“I am an itinerant preacher, and I arrived early on Sunday at a church,” said the Rev. Joel C. Gregory at the beginning of his sermon at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “A member of the church was in the sanctuary and we greeted each other. The member said, ‘This is not a good Sunday to be here. Our pastor is away and they sent us a seminary professor and they are usually dull as dirt.’ Needless to say I did not see them after the service.”
Gregory continued his sermon series “It’s About Time,” with “Doing Time.” His Scripture was Hebrews 8:11-12, about the faith of Abraham.
He told the story of a seminary professor who ended every sermon, every speech, every prayer with an emphasis on Christian love. Once the professor, nicknamed Dr. Love, retired, he decided to do something tangible, working with his hands. He dug up his old driveway and poured a new concrete one. Just as he stood back to admire his handy work, a young boy ran through the driveway chasing his dog. “Dr. Love” ran after them with a sharp implement.
His wife yelled at him, “You can’t do that. You are Dr. Love.” He replied, “That is intangible love; this is concrete love.”
“We need to talk about faith in [the] concrete,” Gregory said. “Hebrews 11 begins with a very high-flown definition of faith, the substance of things not seen and the evidence of things hoped for. Most of us need a concrete example so we get Father Abraham.
“He looks across us from 4,000 years to 2015,” he continued. “He believed God and was the first person to have faith. Faith enables you to go with God without knowing where. Look at all the verbs — he obeyed, he went out, not knowing.”
Philo wrote that Abraham left home for the unknown with the speed that most people leave the unknown for home.
Abraham was the first. He did not have an Abraham to follow, he did not have Scripture to read. “There is something about being the first,” Gregory said. “Leo Stein wrote about Jackson Pollock because he was the first. He was Jack the Dripper.”
And how did God speak to Abraham? Was it an audible voice or was Abraham just tired of the gods and rituals of Ur?
“Those of us who have a sense of the transcendent voice learn the tone of it,” Gregory said.
Abraham left without excuses. He was 75 years old when he was sent out.
“During World War II, a ship would leave port with a set of coordinates on an envelope,” Gregory said. “When it got to the coordinates, there would be a second set of coordinates on an envelope. They were sailing under sealed orders.
“How is your life going? My life feels like I have been sailing under sealed orders,” he continued. “At age 8, baptism — next envelope please. Age 16, vocation — next envelope, please. I feel like I have spent the last five decades operating under sealed orders.”
Gregory asked why anyone would want to leave Ur — especially a wealthy man like Abraham? In the 1920s and 1930s, the British Museum excavations found three-story houses, a great harbor and high rises.
“The only reason would be if God so seized you to go without knowing where,” Gregory said. “The essence of faith is going point to point.
“Faith can also wait on God without knowing when,” he continued. “God has promised Abraham a land and a son but did not tell him when.” Gregory was having a conversation with a fellow pastor about life’s ups and downs. “I told him that I have learned never to kick doors open, but to wait for God. He said, ‘I have learned to put WD40 on the hinges.’ ”
Abraham settled permanently in tents. Gregory called that an oxymoron of faith, permanent impermanence.
“How can you be a permanent resident alien?” Gregory said. “Abraham knew that ultimate permanence was in God and he waited for a city whose builder and maker was God. We are rooted in tents but living in faith.
“The late Gardner C. Taylor was a man who never preached without warm personal piety and a biting social commentary that made things better,” he added. “Elton Trueblood, the Quaker philosopher, said that Christians live in a cut-flower culture. They want what the bloom does without the roots.”
Abraham believed God even though he did not know where, when or how.
“It was a ridiculous promise that God made to Abraham. But God got the last laugh,” Gregory said. “Faith is faith in the face of facts.”
Gregory said: “If you are going to lead an Exodus, you pick the strongest, most accomplished leader instead of Moses, an 80-year-old man with two lines on his resume: prince, 40 years, assistant shepherd, 40 years. If you are going to kill a 9-foot giant, you send the tallest guy from the NBA equivalent in Jerusalem — not David, a short guy from the back 40. People say wake up to the facts, there are immovable objects. Concrete faith enables us to believe without knowing how.”
He quoted A.N. Whitehead that a wise man plants shade trees under which he will never sit. “God helps us to have the wisdom to plant things we may never sit under.”
The Rev. George Wirth presided. Juanita Wallace Jackson, year-round Chautauquan and former Institution board member, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship, conducted the choir. The Chautauqua Choir sang “God Walks in the Meadow” Monday and Tuesday as the introit. It was written by Allan Pettersson with English text by Gunilla Marcus and setting by Eskil Hemberg. The anthem was “Awake, My Heart,” music by James E. Clemens and text by Isaac Watts. The Carnahan Jackson Fund and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund support this week’s services.