Learning to Love – 10/9/11 – Genesis 13, Matthew 4:23-25

I want to talk about relationship with one’s place and people, and the main point I would like to make is that we won’t save what we don’t love, we can’t love what we don’t know, and we’ll never know without spending time with a place or with people.  Or, to put it in positive form: In order to save we must love, in order to love we must know, and in order to know we must give our time.  Put simply, we save what we love and we are ourselves saved by love.

“Save” might be a tricky operative word here, but I mean it in the full theological sense, referring to salvation.  Salvation is the gift of holistic and all-inclusive well-being of body, mind, and spirit.  Shalom.  Peace.  Wholeness.  Salvation.  We work for the holistic well-being of what we love.

In Christian and biblical understanding, our work in salvation is always a reaction, a response to the gift of salvation that God has already worked among us.  God is the primary actor in the work of salvation and we are coworkers, drawn into the work because of this gift of love that we have received.  We see this gift throughout all of scripture with God taking initiative in calling a new world into being.  God calls Abraham and Sara out of the empires of the east and a new family is created.  God calls the Hebrew slaves out of their bondage in Egypt and a new nation comes into being. Jesus acts as God’s agent and calls people of all walks of life to follow him in living out the love of God as a new humanity – the kingdom of God.  In Genesis, even the creation of the world itself, the ancient dance of energy and molecules and life forms, is seen as a response to the initiative of God, who lovingly speaks creation into being.

The good news of the salvation story is that all you have to do to be “in” is recognize that you’re already in, surrounded by it, breathing it in every minute.  There’s nothing we can do about it.  It’s grace.  The more challenging news of the good news is that once you realize you’re in, you get enrolled in the project.  You become an agent of Love seeking to express itself in the world.  You sign over your personal rights and ambitions to the work of love.  Or, put another way, you watch as your personal ambitions, your distinctive gifts, the unique creation that you are, gets refined to become a more perfect expression of love.  This is our baptismal identity.

If we save what we love, we love what we know, and we know what we give our time to, then it seems like the real call is to fall in love.  Your call, my call, our call as a congregation, is to fall in love and to let that love take us wherever it would, which, as Jesus taught Nicodemus, can be unpredictable.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).  And to grow in love, we have to know what/who we love, which takes time, and careful attention.   The whole thing comes at us in reverse.  First we give our time, then we come to know, we grow in love, and, as we love, we help save.

These three weeks we are looking at the Abraham and Sara stories as a guide and I want to focus on one aspect of one story and a very simple act that puts into motion this reverse progression.  The simple yet profound act of Abraham is walking and it provides a rich picture of how we learn to love.

From their very first introduction, Abraham and Sara, or, Abram and Sarai before they get their names changed, are a couple on the move.  No doubt much of that movement involved walking.  “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1)  There’s the divine initiative.  The text is about as brief as it could be in giving their response.  “So Abram went.”  There’s the reaction, the first step of participation in the love project, a first step being all that is required to get them a lifetime membership in said project.

They make the trek from the emerging city states of ancient Sumer into the unknown land of Canaan, but as soon as they get there they encounter problems.  Verse 10 notes, “Now there was a famine in the land.  So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.”

Welcome to your calling.  As soon as you arrive there is a famine and you’ve got to leave to survive.  More walking.  More journey.  Down to Egypt.  But the famine ends, and they walk their way back.  Genesis 13:1: “So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb,” which is that southern region of modern day Israel/Palestine.  They keep traveling north and eventually make it up to Bethel, a place they had been before.

Abram and his nephew Lot, who has been traveling with him this whole time, both have great wealth of sheep and workers, and it’s soon clear that this land isn’t big enough for the two of them.  And so they must decide who is going to live in what parts of the land.

It’s probably not entirely fair to Lot to say that he made the wrong choice, but the way he goes about making his choice presents a nice contrast to the way Abram comes to live on the land that he is given.  As the story goes, Abram gives Lot first choice of the land.  Lot looks around him, scopes out the greenest, best watered pastures, and takes his family and flocks in that direction.  Easy choice, good for him.  So Abram is stuck with what’s left: the land, we can assume, that is not as green and not as well watered.  This is the land where he will begin to give his time.  That he will come to know.

After the land dispute is settled, and Lot heads on his way, we hear again from the Lord, speaking again to Abram.  “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are (and then skipping a bit)…Rise up, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”  Another call to walk, only this time it feels like a very different sort of walking that Abram will be doing.  There is the kind of walking for travel, going from Ur and Haran into Canaan.  There is the kind of walking for survival, going from Canaan into Egypt to escape the famine and get food.  Both of these kinds of walking are easily replaced in our day with jumping on a plane or getting in the car and speeding off to wherever we may need to go.  But this next kind of walking is different.  There is no destination in mind.  There’s no stockpile of grain at the end of the journey that the family needs for food.  It is a kind of walking that can’t be replaced with any kind of technology, can’t be rushed.  Abram is invited to start to spend time, and thus to start to know this land that he is being given.  To walk the length, and the breadth of the land.  And when he knows it, he will have the chance to love it, and to participate in the salvation project.

