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The Adjacent Possible

“The Adjacent Possible”
Genesis 12:1-9

A reading from Genesis, chapter 12

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.
7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring, I will give this land.” So, he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

So…has anybody moved lately?

It may be too much to hope that many brand new first years students got up bright and early their first Sunday to attend worship – but in the event that any students are here – I want to say you all have been on my mind. I walked down to south campus this week and saw the circus that is move-in week.

I remember the day I packed everything I owned into the trunk of a Buick and hauled it up the stairs into the 15 x 15-foot concrete cube I would be sharing for the next nine months with another human being. It was equal parts excitement for the possibilities of what might be mingled with a mild sense of freak out. At first, it felt like going to camp but then my brain caught up and said “Oh wait – This is my life now”

I’m in a different stage of life now – but I want you to know that I sympathize…my family of five just moved here a few weeks ago.
I’d love to say that I could still load up all my belongings in the back of a Buick, but my three children have assured me that I will not pass that way again.

Moving is…disorienting, to say the least.
We had to sell our house in northern Virginia where we came from.
We found a realtor – Renee.
She walked through our house to tell us what to change to help it sell better.
“Take all of these pictures down,” she said, walking our hallways.

“We need to paint these walls gray,” she said.
“But Renee,” I said, “…they’re…. already…gray.”
“It’s not the right shade of gray.”

Then she came to the kid’s playroom:
“All of this has to go…we’ve got to erase any sense that children actually live here.”

“Well – we can do that, but what are we going to do with an empty room?”
“Move your piano right here,” she said, “Oh…and put that guitar in the corner. Voila – you’ve got a music room.”
“Oh right – because when you have three kids under 8 – you don’t need a place for them to play. You need a music room.”

Then her eyes settled on one of the power sockets: “Oh, I almost forgot – no cords visible.”
“Really,” I said, “it’s the 21st century! Can’t we all agree that there are going to be plugs and wires and cords?”

Sensing my growing astonishment, she looked me in the eye and said “Okay…Brass Tacks – when you’re selling a house, you’re not just selling a house. You’re selling a possibility…the possibility of a simpler lifestyle. When a buyer walks in here, she’s going to see a clean, tidy, Marie Kando approved home and she’s going to think ‘Oh – If I buy this house, I can live just like that.’ Now, you and I both know in two weeks time it’ll be jammed full of all their junk and there will be cords everywhere – but in the meantime, we’re going to sell them a possibility.”

Abram and Sarai didn’t have to stage their tent for sale back in Haran, nor did they have a Hinton James dorm room to look forward to, but they did know what it means to put their trust in a possibility. They knew what it feels like to pull up stakes and move with nothing in their pocket but some far-fetched promise from an invisible God.

The promise of innumerable descendants.
The promise of becoming a great nation.
The promise that not just their own family, but all the families of the earth would be blessed.

That’s a mighty tall order – especially given what God had to work with.
Abram – seventy-five years…young.
Sarai in the throes of infertility.
Could God have picked a more unlikely pair to bring all of this to pass?

In my four years at UNC I never once darkened the door of Coker Hall or took any course that had the faintest whiff of Biology – but I’m going to attempt something very dangerous right now and use an illustration from science – I’ll expect several emails correcting me later this week.

You’ll never hear me claim the Bible is a Science book, but the author of Genesis may have been on to something when describing the pre-creation world as Tohu-va-vohu. That’s the Hebrew expression – often translated “without form and void.” It was Topsy Turvy. Chaotic.

The earth’s atmosphere was once nothing but a few simple molecules swirling together in the primordial soup – methane, water, ammonia, carbon dioxide, a handful of amino acids. At first glance, this hardly seems a promising recipe for life at all. And yet the potential for everything we know was right there.

Call it Evolution, call it God, call it God using Evolution, but some way, somehow, these molecules collided and bound themselves together in new combinations. It was slow going at first, but over millions of years, the basic building blocks of life emerged from this chaotic, chemical cocktail.

Eventually came the proteins that are essential to the structure of a living cell, and the sugar molecules that precede the nucleic acids of our DNA.
And with each new molecular collision, further possibilities were coming into view

Of course, these molecules couldn’t suddenly combine to create a human brain, or even a household fly for that matter – that’s too big of a jump all at once. These initial combinations are called “first-order” chemical reactions…they’re just the basics…and yet the possibility for a human brain and a household fly was coming into the realm of possibility.
That is what’s called the adjacent possible. The “adjacent possible” suggests that with each new combination of two distinct elements – the potential for future possibilities is also created. It’s a chain that goes on and on and on…drawing more and more expressions of life into being.

