Sunday, June 12, 2005

Three Altar Stones

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Genesis 12:1-9

The courage of faith for the heart. A sense of space for the body. And a feeling of promise for the spirit. These are the three stones which Abram lays upon the altar at the very outset of the journey of faith.

Abram has faith and so do you. Abram saw space and so do you. Abram had hope and so do we together.

We begin with the very opening sentence truly of the bible story here in Genesis 12. Of course there are other chapters which precede chapter 12 and they account for the creation and other matters, but the bible itself in another sense, maybe not chronological but theologically, starts here with the courage, the faith of Abram in chapter 12.

Here the story of redemption begins. The saving story in which we too are a part. The story that has made meaning and depth for our life together. The story by which our own native, self-centerness, our pride and sloth and falsehood, have been woven together into the membership that we share in the saving community of faith throughout the ages. Not the perfect community--we’re not perfect because we’re not perfectible--but the saving community of faith through the ages.

Abram has that courage. He has that faith. He has that call as well. And so do we. We have at least one, more than one, many that we share as a congregation in this time and in this place. Abraham has faith and so does this congregation. Through all last night, hour by hour, we find this a remarkable fact; there were people here in the chancel on a prayer vigil. From the afternoon yesterday through the morning this morning to convey and to embody the faith that we share.

At the end of this service we’ll take our trek as others have before us. A journey of faith.

What was it that brought Abram down to Shechem? What was it that took Moses to the edge of Nebo? What was it that caused Jeremiah to purchase just a little bit of land before his long hard sojourn in Babylon? What was it that called a young carpenter’s son out of the hills of Galilee to go like Amos down to the big city and there weep with Jerusalem, and cry for Jerusalem and long for the rebuilding of the new Jerusalem? This is the journey of faith in which we share with our celebrations today and also with our many voices.

We wouldn’t be this far along the road as a congregation without those courageous and cautious voices as well. Those who at every stage have asked us: Are you ready? Are you prepared? Does the building serve the mission and not the other way around? Can we afford it? Can we do it? Have you got the design right? Have we included all of all means? Have we been careful about symbols? Those voices of caution count. They are courageous and important and included. They are part of the courage of faith which is the first stone that Abram puts upon his altar in Schechem.

You can hear Sarah’s voice can’t you? “What time is it Abram?” Notice the way Sarah and Abram relate in all this narrative. “What time is it Abram?” He’s found a new space and you can hear Abram reply. “Sarah it is a time to build.”

In Sarah’s spirit I ask you Asbury First: “What time is it Asbury First?” “It’s a Time to Build.”

Meanwhile back in the scripture Abram has found his spot in Shechem. It’s a nice little village. It’s at the crossroads of east and west. It is like Broadway in New York City or Genesee Street in Utica or James Street in Syracuse or Delaware Avenue in Buffalo or this loveliest of streets in the Empire State - East Avenue. It is a crossroads. A place where people meet and greet and grow and watch their children grow under care. It’s a place, this place of Shechem where Abram found space to be. Space for grace to become all that God had meant him to become.

We are physical beings. We’re not just people of the mind but we have a body. We have faith for the soul but we have space and need space for the body in which to interact with others as Abram did in Shechem.

There he notices this at the very outset of his journey…he builds an altar. He places a physical testimony to the voice of God that he has heard and heeded. What must it have felt like to enter that new space? Go…leave…country…kindred father’s house to the space that I will give you. It takes courage and it takes a sense and a desire for the new so to move. We discover that in our own time too. Space is that delicate instrument whereby we connect with one other and with the divine.

Why is it that it’s so hard after 46 years to pack up a household, box by box, and move to an apartment? That’s not easy. Why is it that changes in the arrangements in our family life can be such a delicate set of interactions? Why is it that at the conference level the most explosive committee in the conference is the Parsonage Committee? It’s because space matters.

