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    Into the Unknown

    Abram’s call to a new land; Lent 2 March 9, 2020
    Filed Under:
    Pr. Sebastian

    1.

    Our sermon text today is our first reading from Genesis, about Abram, 

    the first ancestor of Israel, who is called by God to settle in the land of Canaan.

    I chose this passage because it fits the theme of our town hall meeting 

    this morning.

     

    Now our reading starts very abruptly, so I want to give a little backstory.

    Just before Chapter 12, we hear about Abram’s father Terah,

    Who previously had settled in Haran

    a major ancient city in Upper Mesopotamia.

    Haran is in present day Turkey, near the Syrian border, 

    about 150 km from Aleppo.

     

    And then Terah, Abram’s father died, 

    And the old ways of living and knowing died with him.

    Now the Lord said to Abram (Abraham at this point is called Abram): 

    Go from this place you have known, leave your extended relatives, 

    your friends,

    And go to the land I will show you.

     

    God’s story is ongoing, 

    God’s story didn’t begin with Abram (Genesis has 11 chapters up until this point.)

    But God’s story with Abram is just now beginning.

    Prior to God’s call, none of Abram’s life is important, at least according to the writer of Genesis.

     

    And God just tells Abram: 

    I will show you the land.

    God doesn’t describe the land, doesn’t give any guarantees or assurances of the quality of the soil or the proximity to sources of water, 

    He doesn’t share the GPS coordinates!

    Abram doesn’t know anything about his new destination!

    All he receives is a promise of accompaniment.

    God will be there to show the way. 

    That’s it.

     

    It’s a real test of faith, that reflects perhaps on our experiences.

    God doesn’t give us a precise road map, with everything figured out! (although it would be nice)

    He just says I will show you, point the way.

    Of course we plan as best as we can, 

    Invest wisely, monitor expenditures, maintain adequate insurance, 

    Examine due diligence and so on,

    But at the end of the day,

    You gotta rely on God.

    2.

    And God continues with his little talk with Abram:

    he says

    I will bless you,

    I will make your name great so you will be a blessing.

     

    I think this really is the Church’s call too:

    We are blessed to be a blessing for others

    to pass it on

    we do this all, we got this all, not to keep it for ourselves, 

    but to share it.

    We are to pass on God’s blessing for others.

     

    There’s a personal blessing that leads to a universal blessing.

    We are blessed as a church, to be a blessing for the community.

    In St. Matthews all families of Kitchener shall be blessed. 

    We pass on the blessing by 

    Sharing God’s Love as a caring faith community.

     

    I wanted to give two local illustrations of Christian organizations who set out on a journey, listening to God’s promptings, with risks, 

    to a place they had no idea about, charting new territory, 

    to be a greater blessing for the whole community, 

    rather than keeping it all for themselves, 

    all the while moving towards greater sustainability.

     

     

    3.

    Back in June of last year, our Board retreat was held at the newly renovated Martin Luther University College 

    (previously known as the Seminary).

     

    When I first started the endorsement process for ordained ministry back in late 2004, I was warned by my mentor, 

    that the financial situation at the seminary was so bad, 

    that there was a chance that it might close before I was able to graduate.

     

    The Seminary at the time was very much stuck in a holding pattern from the past that was unsustainable.

    The basis of the seminary was still assuming the enrolment of the 60s, 

    of young men entering ordained ministry, 

    except … that was no longer the case. 

    There were only a handful of incoming Lutheran MDiv students, 

    most were older, with kids. 

    The Seminary was an insular, inward-focussed place, 

    with little connections to the rest of the university. 

    It looked back at the glory days of the 60s, 70s and 80s 

    with a pessimistic nostalgia.

    In the past it was self-sufficient, rich enough not needing any outside help, but those days were long gone.

     

    The leadership of the seminary realized a lot of changes needed to happen. 

    They needed to get their expenses under control.

    They needed to focus on what was working, and where the community need was, and that was pretty clear: 

    the excellent pastoral counselling department had to become the focus.

    Mental health needs in the community had been climbing, 

    and people felt the psychotherapy training with a spiritual background 

    was a good fit.

    Furthermore, the seminary began a re-orientation 

    to be more open to the community.

    They built bridges to the School of Music and the School of Social Work.

    They became more open to other faiths.

    They started offering courses which appealed to the 

    "spiritual but not religious” undergraduate student.

