Filed under: Bible, Christianity, Church, God, Grace, Inspiration, Jesus, Prayer, Religion, Spirituality
I want to thank you for letting me be a part of your celebration. 77 years of being a beacon to this community is no small thing. As The Palisades Community Church celebrates its 85th birthday this year we know that we share with Park Road a common commitment to unity, a commitment to our neighbor, a belief in history’s arc toward justice and telling the truth about what it truly means to be followers of Christ in our life. Our churches have been vital participants together in this movement that we call the community church and regional partners in supporting the life of our local congregations that are daily witnessing to the love of neighbor and self. I also celebrate with you the ministry of your pastor Rev. Burton and his time here as your minister. He brings unique gifts to this church and is someone that I deeply respect as a minister.
What a dangerous Biblical topic “Now is the time” can be for a congregation. It certainly is challenging for us as individuals. Anytime that you are forcing your attention from the past or future into the current second you are participating in eye opening, reality shaking acts of transformation. We are reminded that in reaction to some of Jesus’ most challenging teaching about family a large portion of his followers shook their heads and said, “These are tough teachings, who can follow them?” as they walked away from the savior. So, to allow your gaze to adjust to the bright light of the present moment is an act of faith. It is a faith that our God can help us through the most troubling truths that we have lied and denied to ourselves over time. So, are you ready, because I come to this present moment with a great amount of fear and trembling?
I want to talk about steamboats this evening. Steamboats were an essential part of transportation and hauling freight during a good portion of the 19th century. They were a cross between our airlines and the semi trailers that criss-cross this country today. Steamboats ferried provisions up major rivers from cities that were popping up during the Westward expansion of this country during that century. Moving with their two smoke stacks and paddle wheel up and down the mighty Mississippi river and the Missouri they connected cities like New Orleans, Natchez, St. Louis, Omaha and Bozeman. These boats became essential in bringing provisions from North to South and from the Gulf of Mexico to all points North.
The author Mark Twain, who was himself a Steamboat pilot, gives a good description of what actually happened when a steamboat pulled into a new town in his work Life on the Mississippi:
‘S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin’!’ . . . Drays, carts, men, boys, all go hurrying from many quarters to a common center, the wharf. Assembled there, the people fasten their eyes upon the coming boat as upon a wonder they are seeing for the first time. And the boat IS rather a handsome sight, too. She is long and sharp and trim and pretty; she has two tall, fancy-topped chimneys, with a gilded device of some kind swung between them; a fanciful pilot-house, a glass and ‘gingerbread’, perched on top of the ‘texas’ deck behind them; the paddle-boxes are gorgeous with a picture or with gilded rays above the boat’s name; the boiler deck, the hurricane deck, and the texas deck are fenced and ornamented with clean white railings; there is a flag gallantly flying from the jack-staff; the furnace doors are open and the fires glaring bravely; the upper decks are black with passengers; the captain stands by the big bell, calm, imposing, the envy of all; great volumes of the blackest smoke are rolling and tumbling out of the chimneys. . . the crew are grouped on the forecastle; the broad stage is run far out over the port bow, and an envied deckhand stands picturesquely on the end of it with a coil of rope in his hand; the pent steam is screaming through the gauge-cocks, the captain lifts his hand, a bell rings, the wheels stop; then they turn back, churning the water to foam, and the steamer is at rest. Then such a scramble as there is to get aboard, and to get ashore, and to take in freight and to discharge freight, all at one and the same time; and such a yelling and cursing as the mates facilitate it all with! Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again. . .
Moving passengers and freight up a river carried a set of dangers too. Rivers can have fast flowing currents, hidden logs, ever changing depths with the possibility of swelled banks with an abundance of rain or shallow, muddy flows in times of drought. Being the steamboat pilot in one of these ships could be quite treacherous. It would only take one snag of a fallen tree to rip a hole in the boat’s wooden hull and carrying its cargo and passengers into a swiftly moving current.
Such a snag was hit on April 1, 1865 as the Steamboat Bertand moved from the newly found goldfields in Montana down the Missouri river between Nebraska and Iowa. Somewhere between 250 and 450 tons of cargo slowly rested in the mud of that river bottom. It was a twist in the river that would become a lake when the river changed its route. So, one hundred years later that boat still sat, nestled in the mud at the bottom of a lake. In 1968 it was decided that it would be excavated. There was a hope that it still contained gold. Yet when the water was drained and the mud was removed gold was not present. What was found was a treasure trove of immaculately preserved items that dated from the last few weeks of the civil war. Over 200,000 items to be exact that are now on display in a special heat monitored, preservation glass room at Desoto National Wildlife Refuge where the steamboat was found.
