Pastor's Note: We are going on a journey this fall! We don't know exactly where it will lead us -- but our goal is to discover more about God's mission for our congregation! Please join the conversation on October 6 to brainstorm after worship on our core values -- those essential things to carry into the future. And please join us for a second conversation on October ___, again after worship. We need all of our value-holders and creative thinkers to help us understand our mission here in our community and beyond!
If you would like a copy of the book, Canoeing the Mountains, please let Pastor Katherine know. If you miss a Sunday, we are posting the sermons for you here, or you can call Katya and she will print a copy for you to pick up during office hours.
The more pressure we feel is on us – the easier it is to make a mistake. If we are not prepared for a test, we’ll forget even the stuff we have down cold. And when we are in a hurry, we miss turns that or get caught in traffic that delay us even more. It just seems that when it is a high pressure day, Murphy’s law takes on a domino effect that has us cutting ourselves shaving, breaking heels, spilling coffee all over ourselves – you get the idea. When the pressure mounts – so do our mistakes. Even really big mistakes.
Move or Die.
Talk about pressure situations. Change or die. Move or die. You can’t stay where you’ve been, or do what you have been doing and survive. That kind of situation pushes you to take risks, to leave the home you’ve known to find a new place – just to have the chance to survive.
Abram and Sarai are in a move or die situation in this story. Famine is threatening their very lives. They have to leave the land of promise and go to Egypt where the Nile almost guarantees fertile land and crops. They know that they can’t stay where they are and just trust that everything will work out. That isn’t working for them at the moment.
You know they weren’t happy about this. No one likes moving. And they had already moved once in their retirement years – 400 miles of camel and donkey moving from Haran, their ancestral home, to Canaan, the promised land. They had arrived in the land God had promised to them and to their descendants – and now they have discovered that they can’t depend on the land to provide for them. SOME PROMISE – right? What was God thinking? This was not exactly when they wanted to learn the lesson that sometimes God’s gifts can become less than God intended! Here they have come a really long way to receive the promise, but they can’t settle into that promise with ANY sense of security![i] It would be painful to discover, 400 miles from home, that God’s promises don’t actually provide a sense of security for the future.
It’s hard enough to trust God, whom we cannot see, when the promises seem forthcoming and good. It’s much harder to trust God when the promises seem to be falling apart. This is really hard.
SO -- At an even more advanced age than when they left Haran, they are journeying AGAIN into uncharted territory – and this time it even means moving away from the land of promise!
If God seems far off or untrustworthy, or somehow not in control of the situation, we naturally tend to rely on ourselves. When faith in God isn’t easy – we take charge -- we look out for Number 1. It’s human nature.
Abram does this in the story. RIGHT after God’s spectacular promises! They did get safely to Canaan, as God had promised – but famine is a big snag. Now they need to journey to Egypt where there’s food – and that is a bit scary too. Faith, even for Father Abraham, isn’t easy when the going gets tough. On the way, Abram considers the different people in Egypt, and the power of Pharaoh – and thinks, “I’m going to have to protect myself. Maybe if Sarai is favored by the Egyptians, they’ll leave me alone. I can live through this – and isn’t that what God wants?” So Sarai is named “sister” and taken into Pharaoh’s harem, and Abram gets camels and riches. A pretty sweet deal for Abram.
Not so much for Sarai. I guess Abram doesn’t think that he is putting God’s promises at risk. After all, Sarai is barren. If he has to leave her behind, he can marry again. Nor is he thinking that he just prostituted his wife to save his skin. Not one of his “faithful” moments.
Do you remember God’s promise from the beginning of the story? It included these words in verse 3:
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
In the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt we see the curse part of that promise. Abram acts in a way, through this lie and deception, that surely harms Sarai, who is giving her life to save his, and he brings a curse on the house of Pharaoh. We need to note that Pharaoh acts honorably throughout this story – much more so than Abram. Pharaoh even allows Abram to keep the gifts he has given him! And still -- Curse is released into the world through Abram. Abram may be beginning to know that how we respond to the events around us has the potential to harm others. He can do good to others – or evil.[ii]
FEAR. It shouldn’t surprise us that what is at the root of the problem, what causes Abram’s deception, is fear. Fear makes us foolish. Fear prompts us to lie. The problem in the story isn’t that Abram takes initiative when a situation arises that puts their lives in danger – the problem is how he handles the situation. He is afraid – and makes a bad choice to lie to in order to make his life easier or safer. And he is working, as we so often are, with incomplete information. Pharaoh actually isn’t a threat to him. Not even when Abram’s lie causes him harm. Abram causes Pharaoh to sin in taking Sarai into his harem. And the understanding of the natural order found in Genesis doesn’t distinguish between sins committed with full knowledge and those committed unknowingly. [iii] And so Pharaoh and his house suffer because of Abram’s fear and a bald-faced lie.[iv]
Too much fear. Too little trust in God in the hard times. A choice to act dishonorably to save himself – and the promise is at risk and Abram has set a curse free in the world.
