(Audio from Minneapolis 7:00 pm Service)
This passage from Deuteronomy is not unlike a commencement speech. Forty years ago they were freed from their identity and purpose as slaves. They’d only known themselves as foreigners, laborers, the oppressed and forsaken descendants of Israel. And then they passed through the deep waters of death and rebirth, set free for something different than their past. But whoever signs on for different?
At first, it was easy to talk about the past, remembering the pain of Egypt and scarcity with rose-colored glasses. When the going got rough in the wilderness, they reminisced about the certainty of slavery: the work, the conditions, the grub – the daily goal of survival seemed comforting in the face an unknown future.
But God did not bring them through the Red Sea for more of the same, for business as usual, for dreams stunted by scarcity and work rooted in fear of death. So God invested in contextual learning for a whole generation, forty years in the wilderness, for deep transformation, the molding of a new identity and purpose. God’s saving presence and promises were like fuel for this caravan of beloved people stumbling forward.
It took forty whole years to teach them a new story, to draw them into a narrative about who they are, whose they are, and what their work and lives will mean for the world. God wove this calling into their worship and food, their laws and their clothing, their leadership and rituals, their politics and relationships. The wilderness was full of stories about how the people were offended by change – and about how God used those seasons of struggle to bond them to each other and the truth about God’s abundance.
You are not this place or that, this mountain or that tent. Keep moving.
You do not belong to your tribe more than you belong to me.
You have enough to sustain you and to share.
Now they stand on the edge of wilderness, the messy and vulnerable journey that broke down everything they were and built them new, that stripped them of everything they thought they needed to reveal what actually matters.
The Promised Land is not the finish line. They’re home, but it doesn’t suddenly get easier. Challenge and change will persist, but now they expect it. They are in shape to move through death and resurrection on a regular basis. They won’t feel so threatened by transformation because the wilderness years have given them a solid understanding of who they are and whose they are, an identity and purpose that will move through adversity and war and victory and famine and destruction and exile and homecoming for generations to come.
These words from Deuteronomy are called the Shema, which means Listen Up. This is the call as free people. This is your identity and purpose as children of God in the world. Your faith and community and daily work are holy and matter. It took a whole generation, but now this is written on every fiber of your being so that your identity and purpose remain true no matter the setting or circumstance.
Christians, we live in a world still stuck in Egypt, where most people are afraid of death and choose certainty over adventure and have forgotten how to dream beyond survival. And so, since the Exodus, God has been calling and forming people for a different identity, set apart as chosen people, as signs of life, as ambassadors of heaven’s freedom.
If we believe this is true, that God finds us in our fear and death and certainty and status quo and then leads us through the wild growing pains of resurrection life: belonging, adventure, and big dreams for the sake of the world…
Why doesn’t the church look like this? Why do we define how well we’re doing as resurrection people by how happy and comfortable we are, by how many people are inside our buildings, by how palatable our operating budgets or mission appeals sound?
Two years ago a study showed the ELCA has about 9,000 congregations.
Only about 200 of them are showing real significant growth in participation and mission.
We are quick to blame church decline on millennials, money, and technology.
Or have we been so busy trying not to die & have forgotten how to be alive?
When I ask about Minnetonka’s discernment around the consolidation with Bethlehem in Minneapolis, I often hear, “We didn’t have much of a choice. We didn’t want to die.” But have we stopped to wonder why we’re alive? Why God wants us alive? I can assure you, it isn’t for more of the same, for the fears and certainties, creature comforts, or a respite from change. (8,800 congregations are doing more of the same.)
Turning our faces to the unknown isn’t a threat. It’s an invitation. We are the wilderness generation, being trained into resurrection shape, learning to trust the stories about who we are and whose we are and that we matter in the face of every unknown. We are learning to roll with change and embrace the mess that is being alive and on the way to the Promised Land. We daring to dream big and beyond ourselves, find new ways to be useful and formidable in a world trapped in survival mode.
To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
The Israelites move into the Promised Land where change is constant and mistakes are plentiful and life is just as wild. But they go by the grace of a God who heard their cries for freedom and never stops leading them into that freedom: away from fear and death and certainty and themselves…toward belonging and life and adventure and big dreams.
And while they stumble forward into the unknown, God continues to prune was is too heavy and what is dying so that they are always being changed, always being made new. And at the center of it all is an identity and purpose so embedded in their story that it is on every breath, baked in every bread, rejoiced in every song: Hear, O Israel. The Lord your God is one. God is worthy of all of your love and life. Everything you do matters because God is profoundly invested in your whole identity, moving you from death to life for the sake of the world.
It’s the story of vocation: ordinary people called beyond themselves thanks to God’s intolerance of the status quo.
This is what it means to be baptized in Christ, folks! To die and rise each day, pulled from the snares of stagnant weariness into the miracles and mercy of heaven come down, a God with wind built into the Trinity so that we remember the one who saves and satisfies is the same one who shapes us through change and moves us forward.
If you are listening to this sermon, congratulations. You aren’t dead.
But have you heard the call to be alive? Because, it turns out, that’s something entirely different. In fact, that’s the call. Amen.