One Community of Love (Genesis 12:1-3; Hebrews 12:1-2; John 10:11-16)
As you know, this is the first Sunday of our World Mission Offering, in support of the work of American Baptist Missions Internationally. Today is also, fittingly, World Communion Sunday. The community of Christ is wider than we sometimes remember. Christian folks of many labels, styles, colours, and nations have already gathered or will gather around the Lord’s Table today. As well, it is no longer possible to live in our world today as if we Christians were the only people of faith. More and more we have co-workers and neighbours who are of a different faith tradition than Christian, and we must learn how to respect, live, work, and worship side by side in a world where this is a basic fact. I am saddened to see how uneasy or uncomfortable this still makes some of us. Here is a place where the first step is to understand others rather than to insist that they understand us before we can do that.
Our scripture lessons for the morning address what it means (and what it costs) to live as persons of faith in a pluralistic world (which the world that gave rise to the Bible always was). The Old Testament lesson from Genesis 12 is one of the most basic and important passages in the Bible. It forms the opening part of the story of Abram – recognized as an ancestor in faith by all three of the contemporary monotheistic religious traditions on earth: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These three are sometimes called the Abrahamic Faiths to honour him.
It would also be well to remind ourselves that the reason why Abram (whose name, as you know, is soon to be changed to Abraham) was called by God was so that he could begin building the bridge to reunite humans with their creator in the one community of blessing and love intended by God from the beginning. The community had been torn apart because humans would rather be self-centred than other-centred. God said to Abram: “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” Through who Abram and his descendants are and by what they do, all the families of the earth will find blessing. It is my deep faith that God not only said that once, long ago, to a person long-dead, but still says it to all of Abraham’s spiritual heirs. As some of those people we must never forget that God has blessed us, not so that we can become great, but so that we can become a blessing. If we do not spend any greatness we have on becoming a blessing to others, then we’ve kept back too much.
Next, it is clear that God understood (and we need to) that being a blessing to others was neither easy nor cheap. Abram and his family was asked to take a risk here. From Genesis 3 through this point, the Bible’s story had emphasized the increasing self-centredness of human beings. This, of course, was not intended to be an old, old story of old unhappy things, but a description of the perennial human condition. To get out of that pattern God said to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
We all know that immigration and immigrants is a hot topic now. We didn’t invent it, though. In fact, our faith story here, begins in the immigrant-story of Abram who was going from one place to another into a land he didn’t know with all that insecurity. We know that in the world at about the time Abram would have lived many people all over the ancient Near East were immigrating for the same age old reasons of war, famine, and oppression. How interesting it is that, when the author of this story in Genesis, who was living at least 1000 years after Abraham, reflected on this immigrant story, that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants were encouraged not to think of their identity as immigrants, as strangers in a strange land, in terms of any of these obvious political dynamics, but in terms responding to the call of God, in whose heart it was that these immigrants would be blessed to be a blessing. God’s people are immigrants with a mission to other immigrants – strangers among strangers.
Abram was told to get out of everything that was familiar to him and to follow where God was leading without cell phone, a GPS, or even an old fashioned road map. We can’t take time this morning to show how much and often being comfortable and cozy in our little cultural nests makes us unable to take the risk of being a blessing to all the families of the earth. But think about it. One of the things that promoters of places like Camp Tamarack hold up is that it gets us out of our normal environment where we can “get close to God.” The principle is that the way we hear one another, our neighbours, and even God, is sometimes muffled by our being right where we’ve always been – within what’s comfortable. God said to Abram, “Go, Get out of town.”
