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on the road again

A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 11 June 2023;Pr 5.A. Genesis 12:1-9; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Personally, I have never found moving easy, and that feeling has only grown stronger as I get older. In this vein, I recall with increasing understanding the directive words of my late father-in-law, who declared forcefully, “I plan on moving when they take me out feet first.” (And, to be sure, that is what happened!) Moving disrupts. It disrupts life. It upends one’s ability to rely upon what is familiar and to receive the comfort and stability that such a well-trod landscape can provide. I think you know what I mean. For instance, it is a real pain to have to find a new doctor, a new car mechanic, a new and competently stocked hardware store. It is hard to find someone to cut your hair and have to describe in detail how the cut should go, when the old barber or stylist knew what to do. But (at least for me) the deeper significance of having these little steppingstones in place is that the routine connections they store convey a sense of belonging. And having a sense of belonging, especially to something larger than oneself, gets to the heart of the matter of life. We are not meant to be single-cell amoebas. Along these lines, I find it quite telling that one of our culture’s “buzz words” is “inclusivity”. The term initially indicated a movement to embrace, to bring in, to be more comprehensive as opposed to being exclusive; and by and large this is a good thing. Promoting the fair treatment and full participation of all people, particularly groups who have historically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination has led to an emerging element of civil and social rights, labeled as: “Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion” – also known as “DEI. Yet (and I find this very interesting), it has been the business sector who has noted that as important and well-intentioned as “inclusion” may be, it and all the programs to promote inclusion essentially miss the mark. This is so because being included is not the same as “belonging”. And as I said, belonging speaks to the fundamental needs of being a healthy human being. Belonging, not just being included. A place at the table, not simply standing in the dining room. So it is that many of us (including me!) often balk at moving and leaving what is familiar, even if what is familiar needs changing. So it is that I am very intrigued by today’s story of Abram and Sarai being called by God to move from their well-honed life to … what? In order to answer that question, you no doubt remember that there are five “big” Bible stories that form the overarching, structural narrative of faith and life with God. The stories about Creation, Covenant, Exodus, Exile, and Return provide the basic content, context, and message of everything else the Bible contains; and today’s lesson from the 12th chapter of Genesis starts the story of “Covenant” between God and God’s people. At this inaugural point in the story of “Covenant”, there are only two people of God: Abram and Sarai. And one of the story’s important contact points is to see ourselves as Abram and Sarai. Yet, what I specifically want to consider with you now is how Abram and Sarai are St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The point I want to make is that, as with old Abram and barren Sarai, God is calling this church to move, but it is unclear where we are to go or how we get to our vocational destination. The uncertainty of this move and the actual steps that we might have to take to make this move create the challenge before us. It is a challenge that at times raises our fears, even feels like a threat. We all know that changes among us as a parish church have to be made, but we also fundamentally like the way things are. After all, we’re pretty good at what we do. Our life together is familiar and to an alluring extent comfortable. So, what do we do about God’s call to move? At its heart, this is what next Saturday’s Williston Parish Meeting is all about: Moving: where? Moving: How? Moving: With whom? Moving: When? Moving: Why? So, let me try and get some traction on these “moving” questions by looking more closely at the “Covenant story” and at Abram and Sarai. Perhaps in them we’ll gain a greater sense of our own “moving experience”. Step One is to note the portentous changing of their names. In the familiar biblical history, you and I know these two figures as “Abraham” and “Sarah”. As Shakespeare has Romeo pine over Juliet and ask: “What’s in a name?”, the fact that God changes the names of his first two covenanted partners matters – a lot. From ordinary Abram and Sarai, God renames them “Abraham” (that is, in Hebrew: “exalted father”) and “Sarah” (that is, in Hebrew: “mother of nations”). “What’s in a name?” Be careful: That name may hold what God intends to do with you and through you. What’s in the name “Philip”? “Come and see.” [John 1:46] At the age of seventy-five, childless Abram and barren Sarai enter into a commitment with God that will change more than their names but their lives: from barrenness to fruitful genesis. But the first step (a very big step at that) in sealing this deal with the promise of progeny and blessing is to move. God says, “Go … [go] from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land … the land I will show you.” [Genesis 12:1] At a time in life when these two old coots can be expected to be down-sizing their abundant estate and preparing to play a wicked game of shuffleboard in Boca Raton, instead they pack all their belongings, their holdings, and their people into several, large, rented U-Haul trucks to head out toward God’s promise – but where are they going? The Genesis story tells us that God intends to provide