I continue today my sermon series “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” Today’s lesson for a church in transition is this: don’t be like Israel in the Sinai when they were romanticizing their past and complaining about the present. The story reminds us that such behavior is not only dispiriting to your human leaders but a personal affront to God, who understands it as doubt about his goodness and faithfulness in the present.
Let me begin with a story right out of our shared American history.
I was born in 1957. The decade of the1950s is sometimes perceived as a kind of golden age in America. World War II was over, the soldiers were back home, and Americans, having defeated the enemy abroad, were now turning their attention and energy back home to building up America. The economy was going full tilt. There were lots of jobs available for people of all different levels of education and skill. It was a time of rising incomes and wealth. My father told me several times that anyone who was invested in the stock market in the 1950s was making money. Lots of people were getting married and starting families. There was increasing home and car ownership. Church buildings were going up at a rate not seen before and they were full as soon as they opened. We had a smiling, confident President in Dwight David Eisenhower, a former 5-star general who helped us to win World War II both in Europe and in the Pacific. Having him as President made everyone feel like a winner. There were lots of seemingly well-adjusted smiling families on 1950s television shows like the “Donna Reed Show”, “Father Knows Best”, and “Leave It To Beaver.” All that smiling gave the appearance that all was well in the 50s, and made everyone feel like all was well.
But in spite of appearances not everything was well in the 1950s. There was a lot of fear in the land. The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War, building up against each other huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and there was constant worry in the 50s that the world would wink out in a sudden nuclear holocaust.
Having ended a war in the 1940s, we were, in spite of all of our best intentions, back at war again in the 1950s, this time in Korea.
Women in the 1950s, having had a taste of another kind of life in the 1940s, were beginning to chafe at the limited roles assigned to them, and were beginning to question the limited roles they had accepted for themselves, and a Women’s movement began to stir.
Black people weren’t smiling in the 1950s. Life in America wasn’t happy for them, and the Civil Rights era was born.
Several years ago a slew of personal memoirs came out, all of them written by white people who had all grown up in the American suburbs in the 1950s. All of them noted in their books how wonderful life in the 1950s seemed on television, how perfect the suburban households appeared, and then each of them told a horrifying tale of what had happened to them in the 1950s in their own homes, with their own families, behind closed doors, dark things that you never would have expected in those times. Those books blew the lid off the 50s and disabused us of any notion that the 1950s was a golden age. The 1950s turned out to be as mixed as any other age.
But romanticizing the past is what human beings have a tendency to do, especially in challenging times. When we go through hard times, we want to believe that there was once a golden age, an age much better than the age we are in now, and we want to believe that if we can just get back to that golden age, if we can just reproduce everything that was once in that golden age, if we can just get back to the good ol’ days, then all will be well again.
In the church I think we can celebrate and thank God for the good things God has done in the past, we can learn from them, but romanticizing the past never works. There are no good ol’ days, there is no golden age, and there is no going back. And if we become too fixated on the past, we are going to make ourselves continually unhappy in the present, complaining bitterly and repeatedly about what we don’t have right now, and we are going to completely miss what God is doing among us in the present, which may be different from what God has done in the past.
King Solomon, noted for his practical human wisdom, confronts us bluntly in the book of Ecclesiastes whenever we try to romanticize the past. He says in chapter 7, verse 10, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
Jesus would come along later and say, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
That’s what happened to the Israelites during their interim or transitional time in the Sinai desert. They went through a period of romanticizing the past. And if it had been left unchecked, they might have gone back to slavery in Egypt and given up on the Promised Land that God so much wanted to give them.
The problem was that they were focused for a time on what they didn’t have during the interim time, which was a wide variety of foods to eat, so they began to romanticize the past when they did, which happened to be in Egypt. During the interim time they had manna and quail to eat and water to drink. In Egypt they remember eating meats of all kinds, fish, melons, cucumbers, onion, garlic. So suddenly they are thinking that their time in Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. After all, they had a lot of things to eat, and now they didn’t.
Romanticizing the past led in turn to complaints about the present, about what they didn’t have, and complaints about their human leader Moses, who they became convinced without any evidence at all had brought them out into the desert to die.
Moses was a remarkably constrained leader. I am afraid that if I were their leader, and heard them romanticizing their past in Egypt, I might have said, “Are you people nuts? You are remembering fondly all the foods you ate back in Egypt, but while you do that you are conveniently forgetting one teeny tiny little detail of your life in Egypt: YOU WERE SLAVES! AND NOW YOU’RE NOT! FOR 400 YEARS YOU AND YOUR ANCESTORS WERE SWEATING IN THE BRICKYARD, MEETING YOUR QUOTA OF BRICKS EVERY DAY FROM SUN UP TO SUN DOWN, NEVER HAVING A DAY OFF. AND NOW YOU WANT TO GO BACK TO YOUR LIFE IN EGYPT JUST SO YOU CAN GET THE TASTE OF CANTALOPE IN YOUR MOUTH AGAIN? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MINDS? (You can understand why I was not chosen to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.)
But this is what human beings do. Wherever we are in life, we zero in on what we don’t have in the moment, and then romanticize the time when we did, conveniently blinding ourselves to some of the not so attractive things that were going on at the time.
Romanticizing the past has been a temptation in every church I’ve pastored, and it could be a temptation for Central during this interim time. You might be tempted to go back to the time when David Bailey was here, or the time there were 900 members here, which was the numerical high point of the church.
The challenge for Central is to live now, in the present, to figure out together what’s possible now, to figure out what God is doing among you now and figure out what God is calling Central to be and do in this time and place, to try to understand what people living now in this community are wanting and needing in a church and how to provide that while staying true to your own history and traditions.
I remember hearing a church leader speak a few years back who was not trying to romanticize the past, nor complain about the present, but was trying to get us as a church to deal forthrightly with the present that is given to us. He told us that when people show up our churches these days, they are looking for one or more of the following three things: they are looking for God, they are looking for friends, they are looking for purpose. And we as a church would do well to try to provide those three things.
He said people are still looking for God in their lives because every one of us is born with a God-sized hole that only God can fill. They are showing up at church hoping to find people who know God and can help them know God. And you would be surprised, he said, how often they show up at our churches and can’t find God. Let your church be the place that people find God.
Then he said people these days are looking for friends because they are so lonely. With all of our modern-day technology, we are as connected as ever with other people, but even with all that, we are as lonely as ever, and people don’t want to talk openly about loneliness because it is just way too personal and intimate and painful. When you see people show up at church, don’t underestimate how lonely they might be and how in need of friends they might be. Be a friend to them.
Finally, he said people today are looking for a purpose, a mission beyond themselves, something that involves them seriously in the lives of other people with needs they can fill, something that involves them in the Great Divine Work of healing that is going on in the universe. People today want their lives to count for something, to be meaningful, and they are assuming that the church can get them connected up with meaningful work. Make sure always that your church has meaningful work that people can be plugged into.
As a church, let us not romanticize the past. Let us remember the past, celebrate it, and give thanks to God for all of it, let us learn the necessary lessons from the past. But as a church let us not romanticize the past, but rather live in God’s present and live into God’s future. The church today is different than the church in the past, the people in the church are different than they were in the past, and the people we want to be in church with us are different than they were in the past. If we are romanticizing the past, we are going to miss the new thing God brings us in the present and the future, which requires something new of us.
Instead of romanticizing the past and complaining about the present, let us rather be led by the word of God through the prophet Isaiah, who said, and keeps saying by the Spirit: “I am about to do a new thing, says the Lord. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”