Exodus 18: 1-27; Matthew 28: 16-20
For the Installation of Rev. Grace Lindvall
So there the disciples are, with Jesus, on a mountain. Very “Moses” of Matthew, the gospel’s writer, as he’s labored long and hard to convince readers that Jesus is the “new Moses.” Leading the people out of bondage and headfirst into the promise. And now, it’s time for a new chapter to be written. Like Moses, Jesus would cross the proverbial Jordan only through the people he brought there with him. In his case, a nation of eleven.
Jesus says a bunch of powerful and profound things here, and I don’t mean to discount any of them, but you could summarize all his words – 61, if you’re reading the NRSV – with, somewhat ironically, the 13th one:
That’s it in a nutshell, right? GO. Vamoose, sayonara, bon voyage. In the words of the prophet Semisonic, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” (1)
Go, because you can’t keep this Good News to yourself. Because then it wouldn’t be good news anymore, would it? Go, because this isn’t just about you, only about you, only for you.
Go, but not with a manual of operations or guidelines or curriculum. Not even with a session-approved agenda! Go with me, Jesus says. I’ll be with you always, till the end of the age. That’s all you’ll need. That’s all you’ll ever need.
Some time before she came to be with us, in one of our many phone, text and Facetime conversations, I asked Grace what her favorite Bible verse was. And yes, this is typical pastor-chat when two clergy meet, kind of sizing each other up: exciting stuff like “what color stoles do you have,” “what theologians do you read,” and “what brand of coffee inspires your sermon muse the most” (for me, Larry’s Beans, House blend). Anyway, Grace answered without hesitation: Matthew 28:16-20. The Great Commission.
Which makes perfect sense for someone called to a position for Missions and Church Growth. It’s an odd pairing if you’re thinking traditional associate pastor roles, but not at all odd if you look at what the church is becoming today. It used to be that the entry point for most people into church was a specific program or ministry – youth group, Sunday school, that sort of thing. Nowadays, with the “spiritual-but-not-religious” on the rise, studies show that people are most drawn to a church that is actively engaged in their community and world and working hard to make a difference. In other words, they’re doing stuff. Which means Missions and Church Growth are now two sides of the same coin.
Although it isn’t like that’s some new concept or anything. Back when Jesus stood on the mountain with the eleven, he wasn’t commissioning his disciples to manage programs, balance budgets or order Sunday school curriculum. They were called to engage in mission that would grow the church through an amazingly simple and completely uncomplicated directive: GO!
And yet…….and yet, here’s the thing:
It’s not all that simple, is it?
I have to ask. Because as amazingly uncomplicated as this directive is, the church’s recent track record indicates otherwise. Like we just don’t get it. Like the church – particularly the North American church – is failing miserably at the Great Commission. Our directive, in fact, seems to be something else entirely.
I heard someone name it a few years back. Ike Kennerly was, at the time, executive presbyter of Salem Presbytery; and my church had invited him to our pulpit one Sunday. Ike preached on the Great Commission, emphasizing that the working mantra, mission, vision of any church worth its calling should echo Jesus’ single command to GO.
But that is not, Ike observed, what churches often do.
What churches do is more an inverse of the Great Commission. What Ike, a child of the south, liked to call Y’all come. Y’all come. There is Jesus on the mountaintop with his eleven disciples. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. So – Y’all come! Ya’ll come to church on Sunday. We’ll open the doors for you. We’ve got some nice pews to sit in. We’ve got beautiful music and a good word to share. Heck, we’ll even throw in coffee and cookies afterwards, and you can take the bulletin home with you if you want. Now granted, you still have to make the effort to come to us. But we’re the ones with the nice church building, right? So y’all come, okay? Y’all come!
And while our open and hospitable attitude is admirable and very much needed, Ike said, we still wonder why the people are not coming like they used to. As one scholar puts it,
We ring our bells, conduct our worship services, provide baptisms, confirmation, weddings, funerals – and wait for the world to come to us. We mount pulpits and preach sermons as we’ve done for centuries. We pursue internal arguments over doctrine and order as though nothing outside has changed. But much has changed, and the people are not coming back. (2)
Is it any wonder “y’all come” isn’t cutting it? With “y’all come,” we just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. With “y’all come,” the working assumption is that “they” will always come to “us.” And as the church is seeing more and more these days, that’s a pretty huge assumption to make.
Should we be hospitable, greet newcomers with a smile, serve the coffee, print the bulletins? Yea, absolutely. “Y’all come” has a place in church, no doubt. But first, Jesus says, first we have got to GO.
And it’s not just that we GO. It’s how we GO that makes all the difference.
I love the passage Liz read earlier – one I never paid much attention to until my friend Michelle Thomas Bush preached it at my installation nearly two years ago. I’d love for it to be required reading at all installations, and here’s why.
God’s people are hanging out in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, and Moses is holding vigil at the foot of the mountain. And one day he’s visited by Jethro, his father-in-law, who brings Moses’ wife and sons for a little family reunion. The two talk shop for a while and Moses shares all that’s going on. Jethro plays the wise old sage, listening and affirming Moses. Seems like things are going well, he says.
