By Rev. Dr. Terry Harter
Text: Hebrews 11:8
Gratitude is a much-neglected virtue in the world, and even in the church. I say “even” because as every psalm and hymn-singing Christian disciple should know, gratitude is the primary religious emotion. Duty calls only when gratitude fails to prompt.
So as a prelude to this morning’s message – allow me to thank God – and a few of God’s children for -- the gift of ministry. Throughout this morning’s worship, and for that matter, at every annual conference gathering – Those who are about to move into retired relationships – are projected onto a screen – and paraded on the platform - as we continue the journey that passes by this milestone called recognition of those who are retiring.
Every one of us, in one way or another, says “Thank you” - to God, the Bishops and cabinets, present or past, spouses, children, parents, congregations whom we have served, colleagues with whom we have served, and to the annual conference - or some combination of these. In all things, we are grateful, because, it has all been a gift. Our vocation and whatever talents, we have to exercise – gifts. The church and its mission – gifts - The life we are living – a gift.
So, we stop and reflect and say Thank you – Just as all those worn out preachers before us have made their annual pilgrimage – to say Thank you (Except the one notable exception – who turned and told the Bishop exactly what he could do with the job) rhymes with “Love it!”
My goodness - but otherwise – Thank you – from each and every one of you here – Thank you – Thank you – Thank you! –
Invariably – when learning that one is about to retire – there soon follows the question – What will you do next?
I look to my colleagues for witness to this –
Each of us has our own unique answer - mine, has been: NOT THIS! Meaning after 47 continuous years of pastoral ministry, the last seven as a superintendent – I want to stop for a moment. JUST STOP.
Some of us have very specific plans – some perhaps like me – only plan NOT to have a plan.
Which reminds me of a story –
Once upon a time -- with everything that belonged to him, and everyone related to him -– Abram set out to seek a new home, “a different sky.” And since the story is so familiar, we take it for granted.
But that story that begins in Genesis 12 was some move on Abram’s part – particularly when you stop to think that by this time, his face was full of “the credentials of humanity” as Shaw once called our wrinkles. He was 75 yrs. old… and can’t you hear the neighbors: “Abram where in the world do you think you’re going? What are you going to do next?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Is this some wild dream? Have you thought about Sarah? And what about that promising nephew of your Lot? He’s just getting started. And furthermore, probably in more ways that you know, Abram, you are indispensable to all of us here in Haran.
Then Abram gave one of the best answers in his life, unfortunately not recorded in Genesis. But, he said, “No one is indispensable, except to God.”
How about that, mothers and fathers! None of us is indispensable, except to God. Our children need us but not that badly. Only God does, because SHE is the creator and without us can’t create. To be faithful then is to be creative.
We don’t usually think of it that way, do we? Most of us think of religion not in terms of creativity, but in terms of right and wrong - mostly wrong.
“Religion," said the small child, "is what you don’t do.” And to read that Abram obeyed the call would seem to give credence to that belief. For obedience suggests discipline rather than discovery.
Obedience suggests submission, punishment, rules to be followed, being what we ought to be, not what we want to be. Whoever thought of looking for God in his/her wants? Yet our wants may be a good place to look, at least in this story, it seems that way to me. Abram here doesn’t seem to be doing what a 75-year-old man ought to be doing.
If we read between the lines in Genesis - rather than heeding rules, he seems to be paying attention to some deep instinct within himself, an instinct a lot of us might deny, but one Abram is intent on honoring. I’m counting on the hope that our senior years can be formative years. I’ve still got a lot to accomplish as a disciple of Jesus.
Abram is a prime example. Some old people look for relaxation and recreation, but he seeks a vision. Some old people live on memories but he wants a dream. You see why I’m suggesting that faithfulness is tied up with creativity. Abrams obedience has not much to do with punishment and everything to do with promise. His obedience has less to do with what he ought to be doing than with what most of us, probably in our hearts, really want to be doing - if only we had Abram’s courage.
Rather than be indispensable and applauded in Haran, Abram wants to be fulfilled anywhere. You might say he wants to be real, rather than right, he wants to be responsible - “response – able” able to respond to the call to be creative which The Creator has embedded in every last one of us.
And it is a call we all had better heed, if we want to add some measure of grace to a hurting world – and not simply stand aghast and slack–jawed while it lurches on its present path to perdition.
Faithful Abram – that’s how we portray him – To be faithful means to be creative – yet, also something more: “By faith Abram obeyed the call to go to a land…without knowing where he was to go.”
Most of us, for most of our lives, whenever we have gone somewhere, knew more or less, where we were going – We go by knowledge, we have the answer, we are in charge.
