The first rule of Preaching 101 says that the preacher should limit the amount of personal stories used in sermons so that they don't become the focus of the message. The second rule is that preachers should not talk about their families -- particularly their children -- so that everyone doesn't know their business. Well...today I'm about to break the rules and do both!
This past week my husband and I took a vacation to California to see both our children. Julia, as most of you know, is still living in Los Angeles, finishing up her year as a Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Church. Mark is spending the summer participating in a cross-country bicycle trip that started in San Francisco last Sunday and ends in Washington DC on August 12th. So last weekend, we flew into LA, picked up Julia, and drove north on the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco to be a part of the big send-off.
I've posted plenty of vacation pictures on Facebook if you want to see them, but today I want to share more about Mark's trip. The ride, which is officially called, Journey of Hope, is comprised of 100 young men who were selected from all over the United States through an interview process. The riders were divided into three departure points, the North, which is Mark's route, began in San Francisco and headed north to Nevada and points beyond. The Trans-America started in Seattle, Washington and cuts across the US. And the South, which just started out of Long Beach, CA runs along the hot, humid southern states. As I said, they will all converge in DC on August 12th.
The purpose of the ride is to help raise awareness and acceptance of folks with intellectual and physical disabilities. Each stop of their trip includes Friendship Visits with local organizations such as the Special Olympics teams, local ARC chapters, special needs camps and the like. The visits are designed to promote interaction and relationship-building between the riders and their new friends. In addition, each rider in the Journey of Hope was required to raise at least $5,500, with a target of $7000, which is then divided up among the various recipient organizations to help fund their program needs.
Throughout the 60 day journey, the riders will make nearly 50 of these Friendship Visit stops, after riding anywhere from 50-100 miles on their bikes that morning. As you might imagine, it is an honor for the young men who are chosen for the Journey, but it is also hard work...physically and mentally demanding. They had to go through orientation and training on safety - which, as a mom, makes me super happy - as well as workshops on disabilities and inclusion. There are crew members who do not ride, but instead bookend the bikers...some going ahead to scout road conditions and set up rest stations, and others bringing up the rear to help with any stragglers. The crew is in constant contact to make sure that the riders are safe and to help with any accidents or break-downs.
The investment of the entire team - riders and crew - is significant...and so are the responsibilities. Still at the end of the day, every one of those young men consider this to be a privilege...and if the past participants' experiences are any indication, each one of the riders and crew members will, as the CEO said at the send off...be different men when they arrive in DC. He told the parents that the sons we were sending off were great young men, no doubt about it, but when we pick them up in DC, they will be different...transformed into even greater men who will become leaders in their schools, careers and communities.
Obviously, the Journey of Hope is on my mind this week since my son is riding in it...but it also seems like a microcosmic example of the message depicted in today's readings from Exodus and Matthew. It's a different context, of course, but being the people of God...being the church...is about being chosen and blessed by God for a purpose...for a relationship and for responsibilities.
In the case of the Israelites, the unique responsibilities were laid out pretty clearly...obey God's voice, keep the covenant, and be God's treasured possession. But, let's back up a just bit and set the context for today's reading.
This promise from God comes just a few months after Moses has led the Israelite slaves out of Egypt. They've experienced God's pillar of fire leading them. They've witnessed God's power parting the sea for their safe passage. They've been fed and provided for with water and quail and manna in the wilderness...and they've been protected from enemy nations. Every step of their "journey" has been taken care of by God's equivalent of a crew van. At this point in the journey...they have reached Mt. Sinai where God instructed Moses to take them. Soon Moses will go up the mountain and receive the commandments from God...but not yet.
No, not yet...no laws...no rules...no nothing. Just God's presence and Moses' leadership. That's the setting for this reading...the very moment in time when the Israelites are given a new identity. God makes it clear to them that they are his people. To set the stage, God reminds them of all that he has done to get them to this point, then in two short verses God tells them who they are. He establishes a holy relationship with the Israelites...calling them his treasured possession out of all the people. Out of all the earth that God has created, these ones here in the wilderness are chosen to become God's priestly kingdom...to be a holy nation.
I'm not sure we can even begin to fathom how that would have sounded to people who had spent generations enslaved to the Egyptians. They would have had no recollection of how to be a nation, much less a holy one. Yet, not only were they now literally free from the Egyptians, they were free from their past life. By naming them as his treasure, the Israelites were being called into a new, transformed life of blessing and abundance. This was the covenant God was offering - I will be your God and you will be my people.
To which the people respond...yes...yes...we will do everything that God has spoken.
