A Homily for the Second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12] (Green) – Sunday, June 11th, 2023, at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Readings – Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 33:1-12; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
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,” (Gen 12:1)
That our first reading today is literally about a journey made in faith led me to think about how we sometimes describe our spiritual lives as faith journeys; journeys in that they happen over sometimes long periods of our lives, and because they take us to different places, both real and spiritual. For example, I’ve known people whose journeys were quite dramatic, who made conversions like a friend who started as a Catholic and who ended as a Muslim imam, or people I’ve known who for a time called themselves atheists but became deeply committed Christians.
Sometimes the journey follows a pattern of growth and maturing in faith, but for many of us we sort of bumble along doing the best we can, aware of something greater than us and occasionally having some moment of insight. Others hold back because it all just seems far too abstract, because they think faith is just accepting something that can’t be known or proven, and so they settle for a material existence where they can call the shots. Which is too bad, really, because the faith journey can be about coming to know a God who becomes more and more real to us. Indeed, God wants us to make this journey.
But journeys can be intimidating at first. Let’s start by thinking about a long move that you might have made in your life. Perhaps you moved a long distance to seek opportunity, as a student or an immigrant, or possibly it was out of duty to an employer. I’m sure that there were a hundred things that kept you busy organizing the move – passports, permissions, finding a place to live, schools for the kids, and so on – but in your less busy moments there must have been anxiety as well. Am I doing the right thing? Will I be successful? Will my family be happy? Will we adapt?
And of course, for those we love who join us on life’s big journeys, the anxieties can be worse. A spouse or partner wonders what they will do with themselves in a strange town or country. Will they find work? Children will resent leaving friends behind. What will the new school be like? What they make new friends? When I worked at Base Borden I would see the moving trucks coming and going in May and June, the time that the military calls Posting Season, and I could imagine the stories and anxieties behind each truck because I’d lived them myself in many moves across Canada.
So think back to our first lesson and imagine the days when Abram was having his things packed and his camels loaded for the long journey to Canaan. Abram and his family were in a place called Haran, well to the north in modern day Turkey, and that wasn’t their original home. Genesis 11 tells us that Abram and his wife Sarai first “went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there” (Gen 11.31) so they’ve already travelled a long distance from deep in modern day Iraq, hundreds of kilometres, and now they’re moving again. What’s worse, they aren’t even sure where they’re going.
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. (Gen 12.1)
Now we might say, “but they were all nomads then, they were used to travelling all the time”, though since at least 600,000 Canadians move every year, we might ask if we are any less nomadic. But imagine Sarai and the conversation they had when Abram told her the plan. “Well, Sarai, God told me to move to a place called Canaan, he talked a lot abut us being blessed, and blessing others, and I’m sure it will all be fine.”
The Bible seldom gives women like Sarai a voice, but nobody would blame her if there were tears, maybe an argument or two, and lots of grumbling and eye-rolling as the camels are packed. And what of Lot and all the servants, “the persons whom they had acquired in Haran”? Scripture is silent as to what they all thought of this scheme. I’m sure they didn’t get a vote.
But Abram went to Canaan, he became Abraham, he was faithful to God and God delivered on his promise to make his descendants a great nation, the people of Israel, and from Israel came Jesus, and from Jews and Gentiles who followed Jesus came the church, and so here we are, sharing the blessing that God promised to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12.3), which is why Abraham, the first Jewish patriarch, is so important to Christians.
In our second lesson we heard Paul praise Abraham as a model of faith and trust in God (“No distrust made him wave concerning the promise of God” Rom 4.20). Abraham was faithful and obedient to God long before God gave the law to Moses, and so Abraham anchors Paul’s argument that the gentiles can join the Jesus movement without becoming following Jewish law and practice, such as circumcision. So Abraham embodies those qualities – faith and trust – that run through our lessons today.
So that’s all wonderful, you might well say, but from our vantage point in the 21st century, Abraham can seem like an impossibly far-off figure of legend, and so when we hear Paul (another far off, legendary figure) say that “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God”, we might well say, well, all that was easy for old Abraham, he had chats with God on a regular basis, but how do I believe like that? This is the problem with the “be like the heroes of the bible” kind of sermon, they are heroes of the bible and we’re … just us.
I think one of the greatest obstacles that keep us from a deep and satisfying faith life is the fear that it’s all terribly abstract and that God can’t really be known, at least not like Abraham knew God. We might try faith in moments of desperation, like the father or the sick woman in today’s gospel reading (Mt 9.18-26), but I’ve seen people fall away when their prayers aren’t answered sufficiently, or when the crisis passes and they go back to what they settle for as normal. So if any of this sounds just a little familiar, let me finish by offering a few thoughts.
First, God is real and God wants to be known. Jesus calls Matthew out of the business of life and says “follow me”. Jesus call is even vaguer and more open-ended than the call of Abram – at least Abram was told he would go to a land that God would show him. Jesus just says “follow me and let’s go do stuff”. So don’t ever think that God isn’t interested in you; Jesus calls you because he loves you and he wants you to know that. You never know where Jesus might take you but it will be worth the ride.
Second, God can be known. Earlier in my homily I talked about all the fears and anxieties that might arise from a distant move. None of these anxieties can be settled until we confront them. For example, a parent might reassure a child that they will make new friends in the new place, but the child will never fully believe this until they get to the new place and starting meeting other children. The fear that faith won’t work for us will fade away when we open ourselves to God.
Maybe Abram never fully believed until he got to Canaan. Maybe barren Sarai never fully believed until she realized she was pregnant. Maybe faith only became real to you, or will become real, that moment that something touches your heart and fills you with a sense of God’s presence. A number of you said in your recent parish surveys that there is a magical moment here every Sunday when we sing “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place”. Some of you said that you are close to tears when we sing it. i think that we sing it because we experience it. God is in this place.
Finally, God is known in a variety of ways if we want to work at the knowing, and I would suggest that if you want to know God, start with Jesus We may know Jesus because we find satisfaction in the service and outreach that he calls us to. We may know Jesus when we desire healing, when we confide to others about an illness and find that we are held in love and prayer – I’ve seen this happen at our recent men’s breakfasts, and we men aren’t normally good at this stuff. We know Jesus when we dare to tell him that we love him for loving us. We may know Jesus on retreat, in the beauty of holiness and worship, or in those early morning moments before the day gets busy. My favourite time to be with Jesus is very early in the day, and sometimes it’s while I’m holding a paintbrush or a garden trowel in my hand.
We may know Jesus as we think about him through the seasons of the Christian year, Advent leading us to Christmas, Lent to Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost, or in the long walk with him through what the church calls Ordinary Time. In walking with Jesus though the church year, we find that we can know God and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.
While our relationship with can take many forms, in private devotion and prayer and in the community of the church, we have to work at it. It is a practice to be cultivated and returned to, like music or gardening or a friendship. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity, we “must train the habit of Faith. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed”
So to conclude, when we talk about our spiritual lives as faith journeys, I think it’s helpful to think of them like the long moves we’ve made for school or work or whatever. Our faith journeys start because we are called by the one who promises to bring us to a better place – these journeys may begin in anxiety or doubt, but they can lead us out of injury and trauma, sadness and guilt, to a place where we feel fulfilled and at home in God’s presence, so that we find, like the woman in the gospel, that our faith has made us well.