This time last week, I was on my way to Montreat for a conference for pastors in interim work. I am so very thankful for your support and encouragement to continue learning and growing in my leadership.
While I was there, I met pastors from all over the country… mostly here in the southeast, since Montreat is close by. But there were a few from the west coast, even one Canadian
We spent time in seminars covering several helpful topics. We had opportunities to speak with the faculty members, many of whom have served several churches who find themselves between settled pastors. We also spent time in groups for peer coaching.
It was all great…
But you know the best part? Hearing all their stories. Stories of churches much like ours. Some smaller, some larger… some in cities, others in small towns or rural settings. Each one unique, and yet it seems that we all find ourselves asking the same questions…
What comes next?
What is our place in the bigger picture…
What is our part in the Body of Christ?
What is our role in the larger community – the city that has grown and changed around us, the culture that has been shifting so rapidly in the last decade…
As you might imagine, many churches are on the road to closure. They are in the process of making really hard decisions about property and memorials and where their members will go to find care and fellowship. Those are very difficult conversations to enter into and even more difficult to stay in. These are oftentimes very sad stories. God-led and grace-filled, to be sure, but always hard for the members and those who are there to help the congregation finish well.
The good news is that many more of the folks that I met and talked with last week shared stories about walking alongside congregations in the midst of the work – the hard work – of transformation. Transformation is always hard work. It’s hard to start, hard to finish, and even harder to maintain.
We come from a long lineage… a long heritage of folks who had to work hard at change. Seriously, it goes way way back. In fact, next week, we’ll start the Lectionary year over again by heading back to the beginning of the great collection of our stories of faith, each in its own way a testament to the transforming nature of God.
And as we did last fall, we’ll travel through the Old Testament in the months leading into Christmas. The thread running through the passages we’ll explore this year is Promise…
the promises God makes to our foremothers and forefathers.
the promises they make to God…
the promise of fresh starts…
the promise of new life…
the promise of a deliverer… the promised one… the messiah.
We’ll recall through these chapters in our great redemption story, the faithfulness of God. The truth that even as humankind found myriad ways to go astray, God remained steadfast. God stayed with us.
God loved us.
The truth that God loves us still
And we’ll recall how, even as the prophets called the kings and people to repentance, speaking the truths that no one wanted to hear about sin and judgment and consequences…God also gave them a message of hope: If the people would turn to God, if they would change their focus, God would honor and bless them.
The funny thing is, we read that as if God’s behavior is contingent upon the work of the leaders and the people under their care.
The truth is, God has been there, keeping all those promises all along. It’s the people who lose sight of that truth as their focus shifts, as their gaze wanders. Kind of like Jesus, walking along the road to Emmaus, having an incognito conversation with two disciples.
I’ve read and heard several interpretations of this encounter. Some say that this episode tells us that our resurrection bodies – the ones we get when we are finally in God’s presence after this life is over – that those bodies are somehow different, that we will be ourselves but not so completely ourselves that we are instantly recognizable.
Others say that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, clouding their vision so that Jesus could hear what they were saying without worry that they would stop telling their story.
Luke uses the verb “recognize” both at the beginning and at the end of the passage –when their eyes are closed and then opened to his identity. They saw him from the start, but they didn’t actually recognize him until the end, when he was breaking the bread.
This is an interesting echo of the wording used when Adam and Eve first opened their eyes and recognized that they were naked. And that there was something to shameful in their being so thoroughly revealed.
You see, Luke wants us to understand that this is a moment of deep recognition. That “oooohhhh” moment when you see someone after not quite seeing them for who they really and truly are.
Jesus had walked a good way with them, teaching them and reminding them of all the ways that the prophets had been preparing the Hebrew people for his coming. They had covered a lot of ground, literally and theologically, before he took the bread and broke it. And they saw him for who he was…
Seeing him, recognizing him, changed the conversation completely. It awoke in them a passion they hadn’t felt. It cleared the confusion and doubt away.
Seeing him, recognizing him again made space for faith. Because he had made space for hope… Hope that the world didn’t have to be as it had been. That exile and oppression weren’t God’s plan That the empire didn’t always win.
Seeing him, recognizing him again, set them off on an adventure that would change their lives and ultimately transform much of the world. Even this part of the world. We trace our own faith to those first followers of Jesus. The ones who literally sat at table with him, sharing the meal we will remember together today…
Paul never sat at table with Jesus. Never saw him face to face in a physical sense. Not during his earthly life, anyway. But Paul recognized the transformative power of the resurrection at least as well as any of those who spent time with Jesus before and after. Paul understood the role of faith in our coming to truly know – to recognize – the saving grace Jesus offered.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us of our inability as humans to meet all the expectations of the law. of the fallibility that would keep all of us from ever knowing God’s great love for us and for the world.
Paul writes of the reconciling work of Jesus- the life, death and resurrection of which the disciples were talking on the road to Emmaus – the revealing of the power of God’s love to redeem all of our messiness and sin. And he says – not one whit of it is ours to claim…Except to claim faith in the truth that God did all that for us.
God is still doing all that for us. God continues to pour out the Holy Spirit, that we might grow deeper in our understanding – not of the law, not of the minutiae of doctrine – but so that we might fall deeper in love with God, and develop even greater compassion for the neighbors around us.
