On That Pilgrim Journey
Synopsis: Abraham and Sarah’s way of living as sojourners in Canaan are our example of faithfully trusting in God. They embraced their pilgrim journey and therefore received God’s blessing while they, in turn, became a blessing to all people. This way of living on the land is at odds with the dominant ideologies of our world which yearn for settlement, security, and placement. It is a resurrection form of faith in our God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4: 17).
It was the summer of 1982. I and a group of my students from the Lumban Mennonite Bible School in the Philippines where hiking high up in the Cordillera mountains on the Island of Luzon. We were walking to a remote tribal village, to visit the home of one of our group. I was far from home, halfway around the world, about as far away as I could possibly get. All at once, seemingly out of nowhere, a low flying US military jet came screaming toward us. I ducked in panic as my companions laughed. This was apparently a fairly regular occurrence because the huge US Clark Airforce Base was not far away. I’ve never forgotten that.
Taking a mission assignment in the Philippines and living there for eight years was a pivotal life choice that has profoundly shaped who I am. Because of that, I still have extremely ambivalent feelings about our country’s overwhelming global military reach. I’m ambivalent about how it shapes our foreign relations and I’m equally ambivalent about how it sucks resources out of our local communities.
I thought I was in the Philippines as a follower of Jesus but, for many Filipinos, my American identity trumped everything else. Seeing my white skin, children in rural villages would run after me screaming, “Hi Joe!” hoping I might have a handout for them. To them every white man evoked memories of GI Joe and the long American military occupation and economic exploitation of their country.
Such American hegemony epitomizes a diametrically different way of being in the world than God’s call to Sarah and Abraham. They were called to live as sojourners in the land of Canaan without anyplace to call their own. God called them to be in the land but not to possess it. Their risky life of faith without any assurances would become the model for faithfully trusting in God. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls this a pivotal text in the Bible. The choice they made and the significance of choosing a less traveled road is exemplified by Robert Frost’s poem:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The story of God’s call to Abraham and Sarah begins with barrenness. The previous verses tell of their whole clan leaving the city of Ur of the Chaldeans to move to Canaan. Without any reason given, they instead settled in Haran. This part of the story includes the poignant footnote that Sarah was barren and had no child. After his father Terah dies, Abraham receives the call to move to Canaan. This is reminiscent of the biblical story of creation which begins with darkness and a formless void. God spoke into that void and our world emerged. Here again, God inexplicably speaks into a situation of barrenness. As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann explains:
The speech of God presumes nothing from [Abraham and Sarah] but carries in itself all that is necessary to begin a new people in history. The power of this summoning word is without analogy. It is a word about the future spoken to this family without any hope of a future.
Brueggemann notes God’s speech has its way over barrenness. It is at the same time a command, “Leave your home and go to a land I will show you” and a promise, “I will bless you and make you a blessing to all people.”
And so we dare say that this text is a paradigm for the resurrection. This resurrection is the calling of the barren one(s) to pilgrimage. The speech of this God brings people to a faithful response, people who heretofore had no capacity for any response.
Abraham and Sarah, living in tents as nomads and constantly moving their flocks in the semi-arid Negev region of Canaan, are our paradigm for living lightly and placing our trust in God. Their pastoral existence was actually a fairly big and sophisticated enterprise. They most likely herded hundreds of sheep and other animals. Even so, they never erected boundaries or claimed any place as their own. Wherever they were, they erected a rough stone altar and worshipped God.
It was a way of being in the world that’s much more akin to the way that Native Americans have understood and treated the land than to our way of carving the world into private property. Furthermore, we have divided our world into competing nation states jealously claiming, protecting, and fighting over territory. Fighter jets, as the one that frightened me so badly many years ago, are designed to engage in such battles and bomb entire cities into rubble. They’re the exact opposite of placing our trust in God as Sarah and Abraham did. In this respect the metaphor of being sojourners is absolutely radical.
Yes, I voted in our presidential primary on Tuesday. I voted for the candidate who I hope might inch our country just a little bit closer this radical way of life and trust in God. Yet, whoever becomes our next president will be the executive of the most powerful superpower in our world and that creates a huge disconnect. To trust in God as Abraham and Sarah did is to resist a world that violently claims territory and hegemony. In holding them up as our example of faithfulness, the apostle Paul told the church in Rome that the God of Abraham is the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17).
This is where I want to place my hope. I want to embrace the radical metaphor of being on a pilgrim journey that poses a direct “challenge to the dominant ideologies of our time which yearn for settlement, security, and placement.” We serve a God who claims no permanent home, who opposes the pharaohs of our world, and who is found with those who are not a people in order to create new life out of barrenness. As Walter Brueggemann explains:
To be on this [pilgrim] journey is to live in a way which makes the community despised, at odds with the world, and certainly not understood. The “Abrahamic minority” lives always as a threat against a world which has embraced barrenness and called it vitality.
I want to draw our attention to a seemingly inconsequential phrase in the story that we could easily overlook. It says, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” This raises the fundamental question of how we live in a pluralistic world, in the midst of people with different religious and cultural backgrounds. The promise of being given the land does not mean violently driving out the original inhabitants and setting ourselves up against all others.
Calling on the name of God encompasses all of life, committing us to be a blessing to all people. There’s no evidence that Abraham and Sarah were ever in conflict with the Canaanite people among whom they lived. They, however, resisted the temptation to be absorbed in Canaanite society in an easy conflation of God and country, which embraces barrenness while calling it vitality.
Here’s the question! How do we live in our world as a people of God who hold up and seek to follow the example of Sarah and Abraham? How do we live graciously among people with other religious and cultural backgrounds as we practice and believe the promises of God as Sarah and Abraham did?
This is the exciting challenge for us and our church here in Fairfax. I’d like to hear from us on this. How do we do this in our families, in our places of work, in our church fellowship, and in our community? What difference does it make in how we live, in how was share resources, how we express our faith, and how we invite others to join us.
Barrenness is the same-old, same-old debilitating stuff in a world of climbing over others to get what’ s mine. Vitality is embracing resurrection and a new way of life where we trust our God who, according to Paul, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” I never get tired of saying this. It’s about embracing Jesus’ way of peace—being a peace church where we live love, grow justice, and welcome everyone.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (St. Louis: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 117.
 Ibid., 122.
 Ibid., 123.