One of the experiences of life for which Maxine and I are most grateful as we reflect, are the two times in our joined lives that we have been immigrants. I wish every American could experience what it means to be a stranger and to understand that not everyone does things our way or even wants to or should. We both simply shake our heads and laugh at those who think the proper pious response to this immigrant story in the Bible is to say that following God involves no risk. That’s nonsense if we do it right. Taking the risk of going out on a limb to follow God’s call is often the necessary first step toward being a blessing. I’ve said that sitting across the desk and standing in front of many potential ministry students who are quite comfortable with what they’re doing. But this risky business is for more than professional ministers of whatever variety. Each one of us, from time to time, is called on to follow Jesus in some kind of venture that, at first blush, “makes no sense whatsoever.” Of course, the risk is that is does make no sense whatsoever. And we can’t know till we try. What might that mean for you? What might that mean for us as a congregation? I want us to think about that. What might it take us to be a blessing to the world, or even a small slice of it? It could mean something as easy as giving to the World Mission Offering, but it could mean much more. It could mean changing our minds, hearts, pocketbooks, and priorities about lots of things. It is sometimes tempting to think of the “blessing” we bring as having to do with teaching the truth and helping people to “know the right doctrine” to fit them for life in the hereafter. The fact is, however, that “Blessing” in the Bible never means that! It means actually doing something in the here and now to make someone better than he/she was.
Now, Abram’s experience sounds rather lonely – and getting out of town can be just that. But being a blessing is not a call to be the Lone Ranger. Remember, after the prophet Elijah had taken so many risks for God, he became exhausted, and prayed that God would just take his life because, he said, “I’m all alone; there’s no one else with me in this.” And, were God English (and I know of folks who think so!) God would have said, “Twaddle!” And, then, told Elijah to look around and see how many others there were who were there for support.
And that takes us to that wonderful reading we skipped through from the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews (and going over into the 12th). The words that concluded the reading mention a Great Cloud of Witnesses. Chapter 11 has just surveyed some of these, including our old friend Abraham. Of course, there were many others in that roll call, some big names and some not so big who, so to speak, surround us as we take risks to be a blessing. And I find it helpful to think of all these folks – and many others in the Bible – Abraham, Sarah, Rebekkah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Ruth, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, Peter, James, John…on and on, as sitting in the clouds supporting us, cheering us on, as we take up their task of being a blessing to the whole world. But the list of cloud-sitters doesn’t end with those in the Bible, but extends through the years with famous saints, and not so famous ones. I have known some of them, who I miss now in my life, but who are an encouragement to me because they were blessed to be a blessing…to me!
I can think of my parents, of course. I can think of two of my teachers, Robert Laurin and David Wallace, who taught me Old and New Testaments, respectively. Laurin taught me to wonder at texts and Wallace taught me to work at them. I can think of folk who were here when we came and have gone to that great cloud of witnesses since. If I start to name them, I’ll break down and I’ll leave out somebody and be in trouble. I tell you, however, I never enter this room that I do not see them here, and feel them encouraging us on.
Imagine that I have given each of you a cloud-shaped piece of paper, and have asked you to write on it the name of one of your cloud of witnesses, whose name would you write? No, none of us comes to faith or takes the risk of becoming a blessing to the world all alone.
Once again, we need to let Jesus have the last word. The Good Shepherd passage from John 10 is very rich and we cannot but lift up one or two points. First, for Christians, if you want to know what God is like look at Jesus, and, Jesus is what Christians are to be like as well. We imitate God in the world by being the hands and feet of Jesus. Jesus explains his mission as being a shepherd: caring for, tending, feeding sheep. We like to think about this warmly and cuddle down into comfort with Jesus. But we need to remember this other thing that Jesus said here: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus has other sheep that are not just like us, and maybe don’t even want to be. We must not be more exclusive in our love than Jesus is. In fact, my whole point earlier in stressing the immigrant nature of the Abraham story was to point out the diversity of the Hebrews from the beginning and the fact that Abram was a stranger that blessed other strangers. Our story as Abraham’s heirs, and Jesus’ co-heirs, is not the story of people who are all alike, but people who are different and diverse, and who treasure, nurture, and honour that difference and diversity, being a blessing to other diverse folk. The world’s story approaches immigrants as a danger to our sameness. Our story is that we are all immigrants, all strangers, who, in Christ, are called to bless other strangers and become one community of love.
On this day, as we sit around the Lord’s Table and recognize that “one community of love throughout the whole wide earth,” let us recognize that our own familiar ways are sometimes not helps but hindrances, and we need to take the risk to get out of what has made us comfortable. We need to recognize and validate the fact that “in Christ, there truly is no east or west. In Him, no south or north.” And we need to receive with gratitude the great cloud of witnesses we have to spur us on to more risky adventures “out there” for Christ, remembering that we are blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth until there is one flock and one shepherd.
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, AMEN.