Paul prescribes in Romans and throughout the epistles, a protocol for strengthening our hearts. It generally starts with suffering, which we are to endure. Not on our own strength of course, but empowered by the Spirit. Paul continues, saying that endurance produces character – which, in turn, allows us to have hope.
Many of you know that I’ve spent time this summer walking and doing some work in the gym. I started out taking short walks around the block. As the summer progressed, I started setting some goals for myself. Go a little farther, then a little faster.
Then I registered for the conference at Montreat.
I remembered how hard it was for me to walk around up there last year. I didn’t go exploring as far as I wanted because I couldn’t catch my breath going up all the stairs and hills, and I didn’t trust that my legs and knees were strong enough to handle terrain off the sidewalks.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find changing my personal habits are hard. Even when I know what needs to be done, getting started is hard. Keeping at it is hard, too. It much easier to fall back into the old, comfortable and known way of being.
Until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain you anticipate will come during or as a result of the change process, the status quo will do just fine.
But status quo wasn’t going to get me up any of those hills. So I set some new goals and got to work
I am happy to say that 400 miles – even on the flat sidewalks of Central Florida – paid off. I went wandering all around the conference center, up and down some of the steepest hills. I even managed to get to the top of Mount Mitchell.
It was there that I was feeling a little cocky and decided to do a ¾-mile hike on the nature trail. The sign said it was “easy” and I’d been walking some of the nature trails around Montreat.
I knew it was going to drop a good 200-250 feet in elevation as the trail meandered down to the parking lot, but it sounded way less steep than going back down the 300 yard path that went directly from the lot to the observation tower.
So off I went.
Now, I can stroll a full mile in about 20 minutes, even on hilly terrain. So I was guessing maybe 30 minutes down the hill. Maybe a little longer with stops to read or take photos.
Yeah- at about 20 minutes in, I was maybe half-way through the trail loop. I had already crawled up and over tree roots and boulders, hopped across puddles and begun to mutter to the unknown author of the trail description about our definitions of “Easy” not quite being aligned.
And then the trail made yet another hairpin turn. Once again, I found myself looking uphill for the white triangle blaze. And there wasn’t really a trail any more. It was like a staircase made of big rocks and fallen trees with lincoln log notches cut out and a maybe a few grassy spots between puddles. Oh, and every step was a different height…
My knees were tired.
My lungs were getting a little chatty.
I could hear my heart thumping in my ears. NOT my resting heart rate, in case you wondered.
And then I laughed.
I laughed because I had a choice to make. Sit down, go back to the start, or go on. None of them seemed good. It all seemed too hard.
A voice in my head was reminding me that people who hike alone are much more likely to be eaten by bears….
But there was another voice…It was saying, “You got this. You can do it. You’ve walked way farther and in way worse heat and humidity than this. You’re strong enough to keep going.”
I remembered working through the pain of those first walks and sore muscles, the endurance I had been building on sidewalks and treadmills, on bikes and in the pool. Looking back on where I’d been allowed me to have confidence- faith – in my ability to get up that stretch of the trail…
I was neither helpless, nor hopeless, in the face of an unexpected challenge.
I’m not sure what the chipmunks thought of this human huffing and puffing her way past the ferns and lichen-covered stumps. I suspect that the crazy flapping of my arms as I balanced on slippery stones and logs scared off more than a couple of birds. But I was able to press on, and I realized that in addition to quieting the voice that was worried about bears, I was really enjoying myself.
Finishing the loop was no longer about surviving or successfully achieving a goal. It was about experiencing the joy that overtakes me in those all-too-rare opportunities to drink deeply of nature’s beauty
A friend of mine is a physical therapist. She works with all kinds of people, from young athletes to octogenarians. And she told me once that the most amazing thing about our bodies is the way they respond to the challenges we put in front of them. We are made to adapt and gain strength from the effort of overcoming.
Yes, the challenges need to be the RIGHT challenges. That’s why I needed to start walking earlier in the summer to be able to get up those hills this week. But physical challenges reveal our character, our capacity for hope and transformation.
And that crazy little hike filled me with hope and faith for us in the days to come…
You see we, together, are a body, just as surely as each of us have bodies. We, together, make up the body of Christ. And together, we can adapt and rise up to the challenges that come before us, overcoming all kinds of barriers in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I have a faith built on hope for us as we pray and work as a body here in this time and place.
That we can discern together the challenge God has for us to pursue.
That we can start small and learn how to use our faith muscles in new and different ways.
That we can work together, moving a little farther away from our comfort zone with every step, even as we draw on lessons from the past.
I have hope that our eyes will be opened and that we will recognize Jesus in one another, in our neighbors, and in the people God brings to our table.
I have hope that as we keep God – Father, Son, and Spirit – at the center of our gaze, we’ll be able to follow the trail, no matter how rocky and hilly it gets.
I have hope that when we do this work in a way that honors our past and present, this congregation will have a future, and that future will be filled with joy and laughter.
I have faith, built on the hope and love that abide in Christ, and abide in all of us as we abide in Christ.
My prayer is that the God who is able to do abundantly far more than we could ever ask or imagine, would grant us the wisdom, courage, love, faith, hope and joy we need for this and every day of our lives together.