Sunday, September 30, 2018

Thirst—a sermon on Exodus 17

Rev. Teri Peterson 
St. John’s 
Exodus 17.1-7 (CEB)
30 September 2018, Forward in Faith 4

The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”
But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”


The Israelites aren’t having a very easy time of it, are they? Things weren’t going very well in Egypt, despite their short memories on that front. They saw God do amazing wonders, and rescue them from slavery, and bring them through the sea and out to freedom. But once they were out of Egypt and into the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula, some problems arose. It must have felt like they were just muddling along as best they could, traveling, making camp, trying to keep track of children and herds and friends, while also not getting too exhausted for the journey or too overwhelmed to cope with it all. It’s no wonder they seemed prone to complaining, and to wondering at every turn if God was still there. They were led by the pillar of cloud and fire, showing them the way, protecting them from danger. They had been fed manna and quail. But every day was a new challenge to overcome, a new drama to face. 

And so they turn to Moses, looking for help, voicing their concerns. But Moses, too, is tired, and overwhelmed. He might be a little bit hangry, too, from the looks of things—his first response to this mass of thirsty people crying out for water is “why are you arguing with me????” What do they want him to do? After all, he’s just a person like they are. Yes, he’s the leader, and yes, God speaks to him, but surely he doesn’t have to be the only one who does everything, right?

His deflection doesn’t work, though, and Moses is beginning to feel as desperate as the rest of the people are. Only then, when he feels his own life is in danger, does he finally turn to God again. 

I think God’s response is fascinating and lovely. Moses says “help! They’re going to stone me!” And God does nothing with that at all. Instead of answering Moses’ cry for personal safety, God addresses the thirst of the Israelites. God recognises this is a real problem, the people need to be provided for. People need the nourishment of a cup of cool water in the desert. Their complaint is valid, their cry is heard.

And so God reminds Moses who he is: “take your shepherd’s staff and go ahead of the people” God says. Like a shepherd, be a leader. Remember, sheep follow, they can’t be herded from behind. So the leader goes ahead, taking some elders with him, and the people will follow. With that sign of his pastoral identity and purpose, Moses strikes the rock, the elders see the salvation of the people flowing out, and everyone is able to drink and be satisfied—and so they have an answer to their question: is the Lord among us, or not? Yes, and God not only sees them for who they really are and what they really need, God provides for those needs even when the leader is more worried about saving his own skin.

Often, preachers and writers ask us to imagine ourselves as the Israelites—to identify with the people who are overwhelmed and wonder where God is, the ones who ask for help and God responds in really tangible ways. We are indeed sometimes forgetful, sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes thirsty, sometimes demanding, sometimes questioning. That’s true. I don’t think it’s the whole story, though.

What if instead we imagine the community outside the church, the people who are not a part of the congregation, as the Israelites? All those people out there in our neighbourhoods, on the train and in the cafe and in the bowling club and the pub and the shops and at school and everywhere. The world is full of pressures, people are anxious and overwhelmed, just getting along day by day, some feeling overly full and some empty and many seeking something but not sure what. Some sense it and don’t know what questions to ask or where to turn for help, and others try to fill the void in different ways (some healthier than others), but ultimately what it comes down to is that people are thirsty.

Now imagine how often people encounter the Church as if we are Moses. They hear the Church saying it can’t be questioned, and that doubting God is sinful. They come looking for nourishment, and the Church gives them our frustration and fear right back. They long for water, and the Church gives rules and blames them for their own predicament and then asks them to join and give so we can save ourselves.

If we’re lucky and people hold on until we get around to the next part of the story, we might get a chance to lead by example, to go out ahead with the shepherd’s staff, to witness a miracle and share the good news with those who come along with us. We might get the chance to be reminded by God that God’s care is for all the people, not just for us and our institutions and plans and rules. Hopefully we, like Moses, would take the opportunity to turn our faces away from our own self-preservation and toward the future and step out in faith, and then shout out the good news of what God has done.

