Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sermon for August 26, 2012

Do We Need Any More Heroes?

This is the account of Terah’s family. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. But Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of his birth, while his father, Terah, was still living. Meanwhile, Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. (Milcah and her sister Iscah were daughters of Nahor’s brother Haran.) But Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children. One day Terah took his son Abram, his daughter-in-law Sarai (his son Abram’s wife), and his grandson Lot (his son Haran’s child) and moved away from Ur of the Chaldeans. He was headed for the land of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled there. Terah lived for 205 years and died while still in Haran. The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram departed as the LORD had instructed, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Genesis 11:27-12:4

Ever since I was a child, I have loved the automated carwash. I don’t go there often, but I love it. Not those places that make you get out of the car, either. Or those places where you pull into a bay and the machine spits soap around the car one side at a time. It has to be the one where you pull up to the track, put your car in neutral, take your hands off the wheel, and get pulled through a tunnel of spraying foam, slapping spaghetti, whirring brushes, and air blowers. I think it’s exciting – an outside force pulling me closer to a clean car.

Pulled along and out of control. It’s fun in the carwash. Or if you are waterskiing.  But not so much if you are a fish. For a fish, the experience of being pulled out of your control must be a different sensation. Imagine, you are a fish, minding your own business, living your prescribed life, searching for a bite to eat, when you see the tastiest looking worm in the world. You swim towards it. You take a quick, guarded nibble and swim away. All is well. You swim back to the worm, take another bite, and all of the sudden an irresistible force is yanking you to the surface with some kind of metal hook contraption in your lip. The more you struggle, the worse it gets. But struggle you must! Utterly beyond your control, the force of a fishing reel pulls you to the open air, not knowing what kind of adventure or horror awaits once you leave your aquatic home.

Have you ever felt like that? Can you remember times when life pulled you along and you could not stop it? Sometimes life just feels better with a safe and predictable routines: wake up, brush teeth, read the paper, work, eat, watch TV, go to bed.  Some of us don’t like to admit that we live rather conventional lives. Some people decide they are bored. They find want to escape feeling trapped by a life that pulls them into a monotonous future. They try to break out of their ordinary routines, but not always in the healthiest ways. Consider the following accounts of couples who think their relationships are pulled along by life:

A man named Bob writes, “It depresses me to think that I’ll never have romance again. I’m happily married, but the romance is gone between us and sometimes I think about having an affair. Is this it? Love without romance for the rest of my life?”

Carla describes a similar concern. She says, “I Love my partner and we get along well. But sometimes I think, is this it? Most nights I get home from work first and fix dinner. Then she comes home, we eat, she gets the kids ready for bed while I clean up. We watch a little TV together and go to bed. Saturday we take care of chores. Sunday we do something as a family . . .  I know we have a better relationship than a lot of our friends, but it’s all so routine. I keep feeling something’s wrong with me for wanting more. I’m bored. I love Sheila, but she’s like a comfortable shoe. Am I being childish to think there should be more than this?”

Some people feel that same way about their faith. In High School, I felt that the UCC congregation I grew up in was full of boring hypocrites. I looked around and asked, “Is this it?” Eventually, I wandered away from that church and worshipped with some fundamentalist Baptists. Their faith seemed more alive. Their services seemed to focus more on relationships than tradition. They had a worship band at worship and sang simple choruses with smiles on their faces. Of course, after a while I felt like they were in a rut, too. I asked, “Is this it?” and looked for another new faith family.
Sometimes we are restless wanderers, looking to find a home. We want more out of life. We want adventure and comfort, freshness and familiarity, and we want them all at once.

I wonder if Abraham and Sarah ever felt this way. In just a few lines of text from Genesis, I hear our story. When we first meet Abraham, or Abram as he is introduced to us, he lives his prescribed life. Like other nomads of the time, he takes a partner, he migrates from place to place, he buys and sells goods.  But Abraham and Sarah are not really wanderers and they’re not really settled, either. They are the perpetual strangers in a strange land, the outsiders who longs to be the insiders, people of trust who yearn for God to soothe their monotonous lives.

One day, life changes. Maybe it started out like any other day for Abram. He and Sarai are childless, stuck near the city of Haran, watching sheep, bartering goods, and pulled along by life. One ordinary day after another. The same old, same old.  Maybe his life wasn’t just dull – maybe it was worse. Maybe his life was oppressive, constrained, or hemmed in. Maybe he felt so confined that sometimes he couldn’t even breathe. Or perhaps his life was filled with yearning, with an ache for something more; another land, another way of being. Maybe he had that feeling we get of being full but still hungry, satisfied but still thirsty.