     

    One of the key changes that symbolized the paradigm shift

    occurred in the seminary chapel.

    First of all pews were unscrewed and made movable, 

    and then replaced with chairs.

    Walls were removed.

    The chapel moved from a fixed forward-facing arrangement 

    (suitable for training pastors for a traditional parish) 

    to an open and flexible space.

    The chapel can now be used for a variety of purposes, 

    like forthe KW community leader’s breakfast, 

    which I attended this past week.

     

    Additionally recent renovations over the past few years gave the entire building a facelift, making it one of the most attractive buildings on campus, with many undergrads now coming in during their free time to study and meet.

    The seminary transitioned from a building that few outside people ever ventured into, to a space that attracts the whole community.

     

    The result: 

    is the largest enrolment ever, financial sustainability, 

    and a new sense of vision. 

    The building is functional for the needs of the 21st century. 

    Windows are large and clear, enabling people to see in and out.

    The seminary is no longer a mighty fortress but a community hub, 

    with a multicultural, multi faith choir, art installations, an emerging faith community and many other projects.

     

    Lest this seem like an advertisement for Luther, 

    there was of course pain and loss on the journey. 

    The last 15 years were not a walk in the park, 

    and there was sustained criticism from a segment of the Synod 

    who didn’t agree with the changes.

     

    Radical change never is easy, but I think Luther now is a successful model for adapting to new realities, achieving financial balance and becoming relevant to the communuity,

    It is no longer an ivory tower and an escape from reality, 

    but a place to learn, grow and connect.

     

    4.

    I’d also like to reflect on the call to an unknown journey with our Lutheran siblings at St. Paul’s Bridgeport.

     

    Their story is like most churches in North America, 

    and here in Waterloo Region:

    They had built a new building (the third in their history), in 1957 for the needs of the 50s, but had declining numbers for the past decades.

    Blessed with a large property at the key intersection of Bridgeport and Lancaster,

    They engaged a long low-level process of investigation for 2 decades, 

    (of what could be done for the future) 

    that reached a more urgent and concrete level in the past two years.

    They finally realized that they didn’t need all the space, 

    and they couldn’t afford the status quo. 

    They needed to act.

     

     

    Late last yearthey made public the results:

    They had partnered with Menno Homes, a non-profit specializing in affordable and supportive housing to redevelop their property.

    They would tear down the existing church structure 

    and build a new building with affordable and supportive housing, including units for adults with developmental disabilities.

    The building would include a smaller, flexible sanctuary space for the use of the congregation.

    Addressing key needs of the community, they envisioned becoming a blessing for the neighborhood.

     

    Their decision would have been a big risk for any congregation, 

    to step out into the unknown like that.

    But they discerned that the status quo no longer was an option and they found a great partner with a strong vision to address a crucial need in the community.

    It took a lot of courage, but they, as well as other Lutheran churches, 

    like Trillium Lutheran in Waterloo, are now forging new paths forward, 

    which gives us some motivation, 

    that maybe we can investigate some big changes here too.

     

     

    5.

    When Abram was called, he was 75 years old,

    And perhaps, has it ever occurred to you (to those over 75)

    That life somehow starts at 75?

    Well, our leadership is envisioning a bit of a new start for St. Matthews at the age of 115,

    Or at least a more concrete level of exploration of what that new start, that new journey could be.

    So if Abram could start off on a journey at age 75, well he was was pretty young compared to St. Matthews at 115. 

    So maybe we still have some spring in our step, 

    and have enough energy to venture into the unknown.

     

    We are in a time where there are no fast and easy answers,

    And it’s OK to be apprehensive, to acknowledge that there can be doubts about our next steps, and maybe sorrow about what some of the changes might bring about.

    I’m sure Moses had some strong emotions and fears before setting out too.

     

    But we need to move from a pessimistic nostalgia 

    To a hopeful optimism, together, for the future,

    Based on the resources of the past and present.

     

    We need to stop our lament of “we were big once” and the pointless fixation on numbers of decades past, and of a Golden Era of the 50s and 60s that frankly wasn’t that amazing for everyone.

    We need to notice the amazing things God is doing here and now and dream exciting dreams of what the future may yet hold here at the corner of Church and Benton.

     

    6.

    In the months ahead, there may be doubt and sorrow,

    Loss and change,

    But we march!

    With expectation we sing, together

    With the light of God’s own presence leading the way

    Full of hope that our God will show us this new land. Amen.

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