Saturday, June 07, 2008

Pentecost 4A

I’ve been fascinated over the last couple of years to follow the ebb and flow of the debate about climate change.  Whether in fact the world’s climate is changing – and if so, is it a consequence of human activity or just a natural phenomenon?  And either way, how much does it matter?  What are the effects going to be on the way we live, and the way our children, and our children’s children, live?  And if so, what should we do about it?  Do we take radical action now, do we accept the tradeoff of paying more to reduce our carbon footprint now, and invest in developing renewable energy sources now to avoid more pain later?  I guess what fascinates me is that after years of arguing about all this there’s still more heat than light – it seems one minute we’re being told that all reputable scientists are pretty much in agreement about global warming and what we should be doing about it, the next minute it’s all too expensive and in any case, there are other reputable scientists who think the planet’s not getting hotter, it’s cooling down.

Now I guess I’m on the side of the global warming mob, though like most of us I have to admit the science is way over my head.  I suppose I just find the argument for taking global warming seriously more convincing, and I’m a bit suspicious that the do-nothing argument amounts to protecting the status quo of big business.  But if the argument for taking climate change seriously is right – and our government is betting big bikkies that it is – then we – that is, the whole developed world – are being asked to take a very counter-intuitive step – we’re being asked to give up a whole lot of stuff we take for granted right now, to downsize, to embark on a long-term commitment when we don’t really know where it’s going to take us or how we’re going to get there. 

What makes the global warming conundrum different from most of the other issues we face in our community is that it basically challenges to weigh up our present against the world’s future, what gives us comfort and security now against what’s going to give life in the future.  And I think part of what makes it such a massive challenge is that shows us the basic dilemma of human moral development – our human tendency to resist what gives us life because we’re afraid of the first step.

In our reading from the Old Testament this morning we heard the beginning of the story of Abram – we begin, in fact, when Abram is already old and presumably settling down for a comfortable retirement in Haran, and the story tells us that God calls Abram – how, we don’t know, but if you think about how you become aware in your life that God is calling you to something - well maybe for Abram it was a dream, as the poem on the front of our pew sheet suggests, or else it was a series of coincidences, or conversations with trusted friends, or just an annoying intuition that wouldn’t go away – but somehow Abram comes to understand that the journey of his life is taking him away from everything that is familiar, and that his future - which in the ancient world could really only be conceived of in terms of land and descendents - was bound up in a place he had never heard of, among people that were strangers.  The first thing, I think, is to understand that the call of Abram, and his decision to follow the prompting of the inner voice that he knows as God, is a metaphor.  In other words, it’s not just a story about moving house, it’s a story about finding who we really are, a story about journeying within ourselves and about trusting God enough to let go of the false security that so often gets in the way of being the people God made us to be – a story about learning to trust in the future rather than holding on to the past.

And the second thing is that when we get a call like this – a call that challenges our ability to trust our own perceptions, that causes us to weigh up who we thought we were against who God thinks we are – we are always confronted with three very powerful and deep-seated human fears – the fear of stepping out into the emptiness of the unknown, the fear of other people who look and act and think differently from us, and the fear of our own limitations.

So God tells Abram to leave his home, his family and everything that was familiar – maybe to us, in our hugely mobile world of airplanes and electronic communication this might not seem such a huge deal, but to ancient peoples an uprooting like this would be like a social death, breaking all the bonds of obligation and kinship that kept communities functional and safe.  Abram is basically stepping out into the emptiness of what might as well have been outer space, a journey from security and familiarity into genuine and profound ignorance, from what he had to what he didn’t have, from the known to the unknown, subverting all his world’s expectations of community and family responsibility in exchange for an uncertain mortgage on the future.

Here’s the thing about stepping out into the unknown in obedience to the voice of the spirit.  You find all of a sudden that the mindset that worked alright back home is too narrow for the big wide world, you discover in yourself all sorts of self-serving habits of mind, the tendency to exclude strangers and avoid change, and after the first rush of fear you start to dream impossibly and wonderfully that all of creation is your home, that in fact the offspring of your own mind have been out there all along, waiting for you to discover them.

But notice that the way God works in this story – and, I bet, in your own story too – is by a simultaneous narrowing and widening of Abram’s options and horizons.  It’s the same paradox, the same logic of incarnation that we see in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it’s the way you can be sure God is ahead of you, leading you forward into the future and creating you minute by minute along the way.

When Abram leaves home, filled no doubt with a healthy dose of apprehension about the sort of people he would meet along the way, God weaves powerful protections around him.  ‘I will bless those who bless you, curse those who curse you – and in you, all the nations of the world will bless themselves’.  The Hebrew word here is one of those reflexive ‘do-it-to-yourself’ verbs, as though Abram was going to be a mirror in which others would see an image of themselves - the means in other words by which everyone who meets him will discover the quality of their own humanity.  Stepping out into the world of men and women who are fearfully and inexplicably strangers – and therefore strange – Abram as the story develops over the next few chapters is going to find that the fulfilment of God’s promises to him involve not the defeat or colonisation, but the honouring of and the coming to maturity through the wisdom and integrity of peoples and realities that had previously been objects of fear.  Abram, when he finally does enter the land of Canaan that has been promised as an ancestral home to his descendents, comes not as an invader but as an immigrant, not as a missionary but in recognition that the God who had called him into this land was already known to the men and women he found there.  No wonder Aboriginal Christians find in the story of Abram, rather than the later stories of conquest in the Book of Joshua, a model for reconciliation and the vision of a just future.

And Abram, the story tells us, was old.  That makes this an impossible story, doesn’t it?  Old people don’t run away from home, at least, not if they’ve still got all their marbles.  And yet, Abram and Sarai trust in the reliability of God’s promises, in other words, they trust that the voice of the spirit which, no doubt, they had long been familiar with and in the habit of paying attention to, they trust that this inner voice is true, they know the reality of God in their lives and they are prepared to follow where God leads them.  The oldness of Abram and Sarai, the trust they have sometimes that God can bless them and work as a blessing through them in spite of their own limitations – and sometimes, the difficulty they have in trusting – is going to be a major theme in this story.  Along the way, God will give them each a new name – Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and we understand by this that the journey all along has been a journey of becoming, a journey in which both they and the people they encounter are transformed.  And eventually they move beyond their fear of powerlessness, they cease to be defined by their own limitations and instead learn to define themselves by the faith that God can, quite literally, make something out of nothing.

It’s another parable, isn’t it?  When you think about it, in the story of Abram and Sarai’s big move, we are being told the story of our own lives, as individuals and as a community.  Do we hold fast to what’s always worked in the past, do we cling to the security we think we’ve got, or do we agree to go where God is calling us?  We do, each of us, experience God’s call in our lives to move out of our established comfort-zones, to do more or to be more than we ever anticipated.  Today, Kallan and Hayleys mum and dad are going to present them for baptism because they know that in some way their kids are also called, and because they want their kids to learn how to listen and respond to the voice of the spirit in their own lives.  As we pray with them, and for them, let’s also pray for ourselves, that we can learn to trust in the journey and believe in the future that God has for us.