I would like to make another suggestion.

People are indeed thirsty. Life in the modern world is complicated. Only a few minutes looking at the news headlines is enough to have even faithful people asking “is God among us or not?” For those who long for just a taste of living water, with only desert in sight, it can seem bleak.

What if the Church is meant to be like the rock? Split open, gushing forth streams of living water, enough to quench the thirst of all.

The rock doesn’t ask why people are thirsty. It doesn’t ask where they’ve been all this time. It doesn’t blame them for being in the wilderness, or for not knowing what to do. It feels the strike of the shepherd’s staff, and it breaks itself open and offers itself. And people find that even in this strange place, there is a taste of hope, a drop of love poured out just for them. The rock doesn’t get anything out of it, the people don’t become rocks or’s a selfless act of emptying itself for the sake of others, so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

The world is literally dying of thirst, longing to know the answer to the question: is the Lord among us or not? What would it look like for the Church, the Body of Christ, to understand itself as the rock that feels the tap of its shepherd, and then opens up and simply serves the need of those around it, without hope for its own gain? It might look like literally working for clean water and food for all. It might look like offering spiritual nourishment in new ways, even for people who will never join the church. It might look like reaching out to be a friend to those who are lonely, or passing on skills we have that others can use, or giving of our time or resources to work for justice in our community and nation and world. It will look like going forward in faith, reaching out, not simply waiting for people to come to us in the manner we’re used to. It will certainly involve prayer, and listening for the nudge of the Spirit, and courage to break ourselves open and let love pour through in whatever form people need to experience grace.

Jesus promised that we would become a well of living water, springing up with eternal life. Can we hear the thirst of our neighbours, and open ourselves up to meet it?

May it be so.

Monday, September 24, 2018


Today is the 19th day without Ollie.

After 15-1/2 years of snuggles, playfulness, jumping on kitchen counters, drinking the milk out of cereal bowls, trying to escape every time I opened the door, comforting me when I’m sad or sick, and letting me hug her like a teddy bear under the covers at night, we said goodbye 19 days ago. She was wrapped in the fleece blanket we use every day in the study. She was clearly done, her little body couldn’t take anymore after months of trying to fight off an upper respiratory infection that made diabetes impossible to control, and even if I hadn’t taken her to the vet, she would likely have died that day anyway.

Ollie had two ways of drinking water. Her clear preference was to drink from the tap, and she would jump on the bathroom or kitchen counter and stand in the sink until I turned it on. If no running water was available, she would dip her paw into her water bowl and lick her paw...which meant changing the water frequently because there were always pieces of who knows what floating in it from her paws. No longer do I have to do that, I can just refill the bowl, because Andrew prefers to stick his entire face in (lol). Similarly, Ollie often moved food from the dish to a nearby spot of floor, where she may or may not eat it has been 19 days since I found random pieces of cat food around the house.

Even after 19 days it’s hard to remember she won’t be at the door when I go in and out. I catch myself putting all flimsy plastic out of reach as soon as it comes in the house because she always chewed it and the sound drove me crazy. For the first time in my live-alone-as-an-adult life, my food is safe on the counter or the table, because she’s not there trying to steal it while it’s still cooking or while I go get a glass of water.

I miss her.

Andrew misses her too. He will sit in the hallway and cry—he has a new distressed meow that I’ve never heard until she was gone—and look at the door, and sniff around the spots she liked to sleep....but she isn’t coming back, and every time I tell him that then I’m crying too. (Aside: Andrew is terrible when I cry. He really doesn’t like it at all and gets very agitated. He’s not the comfort-type! Lol.) He has never known a house without Ollie. His entire life has been spent being her younger brother, the beta to her alpha, sharing space and attention, keeping each other company. This is his first time living alone. Just the two of’s harder than it sounds, for both of us.

