Exodus 14: 10-14, Luke 19: 36-40
September 26 2010
The story goes that a family was sitting down for their traditional Sunday lunch after church. As Dad carved the turkey breast, he asked his six-year old what he learned in church that day. The young lad spoke at length about a story from some book called Exodus, where the Hebrews had escaped Egypt and arrived at the Red Sea. He took a bite and then continued telling his father that, when they saw Pharaoh's soldiers coming, they pumped up inflatable boats so they could float across to the other side.
Now I want to stop here for a second and ask you a question – and this is not the writing-down type like we've been doing: but what if that really was the way it happened all those years ago – so that the image that's made its way down through time to us is not of a larger-than-life Moses with hands outstretched and staff raised to the heavens, but a frantic Moses blowing up inflatable rafts with super-human lung power? Would that make the miracle by the Red Sea any less of a miracle?
Well, we thankfully don't have to deal with that – but the boy's father did. He stopped carving the turkey when he heard the part about the inflatable boats. He looked at his son and said, Now wait a minute, I'm confused – is that the way it really happened?
His son gazed at him with very serious demeanor and replied, Dad, if I told you the way my teacher told me, you wouldn't believe it! (Alex A. Sternberger, LaughLines, Presbyterians Today, September 1997, 5)
To be sure, there is a lot about our faith journey that is “unbelievable.” And on this Dedication Sunday, as we conclude our Fall Discipleship journey, it is a journey that, oddly enough, has us standing still. Like those Israelites of long ago, who took pause as the waters of the Red Sea were parted before them, we have given great thought these three weeks to what keeps us “standing still” in our walk of faith. And we've centered our journey around three questions the people asked Moses at the water's edge:
The first one: Weren't the cemeteries large enough in Egypt?? We talked about how the people let their fears get the best of them. And to this question, Moses later answered, DO NOT BE AFRAID.
The second: What have you done to us?? Last week we looked at how the people tried to lay blame elsewhere, unable or unwilling to face change. And to this question, Moses answered, STAND FIRM.
And now, we arrive at the third and final question the people launched in Moses' direction. And it's a good one!
Didn't we tell you this would happen??
In other words, We knew all along it was going to come to this, Moses. We knew it way back in Egypt, back when you were so excited about leading us into the desert. We tried to tell you this wasn't a good idea, that only bad things would come of it, but you wouldn't listen. You were having too much fun, relishing in your little victory over mighty Pharaoh. Who, by the way, is not a good person to offend. Do you happen to see that approaching army, Moses? Don't you know what this means for us? Didn't we tell you this would happen??
You gotta love those Israelites, don't you? Cause they look and sound an awful lot like us sometimes! We've seen the fear-mongers, we've heard the blamers, and now we meet a new breed: the naysayers. You know these people. They are the ones who almost seem to take delight when things go awry, who claim to have known all along that something wasn't going to pan out. The ones unwilling to believe that the impossible might actually be possible. The ones for whom inflatable boats seem more plausible than parted waters.
Naysayers have been around as along as there have been people to say “nay.” I can picture in my mind, somewhere deep in the recesses of human history, a guy banging a chisel on stone and creating what would become the very first wheel – and his buddy standing next to him, shaking his head and saying, It'll never work! I can hear the naysayers that had to have come out in full force when NASA began talking years ago about the ludicrous idea of putting a man on the moon. I can hear the naysayers in the St. Louis Rams locker room back in the late 90s, when a washed-up quarterback and grocery store bag boy named Kurt Warner walked in to his first training camp – the same Kurt Warner who later that year would lead his team to the Super Bowl Championship and break all kinds of passing records while doing it.
I can hear the naysayer that once plagued American engineer Robert Fulton as he tested out the world's first steamboat. The naysayer kept yelling, It'll never start! It'll never start! And after the steamboat pulled away from the dock and moved majestically up the Hudson River, the observer quickly changed his tune to: It'll never stop! It'll never stop!
Thankfully, most of the time the naysayers are on the wrong side of history. Most of the time. But sometimes, the naysayers get the best of us. I'm thinking of Justin, who was a third-grader in my class growing up. He was a nice-enough kid, and I liked to sit next to him at lunch because his Mom packed double-stuff Oreos every day. But that wasn't the only thing that Justin's Mom filled her son with. I found out later in the year that she spent an awful lot of time telling Justin how stupid he was, how he would never amount to anything, how he was no-good just like his father. I always wondered as a kid why she did this. I still do. Not surprisingly, Justin learned to live up to her expectations – or down to them, as it were. I don't think Justin made it to fourth grade the next year.
When we stand on the cusp of something extraordinary, when we find ourselves at those “parted-water” moments in our lives, when God's goodness is as good as it gets, that's when the naysayers come out the strongest. And the thing is, it's not always an outside voice doing the naysaying. More often than not, the voice comes from within us. And it plays right into our doubts and fears; it looks for someone else to blame in the midst of change. And if we're not careful, it can get the best of us, especially in our walk with Christ: No, I'm not going to church this Sunday; I'm a little upset with something and I need a break. I won't be able to help with Friends Feeding Friends this week; I've just got too much going on. I like the idea of giving more to the church in Fall Discipleship, but you know, the economy's tough and I don't think I can swing it. We become our own worst enemy – we become, in effect, our own naysayer.
