The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates. In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed. On June 13, we looked at the complaining of the Israelites in Numbers 14:1-4 and compared it with Paul’s discoveries as outlined in Philippians 3:7-14.
To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:
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If you and I were friends at any point between 1983 and 2008, you know this about me: six days out of seven, I wore one thing, and one thing only, on my feet.
This is the K-Swiss Men’s Classic Tennis Shoe. I purchased a pair because I wanted to wear a nice, crisp, white sneaker without a big logo. But here’s what hooked me on K-Swiss: for more than fifty years, the basic appearance of that shoe has not changed. Which meant that I always had six sneakers (3 left and 3 right). The best two shoes were my “wear to meetings and when I want to look good” pair; I had a “hang around with friends” pair and a “cut the grass/work in the mud” pair. If the left shoe of a certain pair got torn or suffered a “blow-out”, I’d throw it away but keep the right one – matching it up with the best left that I had so that I could keep my rotation going with my six best shoes at all time. It was genius: I never had to waste time thinking about what to buy, I knew that the fit was perfect, and they went with everything. There were absolutely no decisions that had to be made!
And then in 2008 I broke my left foot. I had surgery, during which they inserted a bunch of pins and screws. There were months of rehab, a little cart, some crutches, and a walking boot. And then in 2009 I put on the shoes again. And my left foot protested! From achiness to ingrown toenails to chronic discomfort – some days I couldn’t walk. And it took me a couple of months, but I finally figured it out: my foot had changed shape. What used to fit so beautifully was now inappropriate. It was harming me. With reluctance, I finally got rid of the last of my K-Swiss. It was the end of an era! Since then, I’ve had to decide how to care for my feet.
Our reading from the book of Numbers comes at a time not long after the children of Israel had been delivered from their slavery in Egypt. Moses had led them out of Pharaoh’s hand and they were walking toward the Promised Land, ready to take God up on the promises that had been made to Abram and the other elders so many years before.
They came right up to the border of the land, and Moses sent some spies in to do a little recon. These guys, by and large, are blown away by what they see – but they are also paralyzed with fright as they consider their own inadequacies. They doubt God’s promise, and they doubt God’s presence. Most of them return to the leadership council and tell lies about what they’ve seen, filling their countrymen and women with fear about the supposedly insurmountable dangers that wait for them.
As it happens, the faithless spies prevail, and “all the Israelites” complain to and about Moses. You heard it: they demand a recall election and a return to Egypt. They are begging and crying out for a return to the slavery from which they’ve only recently escaped.
They’re frazzled. They’re worn out. Being in a new place is hard. They’ve had to adapt to new diets, new routines, and new threats. It was wearisome, to say the least; perhaps it was even overwhelming. At least when they were back in Egypt, there was no pressure to make so many decisions every single day. Sure, some days were tough, but they could be on “autopilot”.
Now listen: not for a single second do I want to give anyone the impression that life in 21st century Pittsburgh is equivalent to the experience of slaves at any time or place in terms of actual existence, but I will suggest that you can probably identify with the longing, the fear, and the anxiety that these people faced as they looked ahead at what was uncertain and looked back upon what had been familiar.
I know something of the lives that many of you were leading in February of 2020. The events of the past 16 months have been unsettling, anxiety-inducing, tiring, and frustrating in so many ways. There is so much that is new: we’ve encountered technology that we didn’t know was possible; we’ve arranged and re-arranged and re-re-arranged our schedules; we’ve watched and weighed the various threat levels associated with the Coronavirus. Like the Israelites, we know that we’ve had people lying to us about the dangers or lack of dangers ahead; like them, we’ve disagreed about who’s telling those lies and what the truth really is. And we’re just so done with this part of our lives.
In 2009, all I wanted was to put on my white K-Swiss and play racquetball. In Numbers all the folks wanted was to get back to what was familiar. And now, well, we want to go back. We want life to get back to normal.
Do we? Is that a good idea? Is what we had – your life and my life on, say, December 31, 2019 – the acme of human achievement and existence? Is what we had then the living for which we’d all be striving?
Walk with me through this for a moment. Let’s say that your community suffered a catastrophic flood. Your vehicle has been swept away. The first floor, if not your entire home, is simply uninhabitable. Let’s say, further, that you and your family have survived.
