I’m so tired of television, I could scream. I know the pandemic has been a windfall for streaming services, but I feel as though my brain is rotting from the inside out. I’ve watched more TV in the last year than in my whole life combined. Series! Mini-series! Mysteries! Documentaries! Films! PBS! The ends of series I stopped watching years ago and now remember why I stopped watching. “All Things Bright and Beautiful!” was a momentary respite, but that’s ended. (Will James and Helen marry in Season 2? How sad is it that I care?) (I’ve also read enough books, worked enough cross words and baked enough bread for a lifetime.)
One of the reasons I’m so delighted that the days are growing longer and warmer, is that I won’t be trapped inside my house in the evenings. We will be able to go for long walks again. We will be able to sit on the deck again. We will be able to chat with neighbors in our driveway again. We will be able to . . . anything but television.
But the darkness and cold will continue for a while longer, so we went in search of something that wasn’t insipid or offensive or tedious or violent. (Those four qualifiers knocked most cable and streaming services off the list.) What did we find? At least for now? “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., streaming on PBS. I doubt we’ll watch all seven seasons, but Gates is up to something that has me intrigued.
Using genealogical research, DNA analysis, social research, interviews and highly-educated guesses, the show explores the genetic past of famous people. Gates is a renowned, remarkable historian, who has used his gifts and fame for enormous good. And while most of the current fascination with DNA and ancestry makes me nervous (I’m not sure I want my mostly-German genes under a stranger—or marketer’s—microscope), “Finding Your Roots” is more than prurient interest in the past. Gates invites his guests to study their past to inform both the present and the future. He typically asks at the end of each episode, “What are you going to do with this (information) now?”
Rather than dwelling in a newly-discovered Yesterday, Gates pushes his guests toward an enlightened, purposeful Tomorrow. He has chosen a hard task. We would much rather parse a past, making meaning out of information we can verify and control, than peer into a future that belongs only to God.
During Lent, we have chosen to preach on the appointed Old Testament texts. Last week we studied a familiar story that I dubbed “God Cries a River.” (Genesis 9.8ff) This Sunday we dig into the story of Abraham and Sarah, a 17-chapter saga about an immigrant family who trusted God’s leading. Like Noah, who we met last week, there is nothing obvious about Abraham, that he and his family would catch God’s eye, would be worthy of the title “Father of Nations.” But, like Noah, who built a boat in the desert, Abraham was asked to place his feet on a path that couldn’t be seen.
Here’s the conundrum. Abraham was a wealthy herder, surrounded by servants and slaves and sycophants. He wasn’t looking to leave home. He wasn’t looking for an adventure. He was happy to count his cash, brand his sheep, admire his concubines.
What was it that intrigued Abraham enough to leave his home and country (though not his wealth, herds and servants)? We can’t know. But he did. And I have often wondered if, miles and years down the road, Abraham and Sarah sat on the deck at night and wondered, regretfully, about the life they had left behind. Were they as obsessed with the past as we are? Did they spit in a test tube for 23andMe? Did they subscribe to ancestry.com? Did they hire researchers to discover distant relatives? Did they “what if” long into the night?
Apparently not. Abraham and Sarah kept looking forward, putting one foot in front of the other, trusting God’s GPS to guide them. Their comfortable past was not nearly as interesting as God’s uncomfortable future, so they went. And, to their credit, they also waited. They waited 25 years for the fulfillment of the promise that they would be parents. We will tell you more about that Sunday.
On Sunday morning, I invite you to Worship with us (by live zoom, of course). By the light of ancient texts, we will search for the trailhead of the path God wants us to follow.
After worship, we invite you to remain for our Annual Meeting, on the same zoom link at 11 a.m. Annual meetings are funny things—they invite us to look back on the past with gratitude and imagine the year ahead with hope. They invite us to emulate Abraham and Sarah, whose antenna were always turned for Tomorrow.
The pandemic has driven keen interest in the past. (Admit it, haven’t you sorted that box of old family photos in the basement?) After all, the present is, at best, troubling, and the future is, sometimes, terrifying. The past, on the other hand, feels somehow manageable. At least, we can put it away when it gets difficult. Instead, God calls us not to replay the past, but to be patient with the present and hopeful for the future. As the hymn of the day for Sunday sings, “In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” (“Hymn of Promise,” Natalie Sleeth, 1986)
Meanwhile, I’m silently screaming at the TV until the weather warms and I can be outside on an evening. Thank goodness for Dr. Gates, who points even the rich and famous toward a future God alone can see.
“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post