“Passing the Mantle” (Do you want the church to have a future??)

Exodus 34:1-12:   Then Moses hiked up from the Moabite plains to Mount Nebo, the peak of the Pisgah slope, which faces Jericho. The Lord showed him the whole land: the Gilead region as far as Dan’s territory; all the parts belonging to Naphtali along with the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, as well as the entirety of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea; also the arid southern plain, and the plain—including the Jericho Valley, Palm City—as far as Zoar.

Then the Lord said to Moses: “This is the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I promised: ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have shown it to you with your own eyes; however, you will not cross over into it.”

Then Moses, the Lord’s servant, died—right there in the land of Moab, according to theLord’s command. The Lord buried him in a valley in Moabite country across from Beth-peor. Even now, no one knows where Moses’ grave is. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eyesight wasn’t impaired, and his vigor hadn’t diminished a bit.

Back down in the Moabite plains, the Israelites mourned Moses’ death for thirty days. At that point, the time for weeping and for mourning Moses was over.

Joshua, Nun’s son, was filled with wisdom because Moses had placed his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to Joshua, and they did exactly what the Lord commanded Moses.

10 No prophet like Moses has yet emerged in Israel; Moses knew the Lord face-to-face!11 That’s not even to mention all those signs and wonders that the Lord sent Moses to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to his entire land— 12 as well as all the extraordinary power that Moses displayed before Israel’s own eyes!

 

As I read this story of Moses looking over the vast mountains, hills, and open spaces of the promised land, I can’t help but wonder what he was really seeing, feeling, or thinking.  We are told what he sees with his eyes, but not what he sees with his heart.  We are not given the thoughts that are running through his mind as he takes a glimpse of the land that he has worked so hard and journeyed for so long to look at.  It’s there, he can see it, feel the wind against his face, but it is just out of his grasp.  I imagine Moses being sad, frustrated, or even angry.  I also imagine Moses having to have a lot of faith in his travel companions- those whom he has led to this point.  He had to have profound faith in them that they might see this journey through.  I’m guessing he also had a bit of hesitation and fear that they would not.

When Corey and I went to the Holy Land in 2011, we actually started our trip in Jordan where we visited the city of Petra (Indiana Jones anyone?).

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  We ended our time in Jordan with a trip to the top of Mt. Nebo.

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We could look out over to Israel-Palestine and see something very close to what Moses had seen.  But we looked over this beautiful landscape with the knowledge that we would cross over into the promised land within a matter of hours.  However, it was not easy to cross over.  We stood in line for over 2 hours at the border crossing after going through what seemed like an endless series of check points.  As I was standing there waiting to cross over into Israel surrounded by men with machine guns sorting through my luggage and watching my every move, a feeling of uneasiness passed over me.  But as we finally crossed the border into Israel-Palestine there was a rush of relief and excitement.  We had stood where Moses stood, but now we had finally arrived.  We were the lucky ones as we experienced the riches of the promised land.  We didn’t just stand from a distance and look at it as Moses did- we were here!  We had arrived!  Later as we stood at Qumran, we looked behind us at Mt. Nebo and pondered once again what Moses saw but did not get to experience.  We could almost feel his sadness.  We wondered what kind of faith he must have in those who came after him.

So today I want to ponder with you all from the mountain top about the future of this congregation.  Imagine we are with Moses standing on the top of Mt. Nebo overlooking the promised land that is the future of our church.  What do you see?  Do you like what you see?  Perhaps you cannot see it?  That’s the thing about standing with Moses on Mt. Nebo- we know that we may not know what the future holds, but we do know that we can help pave the way for the future, just as Moses had done with faith, persistence, and our ability to raise up leaders among us like Moses did with Joshua.  The question is though: how are we doing?

This week was a week of serious reflection for me about this congregation as I continue to ponder my learning experiences in South Africa and as I was filling out all of the necessary paper work for charge conference this time of year.  Every year I am asked to let my district superintendent know how many professions of faith we have had.  How many baptisms we have had.  How many new members we have received.  This year’s answer?  Zero.  Then we are asked to list how many deaths we have had.  This year’s answer?  Four.  And as I look through the membership rolls, attendance, and overall numbers over the past few years, I notice that this is a consistent trend.  There was also another wake up call for me this week as I looked at the decline in giving and the future of our financial health as a church.  So income is declining, we are losing members, and we are not gaining new ones.  Friends, this does not look good. As I am standing on the mountain overlooking the promised land of our future, I can’t honestly tell you that I like what I see.  I am scared for what I see.  At this point, I am heartbroken for what I see.  And I wish I knew what to do to fix it.  But that is where you, the congregation, comes in.

It’s time that we take a serious look at our future.  It’s time that we really pay attention to what is in front of us if we do not shift our priorities as a congregation.  Starting right now, before it’s too late, we need to begin a revitalization of our congregation.  We need to spend time in prayer about how we are to do this.  We need to envision a future with new people to fill our pews, people who are hungry for vibrant faith in God, and to work toward our congregation being a growing and vital place.  Right now, as I see it, we have two choices: keep on going as we are and close the doors in ten years or less, or decide right now to commit to growing the church so that it can sustain itself as a place where people can continue to experience God and a loving community.  As I stand on the mountaintop with Moses, these are the choices we face.  I also realize that like Moses who put his faith in Joshua to continue to lead the people, I must also have faith in you all to raise up leaders within this congregation who will lead the way.  As your pastor, I cannot do it all.  I can only lead you so far on the journey and then entrust the future of the church into your hands.

