By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Genesis 12:1-9
As I begin my sermon this morning, I want to call your attention to the question in this morning’s program; something to reflect on as I preach. The question there is: Describe a time in your life (outside of worship or official church events) when you felt or experienced an awareness of God’s presence. Those of you who hear my preach regularly know I am fond of saying that Christianity is not a belief system so much as it is a relational system, a relationship with God through trust in Christ. And, for a relationship to be healthy, we need to spend time with someone and we need to give them our attention. We need to be present to them. So, again, think of a time when you felt or experienced that awareness of God’s presence.
It is good to be back with all of you this morning. I want you to know that I missed you during my sabbatical. I thought of you often – though I didn’t worry about you… I knew I had left you in capable and gracious hands and I want to express my appreciation to Pastors Jack, Linda and Amber and to Melissa and Morris. Without their leadership – and Trinity’s Governing Board – I could not have had my time away which was renewing and restorative.
Now, this morning and in the coming weeks, I hope to share some of my sabbatical experiences with you through my Sunday sermons. My sabbatical involved many journeys. I went to places near and far, familiar and new, some even exotic… at least to me. So through the end of August, I’ll be sharing with you reflections from my travels.
One of my favorite Hebrew scriptures is this passage from Genesis 12 about Abram, whose name God would change to Abraham. It is a story of blessing; but it is also a story of journeying, traveling, moving about from place to place. Verse 9 employs a Hebrew word for “journey” twice, back to back; a redundancy that inspires the NRSV to translate it with this English phrase: “journeyed on by stages.” Journeying by stages: it’s a good description for my sabbatical and a great metaphor for life, I think.
Our Bible contains a lot of “journey stories” and within those stories we often find two things: divine encounter and spiritual revelation.
There is, of course, the story of the Israelites journeying for 40 years in the wilderness. God often encounters them and engages with them, particularly when he delivers the commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In the gospel of Luke, on the first Easter evening, two of Jesus’ disciples are joined by Jesus as they journey on a road that connects Jerusalem and Emmaus and, in the course of their journey and conversation, as they walk and talk, Jesus opens their minds to the scriptures that bear witness to him. There are many “journey stories” in our bible.
Now, there’s some interesting stuff in the verses that precede this morning’s scripture that relate to this theme of God keeping his people moving, but it’s more than can fit in a sermon so you’ll have to trust me on that one. In fact, Abram’s call to enter Canaan is a call to complete a journey his father started but didn’t finish. So God extends the call to Abram. Now Abram’s journey and the fulfillment of God’s promised blessing doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long and winding road; a circuitous path. Yet, he keeps moving along the journey; journeying by stages. The verses I really want to focus on this morning are verses 6-7. They read:
Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh…”
And continuing at verse 7: “Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So Abram built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.”
This journey that Abram is on is one in which – as he moves along, God continues to encounter him and to speak his Word over Abram’s life. There is divine encounter and spiritual revelation. And there are stops along this journey. Perhaps we might call them “Righteous Roadside Rests”: places of divine encounter, where Abram is open to what God is teaching him; and Abram builds altars in those places as ways of marking or defining these spaces of divine encounter; these places where God gives revelation for the ongoing journey.
These stops along the journey, these places of divine encounter, Abram identifies or distinguishes as places of worship… because that’s what worship is about. Worship is about being in the presence of Almighty God, encountering God’s presence and in that intersection of time and space becoming aware and listening for God’s voice, for spiritual revelation. Friends: worship is not a one-hour Sunday morning event lined out on a bulletin. Worship is an encounter with God in time and space – any time and space – during which we are attentive to God’s presence and we listen for God’s voice. It is this experience of divine encounter and spiritual revelation.
There was a curious thing that happened on my sabbatical. And, here’s what it was: my worship schedule went out the window. Sometimes I was in monasteries where I worshiped several times a day and Sunday was just another day. And sometimes I didn’t even attend a worship service on Sunday. One Sunday morning I was at Heathrow airport. I did my morning prayer at my departure gate all alone because no one ever told me that in foreign countries you don’t need to show up at the airport three hours ahead of your international flight. Who knew? I didn’t.