Sooner or later, you’re going to get a little insurance money, and you’re going to start to figure out what comes next. When the contractors come around, and when it’s time to buy your next car, do you want exactly the same thing? Sure, that 2013 Chevy was OK, but are you going to replace it with another 2013 Chevy? That sofa you brought home when your grandmother died is gone… are you going to scour the thrift stores to look for something identical to that?
Now look: I know that this, like any analogy, is weak to the point of absurdity in some places. But I’m trying to point out that if you suffered such a loss, then it’s more than likely that merely “replacing” everything would not be the wisest course of action.
The Coronavirus has come upon our culture like a flood. In a true flood, there are some horrifically unfortunate people who have lost some or all of their loved ones, and their homes have been literally swept away. Meanwhile, up the hill, there are those who have a little dampness in their basement and they lost the WiFi for a couple of hours.
As we think about COVID-19, some of us have suffered immensely. We have watched as family members and close friends died in isolation, or we ourselves are dealing with long-term health effects. Some of us have suffered through the loss of income or position, and the changes in our educational or child-care structures have been too much to bear. Some of us have been decimated by this virus.
And others of us have been inconvenienced. Our favorite restaurant closed, and we were forced to cancel our vacations. We missed the family reunions, and we are so tired of these stupid masks…
We have not shared a common experience of the severity or consequences of the storm that’s been unleashed on us, but we all want it to be over. And many of us just want to get back to normal.
I’m here to tell you that 1) that’s not going to happen, and 2) it’s probably not a good idea. The Apostle Paul lived through a cataclysmic shift in his world and his own identity. He had been a leading Pharisee, a persecutor of Christians, and then he was molded into a paragon of Christianity who was in fact executed for acting on his faith. He had held onto impeccable notions of the cleanliness and purity traditions, and found himself extending grace and hospitality to those that his former self would have excluded. His self-righteousness and concern for keeping up appearances were transformed into a passion for inclusion and generosity of spirit. Paul had suffered the loss of his personal identity and his standing within the community.
And as he reflects with his friends in Philippi on those changes, he says that he has come to see all of that as something that had helped to make him – but that all of those things were in the past. The call of faith in his life now was to examine his present reality and to seek to live into a better one. And for Paul, “better” would be defined as “more Christ-like” and more faithful.
In the weeks to come, we’ll be spending time here in worship considering the ways that we, like Paul and the early church, are called to move forward. As we emerge from the storms of these past months, we’ll process our grief. We will count and lament our losses. And we will begin to figure out what is next.
How have the events of the past sixteen months impacted your personal faith? The experiences in the desert and coming up to the realities of the Promised Land shook Israel’s faith to the core. What has this year done to your patterns of discipleship and the hope that you have carried with you?
What have you seen in your family? Have the relationships there changed? Are there places that you need to repair, or in which you need to invest? Are there some practices that you simply need to start over?
In what ways have your financial decisions and options been revealed? It’s hard to imagine that the pandemic has not affected your wallet. What decisions to you need to make moving forward about the money that you need, or have, or spend, or save, or give?
How has your experience of fellowship and community suffered or grown lately? Some of you have shared stories with me of great isolation – you’ve felt left out and cut off from places that ought to have sustained you. On the other hand, I’ve also heard that some of you are finding new levels of contentment with yourselves. How will you act as a member of the body of Christ in a post-pandemic world?
When the Israelites made it through the storm of the Exodus only to encounter the terrors of the wilderness and the fear of entering into a new place, they were so overwhelmed that they literally wandered aimlessly for an entire generation.
When Paul and the early Christians encountered the storms of the crucifixion of Jesus, his resurrection and ascension, and then the inflow of the Holy Spirit, they made a decision to press on, and to journey with a purpose. Whereas the Israelites chose the easy path of living as wanderers, these first Christ-followers chose to live as pilgrims.
Dear ones, I hope that you will join me in the weeks to come. I’d love to see you here in person, but at least on YouTube or Facebook if you must, as we consider what it means to walk with faith and purpose into a future that is already inhabited and shaped by God. The world has changed. You have changed. And the old “normal” is not going to fit anymore. That’s not bad – it just means that we’ve got some thinking to do, and some decisions to make.
Thanks be to God who promises to meet us on the way with refreshment and hope each day. Amen.