Narrative Lectionary Reflection for September 28, 2014
Lesson: Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29
As Pharoah drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. Exodus 14:10
…and then they blamed Moses. Change is tough, no doubt about it. Initially, change can appear as a liberating force, as a breath of fresh air and renewed hope–until one runs into the first roadblock or seashore or precipice. Suddenly change becomes a fearful thing. Nostalgic ghosts and gnarly demons from the past come rushing in to paralyze the potential of the change on the horizon. Then the blame game begins. In the church, we are past masters of the blame game. Just ask those in leadership positions, be they ordained, consecrated, commissioned, or volunteer, and you’ll find plenty of kinship with Moses and his story.
Because we good 21st century church people have much in common with our Israelite forebears, maybe we can play with the lesson a bit and reword it for our time and situation. How about something like this:
As reality closed in, the good church people looked back, and there was the inevitability of their situation hemming them in on all sides (Fill in the blank here with the factors affecting said change: dwindling attendance, aging facilities, empty coffers, etc., etc., etc.). In great fear the good church people cried out to their judicatory body and to God in heaven. They said to their pastor, “Wasn’t the way we used to do things good enough? Why are you dragging us into an uncertain future to minister to people we don’t know and to be church in ways that make us uncomfortable? Why have you done this, dragging us into an uncertain future? Is this not the very thing we said to you in our last congregational meeting, ‘Let us alone and let us serve one another and keep our doors open so that we can baptize our grandchildren and have our funerals in our own familiar place?’ For it would have been better to keep our pews and our potlucks and our precious past than to face death in a changing church culture.”
But the pastor said to the good church people, “Do not be afraid, stand your ground and stake your ministry in this community, and watch God do a new thing among you. For the past you cling to so stubbornly and fearfully you will never see again. God is for you. Quit fretting.
You get the picture, right? Human nature hasn’t changed; only contextual shifts keep things interesting and unsettling to those whom God calls us to serve. Our own Red Sea today is the vast cultural divide that stands between the glory days of the 20th century church and the new reality of a post-Christian age. Yes, there is a wilderness beyond the waters, and as with the Israelites, there is no turning back. What once worked is no longer viable, and the past wasn’t really all that great anyhow.
We are still on a journey, a journey of faith and discipleship. We are a countercultural people–similar to the Israelites in situation–and we DO stand at the edge of a sea of change in our culture and religious landscape. We can’t go back to Egypt. To do so would mean certain death of our denominations and our way of being church. To move forward and put a toe into the water, trusting God to give us dry land on which to journey, is to head into a wilderness of uncertainty and discernment. Neither path is easy, and fear of drowning and losing our way as “institutional church” accompanies the change of moving forward.
And yes, there will be casualties. The chariots and warhorses of our way of being church are drowning. It’s no great secret that the way we’ve been church in North America is passing. Our central place in culture does not remain, and the grand army of Christian soldiers moving onward is covered by the waters of change.
But there is hope, always hope. Our God is a God of liberation and salvation. The Creator of the Universe is always making things new and bringing forth new life from the remnant that follows cloud and fire into a new and uncharted land. Our job as leaders is to stand firm like Moses, to stretch out our hands in hope and point to the cross, knowing that God is with us and that Christ’s church will not be lost. Yes, this is a tough lesson to preach, dear friends, but there is great hope in it. Have some fun with this lesson. Challenge folks to dip their fingers into the font, knowing that they have already been submerged in the waters of baptism and have come out the other side. Nothing can stop us now, as long as we keep our eyes on the Lord and feet moving forward on the dry ground of faith. Stand firm. Proclaim hope in the midst of fear and change.
When I visit congregations I frequently hear the lament that that giving and attendance are down, and as a result mission support needs to be cut. Of course, this is a “cut off your nose to spite your face” approach to planning for ministry and mission. The more one looks inward from fear, the more likely the situation is to worsen. The question I ask in response is, “Do you have a year-round stewardship program in place–or at least some sort of stewardship emphasis?” Most often the answer is no.
Here’s the thing: stewardship programs don’t need to (and most often shouldn’t) start with an ask for a pledge or a tithe. Stewardship programs begin with prayer, an emphasis on discipleship, and education about what it means to be a steward of all the talents and resources God makes available to us. There are no quick fixes; stewardship is a journey.
If you don’t have a stewardship program in place, consider simply beginning this Sunday with an emphasis on “Stepping Forward in Faith as Stewards of God’s Abundance.” Invite your leadership to consider lead the congregation in a 40 day journey of prayer in discernment of gifts and talents and possibilities during Advent. This gives you several weeks to plan a low-key program and some fun opportunities to move people through the seas of change in a way that is hopeful, faithful, and fruitful.
Begin this week with a prayer for a courageous crossing from the old ways of looking at and managing (or perhaps even hoarding) resources to a new way of seeing God’s abundance all around and being faithful stewards of those myriad gifts. Invite congregation members to name and claim the gifts of abundance they see in themselves, in the congregation, and in the community/natural world. Find a way to display these named resources in a colorful and creative way–perhaps fall leaves attached to the branches of a paper (or real) tree or apples in a large basket.
Sink or Swim?
Ask the children if they know how to swim. If you have a story about learning to swim, you can share it with them. My father’s swimming story is the one I would share. His uncle threw him into the water to “teach” him how to swim the hard and fast way. My father was terrified and almost went under. My uncle, however, did not abandon him but went in and encouraged him so that he was able to dog-paddle to shore. He soon became a good swimmer with no fear, and he admits that he might never have “taken the plunge” and learned if his uncle hadn’t helped him along by throwing him in.
The Israelites were facing a “sink or swim” moment. They were leaving the safety and security of the lives they had known. Even though things had not been all that good–they were slaves–the idea of crossing over into unknown territory was scary stuff. Maybe they were afraid of drowning in the deep and scary waters. The good news is that God makes a way–even when we are afraid. God cleared a dry path for the Israelites to get through and then closed the waters over their oppressors, which obviously prevented them from catching God’s people and returning them to slavery.
Show the children a life preserver, a life vest, and some floaties. Remind children that we, too, have helpers to keep us from sinking when we’re learning to swim. The same thing applies to God. We are not alone. We have the example and saving grace of Jesus and the help of the Holy Spirit, the gift of whom we received in our baptism. We don’t have to be afraid of getting wet in this world. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever, God is with us, and the Spirit will guide our days and ways.
Photos: CC-Archer, Liam Moloney, and Petras Gagilas. Creative Commons. Thanks!