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The First Step

Sermon – 2/20/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

This is the second Sunday of Lent, and Lent as many of you know is the season for spiritual pilgrimage.  A time when we reflect on our own lives and the journeys of faith that we take.  And thus many of the biblical texts for this time of year reflect upon that journey, and are themselves journey passages -- stories of wandering in the wilderness and the like.  The text this morning is one of those -- it is the first journey made by the first ancestor of our faith, the father and mother Semitic people, but before I read that text this morning I want to establish just briefly a little bit of the literary background to it, because basic biblical literacy is fundamental to what we do here and in our worship.

The story is found in the book of Genesis.  You may know that Genesis has two major sections to it -- the bulk of the story is about the forefathers and mothers of the Hebrew tradition, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and the like.  But the first 11 chapters concern what many scholars call the pre-history, the primeval history of the world.  Meaning that these are a-historical accounts of the origin of the earth and civilization which predate the beginning of human history as we know it.  

To put it differently, these are not stories which help us to understand history, geology, and science, but rather they help us to understand God and our relationship to the creator of the Universe.  This primeval history, of course, begins itself with creation but what folks who want us to use these stories as a basis for the so-called creation science won't tell you is that there are actually two stories of creation in Genesis 1 and 2.  Somewhat different, but both of them affirm creation as a blessing, as wholesome and good and we are told that it is good that God made the world, and made humanity.

But then in chapter 3, trouble in paradise is introduced.  The so called "fall" from Eden that results in the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden.  And thus begins the human predicament -- that we are created in the image of God and yet we have this mortal flaw.  Everything else that follows in the story and throughout all of scripture is an outgrowth of that predicament.  An attempt to compensate for it, to overcome it, to be restored to the grace of God.  And so in chapter 4 there's the first homicide and Cain becomes the first refugee and social outcast.  In chapter 6 sin becomes global, and God grows weary of humanity -- but does not give up totally on us, instead chooses Noah and his family to start over again.  And then in chapter 9 no sooner has the flood receded and Noah and family are on solid ground once again then Noah shows his humanness and the cycle of sin and shame begins all over again.  Then in chapter 11 we see the pride and arrogance of humanity that builds itself into the tower of Babel, resulting in the dispersion of humanity, and the separation that we now experience as part of our humanness.  

Now, I'm taking time to review this ancient story not just because I turned 50 yesterday and as a result can relate better to ancient stories (being a little closer to them myself at half-a-century J), but rather because understanding the big picture of Genesis is critical for understanding the individual stories contained therein.  And more importantly, for understanding the role that God plays in our own spiritual journeys.  

Over and over again we see God attempting to create paradise, if you will -- to create the promised land, the kingdom of God, the reign of God, the new Jerusalem, the divine community, whatever you want to call it.  But for some reason we keep coming up short.  That mortal flaw keeps getting in the way.  

And so now we come to the end of the primeval history and the beginning of the history of a specific people in a particular time and place.  The time has come for God to start over yet again.  To try one more time to make it all work.  Only this time, God is going to do so differently.  The goal is the same -- to restore humanity to Eden, if you will, metaphorically -- but the strategy, the means, is different.  

So here is the story that marks a new start for God and the beginning of the people of God, reading in the twelfth chapter, the first four verses:

Genesis 12:  1-4

Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him;

God's desire is to bless all humanity, all creation, and to do so God begins now with a specific people, the descendents of Abraham and Sarah.  Blesses them, so they will in turn be a blessing to all others.  

Have you ever heard someone say "I feel so blessed, and I don't know why".  I don't know why God has blessed me -- I'm so fortunate.  Why?  Well, the answer is really quite simple.  We are blessed so that we will be a blessing to others.  That is the purpose of our blessing.  That, by the way, is part of the point of Week of Compassion, as we think about those not as fortunate as us -- to share the blessings of God that we have received with others around the world, that they too might be blessed.

A blessing, you see, that is not shared is a blessing that is wasted.  God blesses Abraham not as a reward but as part of his calling to be a blessing to the rest of the world.  Blessings are not what we receive because we have been good but rather blessings are what we receive in order that we can become good.  A sort of reverse Karma.

Our spiritual formation group, in which I participate, has been reading Matthew Fox's original blessings, written over 20 years ago but reads still as fresh today as when it was written.  As many of you may know Fox was originally a Roman Catholic priest and scholar who has since become an Episcopalian.  But Fox's basic premise is that we are born into original blessing, not original sin.  Meaning that our basic human nature is goodness.  And if we'd focus on that goodness which permeates all of creation rather than focusing on evil and sin we will greatly multiple that goodness which is the blessing of God.

Blessing, he says, is just a theological word for goodness.  It affirms that goodness is that which comes from God.  Fox quotes a Native American elder to sum-up the essence of his book--the elder said "goodness is the natural state of this world".  The world is good.  Even when it seems evil, it's good.  There's only goodness in God, and that goodness is in all of us.  You can feel it in yourself.  You know when you feel good inside -- yes, you are God's child too.  You are good, you are sacred.  Respect yourself.  Love the goodness in yourself, then put that goodness out into the world.  That is everybody's instruction.

And you see that is Abram's instruction here -- to put that goodness into the world.  To share that blessing with all families of the earth.  And in order to do that Abraham has to trust the blessing.  To believe in the goodness of God's gift given to him and Sarah.  And that requires a journey in faith.