I realize this is a challenging message to hear.  It is a challenging message for me to preach.  We don’t like hearing bad news or facing the reality of what the numbers are saying or looking around and realizing that we have a lot of work to do and wondering how in the world we will do it.  But we can do it.  We must.  If we want this church to be around for the next generation, we have to start now by investing in the future with our prayers, gifts, talents, passions, hospitality, and leadership abilities.  If we want to pass this church on to the next generation, we must set our priorities around invitation, growth, and spiritual wholeness.

Like the Israelites, we have to realize that we have been through the desert, and in many ways, we are still wandering through it.  We don’t know what lies ahead, but we do know where we have been.  We know what has worked and what has not, and we can look at the facts and get a sense of where we should be, if only under the direction of the Holy Spirit.  It also means that we have to be open to change and we cannot be afraid of the unknown.  It means we have to be okay with knowing that we might not ever know the end of the story, because we are only here for a time.  We have to be okay entrusting our future into the hands of those who come next, but with that comes the responsibility of passing on the knowledge we have, the message of the love of God, our personal gifts, and the traits of leadership to the younger generations.  We are to use this life, this life here and now, to make a positive difference that will allow for the Promised Land to be reached.  This means we have to be open to what God is doing instead of what we might want to be doing.  This means setting aside our own priorities and agendas and discern what God is saying to us.

We must be open to the many faces of Joshua among us.  Joshua, son of Nun, who was appointed to lead the Hebrew people into the unknown Promised Land after Moses died.  Moses laid hands upon him and sent him off to do this divine work, this godly and courageous task.  With Moses’ blessing, Joshua was equipped and ready to face what lie ahead.  Moses had to be willing to entrust the future to Joshua and his people.  Moses had to trust that God was leading the way- he had to be okay with the fact that he was no longer in the picture, but forever remembered for leading the people to the edge of God’s promises.

So it is with the church.  So it is with this congregation that we must entrust the future to those who will come after us.  But we are the ones to ensure that there actually people to come after us- we are the ones to ensure that there will actually be a future.  Every year at the Indiana Annual Conference, new ministers are ordained, and some ministers retire.  At the end of the ordination service, there is a ceremony of the “Passing of the Mantle,” where a retiree passes a stole to a newly ordained elder and says, “It is with the steadfast love of God that we pass this stole of service into your eager hands.  Be constant in your devotion and unwavering in your faithful service.”  The newly ordained pastor responds, “We accept your challenge and gladly take up the stole of service to the end that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus as the Christ.  By our service we hope to honor the foundations you have laid before us.”  This act is an act of faith in trust for the future of the church and what lies ahead, not knowing what the end result will be, not seeing the bigger picture, but allowing God to work through new leaders and upholding what the past leaders and done, and honoring those foundations and traditions.

This new responsibility is not something to be taken lightly.  Just as Moses laid hands upon Joshua, there will be those who will lay hands upon all of us to take responsibility for the future, no matter how old we are or where we are in our life story or journey of faith.  In a way, we are all Joshuas.  When I was ordained years ago, the one question I got the most was, “What was it like?  What do you remember the most?” For me it was the feeling of the hands being laid upon me. I remember them feeling very heavy, but also very supportive.  I almost felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders!  But that also came with the knowledge that I was surrounded (literally) by people who have been paving the way and continue to do so.  I was following in some very capable footsteps, and soon my footsteps would be followed by those who will come after me, and so the cycle continues.  This is what we need to remember as people of God and as the church.  We carry a heavy burden on our shoulders and have serious tasks ahead of us.  We are to be examples for our young people, for future generations, and to remain hopeful and trustful of the fact that we are on the mountaintop, glimpsing the promised land, and paving the way for a future full of hope in God’s promises.

Sometimes it’s hard to let go and not see how things are going to play out without us as we think about the future.  Now more than ever, we need to step out in faith and entrust someone other than ourselves to continue what we have started. Sometimes, all it takes is trusting and letting go.  Now more than ever, we need to be reaching out to younger generations, encouraging them, equipping them, and giving them opportunities to lead in a way that furthers the love of God.  I’ll admit, there are times when I fear for the future of the church- not just this congregation, but the future of the church as a whole.  I look around and see low numbers of young people in our churches, uninspired people, people hungry for knowledge of Christ’s love and grace, and people that look to the church for these things and do not find them.

Each one of us are needed now more than ever.  We are standing on the edge, we can see the promised land, but we have to ask ourselves, are we doing all we can with the time we have?  And are we ready to pass the mantle on to the next generation when the time comes?  Are we ready to take that leap of faith?  Now is the time to save this church and shape our priorities around growing and revitalizing this place.  Now is the time to pray, discern, and be comfortable with wandering in the desert awhile before we are ready to go to the top of the mountain and be okay with what we see and have real faith in the future.  For the love of God, for the love of this church I challenge each and every one of you to enter into this time of prayer and discernment.  If you love this church, make it your number one goal right now to do something to ensure that it is here well into the future.  As your pastor, I am here to help you discover and discern what that future will be, but it will take each and every one of you to make sure we do indeed have a future.  And in the midst of our discerning, may we find that God is with us in these desert wanderings, gives us the courage to face the future unafraid, and promises to keep writing the story.  It is up to us to fill in the details.  Amen.

 

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