TRUST THE GUIDE
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 11, 2013; 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out
for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance;
and he set out, not knowing where he was going.”
You all know, by now, what’s happening across the street, in the Education Annex. A Volunteer Village, we call it. It’s not the name we gave it. It comes from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, our partners and trainers in this enterprise.
I’ll tell you the day we got started. It was just after Hurricane Sandy. We were all a little rattled. Well, more than a little. We’d been through a storm that had shaken our community to its foundations. We’d just lived through five nights, more or less, of darkness so utter and complete, we could look up and see the stars twinkling overhead, brighter than any of us had ever seen them in this part of the world before, for such a length of time — stars bright as our ancestors once knew them, when going out at night meant carrying a tallow candle, or, in later generations, a kerosene lamp.
Sandy swept it all away for a little while: our power grid. How strong and substantial that sounds: a “grid”! How solid and immovable! As for “power” – is it not what we all want, in this life? Power — and more of it?
Yet, in those nights after Sandy, there was no power. It was gone. The magic we could once summon, with the mere flick of a light switch — magic that would have made our ancestors, with their tallow candles and kerosene lamps, stand slack-jawed in wonder — it was all gone. And many of us were asking questions about basic things — some very basic things — shelter; food; warmth. Questions none of us were very used to asking, in the days before Sandy.
The Volunteer Village began at an emergency Session meeting. Some of us had been doing Sandy outreach before anybody sat down in a parliamentary meeting and passed a motion, giving permission. The gas stove in the church kitchen still worked, so we opened the place up and said to anyone we could find, “Bring food, we’ll cook it.” People showed up with food. And so we did.
Other friends from afar showed up with emergency supplies, donated water and clean-up kits, and work gloves, and detergent. And so, we started gathering those things and, just as soon as we got them in, gave them away. We didn’t worry about running out: it just kept coming. We did that mostly through St. Gregory’s Pantry, but some things we gave out directly from here, before we could even get them across the street.
Other friends showed up from afar, as well: National Response Team members from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. They went after pastors like me. They said: “Be careful. This storm is bigger than you are. It’s bigger than any of us. If you go out there and try to do battle against it, to look out at the crying, desperate needs all around, the suddenly-homeless people who’ve never known a day of homelessness in their life, and the terrible losses of every kind — and try to make everything right, you are going to die. We really mean that. We’ve seen it happen, in pastors.
But, here’s something you can do. We Presbyterians do one thing very, very well in disaster areas. We send volunteers from around the country to help people rebuild. They don’t look for much, in the way of creature comforts. But if we can find them a safe and sheltered place to sleep, and a kitchen where they can prepare their meals, and a place to wash up after a long and tiring work day, we can really and truly make a difference.
So, back to that Session meeting, a week or so after Sandy. There we all were, still kind of shell-shocked after everything that had happened. I asked the Session to pass a motion. It was a motion to move forward on opening a PDA Volunteer Village in our Education Annex. I forget what the wording was, exactly. It had some “ifs” in it, some caveats, some escape clauses, so in case things weren’t working out, we could bail. But we had decided to do it. We had decided to set out on a journey: us and God. As for the road ahead, we had very little idea what it looked like. We just knew we had to do it.
All those years of talking about Jesus, studying his call to discipleship, raising up our children and teaching them about it in church school and Confirmation and youth group, all those important church programs — well, here God had just slapped us upside the head with a big old hurricane, and said, “Hey. Hey YOU! It’s time you stopped just dabbling in mission, and started doing it.”
God had a message like that for Abram, that day several millennia ago, in the city of Haran. A 75-year-old man, with his 75-year-old wife, a couple who’ve more than earned a comfortable retirement. Abram says to Sarai, “The Lord showed up today. Gave me a message.”
“A message from God — what was it? The secret of the ages? The pearl of great price? The meaning of life?”
“Well, what did God say to you?”
“God said, ‘Go.’”
“Was that all?”
“Just about. There was something about us becoming a great nation, and God making our name great, and that we 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.”
“No, no, that’s not what I mean, Abram. That’s all well and good, but — did God happen to drop off, maybe, a couple of caravan tickets — you know, with a destination on them?”
Well, we know God didn’t do that. As it says in the letter to the Hebrews, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8)
Not knowing where he was going. That doesn’t exactly make Abram a responsible institutional manager. Where’s the project proposal for this little jaunt? What’s the estimated budget? How do we know expenditures won’t outpace revenues? If we examine historical trends and project them out, say, 5 or 10 years into the future, where can we reasonably expect to be? Where are the benchmarks, what are the metrics? We can’t not know where we are going!
Did Abram have any of those things? Did the venerable CEO of Clan Abram engage in prudent institutional planning? When he perched his wife, Sarai, on top of a camel, and told his servants to load up that little caravan with all their worldly goods, did he first test out several different routes, choosing the one that offered the optimal combination of well-beaten trails, proximity to water-holes and freedom from bandits and ravenous beasts?
Somehow, I think not. God doesn’t seem to supply any of that sort of detail, and the Bible doesn’t talk about Abram doing so, either.
