Posted by: owizblog | June 18, 2017

“Where Do We Go From Here?” Sermon, UCB, 18 June 2017

Reading: Genesis 18:1-15

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Journeys raise many questions. Am I on the right road?

Who’s with me? Am I really travelling on my own? (It’s amazing how often I drive off the ferry, through Glasgow and sometimes much further afield, and find myself in a strung-out convoy of cars I recognize…)

How far to journey’s end?

Do I have what I need to complete this?

fuel

And of course, inevitably:

Are we there yet?

 

These are the questions you ask as you journey. Even when your travelling is a seamless flow of movement, sometimes slower, sometimes faster, you monitor the journey, and your travelling; it’s like driving along in the car, and taking in the instruments on the dashboard.

dashboard

You don’t need to pull over to the side of the road, and stop, to do that.

But sometimes, you do have to stop. Sometimes, the journey itself makes you stop…

Journeys don’t always bring you directly to journey’s end. There’s more to any journey than here, the destination, and the road between the two. Sometimes, some journeys – perhaps all journeys, perhaps anything worth calling a “journey” – bring us to a place which calls everything into question.

And here’s the question:

Where do we go from here?

This morning’s reading comes from just such a moment on Abraham’s journey. In fact, Abraham’s journey, through the middle part of the Book of Genesis, is strung together from moments like this; moments which raise questions, which call the whole journey into question. And the question which hangs in the air is always “Where do we go from here?”

Since it began, with Abram’s call, in Haran, to leave everything familiar, every tie, every connection, every – well, philosophers actually call these connections to other people which tell us who we are, and how we belong, “constitutive relationships” – this journey hasn’t been about journeying the way the car’s computer and satnav tell us we’re journeying; how efficiently we’re travelling, whether we’re still on the shortest route, whether there’s a delay we could avoid ahead, what our average speed is over the trip so far… To drive with your mind like that, even if you drove round the world, would only be a long trip, not a journey, not in the profoundest sense. And since human lives sped up to the speed of the train, or the car, or the plain, over the last two centuries, we’ve really shifted in our heads from making journeys to making trips, however long.

A dashboard like this is about avoiding everything that might make a trip into a journey. They don’t make films about road journeys across America where the most significant things that happen are when you realize that your new car’s MPG is a bit disappointing, or the windscreen washer bottle indicator light comes on.

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Abraham’s journey is all about moments that call the journey into question.

Before chapter twelve of Genesis is over, Abram has disgraced himself my telling a lie out of fear, so as to make his passage through a foreign land easier. He’s made to look hard at himself.

pharaoh and abraham

By chapter thirteen, he’s fallen out so badly with Lot, his nephew, that their two journeys can no longer be one. “Where do we go from here?” he asks Lot “Right, or left? You choose – and I’ll go the other way…”

abraham and lot

God doesn’t seem to be a factor in his thinking at all; but as soon as Lot has made his choice and gone, God fills the moment. “Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward…” Everything has stopped; the question hangs in the air, “Where do we go from here…?” And God is there in the answer. The direction which has been chosen for you by someone else – by Lot; that’s the direction in which the future lies, your future and my promise still attached to it, and I will be there….”

And immediately, in the next chapter, there’s a crisis; a hostage situation, in fact. This is where we can see clearly that these stories of Abraham are strung like pearls on a thread; each one individual, separate, self-contained.

So, suddenly, Abram is no more the childless old man with an elderly wife and a small band of servants. He’s a powerful clan chief, a kingly figure doing battle with an alliance of local kinglets who have captured some of his people.

melchizedek

His victory leads to the mysterious encounter with Melchizedek, the priest-king of the city-state of Jerusalem, who later tradition sees as prefiguring Jesus, who brings out bread and wine and blesses him.

