October 30, 2011

"Just Up Ahead"
Jason W. Crosby, preaching

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Genesis 12: 1-9 

I stand here today with mixed emotions.  I bring sadness with me today.  I miss my friend Greg, with whom I developed a genuine friendship over the course of our nearly four years of ministry together, and who graciously and lovingly steered us through a period of dramatic change in the life of our congregation.  I am grateful today because I have an opportunity to dedicate all of my professional energy and focus, and then some, on ministry to and with you.  I am nervous today.  The task before us is substantial, the work to be done is significant, and the outcome is far certain.  Above all, I am excited today because God has given us, you and me, an incredible opportunity.

Abraham already had come a long way.  At the point in time when we pick up Abraham’s story in Genesis 12, Abraham and his people were settled in Harran, situated today in southeastern Turkey.  Many years before that point in time, this band of folks packed up and left the city of Ur, located in the near modern-day Bagdad.  That journey could not have been an easy one.  Undoubtedly, it was difficult and perilous.  Then, establishing a new life in Harran couldn’t have been an easy task either.  As the years passed Abraham and his people, however, settled into life in Harran.  Life, while not easy when measured by today’s standards, was at least routine and therefore relatively comfortable.  But, God was not through with Abraham.  In spite of the fact that they had already come a long way and in spite of a relatively comfortable situation in Harran, God asks Abraham and his people to pack up and move out, again.  God clearly and unequivocally comes to Abraham and gives him and his people the chance to go up ahead, to travel just a little further down the road, so that Abraham and his people could be instruments through which the spirit of God would move and make beautiful music.

            Like Abraham, the faith community that calls itself Crescent Hill Baptist Church, has already come a long way.  This is a place with a rich and grand history.  The recurring theme that emerges when I survey the history of this body is that of taking big risks to faithfully follow where God leads in order to do something good.  From its beginning in 1907 when a small, group of people left Clifton Baptist Church in order to begin a congregation in Crescent Hill through the 1920s when the church decided to tear down of a perfectly good sanctuary and build the current sanctuary where we find ourselves today in the hope of being able to minister to those tied to the recently relocated seminary and through the 1960s when the church took a strong stand in favor of racial equality during the height of the civil rights movement, the predominant motif that has shaped and defined us is one of taking big risks by faithfully following where God leads in order to put the goodness, love, and mercy of God on full display.  We have already come a long way.

            But as was the case with Abraham, God is not done with Crescent Hill Baptist Church and her people yet.  God in recent days has called us clearly and unequivocally to go up ahead a little further.  A clear calling, in and of itself, is a great gift.  More often than not, folks wait their entire lives listening for God to point them in one direction or another and never hear God speaking to them.  Or, oftentimes, when people detect God’s voice, God’s word to them is shrouded in mystery and difficult to decipher.  On the rare occasion, God’s call comes to people with unequivocal clarity.  This type of clear communication from the divine happens with enough infrequency that when it does occur, it leaves one disoriented, doubting one’s grasp on reality, and afraid.  God clearly gave this congregation a call to go in a new direction with the arrival of our brothers and sisters from Burma in 2007.  With that arrival came disorientation, doubt, and fear for everyone – American, Karen, and Chin.  In the wake of the coming and integration of large numbers of immigrants and refugees into the fabric of this congregation, however, God has clearly directed us.  God has given us the opportunity to build a little slice of the God’s kingdom.  Hear me when I say that our call is not to be an international congregation, although that is a factor in this equation.  God’s call to us, that has only become fully apparent in the wake of the arrival of large numbers of internationals into our midst, is to build God’s beautiful kingdom so that we may more fully come to know God and to reflect God’s love the world around us. 

In Matthew 4, Jesus describes the kingdom God seeks to institute as like a tiny mustard seed that will grow into an enormous shrub so that all the birds of the air, from the pigeon to the eagle, may find rest in its shade.  This is what God is calling us, is calling you to do.  We have the opportunity to nurture and love one another, despite radical differences, so that all of us, black, white, brown, rich, poor, gay, straight, the broken, the fulfilled, young, and old may find rest among the branches of this place.  By loving one another, not only will we tend to the diverse needs each of us brings to this place, we have the opportunity to show others that sustained by God’s love that people of radical differences can exist in harmony with one another.  What an amazing gift.  What an incredible opportunity.  Few other individuals and congregations have a chance to participate in something so extraordinary.  And, what more does our world need at this point in time?  In a country where the gap between the haves and the have nots continues to expand and where the political divide is greater than ever; in a world where people continue to kill one another because of ethnic divisions and ideological disagreements, what more important work could a people be asked to do than learn to love each other and overcome barriers that others say should keep us apart.  God is asking you, each one you, to march to the beat of a different drum and give yourselves and our world a desperately needed ray of hope.             

            The God I know, however, is not heavy handed.  Even when God clearly gives direction, God provides God’s followers with a choice.  One of the hallmarks of a genuine invitation from God to risk something big to go and do something good, is that the invitation comes with the ability to opt out.  Those who choose to ignore or refrain from going where God clearly asks them to go never, never find themselves beyond the bounds of God’s love.  God’s love is big enough, deep enough, and wide enough to hold us in its embrace, even when we dig in our heels and refuse to move.  Abraham had a choice.  Abraham could have remained in Harran.  If Abraham would have decided to stay, God would not have loved Abraham any less.

