(Exodus 13: 17-22, Luke 10: 1-12)
So where are we going? It’s a simple enough question: where are we going? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? If you happened to have been on certain flights of El Al airlines a few years back, apparently you were going, quite literally, nowhere. In a move that some felt would catch on in the ever-economizing travel industry, the marketing gurus at El Al Airlines offered flights that had no destination because they never actually left the airspace of the city they departed from. Now think about this for a minute! They would literally fly around in big circles and then land back right where they started. This actually happened, people! The apparent draw was that passengers got to enjoy a gourmet dinner, drink from a “bottomless” glass of wine and choose from one of four films in the cabin – all for a mere $85. Said an El Al spokesperson at the time, “I think it’s going to be a great success!” Not so much.
So where are we going? Ted was trying to figure that out. He was 31 years old when he walked into the office of Craig Barnes, then pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. As Craig recalls, Ted was divorced, a father to a little girl who lived with her mother, and new to the church. He had recently come to DC to get a fresh start. It didn’t take him long to land a job with one of the high-tech firms in town, and it took even less time for him to decide he hated it as much as the last one. He had met a lot of people since moving, but he wasn’t really close to anyone, including the woman he was currently dating. After this introduction, Craig asked Ted why he had come to see him, expecting to hear he was at the end of his rope and seeking some spiritual direction. Instead, Ted asked Craig if he could use some of his connections in the church to land him a job on Capitol Hill.
So where are we going? What is our purpose? What is our direction, our goal, our destination? Are you and I clear about the course our life will take, or are we aimlessly searching for some elusive truth? Or are we somewhere in the middle?
It’s an important question for each of us to ask. Because once we get past the basic needs of food, water, air, and shelter; every single one of us longs for direction and purpose. We need to feel there is something that guides our steps and gives our existence validation. Otherwise, we’re nothing more than an El Al passenger; cruising along and enjoying the finer things in life, but going nowhere. Or we’re like Ted – trying to string together disappointment after disappointment in some way that makes everything suddenly make sense.
So where are we going? It was a question an entire nation asked with each wilderness step they took. You know their story. God’s people living torturous lives as slaves in Egypt. Long gone were the days when their ancestor Joseph was revered as the one who saved Egypt from starvation. Now, all Pharaoh saw were hundreds of thousands who could rise up against him at any moment. So he did what countless dictators have done through the years – he ruled them with an iron fist, squashed their hopes, made them slaves.
One man, however, decided he could stand this no longer. Moses challenged Pharaoh, speaking on God’s behalf: Let my people go! Only after ten plagues did Pharaoh oblige. Overnight, an entire nation mobilized, packing up and heading out of Egypt’s gates; out into the vast desert and the “Promised Land” that God had in store. They, of course, had no idea where that land was. So scripture tells us that, as they made their way into the deep desert, God guided their path with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. And all the Hebrews needed to do was look up and follow the cloud and fire, and the Promised Land would come. It would take them forty years, but it would come.
A cloud by day and a pillar of fire. GPS, circa 4000 BC! Here are these people, wandering into an unknown future. And here is their God giving them direction. Day and night, a never-ending personal tour guide; leading them away from a bitter past into a more hopeful future.
So let me ask you something – what would you give to know, beyond a shadow of doubt, the course your life was supposed to take, the direction you needed to go in? God’s unquestioned thumbs-up at every corner and turn? What would you give to know that? And not just in your life, but in the life of this church – wouldn’t it be great if we as a congregation, like Israel, had a figurative cloud and pillar of fire to guide our way, to be assured that we were lock-step in sync with God’s desire for us in the coming year, five years, ten and twenty years….
In some ways I think that’s precisely what days like today are all about. Today is Rally Day Sunday. It marks the beginning of a new church year, the return of beloved programs and ministries – Sunday school, youth group, choir, Weekday School, book clubs. The return to our sanctuary! But Rally Day also marks the beginning of a much deeper journey, charting our course as God’s people into the wilderness. And true; we don’t have to worry about a harsh desert climate here in the Queen City; there’s no Pharaoh breathing down our necks.
But there are still struggles that come with the journey into the wilderness. We live in a culture that does not see, or does not follow, the same cloud and pillar of fire that we see and follow. And if we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes we don’t do such a great job of following them either. It’s the fear that gets in the way. It’s the apathy. We tell ourselves that the journey will require too much of us, and we need to preserve what we already have. We tell ourselves that not everyone will like the journey, not everyone will be happy, and we don’t want to ruffle any feathers. We tell ourselves that the change required is too much change, and we’re better off just keeping things as they’ve always been.
