Go!

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Sean Lanigan on the Second Sunday of Lent.

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Does God speak to you? I mean really: does God speak to you? Have you ever audibly heard the voice of God?

I haven’t.

Now this might shock or dismay you. Because some people think that anyone who becomes a priest must have some sort of proclivity for mystical experiences, some tendency toward supernatural encounters, maybe even a direct line to the divine.

But I’m just not one of those people. I long for God. Quite insatiably. But I don’t always seem to get a lot of “return on investment.” I don’t have a pocketful of glamorous mystical experiences that I can parade for your admiration. I often struggle in my spiritual life. And I’ve always been aware that I need some sort of structure to contain my spiritual longings. I’ve always wanted a community where my longings could find a home. And I’ve always dreamed of a home where, by searching alongside others, the power of our collective longing might just help us catch a glimpse of that for which we yearn. That eventually we would see and hear God, just as our foremothers and forefathers did.

You see: when I read the Bible, I often wonder: why did so many of our ancestors so clearly hear God’s voice? And why don’t I seem to hear God’s voice in the same way? Is God quieter than God used to be? Or are modern people just worse at listening? Why does a direct experience of God’s presence feel so distant and so difficult for me, when the God we encounter in the pages of Scripture often seems so very present and palpable. It’s not like most of the characters in the Bible are even spending enormous amounts of time in prayer and meditation! But still, God shows up for them, quite regularly and quite demonstrably.

Now, I do wonder whether part of the problem is that, while God is certainly still speaking today, God just isn’t saying the things we want to hear. Maybe God doesn’t seem to be speaking because God’s speech doesn’t quite fit our expectations or our desires.

We can forget sometimes, of course, how radical God’s speech often was, and is. We can forget that God’s speech is very often disruptive and dislocating. We can forget that our God is always a God on the move, and that, at least according to the witness of Scripture, God seems to be very intent on getting US moving, too. So maybe we’re better off to be a bit hard of hearing?

You see: God’s first word to Abram and Sarai is GO. God doesn’t begin by proposing a travel plan. God first tells Abram and Sarai to GO and then fills in the details. And the details, such as they are, are pretty darn sketchy. God tells Abram and Sarai simply to go “to the land that I will show you.”

I don’t think many of us would be likely to take God up on such an offer. We’d want to get a lot more information before agreeing to any such trip. We’d want photos and reviews of our destination. We’d want to make sure we’d be put up in acceptable accommodations and fed acceptable cuisine. We’d have lots of questions about whether and how our needs would be met.

We’d have to really trust someone to blindly agree to embark on a trip whose destination we don’t yet know. And yet for some reason, a reason quite opaque to the modern mind, Abram and Sarai went forth, without much fuss or muss—Without a map. Without a travel guide. Without any real sense of security, other than God’s promise to bless them.

Somehow, somehow this promise must have been enough. Somehow it was enough to propel Abram and Sarai out of a place of relative comfort and stability and into what would become a harrowing migrant’s journey. For even when they’ve finally arrived in Canaan, they never quite belong. Abram and Sarai are always referred to, again and again in the course of the narrative, as “resident aliens.”

Now, this term might sound a bit strange to you. For many of us, it won’t sound politically correct. Progressive folks have worked to get the word “alien”—especially when conjoined with the adjective “illegal”—out of circulation. The term “illegal alien” certainly deserves to be purged because no human being can ever be “illegal” in God’s world. Many people of conscience have worked to make “undocumented immigrant” the more commonly used term. And this struggle with language exemplifies, I think, the difficulty that many of us have with the concept of migration. We simply have a hard time imagining the lives of people who feel that they must move across borders, far from home, with or without travel documents. And we have a hard time understanding because most of us have never had to just GO.

Maybe some of us have, though. Maybe some of us have had to leave somewhere in a hurry. Because we don’t fit in. Because our differences somehow threaten somebody and we can no longer be tolerated. Because some kind of hatred puts our lives in danger. Maybe some of us know what it means to have to GO.

But for most of us, being compelled to GO, having to become a stranger in a strange land, just hasn’t been part of our lived experience. We’ve mostly been able to land softly, in places that more-or-less accept us and understand us, in places where we’ve been able to relatively easily meet our needs for food and shelter and relationship.

And we think of all of this as normal. We think being comfortable is normal. And if the goal of life is to be comfortable, than one of the worst things God could do would be to tell us that we must relocate to a strange place to which we don’t really want to go.

Yet that is exactly what God does, isn’t it? …sends Abram and Sarai to places they probably really don’t want to go. Consigns them to live life as “resident aliens,” people who never quite belong. It all sounds kinda miserable, doesn’t it?

