This morning’s sermon, Fear and Longing, begins around 21 minutes in.
Change causes stress. There is an index that seeks to quantify levels of stress. Prolonged high stress can cause depression and illness. Just to note it has been found in studies that those who worship, pray, exercise and are part of a community have discernibly less stress. So coming to church is good for you!
A death of a loved one, a loss of job, sickness, struggling in a relationship, watching the news on TV–these are all stress producers.
But positive things can cause stress too: marriage, giving birth, graduation, moving into a new home, getting a new job.
Really any change to the status quo, anything that shakes the foundations of our daily lives, anything that knocks us off balance and causes us to think about the present and the future, causes anxiety.
We find ourselves in that state between anxiety and hope, fear and longing. Living in this polarity is exhausting.
This is why the words of Dag Hammarskjöld – the great Danish statesman – have always meant so much to me:
“For all that has been “thanks!” For all that is to be “Yes!”
Having this trust in God that no matter what, God will rise up. It may not all work out the way we would hope, but God will redeem. Because although the “wrong seems oft so strong…God is the ruler yet!”
This is the Christian faith that we are called on to have especially in these days, especially in whatever situation you find yourself in this morning: “Nothing is good or bad until God gets through with it!”
We have to suspend our certainties in order to make room for God’s possibilities.
On this day when we come together for our annual meeting, through the work of the Nominating Committee, God has raised up “prophets,” leaders from among the people to be those who will discern God’s desire for us at this time in our history.
Isn’t that a wonderful thought? We are witnessing to God’s promise among us!
We have so much to be thankful for: attendance is good, giving is up, so many of you are involved in so many important things, Forest Hill Church even made the national Mission Yearbook of the Presbyterian church for our work as a Sanctuary church. How could we not be in a constant state of gratitude?
And yet this is a stressful time of transition, just like the Jews who come before Moses.
Last Sunday, a group of parents met to discuss the future of the Family, Children and Youth program. Kate and Shannon, our amazingly gifted spiritual leaders, are leaving their posts in June: Shannon for seminary and Kate to return to the pew so she can worship and be a member again.
I feel confident – but there was still a lingering anxiety that kept me up all Sunday night.
The Co-Pastor Nominating Committee is up and running: the “call” has gone out and interest in the position is stirring. God is calling us, I believe, to witness to the world a new way of being church for our age.
I believe God’s spirit is in this: but there is always a wondering, stress in the process.
Several months ago, I led a group discussion about this vision and I still have the list hanging in my office of the gut responses of the participants: “Curious,” “Excited,” “Visionary.” But also “Naïve,” “Horrified,” “Foolish.”
Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish Basque man of letters once wrote that to make life worthy each of us must “marry a big idea and set up house with it.”
But marriage can be one of the biggest stress producers there is! And setting up a new household is tough. Just think of that time you re-did your kitchen or picked a color for the living room wall or tried wall papering! After all, you never know what is under the floorboards or behind the wall.
We are always in between our fear and our longing.
This passage in Deuteronomy is about change. Moses is meeting with the people and trying to calm fears about the transition plan. The people are scared that the next person won’t be Moses. But they are also scared that they might have to look at God face to face – and then they will die.
And Moses says not once, but twice: “God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself.” You won’t be stranded.
Trust the process. God has brought you through the wilderness. God has provided. God will hold the leaders accountable. Some words of the prophets will flourish and others will die on the vine and not come to anything – but follow your longing: trusting God, staying true to the call; and in time (perhaps not in our time) but in time – God will work the purpose out through his people.
Both in Moses’s day and in ours, our job is to trust and be faithful to the process.
Indeed, as the history plays out there are prophets like Moses; leaders who keep the story going and alive, men and women who keep focused on the longing, their eyes on the prize, who keep pushing us in the upward way of the Lord – there are Sarah, and Joshua, and David, and Isaiah, and Micah, and Mary, and of course Jesus who, for Christians, reveals God’s longing for you and for me in the midst of stress and fear.
Last Monday, I went to our Presbytery meeting where we saw a Ted Talk about leadership given by Simon Sinek. One of the points he kept stressing was that great leaders, both people and institutions, focus on the “why” – the purpose, the dream – and not so much on the “how” (logistics), or the “what” (the outcome or the widgets.) Sinek said, “Remember Dr. King had a dream, not a plan.” All things must reflect the “why.”
Logistics and outcome are important of course, but Moses and Jesus and those whom God calls for spiritual leadership – leaders to stand between God and the people, to equip the people of God to become the beloved community of God – they need to be focused on the why, the purpose, the dream. Not on the fear but on the longing.
The Jewish people were asking, “Why are we wandering in the desert Moses?” Why? Because you are the chosen ones, the people of God who will show God’s justice, mercy and love to the world.
Jesus was in the desert 40 days – figuring out the “why”? His “why,” his “big idea,” his longing was to show and teach others to experience the kingdom of God as present in any moment that people are open to it.
Why are we looking for a Co-Pastor? Because we long to inch closer to being the beloved community, to witness to the world what the Kingdom of God looks like as power is shared and racial inclusion is lived.
Christ calls us not to maintain, but to press on towards the prize, to grow from strength to strength.
God promises to raise up new leaders. And we learn from the experience of the Jews and of the Christians, and of the Freedom Marchers, and those who long for Dreamers to find their place in this country, that dreams and longings and hopes. It may take awhile, but we don’t give into the fear.
So we are saved by hope, grounded in prayer, and doing our bit to let things unfold.
Jesus shows up in Capernaum. He has had to spend some time in the desert wrestling with his fear and his longing. And he gets clarity and, after John the Baptist is arrested, Jesus comes into his own and calls disciples – who haven’t seen Jesus do a thing yet, but they believe in the “why” – they believe that Jesus is going to show them the kingdom, and they want to be part of something big.
Jesus astounds folks with his teaching – he has authority, not like the scribes. Jesus gets the big picture… the scribes are stuck in the details.
There is this power emanating from him because Jesus has clarity and he has given his heart and his head, his life to God – Abba – his father. Jesus is opening possibilities, interpreting texts in new ways. Jesus knows why he is doing this now. And Jesus can cast out demons – showing the world that the Kingdom of God is present, right there – and his fame begins to spread.
Jesus still had to go through periods and times of anxiety and fear, times when his longing got swept up in fear, and it was hard. And Jesus died, on a cross, seemingly a failure. His disciples scattered; apparently this was all just another broken dream.
And yet you and I have had an experience with the risen Christ that keeps calling to us to press on, to lean into our longing and not to give more power to our fear than to our longing. To risk the “why not?”
This is why we worship, and why we read the scripture – because in being together, and in hearing the stories, we see and hear and experience again and again and again, that God doesn’t give up on us, why?
Because God is “crazy in love” with you and us, and God’s big dream as St. Paul tells us to “reconcile the whole world to himself.” God became her longing and so we become ours.
God is right now raising up leaders from among us who long for a more righteous way, and are willing to work and pray and birth it into reality. The stress meter will rise, but so too the joy!
If these stories from the Bible teach us nothing else than this it is enough: “Grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.”