A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
May 21, 2017
There are more “thank yous” than I could possibly express today, but I am so, so grateful for the love with which you have surrounded my family and me in these days, for the tears and laughter we have been able to share together. More than that, I am profoundly grateful to God for granting me the privilege of serving among you these last twenty-six years – for all the lessons you have taught me about kindness and compassion, about generosity and stewardship, about faithfulness in the midst of uncertain times, about speaking truth to power.
And now we come to yet another juncture in the journey. On my first Sunday in this pulpit, August 18, 1991, I quoted Julian Jaynes, who wrote of that “awkward moment at the top of a Ferris wheel, when having come up the inside curvature, where we are facing a firm structure of confident girders, suddenly that structure disappears, and we are thrust out into the sky, for that outward curve down.” That is sort of the feeling this day brings, as retirement beckons, but I am so deeply indebted to you for constructing such a firm structure of confident girders of faith and faithfulness, that now I feel your support, your love, and the strong witness of your faith, and find the confidence to take the next steps toward that outward curve. I hope you will find the same confidence, for this church is well-positioned and firmly structured for moving from strength to strength in the months and years ahead.
I told the congregation that first Sunday so many years ago that I would ask a lot of you, but would never ask more of you than I was willing to give myself. This day I have one last request, and one last promise. In the months and years ahead, I ask you to lend your strong support to the staff and officers of this church, including both the leaders who remain with you and the new leaders who will come; and I promise to keep them and you in my prayers … and in my heart.
Enough now with this interruption. Let us turn to a more lasting word from the One who knows us, each one, by heart. It will seem like a strange text for this day, but bear with me. Hear these words from the Book of Genesis:
Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. She was the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.
31Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.
There are parts of the Bible that we skip over when we read, are there not? The laws in Leviticus, for example…one can get bogged down there. The details of the conflicts in the Book of Kings can seem tedious. Some of the lamentations get a bit long. And then, of course, there are the genealogies, with all their names that are difficult to pronounce and all the people who lived to incredible ages. Genealogies seem primarily the province of historical and literary scholars, hardly the stuff of morning or bedtime devotions. The tendency for most of us is to skip or gloss over the details of these family trees and get on to more interesting narratives.
If we were to ask folks who know the Bible, for example, where the story of Abraham and Sarah begins in the Book of Genesis, most would say chapter 12. And they would be almost right. Almost, I say, because back in the closing verses of chapter 11, hidden in all that genealogical data, is a reference to ol’ Abraham and Sarah. Abram and Sarai, they were called then. The story tells of Abram’s father, Terah, and how he and his family set off for the land of Canaan, which came to be known later as the Promised Land. They set off from the prosperous but pagan city of Ur near what is now known as Basra in modern Iraq, and headed for the land of promise.
The problem was that between the starting point and the finish line of that journey there stood a great desert (the Syrian desert, we call it now), and so the journey to Canaan had to be made along a northern circumferential route, along the Euphrates River, up into modern-day Turkey. To give you some perspective in terms of miles, the journey itself was equivalent to a trip from Chapel Hill to Memphis by way of, say, Cleveland. A good hike, to say the least.
Now, the writer of Genesis seems more interested in genealogy than geography and doesn’t provide any details of the trip. There’s only one verse of description. But interestingly, Terah and family don’t make it all the way to Canaan. Genesis says, “…but when they came to Haran, they settled there.” (Gen. 11:31) Haran was Cleveland…without the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or the orchestra, or the art museum, or Lebron James. Anyway, Terah’s family made it about six hundred miles, but still had another seven hundred miles to go. When they came to Haran, they settled there. The civilization in Haran was probably a bit more advanced, and the circumstances a bit more comfortable, perhaps. But Haran was only halfway to the land of promise. Terah, Abram’s father, died in Haran and never made it to Canaan. He stopped short.