And yet, Jesus does it, too. It’s kind of a Biblical pattern. Jesus takes fisherman away from their fishing. And all aspiring followers of Jesus must leave their families behind. Dislocation is just part of the experience. And in both the Old and New Testaments, dislocation is conjoined with blessing as a package deal. They’re an awkward couple. And so we try to resist this pairing. Because dislocation is not what we want. We’re not quite sure how it’s spiritually productive. And it certainly isn’t logistically feasible for most of us.

Now, I hesitate to slide too easily or quickly into metaphor. Maybe God really is whispering GO into many of our ears, and we just aren’t hearing God’s voice. Maybe God is actually trying God’s darndest to dislocate us. Or…maybe God has said all that God needs to say about the value of dislocation through the witness of Scripture, and it’s now up to US to figure out how to dislocate ourselves. It’s up to us to voluntarily take up dislocation as a spiritual practice.

And perhaps dislocation doesn’t necessarily need to mean physically moving ourselves into a brand new place. Perhaps it could also mean committing to spending regular time in a neighborhood you don’t know very well among people with whom you are unfamiliar, and possibly even uncomfortable. Could mean spending enough time in this new neighborhood that you come to love your new neighbors and they come to love you. Enough time that you can become blessings to one another.

This, I think, is what a spirituality of dislocation is all about: It’s about entering into the discomfort of a new space or a new community. It’s about building new relationships in spite of the discomfort. And it’s about the way all kinds of new and wonderful things can happen as a result of embracing discomfort. For when you come to love new neighbors, especially neighbors in need, you transition from being a volunteer to being a friend; you transition from uni-directionally serving to the reciprocity of serving and being served.

When we serve as Christians, of course, it’s never really about the material good or service that we may be providing. It’s about connecting with another human being—perhaps one quite different than us—as a fellow child of God and a fellow citizen of God’s Kingdom.

And this is so important. We do not serve because other people are needy. We serve because we are ALL needy. Because we all need the kinds of relationships that only happen when we consent to becoming resident aliens—when we become people who are willing to put our bodies, hearts, and minds in places that are uncomfortable, in places that might not seem like they have much to offer, in places where human need is palpable and seemingly endless. Because even, and maybe especially, in these places—there is always something to receive, as well as something to give.

So we must Go. Maybe not as far or as uncomfortably as Abram and Sarai. But still, we must Go.

In the last year, St. Peter’s has started to Go—to go a little further afield, to places where we’re building more adventurous relationships.

Our new mobile food cupboard goes to the Feltonville neighborhood of North Philly or the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philly, every Saturday morning, serving mostly African-American and Latino neighbors. Each week, the mobile cupboard parks itself at Episcopal churches in these neighborhoods and shares food with over 50 families. And both sites offer hot meals on Saturdays, too, so there’s lots of opportunity for conversation and relationship.

St. Peter’s has also recently started going out to the southern edge of Queen Village, to 4th and Washington. Although this area has experienced a lot of gentrification, an area larger than 4 city blocks contains a Philadelphia Housing Authority community called Courtyard. Residents at Courtyard are mostly African-American. St. Peter’s parishioners are going to Courtyard every Wednesday afternoon to get to know the children in their afterschool program and to assist with homework and enrichment activities.

Even more recently, St. Peter’s has begun a relationship with a refugee family from Bhutan. Our family— a 58 year old mother and her 30 year old daughter—are living near Oregon Avenue in Southeast Philly. Although they lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for many years before arriving in Philadelphia this winter, they’re some of the warmest, most generous people I’ve ever met. They face many challenges as they adjust to life in Philadelphia, but they’re incredibly brave, strong, and resilient women, and they’re already navigating life here with enormous grace and humor. Currently, St. Peter’s parishioners are spending time with this family on Thursday and Sunday afternoons.

These are just a few opportunities—opportunities right here at St. Peter’s—to get yourself a little bit dislocated. Let me know if you want more information. Maybe you’re already dislocating yourself in other ways, too. I’d love to hear about that as well—please share your stories me!

The important thing is to get intentionally uncomfortable and to build unexpected relationships in the process. And then we need to start sharing our experiences of transformation with one another. Because even if we can’t always hear God speaking, we can surely hear one another. And sometimes, sometimes the voice of God comes in unexpected packaging.

So listen. And GO. And then come back to tell the story.

Amen.

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The Rev. Sean Lanigan

The Rev. Sean Lanigan is the Associate Rector of St. Peter's Church.

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