Ps. 139:1-18 (MSG); Ex. 14:10-13 (NIV)
New Life Presbyterian Church – February 5, 2017
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift
[South Church’s Annual Meeting and Celebration of Ministry is on February 5, 2017. This is the sermon for our sister church, New Life, who is preparing to sell their building and adopt South’s Acts of Faith Model of Ministry (http://southpc.org/what-we-do/) in order to continue as a vibrant and alive congregation.]
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
Ex. 14:10-13 (NIV)
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.
We’ve all heard the adage: the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Right? As bad as things are, we’ve learned how to live with them and it’s easier to do that than to learn a NEW way of living.
Think of how often we probably just choose to live with the devil we know in our own lives, even without being consciously aware that that’s what we’re doing: we get used to the rattle in our car – there’s no need to check it out; we get used to that pain in our side – it’s not worth a trip to the doctor; oh, I know my boss is a tyrant – but at least I have a job.
We learn to ADAPT. That’s what human beings do.
Governments count on it. “Just implement new taxes … they’ll forget about it by tax time.”
And that’s just how the Israelites were feeling in this passage.
They had had a MISERABLE life in Egypt. They were SLAVES! What about that word don’t we get? They were beaten – and probably worse. Their children were taken away from them … they did back-breaking work and were whipped if they didn’t work hard or fast enough. They didn’t have enough to eat. They cried out to their God in desperation. And their God HEARD them.
He had grown up in the lap of luxury. Everything was his. He was the adopted son of the Pharaoh.
But THEN he learned that he was really an Israelite, too. Those were HIS people who were being treated that way. Well, you know the story.
He goes to his ancestral home and meets God in the burning bush. God sends him BACK to Egypt to negotiate for the release of the slaves. They all leave with the parting of the Red Sea story and then they WANDER. They are traipsing around the desert for 40 years … more than a GENERATION … and MANY TIMES the people in his entourage wondered, “What are we DOING out here? We were better off when we were SLAVES.”
Funny how our mind plays tricks on us, isn’t it? Better off when we were SLAVES?
That is just such a HUMAN response. Give me the devil I know over the one I don’t know every time and these wanderers were faced with uncertainty … fear of survival … they were totally out of their ELEMENT.
And so are we.
I’m not talking politics today – although there might be some of that at work, too.
I’m talking about US … our little faith community here at New Life.
We are TOTALLY out of our element, and it doesn’t feel comfortable.
We’re selling our HOME, for gosh sakes.
The only place we have come to gather and worship and BE together for over 150 years and we’re SELLING it. We’re getting ready to pack up, walk out the door and turn out the lights.
We are entering into the unknown. It feels like a WILDERNESS journey. We are stepping out into the WILDERNESS! We DON’T know where we’re going. We have no IDEA of what it will look like, we just know we can’t stay here. And so we’re packing up our belongings – which we will be doing quite LITERALLY over the next few months – and hittin’ the road. ALSO something we’ll be doing quite literally in the next few months.
“Oh, we could just stay here with new owners. It wouldn’t be so bad.” Really? You don’t think it would DEVASTATE us to see other people knocking out walls, painting over the woodwork that we’ve worked so hard to protect? Putting neon lights to praise Jesus in our sanctuary? Or maybe turning the sanctuary into small little offices?
We have no IDEA what new owners might do. But they would have the right to do whatever they wanted.
As long as we stay here, we are SLAVES to what used to be … to the ways we have always done things … we are slaves to the BUILDING. And God is calling us to new life BEYOND being slaves. God is calling US to a new life we can’t even IMAGINE any more than the Israelites could imagine where THEY were going to end up.
Juxtapose in your mind modern day Tel Aviv or Jerusalem with a life of servitude and SLAVERY.
Well … in the same way, WE can’t imagine what OUR life is going to end up being, either.
One thing I CAN tell you based on South’s journey and talking with other churches across the nation – our ideas and our certainties that we hold NOW will ALL be up for grabs with God is in the mix. Why? Because God moves us in baby steps. One step at a time.
We are like little children learning how to WALK. First we have someone holding our hands, and then we learn to let go. We take a few steps toward a grown-up and stumble into their outstretched arms until finally we can navigate on our own.
After we’ve practiced THAT for a while we can move around our houses in pretty good shape, but we don’t go walking to the store or anything like that for quite some time. EVENTUALLY, though, we are comfortable walking around town … maybe even traveling to SPAIN and walking around towns and villages there. J SOME of us might even walk in SPACE – something we couldn’t even IMAGINE when we were learning to walk because we didn’t know it even EXISTED.
New Life, my brothers and sisters … US! WE are at the point of taking the first steps, stumbling / bumbling (as John puts it) ahead … we are at the point of being surrounded by those who are helping and supporting us … South Church and the Presbytery … and we are reaching out with one hand toward our independence while still holding on with the OTHER.
It’s how we all learned to walk. It’s how we helped our children and grand-children take their first steps.
