This sermon was delivered at the New Spirit Community Presbyterian Church in Southwest Philadelphia as they celebrate 22 years of faithfulness. The full text of the sermon can be found below.
When your pastor recently shared Deuteronomy 2:7 was the text he wanted me to preach on, I was not sure if he was kidding or not. You see, the last book of the Pentateuch is not exactly a collection of softball texts for visiting preachers. Rev. Holland could have sent me any number of alternative passages, including the one for next week from 1 Corinthians, but he told me he wanted me to work at this sermon. He wanted the Associate Presbyter to have to get his hands dirty in hermeneutics and to freshen up on my homiletics, given that I do not preach weekly like he does. And after all Rev. Holland does for us within the Presbytery, responding faithfully to our requests to serve and participate in equipping conversations, I guess I had it coming to me.
Nevertheless, as I wrestled with this morning's Hebrew Scripture, I was awakened as to why this faithful congregation has selected it as a theme verse as you navigate what it means to “stand on the Promises of God” at this moment in your collective history- celebrating 22 years as a congregation called New Spirit. Deuteronomy hinges on precisely that theme. God’s people are at a critical moment in their own history, a pivot point, if you will. They are on the cusp of the promised land and being dared to do just that- hold fast and stand on the ancient promise God made with their ancestor Abraham centuries prior to their enslavement, exodus, and most recent wilderness wanderings. In the chapter prior, Moses had even shared with Hebrew people they had indeed become as numerous as the stars in the heavens (a direct reference to God’s Abrahamic promise) and had stayed long enough at the base of the mountain. Yes, while Moses and the current generation may not be the ones to enter God’s promise, they were being called to begin the next leg of the journey and draw closer to the land of promise. Yet this land, as the writer of Deuteronomy shares, was north of where they were at the present moment and in the land of Esau, an ancestor they feared, the one Jacob (Esau’s twin) had deceived ultimately to become the benefactor of God’s promise. Surely resentment and bitterness and messy conflict would take center stage should their present descendants meet. Still, God assured them that God would not abandon them but even provide for them through those they had written off as enemy, foe, and bitter rival. And to get to the promised land they were not only going to have to trust God and head north to face Esau, but also to function differently than they had previously assumed or even attempted.
These may be some helpful words for all of us as we gear up for Thanksgiving and encounters with those relatives we fear or resent or wish that just for dinner they could maybe not bring up references to bygones that could cause a cousin or uncle or grandparent to do more than pass those sweet potatoes. Maybe some of you are even sitting here thinking, yea, preach it. And I am not interested in headed North either- my own Esau is there. Lord, bear me strength.
But I digress…
And before I go any farther, let’s pray.
This past summer, unless you were living under a rock and sheltered from trending news, you were likely spellbound by the 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach who were trapped in a cave for over two weeks due to rising floodwaters and after a hike gone bad. The international rescue effort and particularly the courage of the Thai SEALS that ultimately led to their liberation was nothing short of a miracle. I remember seeing the digital mapping of the underwater pathways they had outlined for the young boys. I remember becoming a bit panicky myself at the thought of being so confined to those spaces for up to six hours and in the dark, knowing a trained SEAL had not even survived the route in preparation. But they all knew to stay where they was not an option. They had been in the cavernous mountain long enough.So utilizing the new, unconventional, risky and yet-to-be-proven methods, they followed the rescue route and trusted those who promised they would see them through. And they were delivered home.
Here we make our bridge to Deuteronomy, a wandering people at the base of a mountain and headed to their new home, and four awakenings we might glean from their ancient story, which is also our story.
First, there comes a time when a faithful people need to take notice that we can only remain where we are, maybe even wander about in the same patterns for so long.At some point we must recognize God has called us to rise up from the foot of our mountains, caves of despair, and risk heading north of complacency, fear, and the idol of self-preservation. As with the people of Israel, we must leave behind the wilderness and forge ahead towards new possibilities, to respond to God’s call as we refrain from the temptation to stay put just because where we are has become so familiar. I will take it a step farther and remind us all here that God has always called out a people notan institution. The difference, people are nomadic and mobile. Institutions are set. And while we need the institutions, I am employed by one, we lean on them only as they sustain, support, and empower the larger prophetic movementof God’s people. We see this in how God’s original dreams were for a tabernacle, a holy and portable tent, not a temple. And when God did choose a temple, it was in the form of a person named Jesus, who tabernacled among us, and a people, a collection of disciples who’s collective body, as Paul writes, is the temple of God’s Holy Spirit. Because flesh and blood moves, much like God’s promises through each generation and in every culture, context, neighborhood, and socio-political era. Hence being able to stand on these promises in every time and place.
I love today’s gospel text. Fresh out of his own wilderness journey, Jesus is now moving along the Sea of Galilee and calls out new disciples- Peter and Andrew- to follow him and form a mission committee? No, while they may have been tempted to remain in the boat fishing as a part of their trade they knew inside and out, the gospel writer said they immediately shifted course and followed Jesus in a new direction as their true north. They refused to settle and chose instead to move after the Messiah. So, New Spirit Community Presbyterian Church, even as you celebrate 22 years of faithfulness, I dare you to move versus settle in much the same way.Refuse to rest on your laurels of two decades of corporate memory, and instead ask the question, what will north of 22 look like for your community of faith? Where and how might Jesus be calling you to follow in this new season? Where and how might you be called to live into the promises of Christ, your true north, in southwest Philly, at the corner of 58th and Chester?
