There are always times when one pastor leaves or a new pastor comes. These are difficult times of leave-taking but can also be exciting times of new birth. Congregational members in the middle of such transitions play a crucial role in the overall health of the Church. Here is a sermon I preached for one such congregation. Perhaps you will find some encouragement in the midst of your own transitions.
Common Lectionary for Sunday, August 11, 2011
Matthew 15: 21-28
Let us Pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts together be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Several years ago, the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators used the term Sankofa as the theme for their annual national convention. Sankofa is an African word meaning “flying forward, reaching back.” In essence, it is the art of moving in a forward direction while recognizing and claiming the past. It helps us understand who we are, and why and how we came to be. It also gives us a foundation for growing into who and/or what we will become.
Joseph, in today’s Old Testament lesson, interprets the time his brothers abducted him and sold him into slavery in a much broader scope than their heated actions of the moment about 10 years before. He looks back and sees what they did out of jealousy and anger. He sees it as a life-defining moment that prepared him to later preserve their life during a 7-year famine. Here’s what happened:
Since the time they sold him, he experienced trials and tribulations through allegations of adultery and prison time. Even in prison God was with him, interpreting dreams for his fellow prisoners. Finally, through God’s gift of dream interpretation for Pharaoh himself, Joseph ends up in the second highest seat of power in Egypt.
With God’s grace he leads brilliantly, putting in place a program of saving a portion- or tithe- of food each harvest for 7 years of plenty and then providing a positive revenue stream for Pharaoh through the selling of those very same foodstuffs during the 7 years of famine that follow. When his brothers arrive, two years into the famine looking to buy food for their small tribe, Joseph interprets all that happened to him in the past in light of what he can now do to serve his family into the future. Flying Forward, Reaching Back.
When Joseph first reveals himself to his brothers, they are terrified and can only look back at their earlier actions. They stand before him mute and trembling. Surely Joseph will punish them for their actions, as he would have every right to do. God, however, propels all of them forward into a strange future together; one that will bring five more years of drought to the land, but one in which Joseph, Benjamin, the rest of his brothers and even their father Israel, all arrive from their homeland in Canaan to settle in Goshen, Egypt where Joseph the younger brother provides for them all.
In our New Testament lesson today, we have Jesus himself learning to take a broader look at things. The Canaanite woman comes and asks for a miracle, and Jesus, being the dutiful Son of God, claims he is has only been sent to the lost sheep if the house of Israel, meaning the twelve tribes, or the families of the descendents of Jacob-who if you recall God renamed Israel- and of which Joseph was the head of one of those tribes.
The Canaanite woman persists with unassailable logic and in the end wins Jesus over to her cause, Gentile that she is. With this story, Matthew deftly interprets the grace of God as being extended to all people—not just the Jews, who are the descendents of the 12 tribes of Israel—Matthew universalizes the grace of God for all—even Gentiles! This, my friends, is a foretaste of the Great Commission that is to come 13 chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel account; the Great Commission that we ourselves are bound to even down to this present day and in this present congregation. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Why do you suppose I remind you of our calling and this passage now? Because, I tell you truly, today we—all of us—are at the cusp of a new age. Some questions that come to mind are, “Is Jesus still with us?” “Is he relevant?” “What is the Good News today and how do we live as witnesses of it?”
In the broader Church today, the societal upheavals that affect us include a major generational shift, a major technological shift, a major shift in ways of communication and in forming relationships one with another. Less attention has been given to personal interaction and more attention seems focused on remote social networking.
Perhaps Sankofa, this “flying forward, reaching back,” is precisely what we need to provide framing for our faith journey; not only for our denomination, but also for this particular community of faith in the transition period you now face.
Sankofa: Flying Forward, Reaching Back. What does this look like for you? You are about to embark on a new journey. An interim pastor will be with you for anywhere from 18 months to two years, defining your common call to ministry for this new age. I imagine this is both an exciting time and a frightening time for your community. As with all transitions, I imagine there may be some fear and trembling among you. After your previous pastoral relationship, you may be experiencing feelings of loss, anger, or grief. You may be seeing the edge of new hopes and dreams. Both of the are, and you are not alone. Yes, you will have choices to make in your mission together when new leadership arrives. You will need to look at your past, claim what is your own history and unique witness as a community of faith, and decide what aspects of that shall remain as you forage ahead into a new chapter of your life together in witness to Jesus Christ as Lord. Amidst the fear of change, there will be opportunities for new directions, and there will be new means for ministry provided for you.
To assist you in this journey, let us reach back and remind ourselves who we are as Christians. We are followers of Christ. We are called to be connected to God and to one another. We are called to go and make disciples of all nations. That is our mission. We are called by God to build a community of believers. This community is covenantal in nature, and intentional in practice. In this community, we worship together, study scripture together, pray together, and reflect on the community’s experiences in light of God’s Word, and hopefully grow in our journey of faith. Inviting others outside this community to join us in our journey is necessary for our own witness and for our growth. We love them, we pray for them, we visit them and we even feed and clothe them if necessary; in short, we live Christ’s example for them because God first loved us. They in turn become Christ for us. Remember Jesus says, “Whenever you do this to the least of these, you do it to me.”
These practices, then, define how we, instructed by the Holy Spirit, serve. For Christians, Jesus Christ, the love of God, and communion with the Holy Spirit enables all ministries among us to be. At our best we are a missional expression of the Kingdom of Heaven.
You are now in the midst of a transitional period in the life of your community. This is often a painful time, but also a time to renew your life and ministry together. Now is the time in which to focus on the unique gifts this church family has in service to the community, corporately as well as collectively and individually. Now is a time to remember, to identify, to commit, and to expand those gifts into a missional movement.
Now is your defining moment to determine how you might best act out the love of God into your next chapters together. Bringing new staff to your church does not mean that your ministry will just naturally unfold and the paid staff will take care of it. You must apply yourselves to doing ministry, enacting a missional, even prophetic, movement. Both within this community and in the community outside the comfortable walls of your church. It will be challenging, yes—especially in the context of this contemporary culture. But you—we—must act, because that is our calling as the body of Christ. As the process unfolds, it will continue to become clear what kind of leadership you can demand of staff, and what kind of leadership you yourselves need to take upon your own shoulders. Together, in partnership, with a solid team, you can carry out the ongoing and future ministry of this community successfully.
In all of this, the good news of Jesus Christ is this: You are not alone. The Apostle Paul reminds us that God is for us and not against us. You are one member in a family of churches all with the same goal in mind: to live out Christ’s Love, the Kingdom of Heaven, to make known the love of God, the reign of Christ on earth, and to share in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
To God be the glory, now and forever more, and may each of us, you and I, live out our lives in honor of the One who lived, who died, and who rose again, even Him who is the Christ.
Let us pray: Now is the time, O Lord that we each need to reach deep into the well of your Eternal Springs. Fill us to do your work; in our homes, in our workplaces, in this church, and in our own hearts. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.
Deep Peace be with you, Light Eternal shine upon you.
Like clear flowing springs within you,
May the Breath of the Wind stir your soul.
May Love hold you, May Spirit guide you,
All the days of your life.