That simple story got me to wondering if that’s not something many people do, maybe many of us, much of the time. It seems to me people are forever stopping in the land of Haran, before they get where they’re going. Haran is a tempting place, after all. It is a place of rest after a lengthy journey. It is a place of welcome respite from daily battles and struggles we have had to endure along the way. It is a place to settle down, and enjoy some of the fruits of our labors. It is a place where we can ease up on our commitments and on our intellectual and spiritual growth, and rely on what we learned before, and begin to live off our assumptions.
The land of Haran, you see, is not so much a geographical place as it is a state of mind. It is the locale of the human spirit whenever we are tempted to settle for less than we might do or be, to accept what is instead of pressing toward what might or should be, to let go of hopes and dreams and to succumb to the temptation to stop before we get to whatever promised future we are pursuing. So, let us ask ourselves: have we settled into Haran and left the land of Canaan out there as just another dream deferred? Have we been willing to settle for less than our best intentions, less than our true calling?
These are especially crucial questions for a community of faith. Are we using all our capabilities, exercising our minds and hearts and wills in the service of God’s grace? Are we still pursuing a vision of God’s kingdom and the promises of Christ? Are we still committed to the journey toward faithfulness in response to the grace and goodness of God? Are we still willing to wrestle with the principalities and powers of this world in behalf of those too often left behind? Or have we stopped, and settled in, and shifted into neutral?
Stopping is understandable. After all, faithfulness takes time and effort and energy; it often asks of us single-mindedness. And we are a people who are over-scheduled, over-stressed, over-committed, and the truth is, we don’t have time to be single-minded about anything, much less the journey of discipleship. The call to faithfulness and compassion and the struggles for justice are ever before us in these days, but not a person in this room is immune to the busyness that distracts us. We would love to have time to be single-minded disciples, but other agenda are always pressing us…always pressing us.
We may think, if only things were less stressed! Maybe I’ll find the time when the kids are older, or when I don’t need to produce at such a high level, or when I retire. My friend, Michael Jinkins, is president of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. In a recent blog post, he wrote about his own busy schedule and said, “It is striking how often we seem to think that our life is something that we will get back to or start, once the present thing we’re doing is finished.” He said it startled him one day in the middle of yet another business trip to come to terms with the notion that his busyness was the life he was living. He said,
My life does not just consist of the settled relatively routine round of familiar work among the staff and students I so enjoy working with and talking to. My life consists [of] the moments I wait for a workshop to start, as well as the workshop itself, the time spent waiting in the line to get a hotel room and talking to a desk clerk, the hours spent in planes, in dinners with strangers or long-distance colleagues. Sitting there, it suddenly hit me (although I know I knew this): This is your life! Right here! Right now! Not back home! Not somewhere else when things “settle down” (whatever that might mean)!
The same is true for all of us.
So I had a little talk with myself. “If you want to locate the meaning in your life,” I said to myself, “If you want to locate the vocation, the purpose in your life, you have to discern these values right here. If you want to experience joy, let alone happiness, you can’t defer joy and happiness to sometime or somewhere else. This is your life. Don’t waste these moments not appreciating them, not paying attention to them. You live here just as much as anywhere because you are alive here now.”[Michael said,] It was a good little talk.
If “this is our life,” suspended always between birth and death, always between right and wrong, always between the past and the future, always between here and there, always between history and eternity, then being at home means coming to terms with the reality that life (our life) is indeed what happens to us, not when we’ve arrived at a destination we identify as “home,” or “refuge,” but also on the way, and not just when we’re “busy making other plans,” as John Lennon has said, but when we’re waiting for the next meeting to begin or the connecting flight to arrive, or this mound of dirty dishes to get washed, or the kids to be driven from school to dance lessons and soccer practice, or caring for this loved one who struggles sometimes to remember our name, or waiting for the surgeon to invite us into the little family room to hear what [she] has found.
