God’s people in the community that comprises The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered for worship on May 19 to listen to stories of people who had been changed along the way. Samuel and Peter helped us to understand that none of us is where we used to be, and nobody’s where they’re going to end up. Rather, we are met on the way by a God who has helped us up till now. This was a particularly meaningful worship service for me, as it marked the final opportunity for me to worship with these folks until September. I am about to begin a season of Sabbatical – and I’m sure that the pastor who shows up at Crafton Heights in September won’t be the same guy who left. And that’s a good thing. Our scriptures included Acts 11:1-18 and I Samuel 7:5-13.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:
The children of Israel were in a tight spot. In a series of unfortunate, and not-unrelated events…
- They had allowed the quality of their worship of God and their commitment to follow and serve YHWH to diminish. They had no great expectations of either their leaders or themselves.
- They were currently under attack from their neighbors, a nation known as Philistia, which was superior militarily, economically, and politically to their own.
- This was symbolized by the fact that the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines and held hostage for some time, until the Philistines who were charged to secure this artifact developed tumors and illnesses that they interpreted as punishments from the God of Israel.
- Even when the Philistines tried to return the Ark to Israel, the Israelites were scared to death; it’d been so long since they held worship that they weren’t sure they knew how to do it. So the Ark sat in someone’s garage for a while.
Meanwhile, the Philistines renewed their attacks on Israel. Faced with the onslaught of this military invasion, the people of Israel called their leader, Samuel, and said, “Look, we’re not really great at this, but if youcry out to the Lord on our behalf, YHWH might save us.”
Samuel went one better and taught the people how to cry out to God for themselves, and lo and behold, the nation was in fact saved. Our Old Testament reading for this morning describes the reaction to YHWH’s intervention in the lives of those people: Samuel drags a big stone into the median of the highway and names it “Ebenezer”, which can be roughly translated as “stone of help”. He says that every time they see that stone, they should remember that so far, God has helped them. Up till now,God has been with them. As he sets the stone in place there is a little dedication ceremony where the people are able to praise God for where they’ve already been helped and guided, and to look ahead at what’s coming down the pike. This notion of pausing to remember that God has helped us along the way has been memorialized in the favorite hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:
Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home
An “Ebenezer” is a physical symbol reminding us – and those around us – that we’re neither in the place where we began nor in the spot that is our final destination. An Ebenezer is a testimony to the fact that God has met us on the way.
Now, about a thousand years later, a middle-aged man named Peter finds himself in a bit of a pickle. Most of his life, he’d been a fisherman. The complexities of his daily life consisted of dilemmas like, “should I fish, or cut bait? Am I going for perch or for bass today?” For years, he concentrated on being a regular guy, doing regular things. He was eager to worship YHWH, but he was not interested in being a fanatic.
And then one day he was tapped on the shoulder by a traveling Rabbi named Jesus. Little did he know how much that one day would screw up – or, more charitably, “affect” the rest of his life.
With a band of friends, Peter had watched the meteoric rise of Jesus’ ministry, only to see that same Jesus crushed by an unholy alliance of religious opposition and political fear. In a surprising twist, three days after the Worst Thing Ever, Peter was greeted by the resurrected Christ and sent into the world to preach forgiveness, healing, and restoration. Last week we saw Peter visiting Joppa, where he restored the life of a beloved woman and then accepted the hospitality of an outcast, all the while wondering what in the world might come next.
Today’s reading from Acts finds Peter on trial before his friends and colleagues. He’s been accused of being soft on the Jewish Law, of hanging around with Gentiles, of eating the wrong food, and of telling too many of “those people” about God’s love and care. In short – Peter was on trial for acting a whole lot like Jesus acted. And as Peter mounted his defense, he recalled how the fresh wind of God’s Spirit swept through that place so strongly that he was left with a question: “who was I to think that I could oppose God?”
Each of these narratives has become a favorite story for me – each of them describe a God who is always on the move, and always beckoning to us – or to anyone who will listen – to keep up. These stories stand as warnings to God’s people of all times and places not to fall too deeply in love with how things are, or where things are, or the ways in which things are done, because God isn’t finished yet.
