Wednesday, February 20, 2008

From Your Country

Sunday, February 17, 2008, I preached this sermon at Lyndale United Church of Christ.

Texts
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5,13-17

It is August 2006, and Göran and I are visiting my parents in Utah. It's Sunday, and I am attending Church with my parents at the local Mormon ward. This is a happy time for me. I am happy to be attending Church with my parents again for the first time in over twenty years as a believing, testimony-bearing (if gay and excommunicated) Latter-day Saint. And they are happy to have me there with them. My mother holds my hand. I am enjoying the hymns and the prayers, and imbibing the sweet presence of the Holy Spirit. In that stillness and peace and happiness, the Spirit speaks to me very clearly and distinctly. What it says surprises me, it causes me to squirm a bit. The Spirit says, “You need to open yourself up to the possibility of having children in your life.” I think about it for a moment. Göran and I have discussed the possibility of adoption, but ultimately decided against it because we did not feel financially capable. But clearly and undeniably now the Spirit is telling me I should open myself up to this. “I'm not sure how we can do this,” I reply, “but OK.” If that was what God was asking of me, I would do it.

So now fast forward to February 2007, about a year ago. I receive an email from Mary Peterson, a formerly Mormon friend I was introduced to by Audrey Benson. Mary is a social worker with a foster care agency. In the email she says, “Have you and Göran ever considered the possibility of becoming foster parents?” Six months earlier, I would have replied to her email by explaining why Göran and I are not really capable of taking on this kind of responsibility. But the experience I had at my parents' Church the previous August comes freshly to mind, and I reply, “Let's meet and talk about it.” After sending the email, I announce to Göran that we are meeting with my social worker friend to talk about becoming foster parents. He's in shock. He can't believe I'm saying what he's just heard me say. This is what he has always wanted.

So now fast forward again to December 2007, when we meet our foster son Glen for the first time. We can see how nervous he is as he enters our home with his social worker. His body language is defensive and cautious. He looks worried. As we talk, gradually he begins to open up. Soon his relaxed body language and the smile on his face tells the whole story. And as we are speaking, a picture is forming in my own mind. He is perfect for us, and we are perfect for him. We are going to be a family. And by the end of the meeting, when I suggest to Glen that he can take some time to think about whether he'd like to do a trial visit with us, he says, “I don't need to think about it.”

OK, now fast forward one last time to Saturday, February 9. A week ago last Saturday. Snow is flying thick. A winter storm warning has been issued. But Göran and Glen and I are in a rental car and I am at the wheel, driving to Rochester, Minnesota to meet with Glen's mother. Sometimes I have to slow down to ten miles an hour when gusts of wind reduce visibility to almost nothing. The drive is nerve-wracking, but eventually we make it safely to the neutral ground of Apache Mall in Rochester. The meeting with Glen's mom in the food court at the mall is brief. There are moments of tension, but the conversation generally stays positive. Afterwards, Glen says, “I think she liked you.” We drive on to Lanesboro, to the home where Glen grew up, to pick up some of his possessions. We enter through the back door into the kitchen. As soon as we enter, Glen looks around and then he freezes. He looks at me and at Göran, and then suddenly he begins to weep. We both wrap our arms around him and cry with him. “You've come a long way,” we tell him, and those words are comforting to all of us.

Glen has come a long way, and so have Göran and I. A year and a half ago, I could not have imagined my life what it is now. We have more structure: set bed times and more sit-down meals. I have an early work schedule: rise at 5:20 a.m., at work by 7:00 a.m., home by 4:00 p.m. so I can be there around the time Glen gets home from school. Göran and I attend foster parent meetings and workshops (we started doing that even before Glen arrived). And we do lots of things as a family now, which means Göran and I do things we've never done before. I went to my first Marilyn Manson concert a week ago last Friday. I still have a little bit of black nail polish on my cuticles to prove it!

But those are only the things on the surface that are different. There are things beneath the surface. There is the knowledge deep in my bones that there is a reason why we are together as a family. There are things that Glen needs to know that he can only learn from me, from Göran, from us, from our relationship. There are things I, that Göran, that we need to know that we can only learn from Glen. You see, he has already taught us some tremendous lessons about love and faith and courage, just by being who he is and by overcoming the trials he has had to overcome.

And I look back over my life, and I remember that moment when the Spirit spoke to me so clearly that I sat up and took notice and was startled, was surprised by what it said. And I said Yes, OK, I'll do it. And my life has taken a different course and is completely changed, and is infinitely better and richer and more amazing because of it. I would not trade this opportunity of having Glen for a foster son for anything. If I had only known what this would mean for us, on the other hand, I would have traded almost anything for this opportunity. There is almost no sacrifice now that isn't worth making for him, for him to be part of our family.