Going through these rooms today is bit eerie. It is like time has stopped. Shelves and shelves are filled with bottles and jars with their liquid and food still in them. There are racks of cloths that look like they were made yesterday, but are of fashions very foreign. Tools, guns and gold refining equipment appears as they did the day that the Bertrand sank 30 feet under the mud of the Missouri River. It is now a treasure trove for archeologists who want to know the consumption habits of that period in this country’s history. It is a time capsule of a day gone by. It is disorienting to a 21st century person because it exhibits things that are so strange and different to us in post-modernity.
If we look around at any church that has a long history behind it the same feeling of disorientation might strike us. As I said we are getting ready to celebrate 85 years so I know of what I talk. I can assure you that our artifacts will disorient any newcomer. We surround ourselves with well-preserved photos and articles of a time that we are convinced were our halcyon days. Our stories sound to others as hard to understand as the history of the steamboat is for us. Some of our churches have become museums with well-preserved artifacts from yesterday.
So what do they see? We pine away because we remember when the pews were overflowing into the streets, our ministries served large swaths of our neighbors, children ran around everywhere, the conversation during fellowship was sweeter and excitement filled the air. We carry around with us the musty smell of an unread history book, the brittle sadness of a fading photo and the endless sounds of sighs longing for a glorious past.
There are three groups upset in the text that I read for you this evening. First, there are the Israelites who complain. They selectively remember the food that was served to them in the midst of their slavery and bondage in Egypt. Yet, the whip and yoke have diminished, the liberation and salvation are forgotten for the memory of fish.
Second, Moses is unhappy. What leader enjoys being in the midst of constant complaints, especially one who has continually begged for mercy from God to spare the ingratitude of God’s people?
Last, and most importantly God is angry. He has provided for the people’s liberation and given them sources of food and water. Yet, the people are bored with the gift that gathers on the ground like dew.
So, God brings quail. I love this imagery. That in the midst of God’s burning rage God chooses to give the people something better, something juicier, something tastier. Yet in that act Israel is still not content. God supplies us with gifts, we grow bored and lethargic and complain, then even though we know that God is blessing us with more than we deserve we are suspicious and horde the grace that is lavished upon us. Park Road community church is God’s gift to this community. It is not your place, but God’s for you.
What can we do to respond to the manna and quail that God is lavishing on you and me? We have the advantage of intergenerational ministry. We are truly one of the last places in society where the young and old congregate. Children who might be isolated from the elderly and grandmothers who might be separated from their grandchildren congregate in our houses of worship. Don’t shush those children, love those children. Give them an extra grandmother or grandfather who loves them unconditionally. God sends us quail!
It is time for new blood in the leadership of the church. This is painful for those who have faithfully filled the leadership posts for 30, 40 or 50 years. There is a great generational shift occurring everywhere. We are seeing it in the voting patterns of the Democratic primaries. Yet, we also know these types of shifts do not happen easily. They will take patient care and the cultivation of those who might do things differently. Paul knew this when he exhorted Timothy that no one should despise his youth. He said this because people would despise Timothy’s youth. God has sent us quail!
Look around the inside of your church with the eyes of a twenty or thirty year old visitor. What would they think? Do you treat the inside of your church as well as you treat the inside of your house? God has sent us quail!
Accept everyone, especially those who make you uncomfortable. I do not have to be a consultant or sociologist to tell you that your neighborhood is rapidly changing. This may bring you a great amount of discomfort or you may see it as a gigantic opportunity. I would exhort you to see it as an opportunity to be a city of refuge for your neighbors. What is the church but as an early church leader said a hospital ward for the sinner? If all people are not welcome here, then it is my suspicion that God is where they are welcome. God has sent quail!
Instead of being right do something, do anything as long as it is in love! It doesn’t matter if you know every Hebrew vowel point, or if you can show every point of a creed if you do not love your neighbor and yourself. Do something! We are reminded that it is obedience is better than right sacrifice. Everyone can do something, no one has an excuse. Look at all the Manna and quail!
Finally, be satisfied with who you are and what you have at this moment. You already have all that you need. God has given you exactly what God wants you to have to worship God. Can you sing, can you clap, can you raise your hands to the sky then you have all you need? It is my most sincere belief that the church is a place of attraction. The Spirit of God attracts people to our midst through the gifts that have been lavished upon us by a good God. What distracts and turns people away is complaining. That’s not attractive. It is what the Israelites did in the desert, and it angers God. When people see a satisfied group who say, “We may be small, we not have the glossiest programs in the world, we may not have the flashiest ads on the sides of buses, but you are welcome here in a place where we truly meet the divine.” When they see this they are attracted to the God who is only present for us in this moment.
We have a choice in responding to the gifts that God is placing all around us. We can gather it together and us it or we can stare longingly at black and white photos complaining about what used to be. We can talk about how great steamboats used to be and horde ancient provisions in our storehouses until their labels fade and no one knows what they were used for. I can guarantee you that if we choose to look backwards the Spirit will leave us and we will never reach the Promised Land.
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