The preacher William Sloane Coffin used to tell a story about Abraham. The story isn’t in the Bible, but “that’s okay” Sloane Coffin would say, “because I know it.” The story took place in Haran, where Abraham and his family have made a life for themselves, just after Abraham hears the call from God to go. Sloane Coffin liked to tell the story of the people of Haran trying to get Abraham to stay. The people of Haran protested Abraham leaving. He was a wise leader in Haran, trusted, his counsel was sought. Why was he headed off into the wilderness, especially at his age?
Abraham is 75 at the time, he’s made a life for himself. The call is ludicrous. Abraham is an old man. I know, 75 is the new 50, but the Bible wants us to know that Abraham is old. I have to tell you the image of this old man heading off from Haran, ignoring the good sense of his friends and family, to set off on an adventure captures my imagination. There’s a reason this guy becomes the patriarch of three great religious traditions. Abraham has guts.. Abraham also has an over-active imagination, the people of Haran would have whispered. Abraham had an over-active imagination, thank God.
Two of the most exciting weeks of my life were spent in Austin, Texas at the Seminary of the Southwest. It was my senior year of college, and I was gathered there with others who were about to be sent out as missionaries with the Episcopal Church. We had sessions on missionary theology, cultural competency and the like. The group that gathered was the best part of the gathering. I made some great friends. There were people from all over there church, but something about our demographics struck me. Everyone was either 30 or younger or 55 and older. People who have the time to spend a year or three serving with the Church in a foreign country were either at the beginning of their careers or were retired from their official careers. We had a lot of fun together. Something about bringing together the energy of 20 somethings with the experience of older folks makes for great conversations.
The first day of our missionary training we gathered in a comfortable room in the seminary and told the story of the call that had brought us to the room. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what anyone said, except a 60-something teacher named Sarah. It’s convenient her name was Sarah, since I’m preaching about Abraham, but it really was her name. Sarah gave me permission to tell her story. We were asked to describe how we heard God call us to serve in a foreign country. Sarah’s story began, “Well two things happened in quick succession in my life recently. I retired after 35 years of teaching public school, and I got a colonoscopy.” She had our attention. “The doctor said my colon was in great shape, and that I didn’t have to come back for 10 years, and I thought ‘I’ve got 10 years. I better do something with them.’” You really never know how God is going to speak. Sarah spent the next three years teaching English in a church school in China.
The leap between “you’ve got 10 years before your next colonoscopy” and teaching in China is a pretty big one. I’d say my friend Sarah’s leap was almost as big as Abraham’s, between a nice settled life with his barren but beloved wife and the nephew he has taken in as a son and “fathering many nations” while wandering out there with God. These are not easy leaps. They take a lot of faith, but they take more than that, they take imagination.
Imagination is much maligned in our society. We are a people who like hard facts. We like science and reason and proof. We like to be able to get our scientific minds around the tangible evidence. The people in Abraham’s Haran weren’t too different. In Abraham’s time the gods were made of clay. Literally, clay. The primary way of accessing the gods was by having little clay images to place in your home. Today, in the post Abraham world, we call them idols. But I can understand the impulse. It’s nice to think you can get your hands around God, get your mind around God. Indeed, a good number of Christians in our society think they do have their minds around and hands around God. They think they have God figured out.
Abraham saw things differently. For Abraham, to use the words of Paul Tillich, “there was a God out there beyond ‘god.’” The God that called Abraham out of Haran was not confined to some clay vessel, not tangible. I can imagine Abraham singing the old hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise. In Light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” Believing in that kind of God took a great imagination, and wasn’t easy. In this morning’s reading we find Abraham at his wit’s end. “Where are the offspring you promised Oh ineffable God?” So God takes him out under the dark desert sky. “Imagine Abraham. Your children will be like the stars.”
Ibn al Arabi, the great Muslim theologian and Sufi mystic says that the most important human organ for the spiritual life, is the imagination, the creative mind. We beat up on imagination in our society. We don’t like “imaginary stories,” but somehow we know we still need them. Somehow we know we still need them. We reserve a certain descriptor for really great leaders, for people who take our society to an entirely new place. I’m not talking about good middle managers, I’m talking about the real greats. The Steve Jobs and the Bill and Melinda Gates-es sometimes get the title, but it’s more often applied to even greater leaders, people who change the course of societies like Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King. We call these great leaders “Visionaries,” because its as if they were able to see the new world coming before the rest of us could. Well another way to describe these folks, I’d hazard, is to say they were able to “imagine the world they’d like to see.” They weren’t just imagining a better life for themselves, anyone can do that. The greatest kind of leader can imagine a better world, and set the world in motion toward the goal.
I began this sermon by telling you a William Sloane Coffin story about Abraham, but I didn’t tell you the punch line. Abraham is setting off to leave Haran, and his neighbors and friends gather to tell him they think he’s crazy. “Don’t leave. We need you here” they say. Abraham looks out at them and gives his answer. He says, “you don’t need me. No one is indispensable to anyone but God.” No one is indispensable to anyone but God. You may be the best middle manager at K-Mart, but you can be replaced. You may be a fantastic cook, but there are other cooks. You might be a wise counselor, but there are other counselors. There is a certain freedom in realizing that we are not indispensable at work, and its a kind of freedom we need here in Washington.
Because it sets us free to realize that we are indispensable to God. God needs us to have active imaginations. God does not want us tied down by the responsibilities of being good citizens and consumers in Haran, but ready for an adventure with God, ready to go out there and count the stars. So, what will you imagine?