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In the Midst of This People
August 6, 2017
A Reading from the Old Testament
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.”
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites. And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” But the whole congregation threatened to stone them. Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites.
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.
This is an interesting text to preach on. This chapter does not present a flattering view of God, or of humans. The Israelites have made the decision that, instead of trusting in God, they would rather elect a new leader and head back to Egypt. Egypt was not great, in fact Egypt was horrible. While the Israelites were in Egypt they lived in bondage, slaves to a cruel Pharaoh who went so far as to order all male infants killed to slow down the growth of the Israelite population. And yet, as the fear of the unknown and unexpected trickles in, the Israelites decide that it’s better to go back to the devil they know than have faith in the God who delivered them from slavery.
I have been on a big fear kick this last year. I think between the political climate and changes in my own life over the past ten months, I have been thinking about how fear influences the decisions we make and the ways that it overtakes our lives. So much of what we do revolves around what we are afraid of, how we plan for it, and how we adjust when, inevitably, things do not go the way we want them to.
So when I read this passage, the first thing I thought of was how scary it must have been for the Israelites. It’s scary in front of them, there are giants occupying a home they have been promised. It’s scary behind them, with the memory of oppression in Egypt fresh in their minds. And it’s scary right under their feet. They don’t have the luxury of knowing how God’s promise will come to fruition. There is no proof that they can direct their attention towards. And right when they think they’ve finally seen that proof, it’s not what they want it would be. Instead, they have to trust that Moses knows what he’s doing, that God isn’t going to abandon them and that, oh yeah, those giants who look invincible? God will take care of them as well.
If I were an Israelite, I would begin to have some doubts. Moses comes along and says that God is going to take care of you, but as you get farther and farther away from Egypt, questions about what exactly is happening begin to surface. Just imagine for a moment, having to get up every day, take your meager belongings and walk towards your next stopping point. You don’t know where that will be. You don’t know where your food and water is coming from, you have to have faith that every morning God will provide for you. You’ve seen the great power of God, you were there when the sea parted, you saw the destruction of the plagues in Egypt and you take some comfort in knowing that you and your family have been spared.
But each day is a new day, full of the unknown. So even though you have seen God’s power, fear begins to creep in. And then, right when you get where you’re supposed to be going, that Promised Land is not what you thought it was going to be. This plan that has propelled you forward comes crashing down around you.
No one said anything about the current residents of Canaan. How can a God this great deliver you to a promised land that is occupied? This was not the expected and it sends the Israelites into a tail spin. Instead of having faith in God and God’s promise, they decide it’s easier to pack up their bags and head back to Egypt.
I genuinely believe that we, as humans, make plans in an attempt to make the unknown knowable. It’s easier to make a plan than it is to come to terms with the fact that we don’t have much control over what happens. I fully embrace this thirst for structure, for knowing what is coming. I am all about trying to know what will happen next, and the unknown, or the deviation from those plans is a huge source of anxiety for me.
I first felt called to work with the church the summer after my freshman year of college. As soon as I came to that realization I sat down and diligently mapped out the next seven years of my life. The plan was to finish up school, spend a year as a Young Adult Volunteer, than enroll in seminary.
I majored in English, with a focus in creative writing. And while I loved that major so much, I did not have any illusions about the kind of jobs available for those who love to write short stories. So when I first felt called to the church it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I had a plan and that plan was flawless.
Except once it wasn’t. Everything was going smoothly, I graduated and headed down to New Orleans to serve as a Young Adult Volunteer, already investigating which seminaries to apply to (although, to be honest, I really only looked at Austin Seminary). But then, around October, when it came time to start the application process I couldn’t do it. My precious, meticulous, years in the making plan, no longer felt right. Did I feel called by God to work in the church? Yes, that had not changed. But I also felt called to stay in New Orleans. It wasn’t time to leave, even if that meant stepping into the unknown.
To be sure, for someone as structured as me, this was a scary move. I knew what seminary would look like, and I knew that I was no longer in the comfortably planned space I had been living in for the past three years. But I needed to be in New Orleans and I needed to have faith that God would stay with me, even as I dramatically changed course.
