17 Feb 2008
“The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.’” (Gen. 12:1) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
What God is telling Abram in today’s Old Testament reading has lost most of its impact because we are a traveling people. I was talking to a friend the other night. He has somehow become a producer of a Hollywood movie. It’s a small budget film, but they’re trying to get it into these film festivals like Sundance and the such. He told me that he flew out to Los Angeles from Bradley for one weekend in August and another weekend in September. That’s a 6,000 mile round trip in a weekend and he did it twice. We have people here in our parish that commute back and forth to Boston every single work day, which is nearly 200 miles a day. And a lot of you know people who fly constantly for their jobs. They rack up tens of thousands of miles each and every year. Sharon and I went to a concert a week ago Tuesday of the Turtle Island String Quartet, who by the way won a Grammy Award last Sunday. Just in the month of February, they were here at UMass, then the next morning they left for Palm Beach, FL, then they were off to Cleveland, to Minnesota, to California, back across the country to Pennsylvania, to New York and then back to California on Leap Day. And they do this constantly. We are a traveling people. We are not astounded by the thought of constant or far travel. We can be envious or incredulous about how much people travel, but we are not shocked by it.
In Abram’s day, however, all of this was different. In an age before surnames, people were acknowledged in reference to place or parent because these were usually extraordinarily stable. People stayed with their clans and close to their places of birth. Even more than a thousand years later, this system was still in place. Take Jesus as an easy example. The evangelist John knows of the astonishing circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, but he still refers to Him as: “Jesus son or Joseph from Nazareth.” (1:45) Parent and place are hard to ignore even when you’re talking about “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God.” (Jn 1:1) Another two thousand years after that, in the news right now, there is a lot of talk about family-clans and their regions of influence in Kenya. We hear almost daily of tribal loyalties being the strongest source of identity for the people. In Kenya, just recently an example of a modern, democratic, African nation, it is now dangerous to be in one tribal region if you are not of that tribe, to venture out beyond the confines and security of your own people is to tempt harm and death.
If this is the way it is in 2008, try and imagine how insular it must have been more than a thousand years B.C. Try and imagine how bewildered and scared Abram must have felt when God revealed to him, “Leave this land, leave your family, travel to an unknown place that I have yet to reveal to you.” Abram didn’t even know where God was sending him. In both the Old and New Testaments, this trust becomes the definition of faith. Abram’s trust in God was more powerful than even his trust in himself, more than his own instincts, reservations, questions or fears.
On Ash Wednesday, for the first of our Ecumenical Lenten Discussions, Rev. Killough challenged us with his thoughts about what it means to break down barriers. When he asked about what leads to separation, the group began throwing out inanimate, impersonal and safe suggestions: Technology separates people, money, class, education, and so on. You could tell he wasn’t satisfied with where the conversation was going. So he started adding his own suggestions, ideas that were more personal, and that in turn held us more personally responsible. He offered common sayings like “You never listen to what I have to say,” “When I was your age,” “If you really loved me,” “It’s your turn for a change,” “Why do you always blame me,” “You never say that you’re wrong” or “You never say that you’re sorry.” All of these common phrases build up walls that separate us. In everyday situations they and their kin try to make the other person feel completely responsible for all that is wrong as if we played no part at all in the problem. It always seems to be you, not me in the sentences.
The group tried to answer the question of separation the safe way. We can’t take a real personal responsibility to heal the separation born of gender, education, economics, and the other big answers, and maybe that’s why we offer them first. The harder answers are the small ones, the personal ones, the fixable ones. These force us to go to places we don’t want to go. They ask us the unpleasant questions as if maybe we are the ones partly to blame, that maybe we were wrong or rash. Rev. Killough shared with us a lesson he learned from a professor who once served in the diplomatic corps. He taught his students that to begin serious negotiations you have to assume that the other side is right. This doesn’t mean that you reject your own principles, but that you try and see why the other side thinks they are in the right. Don’t vilify them, in other words. Don’t make them into a caricature of all that is wrong. Try to see a dispute as a problem from both ends, and its resolution as a compromise from both those ends. This is a hard road to follow when emotions are high, pride is bruised and feelings are hurt. But just like with Abram, this is where God is asking us to go.
Lent’s cross forces us to look down those dark and shadowy paths that we would like to ignore, but somehow we have to get to the cross and the crucified Saviour, and we can’t get there without understanding and maybe imitating the cross’ lessons of humility, self-sacrifice and most especially of loving forgiveness. In our lives these are not commonly traveled roads, but it is the road Jesus took, and it is the road down which we are asked to look for Him. Let us pray for a faith and trust like that of Abram to follow where God leads, to listen to His challenges more than to our reservations, and for this we pray in the crucified Saviour’s name, Jesus Christ. Amen. (+)