That’s what WE’RE doing.
And the thing is … we HAVE to let go with the one hand before we can figure out how to take the next step.
That’s what our Session is doing for and with us right now … with the help of South and the Presbytery.
Offers are coming in for the building. And thank GOD we have the Presbytery Trustees and attorney working on our behalf because they’ve had EXPERIENCE with this. They are ADVISING us. They’re being good PARTNERS.
And at the same time that we are learning to walk in our one analogy, we are also in the desert in the OTHER analogy. We stepped out into the wilderness a couple of years ago when we all admitted that we couldn’t stay doing what we were doing any more.
I think maybe we don’t all see how far we’ve already come.
In Biblical terms, we’ve already moved OUT of Egypt and are being chased by the memories of what used to be. We feel those memories breathing down our necks like the Egyptian army, trying to recapture us and take us back to what would be CERTAIN death.
And some of us are thinking – and maybe even SAYING sometimes – “Can’t we just go back to what WAS? Are we doing all of this just to DIE in the wilderness? We don’t even know where we’re going.”
A couple of weeks ago I spent an hour on the phone with a pastor from the south side of Chicago. They have an offer on their building but they want to stay together as a congregation so the national church offices – Ray Jones, in particular – said, “Why don’t you call Deb Swift in Rochester? South Church is doing just what you’re talking about.” And as she and I talked for that hour, she told me how a member of the Presbytery there said to her that they shouldn’t sell the building until they knew exactly where they were going to be and what they were going to do next.
Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “Oh no!”
And that’s when I realized that THAT is the OLD WAY of thinking. That’s the old way of being and staying ENSLAVED to the ways we have always done things in the past. They’d just be moving from ONE building to ANOTHER … from being a slave in Egypt to being a slave in Ethiopia or something.
God is calling us all – the whole church universal – to a DIFFERENT understanding of what it means to be a disciple.
It means involvement, but it also means being a Spiritual Response Team to the people around us. It means being able to be FLEXIBLE and move from one situation to another.
And yes. I know how scary that can be to not know HOW to do that … not know WHERE to do that … not know anything ABOUT that.
But that’s where we have to remember Psalm 139.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. Everything we do – even everything we THINK … God knows it all.
3 You are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. God is so close to us that NOTHING … not even our WORDS … come as a surprise to God.
5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. God is all AROUND us, keeping us safe. Hemming us in so, like the baby learning how to walk, we don’t go stumbling out into traffic.
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? In other words, where can I go that you’re not already there, God? Where will this wilderness journey take us? What happens if we wander away from you ….
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. There is NO place that this journey – this wilderness journey – this learning-to-walk-journey can lead us that God’s not already THERE. NO PLACE!
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” If we should say, “We don’t know where we’re going. We can’t see the next step because everything is so murky and confusing …
12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. WE may not be able to see anything, but God ALWAYS can. WE may not know where we are or where we’re going, but GOD does because even the darkness is as LIGHT to God. And it is for us, too because Jesus is the LIGHT OF THE WORLD. We are Jesus-followers, everybody. As long as we stay close to HIM, we have all the light we need to navigate through the wilderness.
I come to the end— [and] I am still with you.
And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? In the end we want to be with God?
So … I’m here today to tell you that we’re doing just fine.
It may not feel that way at times, but we are.
And those times when we feel like we want to go back to the way things used to be? Don’t let yourself go there because it’s all a LIE … it’s like thinking that slavery wasn’t all THAT bad. It’s the devil we KNOW. It is Satan TEMPTING us to stay focused on the PAST because then we will not become the strong voice of JESUS in the world. That would make life so EASY for the other side, wouldn’t it?
If what we were doing was what we were MEANT to be doing, we’d still be doing it because it would be WORKING.
If we were MEANT to be doing things the way we did them 30 years ago, then they would still be working today and we’d have the same results. They didn’t PRODUCE the same results. It wasn’t WORKING. Right?
So if WE are doing things the same way and the RESULTS are different, then it stands to reason that that people we’re doing them FOR (or with) have changed. Right?
SOCIETY has changed in 30 years. Doing things the way we did them before isn’t SUCCESSFUL any more. I mean let’s face it: Would any of us want to go into a Wegmans store that looked like the 1980’s? NO! It would be tired looking. It wouldn’t have what we needed or WANTED in it. We wouldn’t even bother to go in the door.
But what IS working for us?
It’s the ministries where we work WITH people … where we feed them in body and soul. And THAT, my friends, is the ministry that lies on the other side of this wilderness journey, even if we CAN’T imagine it yet.
THAT’s where God can see through the darkness and confusion that we’re in even if WE can’t.
And that’s what we have to trust.
Because 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
God’s GOT this, people … we are SAFE in our stumbling / bumbling steps because God’s strong arms are all around us.
We just have to let ourselves trust it and be ok with being in the wilderness for a while longer.
Thanks be to God for teaching us how to walk, and leading us on this journey! Amen.