It’s amazing how these little furry creatures worm their way into our lives. And how much it hurts when they’re gone. Basically every moment I have been at home for the past 15 years has been spent with Ollie. And now there’s a gaping hole much larger than her tiny size would suggest. I don’t think “bereft” is too strong a word for how both of us are feeling just now. I could never even make my mind go to this place when they were both alive, and frankly I don’t want to be in it now, but alas...that’s what love means, right?
Andrew, right this minute...he basically hasn’t left my lap for weeks. Just the two of us now, buddy....

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Forward in Faith—a sermon on crossing the Red Sea

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Forward In Faith
Exodus 14.5-7, 10-16, 19-29
23 September 2018, NL1-4 (skipped 3), Forward in Faith 3

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, ‘What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!’ So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians”? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!’
Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.

Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other; so neither went near the other all night long. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, ‘Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.’ Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing towards it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen – the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.


Can you imagine what it must have been like, to stand there at the shore of the sea? Before us, the water, whipped by the wind...the sea had long been a symbol of chaos and destruction, ever since that story of the flood. And behind us, the dust cloud churned up by the thousands of chariot wheels carrying Pharaoh’s army toward us. Nowhere to go, seemingly no hope, anxiety and certain death at every turn.

Listen to the Israelites, when they see the problem they are in: “were there no graves in Egypt? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt? It was better in Egypt!” 

Their rose-coloured glasses have erased the memories of being enslaved, of being persecuted, of having their children thrown into the Nile, of being abused by their Egyptian taskmasters. 

Some might say they are finally honestly facing up to the reality of their situation. Others might say that fear has clouded their judgment. Others might point out that they mentioned Egypt five times in about fifteen seconds...they have so thoroughly turned their eyes back to where they came from. The mixture of fear and nostalgia has filled their minds and hearts, and all their thought is of Egypt.

Moses turns their eyes back where they belong: “you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again. Pay attention to God.” 

Moses stands there, looking at the entire population of his people, at the shore of the sea, with the dust cloud of chariots coming nearer, and reminds them what is really true: they belong to God, and despite the picture they have painted of despair, of their best days being behind them, of their fear...despite all of that, God is still an active player in this story. So he tells them: “stand firm and you will see.” 

I think one of the greatest laugh lines of Scripture is the next moment, when God then turns around and says “move on!” Every time it cracks me up that Moses says “Stand firm!” And God says “Go forward!” But once I get over how funny I think that is, I can picture it. The people were shaking in their sandals. Some may have been inching backward. Others trying to slink off unnoticed, and maybe make a life for themselves in the desert. Most were likely that fearful combination of paralysed and quivering, easily manipulated into any shape a leader might want to take advantage of. Moses turns their eyes from Egypt to God, and then God gives them the instruction: Forward.

But forward means into the sea.

There is a wonderful midrash, a story the rabbis told about this moment, recorded in the Talmud, the Jewish teachings about scripture. In this story, the Israelites heard the order from God: Go forward...and they looked at the roiling sea and hesitated. The pillar of fire and cloud moved behind them, separating them from the Egyptians, so they could no longer look back. They looked at the sea. Moses stretched out his hand, and the Israelites looked at the sea...until a man called Nachshon, brother-in-law of Aaron, who was the brother of Moses and Miriam, took the first step. He walked into the sea, up to his ankles...up to his knees...he kept walking, and the people watched...up to his waist, up to his chest...still he walked forward in faith. Up to his shoulders, up to his chin...and then suddenly the waters parted, and he stood on dry ground, going on, just as God had called. He went forward and the way appeared, and the whole body of the Israelites walked across, with a wall of water on one side and the other. 

Remember back in the first creation story, the one that’s very orderly and poetic? It says that God separated light and dark...and then separated the waters, on the earth and over the earth...and then drove back the seas to create land, separating the water further. Here it is again: though the sea is a symbol of chaos and destruction, God uses them to create something new. But this time the people will have to wade in to be re-created in God’s image, to be reminded of who is really sovereign—God, and not Pharaoh, not their fear, not their memories of the past, not the way they have always done things. They will have to go forward in faith.

