Saturday, April 05, 2008

Looking into the Promised Land

Deuteronomy 34:1-9

At the end of my junior year our swing choir, of which I was a member, was singing at the senior assembly. The song we sang was The Way We Were, which goes like this:

Mem'ries, Light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were
Scattered pictures, of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another, for the way we were

Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time re-written every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? Could we?

It seemed like everyone in the choir got a bit teary-eyed as we sang. Our emotions were a bit divided, of course. The seniors amongst us looked forward with excitement to the new opportunities that graduation would bring, and yet they also knew that their journey might mean never seeing good friends again. And, as for us juniors, while we looked forward to finally being seniors, we weren’t quite ready to let go of our senior friends. And so for a moment, at least, sadness took hold of us. We knew that change was in the air, but we would just as soon postpone it if we could.

1. At the Edge of the Promised Land
In this morning’s text we watch as the wilderness journey is about to end. Years earlier, as the biblical writers tell the story, Moses and Aaron had led the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery into the freedoms of the Sinai desert. Now, if they’d just gone straight across the desert, they could have gotten to Canaan in a matter of days, but in this story it takes 40 years. The trip took longer than they had planned because they had so much work to do together before they would be ready to go into the Promised Land.

Over the course of the journey a people is formed, laws are given, and they come to know and depend on their God. Throughout the journey, Moses is their leader, but now, as they reach the edge of the promised land, Moses climbs the mountain and looks in.
Standing at the edge of the Promised Land, Moses knows that he and the generation that had come out of Egypt forty years earlier couldn’t go in. Now quite elderly, Moses’ time of leadership is about to come to an end. He has already given his blessing to the tribes and has passed the mantle onto another. But, having reached the point of entrance, he has the opportunity to look into the land flowing with milk and honey, and look back at what has been. There are, of course, sad memories here, but many happy ones as well. The times may have been difficult, but they have grown strong in faith and as a community.
2. Can’t Cross the River
Moses got to look into the Promised Land, but he didn’t get to go in.
For the past four years we’ve journeyed together. In many ways this has been a wilderness time for us. Although we look back fondly, there were difficult times and decisions. But at the end of this leg of the journey, we can say that we are stronger as a people. We have a better sense of who we are and where we should be going. While I wouldn’t claim to be Moses, and I’m not planning on dying anytime soon, I know that my time as pastor of this congregation is coming to an end. Like Moses I’ve been given the opportunity to look into the Promised Land. I’ve been given a sense of the good things God has in store for this congregation. But I also know that I won’t be going with you into the Promised Land.

When I came here, nearly four years ago, I didn’t expect to stay so long. I figured you’d find a pastor and I’d figure out what I was supposed to do with my life. Things changed and I stayed for another three years. My title changed and in many ways my role in this congregation changed. I went from interim to be pastor, always knowing that a time would come when we would have to discern God’s direction. That time of discernment has come, and in recent weeks it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be going into the Promised Land with you. As the congregation’s search committee began its task of discernment, my name went out to congregations across the country. I was happy to stay here, but in the end I heard a compelling call to take up a new ministry in a place far from here.

For some of you this announcement will come as a surprise, while others of you have known that this was about to happen. Next Sunday, at a congregational meeting, the members of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan, will vote to confirm a previous vote by its search committee and board to call me to be its pastor. I will begin this new ministry in July, after Brett and Cheryl finish their school years. Although Brett was accepted at Cal State Northridge, he has decided to come with us. That decision on his part has made our decision to go much easier. Last weekend, while in Michigan we met the congregation and even bought a house. We are excited about this new ministry, but we will be sad at leaving this place.
In the weeks between now and our move to Michigan, I will return to my original role. For a short time I will again be the interim. There is work to be done so that you’ll be ready when the next person comes.
3. Waiting for Joshua

I think verse 9 is an important verse. I personally hear it in two different ways. In one sense I become the Joshua for Central Woodward. They have been in a time of wilderness themselves, but now they’re ready for someone to lead them into the promised land. At the same time I believe that God has a Joshua for this congregation.

After Moses comes down from the mountain, dies and is buried, "Joshua son of Nun" who is "full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him," steps forward and takes up the mantle of leadership. God hasn’t left the people leaderless. There is a changing of the guard, but God has readied Joshua for this task. Now that Moses is gone, the people embrace his leadership – just as Moses had commanded them.

I don’t know who your Joshua is. Even the search committee doesn’t yet know who that person is. She might be a woman or he might be a man. This Joshua could be young or not so young, experienced or perhaps not so experienced. But unlike the last time the search committee went to work, this congregation isn’t divided and its not hurting. It has a sense of purpose and identity. That sense of purpose and identity will give the search committee strength as it discerns who to call. It’s possible that this person might not be ready to come on July 1. There may be an interim period, hopefully not long, as the choice is made.

I want to say thank you for your love and support during this time of ministry. When I came to you, I was hurting and I didn’t know what my calling was. I needed to heal, and that healing has taken place. And as a result I’m ready to take a new challenge in a new place. I will be a better pastor because of my time here. I will miss you and I will often think of you – especially when it gets down to zero at night!

But take courage, because God is with you. I believe that the same Spirit that led me to Central Woodward, will lead another to this place. I look forward to hearing the reports of new ministry taking place here in Lompoc. And, so "If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we? Could we?"

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
3rd Sunday of Easter
April 6, 2008

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