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Thriving in the Wilderness

May 27, 2013

“Thriving in the Wilderness” Genesis 21:8-21; 1 Peter 1:1-7, 2:4-6 © 5.26.13 Presbyterian Heritage Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory MS. All rights reserved.

At the beginning of this month, we reflected together on the state of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the possibilities for its future. I titled that message “A Heritage of Hope,” and meant it to anticipate our recognition today of Presbyterian Heritage Sunday. We might say that sermon formed part of a frame around the month that we finish putting together with what I will share with you this morning.

Back on May 5, I quoted a Korean-American pastor who talked about the wilderness wandering of the church. Let me remind you of what she said: ““My husband and I have been working in small congregations our whole ministry career. Every day, every week, and every year, we are faced with the challenge of how to make church relevant in the community; how to make church healthier; and how to move the church to change with the changing demographics. This is reality. This is the wilderness. This is ministry” (Theresa Cho,

In other words, the Church, especially smaller churches, is in the wilderness all the time. It’s a permanent state, an everyday reality. We may not like it, we may lament it, rage against it, wring our hands, but it is what it is, and somehow in faith, we have to come to terms with it and figure out how to live there.

Probably the scariest thing about the wilderness is that it’s a place of scarce resources. For that reason, life is at risk, and death may come when the unexpected happens or when what is necessary for survival simply runs out. In the wilderness, the true character of a person is sorely tested and revealed; heroes and leaders are made there, shown worthy or discredited through their decisions and their ability to improvise. The wilderness may be a desert, a barren arctic waste or the middle of a city, a boardroom, living room, dorm room, waiting room, even a church building. Wherever the location of the wilderness, whoever tries to survive there is on the margins, frequently lonely, stressed, and frightened. That’s true for a community, a couple or an individual.

Now think about the small membership church that’s been around quite a few years. Some I have known and worked with could barely pay the bills from what’s in the plate weekly, the building was literally crumbling, and even part-time pastoral leadership was out of the question. Then there are congregations like this one and others that might play catch-up during the year, especially during the summer, but come out OK in December. They can pay a part-time minister and other staff. Most small churches in my experience have some sort of memorial fund or maybe an encumbered endowment, but the difference between the congregations is that some have to tap into reserves to pay operating expenses, while others only take out money for the big projects, whether for the building or some special mission.

Whatever the financial resources, though, the community survives, and has survived, and for some periods even thrives. The irony is that even though they’ve been around a long time, and history shows they can somehow make it, no one talks much about long-term, beyond more than a year, if that. Because despite their record of survival, the members have a sense that tomorrow is not guaranteed, and it’s hard to see into the future. Who knows if the church will be around 10, 20, 30 years down the road?

Everything is at risk, and there is no future in which to invest energy, so people focus sometimes on right now and what would seem to impartial observers to be trivial matters in the big scheme. But because there is no big scheme, the importance of small things is magnified several fold.

Finally, from time to time, everybody, but especially the leaders, feel like the community has been forgotten by the Powers That Be, left to survive on its own while bigger, more important matters are attended to in what the Powers call “a place with potential.” Money and effort are poured into a congregation in the suburb of the growing city or near the new location of a big manufacturer, while cries for help from the faithful, surviving church are spoken into an empty, uncaring bureaucratic sky.

But it is precisely to people and communities in such dire straits that God comes with preserving grace. Consider the case of Hagar and Ishmael. They were cast out by Abraham in a reactive decision to placate his jealous, paranoid wife. He gives them just enough provisions to survive for awhile, no doubt to assuage his guilty conscience. With such food and water, they will either die or they will have to find other resources. Why not give them enough food, water, guidance, and other provisions to make sure they get somewhere safe to start a new life? Hagar and Ishmael are victims. Who will help them?