And sometimes those are hard words for us to hear. We find it much easier to get into a place and stay there. Some of you will remember my dear friend, the late Art Parris, who said to me more than once, “Dave, I’m feeling all right. Things are ok. It’s like I’m in a real groove… but don’t say anything to my wife about that, because she thinks I’m in a rut…” You know how that is – the difference between moving along in a groove and being stuck in a rut is often one of perception. We don’t. like. change. And if there is anywhere we really don’t like change, it’s here. At church.
And yet, we are informed, guided, and inspired by a book that defines us as people who are on the move, worshiping and serving a God who calls, equips, and sends us out again and again and again.
I say all of this because the truth is that you are about to get a new pastor here in Crafton Heights. Now, don’t get too excited – I’m not quitting. But I won’t be here next week – or for the fourteen weeks after that. You’ll gather for worship on the Sundays in June, July, and August, and you’ll be mostly led by my friend Sonya-Marie Morley. Along the way, Bill and Brian and Laura and Tony will be here. This will be a season of new voices for you all.
I’ve got to tell you, you might not like all of it. These folks are nice people, all right, but they’re not going to know your stories. They won’t know who is related to whom. I suspect that they won’t like all of the same music that you do. On the other hand, they may have better jokes than I do. But in the view of your Session, these are the people who are called to preach the Word of God to the people of God in this place and at this time.
And then, Lord willing, in September, you’ll get another new pastor. If things work out as planned, your new pastor be an old white guy named Dave. If you’ll have me, I hope to be back as Pastor in a few months.
But here’s a warning: whoever shows up here in September wearing my clothes and hugging my wife… well, that won’t be the same person who’s standing up here right now. I mean, I hope that you’ll be nice to him, and laugh at his jokes… but don’t pretend that it’s me.
Right now, I am a particular collection of strengths and weaknesses, bumps and bruises, anxieties and arrogance. A lot of those will look familiar in three months, but some will be different.
To quote my old friend Jessalyn Gielarowski, “church is always better when Pastor Dave goes away.” She said this about six years ago, and, to be fair, she went on to say something like, “he comes back changed, with new stories, and new perspectives, and that helps us to see ourselves and God’s world a little differently, too.”
So I’ll come back, Lord willing, in September. And you better believe that one of the first things I’ll do when I return is to wander past all of the Ebenezers we’ve got set out in this place. I’ll look at the plaques downstairs that remember young people of great valor who started in this place. I’ll walk down to the Open Door and feel the names of old friends etched into brick. I’ll go up to the 3rdfloor and look at the handprints that fill the Youth Group room. Each of these places, and a hundred more around this joint, are signs of encounters we’ve had with the living God and God’s presence in our lives.
But listen to this, beloved: no matter how deep our need and how great God’s salvation at that time and in that place, we dare not stay in any of those places too long – because God is on the move. Again. Still. Always.
So I have a charge for you, beloved, in the next few months. Keep following the God who is moving in and through this place and your lives. You’ll do this, in part, by learning new stories and new songs and maybe even new jokes. You will watch with, wait for, and be present to each other. You will, Lord willing, keep searching for ways to include the children of this neighborhood – those who participate in our preschool and Cross Trainer programs and those who do not – in the grace and love that flows from Jesus Christ.
I’m not going to be in this room, but I hope and expect that you will. Come to worship, and listen to what “Pastor Not-Dave” has to say. Encourage her or him, and each other. And for crying out loud, when you come, bring your wallets with you. Don’t neglect the financial support of this congregation in a time of change. I can tell you that Sharon and I will be making our regular financial gifts, even when we are not able to be present in person.
And, Lord willing, come September we will have a few new Ebenezers to share with each other. I hope that you’ll have a few new friends to whom you’ll introduce me. And my deepest, most fervent, prayer is that we will each have a new openness to following God into whatever is next for the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights. Thanks be to God. Amen.