Then comes chapter fifteen, the eerie, hairs-rising-on-the-back-of-the neck dusk encounter in a waking, paralysed trance, with the God who, commits himself utterly one-sidedly to this terrified, overawed human being lying inert but experiencing everything, in a patch of desert scrub, as twilight turns to night.

genesis 15

And then, just in case we are getting the idea that any of this is to do with Abraham’s specialness, comes the story of his utter inadequacy as an authority-figure in his own house – which is how the patriarchal culture in which this story was told – and his total failure as a human being, which is how we, today, see it, when he can’t negotiate between his wife Sarah and his concubine Hagar, and on the former’s insistence, throws out the latter, and her son, Ishmael, out into the desert to die.

hagar and ishmael

And it’s no thanks to Abraham, miserable in his spinelessness, that this doesn’t happen. Ishmael survives.

3

And now – this.

 

Abraham has a son, but he can’t inherit the promise. (He has his own promise to inherit, but that’s a different story…) Who else is there? And once again, we come to a point in the story where the question hangs in the air: “Where do we go from here?” Abraham’s journey has almost ceased to be a journey. He plouters around in the wilderness, day after day, until suddenly, there breaks in on his routine the visit of the three strangers.

genesis 18

He seems to grasp what this visit means, and we’re not given any explanation, beyond that he immediately prepares a huge welcome for them. He orders the fatted calf killed, and prepared in a yoghurt sauce, and stands and watches as his guests feast.

It’s as though he knows that the answer to the question that presses down on his little encampment like the sultry, oppressive heat all around them, is at hand. “Where do we go from here?”

And it is. A son will be born to and of Abraham and Sarah. This time next year, everything will be different.

Sarah laughing

And suddenly, the story is all about Sarah. She giggles. Giggles at the thought of it, at the thought of the successful achievement of what must happen to make it happen, at the thought of motherhood at her age… It’s preposterous! We tend to think that the point is that she doesn’t believe it. I don’t know that, in the logic of this ancient story, things ever get that far. She laughs because even the thought is comical.

And we suddenly realize that Abraham isn’t laughing. He gets it. Laughter is going to come back to their lives, and joy. Where do we go from here? Well, there, apparently…

The Hebrew verb which means laughing is צחק. So they call the boy “Yitzhak” – because laughter, with his coming, is where they go from here….

Where do we go from here?

So many answers – but in all the answers is God…

Where do we go from here?

So many ways to ask the same question: in uncertainty; in despair; in joyful anticipation; in surprise; in disgrace; in new discoveries about ourselves which stop us in our tracks; in those utterly unexpected things which throw into question the whole journey, and everything we thought it was about. But always, in real life, where we are.

“Where do we go from here?”

 

And this week, we as a society have been forced to ask the same question, by a recurrent, terrible image on our screens, and in our minds.

Where do we go from here?

Grenfell Tower

 [Readings: Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8

4

Where do we go from here?

Where, as a society, do we go from a point like this? We haven’t begun to assimilate the full implications of what the fire at Grenfell Tower has disclosed about us. We know enough to gauge the scale of the questions: that a block of a hundred and forty flats, housing many poor and vulnerable people, was refurbished with flammable cladding to save less than five thousand pounds; that warnings went unheeded, and that warnings from within the community itself weren’t listened to because some voices in our society are heard much less than others; that the response to this disaster has been, and apparently continues to be, quite inadequate, and that an already disprivileged community has been left to fend for itself…

A society, like the communities that make it up, isn’t a static thing. It doesn’t stand still. It goes in certain directions, and sometimes it does this, for good or ill, because it is driven by forces within it, in better or worse directions, and sometimes it does this because things are drifting.

A society is a shared journey.

Because societies are so complicated, there will always be a huge range of perspectives on that journey, and the direction it’s taking, and the direction it ought to take.

Very rarely, though, a moment comes in which the whole journey is called into question. The ghastly tragedy in Kensington seems, by common agreement, to be such a moment. We look at the tragedy itself, and we are forced to pause. We contemplate the human horror, and before we start discussing or debating or arguing anything, we are made to stop, and acknowledge the pain and the grief.