Think with me about the implications of that, for a minute. Abraham — one of the most renowned spiritual leaders in human history, common progenitor of three great world religions, the one by whom “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed” — is a man who doesn’t know where he is going!
I seem to recall another time when that sort of thing happened. An eager new disciple runs up to Jesus and exclaims: “Rabbi, I will follow you wherever you go!”
Freeze the scene for a minute, there. Imagine you’re the pastor of a church. You’re concerned about maintaining the membership. You’ve got to keep a strong volunteer base, to make sure the church’s programs stay healthy. So, here’s this eager-beaver new member who comes up to you, grinning stupidly from ear to ear, who says: “I will follow you wherever you go!”
Most people in my position would quietly say to ourselves: “Thank you, Jesus!”
Then we’d ask: “Have you ever thought about becoming a junior-high youth advisor?”
But that’s not what Jesus thought. Nor is it what Jesus said. What Jesus actually said was: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
Evidently, Jesus never read that book about volunteer management in the church. You know, encouragement, awards, recognition….
It sounds rather like old Father Abraham: the man who set out, not knowing where he was going. Where did Abraham have to lay his head? Other than the floor of his tent: no place.
There was another time when somebody asked Jesus where he was going. In John, chapter 14, he’s just finished telling his disciples about how, in God’s house, there are many rooms, and he’s going ahead of them to prepare a place for them.
“Lord,” says Thomas, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Lord, we do not know where you are going.
Remember what Jesus says, in response? It’s just a little more encouraging than the “Foxes have holes, birds have nests…” line. This time, Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
He’s not expecting them to know the way. All Jesus is expecting them to do is follow him. It’s like God’s instruction to Abram. To Abram, God says, “Go.” Well, Jesus’ command is kind of similar, except it’s not “Go.” It’s “Come.” Come, follow me.
If you’re going to set out on a journey, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you haven’t got any maps — no GPS, either — there’s one other thing you need. It’s not a thing at all, really. It’s a person. You need a guide.
I can remember, years ago, when I was growing up, our family took a little vacation to Gettysburg. We stopped by some kind of visitor’s center, and my dad went in to look for a map of the battlefield. He came out, saying, “Here’s a map, but there’s something even better. They tell me in there we can hire a guide to drive around with us and show us the battlefield.”
“Can we afford it?” my mother wanted to know. “I think we can,” said Dad. “It’s not as expensive as you think.”
So, that’s exactly what we did. A man came out to our car and sat in the front passenger seat. Mom climbed into the back seat with us, and we set off, driving across the battlefield. Our guide told my father exactly where to turn, and when he said “Stop here,” we did, and he pointed out some monument or another and told us a story about it. Then he said, “See that hill over there? That’s Little Round Top. Let me tell you what it was like to be a Union soldier that day, trying to hold that piece of ground.” He pulled a rusty metal ball out of his pocket, about the size of a marble. “Do you know what this is? It’s a minie ball. It’s what those soldiers loaded into their rifles, along with a charge of powder. It’s real, it was dug up here on the battlefield. Do you want to hold it?” And then he said, “See that monument over there? That’s where Pickett’s Charge ended. They call that spot ‘The high-water-mark of the Confederacy.’”
It was a glorious afternoon. I remember it to this day. We didn’t need a battlefield map. We didn’t even need to know where we were going — because we had a guide.
Abram and Sarai did, too. The Lord said “Go,” and they went, but they knew they weren’t traveling alone. They knew God was going with them.
The other day I went into the Education Annex, after being away on vacation for a couple of weeks. I was eager to see those new showers, that have taken way longer to construct than any of us imagined. I knew a lot of work had taken place while I was away.
No more open wood frame made of two-by-fours. The wallboard’s up, and spackled. The doors to the dressing rooms are in place. Working electrical switches are on the walls. Ventilation fans and lights are installed in the ceiling. The water heaters are on, and the water flows when you turn the handle.
The walls still have to be painted. We need shower curtains, and flooring material in the dressing-room part of each cubicle, but all that will happen in the next few days.
The showers look beautiful. They also look very permanent.
I admit, I felt a moment’s hesitation as I looked them over. Every spot in a church building is sacred space to somebody. I’m very aware that the space behind the stage curtain — as seldom as we’ve used it in recent years for anything other than storage — still holds powerful memories for some. The decision to re-purpose that space has not been an easy one. There’s been some pain.
But you know, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Life’s a journey, they say: and there are new chapters of it that open, even as others close. We do honor the past, but far more important is our future: where the Lord is leading us in our mission. If there’s one thing these past months have shown, it’s that we don’t always know exactly where we’re going. We’re making some of this up as we go along: there’s no other way we could do it, as we adapt to rapidly-changing circumstances.
Yet, one thing we do know, through it all. We have a guide, Jesus Christ. He knows the territory. He will not let us fall.
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
T. S. Eliot, Preface to Transit of Venus: Poems by Harry Crosby (Black Sun Press, 1931).