-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 10-14-2018 Pardeeville

(Genesis 12:1-7)



     Gulliver’s Travels…The Odyssey…Journey to the Center of the Earth…all famous stories and all involving travelling great distances.  What we heard this morning was the story of a journey that Abraham took at God’s request.  That makes it different than other journey stories.  In fact, it is this very text that has guided many churches in our Presbytery as they seek to be revitalized and transformed.  Several years ago, when eight churches joined together and spent about four years meeting in common and working independently to study and invigorate their ministries, this was one of the Bible passages they studied.  When John Knox Presbytery offered a program of transformation, I was trained as a coach in the process and…you guessed it...this passage from the book of Genesis was one of the key texts we studied together.  So you might think I would be sick and tired of hearing about Abraham.  Well, I’m not.  Instead I have embraced this story because of what it tells us about God.  First, God has a journey that God wants us all to take.  Individually, it’s not the identical journey…it’s tailored to the skills God has given us.  But there are also journeys we take together.  Second, this passage once again confirms that God is faithful to promises.  God told Abraham he would become the father of a great nation.  It happened.  God promised to lead Abraham.  That happened too.  It’s nice to know that God knows what God is doing!

     That’s the conclusion that Abraham reached when God spoke to him. The passage we heard this morning is pretty much how we get introduced to Abraham…so early in fact that his name is still Abram.  Right away we discover that Abraham has faith in God.  Here’s why…God speaks to Abraham, tells him to leave everything that makes him who he is, that gives his life meaning, and that enables him to feed and care for his family.  On top of all that, God tells Abraham, “I am not going to tell you where we are going until we get there.”  He is told absolutely nothing about the length of the trip, the destination, even the route.  And the remarkable thing about all this is that Abraham goes.  He goes right away!  He takes his wife, his nephew, and some of the things he has accumulated while living in Haran and starts out.  That is some kind of faith!  In my own life, whenever I speak with God about future ministry, I pray I have the faith it takes to do what God wants me to do.

     In the third millennium, things seem different.  We like to know where we’re going…including when, where, and how much it’s going to cost.  There are times when, if we don’t have enough information about a trip, we’ll choose not to go.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When Donna and I travelled to New York this summer to hobnob with her side of the family, we knew just about everything there was to know about when we were leaving, where the connecting flights were, and when we’d be back in Wisconsin.  We even knew the flight schedules of our daughter and her family because, well, they were the same as ours.  This offered us a great deal of comfort.  Sure we were constrained by the airline schedule but, for the only time in my life that I can remember, every flight landed early.  I suppose we could have made it to New York by leaving whenever we felt like it but we probably wouldn’t have been able to be with the rest of our family and who knows what the folks we were going to see might have been up to.  So, every now and then, people travel on a prearranged schedule.  That was not the case with Abraham.  God said go…and Abraham did!  He didn’t have much information and all of the traffic signals weren’t green when he started out.  This makes Abraham a great example for us during all the times in our lives when we don’t know the destination…or the time frame…all we know is that God has something God wants us to do.