The conversation between God and Abraham gives a clue that all is not lost. Ishmael will be the father of a great nation. So the reader knows something must happen to preserve at least his life. But Hagar and Ishmael don’t know any of this when they are sent out. When the resources run out, Hagar has no choice; she puts the child out in the elements for him to die of exposure or be attacked by a predator. She is no longer able to care for him, but she doesn’t want to see when he’s gone. She’s been forced by Abraham and his reactivity and weakness into this untenable place of emotion-laden triage.

Sometimes small membership churches become victims of the reactive and poor decisions of those in charge. Maybe the decision-makers in the broader church hierarchy are listening to other voices and preoccupied with other concerns than the struggles of a small town church. And resources are lavished one place, even wasted, so that the community in the wilderness has but a skin of water and a loaf of bread.

Perhaps the leadership of the church itself is incompetent, selfish, stupid, even wicked. I recall a tiny struggling church in a Kentucky city that had forty new people who wanted to join. They came because the session, which consisted entirely of long-time members, had committed itself and the congregation to be open and welcoming. And they were attracted by the passion for justice and hospitality shown by the young pastor, Michael. But they were the wrong sort, according to the tenured leadership, who had voted to embrace diversity, but now claimed they didn’t understand what they were doing. The new folks were gays and lesbians, mixed race couples, Mexican immigrants, even a Buddhist convert to Christianity. On the day of the scheduled baptism of the former Buddhist, the session, going back on its commitment, refused to allow the sacrament to be performed or any of the new members to be admitted. It would tip the balance of power, you see. So a whole group of people, including the pastor, were sent out into the wilderness without so much as a skin of water to find their way on their own. And the presbytery didn’t care. Indeed, when the pastor and his flock of forty applied to become a Presbyterian church, the presbytery turned them down, saying they didn’t have enough people to make a go of it. This despite the many smaller churches in the district that the presbytery kept propping up.

New Hope Church, which Michael and his followers founded, was eventually accepted by the United Church of Christ. In the meantime, he was vilified, made into a monster who hated old people by the editor of our synod newspaper, when in fact Michael was and is a gentle and compassionate man. He now works for Habitat for Humanity, out of the pastorate completely.

But the God who preserves hears the cries of the victimized, the oppressed, the forgotten, the embarrassing, the unwanted, the shut out, shut up, and shut down. And the word comes that God cares and will make a future contrary to the data of current experience, contrary to the needs and expectations and prejudices of the tenured class, in spite of the decisions of frightened and unimaginative leaders. The word comes: “do not be afraid. I will make a future for you.”

That is not a empty claim. With his acknowledgement of cries, the Preserver gives resources. In the case of Hagar and Ishmael, there was water, making life possible again. Renewing. Refreshing.

God gives water to the houses, the communities of faith, he preserves today. I mean baptism and its attendant call to ministry. Baptism is the assurance of the presence of the Spirit, the imparting of gifts for the work ahead. So, God gives people to the church, for if we talk about baptism, we can’t do it in the abstract. We baptize people; God calls people. All sorts and conditions and ages and interests and outlooks. For the upbuilding, the sustenance, of the community. The preservation of the house of God by God happens when we realize that if I have been given a drink, so have you; and if you have been given a drink, so have I. As Paul said: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

And that leads me to the flip side of the preservation of the house of God. In Reformed theology, we always talk about God’s action first. God is preserving his church and will keep on doing so. He comes to us first in grace to hear and to provide. But faith that receives such bounty has to be active. The saints need to persevere. We need disciplines, practices, missions and ministries to keep us open to what God may do and keep us active in carrying out his will in the place where we live.

Hagar and Ishmael didn’t simply sit down in the desert and make their home there, waiting on more supplies. Indeed, “God was with” the boy, and he grew up. As I said, such gracious presence to preserve is always the first word and the sustaining word. But Ishmael “became an expert with the bow.” And “his mother got him a wife from the land of Egypt.” Ishmael by discipline acquired the skill set that would enable him to have food on the table and to feel secure. As an expert with the bow, not only would he know how to shoot it, he could make bows and arrows of the highest quality. He could teach others. He could sell his weapons. He was sought after perhaps as a guide for hunts or a trainer for armies. So he made a living, turning his misery into manna. He was able to thrive even though he lived in the wilderness.

