Sunday, June 21, 2020

Pull up the stakes -- a sermon on Genesis 12

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Pull up the stakes
Genesis 12.1-9 (NRSV)
21 June 2020, Postcards of Faith 1

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

This summer we are going on a church family holiday — though we can’t physically go away this year, we can still travel spiritually! And we can still tend our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing along the way. Members of the church have been walking, running, cycling, praying, reading scripture, and serving others to move us along this journey. Adding up every kilometre we’ve moved our bodies, and every ten minutes we’ve spent nurturing our relationship with God and God’s people, we’ve already managed to get ourselves to the border between Hungary and Romania! 

I don’t know about you, but whenever I plan to travel to a new place, I like to look things up to see what to expect. So I spent a few minutes looking into what sorts of food we might eat in Romania — cabbage rolls are apparently very popular. I looked at the satellite images and saw a lot of farm fields. I looked at pictures of the architecture of the villages near the border and saw beautiful, colourful, old churches and homes. I looked at photos of the national park that we would be passing through right now if we were walking the journey in person, and marvelled at how much it looked like the Cairngorms. I’ve never been to Romania before, and everything I knew about it really came from watching gymnastics competitions, so it was an interesting place to learn a little bit about! 

When God spoke to Abram and Sarai and told them to go on this journey, leaving their country, their birthplace, their family home in order to be a blessing to those they meet, to the community, to the whole world…they didn’t get a chance to google first. They didn’t ask for more information, or for photos of where they were going, they just packed up everything and went.

And we do mean they packed up everything! Clothes, bedding, cooking utensils, work tools, animals, people, and even their tents. They left behind the place they had known their whole lives, and their parents and siblings and cousins, taking only their nephew whose father had died tragically young. Off they went, not really knowing where they were going, or how long it would take, or what it would be like when they arrived. 

In every place they went, they would rebuild their home: pitch tents, lay out bedding, set up a kitchen, pasture the animals, and build an altar. And when it was time to move on, they packed it all up again. This week, I learned that the original Hebrew doesn’t say “moved on” but rather literally “pulled up stakes.” They pulled up stakes and went to the next place. It’s a reminder of just how much work we’re talking about for this journey into the unknown: they have to physically and emotionally uproot their home in order to follow where God is leading them. Each time, perhaps they wonder if this is it…they pound the stakes into the ground…and then after a while, pull them up again. That’s what it means to journey on by stages, to put the stakes in, and then take them out. To build a village of tents, and then fold all that canvas again and tie it to a donkey or a camel. To unpack jars and pots, and then carefully roll them in blankets and pack them up so they won’t break along the way. To set up a spinning wheel and loom and make new clothes and bedding and tents, and then put them away again. To set up an altar and meet God there…and then to leave the altar behind as a witness to the encounter between human and divine.

You would definitely learn to live with only the essentials!

I wonder if there is something for us to learn, though many of us have lived in the same place, or even the same house, for years. Not necessarily about our material things, though that always bears thinking about. But today I’m wondering more about our metaphorical journey through this time. We’ve been called out from our comfortable place, and we don’t really know where we are going. We packed up everything and moved into the unknown world of online worship, virtual afternoon tea, and connecting without seeing each other. The “new normal” is still ahead of us and we aren’t sure what it will be like…all we can do is trust that God will show us, just as God promised to show Abram and Sarai their new homeland.

I wonder, though, if when they pulled up the stakes, were they tempted to go back? Were they tempted to go back to where they knew the lay of the land, and the people, and they could re-build their village and resume their old habits and not have to worry about moving on to the next thing?

I know we certainly are tempted that way!

But instead it says they journeyed on, in stages. Pulling up stakes, and pounding them in. Without even the benefit of google to show them what the landscape looked like or what sorts of foods they should try. Every time they set up camp it would have been slightly different than the one before — different landscape means different organisation of tents and pastures and workspaces, perhaps different arrangements inside their sleeping spaces to take advantage of different light or wind. And I suspect every time they pulled up stakes, they decided on something else that didn’t need to make the next stage of the journey — something whose value wasn’t worth the weight or space or effort of bringing it along. Putting down stakes, and pulling them up…on, and on, because God called them forward into something new, and promised that in them and through them, the entire world would be blessed. 

In these days when we have left behind the comfortable ways of being church, the familiar routines and rituals, we have had to learn to build altars wherever we are — to encounter God in our homes, or out on a walk, or in phone conversations, or even over the internet. As we journey on by stages, each time we pull up stakes there’ll be temptation to go back, to settle into old familiar ways. But God is showing us something else…if we are traveling light enough to see it and follow. What things are necessary to take with us? What things are weighing us down and making it harder to move? What markers can we leave behind as a witness to the encounter between human and divine?

Abram and Sarai clearly expected to meet God everywhere they went — otherwise, why build an altar in every camp? And they expected God to lead them onward, stage by stage. Otherwise, why pull up the stakes?

If we, too, expect to meet God everywhere we go, and if we expect God to lead us onward, stage by stage, or phase by phase, we might even say, then perhaps we, too, can be confident enough to pull up the stakes. To leave behind some of the things that have served us well in the past but are not necessary to this part of the journey, and find new ways of living and worshipping and witnessing and serving. We don’t know exactly where we’re going, or how long the journey will be. We do know that the reason behind the journey is to become a blessing to others, perhaps even those we will never meet, and we do know that we are not alone. So we must go forward, step by step.

May it be so. Amen.

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