But the very next thing that must happen, in that recognition, in the awful, becalmed moments we are still living through as we cope with the scale of this, and before any of this gets taken up into the rhetoric and indignation of conventional political debate, is that we ask “Where do we go from here?”

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And there can only be one answer to that question, for faith.

This is where we are. This is what we have come to. We can’t flee from it. Where do we go from here? We have to go back out into it. If we still have faith, and we do, then we know that that’s where God will meet us, that that’s where God already is, in the indescribably hard reality of what’s happened.

And we, the Church, are sent out into that reality.

The Gospel reading this morning is about just exactly that. It’s about Jesus sending his disciples out, unprotected, into the world. Unprotected just as was Jesus of Nazareth, who walked through the world, denounced things the way they were, called the insignificant people with their marginalized, disempowered lives to himself – and got crucified for it.

It might be very hard to make the connection today, because the Gospel reading from Matthew has such a sense of joy and anticipation and promise to it – and we feel none of those things today, not in the aftermath of such a consuming tragedy. And so we ask: what can such a buoyant, upbeat, hope-filled reading as today’ Gospel possibly speak to us, in this week of all weeks?

But this is a reading about one thing above all else. It’s about faith as complete engagement with the world as it is. It’s about our journey in and through the world, and the way we live it. It’s about rejecting any separation between ourselves and the vulnerability of others, and the reality they have to live. And if we think that faith gives us any special protection from the risks of living in the world, we will be sadly disappointed. His relationship with God his Father didn’t exempt Jesus. Quite the reverse. His determination to live out the life of the kingdom sent him straight to the Cross. Why would we, his disciples, expect exemption?

But worse than expecting exemption would be our feeling entitled to it. Were there people in authority in Kensington, were there people in power, were there residents, neighbours to these flats, but living in utterly different conditions and situations in the richest borough in the country, who felt that they were entitled to the protections of life and limb which require money to be spent on procuring them, because they deserved it? That they were “worth it”? Do we ever feel like that?

6

Jesus will have none of it. He will not have his followers feel any more entitled than “one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters…” The Gospel Jennifer read to us a moment ago continues:

“You received without paying, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the labourer deserves his food…”

That’s the lifestyle of the kingdom. Not literally, of course: try walking around barefoot and with one layer of clothing in the Scottish winter, and you’ll get pleurisy or worse. Not literally – far deeper than that. Go out into the world in your faith, a faith that doesn’t separate you from the poorest, least, most defenceless and vulnerable and unheard people around you. Know what it is to be as dependent as they – because you are. However it’s shared, wealth in a society is created co-operatively, by making and selling, earning and buying. And an individual’s wealth – or lack of it – is nothing to do with their value. It’s perfectly clear from Scripture that that’s how God thinks.

But it seems not to be the way our society has come to think…

Where do we go from here?

As a society? Well, we haven’t even begun to measure the size of that question. But it won’t go away.

For us as the Church? Well, we have complained enough that we’ve been shunted to the margins, listened to less and less. It’s true! But now, it turns out, we’ve come to a place where millions of other people are – and the place where, in his ministry, Jesus habitually went.

And that’s where he spoke from, and so must we.

Where do we go from here? Into God. Towards the promise of the Kingdom, which we can’t bring about, but which in Jesus Christ is already breaking in.

Where do we go from here? Forward, in lives which aren’t lived according to the patterns of a world that every so often grinds to a halt, and falls to bits, but according to the Kingdom, and its righteousness.

Where do we go from here? Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness, and all the rest shall be given unto you.

There are people living this truth now, in Kensington. And there are people living out their faith as Jesus’ disciples in the midst of that shattering awfulness, too. They work with the whole community, of all faiths and none. That’s where they are. Out of that engagement will come an answer, in Kensington and Chelsea, to the question “Where do we go from here?” Out of that will come an answer to the same question, asked by the whole of our society.

Where do we go from here? We don’t know yet. But we can’t stay where we are, or as a society, we will be lost…

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