For her part, his mother returned to her roots in Egypt to get her son a mate. She discounted with that move Abraham and Sarah and decided not to accept their construction of reality. It would be Egypt, her heritage, that would guide Ishmael, not that of Ur to the east or Canaan to the north. It would be Egypt he would think of fondly when he held his wife or heard the cooing of his first child. Hagar took action to ensure her son’s line would continue, outside the influence of his father Abraham. She would assume control of his destiny.

If a small church is to persevere while being sustained by God’s grace, every member needs to become as disciplined and enterprising as Ishmael. I mean each one is to be an expert in some essential wilderness survival skill, then share his or her expertise.

About five years ago, there was a series on the Discovery Channel called “The Alaska Experiment.” The main message I got from it was how foolish it is to try to survive in the wilderness without knowing what you’re doing. On that show, people who had never fished before tried to catch salmon. Folks who had only cut cheese on a board or sliced a banana tried to cut down a tree with a handsaw and make firewood. Men and women who frequented the drive-thru tried to can fish properly. Why they went into Alaska without even an orientation or a basic course is beyond me. Made for good reality TV drama, I guess.

Watching that show, my very outdoor-capable brother-in-law Jeff said: “I would go out there, but I’d make sure everybody on the team had an essential skill.” He was right. We can’t try to survive in today’s ecclesiastical wilderness without every member having some skill to share. Every church, small or large, needs to insist that everybody contribute something.

But the leadership also needs to help members discover their gifts. One might not be able to teach church school, but can develop a great website. Another knows how to organize an event, while her friend can make tasty food. Someone homebound can pray daily, maybe even over the phone with a friend. Still others contribute marketing or fundraising skills, abilities to help with property maintenance, a warm welcome to guests, a knack for helping others see the big picture or importance of the small details. The list goes on. But with the whole community working together, the church can survive, even thrive.

So Ishmael reminds us that we need survival skills. But Hagar brings us full circle. The small church needs to preserve its heritage. And as I’ve pointed out, that’s what she was doing in her choice of a wife for Ishmael. To be rooted these days is countercultural. Everybody wants to tear things down. People drift around. Nothing lasts. Indeed, as Richard Hughes has observed, Americans have a typical way of dealing with history and its contents. This is probably less true here in the South, but in general, Americans agree with Henry Ford, Hughes says, who claimed that “history is bunk.” He goes on: “If Americans wish to say that someone is irrelevant to a particular situation, we often say to that person ‘You’re history.’ American students typically avoid history, believing that history itself is irrelevant. We bulldoze buildings of any age at all in order to create something that is bright, shining, and new” (Myths America Lives By: 156).

But to persevere in celebrating and preserving a heritage under God’s care is a statement that a community of faith will not be defined by others. It has a unique character and place in the history of the PC(USA) and in the community. It defines itself according to its own goals and vision and mission. It does things its own way and is creative. And most of all, it stays rooted and grounded. That’s one way God made of Ishmael a great nation.

Ishmael lived all his life in the wilderness. And so will we from this day on. Like high gas prices and airline fares, this situation of scarce resources in the mainline church isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Fortunately, this congregation has never depended on them, as far as I know, but the day of abundant dollars or close attention from the denomination or the presbytery is long gone. Reactive decisions based on fear and foolishness are likely to continue to be made. A great many people will keep seeking their meaning elsewhere because they don’t find what they need in the churches.

The key to thriving in that wilderness is to make a decision, a choice. And it’s this: to live with creativity and skill, energy, intelligence, imagination, and love in this environment, right here, right now, and tomorrow after tomorrow, trusting God to preserve his heritage, the people called by the name of his Son. And like Hagar and Ishmael, turn misery into miracle.


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