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July 2, 2016, 7:31 PM

Go On Your Way

by Sandy Bach

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 NRSV)

The greatest honor God ever bestowed on me was the call to be a shepherd to a church in northeastern Oklahoma.  The greatest challenge God ever bestowed on me was the call to be a shepherd here in northeastern Oklahoma!

It took two months of personal discernment: prayer, talking with my husband, sharing with my most trusted friends. It took a few weeks of being in conversation with the moderator of the Pastor Nominating Committee before finally gaining the courage to come out and ask him if the church would be interested in receiving my resume.

His answer was immediate and surprising: yes, we’d be happy to receive your resume. I almost asked him if he was sure. The only reason I didn’t was because I was afraid he’d change his mind!

All told, it took about six months. And when the call came to serve, I was filled with great joy and amazement. My heart’s desire had apparently met God’s deep need.  I had no idea what I was doing and where to begin. God did, though, so I arrived that first day with boxes of books and a heart filled with joy and trepidation. God provided the rest.

When Jesus sent the seventy out in pairs, he sent them everywhere. The mission didn’t end with their joy-filled return. It hasn’t ended, yet. We are the descendants of those seventy, being sent God only knows where, God only know why, to God only knows.

Jesus is speaking to the 21st century church when he says, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (10:2). It’s as true today as it was in Jesus’ day. The harvest is plentiful: more and more Americans self-identify their religious affiliation as “none.” Others self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Still others view Christians as pushy, even mean. We’ve watched two generations of people not coming to church.

The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are graying and dying. We stutter over the word, “evangelism.” We’re scared. We don’t particularly care for our view of the future.

No one knows this better than the two congregations worshiping in the church building where I serve.  Our membership is not what it once was. Neither congregation can afford a full-time minister. One church building has been sold while the former tenants nest in a building that isn’t theirs.

Now we are talking about federation – combining our two distinctive selves into one. Is this an exciting opportunity or a slowing down of our eventual death?

If the harvest is so plentiful, where are they? What happened to Christ’s Church in America? Where are the people to fill our classrooms and pews?  We could spend time analyzing this and believe me, I have spent twenty years studying it.

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Hastings, NE for my annual study leave. We spend three hours every day in classes led by seminary and university professors. There is time for rest; healthy and delicious meals; and the weather cooperates to allow us long walks.

Without a doubt, the best part of the day is morning worship. A preaching or worship professor leads and the sermons are memorable. This year my favorite preacher was there: Rev. Tom Long, recently retired from Candler College, Emory University.

During an afternoon conversation with him, the discussion turned to the inevitable topic: The 21st century church. He explained our existing condition better than I ever could: “I believe that God is tearing down what we have and building something new and more faithful.”

The preacher in Ecclesiastes wrote, “There’s a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Could it be that God is at work in all this and we’re the laborers he wants and need?

“Go on your way,” Jesus told them. “I’m sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (v 3.) When I began my call in Cleveland, I knew that I would come across a few wolves. But the lambs far outnumbered them. And on my worst days, those lambs humbled this particular wolf into a more authentic disciple.

When Jesus sent the seventy out, he had specific instructions. “Time is of the essence. Leave your brief case at the office and the matching luggage at home. Don’t carry extras – I want you to depend on God and only God.

“There’s no time to stop along the way for a long visit with old friends. Tell them you’ll have to visit at a later time. There’s work to do – don’t get side-tracked by distractions.

“Wherever you go, bring peace,” Jesus continued. “When you enter a home, say ‘peace to this house.’ Allow them to care for you—yes, it’s a humbling experience, but stay with them. Don’t move to another home. Whatever they provide you for a meal, eat it. Even if it’s not very good or not kosher, even if you know they’re too poor to be sharing. Allow them to serve you; and experience being humbled by them.”

Where can we bring peace? How can we offer ourselves to others, humbly serving and healing and proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand?

Perhaps the place to begin is as one united congregation. The result could be more energy and enthusiasm to serve God; more fulsome worship; more creativity; more of everything.

Is this what God is calling us to? Is federation a faithful and faith-filled response to God? And do we have the courage to step out in a leap of faith, not knowing where it’ll take us?

If this is the direction God is calling us to take, I insist we move through it slowly.  While many in both congregations are trying to adapt and adjust to the many changes in our church and our society, a few are ready to make all of the decisions at once: monetary, worship, Christian Ed, ministry, etc.

I say it because I’ve witnessed a federation fail because of assumptions and delayed decisions. I’ve seen people hurt deeply by ill-considered decisions.

I’ve also witnessed federations that are working beyond their wildest expectations: God at work, bringing them from two congregations to one; providing new and creative ministry ideas.

I suggest the slower method because it means significant change. It means death and resurrection. Death as a purely Presbyterian and a purely Methodist congregation and resurrection to something new and vital and dynamic.

That requires time and patience and plenty of prayer. Done right, we’ll feel Christ’s steady hand guiding us, pointing the way; we’ll witness miracles; and the demons will submit. We’ll tread on those scorpions of descent and snakes of temptation.

When God called me to Cleveland, I had no idea the wonderful journey I was embarking on. There have been a few moments when I’ve had to shake off the dust. There have been some scorpions and snakes along the way. Yet, I’ve received far more than I can ever return.

I believe that God is at work, tearing down in order to build up. I believe that our ministry here in Cleveland is vital. I believe that God needs us and has plans for us. Whether we do ministry as two congregations or one, is up to God.

Wherever God lead us, I’m prepared to follow. And it would be my greatest pleasure to continue that walk with all of them.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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