Sunday March 8, 2020

2nd Sunday in Lent - 2020a

Old Testament - Genesis 4:1-5, 13-17

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Faith Beyond The Pale

INTRODUCTION: Like a lot of sayings, the modern day usage of “beyond the pale” has morphed a bit from its original meaning.


Today, of course, the saying is usually uttered when someone says or does something that is considered indecent or highly inappropriate. “Well, that was certainly beyond the pale!” we might hear exclaimed after an off-color remark, or some crude gesture.


Get my brother and me together and behavior that is “beyond the pale” is likely to follow. We have a kind of synergy that mystifies the rest of the family. And it is a synergy, I will confess, that often lacks good taste and etiquette. We frequently, I admit, say and do things that are “beyond the pale.”


Originally, though, to be beyond the pale actually had to do with areas enclosed by a fence. You see, a pale, years ago, was also a stake or a pointed piece of wood that was used when making a fence. Today remnants of the word can be found in the word impale - as to impale Dracula with a stake.


So years ago, a paling fence was an area enclosed by stakes meant to provide safety and protection. So to go beyond the pale, originally, was to be outside an area considered safe or even home.           


In a sad lyrical poem from the 1600s, a character named Ortheris withdraws with his beloved to a country lodge for “quiet, calm, and ease.” One day, however, they venture too far from their lodge, or as the poem puts it: “Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-walk.” And while beyond the region of safety, the two are attacked and killed by armed men.


The poem is pretty direct when later relating the moral of the story. In short, if there is a pale, decent people stay inside it. So the modern usage of the saying isn’t that far removed from the original meaning. Good people, more or less, stay within the pale. 


Of course, if staying in the pale, if staying close to home and playing it safe, makes for a decent person, then Abram wasn’t a very good one, was he? After all, Abram seems more than willing to go beyond the pale when it comes to leaving the safety and protection of home.


There’s Abram, minding his own business, only to have God show up one afternoon and say, “Abram, go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you….”


And strangely, after that, God doesn’t say much more. Abram isn’t given an itinerary detailing the plan or showing him how God will actually get him from point A to point B. All Abram has to go on is a few short words from God telling him to pack up all his belongings and to start walking.  


And keep in mind, Abram is no spring chicken! According to our reading, he is 75 years old when he decides to head out with Sarai and Lot. There he is, well into those “golden years”, heading off from Haran with all his belongings to some unknown land that God has promised to show him.   


Talk about leaving a settled and safe life! Sure, Abram’s got achy knees, poor hearing, and is having to take blood pressure medicine, but there are a whole lot of other worries he also doesn’t have to deal with anymore. That check from his IRA is rolling in monthly and he paid that mortgage off years ago.


Why, he doesn’t even have to worry about kids and what might happen to them when he is finally gone, because he and Sarai realized long ago offspring apparently weren’t in the cards for them. Later, of course, God will change all that.


So talk about a faith beyond the pale! For at 75 years of age, the last thing Abram seems interested in doing is playing it safe. “Both dove-like” Abram and Sarai saunter forth beyond the pale into who knows what kind of future. Hardly a well-thought-out plan, right?


No wonder many scholars consider our passage from Genesis this morning to be one of the most important moments in all the Bible.


Yes, the passage is short and it lacks a kind of literary richness. But it’s also a passage loaded with meaning, despite its terseness. For if Abram had decided to simply sit tight in Haran, the biblical story as a whole would have just trailed off into deadend.


If Abram had decided to take a pass on God’s invitation, the entire story would have come to a screeching halt. The biblical story, in essence, would have ended right there. Instead of a big, thick Bible with, in some cases, several thousand pages depending on the version being used, we’d have nothing but a short story that ends rather flatly. “And Abram decided to remain in Haran.” Period. End of story.


Abram’s decision to leave Haran, in other words, is a kind of literary lynchpin. For everything that follows in the Bible, including the New Testament, is dependent upon that decision by Abram to have a faith that is beyond the pale. Rather than play it safe, Abram throws caution to the wind and heads off into an unknown future.


Frederick Buechener’s famous definition of faith, no doubt, is based largely on the story of Abram and decision to leave Haran. For when Buechener gets around to defining faith, he does so this way: “Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.” And that, of course, is just what Abram does. He goes without having any idea where he is actually going. 


No wonder Paul, then, in Romans can prattle on about Abram being considered righteous, not because of his works or his deeds, but rather because of his faith. “Abraham believed God,” Paul says while quoting from Genesis, “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 


So Abram’s decision to take God up on his invitation and leave Haran, while a short passage, is a hugely important one. For without his decision to go, nothing else in the biblical story would have followed.


Of course, even now Abram is still a good model of faith for us to ponder, right?


For it’s just human nature, more often than not, to be cautious and reserved - especially when it comes to things like faith and religion. What’s that old line about the seven last words of the church many of you have probably heard before? “We’ve never done it this way before,” people are frequently known to lament. “We’ve never done it this way before.”


But Abram? Well, he was unable to hear such talk because he was already 4 miles out of town before people even started their muttering. Because for him, faith was something to be lived into every single day. It was to be on a journey without a map, trusting that somewhere along the way he would actually find the way.             


In Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, which is about the space program in the United States during the 1950s and 60s, test pilots liked to talk about “pushing the outside of the envelope.” Now by envelope, we don’t mean the white things you drop in the mail.


Apparently, in aviation, the term “flight envelope,” among other things, refers to a plane’s capabilities for safe flight. Every plane has some set parameters for things like speed, altitude, turning ability, engine power, etc. for flying. Stay within the plane’s designed capabilities, in other words, and one could expect to fly safely.  


But test pilots in the space program, according to Wolfe, intentionally sought to “push the outside of the envelope” in hopes of making advancements in flight. In a risky and bold move, they would take planes past their designed limits to see what could be learned about flying in increasingly faster and higher environs. Of course, Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier, is perhaps one of most famous examples of such bravery.  


Well, what a great way to think about faith, right? For faith, at its best, is also about being brave and daring.


CONCLUSION: Well, some passages from the Bible can be tricky. Not because they are overly complicated or confusing. No. They can be tricky because of their simplicity and brevity.  


And surely Abram’s story of faith is one of them. For while short and succinct, it is still loaded with meaning. For without Abram’s brave decision to take God up on his invitation, the biblical story would have been a very short one with a rather sad and boring ending: “And Abram decided to remain in Haran.” Period. The end.


And yet, even though he had no idea where he was going, Abram, in faith, went. Trusting that along the way he would, well, eventually find the way, Abram just started walking. Talk about a faith beyond the pale. 


And now blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.