Walking Off the Map
Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Imagine leaving home, moving to a new place, leaving behind everything that is familiar. Saying goodbye to friends and your family. Going to an entirely unknown, unexplored place. You don’t speak the language where you’re going. You don’t even know the name of the language the people speak in this place. No one you know has ever been to this place. It’s more than 1,200 miles away and you’re going on foot.
And Abram had to say goodbye to a lot of people. When he left Ur with his father, Terah, and his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, Abram left his grandfather, his great grandfather, his great great grandfather….his 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7 great grandfathers…even his 9th great grandfather, a guy named Shem. You might remember Shem, he was one of Noah’s sons. In fact, Noah had only been dead 17 years when Abram left Ur for Haran. Eleven generations were living there when the youngest three generations moved away.
This is the situation that Abram faced in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. As I tried to imagine a modern equivalent for Abram and Sarai’s journey, I couldn’t think of anything. A few months ago I read “On the Banks of Plum Creek” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I know, I should have read this book when I was in 4th grade, but I was a boy then. So I read it 40 years too late and was so impressed with how cutoff from civilization folks on the prairie were in the late 19th century. At one point, Laura’s father had to leave the farm and find work. It was harvest time and grasshoppers had eaten the Ingalls family’s crops. So Pa just walked East, hoping someone would hire him at harvest time. The Ingalls women stayed back on the prairie and waited to hear something from Pa. Every Saturday Laura would walk a few miles to see whether Pa had sent a letter. For weeks they heard nothing from him.
Abram’s group was doing something much more dramatic and drastic. There was no email or cell phone service or even postal service. Abram couldn’t write back to any of his grandfathers and ask for money when Lot needed shoes. They were walking away and would never come back. They were walking off the map.
Have you ever seen a map from the Middle Ages? All the known countries are present, but the world drops off at the end of the ocean. “Here be monsters” some maps say. Are there really monsters there? You have to go to the edge of the map to find out. I’ll wait for you here.
Almost ten years ago I was very fortunate to make a connection with a distant relative on my father’s side of the family. Jørn is my father’s 5th cousin. He still lives in Denmark. He and his wife visited here a few years ago. It was Sundae Sunday and they were most impressed. I will not bore you with details about my genealogy, but I will share this insight I got from Jørn, Denmark is filled with people who look across the Atlantic and ask, “What happened to the people who left?” And the United States is filled with people who look back across the Atlantic and ask, “What was it like there? Why did they leave?”
This morning’s lesson from Genesis is really a turning point. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, after Cain killed his brother Abel, after the Flood and The Tower of Babel…after all those epic stories, the Book of Genesis, the book that we know as the Bible, and one could even say human history--all change. And it changes because God made a choice. Up to this point in the story we do not know anything about Abram. He’s just a name in a genealogy. God chose Abram freely, not because of Abram’s strength, virtue or obedience. God chose Abram. Period.
And God made a promise to Abram: that his name would be great, that Abram would have land and children. And in Abram [or by Abram] all families of the earth would be blessed. Now, at this moment in the story, history gets a direction. Our history gets a direction. And we claim Abram as our ancestor in faith, just as Jews and Muslims do. From this side of the story we know a lot more than Abram did. Abram only knew God’s call to leave everything. In this small, but pivotal story, Abram did not speak any words. He doesn’t even give God an “aya aye, sir.” Abram speaks only with his actions.
Centuries later, after Christ, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about Abraham. Here’s part of what Paul wrote, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” when Abram demonstrated his faith and obedience.
Maybe you already know this story, but it’s worth repeating. Several times God promised Abram/Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. But Abe was getting on in years and still hadn’t any children. He pointed this out to God and God took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars, if you can.” “So shall be your offspring.” Abram was blessed by God without doing anything to earn the blessing.
Years ago I heard Joe Garagiola talk about how every Sunday in church he heard “a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians” or “a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.” He asked, “Did they ever write back?” That’s the odd thing about reading the epistles, we only have Paul’s responses, so we have to work backwards to find the questions that Christians were asking of Paul. The Romans were asking a very specific question. They wanted to know how one could appropriate the grace or forgiveness that Paul had told them about was theirs in Christ. Their question was “How can we attain righteousness?” or maybe “How are we justified?” Both of those questions revolve around legal terms about being blameless or innocent. What do I have to do to be considered innocent before God?
Tradition has it that there are two answers to this question: works or faith. That is, either we are righteousness/blameless/innocent because of something we have done, or because we have received the gift of forgiveness from our gracious God. That is, either we have kept ourselves from wrong by perfectly doing what God wants and are thus blameless, or God has freely decided to do something extraordinary and unexpected by forgiving us and regarding us as blameless.
There are, of course, difficulties with both understandings. If we believe that we can earn or obey our way to innocence, on our own, then we reduce God to some sort of cosmic accounting system, who will determine whether we are good enough, or have done enough good things, to be considered righteous.
Or we can start with an understanding of ourselves as imperfect and flawed, so that there is no way we can ever work or achieve righteousness. If you’ve been reading Psalm 51 as your Lenten discipline, you’ll see this kind of thinking throughout that psalm. I was a sinner when I was conceived, the psalmist writers, that is, I have been completely surrounded by sin my entire life—it’s a little depressing. But there is also a blessing in the psalm, because the sacrifice God desires from us is not an animal sacrificed on an altar, but a broken heart, a person who is heart-broken by his own sin is the acceptable sacrifice in God’s eyes.
But to be honest, most 21st century Christians do not see themselves as thoroughly embedded in sin. And as needing something as drastic as Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross to set us free from that sin. I had a marvelous conversation last month with a long-standing member of this church who does not like to sing “a wretch like me,” in the song “Amazing Grace.” She wouldn’t call another person a wretch, and she certainly does not feel that she is herself a wretch. I get that. But, if one starts with the premise that even our best efforts and intentions will be inadequate, no matter how hard we try and how sincerely we commit our lives to following Christ, we’re going to do it imperfectly…if you start there and then understand that God in Christ has chosen to regard you as innocent, then this is not just good news, it’s the best possible news.
One can make too much of this though and take grace lightly, because we know that God is loving and forgiving and gracious, so we can get away with anything. The theological term for this approach is “cheap grace.”
There’s a necessary balance between grace and works, or faith and obedience. As I researched Abram and the circumstances of his call I found something very interesting. Traditionally, Christians have emphasized that Abram was chosen by God freely, almost randomly, without regard for Abram’s character or ability. Christians emphasize that God is free to choose whomever God wants. Jews, on the other hand, have tended to argue that God called Abram because Abram had good qualities which God was aware of, though they are not mentioned in the Bible. So Jews emphasize that God is wise. Of course, God is both wise and free. But, most importantly, God is at work in the world! “Man [kind] needs to be addressed by God, and God needs men [and women] capable of responding.” “The Torah, A Modern Commentary,” p. 93]
God needs people who respond when God calls. Pioneers who go where no one has gone before. Caregivers who love those who have never known love before. Prophets who help us to see injustice with clear vision and determined energy. I said earlier that I have trouble imagining anyone being called as Abram was. And I am in awe of Abram’s faith and ability to leave everything behind. But each of us, in our own situation is called by God to follow Christ, called to repentance and faith. Each of us is offered the challenge of faith every moment. We have Abram as an example of faith. We have the forgiveness and hope we know in Christ crucified and resurrected. And we have simple, clear words to live by and take with us as we leave this safe place to live as God’s children in the world. Amen.