January 22, 2023, Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, “Go Forward”

January 22, 2023

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Scripture: Luke 11:5-10

Imagine the scene. The Israelites, after suffering under the oppression of the Egyptians, having finally escaped, are now faced with the dilemma of having no where to go. The Red Sea ahead of them and the Egyptians behind them. They had trusted Moses and this is where they had gotten to. And so, they did what is all too common with us frail and faithless people, they began to complain and blame someone else for their troubles. “Moses, why did you do this to us? Why did you take us away from Egypt? At least in Egypt we would live!” But what was life for them there? Living as slaves under the harsh eye of the Pharoah. It was no life. It was existence, but not life. Not the life that God desired for the people God had created and designated as God’s beloved. God wanted them to have abundant life. Rooted in light and love and peace.

I see this congregation a bit like the Israelites. In some ways we have all been a slave to the pandemic. It caused havoc in our lives. Schools were shut down and learning had to be done remotely. People lost jobs or had to learn to work remotely. Friends and loved ones became sick and some died. Then, just as soon as it seemed like some sense of normality would return, when a year of celebration was about to take place; a celebration of 200 years of this church’s existence, of God’s blessing upon this community of faith, the unthinkable happens and your beloved pastor suddenly passes. Now you find yourselves, whether you realize it or not, chased by grief and fear of the future. Who will replace our beloved pastor? What changes might they make to our wonderful congregation? To our worship service? To the life in this church as we have always known it to be. 25 years is a lifetime to a congregation. And while I have been told that Kevin’s time here wouldn’t have been for too much longer as I understand he was planning on retiring in the not too distant future, it would have been a parting that was filled with life, instead of death, of a retirement celebration with lots of hugs and well wishes. Fear and trepidation would still have come over you, but it wouldn’t have had the grief along with it. But that is the reality for this congregation. So what is next?

Let us return to the passage. Moses, who has been chosen to lead the people to freedom, has the right idea, but the wrong approach. He believes that God will deliver them and so he tells the people to stand still and watch as God delivers them from the Egyptians. But God had other ideas and says, to Moses, “Why did you tell them to stand still? Go forward!” Go forward. How were they to do that?

And then the miracle occurs. God provides the way. Even though they couldn’t have imagined it a few minutes before, they can now suddenly see the way forward. Moses lifts the staff that God had provided and the sea parts and the people are able to go forward, as commanded, on dry ground. They are safe and now they can continue on their way to the promised land.

You are now facing that sea and while with your minds you know that where you are now is not where you will be next year, and it can’t be any worse than where you have been this past year, the fear of the unknown, of change, chases you. Change is hard, even when the change is good. It is why people stay in bad situations for so long – in bad marriages, bad relationships, in toxic workplace environments, in grief and anger. The familiar is known. We get up, we eat, we brush our teeth and get on with our day, just like yesterday and just like we will do tomorrow. But there are times God is calling us out of what is and asks us not to do things like always. Instead, to trust this God we serve to fulfill God’s promises. In Jeremiah we hear these words: I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. To give you a future and a hope.” Hope for a new life, a better life, a life filled with promise for a better tomorrow. God, calling on us to go forward to continue the journey to the Promised Land. Because that is ultimately our destination, isn’t it? Kevin is already there. Living in the glory of the Lord. How beautiful to consider! But our journey continues.

And who is Moses? In a small sense, that has been the Vanderzees and now myself, and eventually a new pastor. I’m sure that there were times when John and Wendy made a mistake in their discernment of God’s leading as Moses did when he told the people to stand firm. And I know for sure that I will make mistakes along the way. We are human, after all. But they and I answered the call from God to come and guide you into that future, into that unknown, but we came knowing that we guide with God in front of us. And that is what I need you to
remember. God has a plan. God knows the way. It is hard to trust someone you don’t know, but if you trust God then trust that God brought me here and that together – you, me, and the Holy Spirit – will move forward together as we continue the journey to the Promised Land.