But having that disruption to my routine schedule yielded a serendipitous result. As I journeyed by stages to all kinds of places, I encountered God in those places.
Friends, when we’re present to the present moment, we make ourselves present to God. Let me say that again: When we’re present, fully engaged with the present moment, we naturally make ourselves present to God in that particular time and space. We can encounter God and hear God speak through a friend or even a damp, colorful crystal in a cave or a mother deer and its fawn leaping through a Kentucky corn field at dawn or a solitary evergreen springing from the base of hardened lava.
Author Andre Gide writes, “Why do we not enjoy God?” Or, I might tweak that question: “Why are we not aware of God?” Because, writes Gide, “Our mind is not there.” Our mind is not there.
Friends, God guides us along our life’s journey, he beckons us to follow and God encounters us all along the journey. Yet often we are not aware because our mind is not there. We tend to think of this hour on Sunday morning as “God time” but I’m afraid we – and by “we” I mean “me” – we approach this time of worship like a brickyard pit stop. We’ve been going full speed around the track of life. We come barreling in here at full speed and want quick, full service – “air in our tires for the week” is how one preacher I knew phrased it; Sunday morning worship as a pit stop to get air in our tires. And then we blast back out of the pit into the daily rat race, looping the track of life.
So here’s a reflection, a takeaway, from my sabbatical journey. It’s not that I need to stop going to worship on Sunday mornings… I assure you; that’s not my proposal. Rather, I need to take some time to stop and maybe sit under a tree (not an oak in Moreh; maybe just the honey locust in my backyard). I need to sit and listen and pay attention and then find ways to mark or distinguish, to celebrate, those places along the way where God encounters me and teaches me and speaks his blessing over my life.
Abram encountered God at a simple tree, the oak of Moreh. Do you know what Moreh means? It means “teaching.” This is literally, “the oak that instructs.” This was a place where God encountered Abram and spoke to him and so Abram took the time to build an altar there; to mark, to identify it as sacred space.
You know, I grew up a good Protestant being told that churches didn’t have altars; they had communion tables because altars were where animals were sacrificed for sin in the Old Testament and, as Christians, Jesus was the final sacrifice for our sins. So, no more altars. Ugh… But, altars are more than that. Altars are also points of connection between heaven and earth, points of contact between the human and the divine. Friends, we still have altars and not just in church. Altars can be built under oak trees and in corn fields or caverns. Altars can be built in the eyes of our beloved or the palm of a little child’s hand if we can just slow down and look and listen for the voice of God. Now, we don’t have to literally construct an altar out of wood or stone. But we can seek creative ways to identify and acknowledge those spaces where we encounter God along life’s journey; those situations and experiences in which God speaks his blessing over our lives.
That’s what I’m hoping for myself as a takeaway lesson from this sabbatical and, if you’re wondering how, I can share with you my strategy… although yours might need to be different from mine.
But, going forward, I’m going to try to be more disciplined about creating margins in my life. Too often, I book appointments back to back. And, when I do that, I can’t live fully in the moment. I’m not very attentive to God or the person I’m with because I’m already thinking about what’s coming next. And I did that so frequently that it became habitual even when it wasn’t necessary. I began to think into the future – the next hour, the next day, the next week – even when I wasn’t booked solid. I don’t want to keep doing that. I’m going to make a greater effort in the future to stop my thoughts that race into the future because it’s too hard to hear God’s voice here and now if I’m not tuned in to here and now. I know some days are still going to be crazy but, at least once a while, I’d like to show God the same courtesy I showed my host in London and be able to say, “God, take me where you’d like today and show me what you’d like me to see.”
And that is also my prayer for you as well; that, as we journey on together – as a church, a Christian community, that our ears and eyes and hearts might be open to the presence of God, those moments of divine encounter in any random time and space. That our days will be more than an endless race around the track of life, but that we can step into the journey of each new day saying, “God, take us where you’d like today and show us what you’d like us to see.” Day by day, as we journey by stages, O God, take us where you’d like and show us what
you’d like us to see. Amen.
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