Courage for a New Land
Sunday, August 2, 2020
Guest Preacher, Steve McKinley
Grace to you and peace, from God our parent and the Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
I preached at Augustana on February 2, exactly six months ago today. 659 folks worshipped here that morning; 158 at 8:30, 412 cozily packed in at 9:45, and 88 at 11. At the 8:30 and 9:45 services we sang favorite hymns as nominated by the congregation. The lineup was “How Great Thou Art,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus”, and “Beautiful Savior.” At 11 we began and ended with “Hallelujah, Your Love Is Amazing.” We shared communion at all three services. Choirs sang.
Thirty-eight events were on the calendar at Augustana for the week ahead. The music department was getting fired up for Lent and Easter. The Minnesota Valley Orchestra would be in concert at Augustana the following Sunday. Plans were proceeding for an All-Congregation Dinner and Bingo Game.
In the Super Bowl later that day the Kansas City Chiefs took down the LA Rams before 62,000 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. Sports fans were salivating over the beginning of baseball’s spring training and the impending basketball and hockey tournaments and playoffs. Schools were rocking along. Unemployment was low. The economy was booming. People were starting their winter vacations and planning their summer trips. Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and George Floyd were all alive. 38th and Chicago was just another urban intersection.
- Do you remember those days?
- Do you think that days like that will come back soon, that before long there will be a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus and things will “get back to normal”, back to the way they used to be? I say this to you with all love and respect. If you do, you’re living in a fantasy world.
The future is going to be different from the past. It always is. But we can move into an uncertain and intimidating future with strength and courage, because we know that God does not abandon God’s people.
Hold all that, all the radical change of the past six months, all the uncertainty about the future, off to one side for a minute. We’ll get back to it. Right now, let’s look at today’s lesson from the book of Joshua.
When Joshua begins, Moses has just died and Joshua, his second in command, has assumed the leadership of the Israelites. In these verses, God is addressing Joshua. First of all, God repeats the promise that God had made to Moses, that the land on the other side of the Jordan will belong to Israel.
But God does not promise that moving into the land will be a walk in the park. So, God gives Joshua the same command three different times in these nine verses: Be strong and courageous. You can see it twice in the middle of the passage, and then once again close to the end. Be strong and courageous. The last time God says that, God adds in “…do not be frightened or dismayed.”
Now Joshua and the Israelites would need all the strength and courage they could muster. Any sane Israelite could be forgiven for feeling “frightened and dismayed.” A few years before Moses had sent scouts to check out the territory across the river. The scouts came back with the report that it was a rich and fertile land, a land flowing with milk and honey. BUT: they also said that the people who lived there were intimidating. ‘From Numbers 13: The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size, and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.’ Joshua and the Israelites had every reason to be frightened and dismayed.
The key here is that God’s command comes with a promise. Right before God’s first order to be “strong and courageous,” God says I will not fail you or forsake you. Then at the very end of the passage, God says the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
And that is just how it worked. The going was never easy, but sure enough over time the Israelites took over all the land beyond the Jordan. God’s promise came true, as God’s promises always come true.
Remembering the Israelites on the edge of the Promised Land, let’s go back and pick up the challenges we as Christians and we as a church are facing right now at the beginning of August 2020. While the Israelites were moving through the wilderness, before they got to the Promised Land, whenever the going got tough, some Israelites wanted to go back, go back to Egypt, back to the way things used to be. Back to what they thought of as “the Good Old Days.” Normal. That was not the plan God had for them. God had something new in mind for them. Speaking on behalf of God, Moses ruled out any going back. They would move ahead into the newness of the Promised Land.
I think God has something new in mind for us. I might be old, but I don’t think that “new” is a bad word. Now I do not know exactly what God has in mind for God’s church. I don’t know what the future is going to look like. But I do know that God will be with us as we go. As a matter of fact, I think God is prodding us along.
And I am just as confident that moving into the newness of the future will require letting go of some of the old. When the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes landed his three ships in Mexico in 1579, the first thing he did was to set fire to all three ships to eliminate any possibility of going back. They were in the new world to stay. Like it or not, we are in a new world to stay. Going back to the way things were six months ago today is not an option. It simply isn’t going to happen.
Some people have gotten out of the habit of going to church, and they won’t come back. Some people have found that they would rather worship on-line than in person. We’ve all gotten so germ conscious that some of our old ways of sharing communion, having a coffee hour, sitting together in small prayer groups—many people simply are not going to do that.
I watched a video recently from a church that has resumed in-person worship. Worshippers are expected to sanitize their hands on entering the church. They are required to wear masks. Social distancing controls pew seating…each family unit at least six feet apart, with vacant pews in between. Therefore, total attendance is limited. No singing. Even with masks singing propels bacteria out into the air. No common recitation of prayers or creeds, which also propels bacteria out into the air. No communion. The pastor won’t greet you before or after the service. No hand-shaking or touching. It is worship, but it doesn’t look like anything we know.
It’s not just the church facing these puzzling and frightening times. We’re all getting used to wearing masks…even when we go to the bank! It’s not at all clear what will happen with our schools in a month. Indoor dining in restaurants? Football, soccer, basketball, wrestling, hockey? How about dancing? Do you remember those places called movie theaters? Been to the mall lately? Would you feel comfortable going back? If you feel glibly confident about the weeks and months ahead, you haven’t been paying attention.
Now maybe some vaccine will come along and we will be safe from Covid-19. Maybe. But even if it does, people have changed and the way we do things is changed. While some consider “change” a dirty word in church life, change is happening all the time.
When the Lord’s Prayer was reworked into contemporary language, people complained that the new language did not sound holy enough, that it was not properly reverent. It’s not the way we learned it, they said. I prefer the traditional version, they said. The new way just doesn’t sound right, they said. By the way: the year was 1611, and what they were complaining about was what we now consider the “Traditional” Lord’s Prayer. Change happens. We incorporate it, and what was new and different becomes traditional.
Church life is going to change. Like it or not, in the weeks and months and year ahead, the Christian movement will live in a new world, and will need to learn to live in a new way in that new world. It is time to put the idea of “getting back to normal” to bed. I hope and pray that the last few months have stirred in us a new passion for racial and economic justice, for the drive for justice has always been part of the church’s mission in the world.
As we move into that new world, we are being led and followed and energized and sustained and comforted by the resurrected Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, so we can move with strength and courage.
Now there are things out of the past that I miss. When I was in high school, I was in regular conflict with Mr. Lucas, the assistant principal and chief disciplinarian, because he was convinced that I had too much hair. He even called my father about my long hair. Those days are long gone, and now I have learned to live as a bald man. But I did have great hair. I really did. Think Elvis. Think Fonzie.
Well, be at peace. In a few years we are going to look back and miss some things, but I for one am more excited about the future than the past. I can hardly wait to see what God is going to do with us! I’m convinced Augustana has a great future that will be very different from its great past, and that God will guide us into that future. We live today under the promise God made to the Israelites:
- I will not fail you or forsake you.
- The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.