Monday, August 8, 2016

Get on the Train

Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 7
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40

This week, my wife, Ann, and I will celebrate our 26th anniversary.  It is an immense blessing I’ve been given, the best thing ever in my life.  We’ve had our problems over the years, as all couples do, as well as crisis points along the way – moments we weren’t sure whether or how we would go on.  Some of those have been health-related.  As most of you know, Ann struggles with lupus, and that long-term illness has threatened to take her life twice.  And yet, we are blessed with a life we could never have scripted for ourselves.
A few days after our 26th anniversary, my parents will mark their 64th.  I can’t even comprehend that.  And standing at the altar 64 years ago, they couldn’t have comprehended it either.  In a moment like that, we can’t know what’s coming; we just have to get on the train and begin the journey. 

I use that image intentionally because of a photo of my parents that sits innocuously on an end table in our living room.  It’s a snapshot taken just a few months after their wedding.  They’re standing together next to a passenger train in southern California, about to board.  My mother is 19, dressed in a ladies’ traveling suit and heels; my father is 24, the experienced ex-Navy man grinning as he clenches a pipe in his teeth.  The best thing is, they’re looking at each other, apparently unaware of anyone else’s presence.  I don’t know whether the photographer, my grandfather, intended the shot this way, but it’s perfect because the 1950s, jet-age design on the side of the train happens to be in the shape of a letter S.  It’s the Spicers’ train to the future.
At that point, they knew no more than Ann and I did when we got married, or any of the couples with whom I meet for premarital counseling.  I love that part of my job, trying to help couples imagine a future together, anticipate the pitfalls to come, and – above all – make the intentional choice for covenant over convenience “as long as you both shall live.”  Those couples – like my parents, like Ann and me – those couples are doing something that seems absolutely crazy, if we step back from it.  They’re investing everything in a future they can’t begin to see.
Our readings today from Genesis and Hebrews are all about a future we can’t see.  Even more difficult, the Genesis reading starts in a present no one wants to see – a moment of barrenness, a moment when one more empty promise is the last thing anyone needs.  Abram has taken the unbelievable risk to follow a call he hears from God and leave his homeland in Mesopotamia, along with his wife, Sarai, and their household.  They’ve traveled to Canaan, modern-day Israel and Palestine, where God promised him, “To your offspring, I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7).  They sojourn in Egypt and eventually come back to Canaan.  Abram defeats several tribes, and God establishes him as a respected chieftain, giving him all the land around him he can see (Genesis 13:14-17). 
But Abram lacks the most important thing.  Land is no good if you have no children to inherit it; and at this point, Sarai is well past child-bearing age.  God knows the pain, emptiness, and fear in Abram’s heart; so in the reading we heard today, God visits Abram to renew the promise:  “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1).  But Abram names the tragic disconnect he sees:  Thanks for the land, Lord, but where are the children who will make it more than a one-generation gift? 
So into Abram’s desolation, God speaks a word of hope.  It’s not an argument for hope, with God supporting a claim with evidence of the blessings Abram’s received.  Instead, it’s a scandalous promise with no evidence to back it up.  God takes Abram outside and shows him the stars – the stars on the darkest night you can imagine, the Milky Way stretching across the sky.  And God says, “Count the stars, if you are able to count them. … So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5). 
At then comes one of the greatest turning points in salvation history.  If it were a TV series, this is where the episode would end, the cliffhanger pulling you in to watch what happens next.  Because Abram has a choice to make.  It’s the hinge of history for those who will later call themselves Jews and Christians and Muslims.  In this moment of truth, Abram makes the choice to believe the Lord.  He steps on the train to God’s future.  And God credits that choice to him as righteousness – ultimate righteousness, surpassing acts of worship, even acts of mercy.  It’s the righteousness without which a relationship with God is simply not possible.  It’s the righteousness of trust.
That trust is what enables us to risk ourselves for the future, to head out on journeys whose destinations we can’t see.  The deepest commitments we make – marriage, children, ordination, all the “’til death do us part” commitments of our lives – those commitments make no sense according to everything the world tells us about good decision-making.  Who would invest in a venture where the evidence for success is strong feelings and passionate promises?  We want proof.  We want guarantees.  We want contracts with escape clauses.  And God just chuckles and says, “You know, that’s not exactly how this faith thing works….” 
The reading from Genesis and the Gospel reading today both start out with God’s invitation to choose a reality in contrast to the world’s expectations:  God says to Abram, “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1).  Jesus says to his friends, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:32).  What I’m going to tell you won’t make rational sense, but do it anyway.  Living in trust is nothing less than the choice for God’s reality, for God’s kingdom – the choice not to be afraid.  It’s the choice for love across the long term.  It’s the choice for covenant fidelity, not contract renegotiation.  It’s the choice not simply to agree, intellectually, that God can bring new life into our places of barrenness; it’s the choice to live our lives completely rooted in that assurance – not because objective evidence points toward that conclusion but simply because God has said so.  Choosing to live in trust is choosing to live in hope: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
That hope is not delusion, something that helps us make it through sleepless nights.  That hope changes the future.  That hope has led powerless people to topple oppressive regimes.  That hope has led broken bodies and broken hearts to find healing.  That hope has led selfish people to repent and wronged people to forgive.  That hope is God’s train to the kingdom of heaven.
And almost never does that train take the track we’d choose.  Abram wanted heirs, and he got them; but he had to deal with the complications of fathering both Ishmael and Isaac – as well as fathering generations of hostility down the ages among Arabs and Jews, the antipathy that only angry brothers and sisters can know.  By the same token, the reward for our trust almost never comes the way we’d script it.  Jesus offers us the kingdom of heaven, but at the price of devoting ourselves to heavenly treasure rather than our own possessions and agendas.  God gives us our richest blessings from the covenants that vex and stretch and break our hearts.  I could never have imagined how deep love can be in chronic illness, and I’d certainly never have chosen that path to find it.  But still, God’s promise has been true:  “Look to heaven and count the stars; so shall your blessings be.”
A couple of weeks ago, Ann and I went to a concert by Marc Cohn – the two of us and maybe a couple of hundred other people with graying hair.  He was performing to mark the 25th anniversary of his first album, a CD that Ann and I have played so much we know each track by heart.  That album, and Marc Cohn’s concert, ended with the song “True Companion,” which contrasts a couple’s love on their wedding day with their love decades later.  The song includes this fabulous line:  “When the years have done irreparable harm, I can see us walking slowly arm in arm.”  I get to see that in my parents, after their 64 years – still the couple standing by the side of the train to the future adorned with that giant letter S.  I wonder what photo our kids will look to one day – what image, for Kathryn and Dan, will be the shot of Ann and me starting our journey into God’s future.  That’s for them to choose.  But for the two of us, perhaps closer now to “irreparable harm” than to our wedding day, I give great thanks – thanks for God’s call to trust beyond evidence, thanks for God’s promise of a future that beats my script, thanks for “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”