But Abram - model retiree – had fewer answers that questions – no money – only the promise of a presence.
He’s not in charge. He can’t make it happen. He must let it happen, the way it happened to those two travelers on the road to Emmaus, the way it happened to Paul on the road to Damascus.
In fact - as Robert Raines wrote: “A journey is biblical prime time for being apprehended afresh by God.”
Well, why talk of all this on this morning? Is it too obvious to say that we are all on the journey – to realize that our lives are like Abraham’s. They are a journey whose final destination is unknown, and a journey which we must keep pursuing, if spiritually speaking, we are to stay alive, if we are going to obey the call of God and be faithful to our own baptism – and incidentally – as those around me can attest: that’s not supposed to be easy.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Now let’s be practical.
There are at least 31 people here this morning, whose journeys have reached a juncture in their vocational lives. We have some soul-searching to do on values, relationships and priorities. How are we to obey the call?
Others here, and beyond, may presently find themselves lost on the journey – perhaps because we have misconstrued priorities. That’s easy to do in The United States, where all of us consistently adhere to creeds of questionable value so as to keep pleasure and deep joy continually confused, or to keep security and safety as paramount to generosity and hospitality –
Perhaps our journeys would pick-up again – if we heard those messengers who are continuously singing – “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy…
Or maybe we’re stalled on our journey because we engage in unproductive nostalgia. We yearn for the good old days which seem to us better – because we seemed better, shinier, newer – more innocent – less morally tattered.
If we’re as old as Sarah and Abraham- a date not too far off for me – it time – high time – to accept in ourselves what can’t be changed – our age, the increased cost of upkeep – our past errors and sins. Here, it pays to remember that we are first of all - beloved children of God – so – let’s first love ourselves – so that we can love others on the journey.
In Genesis, we read: The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your own country, your kinsman and your father’s house and go to a country that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation.” (Gen. 12:1-2)
That suggests that the purpose of our journey is not a private escape but public responsibility. And nations, like individuals, can get stalled in their life’s journey. Nations, like individuals, if they don’t lift their eyes to something above themselves, will sink into something below themselves.
I suspect that the United States is momentarily stalled. Witness an amoral president, a deeply divided electorate and ineffectual government – we are suffering, bruised nearly broken – we accept evil as common place and celebrate foul-mouthed ignorance and violent language, if not action.
But this is our journey, too – for democracy is a way of disrupting responsibility.
Before we go any further, we must again distinguish between patriotism and nationalism.
The Orthodox theologian, Nikolai Berdyaev, wrote: “Patriotism is the love of one’s native land, of one’s soil, of one’s people. Nationalism on the other hand, is not so much love as a collective egocentricity, self-conceit, the will to power and violence over others.”
Our recent election and threatened future suggests nationalism rather than patriotism -- power and the arrogance of importance over good will and shared humanity. We are told that we must not fail to be great, but more important would be our failure to meet human need –- to reach out to the least, the last, and the lost –- those who are called losers.
Now is the time for the people of God – including The Church of Christ, to remind all of creation of the call of The One who created us to love one another, and not stay stuck on a path where there is so little of which we can be proud.
Hear these patriotic words –
About Zion, I will not be silent.
About Jerusalem I will not grow weary,
Until her integrity shines out like the dawn,
And her salvation flames like a torch,
The Nations will see your integrity.
All the kings you glory,
And you will be called by a new name,
One which the mouth of Yahweh will confer.
It’s a funny thing, we know that both in our personal and in our national lives that change is inevitable. Every year here – at this moment – we recognize this personal change milestone call retirement. Change happens. Yet we consistently deny it.
It’s even in our mission statement… “… make disciples for the transformation of the world.”
Yet we consistently, by our own action and inaction - deny it.
We’re like the caterpillar who said – looking up at the butterfly -- "You’ll never get me to fly around in one of those crazy things."
Well fellow retirees – Well follow citizens of God’s creation-
Why can’t we cooperate gracefully with the inevitable? Why don’t we remember that butterflies are more beautiful than a caterpillar? Like Abraham, why can’t we refuse to stay stuck in Haran being applauded for our indispensability, remembering that we are indispensable to no one, except to God, who needs us to continue the work of creation.
So, let us obey the call that keeps us going, we know not where. Let us be faithful to the creator by continuing ourselves to be creative.
I used to think the poet guilty of shallow optimism, but now that I understand Abraham better – I realize Browning was profoundly right when he wrote:
Grow old along with me,
The best is yet to be;
The last of life for which the first was made.
Our times are in His hand.
Who saith “A whole. I planned-
…Trust God, see all,
Nor be afraid.”