The next morning, though, Jethro finds Moses consumed by an exhausting game of “judge and jury” with the Israelites, dealing non-stop with complainers and swindlers, hypochondriacs and haters. The line is ridiculously long, I-77-at-Lake-Norman-on-a-Saturday long. And near the end of the day when Jethro finally gets time with Moses, he expresses his concern. This is way too much for one person. Why are you doing it all by yourself?
Moses responds as the classic overachieving workaholic – Because these people need me! I’ve got to do this. It’s my job.
And I love how Jethro responds. He doesn’t let the moment pass; nor does he lay into his son-in-law. He speaks the truth in love: Moses, you cannot do this alone. You shouldn’t do this alone. You’re no good to anyone if you’re no good to yourself. It’s Jethro who suggests finding caring, competent people to help him. Share the burden so everyone plays a part, everyone has skin in the game, and Moses don’t wear himself out.
I love the fact that Moses – the self-actualized, staff-wielding, water-parting, stand-in-the-very-presence-of-God Moses – even he can’t do it by himself, shouldn’t do it by himself.
Go, absolutely Go. But do not – do not – go alone.
It’s a profound and powerful message for us this morning. And by “us” I mean a couple of “us-es.” I first mean you, Grace; the called and actually-about-to-be-installed Associate Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church, can I get an amen! You go, my friend, but don’t you go alone.
This is advice you’ve heard before, I know. I remember watching part of your ordination on the Brick Church website back in June. Your friend John Russell Stanger gave your charge that day. I was so impressed with what he said that I felt it was imperative for your new church family to hear it today. Listen to what John told her:
Today, Grace, you’re being welcomed into a special group. It’s name might be, Dazzling Young Saviors of the Church! And it’s charge to you? “Help! We’re shrinking! Go find the young people!” We’ve become obsessed with lifting up creative millennial ministers like you to solve our problems. But as your friend and colleague, I charge you to fail at this. Continue to be you—sassy and strong-willed, yet rooted in laughter, your humility of perspective and that incredible self assurance you possess. But I charge you to defect from the club of Saviors for the sake of the gospel, the Church, yourself, and the very people who expect you to save them.
I charge you to fail – not typical ordination/installation talk, but spot-on here. And this comes from someone who, like many, has been swept up in the excitement of a “dynamic millennial pastor” entering our midst. Thank you, Grace, for showing me, showing us in just a few weeks that you are so much more than that. You are Grace! Don’t let us try to make you into anything else. As one who works hard to avoid the pedestals churches often put their ministers on, I echo John’s words that no one should expect you to be our savior. That job, thankfully, is already taken.
And because you can’t and shouldn’t GO alone, because you have to go with someone, we are elated, Grace Maxwell Lindvall, that that someone gets to be us. Which means, of course, that Jesus’ words on the mountain and Jethro’s advice for Moses speak as directly to the members of this congregation as they do its minister.
And we must embrace this if we are to be a church that thrives instead of dies. Please hear me when I say this – we cannot, we must not move forward into our future partially or with just a few leading the way. We must go together. All of us. Clergy and laity. Long-time members and new members. Those who pine for days gone by and those who are thirsty for new water. Children and youth and adults. We GO, but we must, we absolutely must GO together.
I’m wondering if you’re familiar with the term “ubuntu.” Ubuntu – have you heard it? It’s an African word, a beautiful word; so beautiful it takes five English words to unpack it. Ubuntu essentially means: I am because we are. I am because we are. In other words, while we are individuals with our own gifts and uniqueness, we can only come to know our most complete and whole selves when we are in relationship with others.
It was Bishop Desmond Tutu who unpacked Ubuntu best when he said this:
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another. Ubuntu reminds us that we are connected, and what we do affects the whole World. We cannot be human by ourselves.
Kind of sounds like church, doesn’t it? Not a “y’all come” church, but a “GO together” church. That’s why today’s installation is not about a single person. It is, truly, an installation of all of us, every last one of us. The commissioning of God’s church to GO, and most importantly to go together.
And this is not some lip-service kind of together. This is not “sitting in close proximity on Sunday morning” together. This is a real, deep, connectional, lasting together where hands get dirty and feet get busy and lives get intertwined, and somewhere in all of that the gospel is made manifest through the presence of God among us. If our church is going to thrive and not die, it is this kind of togetherness we must pursue. There simply is no other way.
We GO together, to the people we are sent to, be it our Room In The Inn guests on Wednesday nights or visitors for a food truck event or whoever God has us meet on some new mission venture we haven’t even thought of yet…..
We GO together, into meaningful conversations about the vast resources we have in our midst and our undeniable charge to commit our support, individually and corporately, for the mission and vision of this congregation with time, talent and treasure….
We GO together, as one body of Christ, one mind and spirit, to further not the agenda of a few but the kingdom of God that Jesus climbed that mountain for in the first place…
In just a moment, my friends, we get to install a new pastor; and there will be questions asked of her and promises made by her and hands laid on her. But I think Jesus and Jethro would agree that we’re all being commissioned today with the joyful task of living into the mission and vision of God’s great church, to be the hands and feet and heart of our Lord in the world. All of us, together. Ubuntu. We are because the church of Jesus Christ is.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s GO. It is time. It is time to GO!
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!
(1) – From the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic. My friend and fellow minister Marci Auld Glass quoted a different lyric from this song in one of her sermons for the 2015 Montreat Omega Youth Conference, so I’m borrowing her idea here.
(2) – Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (95-96).