Today I finish up my sermon series called “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” In this series I’ve been taking us back to the time Israel was in the Sinai, a transitional place and time between their old life in Egypt and their new life in the Promised Land. Today I will talk about the interim time as a time for this church to envision its own Promised Land.
Let me begin today with a story. 50 years ago one of our great preachers was preaching his last sermon. He’d be dead the next day. He didn’t know with certainty that it was his last sermon, but the words he spoke that night made some wonder if he might have had a premonition of his death. Here’s a part of what he said in that sermon:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
The preacher was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Biblical image he was using was the one from Deuteronomy 34: Moses on Mt. Nebo looking down at the Promised Land just before his death. And the current event to which Dr. King was applying that Biblical image was the Civil Rights movement in America in 1968. Dr. King in that moment saw himself as a kind of modern-day Moses helping all of America see God’s Promised Land of transformed relationships between the races, marked by peace and justice and reconciliation, an end to poverty and an end to war. Dr. King reminds us that the Biblical notion of the Promised Land is still a potent symbol for God’s people, but whose meaning changes over time, depending on the human circumstances and needs we face in the present.
The way Dr. King says in his sermon, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you,” makes me think of my role as an interim pastor. My role these days is to help churches see their Promised Land, that is, the future God has in mind for them as a unique church. Then I work to ensure a process by which a church will get the kind of pastor who will help the church get to their Promised Land. And then I leave the church in that pastor’s hands. Just like Moses, and just like Martin Luther King, I get to see the Promised Land but I don’t get to go there. Such is the calling of the interim pastor. And as the great faith chapter, Hebrews 11 reminds us, such is the calling of all who live by faith. We work for a future we will never experience. We see it from a distance and greet it from afar. We know it will come to pass without us, and we’re OK with that because we trust God and trust what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of others.
During 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, God sustained the Israelites along the way with a vision of the future he was giving to them: the Promised Land, otherwise known as “the land of milk and honey.” When God took Moses before his death up Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land, he was reassuring Moses that his 40 years of leadership would not be in vain. God’s vision was real and it had all been worth it. God was reassuring Moses on Mt. Nebo that he was about to give the Israelites the land he had been promising for years, even though Moses himself would not be going with them.
Every church has been given by God a sustaining vision of its future, and my work as an interim is to help a church see that vision and that future.
And here I would say that Interim ministry is different from what happened to Moses and Israel. Whereas God took Moses alone up to Mt. Nebo to let him see the Promised Land, as an interim pastor I am always trying to get the whole church up Mt. Nebo to look down together at the Promised Land God has in mind for them. The church needs to see their Promised Land all together before they start moving toward it.
Perhaps you have seen programs on people climbing to the top of Mt. Everest. If you have, you may have noticed that every climbing party is assisted by Himalayan natives living on the border of Tibet called Sherpas. The Sherpas help carry the loads and set the ropes and ladders in a variety of ways prepare the way for the climbers to make it to the top of Everest.
As an interim pastor I play the role of Sherpa, helping a whole church to get to the top of Mt. Nebo, so the whole church can see the church’s Promised Land.
You didn’t need a Sherpa. You got to the top of Mt. Nebo without me and were already seeing your Promised Land before I got here. I joined you on Mt. Nebo when I came and read your Mission Study, which you put together with help from Holy Cow Consulting.
Every church is a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God, and so is Central Presbyterian Church. A mission study is an effort to say what exactly is unique about the church’s identity and mission. A mission study says, “Here’s who we are as a church. Here’s what is important to us. Here is what we feel called by God to be and do in this place and time. Here is what we anticipate our future will look like. Here is the kind of pastoral leader we need to get us to our Promised Land.” A mission study is an effort to speak the truth about a church in this time and place.
What I have learned over the years as an interim pastor is that a church’s vision of its Promised Land doesn’t just fall like a rock out of heaven and land in a church’s lap. It is a divine/human partnership. And it takes work and time and patience. A vision of the Promised Land comes out of a variety of sources that are all become part of a larger conversation. And all the sources are essential—Christ, the scriptures, worship, prayer, church history, conversation between members currently part of the church.
