Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent March 4, 2007, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
On the Move
In last Sunday’s sermon, Rob spoke of pilgrimage as an image of the Christian life. Through baptism, we are drawn into intimacy with God in Christ, and – as I once heard someone put it – even though God loves us exactly as we are, God loves us too much to let us stay the same. By the grace of God we begin in one place and end in another – we change along the way. That’s what the early Christians called themselves – people “on the Way.” Lent, in particular, is often described as a journey, a pilgrimage to Good Friday and Easter, and this morning’s readings set before us two men on the move: Abram, whose faith in God sent him out to an unknown land, and Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem to confront the powers-that-be and to lay down his life for the world.
Two men on the move. I thought about Abram’s willingness to honor God’s call to let everything go – his country, his kindred, and his father’s house [Genesis 12:1] and to set out to an unknown place, “not knowing where he was going” [Hebrews 11:8]. I thought about the night that God took Abram outside and showed him the stars, the night that Abram fully entrusted himself to God and accepted God’s covenant, wherever it would lead.
Abram’s story brought to mind a long-ago summer in Colorado when my family and I spent a week hiking and horseback riding at a small family ranch. We galloped along mountain trails with our hair, and sometimes our hats, flying in the wind. We breathed the scent of dust and wildflowers, gazed at fields of purple thistle and sagebrush, and waded knee-deep into the cold water of the Colorado River. Around us we sensed the silent presence of the mountains: snow-capped, enormous, and millions of years old. In their presence the concerns and preoccupations of ordinary life suddenly seemed very small.
One night around 2 a.m. my husband slipped out of the cabin to take a look at the night sky. After a while he climbed back into bed and urged me to go look for myself. I’m not usually a stargazer, and who wants to crawl out of a warm bed? But curiosity got the better of me, so I roused myself, threw on a bathrobe, pushed open the screen door, and went outside.
Except for the burbling sound of the river beside the cabin, the night was completely quiet. When I looked up, I was struck dumb with amazement. I had never seen anything like it. If you’ve been outside at night in the wilderness, you know what I mean. The whole sky was lit up with stars: sweeping overhead was the arc of the Milky Way, and in every corner of the sky shone more constellations than I could begin to count or name. Everywhere I looked there were stars – stars and more stars, an exuberance of light.
“[God] brought [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them'” [Gen 15:5]. Of course Abram couldn’t count them any more than we can. “So shall your descendants be,” God tells him, and then comes the passage’s key line: “And he believed the Lord.” He believed the Lord. Abram heard the divine promise and he accepted it. No, let’s put it in stronger terms — he committed himself to it, even though there was no tangible evidence to support it. Abram saw the stars, he heard the promise, and he put his trust in God.
The stars that shone that night in the deserts of Canaan are the same innumerable stars that shine today over the Rocky Mountains and over the Holyoke Range. “Come out of your tent,” God says to Abram, and to me, and to all of us this morning. “Come out of your tent. Come out of your self-enclosure. Step away from your worries and preoccupations, and your anxious self-concern. Come outside. There’s something I want to show you.” And then God spreads before our wondering eyes the infinite beauty of the stars, a glimpse of something larger, more ancient and more enduring than ourselves and our small world. Suddenly we are caught up in beauty, caught up in mystery. We are caught up in a Reality that is at once distant and intimate, a Reality that we suddenly discover has been sustaining us at every moment and whose presence fills us with both humility and joy.
That is how the spiritual journey begins, and is renewed: something lures us out beyond the small ego that likes to be in control and to declare itself the center of the world. Our Lenten pilgrimage gives us a chance to notice and to repent of the ways that we lock ourselves into our small tents and never gaze at the stars. I think that’s how sin often works: sin makes us close in fearfully upon ourselves, so that we evaluate everything only with reference to how it affects us. I, for one, begin to imagine that I am the center of creation and that everything exists – or should exist – to please and serve me. Sin can dull our awareness in all sorts of ways. Maybe we succumb to routine and the grind of ordinary life. Maybe we fill our spare time with the drone of TV, or blur our perception with too much caffeine or too many drinks. Maybe we get eaten up by anxiety or frantic busyness, or nurse some favorite obsession, such as the need to be perfect, or the need to be liked, or the need to be in control. There are countless ways to retreat from life, from what that Dostoevsky wonderfully called “zhivaja zhizn,” “living life.” I know that when I build my little tent, my world grows very small. My worries loom large. It’s when I’m hunkered down in my little tent that life gets urgent and stressful and oh, so serious.
