Sunday, September 11, 2011

"A Way Forward" (Exodus 14:19-31)

Not long ago, in the middle of summer, Ginger and I got a surprise. A young man stopped by our house, a young man who we’ve known since he was a 9 year-old kid in the fourth grade, long before he was even capable of sporting the scruffy goatee that now adorns his face. He was spending some time in southern California relaxing, and he stopped by that evening to say hi.

It was really good to see him. We ended up talking until well past midnight, which (just so you know) is way past my bedtime. And it felt a little weird to offer him a beer, because he’s one of our youth kids, except that, of course, he isn’t a kid anymore.

His future is hopeful: he has a job, a girlfriend, and a good relationship with his family. Like many young adults, he still has some maturing to do, but we have quite a lot of hope that he’ll get there.

That wasn’t always the case. When he was a teenager in the church youth group where we were living, Ginger and I feared that he would end up in jail, in the hospital, or worse. Those were his fears, too. He said to us once that he didn’t expect that he would live long.

A friend of his said to us once, when they were still teenagers, that if it wasn’t for Ginger and I and the work we were doing with that church’s youth, that this particular kid may very well have committed suicide. “If it weren’t for you guys,” he said, “my friend probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Talk about a wake-up call. Here we thought that all we were doing was taking kids to bowling alleys and mini golf, giving them a place to hang out, letting them raid our refrigerator and pantry, and maybe talking to them about Jesus every once in a while. Turns out that God was working through all that to take a dead-end life and create a way forward, a path into a future filled with hope.

Pretty amazing stuff. But then, the God we worship is pretty amazing, and we should expect amazing things from God – the God whose love and compassion are so complete, so good, so whole; the God who, time and time again, takes people who think they are at a dead end, and shows them a way forward.

I’ve seen it many times with people who have lost a spouse or a partner. I think it’s almost always the case that when one’s life companion dies, it feels like a dead end. How can life possibly continue? How can one keep moving forward, alone? How can one find hope? How can one ever rediscover joy or laughter?

There are some who never do. However, the vast majority receive the support of family and friends, and the prayers of an entire church. Those with whom they break bread every Sunday show their support, and they show those who are mourning how to take a step forward. And then they help them take another step forward. And another. And another.

And before you know it, they find themselves once again walking into the future.

It’s not easy. They are still carrying their pain. But through the ministry of the church, God has shown them that there is a way forward.

Our God is a God who shows that there is a way forward. When we’re at a dead end, God creates an opening, a way through, and in doing so God provides hope and salvation. God makes possible a future that wasn’t thought to exist.

When the Israelites fled from Egypt, they encountered a dead-end when they reached the Red Sea. In their rush to escape, had no one given any consideration to how they would reach the promised land?

In front of them was a vast sea; no one could swim across it. Behind them came the mighty Egyptian army. No one could possibly stand against it.

They were trapped. They couldn’t go forward, and they couldn’t go back. There would be no future for the people God had called his own.

But then: God had Moses raise his staff over the water; and God parted the waters, creating a path on dry ground right through the middle of the sea.

God pushed the waters of chaos, the dwelling-place of death and demons, to the side, so that the Israelites could pass through its midst, with a wall of water on their left and a wall of water on their right. God created a way forward where the Israelites had seen nothing but a dead end; and that way forward led to a future filled with hope and promise.

Thus God saved Israel that day from the Egyptians. Thus Moses and the Israelites and all generations since have declared: “the LORD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Thus the psalmist declared that “God is my savior, he who has done great things in Egypt.”

“God is my savior.” In modern times, we tend to define the term “savior” in a way that is much too narrow. If a Christian asks you if you are saved, probably they mean, are you saved from a life in hell after death. But the biblical definition of words like saved and savior and salvation is much deeper than that.

The psalmist declared that “God is my Savior” because God saved the Israelites from slavery, from a life without meaning [Psalm 106:21]. In the book of Hosea, the word “savior” is used the same way when God declares that “I have been the LORD your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior” [Hosea 13:4].

Moses and the Israelites declared that “The LORD is my salvation” because when it seemed that they were at a dead end, with no hope for the future, God provided for them a way forward. God saved Israel that day. God restored Israel to wholeness.

The young man who came by the house to visit: God saved him. I really believe that. God restored unto him the joy of salvation. God provided for him a way forward into the future.

So many people who have lost loved ones, who have felt themselves at a dead end with no way forward: God saved them. God restored unto them the joy of salvation. God showed them how to put one foot in front of the other, and find their way forward into the future.

We must remember the salvation of God. We must remember the story of how God provided a way forward for the Israelites when it seemed that all hope was lost.

Ten years ago today, terrorists attacked the United States. I’m sure all of us, except for the very youngest among us, remember that day and the days that followed.

On that day, my baby boy turned two months old. His older brother was four, and on that day his pancreas was starting to shut down insulin production, although we wouldn’t know that until a month later when he was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes.

On that day a group of exchange students from Brazil had just arrived in Texas; some of them would soon discover that the families that had agreed to host them for the year had changed their minds, no longer wanting to house a stranger from overseas. That’s how one of those students came to be a part of my family that year. Their loss, our gain.

On that day I woke up early as I usually do, and tuned into NPR to hear that the FAA had grounded all air traffic. That was the first thing I heard, and I was confused. All air traffic? What for?

And then, like most Americans, and indeed much of the world, I watched the images on TV of planes crashing, towers burning, bodies falling.

I wondered: what next? What was in our future?

Was there even going to be a future?

It would be great if I could tell you that the next thing I thought of was the story of God leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.

Actually, the next thing I thought of was my once-a-month commitment to help deliver meals-on-wheels, since that was my scheduled day. So as I was driving around, delivering meals to folks who were elderly and homebound, I realized that many of them had been through quite a lot in their lives: the deaths of loved ones, the loss of their mobility, and much more.

Most, if not all of them, remembered when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place.

At least one of them sought to comfort me, and offer me words of hope. She knew that people would be looking to me, their pastor, for encouragement. She also knew that I was young; ten years younger than I am now, in fact!

Listening to her, I knew that God would indeed provide us a way forward, a way through what we were now facing. And that gave me the hope and encouragement I needed to turn around and provide hope and encouragement to others.

Ten years later, we’re still here. We have found that path that leads forward into the future. I think that, as a nation, we have stumbled on that path a few times, especially when we’ve been quick to cast blame, and when we’ve allowed our fears to cause us to discriminate against Muslims and deny rights to Muslims in America, the vast majority of whom seek peace and understanding just like the vast majority of Christians do.

We have stumbled, yes, and yet at the same time we do move forward, led by the God of peace and love, the God who makes a path through the waters so that God’s people might be saved.

As you know, we are beginning our stewardship campaign today. Stewardship is about money, yes. But it’s not just about money. It’s about trusting in the one who shows you the way forward, who makes a path into the future; the one who says: “Surely I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

In our lives, we’ve known times when the future seemed without hope. In our congregation’s life, we’ve known times when the future seemed without hope. Times when we felt we were at a dead end.

But then we discovered that life does go on. We discovered that there was a path through the waters, and that we could venture on that path if we could but put one foot in front of the other. We discovered that we could survive difficult economic times. We discovered that beyond conflict and pain, there was healing and hope.

In this season when we focus on stewardship, remember the God who parted the seas, and who provided a way forward. Remember all those who found new life and salvation through the church; odds are you’re one of them. If you are worried about your ability to give, remember the God who has never let you down, the God who won’t let you drown in the sea. Let your commitment to God reflect your joy and gratitude for God’s commitment to you, to provide you a future with hope.

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