This morning our community is celebrating our past, present, and future. We celebrate the community of Hickory Neck, who one hundred years ago, came together to consecrate this historic church, which had been dormant of worship since the Revolutionary War, used varyingly as a school and hospital. We celebrate a community who committed itself this year to paying off our debt which covered the cost of our New Chapel, as well as renovations to existing buildings. And we celebrate our commitments to financially support Hickory Neck in the year ahead through our pledges of offerings. In each celebration, we see glimpses of who Hickory has been, is, and is becoming.
We are not unlike our ancestors, the Israelites, as we find them on the brink of the Promised Land. Today’s lesson from Deuteronomy tells the story of the last days of Moses and the beginning of Joshua’s leadership. In their mourning over Moses’ death, the community remembers the profound ways in which God, through Moses, changed their lives. They were exiles by famine from their land, enslaved by the Egyptians, and indebted to Pharaoh. But Moses became their advocate, leading them out of slavery, across the Sea of Reeds, and through the long years of the wilderness. Moses took all their complaints and whining, and advocated for food, water, and safety. Moses took their metaphorical wandering, and delivered a new law from the Lord. Moses organized their community and empowered the next generation to lead. Moses’ death reminds the people of Israel all they have been through. Their mourning is where they find themselves in the present: no longer wandering, but not yet into their next phase of life.
And yet, Moses’ death also points them to their future. Moses has already blessed Joshua as their next leader, and Joshua will take them into the Promised Land. Moses is even given the gift of seeing the beauty of that land, as far as the eye can see. Though Moses knows he is not to cross over, God shows him all that is to come. The vision is vast, abundant, and blessed. We suspect Moses can die in peace having seen the land of milk and honey, even if he himself will not experience the land. And Moses has already seen Joshua receive the spirit of wisdom. There is nothing left to do but join God in the heavenly kingdom.
On days of introspection about the past, present, and future, we can easily gloss over all the hard stuff. Though today the people of Israel honor their esteemed leader, and they have the Promised Land ahead of them, we do not often get a sympathetic retelling of the Israelite story. For the last several weeks, we have heard stories of the Israelites complaining about water and food, but we forget how debilitating hunger and thirst can be. We read the story of the construction of the golden calf recently, but we rarely wonder about what waiting blindly at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return felt like or the doubt his absence created. We also recently heard the story of the Passover, but we rarely imagine how terrifying that night must have been and what being saved meant.
I have wondered what stories linger behind our own history. I have asked our historians about the Hickory Neck community one hundred years ago. I have wondered who the members were, what their feelings were about the old church that was no longer theirs, or what inspired them to regather. But we have no record of their story: their passion that lead to us worshiping here today. We can only imagine the negotiating they did, the partnerships they forged, the strain they underwent in those early years. And though many of you were here when we built our New Chapel, I was not. I imagine there were lingering doubts and concerns about whether a capital campaign, and taking on a mortgage was a good idea. I am sure there were anxieties about church growth and identity. And I already know some of that same labor is true today. We wonder where the Holy Spirit is guiding us, what ministries will define us, and what people will join our community and change us for the better. The future is always ambiguous and daunting.
That is why I appreciate our parallel story of the Israelites, Moses, and Joshua today. As one scholar writes, what our ancient story and our modern story reminds us of is “Building the realm of God is a process, and we each have our part to play, even if we will not be around to see all our hopes come to fruition. Even if we will not be present for the final outcome, it is important that we build the realm of God in the here and now, trusting God to work through each of us to bring about God’s vision for the world. Furthermore, God assures us in [today’s Old Testament reading] that there will be people to continue leading us to the promised land and building God’s kingdom after we are gone. The emergence of Joshua as the new leader of the Israelite people shows us that the work to be done is bigger than any one individual, and God will continue to provide prophetic presence through different people and voices.”[i]
In both the stories of our biblical and historical ancestors, we are reminded that we are a part of a greater narrative – each phase of the journey filled with challenges, hard times, and anxious moments. But each phase is also filled with successes, celebratory times, and joyful, life-giving moments. That is why we have been talking about journeys this month. As we have reflected on our personal journeys to generosity during stewardship season, we have heard countless stories of how our journey has evolved, changed, and deepened. We have also heard of the fellow pilgrims along the way who taught us about generosity and shaped our journey along the way. What we have been doing this month, and what our Old Testament lesson and our current celebrations remind us of is “there is value in the journey. The value lies in the growth, the relationships, and the spiritual development we experience along the way, not to mention the incremental progress we make toward creating the just and peaceable world that God desires for all of creation.”[ii]
Our invitation this week, is to continue to invest in the journey. Each of you have shared with me the innumerable ways that Hickory Neck has influenced your journey. I cannot tell you the countless times that this building alone has played a powerful part of your experience here. I cannot tell you the multiple times I have heard about the passion and excitement that enlivened your faith life as we built a new worship space after hundreds of years on this land. I cannot tell you the hundreds of times I have heard dreams and vision whispered in my ear as you have envisioned what the next steps of our journey together at Hickory Neck will be. There will be hard moments and joyful moments, times of struggle and times of celebration. Today we are reminded of the God who journeys in each phase with us, and empowers us as partners on the journey to change the kingdom of God here on earth. God will empower us to stay on the journey together. I cannot wait to see where the journey leads! Amen.
[i] Leslie A. Klingensmith, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplement to Yr. A, Proper 25 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.
[ii] Klingensmith, 6.