Second word for this morning, as you move north of 22, be open to new ways of living and being in the places God is leading you next.What I love about God’s call in Deuteronomy 2 is when God says, “and do not wage battle against them.” This refrain is common for the next few chapters as they move from region to region and towards a new land. Yes, they were being called up north into the land of Edom, among the ancestors of Esau, and they would be tempted to fight, to pick up sword and wage war, or at least to presume that is what will occur and so enter into the new land with a posture of defensiveness, aggression, and hell bent on a new turf war. After all, that’s what you did in those days. That was the social, political, cultural, even religious norm. Everything about their lived reality would permit them to do just that and more. It would have been justified.
But God was calling them to a new way of being and experiencing God’s provision.
Friends, it is no secret that we live in yet another time when the rhetoric of the day is aggressive and violence continues to rob us of safety and security in our neighborhoods and schools, sanctuaries and synagogues, movie theaters and concerts. Even our political rhetoric has ramped up in aggression and become more fuel for hatred and division, watering the seeds of racism, sexism, classism, white supremicism, anti-Semitism, homophobism, nationalism, and every kind of -ism you can imagine. And while we may be tempted to join the noise, pick up our own rhetorical (or literal) stones, and fight fire with more fire, we know that God has called us north of the violence and aggression and towards God’s dreams. These dreams subvert hate with far more creative incarnations, faithful innovations of what Dr. King called the beloved community. Yes, we may be called to march and protest, to link arms with others for the cause of justice and equity and the end of all forms of oppression, but we do so to elevate the humanity of others not to further distort it- to call dignity and fairness back into the forefront of our national conversation- if it ever really was there in the first place. And we might be surprised that when we open ourselves to such divine aspirations that mirror what the Scriptures call shalom- wholeness, goodness, the way all is intended to be, much like Esau providing bread and water to the sojourners from the south, those many may consider rivals just may become the very conduits of God’s grace and generosity, hospitality, and promised provision.
As I continue to learn the narrative of this congregation and see it on full display in my work as your Associate Presbyter, I am encouraged by how this has been the DNA of this congregation for quite some time. You all have adapted and pivoted throughout your history and constantly looked for ways to collaborate with whoever will work for the mutual benefit of this neighborhood and your local residents. You have embraced mergers, shared parking lots, collaborated with schools, welcomed social service agencies, launched nutrition programs for children, advocated for education, partnered with suburban congregations, shared resources with ecumenical faith communities nearby, and helped to launch worshipping communities and initiatives like Common Place to extend the beloved community in southwest Philly. And as you have done so, you have become the very benefactors of God’s provision sometimes through the most uncommon of people.
Here again I think of Christ’s call of the disciples. With Peter and Andrew now in tow, they come upon James and John- mending their nets. And the call is the same- follow me and you will fish for people. They could have stayed and continued to seek to repair old methods and the frayed mess of their present trade or they could drop them and risk something completely new as agents of God’s promised healing and hope that was now being realized in this One whose name is Jesus the Christ. In many ways this is your narrative- and I pray it remains to be, as you have throughout your history refused to wallow in net mending and instead head north of complacency for the sake of the gospel. You subvert the divisions we see all-too-often and find common ground with partners in Jesus’ call to neighborly love. Keep at it you faithful saints.
I love what the late church biographer, practitioner, and innovator from Church of the Saviour in D.C., Elizabeth O’Connor, once wrote:
“…whenever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.It cannot do this if it is held captive by the structures of another day or is slave to its own structures" (Call to Commitment).
Experiment. Blaze new paths. Speak the reconciling word of Christ in your private and public life, as individuals and a collective body called the church, the temple of God’s Spirit on the move.
But in so doing, be aware of the last word to us- this is not the final leg of your congregation’s journey. In your twenty-second year, you have not yet fully arrived. Dare I say none of you will enter into the fullest expression of God’s promises for this congregation and community. Much like Moses, you are building not only for those around you today, but also for those who will pick up where you left off, the next Joshua generation, even as you have done the same with those who have gone before you. This means you do not have all the answers and will need to ask endless questions. And most of these questions should be directed towards your neighbors you seek to serve in these days and the days to come. In asking questions you open yourself to the Spirit’s ability to break open new possibilities that speak into your community and embody a gospel that is relevant to this time and place. So ask questions of young people and the elderly, ask questions alongside new arrivals and immigrants to this land, ask questions of organizations with the skills to respond to your most vulnerable residents, ask questions about how you can be of service to any and all and form communities of solidarity and hope, welcome and love around all that and more. Ask questions of the Scriptures, of God through prayer, and of the collective memory of this congregation- both the good and the ill. This has been your MO for two decades, may it continue to shape you in the decades to come.
So New Spirit Community Presbyterian Church: Be willing to move north of complacency. Be open to new ways of living and being in the world. Remember you are but one leg of this faithful movement called the church. These are fresh words for a congregation not only commemorating 22 years, but also leaning into what’s next. And as you do, stand on the promises of God made known to us fully in Jesus Christ, who is your true north and beckons you to drop your mending of old nets and risk following the one who lived, died, and rose again for us and the whole world. Even more, be assured this Jesus promised that as we follow, he goes with us, even by the Spirit, until all is made new and right again at this corner of 58thand Chester and to the ends of the earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.