. When he still does not have any offspring, Sarai eventually convinces him to sleep with her handmaiden Hagar. Though she bears him a son, Abram eventually casts Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness when his wife Sarai gets jealous. And of course, we cannot forget that Abram is also forced to take his one son by Sarai, Isaac, up on a mountain to be sacrificed – believing all along that God intends for Abram to kill his only heir. Sounds like a real journey of blessing, right?
That is the funny thing about journeys. We are not often promised that our journeys will be blessed. But even when we hope that they will be blessed, the blessing never comes immediately and is often masked by long intervals of pain and suffering. We have lived that life here at St. Margaret’s. Fifty years ago, God told the people of Plainview to, “Go. Go from your current town, your church community, and the building you are familiar with to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great church, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” At least, that is how the histories read about St. Margaret’s. Full of hope and expectation, large groups of people gathered first in an American Legion Hall and then in a semi-completed church building. It was a time of anticipation and promise, and the people went. Of course, no one could know what the next fifty years would hold – a slew of clergy, some staying longer than others; church growth and church decline; building challenges and times of construction to fix old problems; new adventures like a church cemetery; painful arguments with severed relationships; new friendships that will last a lifetime; a young rector who is not only a woman, but who also gets pregnant while she serves. When God said, “Go,” who would have ever guessed the journey would play out the way the journey has.
Sometimes our Lenten journeys have that same feel. We fill ourselves with pancakes, and then the next day, kneel with resolve to take on some discipline. We look forward to the blessings of Lent – the intimacy with God the journey will bring, the learning will we do, the peace we will gain, or even the couple of pounds we might lose. And when we hear a story like the Old Testament lesson today, we feel pumped up and ready for an exciting journey. We may even imagine God making similar promises to us: You will be blessed in this Lenten journey. And yet, if we think back to any Lent in the past, we might remember how difficult our discipline became by week four or five. We might remember how that cool discipline we chose did not really turn out to be as great as we imagined. And depending on how stable we were at the time, that sense of failure could have brought more of a sense of curse than blessing.
How do we know that blessing awaits and what do we do in the meantime? What do we do when those days come – because they will – when we feel discouraged and lose that sense of promise and hope that God gives today? If we look to Abram, we see that our only option is to go – to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The lesson today says, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” The journey for Abram is risky, full of potholes, and ultimately full of some wild twists that might have turned Abram back at any point. And yet, “Abram went.” We are lucky enough to know that Abram becomes Abraham – the man that would eventually become a father of entire people – in fact of several faith traditions. But Abraham never got to see the fullness of that blessing. His life was more one of blessing in hindsight, not really an everyday blessing-fest.
In some ways, that is all we can do too. God constantly calls us into a journey – whether during Lent or in whole phases of life. God promises to bless us and love us along the way. But we know the journey will be hard at times, and leave us feeling discouraged. And when that happens, all we can do is put one foot in front of the other, and keep on going. Of course, we have each other along the way, much like Abram had Lot. In fact, the last words of today’s lesson are, “and Lot went with him.” So whether you are in that blessed state of bliss, or you are already struggling in your steps, God still tells you to go. Our response is difficult, intimidating, and profound, but also extremely simple. We go, knowing God is with us. Amen.
[i] Carol A. Newsom, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 53.