Sermon preached June 24, 2012
Texts: Joshua 3:1-6, 14-17; I Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
We are entering a time when you may get phone calls such as this: “If the election were held today, for whom would you vote – Mitt Romney or Barak Obama?” “If the primary election were held today, for whom would you vote – Jeff Anderson, Taryl Clark, or Rick Nolan?”
Well, this morning I want to do a bit of non-political polling? How many of you like jazz music? How many of you have heard of the jazz musician John Coltrane? How many of you have ever heard any of Coltrane’s music?
John Coltrane was born in North Carolina in 1926. Both his grandfathers were pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion. Both his parents were musical and they instilled a love of music into their son John. Coltrane decided to make music a career – he studied it and began to play professionally. In the early to mid 1950s, Coltrane was seen as a talented, but often unreliable musician. Alcohol and heroin were preventing him from living up to his potential. Coltrane then had an experience he describes this way: During the year 1957, I experienced by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which has led me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. Coltrane gave up drinking and drug use and his musicianship flourished.
In 1960, Coltrane released a pivotal record in his career, “Giant Steps.” Jazz critics have said that the record was “a monumental achievement in tenor sax playing” and that the title song “knocked the jazz world on its ear.” I want to play a bit of “Giant Steps” for you.
In case you are wondering, no, you have not inadvertently wandered into music appreciation 101.
This has been a monumental week for our congregation. It began last Sunday when Chester Park UMC held its final worship service in their building, celebrating years of ministry in the Duluth area beginning in the 1890s with Hope Evangelical Church on Sixth Ave. East and Fifth Street – just down the hill from where we are today. Tuesday, rains started to fall and we had no idea just how much rain would fall, how hard it would come, how quickly the waters would rise, and how much damage such flash flooding would cause. 2:45 a.m. Wednesday morning our home phone rang. It was the Red Cross asking if the church could be used as an emergency shelter. By 3:30 that morning I was here with the Red Cross to open our church for those displaced. 26 people spent Wednesday night here, and more than twice that were here during the day on Tuesday. We were only a temporary site because we had Ruby’s Pantry on Thursday, and in spite of all the troubles getting around, over 300 shares of food were distributed that evening. Today, we welcome new members from Chester Park into the new First United Methodist Church. And that’s how I think we need to be thinking. We are merging together two wonderful congregations, two meaningful traditions of worship and service to God in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. Something new is happening today, and we are going to be welcoming two additional people into membership today – Rachel and Seth.
Over these past weeks, the folks from Chester Park have been using the story of the Israelites on their journey to the promised land as a way to frame their journey with God to a new place. We read the story of one part of that journey, the entrance into the land itself from Joshua 3. Oh that we would have had the ark of the covenant on Tuesday night so that we would have experienced a lot more dry ground here in Duluth! The Israelites crossed over the Jordan on dry ground. They were going a way they had not passed before (v. 4). God promised that wonders would be done (v. 5). Giant steps.
We have not passed this way before, either. In the long history of each congregation that now makes up First United Methodist Church, there have not been other mergers. Sure Hope Evangelical Church became Chester Park Evangelical Church, then Chester Park Evangelical United Brethren Church (where my mom was confirmed and my parents married), and then Chester Park United Methodist Church – as the church relocated and its denomination merged and merged again; and First Methodist Episcopal Church, 3rd and 3rd W., became First Methodist Church and then First United Methodist Church, and then took on the nickname, “the Coppertop Church” as it relocated and its denominations merged – but we, neither of us, have experienced congregations joining together as we do today. We have not passed this way before, and we require God’s wisdom as we enter into this new land. I trust we will continue praying for this new leg of our journeys and our journey. I also trust that as we are open to the wisdom of God, the Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Christ, we will see God do wonders with us, in us, through us. Giant steps.
I want to confess something this morning. I was a little uncomfortable when Pastor Sam asked me about using Joshua 3 as one text for this morning. Here you are Chester Park – the promised land?!? Yikes. Then I looked again at the lectionary text from the Hebrew Bible, and realized that the entry into the “promised land” was only another beginning, and that all was not sunshine and blue skies and sweetness and light. Years later there were other giant steps, ominous giant steps belonging to a Philistine warrior named Goliath. Trouble in the promised land.
There may be some Goliath moments for us, this new First United Methodist Church. We may, and probably will, encounter some obstacles along the way that make us worry and quake and wonder – wonder if we have the resources to meet them. One Goliath challenge all churches face is the increasing number of people who see church as irrelevant to their lives. The fastest growing category of persons, when asked about their religion is “nones.” Millennials, those aged 18-24, when surveyed, think the church is an uncomfortable combination of good values and principles and judgmental and anti-gay (The Christian Century, May 30, 2012) We have work to do in our culture, with some giant trends that are working against us.
Whatever the obstacles, whatever the challenges – internal, external, even the challenges we experience within, we are invited to trust God, to trust that with God wonders can be done. We are to trust God with a David-like faith. David was taunted by Goliath. “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” Some days we may feel as if we are confronting a giant, in a coat of armor, and all we have are sticks and stones. Yet, that’s all David had, and with God, it worked.
There will be challenges along the way, but I hope that together we will be willing to trust God in the midst of challenges, and trust God enough to dare some giant steps of our own. A few years ago, the well-known business writer Jim Collins discussed some of the characteristics of successful organizations. Among the things he found was that successful organizations were willing to identify “big, hairy, audacious goals.” Such goals need to be consistent with our core values and need to have some rooting in reality, but such goals push us forward. What giant steps might God be leading us to take together? What will be our big, hairy, audacious goals?
Just coming together, we are taking giant steps. I believe God has brought us together in Jesus. I believe God wants to work wonders in us and through us by the power of the Spirit. I believe there are some giant steps for us to take together in the coming days and years. Yes, there may be some opposing giant along the way, but with God, our sticks and stones will be enough.
May we walk together, take giant steps together, with courage, with faith, with hope, with joy, and most of all, with love. Amen.