In their book aptly titled, Resident Aliens, authors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon recall the very moment their wilderness journey began. They were teenagers living in Greenville, South Carolina when, on a Sunday afternoon and in defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater downtown opened for the first time ever on a Sunday. As Hauerwas and Willimon recall, they and five other youth – regular attendees of the Methodist church Youth Fellowship – made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, and then quietly slip out the back and go hang out with John Wayne at the Fox.
Now today, of course, it’s no big deal to have a movie theater open on Sundays. In fact, for some it’s the perfect way to enjoy a lazy afternoon after church. But back then it was huge. And not because movies on Sundays are some terrible thing. No, what was threatening about it was the unsettling realization that even on a Sunday, there was something counter to the Christianized culture; something other than the cloud and pillar of fire that could lead folks in a different direction. That could give them a choice – and with that choice, the possibility that they might choose something else.
You and I, we live in this tension, all the time. We feel it, all the time. We feel it when we wake up on Sunday and sense the lure of the morning paper and coffee over worship. We feel it in the workplace when the easy way out, albeit not the most ethical, captivates our attention. We feel it in school when it’s easier to go along with the crowd instead of reaching out to the kid who has no one to stand up for him. We feel it anytime the whims of the world clash with the steadfastness of our faith, causing the cloud and pillar of fire to fade from our view for a time.
Some thousands of years after those Hebrews wandered the desert, Jesus sent his disciples out on a journey of their own; a journey to spread the gospel and the love of Christ to all. He did this, knowing full well the struggles they’d face. Which is why he spoke to them as plainly as he could: The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
Now, with all respect to the son of God, this hardly sounds like much of a rah-rah speech, don’t you think? I mean, it’d be like me on this Sunday standing up here and saying, Hey everybody, get excited about all the great stuff that’s starting up in our church – but man, it’s going to demand a whole lot of our time and energy and commitment, and you may find these things less compelling in a few months, but hey, get excited anyway!…….. Like lambs in the midst of wolves. Doesn’t sound like Jesus is being all that encouraging….. Unless – unless what Jesus is saying is not, “you really need to be afraid of the wolves,” but rather “I really need you to be lambs. Because the world is in such pain, the world is vicious and wolf-like, the world has lost its way. And I need you to show them the way – my way.”
My friends, on this Rally Day Sunday, we embark on a journey that is just like every other Rally Day, and like no other Rally Day. And as we head into the wilderness, like lambs among wolves, we are called by God not to follow our own plans and agendas. We are called to follow the cloud and pillar of fire. We are called to follow our God. For it is in this following that we not only learn where we are going, but we learn, with God’s help, who we are.
And who are we, exactly?
- We are Sunday school teachers and youth advisors, who will be commissioned later in this service;
- We are elders that make up our session, who have laid out a bold vision for our church for the coming year; a vision that excites me tremendously as your pastor, a vision that will be shared with you in our Stewardship season next month;
- We are members of our staff leadership team, both those who have served faithfully for many years and those who are just joining us today;
- We are our new class of elders, next year’s nominating committee, and our associate pastor nominating committee, all of whom you’ll elect at the congregational meeting following worship;
- We are choir members, returning from a summer hiatus, who fill this space with beautiful song;
- We are ushers, who extend the irreplaceable ministry of hospitality and service as an act of worship in worship;
- We are nursery volunteers who care for our church’s youngest; and our Weekday School staff, who even in the midst of a leadership transition continue to further one of the oldest and most cherished missions of this church.
And we are everyone here, all children of God, fellow sojourners into the wilderness. Which means, of course, that the responsibility of this journey belongs to all of us. It is a shared journey. It’s not a journey reserved for some future generation of Trinity Presbyterians, it’s not a journey just for the pastors and the session. It is our journey, all of us! Let me be clear about it: if you are hearing the sound of my voice at this moment, if you are sitting in these pews this morning or listening to or reading this sermon online, then congratulations, my friend, and praise Jesus, because YOU have been tapped with the immense responsibility and tremendous opportunity of helping us figure out where we are going.
The time to wait for someone else to take the reins is over. The time to fear change just because it’s different from what we’ve always known is over. The time to sell ourselves short because we are afraid we might fail is over. Now is the time to dare to dream; now is the time to expect of ourselves as much as God expects, now is the time to plant ourselves squarely alongside our Hebrew brothers and sisters of long ago, looking out into the desert before us, and saying to ourselves, I cannot wait for the journey to begin!
So – Where are we going? May I suggest to you, Trinity Presbyterian, that we are going wherever God leads us. Following the cloud and pillar of fire, like lambs amidst the wolves. Could there be anything more unsettling, more frightening, more amazing and more transforming than that? In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God; and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.