Where Are We Headed?

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Deuteronomy 1:19-33
Philippians 3:7-16

". . .I press on toward the goal for the prize of the
upward call of God in Christ Jesus."


Where are we headed? It was the question of the Israelites to Moses early on in the wilderness: Our kindred have made our hearts melt by reporting, "The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven!": Where are we headed?

It was, as well, a question which had been unearthed, centuries after its first asking, during the reign of King Josiah over Judah. . .when the wilderness was no longer to be found in the desert, but could be identified in the cities settled by generations of God's people...people currently bowing down before any god they could get their hands on. From out of the wilderness of their collective soul, they asked anew, "Where are we headed?"

And it is, of course, a question put to us in this place, on this day, as you and I begin our life together and as we ordain a new class full of officers. Where are we headed? To wit: Why in the world has God given us into each other's keeping at the "top of the Hill"? How could it be that, by grace, this people may not only survive but thrive in an age when mainline churches are mostly counting their losses? Where are we headed?

There is a sense in which we ask the question as the Hebrews first asked it, having heard reports that, "The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven!" They wanted to know, in other words, not only where they were headed, but what they were up against on the way. It must be our question too: What are we up against in the world as we try to bear witness to the truth of God's grace in this place?

Having been here barely one week, I can only guess, from all outward signs, that part we are up against is the secular world I knew so well in the land from which I have sojourned. Its Gospel is tolerance: whatever works for you is fine with me. Its hallmark is the harried life: I must be important else why is my calendar so full? Its ideal is the well-rounded child: lessons at every turn, involvements legion enough to impress an admissions officer, exposure to the values of Christian faith and sanction to dismiss its claims. Its truth: what science can prove and the mind can, eschewing complexity, grasp. Its hope: a happiness which can seemingly be had for a price. Its end: an emptiness inexplicable to its adherents.

Nevertheless, they seem stronger and taller than we; their cities are large and fortified up to heaven. Hence our hearts melt as our grown children quit the pews and join the ranks of secularity with our grandchildren by their side. Our hope fades as church rolls languish in spite of every growth strategy borrowed from the corporate world. Our memory betrays us as we long to return to the days when the culture's center was the church and the social order acted as underwriter of religious institutions.

Though paradoxically it must be said, we are also living in a very religious time, and against the manifestations of so-called spirituality, the Christian church is surely up as well. "Perhaps like you", writes Gary Dorsey in his book Congregation: The Journey Back to Church, "I have attended churches at different times in my life. Born and baptized (Presbyterian), I became an agnostic, turned mystic, self-actualized, individuated, joined the Quakers, opted out --the usual course for my generation in the American psycho-religious carnival."

Spend an hour at Borders Book Store perusing the new releases, and you will find a kind of free floating religiosity for sale: books eager to fill the emptiness with a variety of techniques intended to induce spiritual experiences; authors ready to address our every vulnerability with the teachings of a multitude of gurus; devices offered to usher in a New Age on crystal beams. . . all this on display while the church keeps cranking out potluck suppers and poorly attended Bible Studies and rummage sales for Jesus' sake.

So it was with Josiah and the people of Judah, who had left the less-promising worship of Yahweh for the more practical, tangible gods of the day. When Josiah's men unearthed the Book of the Covenant and assembled the elders, the priests, and the inhabitants of Judah, these ancient words were read into a gathering of a very religious people who had no clue as to the truth. . . no idea where they were headed.

Now the curious fact in all we are up against is, quite simply, "they" are "us!" Tolerant, totally booked, well-rounded, well-healed, reasonably happy on one hand, vaguely dissatisfied on the other: pillars of the secular culture we are, one and all. Pilgrims, as well, who have wandered through these doors, having previously darkened many others perhaps, with a restlessness which has yet to be sufficiently addressed. . . seeking a purpose otherwise avoided throughout the week just spent. . .asking in silent judgement whether or not this community is headed any place worth our lives. "It never takes long in our culture," Gary Dorsey goes on to say, "to grow weary of religion's failures and conceits. You leave the carnival for a while, and then, when you grow grim about the mouth, like an itinerant Ishmael, there you go, off again, onto another ride. Oddly enough," he concludes, "the ride that becomes a journey often begins in a church."

Where, then, ought this community be headed in these years ahead, if it is to be a journey worth our lives? What I know for sure, what I am convinced of precisely because the world is so intimately with us here in this place, is that the gospel we have been given to proclaim from this rooftop on the hill, the truth toward which we are headed in everything we will attempt, is the Word the secular world most desperately longs to hear. . .needs to hear. . .was made to hear. It is the Word men and women are, this very minute, searching the bookstores to discover. It is the Word from which our children and grandchildren finally can never stray too far. In a word, it is "the word of grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ in such a way," says Karl Barth, "that, in spite of all that contradicts it, they may at once for all, exclusively and entirely, hold to God's promise and guidance."

The question is, how does Word of God's grace get through all of the other words, the lesser words, the lies and shams, the shallow words of our day. What sort of witness must Christ's church bear to the world such that people's lives are claimed and, by grace, headed in the direction of God's greater purpose: the upward call of God in Jesus Christ?

