The Moment in Which We Find Ourselves
Exodus 16: 1-8 and Matthew 5: 13-16
It’s been a year! We are caught between two worlds like Alice stuck partway through the looking glass. The world as we knew it is behind us -- and the world that we are entering is still being revealed. We don’t yet know what it will be. This is a strange moment in time. As much as we would like to, we can’t go ‘back.” “Back” no longer exists.
New World. (Culture shift)
Like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s stories we realize that this is a new world we are entering, unlike the one we’ve known before. Every expectation of how life has been is shifting. Past habits won’t work in this new world, any more than old 8track tapes will work in our music media now when CDs are old-fashioned. Some of the culture shifts we are seeing were beginning before the pandemic – but the pandemic speeded up all kinds of change.
In our Exodus story, the Israelites woke up to a new world. They have gone through the Looking Glass. They a few days past the parted Red/Reed Sea and realize that their food is running low. This isn’t Egypt with roasting meat sizzling on street stall spits, the fragrance of spices wafting through the air, and the mouth-watering aromas of persimmons and prickly pear as you pass piles of their sticky sweetness. No (pause) -- they paused at Elim with its 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees, but they know they won’t be staying there – and in every direction from Elim nothing there’s nothing but sand as far as the eye can see.
And they complain…..of course they complain. Life has gotten difficult with problems they’ve never dealt with before. They would rather go back to the problems they knew, the ones they had been dealing with for years. We can handle slavery and abuse, they said – as long as we can have meat and bread regularly. Let’s go back. We want the life we’ve known.
Let’s not be too hard on the ancient Israelites. We have the same tendencies. We too would like to return to a time before this last year. We’ve had too many losses – not just the deaths, although they cannot be discounted.
Over half a million Americans have died in this pandemic – more than all of the American soldiers in every war and police action and other military involvement combined. But we’ve had other losses too.
We’ve lost family celebrations, favorite activities, time with family and friends.
We’ve lost any optimism we once had about the world getting better.
We’ve seen people we love with intolerance and biases that have left us stricken at least as much as the pandemic ever could. Regardless of our individual views, we’ve faced the unpleasant truth that our nation is not who we thought we were.
We have watched family and neighbors struggle without jobs and some with inadequate amounts of food in ways we never thought could happen in the good old USA.
We saw unequal medical treatments for people with COVID based on race, income and neighborhood -- and watched for 9 minutes and 29 seconds while George Floyd was murdered by a police officer. This year has brought losses upon losses.
Nostalgia after such year is a temptation. We would like to retreat into a remembered past, usually a bit rosier than the reality, but at least familiar, instead of moving forward into an uncertain future. Nostalgia tempts us to ask why things aren’t the way they were before the whole world changed– instead of working on the moment we are in. Yes, we’ve lost a lot in the past year. As much as we would like to – we can’t go back. There is no “back” to go to. This is a new world. New challenges, new dangers and new uncertainty.
We’re in the wilderness.
We’re in a wilderness. Wilderness is the ongoing metaphor for CHAOS in the Bible. Here we are – in a wilderness moment. There’s a lot of Biblical tradition to support us. The Israelites in the Exodus, Elijah under a broom tree, most of the prophets, and John the Baptist and Jesus all spend time in the wilderness, the place of CHAOS. (Pause) In the wilderness, one gives up control. In the wilderness, one is transformed by God. In the wilderness, directions are changed, calling is clarified. In the wilderness, everything shifts.
In the wild places, the ordinary rules don’t apply and people are changed, not by their own agency, but by God. “In this foundational story of the saving and re-forming of God’s people (in Exodus), the only character in the story with agency,” with the power to act, is God. Even Moses, who appears to be the main character of the story, seems to understand eventually that he cannot do what God is asking without God’s help. God leads Moses and the people, but it is step by step – Moses doesn’t know enough to strike out on his own!
In a wilderness, there’s also a whole lot of blaming going on. Arguments abound. When things aren’t going well, we tend to look around for someone to blame. We argue about the reasons that things aren’t going well. We focus a lot of energy around the arguments and blaming, instead of facing the challenges before us.
In an explanation of the life cycle of organizations, Gil Rendle talks a great deal about the downward curve or decline. The upward curve is visioning and structure. At the apex is ministry – and then it slopes down through nostalgia, polarity and – if a new visioning growth cycle doesn’t occur -- death. He explains that when energy fades in the congregation, what is needed is a new vision focusing on WHY. “When energy begins to fade, quietly courageous leaders do not look back and mourn the loss of once abundant energy; they look ahead to a bolder vision that will require (and stimulate) the natural production of a new flow of energy,” Rendle says.
If polarity cycles aren’t interrupted, the death cycle ensues where visitors don’t want to come to church and neither do its members. A clear purpose provides a focus for energy, alignment of efforts, and an attraction for new people – and unless that evolves, churches see a steady decline of resources and people until it dies. Churches can be transformed, but not if they continue blaming, patterns of nostalgia, and polarization. What is needed is a new vision and commitment to allow God to transform the congregation. Hanging curtains in the tent and focus on the good old days can discourage God’s transformation process.
This is a wilderness moment we’re in as the church– not just because of scarcity of resources – but because this is a moment with the possibility of God’s transformation working on us! But we need to know what moment we’re in, and work with it. We need to remember that we are in the wilderness.
This moment we’re in holds possibility. It holds opportunities.
YOUNGER? How many of us, when we think of ourselves, think of ourselves as younger than we are? MOST OF US, to be honest. It is a natural tendency – we know a lot more about who we were than who we are now. It’s true of churches too. Ask a church who they are and they’ll start on past traditions, patterns, programs. But to seize the moment we are in, we need to ask, “Who are we now?” “What does call us to make different now? Who is our neighbor now?”
PURPOSE? When we consider these questions, it might help to review how Jesus described the purpose of his followers. We are to be salt. We are to be light. If we take these descriptions seriously, there are things we must leave behind.
We can’t stay locked in our arguments and polarity. To do so means we cannot offer light to the world. To do so means we lose our saltiness.
We cannot stay focused on the past. Having been light in a previous age will obviously not help our own.
Instead, we have to consider what to do in this moment we are in that will offer salt that preserves, prevents decay and offers taste to the world.
Instead, we have to consider what we can do in this moment that we are in that would offer light to the world.
In Frozen II there is a moment in which Anna describes the challenge of our moment too. She is in a cold, dark cave alone with her wrap held tight around her.
“The life I knew is over – the lights are out.
Hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb. ..
This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down.
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind
. “You are lost. Hope is gone.
But you must go on – and do the next right thing…
But break it down to this next breath, this next step This next choice is one that I can make So I'll walk through this night Stumbling blindly toward the light And do the next right thing.
Take a step. Step again. …
And with the dawn, what comes then,
when it’s clear that everything will never be the same again?
Then I’ll make the choice, to hear that voice,
and do the next right thing.”
Be light. Be salt. Love our neighbors with more than words. Those are the next right things.
We’re in a new world, a changing moment. We are in the wilderness where God works transformation. And our task is to be salt and light. That may be the vision that we need to hold – in order to do the next right thing in this moment that we are in.
[i] Rendle, 153-158. [ii] Gil Rendle, 73. [iii] Rendle, 74. [iv] Rendle, 171, [v] Rendle, 171. [vi] Rendle 170. [vii] Rendle 171-2. [viii] “Do the Next Right Thing,” words and music by Kristen Anderson-Lopz and Robert Lopez in Disney’s Frozen II.