Evolutionary biologists can draw a line from the rotating claw of a Velociraptor to the hinged wings of a bird to the opposable thumbs we use to turn the pages in these bulletins…all of those advances contained within the ever-expanding “adjacent possible.”

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson says “the adjacent possible tells us that at any moment, the earth is capable of extraordinary change…the adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

In short, the “Adjacent Possible” explains how innovation can, in fact, happen – even within a hopelessly closed and unlikely environment.

I want to suggest to you all that Abram and Sarai are – for our faith – an example of the “adjacent possible.” Abram and Sarai are that first-order reactions – a collision between God and a couple of ordinary people who say “Yes” to God.

Now let’s be clear – Abram and Sarai don’t make some massive evolutionary leap. They don’t go from being in the litter with all the other power-hungry, violence-obsessed humans we meet in the first 11 chapters of Genesis to being some goody-two-shoes models of perfection.

They can’t make that leap anymore than a carbon molecule and some amino acids can suddenly become a human brain.

But Abram and Sarai do take an important step that makes possible whole new worlds of faithfulness.
It’s a simple step, but a necessary one, because finally, somebody says “Yes” to God and it sets in motion this plan that all the nations of the world might find a blessing at long last.

Here’s the amazing thing though – Abram and Sarai offer their “Yes” with no thought of their own reward. Leave your home, leave your kindred, leave the security of the only life you’ve ever known, God asks. And why – so that some day a long time from now all the nations of the earth might be blessed.

There is very little in that invitation that appeals to Abram and Sarai’s immediate self-interest.
And yet still they decide to trust it…and to trust God.

A few years ago, I met a college student named Paula. She was a sophomore studying political science. She had a dream – to get a good education that would equip her to wade into the world of public policy so she could make a difference.
In that sense, she was not so different from any of the students who just moved in across the street.

I listened as she told a story about a decision that had shaped her life forever, but she was careful to say that it was a decision that she did not make herself.

When she was 7 years old in Peru her parents sat her down and said that the family was going to play a game. She and her brother were going to go on a long trip with some adults that she did not know.

They told her that Mommy and Daddy were going to take a different path. It was going to be a race to see who would get there first. But at the end of the game, they would get to see each other again – here in the United States.

It was the kind of story that made me marvel at the kinds of decisions people must make and the impossible circumstances that make it so.
The gamble a mother takes, entrusting her children into the hands of somebody else.

The roll of the dice a father makes to leave his home and kindred and the only life he’s ever known with nothing but a possibility in his pocket.

All of that risk just so that a family of four could share a room not a lot bigger than those 15 x 15 cubes at Hinton James.

It was the kind of story that made me wonder about the lengths one will go to so that your children and your children’s children and their children might have a life that is perhaps even a little more blessed…and so they might be a blessing to others.

We can wonder where faithfulness like that comes from, but maybe we don’t have to wonder.
Maybe we already know where that kind of faithfulness comes from –
Maybe we know because a long, long time ago somebody showed us that we are capable of such a selfless form of faithfulness – that it was adjacent to us all along…a possibility just waiting to be realized.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Jarrett McLaughlin , Pastor


Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 112


Jarrett grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina where he had a pretty regular childhood – riding bikes around the neighborhood, muddling through school, trying to play various sports (emphasis on try), going through a phase of wearing lots of black in high school, and through it all, always finding a place of welcome in the Church. Jarrett became a “traitor” to his NC State traditioned family when he went to UNC-Chapel Hill for college.  Missing youth group terribly, Jarrett quickly discovered Presbyterian Campus Ministry where, in addition to exploring his call to ministry, he also met Meg. After college, Jarrett served as a youth minister for one year and then spent another year traveling, spending a great deal of time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti living in community with disabled children at Wings of Hope. He then went to Union-PSCE Seminary (now “Union Presbyterian Seminary”) and then went on to serve as an associate pastor for mission and young adult ministry at Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.  In June of 2013 Jarrett and Meg accepted a call to serve as co-pastor Heads-of-Staff at Burke Presbyterian Church. In July of 2013 they learned that they would be expecting. In August of 2013 they learned they would be expecting twins.  In September of 2013 they moved and told the Church all of this on their second Sunday. Jarrett is very much looking forward to NOT repeating that pattern as they accept the call to serve University Presbyterian Church. When not engaged at Church, Jarrett enjoys running and hiking.  He is also an obsessive music fan intent on keeping up with independent music of all kinds – reading blogs and record reviews, scoping out live shows and constantly spinning tunes in the car, home or office.  Most of all, Jarrett has a deep passion for the Church as a place of radical welcome and hospitality and tries his best every day to honor the ways he has experienced that in his own life as grace upon grace.