But then along comes the Holy Spirit, the wind of God, blowing open the flap of the tent, inviting us out to contemplate the stars. Suddenly we glimpse again the true grandeur of what it means to be alive. Suddenly we wake up and notice again that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, and that our life is not our own. I love those lines in the Eucharistic prayer that the celebrant often says during Lent: by the grace of Jesus Christ, now “we are able to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.” That is a big shift in consciousness, when the center of gravity in our lives is no longer our own small self and our own narrow band of concerns, but God – our love for God, our desire for God, our longing to be of use to God, wherever that takes us. We begin to taste the joy of knowing that true happiness is found in loving and serving God, not in staying put and staying safe and trying to make the world love and serve us. We become willing to move.
There is joy in setting out on this journey with God, but of course it’s a fearful thing, too. Abram knew it – otherwise God’s first words to him wouldn’t have been “Do not be afraid.” Jesus knew the cost, too – the risk and the fear. In today’s Gospel passage from Luke, some friendly Pharisees warn Jesus to turn back, because Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, is after him and seeks to kill him. But Jesus refuses to step off the road along which God is leading him. “Today, tomorrow, and the next day,” he replies, “I must be on my way” [Lk 13:33]. In other words, he won’t be stopped. He may be afraid, but, like Abram, he puts his trust in God and keeps going. No wonder it is so inadequate to think of the Church as a fixed institution or a frozen set of beliefs. The Church is not a building but a movement, a community of people joined with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we are on the move.
Images of pilgrimage, of following where God leads even if the cost is great, are especially poignant this year as we consider the turmoil in the Anglican Communion. As you know, the Primates, or top leaders, of the worldwide Anglican Communion have presented the Episcopal Church with a deadline of September 30 by which it must declare that it will not consecrate gays and lesbians as bishops, and will not authorize rites for blessing same-sex unions – or risk expulsion from the Anglican Communion. We in the Episcopal Church find ourselves in a decisive place, a place that calls for careful prayer and discernment.
As Gene Robinson, the openly gay man who was consecrated bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, recently wrote in an eloquent essay, this request is not consistent with the organization of our Church. As Gene puts it, “The changes in our polity proposed by the Primates can only properly and canonically be responded to by the laity, clergy and bishops gathered in General Convention in 2009. The Primates’ demands can be seriously, prayerfully and thoughtfully considered at that time.”
But what’s more important, of course, as Gene points out, is that the Episcopal Church remain faithful to the Gospel. What does it mean if we deny gays and lesbians full membership in the Body of Christ? How can we do that when Jesus has given us a vision of the reign of God in which the hungry are fed, the poor are welcomed, and the oppressed are set free? How can we do that when, in the baptism that begins our journey with Christ, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” to “strive for justice and peace among all people” and “to respect the dignity of every human being”?
These are questions that our Church will ponder in the weeks and months ahead. The Episcopal Church is on a pilgrimage here, a journey to an unknown place. It is a place of risk, and it is a holy place. Gene Robinson writes in his essay: “During the debate over the consent to my election, I am told that the Bishop of Wyoming noted that not since the civil rights movement of the 60’s had he seen the Church risk its life for something” Gene goes on to say, “Indeed, I think he is right. This is such a time. A brief quotation hangs on the wall of my office: ‘Courage is fear that has said its prayers.’ Now is the time for courage, not fear.”
Given the readings this morning, it seems a good time to ask ourselves, not only as individuals but as members of the larger Church: what kind of tents have we built that block out the grandeur of the sky and the reality of the love that longs to set us free? Where do we close down and shut love out? Where is God inviting us to step outside, look up at the stars, and renew our courage to take our next step in faith?
Abram saw the stars, heard the promise, and put his trust in God. Jesus said, “Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.” Abram and Jesus are men on the move, and so are we. So are we.
• Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s reflections following the February 15-19 meeting of the Anglican Primates near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, “A Season of Fasting: Reflections on the Primates Meeting,” may be found at:
• The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson’s “Response” to the Presiding Bishops’ reflections may be found at: