Several years ago, I was interviewing for a new position, to be rector of the church in San Jose where, indeed, I was called. While Jim and I were visiting there, a vestry member loaned us his car, which had one of those onboard navigational systems that talked to you. After dinner and the interview with the vestry, Jim and I got in the car to drive back to our hotel. ‘Well, what did you think? ‘we nervously asked each other. ‘What do you think we should do if they call me?’ Just then, the car’s navigator piped up and stated firmly, ‘Stay on the road, and await further instructions.’ That became our motto for some while afterward – it felt like God’s operating principle with us. You aren’t sure what to do, you’re anxious and freaking out, and truly I say unto you, Stay on the road. I’ll let you know more when you need to know it.
Those words are coming back to me loud and clear this week. Every conversation I’ve had in the past several days has circled around to the coronavirus. What should we do? What’s going to happen? With staff and parishioners here, with clergy colleagues elsewhere, with family and friends in western Washington, with Jim and the kids at home – we nervously run through all the news headlines with each other, like rosary beads of the information we have, trying to ignore all the information we don’t have. Should we take this trip for spring break or should we stay home? Should we exchange the Peace, or not? Will we have church next Sunday? Will anyone we know get sick? Will we get sick? Do we have enough pasta? (What is it with the pasta stockpiling? Have you looked at the pasta shelves in the stores lately? When the going gets tough, America wants carbs.)
And through it all, God simply says, Stay on the road, and await further instructions. I am with you, even now.
It’s something like what God tells Abraham. In the very short Genesis reading we had today is the beginning of a whole new relationship between God and people. God calls Abram, picks him out of all the people in the world, and asks him to go, to leave everything he knows and all those who have known him, and to move to a whole new land. Not so that life will be better for him and his family, necessarily – but to move so that he and his descendants can become a blessing for the whole world. God doesn’t give any assurances or guarantees, just says, go. And Abram and his wife Sarai go, without a word, into the unknown.
But a few verses further after what we heard today we get a little more sense of their feelings about this. They travel on to Canaan, and God appears to them again to say, this is the land I will give to you. So they build an altar there. Then they travel further on to Bethel and stay there a bit. And they build an altar there. And then they keep going, traveling on to Egypt and beyond in search of a place to stay. Building altars all the way.
Some say that those altars are all signs of Abraham’s great faith. But I think that those altars are a little more like testaments to his uncertainty. The altars form a kind of lifeline for Abram and Sarai, their trail of crumbs as they head off on the road. God said a few cryptic words, and now they’re off in the wilderness, away from everything and everybody they knew. And they wonder: Is the god who spoke to us back home still with us? Let’s build an altar to him and make sure he is. And so they do. And then they travel further on. Is he still here? Let’s build another altar and make sure. Every altar is a way of tying their god to themselves, like building a space station before voyaging further out – making sure that local god of home is still there, that they can still count on him, that the anxiety and fear that are gripping them at night can be let go for a time during the day. And only gradually do they begin to realize, after several more encounters with God inviting them to look at the enormity of the land before them, the vast number of the stars above them, that God is everywhere. Not local to a particular place or set of people, to what they had always known and understood, to their set of facts nailed down – but greater than everything and everywhere. The Spirit blows where it will, beyond anything they can tie down and understand.
Thousands of years later, there is Nicodemus the Pharisee, stealthily visiting Jesus under cover of darkness. In his night of uncertainty, he comes looking for clarity. Hey, psst, Jesus! I know – we know – that you’re from God, because we’ve seen the evidence. These signs Jesus has done prove that he must be real. Nicodemus isn’t entirely sure, but he’s pretty sure, that Jesus is it – and if Jesus could just prove it just a little further, do a sure sign or two, they could anoint him Messiah, build him an altar, and get everyone on board with who he is.
But Jesus doesn’t applaud Nicodemus for his faith – you saw the signs and figured me out, well done! Instead he sort of rebukes him: you can’t see all there is to see, the kingdom of God, until you’re born of the Spirit. Move away from what you can prove and understand and hold onto. That is what faith really is – stepping into the unknown. The Spirit blows where it will, through you and around you. Stop trying to build altars, Nicodemus, and let go.
Nicodemus is mystified. And no wonder. He is only doing what Abram did, what anyone does in trying to comprehend the vast mystery of God and the world. He’s starting with what he can observe and verify, setting up a marker in a journey that can feel a lot like just wandering around. Everything is uncertain. At night, lying awake in the dark, he’s fearful. He wants a touchstone, a cairn that will stand and show the way. Something that says, I may not know where I am going, but I at least know where I am right now – and I’ve built a pile of rocks to show it.
If you’ve ever tried to follow a trail in the wilderness, you know the value of those piles of rocks. In the East they paint colored blazes on the trees – follow the blue marks and you won’t get lost. In the West, and up above treeline, they put piles of rocks, cairns, that mark the path. You find the blaze or the cairn and you’re reassured that you’re on the trail. For that moment you feel safe: you’re not lost after all! And then you stand still and peer off into the distance, trying to determine where the next one is, which way you’re supposed to move. And sometimes you can’t quite tell where the next one is – it’s lost in the mist, or it’s getting dark, or there are too many trees in the way, and the panic starts to rise. But move you must, even when you aren’t certain – you’re not out there just to stand still, the sun is going down and you’ve got to get to camp. The cairns are important. But they’re not meant as places to stay at. Sometimes we try to stay at our cairn altars far too long– long past when those altars have crumbled and lost all meaning. Long past any reassurance has gone. We have to step out again to keep going on the journey.
Stay on the road, and await further instructions. We don’t know what’s going to happen with this virus. We don’t know what will happen with the presidential election. We don’t know what will happen at lunch today. We never did. It is easy to give in to the anxiety and fear, to worry over the beads of information we have, fearful of what else there might be that we don’t know. Fearful of where the road may lead. It’s life in the world today. It’s life as it has always been. It’s what the life of faith calls us out of.
The assurance that’s bigger than any altar we can build is that God is with us throughout. Whether seen or unseen, bidden or not bidden, God is here. It’s not a false hope, a veneer of optimism when times get bad. It’s deeper than that, this promise: that even if things get bad, when they get bad, God will still be here. As my mom likes to say, quoting Madeline L’Engle: God won’t keep you from having car trouble, but he’ll sit with you in the snowbank. God is here for the long haul.
As we live this journey – this pilgrimage of Lent, this larger journey of faith – we have to let go and step out. Know where our touchstones are, yes; understand our path and our journey thus far, definitely; but move forward nonetheless. Moving forward into the unknown and the wilderness, but moving forward too into a place where we know already the Spirit also is. There is no place we can go apart from God’s Spirit. There is no place where God is not. There is no place, therefore, where we should be afraid. God is here.