21 Sept. 2014 sermon — Exodus 16:1-15

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

The Past, Present, and Future Church

21 September 2014 — 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Exodus 16:1-15 (NRS)

When my parents and sister were here two weeks ago, we went to tour the Hermitage. I felt like an undercover spy checking out the historical roots of this church.  As we entered the museum, one of the first things that stood out was a panel about Ms. Nancy. If I’m remembering the details correctly, President Jackson brought her to the Hermitage to be a seamstress. The last sentence about her tells that she and her descendants were one of the only slave families to become members of this church. The house was beautiful and I loved the garden. But I found myself having difficulty with the history of the 150 slaves serving the Jacksons on the Hermitage. Their jobs ranged from house cook, to stableman, to field hands. Knowing about the ways many slaves were treated in early America, we only can imagine how harsh their lives were. Now, I realize everyone who was anyone owned slaves back in the early 1800s. But I still don’t like it. The fact that only one family of the 150 slaves of the Hermitage ever became members of this church leaves me wondering:  how can such an engrained trend of racial separation ever be turned around.  . . .  Before we finished our tour, I took my family back to the old church building and explained to them that’s where we have Easter Sunrise service. Had it not been for the fire in the late 1960s, we still might be worshipping each week in that very spot. . . . I’ve read the documents from around the time of the fire when this church re-asserted who it was and who it wanted to be in the future. A strong commitment to worship and study continued – which supposedly was the reason Rachel Jackson first asked Andrew about a space on the Hermitage for a church. From all I’ve read, we have great pride in our Hermitage roots; but as we were moving into this facility, we wanted it to be known that we’re not just the church the Jackson family started. We have our own identity and mission apart from having President Jackson’s pew marked with a memorial plaque, as it is in the old church building. It came through the mission documents that we want to worship God, grow in our faith, and be of service in this community.

It’s all got me thinking about looking to the past. Churches so often do it and in some respects, we must. I mean, we have to know from where we came if we want to know where we’re going. Like: it’s important for us to be aware of the nature of the connections our founding church family had with those around them if we want to address how we best connect with those around us today. I suspect our church members of the 1960s knew that, which is why they asserted their appreciation for our start among the Jacksons, yet affirmed our growth into a church with its own convictions and direction. . . . We just can’t be a rowboat church. You know, you row a boat looking backwards from where you’ve come. But you sail a boat looking forward. Heading in the direction you hope to reach. Attending to the forces of the winds upon the sails right where you stand. It might be comfortable to be a rowboat church. Because we can longingly gaze upon the past, in order to keep us from having to face the unknowns of the future.

It’s what Ancient Israel was doing. There they were, just six weeks into their miraculous freedom from Egypt when they started grumbling against Moses and Aaron, for the second time, no less. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt,” they complain, “When we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. For you (Moses, our supposedly mighty leader, and you, Aaron, his sidekick,) have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” (Ex. 16:3). The pressure’s on. They’re hungry. The unleavened bread they might have brought with them out of Egypt is about ate up. God just had provided amazingly sweet water for them when nothing but undrinkable stuff was around them in the wilderness of Shur. Now in the wilderness of Sin between Elim and Sinai, they’re so afraid they’re going to starve that they long for the past days of their slavery.  . . .  It’s amazing to me how incredibly patient God is with them – with us. They are romanticizing their past. Thinking the security of food in their stomachs under the Pharaoh of Egypt is better than the freedom they have with God at their side in their present circumstances. There they are and as long as they remain rowboat people, looking back to glorify a past that never really was all that glorious anyway –they were slaves. As long as they keep looking back at their past, they will not see the blessings with which God is surrounding them right there in their present. They’ve got bread – manna every morning and quail every night – thanks to the God who is with them trying to make them into something amazing for the future.

A fairly new process for organizational improvement exists called Appreciative Inquiry. Some of you might know of it from your roles beyond the church because it started in business and eventually trickled its way into the church. Appreciative Inquiry is a process in which you take stock of what you have, then build upon that. It sounds so much like common sense. Like: instead of running out to the store all the time to pick up something new because a recipe calls for it; just figure out what dish to create with the ingredients you have in the kitchen. Common sense, right?  . . .  Two sociologists at Case Western University created the Appreciative Inquiry process where an organization is to focus on its strengths in order to improve its bottom line. That’s energizing. That’s exciting. That even seems like the most faithful way to honor the gifts with which God surrounds us each day.  . . .  It no longer becomes about fixing a problem – trying to get something we don’t have, or be about something none of us is really any good at, which seems how we so often tend to live our lives – especially in the church. We either get stuck looking back at how it was and think we need to keep that up today. Or we compare ourselves to how everyone else is – what other churches have that we think we need to have too.  . . .  I’m so very glad God is so very patient with us because just like the ancient Israelites: God is showering gifts on them in their present. Sending manna and quail as their food each day but they keep whining away for something else – something other than the gifts God is giving them today. Churches that operate like that might find themselves as frustrating to God as were those would-not-live-free slaves who found themselves having to wander forty years in the wilderness for God to shape them into something else.

To be guided by Appreciative Inquiry is to name and claim our strengths in order to grow from there. It’s to inquire about what we have to appreciate and then to build upon that. It’s like the story of the wise teacher who reminds that God doesn’t ask why we’re not doing a better job at being Moses. God asks if we’re doing the best job at being ourselves.  . . .  In a nut shell, Appreciative Inquiry includes a five D cycle where you define, discover, dream, design, and then live into your destiny. It’s a way to take stock of the present. To ask the same question the Israelites were asking when they said of the manna: “What is it?” (Ex. 16:15). What is the bread God has provided for us today? What are the strengths we have among us that are God’s gifts to us for being the church today?  . . . Churches that undergo the process are set free to create amazing ministry that is relevant and responsible with the gifts of who they are right in the time and place God has put them. It’s being who God wants them to be:  a present church living into God’s desired future. Seeing the bread God is giving each day and being faithful to enjoy and allow the fruits of that bread to grow.

I realize it might be a new way to be. And I know new things can be scary. Can you imagine how scary it was for Ancient Israel? Nothing about their lives in the wilderness seemed familiar. The story goes that they had to go through huge walls of water with the Egyptian army chasing after them. That had to be terrifying. As far as we know, no other people ever had to do that before. Then they landed in this desolate land – dry and rocky and oh so very dark out there in that great big expanse all by themselves each night. It all was new. Unfamiliar. Unknown. Yet, God was present. Not one day did they travel without the fiery pillar at night and the cloud to shelter them from the hot burning sun of the afternoon. God never leaves us alone. The future always is unknown. New things always are new; but we always are with the One who knows us completely. Who, with or without our cooperation, brings the new out of that which is worn-out. Who holds us in our past, present, and future – to our end and beyond. It’s the God with us who gives what is needed to make it through each day. We’ve no need to fear. Just the curiosity to look around to ponder what gifts do we have for today that will lead the way into our future. What strengths has God provided upon which we can build? What is the blessed bread God has given that will be food not just for us in this place, but for those beyond the walls of this sanctuary?

May the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow open our eyes to see it all.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)

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