#

I love that the lectionary, purposely I assume, brings together these two texts for today – from Genesis chapter 12 and from Romans chapter 4. In Romans Paul is discussing the nature of faith, and he illustrates the point he is trying to make about faith by invoking the example of Abraham. This text is a very important text for Protestant theologians, because of the way it contrasts faith in Christ versus the faith in the works of the Law. And the classic Protestant way to read this text is to say: We cannot be saved by works of the Law, by obeying rules and commandments and ordinances. We are saved by trusting in the justification that comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We are saved by trusting in the free gift of salvation that Christ gives us if we only believe in him. That's the classic Protestant way to read that text. But if we read the text that way, then we also tend to read the Abraham story within this text as a metaphor.

That seems like a particularly dry way to read this text, if you ask me, particularly when you contrast it with the original text Paul harks back to: the story of Abraham as recounted in Genesis. What if, instead of reading the Abraham text on Paul, we read Paul on the Abraham text? The tale in Genesis gives us an account of faith that is primal and powerful. It tells us a story of direct and immediate interaction between God and Abraham. God tells Abraham (or at this point in the story, his name is still Abram, for we are at the beginning of a story which leads to a transformation of Abram into Abraham): “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.” God pairs this commandment with a promised blessing: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I 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.” Abraham's response according to Genesis? “So Abram went as the Lord had told him.”

The nature of this bond or this covenant between God and Abraham is primal. God speaks to Abraham. Abraham listens and responds to God. There is no intermediary here of law or tradition, no book of scripture or past divinations which Abraham here interprets in order to deduce God's intention for him. God speaks to him and he responds.

This is, for me, the central significance of the story of the test of Abraham and Isaac. God tells Abraham: “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon a mountain which I will tell you of.” The text says simply, “Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his mount, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and cut the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him” (Genesis 22:2-3). This is a terrifying story. It caused Søren Kierkegaard to have nightmares. It's caused me to have nightmares. Here is an instance of God giving Abraham a commandment that seems contrary to everything we recognize as humanly decent: parental love, compassion and mercy, not to mention religion, justice, morality or law. Yet God commands and Abraham obeys. Abraham does not even take the time to try to argue or bargain with God, as he does when God sends angels to announce the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). He prepares his mount and gathers the firewood and goes.

The affirmation of decency and morality comes at the end of the story. God sends an angel to stay Abraham's hand and provide a lamb as a substitute offering. So what we are left with is the primacy of the covenant, of the bond between Abraham and God. Of course we affirm the value of life and love, of the bonds of family that link spouses to each other and parents to children. Of course human sacrifice is an abomination to God. But what this story tells us is that the bond, the relationship with God assumes primacy. It exists prior to law and it supersedes law (and everything else).

So when we read Pauline theology on this text, we get not some dry forensic account of how belief the atonement can save us. What we are being told, I think, is that in and through Christ, all of us, including Abraham, relate directly to God, not through the intermediary of law or tradition or doctrine or belief. Here faith describes not the mechanism by which we are saved, but our relationship with God. Here, faith has nothing to do with intellectual assent. It means simply trust. A willingness to hand over everything we own and everything we are to God. A willingness to listen to God, and if God asks, to go from our country and our kindred and our parents' house to the land that God will show us.

And we won't discern God's will for us by reading the scriptures, by reading about God's will for his people in the past. We won't learn God's will for us by studying Church history. We won't learn it by rolling dice or picking Tarot cards or reading tea leaves. For this we must address ourselves directly to God in prayer, and we must learn to listen.

#

I am teaching a class in American Religious History at United Theological Seminary. This past Thursday, we began to discuss a text I've assigned, a book about the Second Great Awakening, that great period of religious revival in America from about 1790 to 1830 or so. The book, The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch, describes how ordinary Americans during this period believed themselves to be in the midst of an unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit, an outpouring which overwhelmed the boundaries of traditional religious authority and decorum. Ordinary, common people saw visions, received revelation, and believed themselves endowed directly by God with power from on high. Preachers and communities that encouraged direct communion with the divine – Methodist, Baptist, Mormon and “Christian” (we know them as “Disciples,” and they form a major stream that contributed to the U.C.C.) – transformed the American economic, social and political landscape. They empowered ordinary people to believe in and claim the full promise of American democracy.

Discussion of this text led to interesting comparisons between the time of the Second Great Awakening and our own time. My students expressed deep frustration, a sense that the society we live in is stagnating. We face profound, terrifying challenges – economic, environmental, social, and political – any one of which might threaten global disaster, possibly within our life times. And yet the society we live in seems incapable of organizing or uniting to deal with these problems. Instead we are at war with each other over which problems are more pressing and over how to solve them.

