(Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17)
One of the books I use with the first-year students I teach at Southern CT State University is This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. The title says it all: It is a book of short essays written by both famous and not famous people that state each person’s belief.
Brian Grazer, a famous Hollywood movie and television producer, wrote an essay for the book, titled “Disrupting My Comfort Zone.” Grazer, as is obvious from the title of his essay, believes in disrupting his comfort zone. He has a good reason for believing this and doing it, too. Disrupting his comfort zone, putting himself in challenging situations and meeting challenging people, is the best way that he knows to keep growing and, as he puts it, if you’re not growing, then you’re dying.
It is a sound philosophy and it has served Grazer well: He’s produced more than fifty movies and twenty television series; he’s successful and well-known in his business; and he could retire tomorrow to the golf course. As I said, his personal philosophy of disrupting his comfort zone has served him well.
It is a sound personal philosophy, but it is missing one thing that is of utmost importance to us as Christians: God. While it can be satisfying to fulfill our personal goals, and while we may even become successful and famous while doing so, fulfilling our personal goals is not the central concern of Christians. The central concern of Christians is fulfilling God’s goals. And it is by fulfilling God’s goals that we, ourselves, are fulfilled. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given unto you as well” (Mt 6:33).
Grazer has chosen to live a risky life but, the truth is, life is risky whether we choose to live that way or not. Life is by its nature risky. We can try to avoid risk, but we can’t. It’s impossible to avoid it. Life, by its very nature, is risky.
But, as Grazer stated, the alternative to life is death. Unless we are actively dying, we have no choice but to embrace risk. If we don’t embrace risk, then we stop growing and are, essentially, dying – if not physically, then emotionally and spiritually.
If someone asked us if we want to live or die, we would say we want to live. We don’t choose consciously to stop growing and die. If, in fact, we have stopped growing and are now dying, it is because we are tired or afraid, or because we are stuck, or because we just don’t know what to do to next or how to go forward.
When we’ve stopped growing and are dying – for whatever reason – as people of faith we are blessed to be able to turn to God. We may be tired, afraid, stuck, or confused about how to move forward, but God is none of those things. Unlike Brian Grazer, our journey in this life isn’t about our own goals, but about God’s goals. It isn’t about our own power and abilities, but about God’s power and abilities. We may be tired, but God isn’t; we may be afraid, but God isn’t; we may be stuck, but God isn’t; we may be confused, but God isn’t. God can take whatever it is we are and use it to fulfill his purposes.
The apostle Paul wrote about our weakness and God’s strength in his second letter to the Corinthians. Paul suffered from some kind of affliction. No one has been able to figure out what the affliction was, but Paul suffered from one. Three times he appealed to the Lord about it, that it would leave him, but the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” After the Lord says this to him, Paul then boasts all the more gladly of his weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in him (2 Cor 12:8-9). Paul knew that the power of Christ would work through his weakness and redeem him. Paul was not able to be his own redeemer but, thankfully, he already had a redeemer who was – even in that moment – working to redeem his life for him.
The same is true for us. We may be weak, but God is strong. We may be powerless, but God is powerful. God is, at all times, working to redeem us and our world, but he needs us to get out of his way and let him do his thing!
We have a great example of someone getting out of God’s way in order to let God do his thing in the Genesis scripture passage for today. Abraham and his family had lived in Haran for decades. Haran is what they know. They have built their lives there. Yet the Lord comes to Abraham and tells him to leave his country and his kindred and his father’s house and go to the land he will lead him to (Gn 12:1). God promises to make of Abraham a great nation, to bless him, and to make his name great (Gn 12:2). He even tells Abraham that all the families of the earth shall be blessed through Abraham (Gn 12:3)! It is quite a promise that God makes to Abraham!
But in order to get what has been promised, Abraham must give up all that he has known and journey into the unknown. God doesn’t even name the place to which he will lead Abraham.
