Saturday, July 19, 2008

Entering the Promised Land

Joshua 1:1-9

It was really just a few days ago that the family left California and headed East in our two-car caravan for the Promised Land – Michigan that is. We had to travel through Sin City, cross deserts and mountains, rivers and corn fields. We wandered through nine different states and touched the edge of Chicago before we crossed the state line into Michigan. Even then the journey wasn’t over, because we hadn’t reached our final destination. So, we continued driving across the state, entered the Detroit area, stopped in at the Morehouse domain, had dinner and picked up a key to the new house. Only then could we finally cross the threshold and claim our new house in Troy as our own. I could expand on the journey a bit more, but that would take more time than is available. I could also show you some pictures, but that too must wait until another day. The journey east, however, isn’t so much about a new house as it is a new calling and a new ministry. This is, as the hymn reminds, “the day of new beginnings.” And the Promised Land isn’t our new house, but is instead our life together as Central Woodward Christian Church.

1. Wilderness Time

The Hebrews took a journey eastward from Goshen across Sinai toward the Promised Land of Cana. That journey took a bit longer than anyone expected. If you take a look at the map you’ll discover that you can cross Sinai in a matter of a few days, probably not much longer than it took us to drive from California to Troy. But for some reason, according to the biblical text, the Hebrews, under Moses’ leadership, wandered in the Wilderness for forty years. I don’t think it took this long because Moses forgot his compass or because he had hired bad scouts. They wandered in the wilderness because they weren’t ready to enter the Promised Land at the time they began the journey. It took those years of wandering to become a people and let go of habits formed while living in slavery. They also needed to connect with a God they didn’t really know, and yet it was this God who called them out of slavery and promised to give them a new home.

For the past four years, maybe longer, Central Woodward has been wandering around in the Wilderness. I don’t expect that you thought it would take this long to find a pastor. And yet it did. But perhaps there was a reason for the delay. I know that there are plenty of pastors out there looking for a new job. But you weren’t ready – yet. And so you continued to wander in the Wilderness, but this wasn’t time wasted. From my conversations with the search committee and others since then, I’ve figured out that there was just a bit of conflict to deal with and there were some wounds that needed to heal. Perhaps more importantly you needed to seek God’s guidance and discern God’s purpose for this congregation. You needed to wrestle with the congregation’s heritage and what that meant for its future. I expect that this was a difficult period for many in the congregation, and yet I think it was an important opportunity for the congregation to get a sense of God’s vision and calling.

As you wandered at least a couple of guides stopped by, but none of them was as important to the future of this congregation as Pastor Shirley. I know she wasn’t with you for the entire journey, but in many ways she was your Moses. She helped this congregation get a sense of its mission and commit itself to sharing the gospel. She also helped you find your way toward God in prayer. I know that she talked a lot about the need for change and she offered you tools that would help you achieve God’s mission. Yes, God sent Pastor Shirley to lead you across the Wilderness and up to the River’s edge.

In Deuteronomy it’s said that Moses didn’t cross the river. All he could do was climb the mountain and look into the Promised Land. His job was done and another would succeed him. Pastor Shirley took you to the river’s edge, and while she could look across the river, someone else would lead you across the river. Moses had his Joshua; Pastor Shirley had me.

2. Crossing Over Time

Moses appointed Joshua to lead the people when he was gone. According to Deuteronomy, Joshua was “full of the Spirit of Wisdom” (Deut. 34:9), making him ready to lead the people on the next stage of their journey together. When the story picks up in the book of Joshua, Moses is dead and the people stand along the river bank. At that point, according to the story, God re-commissions that “New Guy” – Joshua -- to lead the people into the Promised Land.

The day everyone had been waiting for had finally come, and the remnant got to enter the land. I expect that there was plenty of joy and excitement, but there was probably also a bit of apprehension, concern, and even fear. Some of them might have wondered whether Joshua was ready for the job. Besides they’d heard tales bout the dangers that lay ahead. Whatever the case may have been, it was time to take the next step and inhabit the land God had given them. Now, there’s a lot to this story that we don’t have time to deal with, and some of it isn’t all that savory. But that’s a discussion for another day.

What I’d like to talk about is Central Woodward’s calling to serve as God’s agents of reconciliation and transformation in Troy and its surrounding environs. That is, what we need to focus on is our calling to become a missional people, who will live out the gospel in these communities in such a way that they might be transformed.

3. Be Strong and Courageous

As we look to cross the river, I believe that God has a word for us. It’s the same word God gave to the Hebrews: “Be strong and courageous.” The writer of Joshua uses this phrase three times in nine verses. I think the writer has a message for us, and that message is quite clear: you’ve arrived at the river, but taking possession won’t be easy. Getting this far is exciting, but there will be many pitfalls ahead. There will be areas of disagreement and even resistance -- both from within and from without the congregation. Things won’t always go the way we want. But, if you are strong and courageous, then you will find the strength to say no to the fears and yes to the energizing presence of the Holy Spirit. And as a result we will make a difference in the community; we’ll share the good news that God is in our midst and wanting to transform lives and communities. So, be strong and courageous, for if you are, then your way, our way, will be prosperous and successful.

4. God is with us on the Way

There is no better day than today to cross the river. God issued the call and I showed up to help you taken possession of the land. We can do this because God not only tells us to be strong and courageous, but God also tells us that we don’t go out alone In our text this morning we hear the promise that: “The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” It is God’s presence that makes it possible for us to accomplish our mission. Indeed, God’s promise is unequivocal. I will be with you, and “I will not fail you or forsake you.” That is God’s promise and it’s unconditional. But, God does have some expectations of us.

We also hear in this morning’s text these words: “Be careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you.” It also says: “do not turn from it to the right hand or the left.” And then we’re told not to let the Law “depart out of your mouth,” but instead “meditate on it day and night.” The analogy here is that of the cattle chewing its cud. Finally, we’re told “to be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it.”

Each of these commands reminds us that if we’re going to succeed, we need to listen to God and follow God’s directions. The question is: how will we listen for God’s voice? And the answers are several. God’s voice will be heard as we gather to pray and as we pray in our own private places. It will come as we study together. It will come in our holy conversations. All of this will take discernment, and it takes time to learn to be discerning. But we already have some of the tools needed.

I’m excited that members of the congregation have been reading and discussing the book Unbinding the Gospel. I’m excited that the Council has decided to order copies of the congregational study book, Unbinding the Heart. These are books that deal with evangelism. They help us understand how we can effectively share the message of faith in a way that is appropriate and helpful. One of the things that is present in Unbinding the Heart is a 40 day guide to prayer. It’ll likely be sometime before we start that program, but it will be an important part to our efforts to listen for God’s voice.

The river is lapping at our feet, so let’s enter the land.

Preached by:

Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall

Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Troy, Michigan

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

July 20, 2008

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