If you’ve hung around or been a part of Protestant churches for a while, you’ve probably seen or heard about the decline in Church attendance and membership. It seems like every couple of months lately someone is producing a new study full of statistics that tell us what some of us see every Sunday when we gather for church. Maybe you have been part of Emmanuel for a long time and you’ve seen fewer people come on a Sunday morning. Maybe you have been part of other congregations. Maybe you grew up at a time when everyone just went to church and everyone’s kids grew up in the church and then raised their own kids in the church only to have children of your own who don’t.
And everyone has an opinion about why this is happening. There are some who think that some churches have gotten to liberal with their ideas. And there are some who would say that some churches are just downright unkind with their ideas. Some think it’s having the best music & lights and fancy whatever. Some say the church has become meaningless or useless in our current culture.
I know we look around and wonder why some churches are succeeding and others are not but statistics say we’re all in the same boat, and every boat has fewer people In it.
Despite the fact that change is an inevitable part of living, it is what we do, it still feels us with anxiety. We worry about the unknown future that lies ahead of us because we haven’t been there, we don’t know what it is, and we often desperately wish to go back. To go back to a time when we were younger, When our health was better before our bodies and our minds started failing us. As churches, we want to go back to the days when the Sunday school classrooms were filled with children or when we made stained glass candy in the kitchen together.
We want to go back to that one particular pastor that we are certain was able to do everything and did it better than anyone else. I pulpit filled at a church several years ago. And on the walls by the office, they had all of their pastor’s names and the dates that they served. But down in the fellowship hall, right after you walked in the door, in a place of honor, was the picture of one pastor from 50 years ago. Just one picture of one pastor. And with the dates on the wall in the hallway, that pastor was no less than 7 pastors prior. I sat down to have coffee with some folks there after the service and one of the ladies who told me about how long she had been a member there, and then told me about the best pastor they had ever had. I asked her if that was his picture over yonder on the wall, of course it was.
As churches, we look back to an idealized time period, to a pre-COVID time when folks were coming to church. To a time in the fifties when everyone was good to each other and everyone went to church. Or to the seventies when statistically, our numbers seemed to reach our peak. We idealized the past and sometimes it wasn’t actually perfect, it just was. And sometimes one group of people’s best days, were another group’s worst.
In our story today, Egypt was living in a time of abundant building and growth and wealth. And over there just outside of all of the wealth, were the Hebrew slaves.
From last week, Joseph was like Midas–everything he did or touched turned to blessing–and eventually, he was appointed second in command to Pharaoh. He was given responsibility over all of the fields and the harvests, so that when the famine would to come, because the famine was coming, the people of Egypt would have enough. Joseph saved Egypt. And he saved his family. His brothers left the famine Canaan to buy food in Egypt, only to find Joseph, then live in and prosper Egypt.
And the story goes that time passed and there was a Pharaoh who did not know the story of Joseph and did not know all of the good that Joseph had done. And the Hebrew people had done one of the things that God had told them to do: they were fruitful and they multiplied. Suddenly this mass of people was overwhelming the population of Egypt. So out of fear, the descendants of Joseph’s father, Jacob–also called Israel–were made slaves. 400 years passed and they had forgotten the God who lead them here.
Long story short, Moses: born, basket, palace, bush–it’s a great story, you’ll find it in the first 14 chapters of Exodus, Dreamwork’s Prince of Egypt, also the 10 Commandments. Moses arrives back in Egypt demanding the freedom of the Hebrew slaves in the name of the God he just met on a mountain. Then there are plagues. In the midst of the last plague–the death of the 1st born–Pharaoh finally relents to let the children of Israel, his slaves go free. In that first moment, he understood the death of the 1st born was caused by this God that seemed to be pursuing him and his Empire relentlessly. And after the trauma of it all wore off and he could see things more clearly and more from the position of his power, he decided that no longer made any sense. He certainly could not let the means of his economic growth just leave and so he pursued them. He pursued them with one of the mightiest armies at the time, with the most advanced technology, chariots.
The newly freed slaves had taken off and by the time they realized that they were being pursued by the mighty army, they had come up to a massive body of water. It’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place–except both of them are gonna kill you. So perhaps it’s more like the Greek story of sailing through scylla and charybdis. They were caught between an immovable barrier and a military might. And they were filled with fear. They had nowhere to go. They declared that they should have never left. Maybe they could gravel and go back. Yes, in Egypt there was slavery and pain and abuse and trauma. And yes in Egypt there was a time their infant baby boys were murdered, but at least in Egypt there was a chance that they would live. Here?, all they could see was death, for everyone.
Caught between the known pain from their past and an unknown future, they wanted to go back.
They looked to Moses, not to give them the answers as to what to do, but because this was his stupid idea in the first place. And they argued with him and they picked fights, which is what they’re going to do the whole next 40 years they all spend together.
Moses basically says, “I know you don’t really know this God yet but wait for it. Don’t be afraid, stand your ground. God is gonna do something awesome.” Which I think can also translate into either God or Moses saying, “See those chariots over there? They think they’re so powerful. hold my beer.”
The Hebrew people need to stop. They needed to wait. They needed to trust. They needed to see God act. They weren’t there when Noah and the animals got out of the boat and God hung his weapon of war on them in the sky. And they weren’t there to hear the conversation between Abraham and God, to hear the promises God had for them. And they didn’t know about Joseph’s fancy and that in every situation whether good or bad God was with Joseph.