The same is still true. How often do we stand at the shore of the sea, looking forward at chaos and uncertainty, and turning back to look instead at our mixture of fear and nostalgia? It feels almost like an epidemic in the Church. We remember days gone by, we lament that we can’t seem to go back there, and we resign ourselves to drowning under the crashing waves of secularisation and a shortage of ministers and two missing generations in our pews. Too often, I think, we are like the Israelites whose thoughts are filled with Egypt, and we forget that God is still an active player in this story. Even once we turn our eyes away from the dust cloud that threatens us with obscurity, all we see is the sea of decline, blocking our way.

What would happen if we waded in?

It might be uncomfortable at first. We might get knocked down by waves, or find it hard to see with the spray in our eyes. We might feel like we’re alone out there.

We might also feel the waves carrying us. We might feel buoyant. 

We might feel like our footing is unsure, or like one more step is impossible.

And that might be the moment a way opens before us and God re-creates the world and the Church again.

There are big challenges facing the Church of Scotland. We have taken for granted our position in the culture, and the people who make up the church, and the passing on of faith. The world has changed more than the church has—and of course some things are unchangeable, and will always be unpopular with the rest of the world, but some things we hold on to out of nostalgia or fear, not because they are eternal or essential. There are many congregations struggling, and many parishes without a minister, and the projections are fairly dire. In ten years half of the parishes in the Church of Scotland will not have a minister. Everyone is scrambling trying to figure out what to do. We feel caught between the Egyptians and the Sea, and fear feels like the order of the day.

I hope we can turn our eyes to God, who is still the author of and main character in our story. I hope we can let go of the narrative that says the best days of God’s church are behind us. I hope we can wade in, each in our way, and play our part in God’s re-creation, finding ways to share the good news of what God has already done for us and the vision of what God is still doing. 

Some of us clergy are working on ideas and plans to try new things, to work together as a group of parishes here and in the west end of Greenock. There is a lot of uncertainty around the presbytery plan, and the strategic plan of the General Assembly and what it might mean, and the options for a new structure that would be fit for purpose...and so some of us are seizing that moment to forge something together. We hope you will join in the process of discerning where God is calling us, and how we can best be the Church serving the community here. No one is currently planning a union or anything, we are just wading in to the idea of partnership for the sake of the gospel, recognising that our parish boundaries are not God’s boundaries. We are taking God at his word and going on, with hope that we will see God’s new thing being created in our midst.

God is always calling us forward in faith. 
To be the Body of Christ, light for the world. 
To live filled with the creative spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control....the Spirit which makes a way where there seemed no way.
May we wade in!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Hope....even in the Church of Scotland

The Church of Scotland, like many denominations, is facing a crisis. It’s a crisis largely of its own making, as many church crises are. (A good many congregations are in crisis, for example, because they have never learned healthy communication skills, or because they have never faced up to realities in their history that are still affecting them though most people don’t even know what happened....and a good many more because they won’t stand up to a bully....etc.) 

The CofS enjoyed the same cultural dominance that many mainline Protestant denominations did in white western countries in the 20th century....and like many European state churches did from the 16th century onwards. And, like all those mainline Protestant churches, there is a long history of complacency about the church’s place in the society, and that easily leads to taking people for granted, and worse, taking the faith for granted. We have gotten ourselves into this situation by assuming that people would soak up our version of Christianity, and that plus the cultural supports would be enough to keep people engaged and therefore keep the institution going.

It turns out both of those assumptions are false.

And now we are scared. Scared of the falling numbers of ministers (and members), scared of secularisation that (supposedly) steals young people away for other activities, scared of losing our beloved buildings, scared of death.

I understand the anxiety. I do.

I don’t really understand leaders who feed the anxiety or what it does for them, but I do understand the anxiety.

I am concerned as well. But I think I might be concerned about slightly different things than I hear people talking about at the moment.