Abram and Sarai with a new home, with new land, with a new and heretofore unimaginable purpose: namely, to be the “Adam and Eve” of a new people whose way of life will reflect the life and love of the Creator God. Moreover, this promised new life is not limited to them. Abram and Sarai will not only have (finally) a child; but their new lives are meant to draw everyone else to the Holy One’s light and presence. But for these promises to emerge, Abram and Sarai must move, must leave what is familiar and oh-so-comfortable to fulfill their part of the covenant’s story and God’s promise. “Go!” They do “go” as God has commanded, and their move starts by having to travel in a foreign land, the land of the Canaanites. They arrive at a place called Shechem and to the prominent site of the “oak of Moreh”. The venerable oak is a recognized sacred site by virtue of its prominence among the forest of trees at Mamre; and it is there that Abram built an altar to confirm his covenant and purpose with God. But the call to move continued. Abram (we are told) then “moved to the hill country”, east of Bethel and near Ai. And once more Abram built an altar and dedicated that as a shrine of gratitude to the name God. In all the moving, Abram remembered and honored his partner, God, with worship. I suspect that this is a pattern we at St. Philip’s would do well to follow, as we encounter our moving. Keep moving. Remember God. Having pitched his tent in the small valley between Bethel and Ai, Abram continued his journey (we are told) “in stages” toward the Negeb (that large swath of isolated, arid land in the southern part of Palestine/Israel). Here again, the couple stopped to begin a new life, until the next chapter began; but the third point stands: This move has more in common with a marathon than a sprint. I already know from experience that the life and mission of St. Philip’s will also emerge in “stages”, irrespective of what pace I or anyone else desires. If not patience in this travelogue (“Are we there yet?!”), then steadfastness prevail through an ongoing sense of purpose, a purpose that extends to generations. Regarding ourselves at St. Philip’s in terms of Abram and Sarai, there is a pattern that defines their journeying. More than a mere trip, a move from station to station, it was clear that this peripatetic experience (unsettling as it often was) had become a pilgrimage because as they moved from stage to stage, Abram built altars to God, worshipping the Holy One and thus confirming the bond and covenant that energized and sustain their movement. In my own experience of such God-travel, plans are necessary; but when the plans inevitably break down is the point at which the pilgrimage begins and where we begin to taste and see the glimmers of the larger, promised new life. Wherever St. Philip’s movement brings this faith community and whatever changes emerge or are forced upon us, we need to keep in mind how at each stage, Abram built an altar to God and confirmed the shared partnership and purpose of the covenant. In the face of uncertainty and even fear, getting back to the basics of our connection and remembering the faithfulness of God is crucial, if we are not to run away from our calling to opportunity and life. Worship. It’s one thing that we do well at St. Philip’s. What we do is authentic (not made up), reliable (not idiosyncratic), steadfast, and of the heart and soul. In this, the worship we offer is faithful and affords the Spirit of God space to emerge, to be known among us, and to cause growth and a deepening of faith. We come together to worship in the trust that whenever two or three of us gather in the Lord’s Name, the Risen One is present. Making room for that presence and paying attention to what that holiness is like ,and responding to it is what the worship life at St. Philip’s is all about. We have an altar in this place. Its purpose is to gather us together to receive what we need and cannot provide for ourselves. But this altar is not just for us or even for our gathering. As with Abraham and Sarah, this altar also calls us to share what we have been given with those we meet along the way, bringing God to the people and the people to God. So, the inexorable vocational question to each of us at St. Philip’s is this: Where is your altar? What does it take to build and tend your altar? This, I hope, will be another item for our Williston discussion and the covenanting that surfaces from it. "Go!” There is no question about what this means or what it entails or to whom this declarative is addressed. Yes, it is addressed to us personally, but it is also addressed to us in community, the community of St. Philip’s. Community is the place and the context where we find the courage and the support to move on and to grow as God’s people. I for one do not know where we are going or how this pilgrimage will unfold. What I do know is that you and I as people and as St Philip’s are being called by God to “Go” – to go from all that is familiar and convenient to us toward the fullness of our God and the God-life. However, what I am very clear about is this. I am not brave enough or faithful enough to do this alone. I need help. I need your help. I am also clear about being with you to work with you in listening and learning to follow God’s call to move on toward the new life we need. We won’t get all this done next Saturday at Williston or next year or perhaps in the near future; but there is an old proverb that helps: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Taking the first step to “regroup, refocus, and rebound” in this post-pandemic time, with this chaotic world is what our life and ministry here are about. I am asking each of you to take this step with me -- now. So it is that with Willy Nelson, you and I are “on the road again.” Amen.

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