Rally Day Sunday
August 29, 2010
So where are we going? If you’re a passenger on certain flights of a particular airline, apparently you are going nowhere. In a move that some airline experts feel will catch on in the ever-economizing travel industry, the marketing gurus at El Al Airlines are now offering flights that have no set destination point. This means, quite literally, that they take off from the Jerusalem airport but never actually leave the air space above the city. However, passengers do enjoy a gourmet dinner, drink from a "bottomless" glass of wine and choose from one of four films playing in the cabin - all for a mere $85. Says an El Al spokesperson, "I think it's going to be a great success."
So where are we going? Ted was a guy who was really searching for an answer to this question. Ted was 31 years old when he walked into the pastor’s office that spring afternoon to speak with Craig Barnes, then pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. As Craig tells it, Ted was divorced, a father to a little girl who lived with her mother, and new to the church. He had recently come to DC to “get a fresh start” after his marriage fell apart. It didn’t take him long to land a job with one of the high-tech firms in the town, and it took even less time for him to decide that he hated the job as much as the last one. But he had a lot of bills and child support to pay, so he really needed it. He had met a lot of people since moving to the area, but he wasn’t really close to anyone, including the woman from work with whom he sometimes spends the night. “At least it keeps the loneliness away,” the man sighed. “You know, the nights are the worst.”After this extended introduction, Craig finally asked Ted why he had come to see him, thinking he would surely say that he was at the end of his rope and was wondering what God had to do with his life. Instead, Ted asked Craig if he could use his connections in the church to help him get a job on Capitol Hill.
So where are we going? Where are we going? What is our purpose? What is our direction, our goal, our destination? Are you and I all that clear about the course our life will take, our mission and where it will lead us? Or are we helplessly lost, resigned to being nothing more than aimless wanderers endlessly searching for some elusive truth?It’s an important question for us to ask. Because, once we get past the very basic needs of food, water, air, and shelter; we find that every one of us hungers for direction and a purpose. It’s what holds everything around us together. We need to feel there is something that guides our steps and gives our existence validation. Otherwise, we're nothing more than an El Al passenger; cruising along and enjoying the finer things in life, but going nowhere fast. Or we find that Ted’s story becomes our story; a string of disappointments and grasping for straws, hoping desperately that one of them will be that missing piece in our lives.
So where are we going? It was a question an entire nation asked themselves with each step they took. They knew where they had been, and they weren’t going back. You know their story. Charlton Heston made a movie about it. Disney made a cartoon from it. God’s people were living torturous lives as slaves in the great Egyptian empire. Long gone were the days when their ancestor Joseph was revered as one who saved Egypt from starvation. Now, all Pharaoh saw were hundreds of thousands of people who could rise up against him and threaten his power. So he did what countless dictators have done down through the years – he took away their power and made them his slaves.One man, though, decided he could stand this no longer. He challenged Pharaoh, speaking on God’s behalf. Let my people go, Moses said. Only after ten plagues did Pharaoh let the Hebrews go free. Overnight, it seemed, an entire nation mobilized, packed up and headed out of Egypt’s gates; out into the vast desert and the “Promised Land” that God had in store for them.
Imagine what that must have been like. They had no idea – no idea – where they were going. All they knew is that they were leaving behind a place that harbored bitter memories. But you have to figure at some point, as the gates of Egypt grew smaller and smaller behind them, and as the desert in front of them continued to expand, it had to have been on their minds: Where are we going?God, of course, knew the cries of their hearts. After a generation of oppression, God wasn’t about to let his people be lost again. So scripture tells us that, as they made their way into the deep desert, God guided their path with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. All the Hebrews needed to do was to look up and follow the cloud and fire, and the Promised Land would come. It would take them forty years, but it would come.
A cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Seems almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? I mean, here are these people, wandering into the unknown future before them. And here is a God who gives them the direction they so desperately need with cloud and fire – day and night, a never-ending personal tour guide; leading them away from a bitter past into their promised future.Now let me ask you something – what would you give to know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the course your life is taking, the direction you’re heading in, is precisely where God wants you to go? Not only that, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we as a church, a community of grace - if we, like Israel, had a figurative cloud and pillar of fire to guide our way, to be assured that everything we do and all we are is in sync with God’s will for us?
