Rev. Danielle K. Bartz June 25, 2023
Exodus 19:1-6 “The Road Ahead”
In the archives of our church, as well as the archives of any church that has been around for at least 50 years, there are reports of a time when the church pews were brimming with people. Dozens of children were in Sunday school. The church was a community center, a place that the people in town gave respect to as a rule. The records of most churches with a long history will tell that story. Further, oral stories are passed down and even if no one living was alive at the time, the story is told of times of flourishing and abundance in the church. Of events that packed the building and brought in enough donations to fund ministry for another year. Looking back into any church’s history it is easy to say that God was active within that community.
Those stories are valuable. They remind us of the long thread that we are connected to, a history that can motivate us for tomorrow. At the same time, however, those stories never show the entire picture. As we know, history is romanticized and we love to tell the good parts of the story, and gloss over everything else. Within church stories we talk about big events that brought in hundreds of people, but we don’t necessary talk about the stress and the inevitable conflict that took place in the planning and implementation. We sigh for the days of pews overflowing with people, but tend to forget many of those people were there only because it was expected of them, and the Gospel message never had any importance in their lives. We look back and think, ‘those were the good ol’ days,’ but I don’t think it is much of a stretch of the imagination that it was not as rosy as we all think it was. And it is likely that more than a few people living it were wondering if God was going to show up. Because, the truth of the matter is, it is really easy to look back and see evidence of God’s presence. It can be a lot harder to see that presence in the moment and sometimes downright impossible to imagine it in the future.
This whole notion of trusting in God’s active presence yesterday, today, and tomorrow is very well illustrated throughout the entire Exodus text. More than perhaps any other book in the Biblical canon we have a story of our ancestors that not only describes God’s presence, but also shows that the people were not always quite so sure of it. Throughout the Exodus journey we hear of the Israelites questioning Moses and Aaron; questioning if God was truly with them. The Israelites even are recorded longing for their days in Egypt – longing for the days of slavery. And in chapter 19, in our text for today, we come to a critical transition point. They have left Egypt, they have crossed the Red Sea, and have arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai – the very place that God directed Moses to bring the people to. With God’s help they had arrived at this holy mountain, and soon they would enter into a covenant with God with the giving of the commandments. This text is a turning point, a bend in the road that obscures the path ahead that requires they trust in God’s presence in that moment. God urges them to take those next crucial steps by reminding them, through Moses, of God’s presence on their exodus journey so far. God reminds them that they were carried as if on the wings of eagles to this most holiest of places and times. That even in the wilderness they found food and water. ‘I have brought you this far,’ God reminds them, and ‘next we will enter into a covenantal relationship together. Things will change, the road will look different, but we can walk it together.’
The road ahead did look different. The laws, the commandments, were given. Those not only required a devotion to God in all things the people did, but it governed the way they were to be in relationship with one another. The road ahead required that the people love God and neighbor in equal measure – the greatest commandment that Jesus taught was not new, indeed it was quite ancient. The road ahead required that the people continue to trust God, yes, but also to serve God and one another. It was the establishment of a covenantal relationship. A mutual promise between the people and God – a covenant, God says, that will make the people beloved and favored. They had come to this holy place, and an inflection point in their collective story, and God was calling on them to trust in God’s presence with a reminder of God’s presence in the past, and calling on them to take steps together grounded in that same trust and care for one another.
I believe that we too are at an equally important bend in the road. We, 1st Congregational and the Church universal, have come to an inflection point in our shared story. Looking back, we can see the way God has carried us and our ancestors through. We can see, clearly, that God has been with us, blessed us, given us the courage and resources needed to create an institution that has done great ministry. We can see our ancestors, soaring as if on wings of eagles. But, we also know that the church of yesterday does not look like the church of today and certainly will not look like the church of tomorrow. Too much has changed, and much of that change was of course sped up by the pandemic. And it might be easy for church historians and arm-chair quarterbacks (because the Church has those too) to say, ‘well, yes, we have reached that 500-year mark following the last great upheaval, the Reformation, and history has shown that the Church universal goes through a fundamental shift every 500 years.’ It is easy to say all of that, it is much harder to live it. It is much harder to remember and trust that just as God was present in our glorious past, that God is present in our glorious present and will be just as present in our glorious future.
One of the biggest barriers to living in that trust is well articulated in a phrase I very recently came across – pragmatic atheism. Pragmatic atheism is the idea that we feel that we have to do it all on our own. That the survival of the church today and into tomorrow depends solely on us, and us alone – leaving no room or thought for God. It is the absence of trust or belief in God’s presence here and now, giving us what we need, more than what we need, to be that glorious church of today and leading us to tomorrow.
That is why the hymn On Eagle’s Wings that so many of you love, and rightly so, is good for us to sing aloud. The hymn tells us two stories: it is a reminder of God’s protection and shelter, and presence that can be trusted, a presence that can be clearly seen when we look back. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is a reminder that that same presence is with us today and tomorrow. The refrain, “And he will raise you up, on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand,” that refrain is a reminder that we too, at this very moment, are being carried along by God. We too, right now, are being carried in the same extravagant way that our ancestors were – helping us to do church today. Yes, it doesn’t look like yesterday – we don’t want it to. And it won’t look like tomorrow – because the church must always be changing in order to truly be relevant. But we are not doing any of this alone. Not only do we have one another, but we have, must assuredly, God’s presence. So, it is perfectly safe for us to take bold steps into the future, resting on that trust.
I will conclude with this idea. Instead of spending our energy thinking of the past, longing for a time that certainly was not as rosy as we may think – instead, we can think of our descendants. When we make our decisions, our choices, we can ask ourselves this question: “what kind of ancestors do we want to be?” When our descendants look back at this crucial turning point in history, will they look back and grieve that we did not trust God enough? Or will they look back on us, proud that we lived so fully into that trust of God’s presence to provide what we need for today and tomorrow to do the vital work of the church. Will the stories they tell about us be ones that make it clear that we too are soaring on the wings of eagles? Amen.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – we can so clearly see your movement throughout history. We can look back and see how you guided your people with grace and love. And, in the moments when we can truly be open to your Spirit, we can see the way you are guiding us here and now. For this constant, unending presence, we give you great thanks. And it is that sense of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
Your presence, God, is the thread that connects us to our ancestors and our descendants to us. You hold all of us, in all times, in the palm of our hands, nurturing us and giving us what we need to take bold new steps into tomorrow. When we falter in remembering that, give us signs that we can recognize. When we doubt, give us hope. When we worry, give us courage.
Just as we pray for ourselves, we pray for all those in the world who need reminders of your presence. In these moments of silence, we open our hearts and spirits to you, trusting that you hear our deepest prayers and respond…
Good and loving God, we are so grateful for the ways you move in our lives. And in particular, we are grateful the teachings of Jesus Christ which have led us to this moment and guide us into the future. We pray all of this and so much more in his name, and now using the words he taught…Our Father…