I am concerned that we don’t seem to have a sense of the Holy Spirit moving in and through us to do something to make the world look more like the kingdom of God. We don’t seem to see her, we just see crumbling buildings and greying heads...

I am concerned that we seem to have decided that the Church’s best days are behind us, despite God’s promise of “plans for your welfare, not for your harm; for a future with hope.” (What is compelling about a faith that has nothing to say to our lives today, or tomorrow, or next year?)

I am concerned that our vision is of consistent decline, rather than a vision for how to participate in what God is doing in Scotland now. (Who wants to join in a vision of increasingly rapid decline?)

I am concerned that our excuses are just that: excuses. Yes, there are lots of other things happening on Sunday mornings now. No, the culture no longer supports the Church by assuming it is the centre of all things. But ultimately are those simply excuses we make to cover for the fact that we have not passed on the fullness of the faith? Or for the fact that we are unwilling to consider that God might be worshipped at times other than Sunday morning between 9 and noon? Or for the fact that we have focused so much on “getting people in” that we have never given any thought to how we go out?

I am concerned that we are insisting on making structural changes when we aren’t clear about vision or mission. Structure needs to be created to serve the mission, not the other way around.

I am concerned that those of us asking for support in discerning God’s vision and then pursuing it are being labeled naively optimistic.

Newsflash: pessimism (which too often masquerades as “realism”) is far more dangerous than optimism, because pessimism has no hope. If we are indeed a Church without hope, then please, by all means, close the doors. Now. Today. Don’t wait. Because that is not a church.

Similarly, if our only hope is for a return to the 1950s Church, then again: close the doors.

If, however, our hope is for the Living God to do a new thing....if our hope is for the Body of Christ to live out its calling...if our hope is for the Holy Spirit to empower us to be faithful in a changed context....then let’s say so. Let’s pray for vision, and then do the work to pursue it. Prayer without action, like faith without works, is dead. 

Surely we believe in a God who is more than capable of building up the Body even now. Or do we believe that God was only living and active before iPhones and Sunday youth sports?

I don’t know about you, but I believe that God has a vision for the Church of Scotland. I believe God has a purpose for us to carry out in every parish. I believe God is capable of giving us everything we need to live that purpose in service of that vision. 

The only thing I believe that may be naively optimistic (though I hope not!) is that I also believe we are capable of seeing the vision, and following it. It will be hard work, it will require changing some things we have held on to for longer than they have served us, it will mean allowing God’s new thing to supersede our fears and even our personal desires, but I believe it is possible. 

Perfect love casts out fear. 
Can we live like it? Here’s to hope!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Living with purpose--a sermon on Genesis 12

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Living With Purpose
Genesis 12.1-9
16 September 2018, NL1-2, Forward in Faith 2

Last week we heard the story of Noah, his family, and the animals sailing in the ark, and then God making a promise to all the people and creatures of the earth. Noah’s family included three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The oldest son, Shem, is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (that’s seven greats!) of Abram, who we are going to hear about today. The reading comes from the book of Genesis, chapter 12, beginning at verse 1, and can be found on page 13 of the Bible.

The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
‘I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
From there he went on towards the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.
Then Abram set out and continued towards the Negev.


Whenever I have been in a discussion of this story, a few questions always come up. Usually the first question is “why would Abram leave his home when he was 75 years old?” After that come more questions—why did God call Abram in the first place? Where was Abram supposed to go? How did he know how to get there? And then the really hard ones that we aren’t sure we’re allowed to ask because it makes us uncomfortable to question the Bible or God: when it says they took the “people they had acquired” does that mean they had slaves? When it says the Canaanites were in the land that was being promised to Abram, does that mean God was promising the land away right out from under the people who had lived there for generations?

These are all good questions, and important to ask. Even the ones that make us uncomfortable. The Bible isn’t here just to be pretty or to tell a nice fairy tale. It’s here for us to engage with, to talk about, to question and learn from, and to point us toward God. It’s a bit like the map Abram didn’t have, showing us the way, but only if we look closely and pay attention and don’t just brush off the difficult bits.