I can imagine Jesus having the same kind of experience as he walked through the villages and countryside of Galilee, the length and breadth of the land, encountering the geography and the people of his place.  Falling in love.

Helen Caldicott has written: “It is clear to me that unless we connect directly with the Earth, we will not have the faintest clue why we should save it…The only cure is love.”  (Helen Caldicott  If You Love This Planet).

This week I had a couple conversations with CMF people about some walking experiences that they have had.

Did you know that in 1988 Ed Diller walked – walked! – from Cincinnati to Toledo?  And not because he lost a bet or anything like that.  This came up in conversation a couple weeks ago when a small group of us was talking after church about Native Americans.  Ed mentioned back then he had been reading about the life of Tecumseh, how Tecumseh had spent time in Florida and Missouri, and this area, and Ed wanted to know what it was like to walk a long distance.  So that summer, he went on this walk up the entire western side of Ohio, seeing things, and knowing things in a way that one cannot know by going 75 up 75.  That is the speed limit, isn’t it?  Ask him about the experience.

Most years Steve Rodenberg hikes part of the Appalachian Trail.  He says he walks, listens as he walks, and takes note of what he is seeing.  He says that there is a story in every tree and he knows enough to be able to see some of that story just by looking at it.  He has been on the trail for enough years and remembers enough of what he’s seen that he can track the life cycle of the forest around him and see how specific trees are fairing as the years go on.

Three weeks ago I had the final portion of my Sabbatical by going on a week long tree course at the Arc of Appalachia in South central Ohio.  We spent much of the week outside, in the forest, walking the paths and learning the names and personalities of the trees around us under the fabulous instruction of Nancy Stranahan.  During our first day there, we were asked to introduced ourselves to each other and talk about some of the reasons we were there; and as others started talking it became clear to me that the reason I was there to fall in love with these things, these trees, that, for whatever reason, I had not yet learned to love.  It helps, by the way, to fall in love when you are surrounded by people on that same mission.  And it does take time, and, as Nancy taught us, you have to know more than just a name.  A name is important, but knowing the life behind the name and seeing how it is connected to our life is how we start to learn to love.  So we spent the week walking, slowly, through the forest, and slowly, these trees that have always been surrounding me my whole life started revealing their loveliness.

For the last 13 years our congregation has come to call this Oakley neighborhood home, and over this time we have come to know many of its people and its personality.  It takes time, and careful attention, but we are coming to know it, it is coming to know us, and we are growing to love it.  I don’t know about ‘saving Oakley,’ but I can say with some confidence that we are a significant part of the overall well-being of the neighborhood, and that the more we love, the greater the light of our presence.

One of the joys of congregational life is that we bring so many different loves to our gathering, and we get to learn from one another, be taught by one another how to better love things we have not yet learned to love.  I think of Keith Lehman and his love for language, Rod and Mary Stucky’s love of music, Jennifer Jorgenson, Jane Patty, and Rachel Smith’s love for vulnerable children, Jim Miller’s love for just about everything he can find to read and do.  The love of the children for play and learning.  The way the whole congregation works together around the time of Mennonite Arts Weekend to share in the love of the arts.

One of the pieces of wisdom that I’ll remember from the tree course was Nancy’s belief that the only way to really preserve the forest was that each person had to pick a plot of land and care for it.  It’s too much for any one person or organization to do, but each person has the ability to care for a plot, wherever that space might be.  And this seems to apply not only to the forest, but to whatever place has been given us to love.

I mentioned last week that these three sermons will be about the big picture.  That is more true of last week and next week.  This is about the small picture, that part of the big picture we’re be given.  Where we are, which is, inherently, a limited amount of space.

And loving the place where we are, or the unique gifts we’ve been given, may be one of most difficult things to do in life.  The way the Abraham and Lot story deals with this is by reversing that kind of mentality that holds that the grass is always greener on the other side.  Because in the story, the grass actually is greener on the other side.  Lot gets the green side, and Abraham gets the not-as-green side.  But its Abraham who receives the instruction to walk all around his portion of the land, to notice and know and love it, and to watch it become the place where the story of salvation takes place.  This is the place he’s been given.

So I’m extending an invitation to fall in love.  Walk, sing, write, talk, study, meditate your way into love.  It’s a process that takes time, and potentially some pretty hard work, but it’s exactly what our world needs.  It’s exactly what God is inviting us into.