Waiting for the Bulb to Flower
Deut. 30:15-20; Ps. 119: 1-8; 1 Cor. 3:1-9
Last Sunday was a big step for us as a congregation. While we had made the decision to proceed with the new ministry model at the end of July, this was, finally, its official implementation. As we all know, Washington City had been without official leadership for quite a few years. This hasn’t been easy—and it hasn’t helped us grow.
I remember one moment during the first year that Nate and I were a part of this community. An older couple visited while I was preaching and I happened to talk with them while walking up our front steps. They had just moved to Capitol Hill, they had an Anabaptist background, they had served abroad with Mennonite Central Committee. As we were standing outside, I got the impression that they were truly interested. Then, realizing that I was the Jenn listed as preacher on the sign, they asked, “Are you the pastor?” I said, “No” – and tried to make it sound okay that we didn’t have official church leadership since we were “searching”. I saw by their faces that a church without leadership was undesirable. Unfortunately, they never returned.
Thankfully, we don’t have to have those awkward moments any more. Yes, we are currently a small congregation but, yes, we do have official leadership. We’re trying something new, things are looking up, and people (at least others looking in from around the denomination) are excited about what is happening at Washington City Church of the Brethren. We’ve made progress and the ship doesn’t seem like it is sinking any more. To change metaphors, while the road ahead might still be rocky, our feet are on solid ground. The roads ahead are unknown but potentially ripe with opportunity and adventure.
Our passage in Deuteronomy this morning finds the people of Israel also at a significant point in their journey, with boundless opportunity lying ahead. We can learn from the Israelites, from Moses’ words to them, and also from Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians. Opportunity lies ahead for Washington City. But the shape of whatever lies ahead is, in many ways, contingent on us—all of us. In Scripture, we see that a congregation’s well-being is contingent on their love for and faithfulness to God. The health of our community and its future depend on the faithfulness and work of all of us. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, we know that God has promised to be faithful, to work through us, and to be with us on the journey.
When thinking about journeys, about roads and unknowns, I couldn’t help but consider a seemingly unremarkable hobbit named Bilbo. Hobbits, if you don’t know, are small people-like creatures in Tolkien’s Middle Earth world of humans, dwarves, elves, and goblin-like orcs. At the beginning fot he Hobbit, Bilbo lives a quiet Hobbit life—until he has an encounter with Gandalf the wizard. This leads to Bilbo’s house being overrun with dwarves and Bilbo receives an invitation to go on an unexpected journey over the mountains towards a dragon. There is first disbelief and refusal, then fear and apprehension. These emotions, however, are overtaken by a yearning for adventure. Bilbo doesn’t know what is next—and it isn’t guaranteed to be safe or easy—but he sets out in hope of the adventures that await.
Our passage today is at the climax of Deuteronomy: the Israelites are just about to enter the Promised Land. In Deut. 30, we meet the people of Israel when they’ve been camping out in the desert for 40 years. While one week of camping sounds like vacation, forty years sounds horrible.
What is the back-story to this camping? The books of Exodus and Numbers teach that, despite experiencing God’s great deeds freeing them from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites had a tendency to doubt and disobey. YHWH gave them a law and made a covenant with them and they turned away from Him, worshiping idols instead. YHWH told the Israelites that He would protect them in the Promised Land and He had been faithful to Israel before.
Yet when a group of Israelite scouts went ahead to examine the new land, they saw the existing inhabitants, feared, and doubted that YHWH’s power was great enough to see them through. The scouts reported back and the people of Israel doubted that God would really be with them in the next step of their journey. As a result, YHWH said, “You don’t trust me? Fine. Wait around here a little longer and learn to trust me.” The forty years “in the wilderness” was a time to draw people back to faith and trust in YHWH.
When we come to our current passage, it is a very important time. After promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, after bondage and deliverance in Egypt and forty years of desert wandering, something new lies ahead: an opportunity to follow God in faith, a chance to demonstrate their faithfulness to Him, and the prospect of God’s blessing on their people.
A commentary writer, T. D. Alexander, describes the scene this way: “Following the death of the first generation of adults who came out of Egypt, the next generation of Israelites is at a decisive point in its relationship with God. Will they, like their parents, fall at the hurdle before them, or will they through faith in the LORD cross the Jordan and possess the promised land?” (Alexander, 2002, p. 253).
We meet Moses in v. 15 as he lays out the critical role that the Israelites’ actions play in their community’s future well-being. Speaking shortly before his own death and the Israelites’ journey into the land, Moses instructs the people that the health of their faith community depends on their faithfulness and love for YHWH.
Moses says, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess” (Deut. 30:15-16, NIV). The well-being of their community of faith rests on their love and faithfulness to YHWH: following God’s ways, being devoted to His service, loving God and his commandments (Scripture).
Like the Israelites, Washington City COB is at a decisive point in its journey. Opportunity for life and growth are set before us—and as for the Israelites, life and growth are not guaranteed. It depends on each of us serving, each of us learning about God, each of us growing in faith, in knowledge of God’s word, in love for God and for other people.