I should tell you, though, that I don’t have answers to any of these questions. I wonder just as much as anyone else, and I have some ideas, of course, but I don’t know definitively why God didn’t see millennia of Israeli-Palestinian conflict coming before speaking these words, or take this opportunity to condemn slavery at the beginning of the story. I only know that what we have here is a book that tells us about people’s relationship with God, and about what God has done with ordinary people to change the’s written by people who were products of their history just as much as we are. It’s a map that needs interpreting, just like any other map filled with symbols.

Here’s what I do know about Abram: He obviously trusted God. And God trusted him. Though there’s nothing written about Abram and Sarai before this, they must have had some sort of relationship with God. When God spoke, Abram listened. And he didn’t just hear the words, but he obeyed them. Without the benefit of google to help him figure out who was calling or where he was going, with no maps to show the route, and not even a photo or a TripAdvisor review to rely on, he packed up his whole life and went on. 

I love the way this encounter between God and Abram is written. God gets increasingly personal with Abram: go from your country, your people, and your father’s household. Leave behind your sense of nationalism, of ethnicity, and of family name. The things that are often used to define us: where are you from, who are your parents...these are the things Abram is to leave. Somehow, along the way, God will show him his true identity, the place where he belongs in the story of the world, the story of God.

Then, when making promises to Abram, God gets increasingly universal: I will bless you...and you will be a blessing...and because of you every person on earth will be blessed. Whatever Abram’s job was before, this is his new job now: to allow God’s blessing to flow through him. God chose Abram to be the conduit of blessing. While we may not know why Abram was the one chosen, we know that God has a mission in mind, and needs someone to carry it out. Abram has a purpose now and he begins to live it out as best he can.

Figuring out our purpose, as individuals or as a church, can be a difficult thing. There are so many options—so many things that are good, or interesting, or fun. But while there are many good things to do, they aren’t all our thing to do. When Abram heard God describe his purpose, he was able to use that as a guide for his action. When we know our purpose, we can measure our options against that and use it to help us decide what is ours to do. 

Unfortunately we don’t often get quite the same clarity that Abram and Sarai got. Perhaps it’s because we don’t expect God to speak to us, so we aren’t tuned in to God’s voice like they were. Or perhaps we don’t always like what we hear, so we pretend to be confused...after all, God calling us to leave everything and go to somewhere unknown is a scary possibility, but it is something God still calls some people to do—otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here! And the idea of our lives being about blessing others is hard for us too—so much of western culture is based on accumulating blessings for ourselves, not about passing them on. What would it mean to live purposely for the blessing of the world? To live for others?

I do think it’s possible for us to get the kind of clarity Abram and Sarai had, though. They were just ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives. But in the midst of their lives, they had a habit of worship. They practiced listening for God. We can tell because in each place they stop, they build an altar, a cairn that marks the journey God is taking them on. Just this little section of their story has them stopping to make camp twice, and in each place they built an altar. Wherever they found themselves, they made space and time to worship God. They made a physical marker reminding them that God has brought them here and will lead them on. Worshipping God, giving thanks to God, listening for God...these things were literally built in to their lives, wherever they were, which helped them discover the new identity God was giving them, not based on nation or tribe or family, but based on relationship with God. And that relationship gave them an edge when it came to hearing God’s purpose for them.

That is still true. When our lives have built in time for giving thanks, for worshipping together, for listening to God’s word, we are far more likely to discern our purpose. God has a purpose in mind for each and every person, and for each and every church. We are called to trust and follow where God leads, to go forward in faith and find our questions answered along the way. But if we aren’t attuned to God’s purpose for us, practiced at listening and responding, we will find ourselves doing everything that seems like a good idea, and then we’ll be tired and scattered, rather than focused and energised. When we live to God’s purpose, we are blessed to be a blessing. 

May it be so. Amen.