In the first place, the Reformed theological tradition has always stood for a substantive proclamation of the gospel. That is to say, we are those who have brought to the biblical witness not only our hearts to love God, but out minds to know God. The church throughout the ages, according to John Leith, has always been renewed and reformed by substantive preaching. It takes more than fifteen minutes and a few funny stories of a Sunday morning to do business with the faith we have been given. . .and I promise you, we will do business, week after week from this pulpit, with this incredibly rich and exciting theological tradition of ours, as it propels us into our daily existence for Christ's sake.

In the second place, if we are to be a beacon in this city, we must begin by reclaiming faith's substance for ourselves and for the generations to come: challenging Christian education for adults, as well as what Wendy has already begun for our children, will make this journey worth our lives. With the resources of Lutheran Theological Seminary down the road and Princeton Theological Seminary scarcely up the road, we have the opportunity, on Sunday mornings and during the week, to be tutored seriously in the Bible and in the faith of those who have gone before us, as well as to attend to the issues of our day from a theological perspective which has always emphasized God's sovereignty over human history. We will begin a Theological Book Club meeting monthly in my home, for instance so that on business trips or rainy Saturday afternoons, you might be caught with a copy of Karl Barth's Humanity of God or John Leigh's Basic Christian Doctrine, and thus be given both ancient and new categories through which to view the events in city hall or Beirut or Bosnia or Washington.

But more, for in the third place, God's Word is proclaimed to us not simply on the written page nor spoken from the pulpit nor acted out around the table and the baptismal font, but for many that word cuts through life's sham as it finds its way into music--excellent music. That is so for adults and it is even more so for our children and youth, who would begin their lives headed toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus by way of song. There is no finer method to evangelize a community than with an excellent--and again substantive -- music program coupled with exceptional Christian education. The power of the faith communicated to adults and children, through the magnificence of the masters and modern composers, just could be the reason some itinerant Ishmaels begin to wander through these doors. The challenge involves a leap of faith, right away, toward a full-time experienced minister of music, who will head us toward a service of worship deeply enriched by the finest praises we know how to sing to Almighty God.

In the fourth place, God's word of grace cuts through the shallows of human existence and heads us toward God's upward call in Christ Jesus especially where life itself stops us short -- I am speaking of the church's pastoral care. In times of illness and disease, death and divorce, the mind's confusion or a future foreclosed: we must know the church's presence at those times in our life when, without the sure and certain hope given us quite simply through a hand held silently in Christ's name, we could not make it through. The strengthening of this congregation's pastoral ministry, which you have known so significantly through Ellie and the deacons and the Stephen ministers, is the heart of everything else we dare. . .a compassion, a trust, a love for one another.

But it must also be a compassion spilling out into this city. So, in the fifth place, we must focus the church's social witness to the end that, when a stranger on Germantown Avenue is stopped and asked for help. . .or when an issue of justice is before the community. . .or when an emergency requires a valiant effort. . . that stranger will soon know to say, "My friend, the most responsive church in town is the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill -- the beacon there at the top of the hill -- just walk a few blocks up and you will find help and support." The church reaches out with the gospel most significantly not as it is a funding agency for a lot of scattered causes and institutions, but as it identifies its own particular gifts and offers them up in intentional ways to meet the world's deepest need.

Now a church headed in the direction of a substantive witness to Jesus Christ, a witness borne in the midst of a secular and spiritually lost generation, must be ready to stake the journey with all it has been given. In this day and age, and in communities like the one I have just left and the one I have just joined, everything begins with significant and sacrificial giving -- money -- stewardship! If the mission of the church is to be the best church it knows how to be, such discipleship bears a cost. Your officers and staff will soon retreat to map out just where we are headed and how we will make the journey. It will require of us our very souls and, said Jesus in the same breath, that means we need empty our barns if our hearts every really intend to follow where he will lead us. I have accepted the call to be your minister because I believe the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill is ready, once for all, exclusively and entirely, to hold to Godís promise and guidance, is poised to hear the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, is eager to be headed toward that city whose builder and maker is God. Let me map it out for you again: substantive preaching, disciplined study, excellent music, a ministry of compassion within and beyond these walls, sacrificial giving: this is where we are headed on a journey worth our lives!

Thomas Merton once wrote, "There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues." "There is always an enormous temptation," Annie Dillard goes on to say, "in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, ĎI never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I wonít have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and more bitter, more extravagant and more bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus." Thanks be to God. Itís time to hit the road!



Let us pray:

Thanks be to thee, 0 God, not only for our lives, but for life's purpose, for thy tender mercy heading us ever toward thy grace, for thy strength upholding us moment by moment before we fall too far, for thy guiding hand along the way of our pilgrimmage, for every evidence of thy love moving us toward one another in love, for the gift of thy church wherein we are kept, in the meantime, until thy Kingdom come.

So we ask thy guiding hand to be before us and behind us and upon this congregation in these days ahead. Grant us the presence of thy spirit, against which all other spirits may be tested and found wanting. Set before us thy Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, that every idle word out of our mouths may do no harm, and each word risked for the sake of the gospel may bear fruit to thy glory. Give us courage to follow Him who has gone before us in all things; to fear nothing save that which is worthwhile to fear, even thee; to save not our lives but risk them, to risk everything lest we loose sight of thy upward call in Christ Jesus, who taught us together to pray...

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