I was particularly moved by one 26-year-old student who spoke very personally about the general sense of hopelessness that seems to be prevalent in his generation and in the generation coming up after him, a sense that the problems we face are just too colossal for us, that it will take some kind of general break-down or catastrophe to wake people up to the seriousness of what is happening. Young people are either just tuning out and ignoring what is happening, or they are getting overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness. I've certainly seen both of these attitudes in the teenage kids we are closely acquainted with.

And yet, our generation also seems cut off from the source of power that moved the generation of the Second Great Awakening to transform their society, because we have lost our faith in God, and correspondingly, our belief that we even have a chance of challenging the great transnational corporate military industrial complex that is destroying our environment and ravaging the peoples of the earth with war and reducing us to helpless cogs in a heartless machine.

My students expressed hopelessness, but oddly I came away from our class oddly at peace, strangely hopeful. Because I know that the answer is as near to us as the ground. All we have to do is muster the courage and the humility to kneel.

#

Faith in God does not provide us with simplistic answers to the problems we must face in life, either individually or collectively. When God said to Abraham, “Go from your country,” God didn't give Abraham a road map, only a promise to eventually show him. God didn't abrogate the necessity of traveling hundreds of miles on foot, or alleviate the inconvenience of separating from family or giving up possessions, nor banish the dangers inherent in passing through strange or hostile territory. God can only offer us the assurance that if we do what is necessary, we will end up where we need to go. That is powerful. That alone has given me the courage to keep going, even when things don't work out the way I like. But it still doesn't make things easy.

Also, I don't want to minimize the potential danger inherent in mistaking impulse or prejudice or fear for the voice of the Spirit. The Spirit speaks to us in a unique voice, unlike anything else, but we must learn to listen to it and recognize it. The Spirit may reveal things to us that are surprising, but it won't reveal to us things that can't be born out and established over time. It is OK to doubt. It is OK to prove things, to test things, to seek out information, to think and take our time to test whether a revelation we feel we have received is real. But eventually, there also comes a time where we need to take the leap of faith, where we need to accept that we can't progress unless we move forward without necessarily knowing how everything will work out in the end. We have to remember, when there are other voices screaming in our ears trying to distract us, that we need to gird our ourselves to stay true to the still, small voice. There are times when listening simply boils down to sacrifice and trust.

My family is living proof to me of the power that comes into our lives when we open ourselves up, when we listen, and when we trust. Each morning of this new life I'm living, I wake up and find proofs of each of our willingness to change, to grow, to make sacrifices, to do things we once thought we couldn't do. Every day, Göran and I watch Glen facing hard choices of his own, and making right choices, maturing and growing to adulthood, and becoming a splendid, amazing human being in the process. Göran and I are in awe of him and we love him and are so incredibly grateful for him. And I think, my life is happier now than it ever has been before, happier than I ever, even as recently as a year ago, imagined it could possibly be. And I think, this is only the beginning, if I am willing to stay on this path, if we are willing to continue in this path together.

I pray for each and every one of us. I pray for the Spirit to be poured out upon us individually and collectively, as a Church, as a community, as a people, as a nation, as a whole world under God. I pray for us to listen and to trust.

In the name of Jesus Christ, the one in whom this gift of new life is given to us,

Amen.

9 comments:

yusahana6323 said...

Amen.

You are truly a good example to me. I hope that I can learn, too, to truly listen to the Spirit and act on the promptings I receive.

I'm glad things are working out so well for your family. Love to them, with my best wishes.

playasinmar said...

Glen is one lucky guy.

GeckoMan said...

John, I'm glad to read of your continuing happiness with Glen, and of the lessons you and Goran are learning from parenthood.

No news on my homefront as of yet, but I'm looking forward to several new interviews later this month. My faith and trust in God's' promises continue to deepen with time. All is well.

J G-W said...

Yusahana - You are a great example to me too. I love you!

Playa - Plenty of luck has gone around to all of us.

Gecko - Keep the faith.

Ron Schow said...

John, this is a beautiful sermon. I wish I could have heard you give it. I am so happy for you, Goran and Glen. It is wonderful to be able to look back and see how our lives have been transformed by gospel principles. I wish you all much happiness in the future.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Ron!

elbow said...

What an awesome post. And let me just add that I think you and your partner would make excellent parents. You are living your life to it's fullest and it's a blessing to be able to read about it. Thank you.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Elbow!

Anonymous said...

I miss your posts. I'm sure you're busy...but hopefully you'll have time soon. God bless you!