May 23, 2021
Moving to the Next Part of the Journey
Click here to watch the service on May 16 at 9am
Click here to watch the service on May 16 at 11am
Ezekiel 37:1-14 Acts 2:1-21
Moving to the Next Part of the Journey
One of the truly amazing characteristics about our God is the mystery of God’s nature. Just when you think you have God all figured out…well, just guess again, friends, because God may have completely changed the direction in which your life is heading. Let me share with you a bit of my own journey of faith…
The first thing you need to know about me is that I am a preacher’s kid. I loved my dad, but there was no way that I was ever, ever, ever going to be a preacher myself. But God had different plans for me. And yet, by the time I had to declare my college major, I knew that there would be no other path by which I could travel than the one that would take me where I had never wanted to go in the first place.
Secondly, you need to know that I was a small-town Texas boy. I had every intention of going back to serve a small church in a small town. I even chose my seminary based on this notion…and did my Masters of Divinity at Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa because they have always had, and in fact, still do have, a commitment to training men and women for small town and rural ministry, which has a much different dynamic to it than an urban or suburban context. But God had different plans for me. And perhaps no one was more surprised than me when my first call was to a church in Kansas City, Missouri. Here was Alan Thames, small town Texas boy with a seminary education matched to his desire to go back to small Texas, ready to go to the big city. I had never wanted to go to a city…I wasn’t even confident driving in the city at first because I had grown up driving on country roads. And yet that part of the path as well was one that I could not have avoided if I were to let God have God’s way.
Finally, you need to know that I never ever imagined that serving the church in any other way than the local parish would be part of the journey. And yet after the Rev. Jill Hudson left as our presbytery executive at the end of 2004, three trusted voices in my life raised the question of whether I could see God calling me into that kind of ministry. It was hard to imagine that God wouldn’t want me preaching every Sunday, and calling on the sick and elderly of a congregation, or leading elders and deacons as they sought to serve God. But once again, God had different plans for me. And the journey is one that continues to mystify and amaze me…but only because I have come to accept that I serve a God who desires me to follow even when the journey is full of mystery.
I am here today and participating in the worship of the John Knox Presbyterian Church because of that role I stepped into twelve and a half years ago as the presbytery executive of Whitewater Valley Presbytery. Some of you may even think that I am here because I have special insights because of my role or additional wisdom about what your future will look like beyond Frank Mansell’s ministry here. But please let me remind you that I am here because I love and serve a God of mystery, a God who has guided and directed me on the journey of faith. And I believe that the God of mystery is the same God we all love and serve and need to keep focused on as this congregation, its members, and its leaders, all seek to move forward on the journey of faith that may take each and every one of us to places we never imagined.
Today is Pentecost. Perhaps there is no more perfect day in the liturgical calendar to acknowledge not only God’s mystery but the way that the mystery of God invites us to move into the next part of the journey.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
The mystery of God is on full display here, isn’t it? The rush of the mighty wind. The tongues of fire. The ability for a group of Galileans to speak languages from all over the known world of that time. But for me the great mystery of God is in the fact that these once timid and frightened former fishermen and tax collectors and women left the safety of the upper room where they had been for days. The world outside the protective walls of the place to which this group had retreated to pray was not a friendly place. The leader of their group had been cruelly and unfairly executed mere weeks before…and there was almost certainly much suspicion attached to anyone who had been one of his followers. Would it not have been safer for them to stay and pray a bit longer? But the mystery at work in this passage is that once the Holy Spirit descended on this group they could no longer be contained in that room. They had been invited by God to move to the next part of the journey. Jesus had just died. And on this journey there must have been so many questions. Did Jesus really have to suffer and die? Were all his teachings and miracles for nothing? And are we really to believe that these uneducated men and women were able to communicate clearly with people from other nations who spoke other languages? But in those questions, there must have been a hunger to receive a gift that only a God of mystery could make possible.
And in order for this congregation to move forward on that mysterious journey which God has chosen for you, I would ask you to remember that God has called you to move on as well, living into an unknown future rather than depending on a familiar past. Each of you must look toward a journey beyond the leadership of your previous pastor. In the life of the church it is important to look for what God has planned to do. Even when we would have chosen something different for our future as individuals or for our future as congregation, we must look for those places where God is planning something different, something that brings good, something that brings blessing for many people. And unless we are able to see through the eyes of God’s mystery we will always want things to go our way. But God’s mystery allows us to see that God is always about using all things for our good. You may be familiar with the old Chinese parable that seems to repeat that message in every phrase:
Long ago there was a farmer who lived in China. This was a poor farmer who had but one horse. He used his horse to plow the fields so that he could make a living. One day the horse ran away. “Oh no! This is terrible!” cried the neighbors. The old farmer shrugged and said, “Good news, bad news—who knows?” Several days later the farmer’s horse returned to the farm with several wild horses following. The farmer and his son managed to capture the horses. “Oh how wonderful!” cried the neighbors. Once again the farmer shrugged and said, “Good news, bad news—who knows?” The next day the farmer’s son managed to capture one of the wild horses, but while attempting to break it, was thrown and his leg badly broken. The neighbors rushed over. “Oh, this is awful news!” they cried. The farmer shrugged, “Good news, bad news—who knows?” A few weeks later, the Chinese army came by, conscripting all the area’s young men for war. But they couldn’t take the young man with the broken leg. And once again, the neighbors gathered to rejoice. “What joyous news!” But the farmer shrugged once again, and said only, “Good news, bad news—who knows?”
A time has come for this congregation to consider its journey, a journey only to be made by those who trust in the mystery of God to guide the way. And along the way there will be events about which we will want to say…This is good news—or this is bad news! But let us remember that God intends only our good. And we do not need to be afraid, either now or into an uncertain future, for God does indeed use all of our plans for the good of many.
And on this day of Pentecost, we are especially reminded of the mystery of God’s leading on our journey. Today’s Old Testament passage from the prophet Ezekiel includes a vivid image. Its message has always been a powerful one for me because it reminds us that we don’t always see what God would have us to see on our journeys until God opens our eyes.
“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of our Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord…I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
I appreciate that Ezekiel plays a key role in this passage. God’s mystery is waiting to be set into motion…but it is Ezekiel who must prophesy to the bones so that they will live. And once Ezekiel acts on God’s command, a mystery comes to pass. Just like the followers of Jesus emerging from the protective shelter of the upper room on that first Pentecost…the next part of the mystery is dependent on those who do what God invites them to accompany God on a journey of faith and hope and love!
And even now, it is the presence of Christ Himself on our journeys…those we make alone, those we make with family, those we make with a community of faith and hope and love…that will set us free for the future God has planned. And once we know the truth of Christ’s presence with us on those journeys, we too can proceed to an unknown future with others who are ready to claim that same truth. May that blessing rest upon you, the saints of John Knox Presbyterian!