Walking Through Water
Exodus 14:10 through 15:3 and John 6: 1-21
Welcome to our second annual Back to Church Sunday! Our first annual Back to Church Sunday was last year on September 18th . If you remember, we celebrated the start of a new program year with a special service featuring a group called the Bare Bones Trio out of Charleston, WV. And, a year ago, like today, we had a congregational meal during which Bare Bones continued to entertain us with traditional, gospel, and Golden Oldies hits.
My sermon that Sunday –I don’t expect you to remember – was “Manna, Manna Everywhere” – a celebration of all the blessings –the manna– that God had showered us with since we became “pastorless.” Enormous blessings that were certainly cause for celebration!
In a way, that sermon was a “state of the union” address – and at that point, the union (the church) was – and God be praised! – on solid ground.
For this morning’s message, I did what I always do in preparation. I looked at the lectionary readings for Year A, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost. And when I saw the Old Testament lesson, my reaction was “YES!!” Moses parting the Red Sea? Just what I wanted to talk about, and the perfect message for today’s State of the Union address!
Surely, every adult in this room immediately thinks of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, standing on that windswept rock above the churning sea. He extends his staff and says, “Behold, the mighty hand of God” and, as the Israelites cower in fear, the sea parts and a bridge of dry land appears. Truly an amazing cinematic effect for 1956, but corny beyond words by today’s standards.
We have no way of knowing, of course, what that miracle really looked like when it occurred. We know only that it became part of the cherished Exodus narrative that is the foundation of Hebrew faith. God acted through Moses, through plague after plague to weaken the Pharoah’s resistance and ultimately allow God’s people to leave their bondage.
Somewhere between 600,000 and 2 million Israelites are believed to have left Egypt – men, women, children, newborn infants, frail grandparents, the crippled, blind, and lame. They took their oxen, their goats, their geese. They carried their food, their bedding, their possessions, their farming implements. They rode horses and oxen and wooden wagons, but mostly they walked.
In The Ten Commandments, the Israelites fairly dance out of Egypt! Their scene of their departure is like a blow-out party– smiling faces, tambourines, dancing children, and music all-round!
But again, that is Hollywood. It probably did not look like that! But, this people – once in bondage but now free to leave– would most certainly have been filled with expectation. With HOPE. They are on their way. They are going home! Surely nothing more can happen! Only blue skies ahead!
No, wait! What’s that? It’s water. A wall of water. Ule Brenner and the Egyptian chariots are galloping up behind them in hot pursuit. All smiles stop. Hope is lost. Panic sets in.
Isn’t that the way it always is? Just as we are getting up steam, making progress, we hit the wall – the Red Sea. No way to move forward. No solutions. No answered prayers.
Here at First Presbyterian, there have been times over the past two years when we have hit the wall of water. Certainly, our Pastor Nominating Committee has been looking at the Red Sea for awhile. Where is Charlton Heston? Why doesn’t he raise that staff and call upon the mighty hand of God? We have been praying for a pastor for two years? Why are we still standing by the sea with the Egyptians breathing down our backs?
We have been praying for a pastor – the equivalent of that land bridge suddenly appearing between the waves: a beautiful, straight stretch of dry land so that we will have easy walking from then on. But that dry highway hasn’t appeared. Clearly, God is not answering our prayers!
Well, I disagree. What we have been praying for for two years is leadership. That’s the word I have most often used in our collective prayers. Send us leaders.
And that is what God has done. God has been answering our prayers, one after the other, pressed down and running over. The answer hasn’t been a dry path through the water. What he has been doing is teaching us to swim and sending more swimmers!
I am going to share just a few of the miracles that have allowed us to swim across that watery chasm over the past year. If I embarrass anyone, please forgive me!
Last fall, we wanted to play a greater role in Operation Christmas Child and agreed to be a relay center for our Bluefield area. But we were facing that wall of water. “We’ve bitten off more than we can handle,” we thought. But Alice Ann Sarver and her mission team stepped up and asked to head up that program. And boy could they swim! Over a period of 10 days, we packed over 2600 shoebox gifts in shipping crates with Alice Ann’s leadership and a host of volunteers. We even sent an 11-man team to Charlotte to work in the processing center there.
