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We’re gathered here today as a particular community. And being a community is always challenging, because it means we share some things.  But not everything.  For instance, it’s not important to us at all to share bathroom time.  In fact, I would venture to guess that most of us here would say that the less bathroom time we share with one another, the better.  But there are some things it’s really important for us to share.  Namely, it is important that we share a sense of common value, and that we’re all on board with where our little community is heading. But pin-pointing precisely what it is that we share, and articulating exactly where it is that we’re going is a challenge, isn’t it?

I mean, just think about it: our community is called ‘thrive United Methodist Church’ and I know there are some of you here who couldn’t care less about those two words in the middle. And that’s fine.  But at the same time I’ve also had several people tell me that they only ever found our community in the first place because they Googled ‘United Methodist Church, West Des Moines,’ and a few people have even emphasized that they’re not interested in going to any other kind of church.

Which of course begs the question of the ‘church’ part, right?  Maybe we don’t all have to care too much about sharing a common United Methodist –whatever that means- as long as we’re all Christians together.  You can be a part of our community without caring anything about John Wesley and Thomas Coke, and Francis Asbury, as long as we have the Bible and Jesus, right?

But here’s where it starts to get pretty weird: if we were forced to select a box to identify which religion Jesus belonged to, which box would we have to select? It wouldn’t be Christian, would it?  Because Jesus was Jewish! All the way –born, lived, died, and was resurrected a Jew.  All four gospels agree on this strange detail: the charge written on the cross of Jesus when he died was ‘Here is the king of the’ …Christians?  No, king of the Jews!  And all of the first disciples were Jewish.  And it wasn’t until a guy name Paul came around that following the way of Jesus could be said to be anything but a Jewish movement.  So, just to put it into perspective, if we look at our Bible, the only part we can really say actually deviates from the Jewish tradition in any significant way is the second half of the book of Acts, and on through the letters that follow it.  Everything else is all about Jewish people doing very Jewish things.  And you could probably make the case that if it weren’t for this guy named Paul, there would be no Christianity as it is today.  Instead, there would just be Jewish people –some of whom believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.

So in the new series we’re opening today, called Unsettled, we’re going to start looking at this guy named Paul and what he did.  But before we get to Paul, we have to go way back and talk about another guy, named Abraham. Because Paul and Abraham share a kindred spirit, and a common calling. They were a part of a common tradition, and a common trajectory, something we hope to share with them even yet today. But we’ll talk more about that in the weeks to come.  But for now, let’s find out how the story of Abraham begins.

It starts in the 12th chapter of Genesis. Abraham is a descendant of Noah (the guy with the ark), and his birth name was Abram. His father had settled in a place called Haran (which is in modern-day Turkey). And this is where our brief reading kicks off.  It says this:

12 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.”[a]

Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran.

            In many ways that’s the cliff-notes for Abraham’s whole life, and you could say that his life strongly parallels the story of the nation of Israel.  Abraham moves around a lot, and eventually has kids, and then settles down and dies. Oh, and there’s drama in the middle.  Lots of drama. But it all starts with this opening line: “leave your land, your family and your father’s household…”

Notice here, there is no introduction on the part of God here –there’s no ‘hi I’m the God who created everything and ruler of the cosmos.’ There’s no small talk or sensitivity to his circumstance.  It’s just: ‘leave.’  Leave this place. Leave those people. Leave that lifestyle.

And Abram, the crazy coot, packs up his stuff and moves out of the basement, at 75 years old.

Which, by the way, isn’t that just fantastic story-telling?  The way it’s played out, it sounds so dramatic at first.  We can hear the voice of God, maybe sounding like James Earl Jones, or Adele or whoever, going “Abram!  You must leave this place to come to a land I will show you!”  And it’s incredible because Abram does, and he sounds like such a courageous dude for packing up his stuff, leaving everything he’s ever known before behind, to embark on some great adventure… and then you find out he’s seventy-five years old.  It totally changes the story, doesn’t it?

So often this story is read in churches, and the moral of the whole thing is supposed to be about how bold and obedient this guy was –but then you read just another line further to find out it’s about an old man who just didn’t want to grow up. And it took the voice of God to get him to let go.

‘Abram, you’re almost an old man already, still living under your dad’s shadow —don’t you think it’s time to make something of yourself? You’ve over-stayed your welcome… by like 40 years…

Because this is a thing that people are supposed to do, right? They’re supposed to grow up and they move on! They’re supposed to leave the shelter of their childhood home behind and they find something for themselves.  But sometimes we don’t!  And why not?  Because we don’t really feel like we need to!

Abram was there, and he had a wife and his mom and dad, and all the stuff he loved!  He had all of his old rocks to play with, or whatever it was that nerdy guys did before video games were invented… which might help to explain how he doesn’t have any kids yet…  So life was probably pretty okay. There was no real reason to move on. It was safe that way.  A safe place in a dangerous world.  Most of us can’t even imagine what it would be like to live in a world without police, where people could just waltz around on their camels, taking whatever they wanted, and killing the people who really bugged them.  Back then, the only thing to stop you was how tough your family was.