So as we have done the past two weeks, I invite you to grab a pen or pencil and find the bulletin insert. Take a minute to jot down some thoughts to this first question: IN WHAT WAYS ARE YOU YOUR OWN WORST NAYSAYER WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR JOURNEY OF FAITH? ...........
Look at that list for a second. The voice of the naysayer is a powerful one, isn't it? Especially when it comes from ourselves. And in that regard we are a lot like the Pharisees in our other scripture reading today. Jesus and his entourage had staged a little parade in Jerusalem. It looked like an innocent celebration, but the Pharisees knew differently. They knew that another parade was going on at the same time on the other side of the city; this one with Roman soldiers and all the pomp and circumstance of the Empire. It was their way of kicking off the Passover celebration and reminding the huge crowd of people who descended on Jerusalem – not unlike the crowd that comes here for Mayberry Days – it was a way of reminding them who was really in charge. And as the ones commissioned by the Roman empire to keep the peace, the Pharisees knew that Jesus' little soiree could be seen as high treason. So they pleaded with Jesus, as one translation put it, “Get your disciples under control!”
The voice of fear and doubt. The voice of discontent. The voice of the naysayer.
To which Jesus responds with what has to be one of the classic lines in the entire New Testament: If these people were silent, even the stones would cry out! In other words, “No matter how hard you try to snuff out God's action, you can't do it. God acts regardless!”
And that, my friends, is an entirely different kind of voice It is the voice that trumps the naysayer; the voice that dispels the fear and removes the doubt. The voice that is so strong and powerful, so prevalent and persistent, that even a mass of mineral matter can't hold back!
It is the voice that told those women and men in our country's space program in 1969 that it was in fact possible to go to the moon. It's the voice that compelled a washed-up quarterback shelving Cheerios at the local grocery store to give his dream one more try. It's the voice that compelled Justin to overcome his obstacles and led him to the dean's list every year at his Ivy League school. It is the voice of Jesus to us; and it is the voice of Moses as he answered God's people by those parted waters, saying: SEE THE DELIVERANCE. See God in action!
And there really could be no greater message for us in our faith journey, could there? For we, too, are a people standing before a promise – right here, right now! But even so, we are still fearful of the unknown, we are hesitant to change, we are prone to listen to the naysayer within us. And thanks be to God that absolutely none of that changes the fact that we are standing before the promise, if only we open our hearts to see it.
Which is why I'd like to ask you to spend some time on one last question, jotting down your thoughts, and this may really be the most important question of them all: WHERE DO YOU SEE GOD IN ACTION IN THIS CHURCH? WHAT ARE THE PARTED WATER MOMENTS FOR FIRST PRESBYTERIAN?
I thought, in addition to having some time to meditate on your own thoughts to this question, that you'd appreciate hearing from some of your brothers and sisters in Christ on where they see God in action in our church:
There are so many places in our church where we see God in action. Here are some special ones to me. I see God in action in the hundreds of cans of soup we collect for the Souper Bowl of Caring, to help feed the hungry in our community. I see God in action in the faces of the people who work at Friends Feeding Friends at First Baptist Church to help provide people a meal. I see God in action in the Backpack program that allows the schools to pack food for kids to have on the weekends to eat. I see God in action in the Pennies for Hunger and Yokefellow Ministry. But one that's especially dear to my heart is in the financial support we provide for Surry Medical Ministries, which is a free clinic with a pharmacy to serve the uninsured and poor in our community. This is where I see God in action in our church. (Millie Beal)
I see God in action in all of you - but I definitely see God in action in the little ones in our church. I've taught Sunday school and I've been on mission trips. And the kids really change your lives - they know exactly what to say. I want you to pay attention to them. (Alex Mayes)
You may not know me; my name is Bruce Arnold. I retired here to Mount Airy in August, and I've been attending the church since mid-August. I see God in action in your church in that you have a great mix. I came from a church in Texas where the average age of the congregation is 73! But here you have babies, toddlers, young couples, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged adults and retired people like myself - all working together. You converse with one another; you're not a group of people who don't really do anything together. And I've seen this in Friends Feeding Friends and Habitat for Humanity, where there were young and old all working together. This is really a great revelation for me - I've been a member of a lot of Presbyterian churches, but the best ones are where everyone is a big family working together. I really appreciate this church. (Bruce Arnold)
Folks, as these three have said, as you yourselves know, we are a blessed congregation. And it's not because we possess lots of things, or because wonderful people fill our pews every Sunday, or because we've served God faithfully for 150+ years. We are blessed for no other reason than the fact that we are children of the promise, plain and simple. And that promise has brought us here to this Dedication Sunday, to yet another parted waters moment. So DO NOT BE AFRAID. STAND FIRM. And SEE THE DELIVERANCE.
Do you see it, my friends? Do you see God in action? Because you do, let us never cease to shout with the stones! Thanks be to God! AMEN.