But, again, what is the way forward? The PC(USA) has a system for the transitional period. One that this church had begun with the strategic planning. I understand the strategic planning was never able to be finished. The evaluation of who you are was done, but not the visioning part. The visioning aspect of the protocol is the most exciting part of transitional work. It is when the congregation is asked to pray and imagine and dream about what God is calling them into the future. The past was glorious, I’ve been told. And that was certainly a blessing to each of you. Something to celebrate and thank God for, but God now has a new future for you to walk into, and how you go about that is found in the second passage we read this morning.

In this passage from Acts, the people think the disciples are drunk because of what they are saying and doing. But Peter tells the people that it is a fulfillment of what was predicted in Joel, that the children would prophecy and the young people would have visions and the old people would have dreams. People thought it meant the end times, but we find that it is here at the beginning of the church that the Holy Spirit is pouring out these visions and dreams and I believe it is in the constant renewing of the church that the Holy Spirit continues to pour out these dreams and visions.

The Presbyterians have a saying that we are reformed and always reforming. But for me, as a transitional pastor, I say that we are transformed and always transforming. As a butterfly goes through several transformations to become a butterfly, so to do we need to do the same kind of transforming as we become the mature children of God that we are called to be. The last 25 years was one phase of that transformation. A necessary time that was filled with joy and love and growth, but now it is time to transform into the next version of yourselves as you move forward in faith. And you will be successful if you open yourselves up to the Spirit and engage in the process. I need you, all of you, the youth as well as the adults, praying for dreams and visions. I need you imagining a life in this church that is living out the gospel message of not just loving one another and growing in faith through worship, but how that faith is lived out beyond Sunday mornings, I understand that Kevin was working toward making this church a Matthew 25 church, which is something close to my heart. The Matthew 25 Initiative of the PC (USA) looks to the churches to engage in learning about and then engaging in these three issues: anti-racism, systemic poverty, and becoming a vital congregation. With your engagement with the One God, One Community already in existence, there is no telling what pathways may open up for interfaith work within the community, but the issues of addressing racism and poverty comes first through being a vital congregation. And what is a vital congregation? That would be something you would need to define. What is vital to you?

All aspects of engagement within the congregation need to be evaluated: what are the needs of the youth? Are we preparing them to have a strong enough faith to face the hardships of life moving forward? What support are we providing for there to be an active and thriving Sunday school program for our children? Are we nurturing one another with love and care, and with opportunities for fellowship and spiritual growth beyond the worship service? What is our engagement in local mission and beyond?

To help in this step of the process, we will be looking at a book called Five Practices of a Fruitful Congregation. I’m going to be working with the elders first and then, sometime after Easter, to invite you to also become involved through the reading of the book and the brainstorming of ideas; because this is your church and I need all of you praying for the Holy Spirit to ignite in you God’s vision for the future of this your church.

The importance of doing this work is that when a congregation can identify what it is that God is calling them into, then they know more clearly what characteristics they want in a  new pastor. It is then that you will find a pastor that will connect with you and you will know that they have the same inspiration for ministry that you feel called to be involved in here.

When I was doing my transitional training, one of my instructors told this story. He said that on two occasions he allowed the elders to talk him out of fully doing each step of the process. Because of this, neither church hired pastors that were a good match for them and both were gone in a few years. It’s kind of like a marriage, when you know yourself, then you know what kind of person you want to be with. A good match leads to a long and happy union. Engage in the work so that you will have a solid footing going forward.

As I said earlier, I’m human and will make mistakes and I hope that you can extend me grace when I do. I offer to you my faith, my experience, my friendship and love. Believe that I want only the best for you. My door is always open for you to come for a discussion, to express a concern, to say you like what is being done. Whatever it may be. We just need to be open and communicating and stay committed to living out our faith with compassion and grace.

So, today, we are here, in this cold wintery season, but remember spring is right around the corner. There is much to be hopeful for. God is guiding you forward to the Promised Land. God will part the seas and make the path clear for you. It won’t happen today, but it will happen when it is needed. God always provides. Be of good faith. Be filled with the hope that we find in our Lord, Jesus. Christ. Believe in me, Jesus says. Believe and the path will be made clear. Amen.

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