So God showed up and told him to leave all that.

And Abram has the blessed insight to go: ‘yeah, I suppose it’s time.’

We can compare this with what I believe is a very similar story with the man I mentioned before, Paul, in the book in the New Testament we’ve been reading, called Acts.  When we first meet him, like Abram, he hasn’t yet become the man history will remember him to be, and his name is Saul.  He just happens to be standing around in Jerusalem, when some commotion arises because an early apostle of Jesus, named Stephen, is becoming surrounded by a mob.  Stephen basically recounts the whole history of their shared tradition together, including all the ways their ancestors have acted against the Holy Spirit, when the crowd decides it’s heard and had enough.  We’re reading at the end of Acts, chapter 7, starting in verse 57b.  It says this:

56 He [Stephen] exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One[m]standing at God’s right side!” 57 At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, 58 threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. 59 As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!”60 Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.

Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder.

So often I hear that people talk about how they come to church because they’re looking for a place to belong.  They’re looking for people who share their beliefs and their tradition and their views.  I hear them talk about how what they’re really looking for in a community is a place and a people that feel like home.  And while I certainly hope we can be and share all of those things for those who want to be participants in our humble little community, I can’t get over the fact that our tradition seems to suggest we might need a new picture –a new image- for what home looks like.  Because, when I read the Bible, and when I listen to the stories of those who have gone before me, the path home so often looks like a journey into and through what so many of us would call –not home, but- homelessness.

Yes, Abram did find a new land to call home and settle down in, but first he had to leave the one he had (and he only settled down shortly before he died!).  And Saul too was very ‘at home’ with those who threw rocks at people until they died, because they didn’t like the way talked about ‘God’s house’; but that wasn’t the kind of home God wanted, or had planned, for them.  Instead, God had something grander in mind.  Something new.

The promise passed on to Abram, and onto everyone in the tradition that follows him, including through Paul, wasn’t just for a particular place, or for a particular kind of community, but the promise was really for a revelation.  God has a land, a space, an experience, to offer His people. He wasn’t giving him a place to settle, but an invitation to become unsettled.  Because becoming unsettled is the only way we, as human beings, can receive, and in turn become, the blessings we were always intended to have and to be.

Therefore this new ‘land’ that God talks about to Abram, doesn’t necessarily have to be a land for us at all.  It can be a state of being.  It can be a way we approach the life we’ve been given.  It can be more like a state of Joy. Or a state of wonder.

I wanted to share with all of you a brief passage from a book I came across this week by the Jewish Theologian Abraham Heschel.  It says this:

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines.  Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind.  Mankind will not perish for want of information; but one for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.  What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.

Isn’t that true?  Hasn’t something about our life in the 21st century extinguished our wonder?  Hasn’t the invention of i-phones and Wikipedia and Netflix sucked something of our souls out because it makes us feel like there’s nothing left to discover on our own?  Instead we’re just shown any-and-everything through the medium of a screen.  And isn’t that just what’s missing –a sense of being connected.  A sense of being connected to the vast and profound awe that accompanies an authentic experience of being alive?

Just think about the eclipse that happened a week or so ago: thousands of people around the world decided to stop and re-arrange their busy schedules and lives just to look up at the sky! And for a moment, some of them had it –this sense of the vastness and the grandness of creation.  For just one moment, they could look up and be direct witnesses of the swirling cosmos in motion, and right there in that moment they had the chance to wonder. To wonder about the forces that brought huge spheres of mater into alignment.  To wonder about the reaches of space that remain unseen.  To wonder if life could exist as anything more that just this –this tiny, sheltered world we so often feel trapped in.

Isn’t that precisely what we wouldn’t even dare to hope for out of our time here together?  An invitation into excitement?  Aren’t we all craving an embrace of a life of true significance?

Think about it for a moment: when was the last time your heart practically burst with delight?  When was the last time you felt giddy, like a kid who tries pizza for the first time, and you get to see their face spontaneously bloom as if to say: ‘what kind of joy-sorcery is this?’ When was the last time you gave yourself space and permission to be amazed at a sunset, or the migration of butterflies, or at watching a child learn and grow?

When was the last time you felt alive, like there’s something fantastic and sublime going on beyond the routine surface of things?

If it’s been a while, it’s probably because you’ve let your own life become a little bit too familiar. So maybe it’s time.  Maybe it’s time for you to be unsettled.  Or maybe it’s time for you to embraced the state of unsettledness that is your life.  Because God is waiting right there, beneath the surface and around the corner to show you something.  And we don’t need to wait for any spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime moments; but the promise of our tradition is that absolutely each and every new moment is a chance for wonder.

This morning, we remember the life and example of Jesus –who had no home, but who was fully alive because he loved.  And he had courage.  He didn’t shy away from his mission and his calling, even though they threatened his life.  Before his life was taken from him, he passed his blessing on to his disciples, with a holy mystery. [Communion]

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