Abraham must let go of his own goals and dreams – whatever they might have been – and follow God in faith and trust, not knowing where he is going or what it will be like. Abraham must risk all he knows on the unknown to which God is leading him.
Like Brian Grazer, Abraham embraces the risk. But, unlike Grazer, Abraham does so not trusting in himself but in God. Along the way, Abraham will be blessed, but so will all the families of the earth that are to come! God’s plans for us are not only about us; they are about all of God’s creation. He blesses each of us so that we may bless others. God’s blessings are meant to multiply and become all-inclusive.
As I contemplated the themes of risk and trust that are in this week’s scripture readings, I couldn’t help but think of the future of this church and the Christian church at large. As we have discussed many times, things have changed for mainline Protestant churches in America. The way such churches have “done church” isn’t as relevant to our culture as it once was. This is apparent in the declining numbers of people who attend church. Churches are wondering what the future will hold. Some are tired; some are afraid; some are stuck; some don’t know what to do next. They aren’t growing, and so they are dying, even though they haven’t consciously chosen to stop growing and die.
What we as the people who attend church and who love church must do in this environment is become willing to risk when God reveals His plans for us. We must become willing, like Abraham, to leave what we know and venture into the unknown with only God’s promise of blessing to fortify us as we follow him. And, like Nicodemus in the scripture passage from the Gospel According to John, we must be willing to question God when we don’t have the answers. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was telling him, but he kept asking questions so that he could understand. He didn’t give up or walk away; instead, he persisted! “But how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? . . . How can these things be (Jn 3:4, 9)?” Nicodemus was operating on the literal level, while Jesus was operating on the spiritual level, and so Nicodemus had trouble understanding what Jesus was telling him. But he didn’t give up. He kept at it! And he must have understood at some time in some way because later Nicodemus defended Jesus (Jn 7:50) and helped prepare his body for burial (Jn 19:39). We may not understand where God is leading us as the church, but if we persist, if we keep asking questions, we will understand at some point in some way. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Lk 11:9-10).
Anne Lamott writes about a sermon her pastor gave about getting direction from God. Anne’s pastor said that “when she prayers for direction, one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step. ‘We in our faith work,’ [pastor Veronica] said, ‘stumble along toward where were think we’re supposed to go, bumbling along, and here is what’s so amazing – we end up getting exactly where we’re supposed to be’.”
Regardless of what our plans and goals have been, we need to be willing to let go of them as we listen for direction from God. Like Nicodemus, we must be persistent until we understand what it is God is trying to tell us. And, like Abraham, we must let go of what we have known and move into the unknown with God once we have understood what it is God is asking us to do. Like Pastor Veronica, we have to leave our spot of illumination, that spot of light in which we feel safe, and leap to the next spot of light in faith.
It’s a beautiful process of faith, trust, and risk. We have faith in God, we trust God, and so we risk for God. We know that God sees us clearly, knows our strengths and weaknesses, and that he will use them to bless each one of us individually, this church corporately, and others we may not even know yet – as long as we trust him and follow where he leads.
I’m going to end this sermon with a fable. I may have shared it with you before, but I love it and it illustrates what I’ve been talking about so beautifully that I’m going to read it again. Here it is:
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole that he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other pot was perfect. The perfect pot always delivered a full pot of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master's house, but the pot that was cracked arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the water bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master's house. The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, but the poor pot that was cracked was ashamed of its imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the pot that was cracked spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the water bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master's house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your effort,” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master's house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt badly because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the water bearer for its failure. The water bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot's side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walked back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master's table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
God knows us, and he will use us to bless the world. All we need do is ask, listen, and leap. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, on Sunday, March 12, 2017, the Second Sunday in Lent.
Image is from http://www.lovethispic.com/uploaded_images/83347-Leap-Of-Faith.jpg
 “Disrupting My Comfort Zone.” This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1997, 90, 92.
 Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York, NY: Random House Inc., 2000, 84.