God at departure; God on arrival

Carl Beresford Barkley, A.K.A. "Pop"

Carl Beresford Barkley, A.K.A. “Pop”

As all people do, biologically speaking, I had two grandfathers.  My paternal grandfather, as you may have read, was born and raised right here at Christ Church Cathedral.  His family have a storied history, and their heritage is inextricably linked with that of Texas.  My paternal grandfather died young, and I never knew him.  Someday, as we grow in relationship with one another, I’ll tell you the stories I know about him.  But not today.  Today I want to tell you something about my other grandfather, the one I did know, the one I and everyone else unfailingly called “Pop.”

Pop was not from Texas.  He was born and raised in Eastern Arkansas, in the Mississippi River delta, that river bottom region about which the nicest thing Mark Twain said is that the mud only comes up to the top of a man’s boots.  Specifically, Pop was from Cane Island, Arkansas, which holds the distinction of neither having any sugarcane nor being an island.  Even the little hamlet called Oil Trough, Arkansas once had an oil trough, so it’s a mystery how Cane Island got its name.

Pop’s real name was Carl Beresford Barkley.  (My first name comes from his last.)  “Beresford,” Pop’s middle name, may seem a little too sophisticated for someone from Cane Island, Arkansas.  The story goes that when my great-grandmother was pregnant she read a dime-store pulp fiction romance novel in which the dashing hero’s name was Beresford.  I’m not sure what that suggests about her hopes for her son, but there it is.

As a child, I loved visiting Pop.  I loved the things he could build with his two hands, the barbeque he could smoke, and the stories he could tell.  Some stories were pithy and short.  He was always partial to this one: “Algy met a bear.  The bear met Algy.  The bear was bulgy.  The bulge was Algy.”

Mark Twain on the Arkansas delta: "All the streets and lanes was just mud; they warn't nothing else BUT mud - mud as black as tar and nigh about a foot deep in some places, and two or three inches deep in ALL the places." (From Huckleberry Finn)

Mark Twain on the Arkansas delta: “All the streets and lanes was just mud; they warn’t nothing else BUT mud – mud as black as tar and nigh about a foot deep in some places, and two or three inches deep in ALL the places.” (From Huckleberry Finn)

Other stories Pop would tell about himself, and so it happened that one day I asked him, “Pop, what is the strangest thing that ever happened to you?”  He leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment, and then he told me this story:

“When I was a boy, round about 1920,” he said, “I stepped out the front door of my granny’s house to go home for dinner.  My granny was sitting in the rocking chair on her front porch, with a quilt tucked tightly around her legs.  She was old and withered and pained by severe arthritis.  She could barely move.  But she loved me, and she kissed me goodbye before I bounded off the porch, headed straight for home.  It didn’t take long to run from my granny’s house to my own, a few minutes at the most.  And when I arrived there, on my own front porch there she sat.  She’d beaten me there.  I don’t know how.  No one in Cane Island had a car.  I never knew.  I was too afraid to ask.  But there she was.  She’d been with me when I set out, and she was waiting for me when I arrived.”

The Genesis passage we read this morning is arguably the lynchpin of the entire biblical narrative.  St. Paul relies on this passage for the crux of his argument about law and faith in Galatians.  The great theologians St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth all lean heavily on this story as well.

Abram, who will soon be renamed Abraham, has already set out on the life’s journey to which God called him several chapters before.  There, God visited Abraham and told him to leave his home in the land of Ur and move to a new place with the promise of blessing.  God sees Abraham off the front porch, so to speak, and God sends him on his way.

Abraham then travels the road, and when he finally enters that Promised Land, he discovers that the same God who was with him when he set out is also there waiting for him when he arrives.  Abraham doesn’t know how this is so, and he doesn’t know what to make of the presence of this God who saw him off in Ur.  He fumbles to say the right things to God, but he’s too startled to make any real sense.  So God speaks, and God reiterates his promise to Abraham.

And then we arrive at the verse that so captivated St. Paul, the fourteen brief words that led Augustine and Luther and Barth to write tens of thousands of words in response.  These words: “And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

What does it mean, that Abraham believed?  That’s what the great theologians have pondered and argued about for thousands of years.  All they really agree upon is that everything about our relationship with God relies on this moment.  This is the moment in which Abraham’s faith is defined.  This is the moment when the ancestor of us all—the very founder of faith in God—gets it.  This is the moment when God looks at a broken and flawed man and nevertheless says, “I claim you as righteous.”