We’re moving into a new space that you carefully and painstakingly have designed and provided for with lots of cooperation. You’ve been cool under fire as our children have said and now we’re ready to make our journey. As did Mr. Wesley coming to Georgia to be in ministry with the natives. As did Dr. Crossland and others coming up East Avenue 50 years ago. Making a journey and making a step forward to open the space that will be available for those, many who are not even here yet, not even born yet. What an opportunity.

I can hear Sarah again calling to Abram, “Abram, Abram what time is it?” And he replies with his second stone, a sense of space, “Sarah it’s a time to build.” In her voice I ask you Asbury First, “What time is it?” “It’s a Time to Build.”

Meanwhile back in Genesis, which does mean beginning, we begin at Chapter 12 with the story of redemption that carries through the Book of Revelation. We have come upon the heart of Abram’s experience of the divine. With you Abram has a call. He has more than one. Each one of us, everyone excluding none, in this room has at least one vocation. One call that may change over the years. There may be multiple versions of it but this is who you are as an individual and as a congregation. Your call, your calling, your aim, your purpose, your goal, your passion. As one said at conference this week quoting Aristotle, “your telos.” That toward which you move day by day. Hold on to it. No one can be you better than you. And when you live your calling inevitability there will be disappointments, there will be rubs and bumps. And your pursuit of that calling will disappoint others and that disappointment may threaten to drown your faith. While you’ll have disappointments even in yourself and that also may threaten to drown your faith. Take Abram’s hope as your own. There is another power in the universe. There is another love guiding and surrounding us as Abram found.

Many of us this last week have been in Buffalo along the second loveliest street in the Empire State – Delaware Ave. These years we’ve come to enjoy it. It has such a lovely setting like this one. It also has, and I had to meditate there for a moment, a now closed, almost ruined building – Asbury Delaware. Like this church it’s surrounded by beauty. Surrounded by still teeming Presbyterian and Episcopal congregations. But this one is padlocked and boarded. I went by it and continued on the little jog a long way as I meditated on what the challenges are for our time. There are Canaanites in the land. This is a time to make a decision and move forward as a congregation.

That street ends by the way in a lovely cemetery called Forest Lawn and if you go far enough past the tombstones of familiar names, Urban and Williams and others, you come to a little pool and in the middle of the pool there is an island and on the island is a statue of a little girl and the sign says… “The little girl on the little island is meant to remind us of the needs of little children everywhere”. What a happy moment took me back along Delaware Ave.

You are at a critical point. We together are at a critical point for the future to invest in our calling. To be a countywide congregation in an era of suburban sprawl. To be a comprehensive congregation in an era of all to the left, left all to the right, right. To be a connected congregation with that Wesleyan spirit of freedom and love and grace in an era of a certain kind of determinism.

No it’s not all settled. The future is open and part of it is being determined today and every day by what we choose not to do and what we choose to do. To be a congregation that is located in the city in an era of exurbia. To be a creative congregation in a time that provides a culture that languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise, as my predecessor well wrote. You are a cosmic, courageous and hopeful congregation.

And so with Abram you put that last stone upon the altar. That connection between the transcendent God and the imminent Christ. Where the cool of the North, God bless it, meets the calm of the South. Where the dawn of the East meets the twilight of the West. Where the transcendent power of God touches earth in Jesus the Christ. The transcript in time of who God is in eternity.

Oh I can hear Sara still prodding Abram. Where would Abram be without Sara? Says she “Abram, Abram what time is it?” Says he, “It’s a time to build.” Asbury First in her voice we ask you what time is it? It’s a time to build.

We wish we had a thousand tongues. Oh for a thousand tongues to sing…all of us are better when we’re loved. Oh for a thousand tongues to sing…wouldn’t it be nice if the love of Christ were all we needed. Oh for a thousand tongues to sing…no one can do this to us and no one can do it for us. It’s something we will do ourselves. Oh for a thousand tongues to sing…the building serves the mission. Oh for a thousand tongues to sing…with Sara and Abraham and you…now is our time to build. May our own tongues sing forth God’s praise this and every day. Amen

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