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Sermon on Deut. 30:15-20; Josh. 24:14-15; Matt. 4:18-23
When Moses speaks to the Israelites as they get ready to cross over into the Promised Land, he delivers a kind of commencement speech – though not the kind we hear in Woody Allen’s famous parody: “We stand at a historic crossroads. One road leads to total annihilation, the other to existential despair. Let us hope for the wisdom to choose wisely.”
That is not the choice the Bible presents, I’m happy to say, but the people of Israel are at a crossroads, and they have a real choice to make. Moses is preparing them for a new life without his leadership. It has been 40 years since God delivered them from the sweatshops of Egypt, 40 years of getting to know this God, who has cared for them like a mother eagle sheltering her brood under her powerful wings. God has fed them with manna from heaven, made water gush forth in the desert, and given them the Ten Commandments to help them order their life together. The whole wilderness experience has been a time of testing for them, and they haven’t always passed, but now they are getting another chance. They are, in fact, hearing one of the most explicit calls for a decision in the entire Bible:
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…” (30:19-20)
Moses is calling the children of Israel to make a conscious decision to enter into God’s covenant with them with all their heart and mind and strength. Living in this relationship by taking the commandments seriously is to choose life and blessing; anything else is the way of death.
This choice is later reiterated by Joshua, the leader God chooses to replace Moses to take the people into the Promised Land. In an act of covenant renewal, after the crossing of the Jordan and settlement in the land, Joshua calls them again to faithfulness as a conscious decision: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
It is a stark choice that Moses and then Joshua present to the people, and the Bible is realistic about the people’s chances of always choosing right. They will, in fact, make some very wrong choices, choices that will jeopardize their very relationship with God, cause them to forfeit their land and send them into exile. Again and again they will choose death instead of life, yet even in their wrong choices they will learn that the God of grace, deliverance and promise is only waiting to show kindness to them. God has already provided them with the ingredients of a good life. “Choosing life” simply means accepting these gifts as the blessings they are, and then committing themselves entirely to God and God’s way.
The call of the disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – is not presented as a choice. The way Matthew tells the story – really, the way all four Gospel writers tell it – the disciples didn’t decide anything. It was more like they were plucked out of their settled lives and co-opted for purposes they were still unaware of. In other words, Jesus has happened to them. His power of attraction is such that he has only to speak and they follow. And Jesus himself doesn’t seem to be the least bit interested in their status, their credentials, or their availability to be away from home for long periods. He just chooses them. Unlike Moses or Joshua, he gives them no information about what to expect, where they’ll be going, or who these people they are going to “fish” for are. He lures James and John away from their fishing business, causing them to abandon their family commitments. Poor old Father Zebedee left on the shore with his boat and his nets is a casualty of the kingdom of God coming with hurricane force in Jesus of Nazareth.
Once they are in Jesus’s orbit, the disciples, like the children of Israel, will make some wrong choices: they will deny Jesus, betray him, and desert him. They will fail him, but he will not fail them. And these timid, sometimes faithless disciples will go on to do extraordinary things: bring healing to the sick and sorrowful, speak truth to power, and preach good news to the poor.
The way the Gospels tell it, to be caught up in the life of Jesus Christ is to be chosen for life: abundant life, life that is risky, unsettled, sometimes even dangerous, but never boring or predictable. It is a life that takes us beyond ourselves and what we think we can or cannot do. The whole Bible is a story of God calling ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
For most of the past three years, my job as your interim pastor has been to help you define what God might be calling you to do. This has involved helping you describe your identity as a congregation, name your gifts and passions, do some dreaming about what you would like to see MPC become, and determine some priorities for your future ministry with a new pastor. Over these three years, we’ve had many conversations about the state of the church: the unavoidable fact that the pews – physical or virtual – are not as full as they used to be, that overall giving has been declining over the last decade, that it’s getting harder and harder to line up volunteers to keep church programs alive and healthy. One thing I would like to say is that the fact that these things are happening doesn’t mean that you have been doing things wrong, just that you need to rethink these ways for the future. What has been happening at MPC, even before the pandemic, is happening in almost all Presbyterian churches and in the mainline denominations in general. The church in North America is probably not going to return to the way it was in the 20th century, and it doesn’t need to.
That’s because the followers of Jesus Christ will find new ways of being the church and serving the communities around us, and these ways will be just as life-giving – maybe even more so – than our older models. In the future, even when the pandemic is finally over, we are likely to measure our vitality not so much by the fullness of our pews or the size of our budget but by the number of lives touched or transformed by the church’s ministry. God still has plans for ordinary people – the very people the Bible calls the “saints” -- to do extraordinary things.
Always remember, though, as you explore new ways of being the church in the 21st century, that the one with the “attractional” power is Jesus Christ, not us. Whatever we do to expand our ministry and reach more people, we have to keep pointing to him as the reason for our existence. If we are not doing that, all the church growth strategies in the world are little more than a business plan. Ultimately, people will be attracted to Manassas Presbyterian Church, or any church, by seeing the transformed lives of the followers of Jesus: ordinary people called to extraordinary things.
There is a corollary to this: your new pastor is not the Messiah. The Messiah has already come. Pastor Dawn will be ready and able to lead you in helping to realize some of your dreams for this church, and I know she will bring some great ideas of her own about some new approaches to ministry and mission. She will help you give shape and focus to some new initiatives – but she will be here as a fellow worker for the gospel and your spiritual leader, not the savior of the church whose presence will turn the church around in short order. You and she will think creatively and faithfully together about the best way to serve God and the world in this place.
I am grateful to have been part of your ministry here, and I have confidence that great things are still ahead of you. I have seen enough of your energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to feel certain that you will find many more opportunities to show the love of Christ in this community and the wider world.
Ministers come and go, but the people of God endure. And that is who you are, the people of God, “citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles with Christ himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20). Your spiritual ancestors are the disheartened Hebrews God brought out of slavery in Egypt and formed into a nation and the fainthearted disciples Jesus called from their fishing boats and tax booths: ordinary people, called by God to do extraordinary things.
So live as people Jesus Christ has happened to. Love God, care about what Christ cares about, live as people who have chosen life, and the God of grace and deliverance and promise will guide your way to blessing.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
November 1, 2020