Saturday, August 10, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 9, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16 From a Distance

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land:  Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 The Lord said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." 5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord 's command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth- peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.  (Deuteronomy 34: 1-6)

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
In this is faith, that we believe the promise and hold fast to it, even though we will die without having seen its fulfillment.  And yet we believe.
From an early age I’ve been aware of the church, both as a safe haven, my home, for it in fact was.  My father being a pastor, I literally grew up in the Church.  It is home.
But it has also been a place of turmoil and conflict.
That said, I have lived my life with a promise.  A promise that speaks to me of what the Church will one day be, even if today it is not.
During the summer Karla and I met at Bible camp, in 1976, our theme was “Shalom”, or the Peace of God.
One of the lessons lifted up the passage from Isaiah 11 about the Peaceful Kingdom.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

A number of things within this passage speak to me of what the Church is promised to be:
·         It is to be an inclusive community.  “With, And, and together” are throughout this passage. 
·         It is to be a community of repentance, specifically, there are two things that must be let go of for peace to be achieved.  Fear and hostility.  Put bluntly, the ‘wolf’ needs to repent of eating lambs, and the ‘lamb’ needs to quit fearing the wolf.  Only then can peace happen.
·         And finally, the Church is to be a place where They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
A second passage that has spoken to me about the promise of the Church is in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Why are we here????
Because we are God’s ambassadors, given the message to share with the entire world, not just through our words, but by being reconciled to God and one another.
Early on in my adult years, I clung to these promises as an ideal of what the Church might be.
Karla and I joined a mission congregation intent on creating that very type of community.
However our youthful idealism would soon be replaced with a brutal realism.
Our beloved pastor was involved in sexual misconduct.
And the Church, we discovered in the years which followed, often was a place of conflict and pain. 
The promise that “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”, seemed very distant and far away.
As I am aging, nearing the end of my career as a pastor, I must confess that there are many deep and painful disappointments regarding the Church.
Try as we might, we are not an inclusive Church.
In 1988 the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America set a goal that we would become an inclusive Church, and setting a target to increase the number of minorities in our Church to 10% of our overall population.  We’ve failed miserably in that effort.  Instead we remain the whitest denomination in the United States.
And efforts to reach out beyond our traditional membership demographics have often resulted in opposition and conflict.
Most of all, what has disappointed me is that as a Church we far too often devour each other with judgment, condemnation, and all sorts of conflict. 
One of the most poignant statements that I’ve heard in my ministry was at a church council meeting a number of years ago.
It was also one of the most honest statements.
“Of course, all people are welcome in the Church, BUT if we have to say that THEY are welcome we will leave the congregation.”
You can fill in the blank.
The fact is that there is not a single congregation that truthfully welcomes all people.
Kennon Callahan, a widely read church consultant, refers to this as the “Principle of Homogeniety”, or in other words, ‘birds of a feather flock together’.
One of the biggest struggles we have in the ELCA, and a source of much conflict, is that we believe deep down that the Church is an inclusive community where people from all walks of life are welcome.
Under a theme of “Reconciled Diversity” we have tried to hold everyone together in one Church body.  Sometimes we’ve succeeded.  Often we’ve failed.

You see, it’s just much easier to have
·         a Church for Wolves,
·         and a Church for Lambs,
·         and a  Church for Lions,
·         and a Church for Oxen,
·         and most of  all we want to protect the children from the asp and the adder.
But this is contrary to what we say we believe when we confess our faith and say that we believe in the “one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
As a congregation we say that our purpose is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.
When I hear that I have two reactions.
The first is to shout “Yes!”, and to do everything possible to fulfill that purpose.
And the other response is to believe that I will die long before the congregation ever fully realizes that purpose. 
The truth is this.
That we sit with Moses on Mount Nebo, gazing at the Canaan on the distant horizon, seeing from a distance the promise and greeting it, but only as a matter of faith that one day this will be.
I wish that this was a place where everyone was welcome and that reconciliation and peace was always the norm.
But, that is a promise that we may well die anticipating.
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. .  .”
We pray that prayer.
And Jesus said “on earth as in heaven”.
But will we ever see the fulfillment of that promise?
Or are we left to cling in faith to the promise, seeing it from a distance, as Moses did on Mount Nebo?
The Kingom of God.
In the distance.
Calling us, beckoning us, leading us.
But always in the future.
And there we sit with Moses.  Seeing the Promised Land from a distance but unable to reach out and touch it.

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