I realize that this might be new for some of you. The old way of doing church together was that when a church lost a pastor for any reason, the church would go out immediately and find a pastor with a vision for the church and have that pastor implement his or her own vision for the church, but today, and really since the early 90s, everything is flipped in the Presbyterian Church. Today your church, every Presbyterian church in transition, is being asked to first develop its own vision of its own Promised Land, and then bring in a pastor who can help the church realize its own vision for its own church and lead it to its own Promised Land. To me, that makes much more sense. I would say that the congregation knows itself and its needs better than any incoming pastor could.
My role here with you at Central is to remind you how you see this church’s Promised Land and to keep that vision in front of you. That vision comes from your mission study, which was 226 of you, a meaningful statistical sample of your congregation speaking for the whole, standing together on your Mt. Nebo and looking at your Promised Land and describing it. How will you know when you are on the way to your Promised Land?
First, You want to reach new people in your community, have them join you for worship and other church activities and then incorporate them into the life of this church. As an outsider to this church, I hear in you a longing to enter into relationship with new people. I would call this the work of evangelism and assimilation. I think of the first chapter of the gospel of John, which tells us that Andrew met Jesus and brought his brother, Simon to meet Jesus, and then Philip met Jesus and brought his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, and all four became committed members part of the Jesus’ followers community, which became the church. You need a pastor who will help you develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to do this kind oof work. When new people are again being drawn into this faith community and want to stick around and support it, you will be on your way to your Promised Land.
Second, you want Central to be a healing community for people who have been broken in various ways by life circumstances. As an outsider to this church, I hear in you a longing for this faith community to have an authentic healing ministry here at the church. This is very Christ-like longing, for healing was a significant part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. I hear you say that you want to identify the ways in which people inside and outside the church are broken and provide healing through the church in ways that are not already being offered in Anderson. You need a pastor who can help you develop these healing ministries. When you see the church involved in the real healing of persons, you will be on your way to your Promised Land.
Third, you want Central to create more opportunities to form meaningful relationships between members. As an outsider, I hear you say that you want to develop deeper, more significant relationships with one another. You want to know others better and be known by others. You want to love and be loved. You want to create more opportunities at the church for people to form those kinds of relationships. You want to create a deeper Christian community, just as Christ with his company of 12 disciples. You need a pastor who will help you create those opportunities. When you see more members forming more meaningful relationship with one another, you will be on your way to your Promised Land.
Fourth and finally, you want to strengthen the process by which church members are called and equipped for ministry and leadership. As an outsider, I hear in you a longing for all the people in your church to feel called and equipped for service to others. Jesus himself said, I came among you not as one to be served but to serve. It sure sounds to me like the “priesthood of all believers”, which I spoke to a few weeks ago, which is so Christ-like and so true to the early experience of the church. You want this church to be the place where all members feel called and equipped to serve those outside and inside the church. You need a pastor who will help you strengthen the process by which members are called and equipped to ministry and leadership. When you see church members being called and equipped for ministry and service, you will be on your way to your Promised Land.
You will know that you are on your way to your Promised Land when you have called a new installed senior pastor with interest and abilities to help you as a church in these particular areas.
Overall, I hear through your own mission study a longing for relationship, a call into relationship, into relationships with new people, into healing relationships, into more meaningful relationships, into relationships of mutual service. Your Promised Land, which you see from the Mt. Nebo of your own mission study, is a future of new and transformed and transforming relationships, which by the way is all very Christ-like and very Biblical.
As your temporary, interim, transitional pastor, I affirm your own vision of your own future as authentic and true, and I affirm your Pastor Nominating Committee’s efforts to find a relational pastor who will help get you to a relational future. My challenge to you as an interim pastor is this: what might we do altogether now during this interim time to get us moving in the direction of the relational future you are envisioning for Central church?