I was anxious that spring as my fellow Young Adult Volunteers began to set up their lives for the fall. Somehow I found work and roommates and stayed in New Orleans where God was calling me to be. I lived there from two more years, and had jobs that gave me skills that will help me for the rest of my life. During that time I learned invaluable lessons about things like making a budget, creating marketing materials, providing pastoral care for youth and adults. I learned how to recruit volunteers and price out t-shirt costs and create a themed Bible study for youth mission teams who came to New Orleans throughout the summer.
More importantly, by taking a risk and deviating from my plan, I had the opportunity to get to know the amazing city and people of New Orleans. The relationships I made there are ones that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Those people are a testament to the power of faith. Over and over again, people would talk about having to leave because of Hurricane Katrina, knowing that all of their belongings had been destroyed and then making the decisions to come back anyway. Talk about being faithful when all your plans have gone up in smoke.
There were giants in New Orleans, and those giants looked like mold, complete destruction of buildings, corrupt contractors, bad sheetrock, failing infrastructure and especially painful memories of suffering and death. But the call to the Promised Land was stronger than their fear of those giants. It’s been a long, hard path to recovery and there’s still a lot of work to be done. There are many people who still can’t come back because it’s too expensive, and they don’t have the means to rebuild. But that doesn’t mean they’re aren’t trying. New Orleans will never be the same because of Hurricane Katrina, but that doesn’t make it any less holy.
I was in New Orleans for a funeral this summer with my parents. While I was there I grabbed a taxi to meet them for dinner and was chatting with my driver. She asked where I was from and what brought me to the city, and I explained that I was currently in Austin but I had lived in New Orleans for a few years.
She went on to share her story. She had grown up in New Orleans and, in the wake of Katrina her family was moved out to Arkansas. After finishing up high school she moved to Dallas for college where she stayed after she graduated. And after all that time, knowing full well she had no job lined up and no place to live, she made the decision to come back to New Orleans. She explained she didn’t ever think she would come back. Her family had decided to settle in Arkansas because starting over was too expensive and too painful. But after years of wandering she felt called to the city and it was time. She was gone from New Orleans for ten years but she couldn’t ignore God calling her back.
While talking with her, it was very clear that there was no part of returning to New Orleans that was in her initial plans. But God was calling her to something different and she decided to have faith in that call.
I wonder how we, as a church, can be a faithful people rather than a fearful people. In the passage in Numbers the Israelites abandon their faith. They are overwhelmed by their fear which ultimately leads to them wandering in the desert for forty years. We all have a vision of how we want our church to be. How many children we want in Sunday school, what we want to hear from the pulpit, how we expect our campus ministry to grow. If we are truly called to be a faithful people, we are called to look outside of those plans.
This church is in a time of transition. That’s scary, there has been a lot of unknown that has happened over the past couple of years. Some of that has been painful and some of that has been fruitful. You all have needed faith in God to get where you are, and I hope that your faith sustains you as you continue to grow and change in exciting ways. Early in the summer, during a retreat, the staff did some big dreaming about creative ways to show welcome. I say dreaming because it wasn’t the kind of time where they set out a plan that said by this date, A, B and C will be completed. What they did was sit together and said, “How can we think of ways to be welcoming? What can we think of that is big, pie in the sky ideas, and what can we think of that is small, and attainable.” Some of those ideas are exactly that, big dreams for how this congregation can be welcoming in new, unexpected ways. Some of those are doable, they just require faith that God and your congregation will support you as you step into the unknown.
In a couple of weeks, you all are going to have the opportunity to embrace some new, awesome educational changes. Sunday school is not going to look like it used to for children and youth, it is different, and I think it’s going to be really cool. Will it work? I don’t know. But I’m excited to see it and I hope you all are too.
Plans have a space, and a purpose. They provide comfort and direction, they help us navigate our fears. But we are called by God to something bigger than our plans. Having faith, not necessarily that things will work the way we expect, but that God is with us especially in those unexpected times, is what we are called to do. We have the choice, to fearfully retreat, or to faithfully step into the unknown.
This is a unique time, not only for this congregation, but for churches as a whole, to walk with faith. Membership doesn’t look like it used to. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just different than what we know. I hope that when we think of the future of the church we do not let our fear overtake our faith in God. This is a time to fully embrace faithfulness. God is working in the unknown, abiding with us as we move away from our fear and into our faith. We as Christians are called to be faithful, but we have to take that first step.