And, of course they will...that is...until they don't. Which, by the way, happens soon after they make the promise. The Israelites will go on to break their end of the covenant with God...more than once...many times, in fact. But God will continue to remain faithful to his promise. God does not abandon his people...not back then thousands of years ago...and not now. We might do our share of wandering away from God, but God remains near to us always.
In fact, God is so determined to hold on to his treasured people that he sends Jesus to reiterate the covenant of love...to become it...to reveal it...and to extend it...beyond the complicated legalities of the law...outside the bounds of the religious hierarchy...and most importantly, to extend it to sinners and Gentiles like you and me.
Usually we refer to this as "receiving God's grace"...knowing and experiencing God's ever present love and mercy and forgiveness...deep within our soul in a way that mere words and mortals cannot offer. Some call it salvation, others describe it as discovering the peace that passes all understanding. Whatever theological name we give it...it comes to us though Jesus and not the law. Nonetheless, as Paul makes clear in his writings, living in God's grace doesn't mean we are free to ignore God's law...however, it does mean that we are never justified by it. Obedience to the law doesn't make us right with God...only Christ does that. Obedience is more like the natural outcome of one being right with God. It is our response to being God's beloved, and according to Jesus, covenant keeping on our end is about how we love God, love others, and love ourselves. Ultimately, when we live in God's grace, we will love graciously.
So, just as the Israelites were chosen by God and blessed by God...just as they were offered a relationship with God and just as they were given a responsibility to live as God's people...we too have been given all of these things through Christ. We, too, are his treasured possessions and with that identity comes responsibility.
Now, let's be clear...there are different theological understandings about what it means to receive God's grace. For some it's an intentional choice or action, for others it is a response to God's action. There are different theological positions on what it means to be God's people...and there are a whole bunch of different theological interpretations on a whole lot of doctrines within the church. Still, there is one thing that we all have in common: we believe that through Christ, God has called us to be his people.
I suppose, likening back to the Journey of Hope, the church and our differing beliefs is like the bikers who have different brands of bikes, different training routines, and different strategies for biking through the mountains...but at the end of the day, they share the same purpose...to carry out the responsibilities that come with having been invited to the ride.
I mean...isn't that the role of the church, folks...to carry out the responsibilities that come with our relationship with God? To do the things Jesus modeled? It's as the Apostle Peter said of the church: you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. He goes on to say that basically, it is the responsibility of God's people to live good lives such that others may see God in our good deeds. I think the urban slang for it is, represent...as in Christians, we gotta represent...and words are not always necessary.
We...the church...are meant to be the spiritual version of the Journey of Hope for the world. It's our call to raise awareness of God's amazing grace...to develop relationships with others...to allow diversity to enrich our lives...to work for reconciliation...to become better people...and to depend on God's provision as it comes - sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
The church is on this ride for the long haul and some days are going to be better than others. Still, through grace and mercy, Christ has called us onto this great journey with him...not because we are ready for it...not because of who we are or what we've done...not because of what kind of resources we can bring to it. Christ calls, equips, and empowers the church to be the church because we are God's beloved treasures and with relationship comes responsibility. It really is as simple as that.
Friends, God loves us as much and as faithfully as he loved the Israelites...and as patiently and mercifully when we repeat their mistakes. God also blesses us just as he blessed the Israelites so that we can have abundant life and be a blessing to others.
Which, by the way, brings up another thing the church has in common with the Journey of Hope. You see, there are more than 1600 alumni of the ride, and they will all tell you the same thing: they were blessed to be a part of the Journey of Hope and for as much as they entered those Friendship Visits to bless others, they were the ones more richly blessed. And really, is that not exactly how God's Journey of Hope has always worked. Israelites...disciples...the church today? We are blessed to be a blessing...and when we are willing to bless others, we are more abundantly blessed.
We have seen this proven true at First Presbyterian Church many times...especially in these past few years as we have been intentional about our divine purpose here at 128 E Main Street, Lebanon, Indiana. When we are generous about offering back from the abundant blessings God has granted us, when we are intentional about blessing others...through our missions and our ministries...as well as in our individual lives...this faith community is richly blessed by God. It never fails.
So, I want to close with this important truth...First Presbyterian Church is God's treasured possession. We are his imperfect beloved made perfect in Christ. In response to this amazing love, we are committed to learning continually, loving abundantly, and living faithfully so that all may know the love of God. And you know what? We don't always get it right...and we definitely do not do things perfectly...in fact, sometimes we may not even be faithful in our attempts. However with God's help, when we respond with all the grace and love we have received from God then rest assured, those who don't know God, but know us...will come to know God because they know us.
And that is what it means to Journey together in Hope...that is what means to labor together in God's harvest...that is what it means to uphold our end of God's amazing covenant of love, in Christ our Lord. Amen.