Where To?

A sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ

Second Sunday in Lent/A • March 5, 2023

Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 •John 3:1-17 

The internet has discovered I’m retired. Every day, I get offers of how to make money in retirement, how to travel in retirement, how to deal with the stress of retirement. The best advice I’ve gotten is to try something new. I’ve decided to take up sewing. It might not seem like a predictable choice but it sounds better than driving for Uber and considering the cost of boat cushions, it would save me a lot of money to be able to make new ones myself. So I asked around among some friends who sew, looking for advice. The best advice of all was someone who said, “You’re going to make a lot of mistakes at first. Don’t worry. The thing about sewing is, you can always rip it out and start over.” I like that idea: starting over. Have you ever had to start over? 

Starting over is just what God is doing in the passage we read from Genesis. In the beginning, God created and the purpose was a mutually blessing community of appreciation. Everything was good; you’ve read it, you’ve heard this, God creates and it is good. But then human pride slips in and things go wrong and it ends up in violence and a complete mess. In just a few generations, we’re told, “…the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. [Gen 6:6]. So God starts over, gives Noah directions on how to build a boat, wipes the slate clean, sets a rainbow to mark the occasion. You’d think this time it would go better but it doesn’t. Years pass, people grow up, settle down, forget to give thanks and their pride gets working again, until they decide they can reach heaven on their own. They build a tower at Babel and it’s not good, not good at all. God scatters them and they end up speaking different languages. It’s a mess.

So God is starting over with Abram and, although she isn’t mentioned here, his wife Sarai. If you’re counting, this is the third time. God still has the same design, a community of mutual blessing and appreciation. It just hasn’t worked out. Creating wasn’t enough; the rainbow covenant wasn’t enough. So God decides to start out with just one couple, make them a family, and grow from there. 

The first thing God says is, “Go!” Now, if you’re like me, when someone says, “Go!”, I immediately ask, “Where to?” We have one of those cars now with a screen that displays a map. But to make it work right, you have to put in a place; the car wants to know where we’re going. The car wants a destination and it’s nice to know where to. Most weeks I drive Jacquelyn to the airport in Baltimore. I know how to get there, but I still put in the destination because it’s comforting to know how close to our destination we’re getting. But listen to what God says to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” [Gen 12:1a] This isn’t a destination that will work with the GPS. The GPS wants an address, a particular place, not just “somewhere” 

Notice also how God goes out of the way to emphasize the going. There’s a three-fold description of what going means: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” These are all the things that make life normal and comfortable for Abram. We all like the familiar. Look where you’re sitting; I bet you sat there the last time you were here. I sit over there about four rows back because it’s close to the front without being right in front and it’s easy to get in and out. Some Sundays I think, “Well, let’s sit over there by Bob,” but you know somehow I don’t. It’s not my place. 

It’s hard to leave the familiar isn’t it? Have you had to do that? When we moved to Harrisburg two years ago, we came from a home Jacquelyn had made a beacon of warmth and welcome, with great neighbors, a coffee shop I loved and a job I really liked. It was during the pandemic, so we couldn’t visit here much and get comfortable. We bought a house we saw mostly on phone video. We didn’t know anyone. We found the Wegmans out in Mechanicsburg somehow and for a while that was the only grocery store we knew about. Now Abram is being told Go from everything you’ve ever known, your country, your family, the house where you grew up and he never gets to ask, “Where to?”

If you’re like me, you’ve heard someone talk about how great Abram is because he has the faith to answer God’s call. But the more I thought about this passage this week, the more it occurred to me that it isn’t about Abram and his response—that comes later—it’s all about God and what God is doing. What God is doing is starting over to create that mutually blessing place creation was meant to be. Listen to what God says:

I will make of you a great nation, and
I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse;
and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

[Gen 12:2-3]

It’s all about what God is doing. It’s all blessing; even the part about cursing is really a kind of protection. It’s all “I” statements, it’s all promise, it’s all about God’s care and that care is for everyone: “…in you all the families the earth will be blessed.” This isn’t about Abram; this is about what God is doing for all of us, everyone, the whole world. 

Now, that’s great, hat’s wonderful, that’s something to celebrate. Except: it starts with that “Go”. And that’s hard for us, isn’t it? We like the familiar; we like what we know. I was the pastor of a church in New England for many years. The meeting house was built in 1848, it sat 300 on the main floor and still had the wrap around balcony called galleries; lots of space for the 25 of us who worshipped there. The pews were numbered because in the old days, people rented their pew. The galleries were originally for servants and children and poor people. They weren’t safe to go up in, but we kept them. We had a lot of furniture from the Victorian era and sometimes I liked to move it around, create a different space. One of the members would sneer about this with the ultimate New England condemnation: “This is change for the sake of change.” We still use that phrase in our family, it became our private joke. Jacquelyn likes to redecorate; I like things the way they are. Once in a while she improves something and I’ve been known to say, “This is just change for the sake of change.”

The problem is that God doesn’t deal in permanent places. The whole Bible story is about journeys, from Adam and Eve leaving the garden to Abram and Sarai leaving their home to Moses leading God’s people on the Exodus. God is constantly, restlessly, trying to move us toward the fulfillment of that vision of mutual blessing with which creation began. But we like where we are, we like what we know, we like what’s familiar.  

That’s the problem in the Gospel reading. Nicodemus is a settled man, a prominent man, a teacher of Israel. He’s courageous enough to come at night to Jesus, trying to figure out what Jesus is up to. But he can’t quite let go of what he thinks he knows, what’s familiar. So Jesus says, “You have to be born from above.” Now, we’ve translated that into “being born again”; we’ve made it about what we do, some phrase we say. That’s not what the text says. What Jesus seems to have in mind isn’t some action but starting over. And the purpose of that starting over? “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” [John 3:17] That’s not the verse that gets put on signs but that’s the real purpose here, the same purpose God has had from the beginning.

We’re all concerned about the future of churches today. I heard this week that in 2019, the last year for which numbers are available, about 4,500 churches closed. That’s before the pandemic with all its terrible effects. I’m convinced that a part of the reason is that we’ve become so comfortable, we’ve forgotten who we are meant to be, people who are starting over to realize God’s vision of justice and love in a community of mutual blessing and appreciation. We like our familiar places and we’ve made those our destination instead of embracing like, Abram, an unknown future whose hope isn’t its familiarity but God’s promise. We’ve learned to depend on our traditions instead of listening to Psalm 121. There, the psalmist looks to the hills, but says, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:2] 

My mother in law, Marylyn Welling, has gone home to God. When she was with us, she had a little saying we all teased her about. Whenever she went somewhere, on arrival, she would announce, as if in surprise, “Well, we’re here.” We will have found the right path, we will be following Jesus, we will be God’s people when we can embrace a journey to share God’s blessing and feel that in those changes, in those challenges, we’re here. We will get somewhere when the answer to the question, “Where to?” Is, “God knows.”