Abraham and GodBut what does it mean?  It’s easier to recognize what it does not mean.  Abraham’s faith—his belief—cannot be that he completely understands God, that he has all the right answers, which is, unfortunately, what is often meant by belief in our day.  Abraham’s fumbling questions make it clear that he doesn’t have all the right answers about God.  God and God’s purposes continue to be a mystery to him.

Neither can Abraham’s faith be about doing all the right things, about behaving and achieving in ways that result in God’s prosperity and favor, because both before and after this encounter with God, Abraham’s life is often a train wreck.  In fact, in the very next chapter of Genesis Abraham makes a huge mess of things.

And finally, Abraham’s faith cannot be understood as an absence of doubt.  Abraham does doubt, again and again and again throughout the Genesis narrative, both before and after today’s passage.

What, then, is Abraham’s faith that’s to serve as the model for our own?  If it’s not having all the right answers, if it’s not about doing all the right things, and if it’s not the absence of doubt, what’s left?

What’s left—what is the sum of Abraham’s faith in God—is that from this moment forward Abraham never forgets, and always seeks, the God who set him on his journey and who also awaits him upon his arrival.  Even when Abraham answers wrongly, even when he fails, even when he is riddled with doubt, Abraham always remembers that he travels God’s road, with God at its beginning, with God at its end, and with God met at rest stops all along the way.  God is Abraham’s source, his strength, and his goal.

That is Abraham’s God.  That is our God.  That is the God who sees us off the front porch and sets us on the path with the promise to bless us, as he blessed Abraham, but not for our own sakes; rather that we may be a blessing to those we encounter on our journey through God’s world.

It is not always an easy journey.  Even today, hot on the heels of his conversation with God, we are told that a “deep and terrifying darkness” descends upon Abraham.  And that is why true faith is so crucial.  When darkness and doubt and terror threaten us, by faith we remember that it is God who set us on our course, and it is God with whom and toward whom we travel.  And that’s where we find our strength.

I suspect I know how Pop’s grandmother arrived at his home before he did.  He was a boy.  The straight path between her house and his probably wasn’t so straight.  He likely wandered in the woods, became preoccupied with distractions, and even got lost a time or two.  The journey likely took a lot longer than he realized.  But when he finally arrived, the one who had set him off with a kiss was waiting for him in love.  And so it is with us and God.The Road

Beginning this Lenten season, we—you and I—walk God’s road together, and God beckons us forward.  My prayer is that we’ll have the courage to walk in faith.  Like Abraham, we’ll find ourselves startled and surprised to find God already waiting for us in unexpected places.  Along the way, we’ll also meet those who are in darkness and those who are in light.  We’ll meet those who think differently about God, and behave differently, and sometimes harbor desperate doubts.  In other words, we’ll meet people a lot like us.  We’ll welcome them, any and all who seek to walk with God.  We’ll love them, and we’ll love one another.  I am grateful to be your traveling companion. 

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The Hundredth Sheep

There is a scene in the film Legends of the Fall, in which Tristan Ludlow, a Montana rancher, rides out into big sky country to check the perimeter of his ranch.  As with every scene in the movie, which won the Academy Award for cinematography in 1994, the viewer is drawn into the magnificent and sublime visual imagery.  Vistas are broad, colors are stunning, and (Jill would add) the fact that Tristan Ludlow is played by Brad Pitt only adds to the sweeping canvas.  The mythos of Montana is captured, with its soaring big sky, and the viewer is very nearly drawn out of the everyday world.Legends of the fall

But in this scene, the viewer is dragged back to earth so quickly that the experience is wrenching.  Tristan Ludlow, checking on the perimeter of his ranch, comes upon a bleating young calf, completely tangled and bloodied in a mess of barbed wire.  The calf struggles to get free, but with each movement it draws the razor wire in on itself, increasing its entanglement and pain.  We don’t know how the calf became tangled.  Most likely it wandered from the herd, only to be chased by a wolf or some other predator.  The how doesn’t really matter.  The calf is lost.  It is trapped.  And with each attempt to pull itself free, it causes itself greater injury.

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To at least a very few of you—those with exceptionally good memories—this story is familiar.  It is the story with which I began my first sermon from this pulpit on September 16, 2007.  By my count, that was 280 Sundays ago, 1040 Sunday Eucharists ago.  By a measure of years, that’s not a lot of time, but by the measure of our shared lives together, it is season upon season.

