The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r186.htm
s186e98 Somerton Park 9/8/98 Sunday 19
"By faith, Abraham obeyed ... and ... he set out, not knowing where he was going ..." Hebrews 11.3
We are presented in the gospel reading for today with a series of snippets, sayings ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary, encompassing the prospect of blessing along with the fear of ruin. The mundane saying is "give alms", the extraordinary: "Blessed are those ... whom the master finds alert ... if he comes in the middle of the night ... the master ... will come and serve them ..." - (Blessed are the insomniacs and those who enjoy midnight feasts :-)) The passage starts with promise: "Do not be afraid..." and continues joyfully with a wedding feast but ends with the less palatable picture of the "house broken into" by a thief.
Some years ago, I recall Bishop Smith saying that he, in his early years had aspirations to be a gymnast, but that God led him on a quite different path. So too with me. My original interest was in things electronic and scientific. Theology and the humanities were unknown territory for me. When I began my studies at theological college, the then Warden suggested, because I was a university graduate, I should do four rather than two subjects in my first year. I proceeded to fail three of them!
Faith is intimately linked with travelling in uncharted waters.
As I listen to the Church however I do not hear much travelling at all and it all sounds so very much the same thing over and over again. I hear people who seem very sure of their faith, confident of their own salvation and mainly concerned (it seems) that others live up to their expectations. It seems Church people have arrived in their home land and all the travelling has to be done by others.
I have heard it said that the opposite of faith is not disbelief but certainty.
If we only travel in well worn paths, of what earthly need do we have for faith? Faith is only needed if we don't know where we are going, or if we are going to be extended beyond the usual range of our accomplishments.
I am reminded of the monologue "Everybody's free (to wear Sunscreen)" written by Tim Cox and Nigel Swanston (performed by Quindon Tarver on the CD "Something for everybody" Bezmark Inc): "Do one thing everyday that scares you" and "don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life; the most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don't ..."
I am not going to advocate change. The prospect of change only serves to frighten and to get us to withdraw, to resist to the death.
However I do point out that Abraham "obeyed God" when he began this journey. We often think that change is something for which the expression we "can take it or leave it" applies. That is - it has no moral or ethical imperative. So change can be resisted and I often hear "Christians" who it seems are forever resisting this or that change in the name of God. But Abraham was commanded to set out - it was a matter of obedience or disobedience.
I also point out that the command had no moral dimension, but it had an ethical dimension. Abraham was bidden, not to live a moral life, which in fact he often didn't do. Abraham regularly continued to pass off Sarah as his sister rather than his wife, in order to curry favour with the kings he met along the way! Nor was he called to repent - the catch phrase of many Christians directed towards others, of course. Abraham was bidden to make a change in his settled lifestyle, to do something, to take a path in life.
I have no need therefore to advocate change - God brings change about - and we either obey God and go - or we die.
And these words are as relevant to us as individuals as they are relevant corporately as the Church.
Some people say that the influence of the Church is waning and lament that the golden age of Christianity has past. I look at the possibility of change in the church and rejoice that a few more faltering steps are being taken. I don't know what the church will be like in twenty years from now - I know it won't be the same as the Church is now. And I am delighted at that.
How often do we think of the Church as something "good for the kids" and forget that Abraham was too old to have children and Sarah was herself barren. It's one of the classic excuses to deflect God's attention away from us - it's good for the kids.
The wonderful thing of course is that God stayed with Abraham, even as he travelled in these unfamiliar paths. God was not just there in his home territory - God was to be found in Egypt and God was to be found in the Promised Land. In fact, of course, we hear little or nothing about God's continuing activity in Abraham's native land. Abraham went to follow God, or he risked loosing contact with God altogether.
Abraham was not told to repent, he wasn't told to read the bible, he wasn't told to pray more - all these might be useful and desirable things to do. But they can just as easily be things to do to avoid taking the journey that God has prepared for us.
God was to be found amongst those sinners in Egypt, God was to be found amongst the worshippers of the Baal in the Promised Land. And Jesus calls us, not to pray or read the Bible, but to follow. And if we follow Jesus we will find him sitting down and eating with sinners - so if we follow we will perhaps in reality find ourselves in not so alien a territory after all.
One of the most frequent issues that faces people I meet is the decision if and when to move to smaller accommodation with more support services. It might be individuals wanting advise, or families wanting to encourage frail parents. It might be to a retirement village, to an independent unit, a hostel or a nursing home. Of course each and every person has to make this decision for themselves. One cannot make blanket statements for everyone. But the promise of this passage is that God is already ready to go with us on our journey, and God is already making preparations for us at our destination, wherever life takes us.
Of course we like the familiar and what we are used to, and we really want not to surrender any more of our independence. But that comes at the cost of putting up with not having assistance available right there and then, which alternative accommodation offers. There is also the physical cost of continuing to do cleaning and maintaining ourselves. The problem is that each alternative has it's unpalatable side. If we move begrudgingly expecting the worst, we are likely not to be disappointed. If we move enthusiastically, looking to enjoy the freedoms which our slavery to the present regimes of cooking and cleaning entails, again we will most likely not be disappointed. In the end our happiness is not up to the institution in question, but up to our own preconceptions. The other thing is that I suspect (in general) people who move to a greater level of care actually live longer. Those who stay in their homes tend to have a fall or something else happens to shorten their life expectancy dramatically.
The example of having to consider moving is a real parallel with the call to Abraham. In our journeys in life there will be people in whom we will find, perhaps albeit surprisingly, God at work. It is, of course, quite likely they will not be Anglicans of our own particular churchmanship. It is as likely that we will see, if we have eyes to do so, God at work in persons of other denominations, persons of other faiths, persons who doubt and persons of no faith at all.
Right throughout our lives we are presented with three possibilities: of being blessed by seeing God in others, or not being blessed as we avoid seeing God anywhere, or thirdly of perpetuating the cursing of others, as we deny even the possibility of God's presence anywhere other than in those of our own kind.
God calls us to travel, because it is precisely in the travel that we can be blessed through other people. That travel might be physical, in terms of where we actually reside, or the travel might be mental as we read books and find blessings in others, even if it is only in a meeting of minds.
And so I am grateful for the words of the Rev'd Harry Scott Coveston, Episcopal Priest in California who writes (in the guest book of Louie Crew - an article I can thoroughly commend): "I think the essence of the question is whether the church can change. I have come to frame this question in terms of misfeasance and malfeasance. When the church engages in misfeasance, it knows what it is called to be but loses sight of that calling and goes off the path. Misfeasance always leaves the possibility open that the church will realise it has made a mistake and seek to rectify it. In our own language, we call that repentance and reconciliation. Malfeasance, on the other hand, is the active and self-assured doing of evil."
May we all have eyes to see good in others, whoever we are and wherever we live. May we have confidence that our God is with us and with all others, for it is in travelling in this path that we walk the way Jesus did, we proclaim the truth that Jesus proclaimed and we find the blessings of life that Jesus came to bring to us and to all.
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