This is your life. Right now. Right here. We’re not waiting for life to happen. It is happening, whether we are paying attention or not…. Let’s not miss our life by mistakenly believing that we’re just sitting in life’s waiting room.
Indeed, if we make that mistake, we may find that despite all our busyness, we aren’t really on the journey anymore, but have stopped in Haran, just part-way to our true destination.
So many of you have taught me so much across the years. One of my mentors in my early years here was Ralph Dunlop. Some of you may remember Ralph and Mary Helen. Ralph was an intellectual and moral giant. I still remember a conversation we had 22 years ago on the thirtieth anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Ralph had walked with that crowd back in 1965. He spoke of the uneasiness he felt driving into Selma in the dark of night in a van provided by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, but also about his firm conviction that he was being faithful to his calling to be there. We talked about the sights and the sounds, about the resistance the marchers met, about the difficulty of those days for everyone involved.
The Movement, as it was referred to in Alabama and elsewhere, engendered a community with its own language and stories. Ralph told me one of those stories that someone shared in the tense hours before the march, as a call to steadfastness. It was the old story about the hog and the hen in a barnyard across the highway from a busy restaurant. Out in front of that diner there was a sign each morning that said, “Ham and Eggs, $1.25.” The hen pointed to the sign with her wing and said to the hog, “You know, it does my heart good to know that my personal sacrifice makes it possible for someone to enjoy such a hearty breakfast.” To which the hog snorted in reply, “Well, it may be a sacrifice for you, Sweetie, but for me it’s a total commitment.”
Fifty-two years after Selma, I am grateful for those who gave so much of themselves, sometimes even their lives, to stir this nation’s conscience, the people who made total commitments to the journey toward justice in God’s name. They could have stopped and settled in. It would have been much easier to settle into a comfortable routine in some place like Haran, undisturbed by the fears and hungers and cries of others. Thank God these faithful witnesses did not do so! Many of them did not live to see the promised land, but they kept on pressing toward the prize.
You know, friends, we’re not in Canaan yet either. The struggle for civil rights, for voting rights, for human rights, still goes on. The need for faithful witness is every bit as pressing now as it was in 1965. The demands of faith and life in the church are as imposing upon us now as ever. But the same could be said for the distractions from such calling. There are so many things we would like to accomplish, so much ground to be plowed and planted, so much good we would like to make possible. And some may think, maybe, when circumstances change, there will be time. In the meantime, it is tempting to think we can still be faithful in doing less. But, “let’s not miss our life [or calling] by mistakenly believing that we’re just sitting in life’s waiting room.”
Bishop Nathan Soderblom was Archbishop of Sweden when he began to feel the encroachment of his many responsibilities; so he went to the king with a simple request. “Your majesty,” he said, “there is a little island off the coast of Spain [under Swedish governance] …with one little church, only one main street, and only a few hundred people… I want you to release me from my duties here in Stockholm and send me to that little church.” The king thought for a moment, and then replied, “Ah yes, I know that island. It is very lovely. The people there need a postman to take the mail through the town once a day. Bishop, I would like to be that postman.” The bishop got the point and pressed his request no further.
All of us would like life to be simpler, less demanding. And some along the way will settle down and never push beyond Haran…. But then, after all, Haran’s a nice place. It’s safe, and comfortable, and at least we can take comfort in the fact that we spent a good bit of time heading in the right direction. You know, there’s much to be said in favor of settling in. After all, it’s still a long way to the land of promise. The journey might be difficult. It might be taxing… might test our limits physically and spiritually. It might be better to stop.
I will tell you that, though I am this close to retirement, I have no plans to stop. But what do you say? Will you press on? Will you commit yourself to the journey? Or are you satisfied just to stop here?
 Michael Jinkins, Thinking Out Loud blogpost, April 18, 2017.
Ralph Dunlop was a Presbyterian pastor and long-time chaplain at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, before he and Mary Helen retired to Chapel Hill and became active participants in the life of University Church.
 Michael Jinkins.