I still recall with clarity my struggle to write that first sermon and to identify the illustration that would aptly capture both our human condition and the experience from which St. John’s Church was at that time emerging.  The Rev. Anne Hallmark has done remarkably faithful work as the interim rector of this place, but even so, there were many who came to see me in my initial days here, before I stood in this pulpit.  They shared stories of estrangement from this place or from their Christian brothers and sisters here.  They felt lost—like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, which was the Gospel text that day—but theirs was not a mere wandering in the woods.  It was constricting and suffocating; it was painful; it reminded me of Tristan Ludlow’s calf.

Trusting you’ll forgive me for straying from the lectionary, I appointed the Parable of the Lost Sheep as our Gospel text for today, as a bookend to our ministry together.  And so, Jesus asks, “Wouldn’t any of you,” Jesus asks, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you found it?”

I think we usually read this passage assuming the scribes and the Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking would have nodded in agreement with his proposition.  But that’s not so.  In an impoverished place like first century Palestine, a landowner with one hundred sheep was a rare, rare thing.  And there’s no way such a landowner would endanger 99% of his wealth in order to save the remaining 1%.  When Jesus asks his question, the response of the scribes and Pharisees is undoubtedly, “Are you crazy?  Leave ninety-nine sheep to save one lamb?  What kind of sense is that?”

Indeed, it makes no sense by the calculus of the world, so long as we imagine ourselves as the shepherd with ninety-nine well-tended sheep securely in their pen.  But then, we’re not the shepherd, are we?  That’s not where we’re to be found in this parable.  We’re not, most of us, the one with the neatly ordered life who has it so together that we scarcely need take notice when a single sheep goes astray.

barbed wireDespite outward appearances, we know in the deepest recesses of their hearts that there is no such thing as the neatly ordered life.  Those whose lives appear to be neatly put together—whether we’re talking about the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day or Episcopalians in our own—are often those who, just beneath the surface, feel hurt and tangled up spiritually and emotionally, like that hundredth lost sheep, or that calf caught in barbed wire.

Jesus knows this, too, because he, like all the rest of us, experienced it.  As a youth, he struggled with parents with whose expectations for him he disagreed.  As an adult after his baptism, he was tormented and tempted in the wilderness by the Devil himself.  And later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was so pained at the thought of the coming cross that he sweated drops like blood.

Jesus has been, in his own way, that hundredth sheep.  He may not have sinned, but he surely knows what it feels like to be starkly, desperately alone.  He knows what it feels like for cords of death to wrap ever more tightly around him.  He knows what it feels like to hang on the cross and pray to God for deliverance.  And because of this, he knows that there is nothing more important in the life of faith than seeking out the lost sheep and bringing it home.  This is what he does for us, because he is also the shepherd, and this is what he calls us to do for one another, because we are his Church.

In Legends of the Fall, Tristan Ludlow rides upon the calf caught in the barbed wire.  Indeed it is, by the world’s calculus, an insignificant thing: one small calf among hundreds of head of cattle.  It would be easy to draw away and pass the calf by.  But Tristan leaps from his horse without hesitation and struggles with all his strength to loosen the cords that cut and strangle this frightened and hurting animal.  What makes the difference?  Why does Tristan value this single and seemingly doomed creature?

Those who have seen the Legends of the Fall know that, though Brad Pitt may be beautiful, Tristan is utterly human.  He has suffered incredible pain and loss in his life.  In other words, he knows what it is to be pursued by wolves, to be constricted with razor wire that draws in upon him at every movement.  He knows what it is, and so in a moment of his strength he responds, seeking to be a blessing to one in desperate need.

When we experience circumstances in life that affect us like emotional or spiritual barbed wire and every attempt to struggle free only brings more pain, Jesus seeks to find us and bring us home.  And when we are strong, Jesus makes shepherds of us and commissions us to become the bearers of grace to the lost sheep.Good Shepherd icon

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I said most of these things in anticipation and hope five and a half years ago.  280 Sundays ago, I claimed that Jesus’ faith, and the faith to which he calls us, is the faith that is drawn to the lost sheep and the tangled calf.  And friends, we have been faithful.

We have shared God’s grace with one another in these walls, especially when those among us felt lost and alone and experienced the barbed wire of life entangling us.  We have ridden out to the perimeter of our community to seek those who were lost there, too, just as Tristan Ludlow rode to the very edge of his ranch.  We didn’t ride alone.  Jesus himself went with us, because he knows what it is to be lost and alone, just as he knows what it is to be strong.  And though I’m headed to different ranches (populated by longhorns), Jesus still goes with you.  He goes with you.  Continue to be the Church that seeks the hundredth sheep.  Be the Church that untangles the barbed wire of life.  Because Jesus seeks you when you are lost, seek and find one another.  And when you do, rejoice.  Amen.