This sermon was offered for Albany Presbytery on March 25, 2014 at the Mayfield Central Presbyterian Church. The scripture readings were Exodus 17 and I Corinthians 15: 51-58. The Mayfield Church was burned to the ground in 2011 and through some Calvin Institute of Christian Worship grants has engaged in deep theological exploration of loss and grief and created amazing art that is woven throughout their new building that we worshipped in as a Presbytery for the first time today. This includes their beautiful communion table that has a mosaic of shards of glass from the broken pieces of their felled stained glass windows that was created in worship by the community. We heard a beautiful anthem in worship that the local community choir sang tonight that was commissioned for the rededication of their space.
Blessings overflow. New life and growth rising from the ashes.
Imagine with me if you can, some scenes of ministry…
- A congregation experiencing renewal, a community catching the excitement, taking risks and trying new pathways of ministry…
- Faith leaders and community members gathered around a table to talk about justice, peacemaking…having courageous and difficult conversations around forgiveness and reconciliation….
- Expansive worship services breathing new life through the arts, color, engaging of the senses, even in the season of Lent…
- Adolescent young women, children of immigrants dancing with abandon in a church basement to the resounding sounds of drums, side by side with their elders, full of energy and vitality…
- Gentle, kind and caring Presbyters gathering together to form an AC to walk a journey of healing with a congregation brought low from grief and conflict…
- A Session meeting where tears are welcomed, acknowledged and woven into the fabric of conversation, not as cause for embarrassment but as an opportunity for holy listening…
- A community devastated by floods making a fresh new start, an Elder from that church choking up two days ago as she said to me, “We are so glad the Presbytery is here with us today. You have become our partners, our friends…”
- This church we are in tonight, rising from the ashes, using their grief as a vehicle for worship, healing and renewal that stretches around the community in creative worship…
- An emerging leader who says, “You know I am realizing that I have been playing it safe. I want to take more risks as I live out my call….”
- A group of people who are patiently waiting, and committed to the long term….
- Committees and Task Forces who take their call to work very seriously, who are engaged in faithful discernment and partnership…
I want to offer you tonight a message about hope and renewal, because I believe that these are two of the most important words we can hear as we seek to lead and guide congregations, faith communities and ministries today in what feels to many like choppy waters, unmapped trails, unknown destinations.
I was sitting in worship this past Sunday and meditating during the prayer time that it would maybe be an amazing thing if congregations or ministries could somehow figure out a rotation where the pastor and other identified leaders could have a few Sundays or another appropriate time set aside. From their weekly responsibilities, free to roam, to go and visit and to see what others around them are up to in ministry. So we could see with new eyes, experience a different vision, catch a glimpse of someone else’s way of doing things, that might re-invigorate a vision or re-ignite a dream.
I’m sure this idea would take a some creativity and re-ordering of schedules, especially on Sunday mornings, but what if we found a way, so that we could know each other more deeply, but most especially experience what the Spirit is up to in our midst? All too often we are in our congregational or ministry silos. We don’t get the chance to exchange ideas, or to experience the blessings of our brothers and sisters that we share community with in the Presbytery, or to know that one congregation is working on a ministry that directly impacts another place and so we think we are working alone, when in fact we are laboring together, just not aware perhaps of the holy connectivity and synchronicity we have engaged in—mysterious ways God has knit us together.
“What if”, I wonder….”We could see each other in a new way, and in so doing see what the Spirit is doing forming and re-forming us?”
More and more these days I go back to the Exodus Story, the story of wandering, following and salvation that is sprinkled throughout Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers. The images in it call out to be listened to in a new way to see what this ancient teaching can offer us in terms of new life today.
One of the commentators on the section of Exodus we just heard says these words: “Exodus is a great metaphor for the spiritual journey—… from spiritual bondage to freedom in Christ that we take as individuals and also together as the people of God….it can [also] be a metaphor for a time when God is calling us to greater freedom in a particular area of our life or a time when God is calling us to leave familiar territory behind so that we can enter into something new….”
In this portion of Exodus Moses is at a break-point. The Israelite people are overrun with anxiety and fear. They are coming to grips with the idea that they are out in the middle of nowhere with Moses, who they are quickly losing faith in. They realize that following Moses has them in a precarious position and the lives of their children are at risk (and there is no greater desperation than that, no other thing that will push a human being to the point of total irrationality than the possibility of the imminent death or harm to their child). The people blame Moses, and so his calling is in grave danger.
Moses cries out to God, “Help me! Help us!” Water is provided, and a way for Moses to save face with the Elders in the community.
But they are still in the wilderness.
Just because water comes out of the rock, and the people are pacified does not mean that they are still not in the wilderness, that danger is still not present. The rest of the passage we heard tonight describes a battle scene, Moses is so exhausted that Aaron and Hur need to find big boulders to place under Moses’ arms while he sits down, and they scrunch behind the rocks holding up Moses’ hands so that the battle can be won.
Moses is brought low by his inability to lead his people in that moment. In the next chapter Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, has to admonish Moses for allowing burnout and overwork to consume him to the point of being unable to do the work he has been called by God to do. He has taken too much on, and he is now totally ineffective.
Why, as a Presbytery do we want to engage in the hard work of transition and change? Why do want to willingly put ourselves out in the wilderness where risks like the ones that came to Moses are present?
Why go out into the wilderness? What is it that we want?
Do we want a new structure so that we do not have to venture out into the wilderness again for a long season, perhaps a generation after us, leaving that work to someone else? Do we want a new structure for illusions of safety?
Or do we want to go out into the wilderness, wander around, perhaps get really angry and contend with our greatest and most primal fears, humble ourselves to the point that we have to trust reliable partners and friends to prop us up, hold us up, and then maybe later offer us the truth in love so that we can become the disciples and the discipling communities that God in Jesus Christ wants us to be for the sake of ministry that offers hope, sustenance and radical transformation in a spiritually bereft, broken and hostile place? Where we can live into our prophetic calling as followers of the Christ of Grace? Where we can risk because the group around us, the Presbytery, provides safety, security, encouragement, collegiality and hope even in the wilderness wanderings? Can we be like Moses, use our mistakes and experiments as ways to wander with intentionality, and to learn over time what the Spirit is calling us to do and to be?
Can we go out into that wilderness? Can we trust that somehow in a mysterious way, as Paul writes in Corinthians, we will not die, but we will be changed?
Let me go back to where I started, the two words:
Hope and Renewal.
We may be wilderness people at this point in our journey as a Presbytery, but the wilderness is not to be feared—it is a priceless, holy, precious gift, the place that we learn, gather our strength and prepare for the new tomorrow.
I want to leave this idea that I began with before you this evening as we close. To figure out a way to let go of your community, somehow, just a little bit so that you can see with new eyes the manifestations of God’s community that is around or near that we miss noticing because we have been seduced into thinking there not time or ability for connection. The seeds of newness are sprinkled around us as we journey through our particular wildernesses. Perhaps in a mysterious new way God’s Spirit can open our eyes to see them and then use them for renewal, grace and transformation.
Let us pray….
The kingdom is not only beyond our own efforts; it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s word.
Nothing that we do is complete.
The kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals includes everything that we are about.
We all plant the seed that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces efforts far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything.
Knowing this enables us to do something, and to do it well.
Our work may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.
Our actions present an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are the workers, not master builders.
We are ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
 These vignettes are drawn from some, not all of the places I have been so privileged to be these last two months.
 This quote comes from the book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry by Ruth Haley Barton and is drawn from her illustrations in Chapter 6.
 Information about the attribution of this prayer: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers/archbishop_romero_prayer.cfm