Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“Go!” “Go from your country and your kindred…Go from your father’s house. Go and don’t look back…That’s the command, isn’t it. Drop everything…and just go…go to Pharaoh…go into the wilderness…go to dark Gethsemane…go into all the world…just keep going…
And we do…slowly…fitfully…sometimes reluctantly…or resignedly…we go…over the stony road…over the way that with tears has been watered…treading our path through the blood of the slaughter…
We go because that’s the command…As a faith community, we are not a settled people. Oh we desperately want to be, we want to stay in the same place…but God is always on the move…always ahead of us…always urging us on…and so we go…sometimes hopefully, sometimes desperately…clinging to hope…clinging to faith…
What is it that motivates you to keep going? What is it that motivates you to follow God…follow Jesus…follow the way of Love?
It’s remarkable, isn’t it that God says, “Go forth from your native land…and your father’s house…” And Abram just up and does it. I always find that remarkable…it’s part of what makes him a mythic figure…“Abraham believed God, (or had faith in God) and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” says Paul. Abraham has faith in God…but why? What happened? What is Abraham’s relationship to God prior to this?
Because it’s a very sudden transition in the book of Genesis…There’s no indication that Abraham is anything special…there’s no origin story for him, really…he shows up in a genealogy…the son of someone named Terah who is heading out from Ur to Canaan.
And then all of a sudden…out of nowhere…God says, “Go.” Why Abraham? Out of all the people in the world? Why him? And why does Abraham just get up and go? With no questions asked? There’s got to be a backstory.
2000 years of Rabbinic interpretation has provided one. There, Rabbi Isaac likens the calling of Abraham to the story of a man traveling from place to place when he sees a birah doleket.
Now a birah doleket is an ambiguous Hebrew term…it means either a palace that is all lit up…full of radiant glory, or a palace that is on fire. So full of light or in flames. The man says, ‘Is it possible that this palace lacks a caretaker?’ The owner of the palace looks out and says, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ And so, Rabbi Isaac says, In the same way, Abraham looked out at the world which was a birah doleket and said, ‘Is it possible that the world lacks a caretaker?’ And God said to him, ‘I am the Sovereign of the Universe.’ (source, source, source). And that’s what motivates him to go…to follow God.
Now here’s the question. When Abraham looked out at the world, did he see the world as full of light, or as on fire?
Because as Rabbi Abraham Heschel says, “One may look upon the world with enthusiasm and absorb its wonder and radiant glory; one may also see and be shocked by its ugliness and evil.” (source). Heschel says that we can see the beginning of Abraham’s journey in both ways. He looks at the world and sees the radiant glory of creation and upon learning that God is the source of this he sets, without question, out as a natural response to the affirmation that God is real, present, and the source of all life. In other words, Abraham moves out in faith and hope into a world that he sees as gracious, grace-filled, and God-tended.
And, Heschel says, it’s equally possible that Abraham looked out and saw a world engulfed in an inferno of chaos and evil. And wondered if anyone was in charge and when God says, “I AM” he moves out in faith and hope, with resilience and courage, into a future that might be tragic, but that God is nevertheless at the center of in an effort to help God repair the damage he sees (source).
When you look out at the world…what do you see? Do you see a place of radiant light…with a loving, caring, guiding Source of life behind it, and infused all through it…animating it, driving it…driving you to go and spread that light?
Or do you see a chaotic flaming pyre of evil that is threatening to burn down everything you care about? And are you motivated by a still small voice that says, I AM with you…help me put out the fire, help me repair the world…or at the very least stop breaking it…
Given the world we live in…it’s both, isn’t it?…and we oscillate between seeing it one way and then another.
How do you think Nicodemus saw the world? I think maybe he’s someone who used to see the world as a palace of light and life, but the oppression of Rome and the violence and corruption of the world made it look more like a world on fire. He comes to Jesus at night looking for hope…looking for a sign of that light again. He must see something, because after this, he shows up at Jesus’ trial and tries to get him a fair hearing (John 7:50-51), and then he comes again after the crucifixion bringing a hundred pound of ointment to bury Jesus (John 19:39-42). Did Nicodemus see the world as on fire, and in Jesus he heard that still small voice that enables him to become resilient, working to rebuild, and restore the world? Maybe. Maybe like Abraham, Nicodemus found (or rediscovered) a reason to believe in God despite all the evidence to the contrary.
How do you see the world? What is it that motivates you to keep going? To keep following God…following Jesus…following the way of Love? Is it wanting to be part of something glorious and wonderful? Or is it wanting to fix what is broken? Either way, God is not going to stop moving…We are always going to be required to go…to move beyond what we find safe and comfortable…or control-able.
So as we continue to move deeper into the desert of Lent…as we walk further into this beautiful, broken world of ours…whether we see the world as luminous or an inferno…we need to remember that God is at the center…We need to listen for that voice that speaks out of the flames and says, “I AM the caretaker…I AM the motivating force behind it all. So that our response to it—like Abraham’s— is, “yes.” Yes to participating with God in spreading life and light and love…Yes to being God’s hands and hearts in the world…spreading compassion and care and relief to all who suffer…Yes to the command to go…wherever that takes us.