If this story were just about Abram, we could ignore it. It shows up two more times in Genesis – again with Abraham and Sarah in Chapter 20, and then with Isaac and Rebekah in chapter 26. That makes this more than a story – it’s a pattern, perhaps a convention. The repetition points to a pattern in human behavior – we mess up. Fear makes it hard for us to trust.
We struggle to trust that God will guide us to a safe place, a promised land. It is hard to see God’s guidance in the midst of the challenges and threats that we face. We can’t seem to find the time to SEEK God and yet wish there would be clear instructions from the Divine. Learning to trust in the hard times presents a rather steep learning curve.
We struggle to trust that our leaders are making good decisions and choices for the congregation. We would like to keep all the decision-making power in our OWN hands. And, because we are an assertive congregation, we express our opinions often. This is a factor in leader burnout. Everyone’s strongly held opinions don’t agree and leaders will under friendly fire much of the time.
AND we also struggle with honesty when the truth presents unpleasantness or seems threatening to our well-being. As the saying goes….denial is not just a river in Egypt. We live with it ourselves.
We fit right in this story about Abram. We too find ourselves afraid – very afraid.
We may not have a famine, but scarcity of resources to provide for our building and the ministry needs of our congregation and community is real. Scarcity creates fear. Sometimes we fear that our survival is at risk.
While we may not have had to move 400 miles to reach a land of promise – we are fearful that some kind of move might be necessary to our survival. And moving necessarily means leaving behind some things that we care about. Perhaps more than we are willing to lose.
When we are afraid, even the trust we have is fragile and short-lived. As Jim Osterhaus described, “Trust is gained like a thermostat and lost like a light switch.” It takes time to build trust – and sometimes we don’t seem to have much of that. At least, not when decisions need to be made, or things need to change fairly quickly.[v]
Being fear-full and unready to trust may prompt us into poor choices.
LIE. We may lie to ourselves or others.
Sacrifice. We might sacrifice someone else to try to save ourselves, for instance.
Deny.We might deny the problem and put ourselves and our future at risk by staying in a situation of scarcity because we don’t want to move.
All those choices are prompted by fear.
OR…we could venture out boldly into the unknown. We could identify ourselves as explorers, adventurers, willing to take risks for a future we cannot see.
Nehemiah offers a more positive example. He had troubles and trials and situations that challenged the ideas of trust. He was journeying to a place he had a connection to, but hadn’t been before. He heard the need, and was willing to go. When he got there, he evaluated the situation, recruited a team, and began building. Opposition was real. Danger was real. Fear was undoubtedly real. And yet, he persevered, figuring it out as he went along. Dealing with threats. Dealing with rumors. And building with a team.
Carrie Newcomer has a song about impossible things.
Engineers say bumblebees can’t fly Their wings are to short And their bodies too wide But there one goes a-wandering by It happens all the time There’s just no way lighting could be born They’ve measured the clouds And it just can’t form But it cracks the sky in every thunderstorm It happens all the time It’s impossible. impossible. Impossible, until its not There’s light in the night From stars long gone A half-formed thought becomes a song We rise from our grief and go on It happens all the time There’s a lake that you cannot see across A way through the woods That I thought I’d lost Clearing out everything that it’s time to toss It happens all the time It’s impossible. impossible. Impossible, until its not So I won't say it cannot be It hasn't happened yet, But wait and see I’ve lived and impossible life Followed my heart against all advice And yes, I've fallen more than once or twice I’ll follow anyway. A golden moon pulls us from our sleep And feels as close as our hands and feet The roads too hard and its too (darn) steep We'll climb it anyway It’s impossible. impossible. Impossible, until its not.[vi]
It may seem impossible – until it's not.
Move or die – change or die. Its inherently a situation of threat, filled with fear. Our default mechanisms may not serve us well. We don’t want to mess things up more or walk away from God’s promises or dreams. Learning to trust in the hard times is well, hard. But new things are possible, even impossible ones, if we can manage to trust and work instead of our usual go-tos. The impossible may actually be possible if we’ll dare it in the troubles, if we will trust when it isn’t easy. Shall we?
[i] New Interpreter’s Commentary, Volume I, p. 429-30.
[iii] New Interpreter’s Commentary, Volume I, p. 431.
[iv] The Storyteller’s Commentary on Genesis. Michael Williams, editor.
[v] Todd Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, 65ff.
[vi] Carrie Newcomer, “Impossible Until its Not, The Point of Arrival.