We might think that, since we have leadership finally in place, things are set and we have nowhere to go but up. It could be easy to think that—now that we have a ministry team, now that we can say, “We have a pastor! Three, even!”—that everyone can kind of rest, sit back in the pew, and wait for the church to grow. Yet Scripture shows that the church is a body, made up of many parts. The body thrives when each part does what it can do best in the community. To use another metaphor, a ship might be directed by a captain who sets the course, but a ship requires the efforts of numerous people to get it to sail—and sail straight.
Having good leadership isn’t a magic wand for community well-being—we see this with the Israelites. Think of Moses and Aaron. These were good strong leaders. The Israelites had Moses! He was the Israelite equivalent of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington combined, and then some. Yet they still struggled.
While leaders can provide guidance and vision, they can equip and strengthen, individual people have a choice in whether to live out the vision or not. Moses couldn’t force the Israelites to obey God, to love God, to make them recognize that YHWH delivered them from the Egyptians and He would continue to be their great deliverer. The well-being of the Israelite community required the faithfulness of the individuals together as a group. It required all of them to love YHWH, to know his teachings, to follow YHWH by loving others and being a community of justice and mercy. Likewise, we at Washington City are all called to grow in love for God, to walk in his ways, to study his word, to serve the church.
Last week, when Nate, Jeff, and I were being installed, Gene Hagenberger began by reminding us that all believers who are baptized are baptized into ministry in the church. He then outlined vows of faithfulness—both for the ministers and for the congregation members.
In some ways, last week reminded me of a marriage ceremony because it involved covenanting—saying we are joining together and committing to be with one another in love, for each other’s good. Gene asked the ministers for our vows and charged us with responsibility to teach, to nurture the church and to care for our own spiritual walks. He then asked the congregation a question, “Renewing your allegiance to Christ and the church, will you covenant to work together with your pastors to extend the work of the church in this community and throughout the world? Will you pledge your support to these pastors according to your abilities and opportunities?”
How are you covenanting together with us, working with Jeff, Nate and I to extend the work of this church in the community and world? We believe that all followers of Jesus are ministers, are priests. Do you see yourself as a fellow minister in Christ? How can you see yourself as a fellow minister alongside us? Are you a minister who specializes in music, in caring for the sick and lonely, a minister who can cook soup and make salads or cookies for the hungry, a minister who teaches children about God’s great love for us, a minister who cares for administration and budgets and finances, a minister who makes sure that the lights turn on and the doors are open, when they need to be? God works in and through all of us to build up the community of faith. We need all of us.
As Paul taught the Corinthians (who were obsessed with leaders as superstars competing with one another): it isn’t about whom has what title or does what role. “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his or her task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service” (1 Cor. 3:5-9a, NIV). It isn’t about the work of one person: God works through all of us to grow His church.
Spring, though it might be hard to believe, is actually just around the corner. I am looking eagerly to spring—not because I don’t like cold or hate snow (I like the cold and the snow)—but because of the opportunity for plants to grow. As many of you know, I love to plant and garden. This year, I’ve planted bulbs for the first time—tulips, daffodils, and narcissus—and I am excited to see them pop up in places where I expect (and where I don’t).
Gardening and planting in general is, in some ways, about trust and hope. You trust that the ugly brown bulb will be a flower; you provide what makes for life and hope that the seed takes, that a combination of soil and seeds and sunlight will make a plant. Yet there are times when things don’t turn out the way that we expect. A seed doesn’t germinate or a bulb pops up in a place that seems very different from where you put it.
God blesses His church abundantly. Love, reconciliation, resurrection: these are gifts of grace freely given by God, not from our own work. Unlike with God’s covenant to the Israelites that was connected to the land, there are no specific tangible blessings promised to the church for its faithfulness. God didn’t promise that faithful members will lead to a megachurch or even to a church of 50 people. We don’t know what the church will look like in 5, 10, or even 1 year. Yet God calls us to have courage and to be faithful.
I heard a profound quote attributed to Mother Teresa last week which gives insight into this: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” God promises that He be faithful, that He will work through us, and that He will see us through wherever the journey may lead.
We don’t know what lies ahead on the road or what flowers might come out of the bulb we place in the ground. We can’t always see what God does with our faithfulness and the fruit of our labor doesn’t always look like what we expect. But God has promised that He will see us through. Jesus’ last words to his disciples (in Matt. 28) were this: “[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
God has promised to work through us and Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit to continue His work in this world. My prayer for the church is that of Paul’s to the Ephesians:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Eph. 3:17-21).
The well-being of our congregation is connected with the faithfulness of all of us. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, we know that God has promised to be faithful, to work through us, and to be with us on the journey. Sisters and brothers, let us strive together to build up this church, by the power of the Spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. AMEN.
Alexander, T.D. (2002). From Paradise to the Promised Land. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.