It seems to me that this image of the cloud and the fire is especially appropriate as we gather together on this Rally Day Sunday. For we're engaged in a similar journey, aren’t we? Here we chart our course as God’s people, coming together for worship, for study, for fellowship, for service. We come together because, simply put, this is our "living out" of God's word.
But that’s not all there is to this journey. I mean, look at the Hebrews – as they left behind the gates of Egypt and their painful past there, they faced other challenges and threats. They faced the depths of an endless desert that had claimed the life of many before them. They faced the bitter wrath of Pharaoh and his army. Even as God was leading them in their journey, that did not change the fact that they still faced all kinds of threats coming at them from all sides.Our journey today isn’t all that different, is it? We may not have to worry about the harsh desert climate here in the foothills of North Carolina. And no Pharaoh’s army is “out to get us.” But you and I, we still know the pitfalls of the journey. We live in a culture, in a world that does not see the same cloud and pillar of fire that we do. We live in the midst of a world that is at best indifferent and sometimes hostile to those who would follow the way of the Lord. And if we're honest with ourselves, we're not without blame either. Sometimes we just plain ignore the cloud and the fire before us. All of which makes being a community of grace and living God's word the joyful struggle it is.
In a book aptly titled, Resident Aliens, authors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon recall a time in their life when they first experienced the struggles of the faith journey. For them, it happened in their youth in Greenville, South Carolina, when, in defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater downtown opened for the first time on Sunday. As they recall, they and five other youth – regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at the church in town – made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, and then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox.Nowadays, of course, movie theaters all over the country are open on Sundays. And that’s really not the point anyway – it’s not Sunday movies that’s threatening. The point is that something changed for those young men that day that made them realize there was something outside their Christian-culture world, something other than the cloud and pillar of fire. Now there existed a choice. God was still very much there, but so was the vastness of the desert and the approaching army. And it would forever be that way.
Today, as the people of God, you and I know the pitfalls of the journey. We feel it when we wake up on Sunday morning and sense the lure of the morning paper and the cup of coffee over Sunday worship. We feel it in the workplace when the easy way out, albeit not the most ethical, captivates our attention. We feel it in school when it’s easier to go along with the crowd rather than reach out to the kid who has no one. We feel it anytime the whims of the world clash with the steadfastness of our faith, leading us away from the cloud and the fire that serve to guide us.And that’s why it seems to me that at some point our role has to evolve from simply being followers to being followers who then lead. We follow the same God who faithfully led us out of Egypt, but we also, through that following, commit ourselves to serve in God’s name. It’s precisely what Jesus did when he sent the seventy out in pairs to serve as witnesses to his life and ministry. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus told them, but the laborers are few. I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
Jesus knew as well as anyone the threatening world that exists alongside the cloud and the fire. Jesus knew that there would be pitfalls, there would be choices; and Jesus knew that there would be those who would choose to go the way of the Fox Theater over the youth group. But Jesus also knew, as you and I do, that there are a whole lot of El Al passengers out there, a whole lot of Teds who simply need to refocus on the cloud and the fire that’s right in front of them. And Jesus knew that he could help all of us find our way home to that wonderful community of grace.
Friends, as that community we know as the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Airy, the task of the Hebrews and the seventy with Jesus continues to be our task today. As we continue following God’s bold lead, wherever that might take us, we are called to reach out to those who feel lost, as well as those who might be overwhelmed by the pitfalls of the journey. And as we come together on this special Sunday, living God's word together, we give thanks for those in our midst who have responded to God’s lead by being leaders in their own right. We give thanks for:
- The teachers of our new Spark Ministry
- Our officers and elders
- Our ministry teams and their members
- Our youth advisors
- Our mentors who work with our confirmands
- Our Bible study teachers
- Our choir members and worship ushers
- Those who serve meals to the hungry and build homes for the homeless
- Our nursery workers
We give thanks to God for these servants, and all servants of God, because they live out God’s word with people who need to hear it; they shine God’s love upon people who are surrounded by darkness; they show God’s faithfulness to people who are lost, who are hurting, and who simply want to find their way home.
So – not to belabor the point, but Where are we going? I would suggest to you, friends, that the answer should be that we are going wherever God leads us. A community of grace, living God's word, today, tomorrow, forever. Let the journey begin! Thanks be to God. AMEN.