September 21, 2008

Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30

I go back and forth in my feelings about the ministry that I am called to be involved in within the church. Some days I am hopeful and excited and optimistic. Some days I am discouraged and disillusioned. Some days I have the sense that my work is making a real difference in people’s lives. And other days I feel like the world is so lost and misguided that we don’t have a chance of making any significant difference to anyone. In fact, I would say that most of my days in ministry are filled with a mixture of hopefulness because I am engaged in meaningful and important work, and discouragement because the needs I see around me are so great and I can’t imagine being able to respond to them all.

Let me give you a few examples from my week.

On Sunday evening, I made sandwiches with the youth group for Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry. I thought it was a worthwhile way to spend part of our evening for a couple of reasons… our young people would be learning to give their time and effort for others, and people who were hungry would get some good food to eat the next day.

But I also wondered how we can possibly make it to a time when there won’t be any more hungry people. And I thought about the fact that a few sandwiches will do little to change the lives of our Aboriginal sisters and brothers. What can we do to end racism? What can we do to overcome the negative legacy of the residential schools and the destruction of their native land, culture, and way of life?

Another thing that took a little of my time this week was looking at (and trying to download) an online resource that I’m thinking of using with the youth group. It’s a short video that we watched at women’s camp this year called, “The Story of Stuff.” It’s a sobering look at all the “stuff” (or consumer goods) that we produce. First we destroy the earth to make stuff out of its resources, then we pollute the earth as we make those resources into stuff, filling the air and water with toxic chemicals. Then we buy the stuff and use it for a brief period (until it falls apart or we replace it with better, faster stuff). And then we through the stuff away, filling up the environment with all this stuff we don’t need.

This video is a reality check for those who think we are not in an environmental crisis on our planet. It’s a wake up call for all of us who are convinced by advertising to believe that we really do need more stuff. And it’s discouraging, to say the least. And yet, knowing the problem is the first step towards solving it. When I watched it, I was thinking, “I can do things differently. I don’t need so much stuff. I’m pretty sure that I can live more simply. And if other people see this video, they’ll want to change their lives too.” Somehow, the movie gave me hope that we can change this excessive consumerism problem around.

In the middle of the week, I got a call from a funeral home and was asked to conduct the funeral of a woman who had attended this church many years ago. I didn’t know her or her family, but I journeyed with them as they celebrated their mother’s life, grieved her loss, and turned to God for comfort and peace in the midst of their struggle. It was a joy for me to be the voice that proclaimed to this family the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And it was encouraging to watch the way they embraced that message and the promises of God.

But I couldn’t help but think of the many families who have drifted away from our church and from so many other churches over the years. I thought about all the people who do not hear that good news week by week, who do not know how much God loves them, who do not experience that love in Christian community, who do not discover the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives in loving relationship with God and neighbour.

And then I spent part of Saturday morning with some folks from McKercher Drive Presbyterian Church — one of several Presbyterian churches in the city that is struggling and searching for a vision of where God is calling them. At times I am very discouraged by our seeming inability to find a common vision and to cooperate in ministry amongst even our Presbyterian churches in the city. How can we continue with so many churches and so few people in them?

And yet, I felt very hopeful yesterday as I listened to the visions and dreams of the people at McKercher. I felt their deep love for God, and I heard them speak of their call to reach out beyond their doors. I had the sense that they were ready for change, that they were ready to do things differently, that they were eager to work with others to do something new for the sake of the Gospel. And that gave me hope.

With the crazy mix of discouragement and hope that colours so many of my days and weeks, I can relate very easily to the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. They’d already been through so much just to get out of Egypt, and they had such great hopes for the promised land that Moses had told them about. But the wilderness place in between was so hard. There was so much uncertainty and there were so many challenges along the way.

The promised land began to seem like a dream — like a “pie in the sky” fantasy that would never become a reality. Even going back to Egypt started to seem like a reasonable option rather than continuing the struggle into the unknown and uncertain.

To go back to Egypt would be to give up. It would be like deciding that the Presbyterian Church doesn’t have a chance in Saskatoon. It would be like forgetting about families that have drifted away from church and God. It would be like giving in to our society’s push to buy, buy, and buy some more, assuming that it’s too late to save our planet or our souls. It would be like accepting the fact that some people are hungry or homeless or oppressed, and deciding that there’s nothing much that we can do about it. It’s too big a problem, with causes that go back too many generations.

The story of the Hebrew People’s exodus from Egypt and their journey through the wilderness and into the promised land is a foundational story for the People of Israel. And, as I said a few weeks ago, it’s a story that tells them who they are. Yes, they have struggles. Yes, they get discouraged. Yes, they doubt and complain and consider turning back and giving up. But they are a People that are never abandoned by God. God goes with them. God guides them. God feeds them. And eventually, God leads them into the land flowing with milk and honey.

There are certainly times in our lives and in our ministry when we have good reason to feel disappointed or discouraged. Today’s epistle reading points out that even someone as faithful and strong as the apostle Paul had moments like that. Writing to the Philippian Church from his jail cell in Rome, Paul briefly ponders the idea of giving up — of dying rather than continuing the work of preaching the Gospel.

We don’t know all the details of the persecution he must have endured because of the work he was doing. How difficult it must have been for him to hang on to hope and keep at it despite so many set backs! But Paul trusted that God was with him, giving him what he needed to make it through, just as God did for the Israelites in the wilderness. And Paul encouraged the Christians at Philippi to hang on to that hope as well.

I think what it comes down to is whether we believe that we have the capacity to do these amazingly difficult things that God has called us to do. Do we have the capacity to make peace in our relationships and in our world? Do we have the capacity to save our planet — to change our lives and preserve the earth God made? Do we have the capacity to end hunger, to provide the basic necessities of life for all people, and to create a just society? Do we have the capacity to tell the world about Jesus and his love in word and action?

On some days, I feel just like the Israelites in the wilderness. I feel completely incapable, and I’m not sure if I want to keep on trying. It’s so hard! But on days like today, I remember that God was with those Israelites on their journey, and by God’s grace they made it all the way. And on days like today, I remember Jesus and the way he lived and loved and served.
I remember that Jesus was fully human — that he was just like us. I remember the set backs that he experienced, the suffering that he endured, and the way the people around him gave up hope.

But as Jesus went through his wilderness experience, God was with him. God was in him. God provided for him on his difficult journey. Jesus went through struggle, through suffering, and through death itself. And then he rose to live again.

This is the good news. And this is what gives me lasting hope for my life, for our ministry, and for all the world. We have the capacity to live and to love as Jesus did because God is with us and God is in us. All our hope is founded on God. May we live more and more each day in that sure and certain hope. Amen.