The great mythic stories which caught the imagination of Hollywood these days (they are sharing with the world I'm sure not because they want to bless us so much as because they want to make money, but be that as it may. . ) wonderful, wonderful stories of the heroes tale of the epic journey.  Frodo, who engages on this quest to destroy the ring of power.  Neo, in the Matrix series, who must find the central machine that controls the destiny of humanity, but instead of destroying it as we expect him to do, he sacrifices himself to it in order to save humanity.  Where have I read that story before?  It sounded familiar to me J.  Luke Skywalker, who has to learn to trust the force -- the spiritual energy permeating the universe -- on his journey to destroy the Death Star and to save his father.  

You see the Christian journey is much like any of these wonderful tales involving the struggles between good and evil, the search for one's soul, and ultimately the willingness to rely on a greater power outside of oneself.  Embarking on that journey requires a willingness to step out in faith, to leave one's own home -- whether literally or figuratively -- in order to settle in a new place, in a new home provided by God.  And such is not easy for most of us because it involves risk and change and an unknown future.  

And now that I am well on my way into the second half of my century (!), more mature and all of that, the one reflection I have is that kind of risk taking is easier to do when we're young, which often times turns out bad because of the bad risks youth often take.  But it's easier to take that risk while we're young -- as we age we become more accustomed to our ways and settled in the familiar and so embarking on such a risky venture is harder to do the older we get.  

But you see that's precisely the beauty and the power of this story.  Abram is half again as old as I am.  He's no Spring chicken.  Sarah -- just a few years younger than he.  And if you remember that story and how it comes out -- they go with nothing more than a flimsy promise of a future blessing and because they do, in their barrenness they are blessed to bring new life into this world.  

There's a Chinese proverb that says the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  And the first step in the Christian journey, I am convinced, the most important is the step we take not outside the door so much, it's the step we take inside.  The inner journey that connects us with God.  

Matthew Fox differentiates between inner and inward journey.  He says the inward journey is what takes us inside to a destination just for ourselves.  Where we go to find God for our own personal salvation.  Whereas God's concern is for the whole world.  For God so loved the world. . . . the entire cosmos.  By contrast, the inner journey may take us into our selves, into music and art and pain and suffering and to joy and beauty, but it is always part of a larger quest that takes us beyond ourselves.  

If you think of the labyrinth -- it takes you eventually to the inside.  But if that's where you arrive and you get no further, you've only completed half of the journey.  Because the rest of it is to go back to the outside, to take you back into the world, and you see that is our task.  We take that inner journey to listen for the still, small voice of God speaking to us, to receive the direction and purpose that we do not wander aimlessly in the world.

Will Keim, a Disciples of Christ campus minister at Oregon State (for which we have forgiven him J), great guy -- and at a good school -- often tells young people (like me) that he serves in Corvallis, he says to them:  "Your life will become a series of choices and the consequences of those choices.  Therefore, choose wisely.  Listen to the inner voice and follow your heart with all the passion, focus, and discipline you can muster".

So here's my simple three-step program for doing just that on our own spiritual journeys:

First of all, take time to listen to that inner voice, whether in prayer, or meditation, or a walk by the river, or a bicycle ride, whatever it is -- to take that time to listen.  The first thing that I did when I turned 50 -- yesterday morning I got up while the family was still asleep and climbed the hill behind our house (Gillespie Butte), and it's a pretty steep little hill.  And I climbed it at about as brisk of a rate as I could go just to see whether or not I'd have a heart attack!  Got up to the top, and out of breath and heart beating fast and then I just took the time on top of that hill in the stillness of the morning to take in all the sounds and the sights and the fresh wind and just to be.  Just to listen.  And to contemplate, my life at 50.  And I've been thinking of maybe doing something radical, you know, to show that you're only as young as you feel, shave my beard, dye my hair pink, get a nose ring.  To really show that youth and vitality.  And the still, small voice that came to me said 'Dan, just be who you are'.  You don't have to change, you don't have to pretend to be someone else, just be who you are.  Besides that, Judy had said to me the night before -- she was looking forward to having a mature lover J.  I'm hoping it's me!  And somehow that clean-shaven, pink-haired, nose-ring bearing husband just didn't fit my image of maturity, so I declined.  Now that I'm 50 I guess I can talk about such things.  To take time, you see, to listen, whether you're contemplating those big decisions of life or just what God wants you to do this day, to take that time just to be quiet and listen.

And then secondly, to decide on one thing.  Just one.  You don't have to change the world all at once.  Abraham and Sarah were asked to do just one thing -- to leave their home to go into this new land.  And it may not be anything as drastic as that.  It might be just starting a new habit, changing an attitude, making a financial commitment to your church or something like Week of Compassion.  But to focus on that one thing and as Keim says with all the passion, focus, and discipline you can muster.  Devote yourself to that, to follow that passion of your heart.  

And then thirdly, to find a way to share that one thing with someone else.  To be a blessing to others.  

This is our journey, our spiritual pilgrimage, to find and to share the blessings that we have from God as Christ did for us.  For in Christ we share not just in the blessing of Abraham and Sarah, we share in God's call to them.  To be a blessing for all people, to be the light to the world.  

So take that step, people of God.  To be a blessing for others in your life.


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