     Now you may think that Abraham’s remarkable journey of faith is unparalleled in the thousands of years since it happened…that no one has ever dared to put so much trust in God that they would travel across a continent without knowing where they were headed and how long it would take to get there.  I know of thousands!  About five and a half years ago, “60 Minutes” devoted most of their hour to the story of a group of refugees from Sudan who had been nicknamed “The Lost Boys”.  The second civil war in Sudan began in 1983.  When the boys, then ages five to eleven, saw the Islamic forces coming from the north…they began to run.  Their parents had already been killed or taken prisoner.  Their houses had been set on fire.  About 12,000 of these boys sought refuge in Ethiopia.  They were able to stay in Ethiopia for about four years.  But as soon as that country grew tired of having them around, something awful happened.  The boys were chased at gunpoint into the Gilo River.  Thousands died but those who survived continued their amazing trek across East Africa.  They walked across deserts and over mountains.  It was about another year’s time before they arrived in a remote part of Kenya.  They had already traveled a thousand miles.  But Kenya didn’t want them either.  No one knows what might have happened to them if the US State Department hadn’t come to their rescue and made plans to bring as many of the lost boys as possible to this country.  What they were able to endure was truly remarkable and a tribute to the spirit of these young boys.  They had no idea where they were going to wind up when they were forced to flee their homes.  One of the boys they followed, whose name happens to be Abraham, had carried a Bible with him throughout the entire journey.  Abraham is an ordained Episcopal minister and, when asked about it and why he still carried his Bible, he simply said, “It’s my life.”  That is a pretty cool thing to say but Abraham’s next comment is what has stuck with me to this day.  It reflects a simple but profound faith in God.  Abraham told his interviewer, “I have been called a lost boy but I am not lost from God.”  Nobody is lost from God.  We may feel lost.  We may even be called lost.  But we cannot be lost from God.

     And I think this young man’s simple explanation of his faith gives me a little more insight as to why the Bible’s Abraham would pack his things, take a few folks with him, and leave the safety of his home for a journey God asked him to take.  It helps me understand why Abraham would set off on a journey with no schedule, no destination, and no particulars.  It seems the Bible’s Abraham also knew that he could not be lost from God.

     2018 may well go down in the history of this congregation as the year we rediscovered that we cannot be lost from God.  It has certainly been an exciting year so far!  It’s been a year that could have seen our collective anxiety go wild, a year that could have caused us to lose hope in the future of our congregation, and a year that could have made us wonder where God was.  None of those things have happened and that is a testament to our faith in God.  Any pastoral transition in a congregation increases the anxiety of its people.  If the anxiety level is allowed to stay high though, it causes a lot of problems as we attempt to move forward.  Change is inevitable.  Anxiety is optional.

     So how has an elevated level of anxiety, a level that other congregations have reached under similar circumstances, been avoided in Pardeeville?  Several factors are at play here.  Back in May, we held two discussions.  They were both very well attended.  At the first discussion, we looked back at our church’s heritage, even talking about other difficult times in our history.  What we learned was that, even in times of stress, growth is possible.  It has happened here time and again.  At the second discussion, we looked forward.  We shared ideas about the type of person we wanted our next pastor to be and what jobs we wanted that person to accomplish.  But we did something else too.  We looked at what the mission of our church should be moving forward.  As we were finishing that second discussion, and those present were asked to describe the evening, the overwhelming sentiment expressed was hope…hope in being able to find the right person to serve as the next pastor here and hope for the future of our church.  The Session has been working hard to accomplish these things.  One of the tools they’re using is an application called a Ministry Information Form.  When published, this document will let prospective pastors around the country know about our church.  And in working through the application process, the members of the Session have rediscovered the mission statement of our church.

     So…over the next three weeks, we’ll be examining our mission statement more closely.  We’ll learn some more about the main parts of our mission statement and better understand what it says about our church.  When you think about it, the work being done by the Session, the guidance of the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, the lower level of anxiety and the strong sense of hope that exist among us, can all be traced to what we believe about God.  We know that God is guiding us through this time of transition.  We know that God has promised to be with us at every step of this journey.  We know that placing our trust in God is the right thing to do.  And we know, above all, that we cannot be lost from God.

     God is always with us.  God is there through every twist and turn our lives take…and through every twist and turn the life of our congregation can take.  And the truly wonderful thing about God is that God manages to place before us reminders of this wonderful fact.  It really becomes special for us when we understand that God is nearby.  Sometimes other folks provide that understanding for us.  But sometimes we provide that understanding for those around us.  I am grateful to that ordained minister from Sudan for reminding me yet again that God is present in everything I do.  God is with me wherever my life leads…just as God is with every one of us.  For that gift, I can only say…thanks be to God!