For my parent’s 20th wedding anniversary, they went to Lake Louise. It was a trip my mother had always wanted to take. They stayed in the castle and had a wonderful time. While on this trip, my dad talked my mother into going on the Lake Louise sightseeing gondola. Apparently there are two options, The open air chair and the enclosed gondola. They chose the latter. This attraction is popular because it takes you from God’s green earth, 7000 feet up to the summit of Mt. Whitehorn. As both my dad and the internet have told me, the views are breathtaking. Truly, I am not certain what possessed my mother when she agreed to take this gondola trip up the mountain because she is afraid of heights. Terrified. This is not a deep, dark secret – it is a well known fact. This is also not they type of fear where heights make her uncomfortable, this is my mother sitting in the gondola with her eyes closed as tight as possible, gripping the edge of her chair hyperventilating all the way up the mountain. To this day, I have not idea how she got down the mountain.
Fear is a reality we all must deal with in some way or another. A quick internet search will list out common and uncommon phobias. Of course there are the things we have all heart of like Arachnophobia, fear of spiders or Agoraphobia, fear of situations in which escape is difficult…crowded spaces. There are also fears that are just strange: Barophobia, the fear of gravity, and a few whose technical name I will not even attempt to pronounce, they include: a fear of colors, a fear of clocks, a fear of paper, a fear of the figure 8, or a fear of teenagers. (Perhaps that last one is not so strange – I should probably ask the parents of teenagers…)
While some fears seem irrational, others stem from a perfectly rational place. During World War II people who were Jewish had a legitimate reason to fear for their lives. Those who live in war torn areas like Afghanistan surely experience a fear of what could happen with little or no warning. FDR famously remarked that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Rhetorically, his point served its purpose and has since been quoted endlessly, most of us know that there are things in the world that do cause fear in the hearts of human beings.
This morning’s lectionary text tells us the famous story of Israel’s final deliverance from their oppression in Egypt. It seems that no sooner had this multitude of people gathered up all their worldly possessions and waved goodbye to Egypt and slavery with a one way ticket to The Promised Land that Pharaoh and his army were in hot pursuit of them. Perhaps they hoped their significant head start would allow them to outrun Pharaoh and his whole army - until they reached the Red Sea, a large body of water which, apparently, did not have a bridge. Suddenly, they realized they were trapped. The Red Sea was the barrier in front of them and Pharaoh’s army was closing in. They were afraid, as you might imagine. What were they to do? How were they to escape? As they looked around, there simply was not a solution. So they turned to Moses, the brains of the operation, and cried out in frustration. Why did you bring us here to die? It was bad in Egypt but why did you promise us freedom, make us pack up everything and bring us here? Were there just not enough graves in Egypt?
Like the children of Israel, sometimes our fears have merit. There are times when our fears are real and it seems that we are stuck with no solution as the thing we fear comes nearer and nearer. How, worries the single mother, will I provide for her children when I cannot find work? How, worries the elderly man, will I care for my wife as her health fails when I can barely care for myself? How, worries the little church, will we continue to keep our doors open when we struggle to pay our bills? When we are looking at what seems impossible, when the only solutions we can imagine seem to fall hopelessly short, it is natural to be afraid.
Last week, a few of our community fears bubbled up to the surface. Hopefully, I have enough of your permission and trust to talk about them in this space this morning. It is difficult to be a small church community with an older building and meet financial obligations. It is frustrating to feel as if we are constantly working and still barely making it. It is terrifying to look into an unknown future and wonder what will our community be in 3 years, or 5 years, or 10 years. Will we even exist?
Let me offer you a little perspective – The Christian Church is declining in the US. Every year 5,000 churches close their doors – this number includes long-term established churches as well as church plants. 4 years ago, before we came to this community, we met with a few people in the UCC and they told us about this community. You were described as a small congregation who struggles financially but who are incredibly and unfathomably tenacious. This community is known as ‘the little church who could’. Peter told us that by cold hard statistics, the church probably should have closed its doors many years earlier. This community literally defies odds.
As we are currently facing another difficult period in our history, please allow me to offer my thoughts…our thoughts about what makes this community different, special.
1) We genuinely care about one another. My friends sometimes we struggle with one another. All the best families do. Seriously, show me a family who genuinely loves one another that does not have its share of differences. We have disagreements, we have conflicts, we have different understandings on how to function or proceed. These are normal. We will not always be in agreement. We will not always start from the same page. But, (And this is a large and very important but) this community has true care and affection for one another. You have no idea how rare, how special this truly is. We have been part of churches where there was truly disdain…hatred between different groups in the community. In those communities some actually rooted for the failure, or departure of those with whom they disagreed. Our disagreements are better characterized as family squabbles. When the chips are down, every person in this community care deeply about what happens to the others.
2) Our congregation is fairly diverse in age. A while back, I was talking to several pastors whose jaws dropped when I talked about the diversity in age at Christian Union. Both of their churches were 95% comprised of people over the age of 70 who were either married or widowed. Think about the people who come. Our church is made up of people who are different ages and of different relationship statuses. We are not all the same. We are not all in the same life place. This is one of our strengths.
When I meet with other pastors, I brag on us. (I know bragging is bad) We are honestly a unique church family. We are our greatest strength.
But the question remains, what is our next step, what is the step after that and the one after that? How do we escape the thing we are afraid of? Are we destined for it to always be nipping at our heels?
As the children of Israel stood on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptians closing in, they cried out to Moses in fear and desperation. And Moses said, “Do not be afraid, stand still and see the deliverance of the Lord.” Then he reiterated his point saying. It is the “Lord who will fight for you and you only have to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14)
As they stood, watching and waiting, God’s angel and the pillar of the cloud cut off the Egyptian’s advances and darkness came upon the sky. (Exodus 14:19-20) And, as the story goes, God parted the sea and the Israelites were able to cross to safety on dry ground. For the Israelites, their fearfulness of the Egyptians was relieved and replaced with a fear of the Lord. This fear is not one that trembles, cringes or cowers. In the fear of the Lord, they were awe-struck and overwhelmed by the sense of wonder at what God had done.
I understand if you are looking at me and thinking, “That was great for them, but, Amy, how often does the Red Sea part?” “What is a real answer for the real world?” When they stood at the Red Sea, the Israelites found salvation by a means they never expected and probably did not even imagine. Moses reminded them to have faith…to believe God had an answer that they could not see.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that faith is being confident about things we scarcely dare to hope for. The writer of Hebrews reminds us just like the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, just like Moses, just like the judges and the prophets, and just like Jesus, we, too, live by faith. We are surrounded by the witness of those who gone before us who have also lived by faith and they say to us, keep going, keep believing, keep living by faith.
That’s the thing about standing at the Red Sea. There just isn’t a visible bridge and the lack of a bridge can feel overwhelming and discouraging. Even though we have been here before, we cannot cross in exactly the same place as we did last time. All the things we have done in the past to survive, may not be what carries us into the future this time. But, we have each other. Our community is our greatest strength. As a community, God is present with us. As a community, God works through us. As a whole community we can accomplish great things. We stand at the Red Sea and look for the place to cross, but we look together. We pray together, we brainstorm for new ideas together. We listen to each other. We bear with one another. We forgive one another. We trust one another. We each offer our ideas and our strengths because they are gifts from God and they have a place in this community. We pray and pray and pray some more. We listen to the Spirit of God who speaks to our hearts and speaks to us through one another. And, when we cross our Red Sea, we cross together.