            While we have begun to live into this calling God has given to us, while we have taken some important steps in that direction, the question that still lingers out there is whether or not to take this ball that God has given us and run with it?  It’s as if we’ve traveled a few miles outside of Harran, but the possibility of return still exists.  So, what other options do we have?  One, we could try to go back from whence we came.  We could try to turn back the clock to a time prior to the point when God issued this call and attempt to root our identity in who we were before 2007.  The road behind us has been washed away, however.  While the history of this place and of its people will and must continue to inform us, we would not sit here today - literally – if it weren’t for that history, the notion that we can return to a congregational culture of the 90’s, 80’s, 70’s, 60’s, or beyond is terribly unrealistic.  Too much has changed within and beyond these walls for us to go in that direction.  Two, we could try to stop where we are.  We could set up camp here.  The problem I see with this is that the gift that has been given to us, to create a church where people of extraordinary difference learn to love one another and show that love to others, comes with an expiration date.  The uniqueness that characterizes this place at this moment is not ensured to persist.  There is no guarantee that one year from now, and certainly not five or ten years from now, that the unique composition of this place will continue to exist.  Inevitably, certain pockets of this congregation will continue to grow and expand and others will dwindle if we remain stationary.  Three, we could try to go our separate ways.  One group of us could try to go a little further while the rest of us stay put or drifts back.  Last Sunday morning during the Sunday School hour, I had an opportunity to survey who was in the building.  There were 202 of us according to my count.  102 of us were in the Chapel for Karen worship.  The remaining 100 were engaged in other activities or classes.  If half of us were removed from this effort, I don’t see how any of us would make it where we want to go.  A final option is that we could continue to try to move ahead together.  We could try to expand upon the love we have already shown each other and more fully follow the path that God has asked us to walk down.  When I examine the options before us, in my mind, it becomes apparent that God has not only given us the gift of a clear direction and calling, but God has thrown the congregation a life line that will pull us into a bright future.

            By moving ahead together, I mean together.  Just as Abraham went with everyone and everything when God called, at this point in time, the only way we can make it little further down this road is with the assistance of every person that calls this their spiritual home and then some.  To get down the road we need the wisdom of our older members.  To get down the road we need the choir to sing us along.  To get down the road we need the energy and inherent hope that comes along with our children, youth, and young adults.  To get down the road we need everyone’s financial support because in order for us to get where we are going we must have the lights on and the doors open.  Perhaps, most importantly, we need your presence.  We need each of you here as often as you are able.  When we gather in this place, particularly for worship, not only are we encountering God’s presence, we are making a statement to the world beyond these walls.  I am well aware that sometimes our youth chat a little too loudly and move around a little too much during worship.  I know that it can be disruptive when cell phones ring.  I know that that not every component of our worship together speaks to every person in the room.  But, I also know that because we keep coming together God is speaking to us, transforming us, and moving us a little further down the road in ways that no sermon ever could.  I know that when we observe the dedication of a baby, witness a baptism, come to the Lord’s Table together, that no matter our other shortcomings, God is changing us because we sit and stand, pray and sing, laugh and cry, Sunday after Sunday with one another.                                

We have already begun to move in the direction that God has called us.  Consequently, we have already experienced some of what Paul would call the “first fruits” of our labor.  Furthermore, because we have already embarked on this journey, that place to which God has called us is not too far off now.  It’s just up ahead.  I’ve been walking this path since I entered the First Baptist Church of Battle Creek, MI on January 9, 2005.  On that morning so cold it took my breath away and so gray it was hard to tell day from night, I began what would become a two and one-half years stint as their Interim Minister.  The church had endured decades of decline.  Battle Creek, like a lot of Michigan communities, was not what it once was.  Not too long before I came onto that scene, it was reported to me that there was talk of disbanding the congregation formed in 1835.  Several years before I arrived, the few dozen active members of that congregation, all of whom were up there in years, doubted their ability to keep the congregation going.  But then a couple of years before my arrival, unexpectedly, refugees from Burma, primarily Chin, began to be resettled in Battle Creek and began to attend that church.  By the time I arrived, the talk of disbandment had quieted.  The congregation was energized by the addition of new brothers and sisters, and decided that God had called them to move ahead together.  In my years there, we covered a lot of the same territory that this church has covered in recent years.  There were worries about finances.  There were debates about this and that.  But, the members of that church supported by the love and mercy of God stuck together.  In June of 2010, Kate and I went back to Battle Creek to participate in one of the church’s 175th anniversary celebrations.  What we saw when we walked into that congregation that day literally brought tears to my eyes.  God’s presence was so close you could feel it.  Through the uniqueness of that place, God was changing lives for the better.  Joy abounded.  And on top of it all, a congregation that was on the verge of locking its doors for good was now offering a ray of hope in a community that desperately needed it. 

I already sense God performing similar miracles here.  Because of what we have done and who we are, God’s presence is palpable to me every time I walk through these doors and I am filled with great joy.  But, to get the rest of the way we must go up ahead a little more.  We must acknowledge and give thanks to God for the gift of clear call.  We must risk something big for something good like Abraham and those who have come before us at this church.  We must move ahead, together.  Surrounded by God’s love and mercy, as we will surely be, we can, we must, get there.  And when we arrive, we will find ourselves changed for the better and we will find ourselves leading others into the gates of God’s kingdom.  So be it.  Amen