Sermon: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A, September 24, 2017, The Very Rev. Randall Hehr
In the ten years I served St. John’s, Tampa, I valued opportunities to witness rebirth and new life in the city. I remember the day I parked my car on E. Harrison Avenue in downtown Tampa and walked a short distance to the historic St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. I was meeting a developer there named Harry Hedges, a member of St. John’s Tampa, and he wanted me to know more about the history of this congregation and the future plans for the building. It was crumbling in disrepair. There were cracks in the walls and windows were boarded. I learned that a proud congregation had called this home for nearly 100 years, but in 2010 they moved to another location. The church was surrounded by open, empty lots.
Today that site is bustling with people. One hundred twenty units of work force housing have been built. The church has been beautifully renovated, including the stain glass windows, and that building serves as the community center for the people who live in the development. If you and I went there today, we would find art programs, a library, a computer center, and a stage for children’s productions. It is like a resurrection. It was dying and is now alive. It was lost and has been found.
Today I want to think about vision for the future. When I walked through St. Paul’s with Harry, I could see and hear his vision for that property.
A developer brings together the right people and right resources for a vision to become a reality. That is what Harry does every day. How often do you and I see things around us that are in decline or decay? We often recognize the changes that mean a place or a community is no longer thriving. Do we have the vision to see what is possible? Do we have the vision to bring about new development and new hope?
Our Old Testament lesson today from Exodus (16:2-15) reminds us of the importance of God’s vision. This particular segment of Exodus describes the dynamics of the people of Israel as they make their way through the wilderness. We witness their frustration, their hunger and thirst, and their anger at God and at Moses and Aaron.
Let’s go back and recall together the steps in the story. You remember when Moses saw the burning bush and God spoke to him. God had witnessed the hardship of the Israelites held in captivity by Pharaoh in Egypt. God heard their cries. And God said to Moses, “I will send you.” Moses, of course, was hesitant. God assured Moses that he would be with him. God said, “Tell them ‘I am’ sent you.” And you remember Moses encounters with Pharaoh, and how God sent the plagues. Pharaoh finally decided to let the people go. The Israelites ate a meal in haste – the Passover meal – and the angel of death passed over their dwellings. They made their way to the edge of the Red Sea where God provided a pathway through the waters. The armies of Pharaoh were drowned as the people of God fled. And they journeyed for forty years through the wilderness. They struggled. They blasted Moses for bringing them out into the wilderness to die. They longed for their life in captivity and wanted to go back to the familiar patterns in Egypt.
Why did Moses keep going? Why did Moses endure the arduous journey and the anger and hostility of the people? Why did he keep leading them through the wilderness? He did this because God had given him the vision. God gave him a vision of a new life in the Promised Land of Canaan. God gave God’s people a covenant, a relationship to live into. They would be God’s people and God would be their Lord. The vision was not just a place; it was a way of living together with God. The vision kept Moses going. You may also remember that when they arrived outside the Promised Land, God told Moses he would not make that final leg of the journey. Moses died and was buried before the Israelites entered their new home.
Scholars write about this important period in the life of the Hebrew people. They were a mixed group when they set out. Their life together was formed through the long journey. Their life together was formed by the hardships and the testing. And they were learning to trust God to provide the resources for them along the way. God provided food, like the manna that appeared on the ground for the Israelites. God provided strength and courage. God provides hope for us through the storms of life. God provides abundant resources for us on the long journey.
We, too, are engaged in a long journey. We are learning to trust God who provides for us. We are learning that God will be our strength and our hope during the storms of life, during the toughest times we can imagine.
And God gives us vision. I think of the risky steps that Moses and his people had to take: the conflict with Pharaoh, leaving Egypt, and the long, hard journey through the wilderness. Vision is what empowers us to take such steps. We are embarking on risky steps together at Holy Trinity: development through partnerships in the community, teamwork ministry, development of our property, new possibilities for ministry in our existing facilities, and new programs. Most importantly, we are meeting new people every day and telling them about the marvelous ministries here at Holy Trinity.
I have glimpses of God’s vision. I have glimpses of a vision for a new generation – adults and children – who will come after us. They will be speaking new languages that we do not use on a daily basis here today. They will be gathering in spaces here that are reconfigured for a new era. They will worship with new liturgies and a variety of musical styles. They will develop satellite operations developed through partnerships in the community. They will serve as lay ministers preaching and teaching out beyond these walls.
Let us seek God’s vision together. Let us trust God to provide the resources on the long journey. Let us have the courage to take bold steps for Christ’s sake. Amen.