Like a child going to daycare for the first time and not really understanding why they are being left behind and if mom or dad is really going to come back to get them, the Hebrew people couldn’t imagine what this God could do. They needed to wait, to trust, to stand in this moment without making plans to go back, without living in the fear of the future but to trust in God to do unimaginable things. And God showed up in ways that they could not have imagined that day, with walls being made out of water and away where there had been no way.
And it’s not easy. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them, and it is easy for us.
Because I think we too get stuck waiting: Staring into a dark, vast sea, into the unknowable future filled with anxiety and fear. Sometimes we want so desperately to control what is to come that we make no room for the unexpected. Or staring back to Egypt, to a past filled with resignation that what was is as good as it’s ever going be, filled with longing for what we think it was, filled with fear that it’s all gonna catch up with us.
And I think we get stuck in these moments filled with anxiety and fear and longing and resignation and planning into an unknown future we will never really be able to control. We wait, we fear, we look for a savior and we say to ourselves “it’s not me.”
The 1st time I learned about Jewish midrash was about this story. One of the things that the Jewish communities do is grapple with their texts. Their sacred books are living documents that tell stories and the stories grow and change and become. They seek to understand what’s happening alongside the story, before the story, in between the lines of the texts, and the gaps between words–to hear voices that are often silenced, to understand personalities, to struggle with some of the darker and more painful texts. They write and tell stories and those texts become midrash, and they are sacred too. The first midrash I ever heard was that as the Hebrew people were celebrating their freedom and the death of their enslavers and oppressors–the Egyptian army who sought their destruction, the angels in heaven started celebrating with them. God stopped them to say that the Egyptians, too, were God’s own creation and we grieve their deaths.
But there is another story I want to share, one that is found in the space between Moses lifting this staff and the people crossing. When Moses lifted the staff over the waters nothing happened, and God invited the people to come forward. One after another, each tribe refused to be the first to step into the water. And then Nahshon ben (son of) Amminadad stepped up singing and he confidently put his foot into the water. He kept walking and singing. He walked into the water till it covered his ankles and he was still singing. He walked into the water until it came to his knees and he was still singing. He walked into the water until it came up to his waist and he was still singing. He walked into the water until it came up to his chest and then his neck and he was still singing. When the waters came into his mouth, when it seemed like his hope and trust might deceive him, the sea split. Nahshon trusted in the God of the unexpected, trusted in what he could not yet even imagine.
When we find ourselves in a moment of change a change in a moment between what has been and what might be, Is our response when we don’t see a way forward like the Hebrews? Is it fear or anger or disappointment? Are we waiting to be saved? For our very own Moses in your own life? If it’s the church, is it me? Do we see that as my job to save the future the church?
I hope not because I’m already tired, which is my own fault. And my imagination can only take us so far because I have never had a very good imagination.
Last week we looked at Joseph, and how even in dark times we can take a breath, say a prayer, be a blessing. And maybe God’s call to us is like God’s call to the Hebrew people, step in. Take a chance in trusting God to have a future beyond what you are even capable of imagining.
Because you have taken a chance, you have stepped in, you are here, whether today is the first day through those doors or you’ve been here every week for 40 years. You, me, we, our families are always standing in a changing life, community, world–caught between what was and what is not yet. And this moment doesn’t forget the past–what brought you here? What brought you joy? Where was the pain?–we hold the past in its proper place. And this moment doesn’t stand unmoving, hoping that if we just stay put we’ll never have to step into what’s next–the future is coming, someday it will be past. We cannot stop it any more than we can make clear and detailed plans as if we’re going to control it. Our fear, be it fear that freezes us or fear that causes us to plan, means we’re missing the waters parting. It means we’re standing on the beach waiting and God is calling us to participate in something we can not yet imagine.
This church, like almost every other church, stands between what was and what is to come, between a sea and Egypt. We don’t know what is to come, who we will be next. Maybe I can be a little like Moses, calling you to not be afraid, to let go of your past, to embrace the mystery of the future. This is your call! Are you ready to walk in, up to your neck, to see what God is going to do? This is the work of church we do together.
This isn’t judgment, this isn’t meant to shame anyone. This is about taking a risk. Plunging fully into the unknown and trusting God to bring unexpected goodness.
We’re going to start small: tell your story. Tell your story of meeting God. Tell your story of meeting Jesus. Tell your story of Sunday School. What is your favorite Bible story and why? Tell your story of Emmanuel UCC. What has brought you joy? What has given you meaning? What are your hopes and dreams for this community? Tell someone here-over coffee this morning or next week, tell a neighbor, invite someone to come along. We’re going to try something: once a month during service, we’re going to have someone share “Why Emmanuel:” a 2-5 minute testimony, witness, story, that might answers a question: Why are you here? What brought you here? Why do you invest your time, energy, resources, prayers in this Church family? What are your hopes? What are your memories? What brings you hope and joy? Step in, cover your toes.
Step in until your knees are covered. When someone calls you this fall to be part of leadership of this community, say yes. If you think the leadership isn’t doing what you think it should be doing, say yes. Let’s talk about that. If you’re excited to do more, say yes.
Step in until you are at your waist. Do you have an idea? Something you’d love to see? Some mission, some program, some group? Let’s do it. But you’re going to have to step in.
This isn’t a punishment or an obligation. This isn’t rooted in guilt or shame. It’s a song. It’s dancing. It’s joy. It’s standing in this moment, between what was and the not yet imaginable future, believing and trusting in the God of the unexpected. So take a step, and another, and another.