Abraham’s life is impotent. For a story that’s consumed with men, lineage, and power, Abraham looks helpless. He comes from line of wanderers who can trace their ancestry back to Noah, but he can’t father children of his own to carry on his lineage. He has lived nearly half his life, and nothing exciting or legacy-shaping has happened to him. Sounds like a recipe for mid-life crisis to me!
Abram is seventy-five years old when life changes. God has to offer. God needs someone who needs God – someone who will rise to lofty standards. God needs Abraham and Sarah. God summons them to adventure. Honestly, I’m surprised. They are not particularly righteous or special people. They aren’t godly people. Later in Genesis, we learn that Abraham and Sarah can be cheaters and liars. They are restless and unsure. Their life seems suspended with no child. In a story where God is obsessed with creation, Abraham and Sarah cannot reproduce. They exert no control over their own lives. They are so utterly human.

And maybe that’s the point.

When we read about the call of mythic heroes, they share some common elements. Usually, the hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. The hero encounters tremendous forces and wins a battle over them. They hero returns from this adventure and shares his newfound power with his fellow humans. Think about mortal Prometheus ascending to the heavens to steal fire from the gods, or Jason sailing through the Clashing Rocks, stealing the golden fleece, and taking the throne back from the usurper. Sometimes the mythic hero is a reject from society who overcomes a symbolic deficiency to fulfill a task from God. Think about the story of Exodus in which stuttering Moses scales Mount Sinai. As Moses climbs the mountain, flashes of lightening and peals of thunder shake the world. God bends the heavens, and moves the earth. In the midst of this holy storm, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses, in turn, gives them to the people of Israel.

Abraham is not that kind of hero. Abraham is not really a hero at all. Abraham, is the nomad who hears God and follows. God is the real hero of the story, not Abraham. Out of nowhere, God invites Abraham to relate to the world differently. God says, “Abraham, I choose you and Sarah to be the Parents of Blessing to the entire world.” Now Abraham has a choice. Live the same, mundane existence, or live into a new calling that reframes his ordinary life as a life of obedience to God.
There are going to be times when we are faced with the shear ordinariness of life. We want some excitement. We may say, “I like my life, but is this it?” We will be tempted to slake our thirst for adventure in poisoned streams. Have an affair . . . drown the boredom with booze . . . buy an overpriced sports car and relive the fantasy of our youth . . . over-focus on our careers at the expense of relationships . . . become withdrawn and self-sufficient and alienate our friends and family.
Looking at the tedium that lies ahead, we may choose to avoid it by consuming material pleasures. As I see it, the problem with slaking our thirst for adventure in these ways is that what seemed shiny and alluring can eventually become another part of the boring routine; except the new “normal” now includes a deeper rut of addictive behavior. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much life I waste. How many hours have a wasted watching “reality” TV, when real experiences were happening all around me?  How much time have I squandered being angry at people who hurt me? How often have I brooded over the hypocrisy of others and done nothing to change the pretense in my own life? How many times have I followed unhealthy habits to distract myself from a wounded spirit?
Is this the adventure God wants for us?

Sarah and Abraham remind us that God seeks people who have the bravery and compassion to journey into the wilderness in their own lives.

One ways of defining faith is to say faith is a way of seeing the whole. The great American theologian H. Richard Neibuhr pointed out that there are three different ways to see the whole. One way to experience reality is to see the whole as gracious, as nourishing, as supportive of life -- to see reality as that which has brought us into existence, nourishes us. If we can see God and others as supportive, gracious and nourishing, then we have the possibility of responding to life in a posture of trust and gratitude.  God invites us to THAT adventure, that journey of faith, in which we learn to trust God and learn to see life in a new way. If this is not what life is about, namely, growth and wonder and compassion, then I don’t know what life is about.

The story of Abraham and Sarah leads us to that marvelous question asked by the poet Mary Oliver: What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life? Are we going to remain in the world of the dull, the repetitive, the addictive, the same old same old? Or are we, like Abraham and Sarah, going to respond to invitation to leave our old way of being and enter a life beyond convention and our domestications of reality? The voice of invitation still speaks the promise to us: “I will show you a better way, a new country.”

Can we respond to the call that invites us enter a life of wholeness? We begin our search with God as our hero – a hero whose quest leads to ordinary, hearts like ours -- restless wanderers who find a way to listen, trust, and leap to God in faith.

Stories paraphrased from We Love Each Other But . . . by Ellen Wachtel (New York: St. Martine, 1999), 187-188.
Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (New York: William Morrow, 2002), 21-24.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 30-37.
Marcus Borg, “Faith: A Journey of Trust,” http://www.explorefaith.org/faces/my_faith/borg/faith_by_marcus_borg.php

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