Along the same lines, Kathy Kennedy suggested this spring that we learn to make little girls’ dresses to pack in our shoeboxes. But who would lead that? Where would the leadership come from? Well, apparently several of our women –including Kathy– knew how to swim with a sewing machine, and one – Carolyn Neale—has single-handedly made more than two dozen dresses on her own!
This Spring, we heard Pastor Doug McDaniel discuss the life-changing work of the Kairos prison ministry program. We volunteered to provide 12 dozen cookies for their May mission to the Pocahontas Penitentiary. What came in were 26 dozen cookies. But even more significant, one of our own members, Randy Snider, was moved to overcome some initial fear and join McDaniel’s Kairos ministry team. Randy received some “swimming lessons” in prison ministry last week and will continue to be our liaison with that program.
This summer, we committed to feeding a mission group from the Wade Center. How would we surmount that wall of water in July, of all times? People are on vacation, out of town, etc. And a whole room full of hungry teenagers? Sharon Perkinson could swim with that one – coming up with a to-die-for grilled chicken recipe for an army, and some cooler corn on the cob. Other swimmers mysteriously appeared to grill – Tony and Larry – to serve, to clean up. What leaders!
More recently, we faced a quandary about children’s Sunday School. Our low number of mixed-age kids did not easily support a class here, and it was frustrating for our faithful teachers, Rick and Jackie. And what we really wanted was to try the Godly Play model that has been so successful elsewhere. But the equipment costs close to $10,000 dollars and the training is expensive too. It was a steep wall of water we were facing.
Then a phone call from Father Chad across the street revealed they had the same dilemma i.e. few kids—and another dilemma i.e. no teacher. But what they had and were willing to share was a beautiful children’s chapel and Sunday School classrooms – and a whole room of Godly Play materials. Down the street, what Bluefield Baptist had was no children but a young woman, Jeanna Anderson, a Bible studies major, who wanted to teach Sunday School. If we could put all that together, we thought, things could go swimmingly! And this morning, we did!
The list of miracles goes on and on. People appearing, stepping up to do the work, seeking to join our ministry. We miss Rick and Suzanne Lowry, and of course Suzanne’s wonderful talent, but through the door right behind them came the gifted young man now sitting at the piano. What a swimmer!
This morning reception of the Feuchtenbergers and Alec Legg has brought the year’s total of new members to 11, including Noah and Kayleigh who joined us through confirmation. Each of these brothers and sisters has come with a passion to love and serve the Lord, and a talent for swimming. I am so excited to see the gifts they will bring to the church!
This year has also brought to light new and amazing talents in existing members. In this church family, we have someone who can do and is willing to do almost anything – from baking incredible cakes and designing stage sets, to hand-crafting furniture, to painting murals, to singing oratorios. We have someone who can plan every detail of luncheons and dinners, can rewire a sound system, can fix a broken sink, act in a skit, repair a car, tend to the sick, send out cards to our members, and provide taxi service for those who cannot drive. We have several members who can preach a sermon! We have writers and speakers like Eleanor, doers like Karen, Ellen, Joyce, Dolly, Judy, April, Betty Kincaid, Fred, Jim and a dozens more. We have dedicated servants too numerous to name or count. We are a church filled with folks who can swim but do it without ever making any splash or wanting any applause!
On Friday, as Sharon and I were working in the Sunday School wing at Christ Church, and talking about the months ahead, Sharon asked, “Is there such a thing as a self-staffed church? Maybe we are headed in that direction.”
My immediate thought was, “Yes, that was the model for the first Christian churches! There were no pastors. There were elders and deacons, members with gifts of preaching, or teaching, or prophecy or healing. Members who supported the church with money, members who opened their homes to worship and fellowship. Members who had gifts of organization and communication. The early churches were absolutely “self-staffed.” While I am not necessarily advocating for that, and while believe with all my heart that God is preparing a pastor for this church, I know that the core of any church is its people. Period.
For that reason, we have absolutely no reason to fear the Red Sea or look around for Moses. We have prayed for leadership, and God has provided it — again and again and again. God will continue to provide it. The state of the union is sound. Praise be to God!