The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE PROD OF THE PAST

Delivered 9/8/96
Text: Ex. 12:1-14 (Matt. 18:15-20; Rom. 13:8-14)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"You shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance." or as the King James has it, "You shall observe it as an ordinance forever." The establishment of the Passover, one of the most important of all Jewish festivals. And they HAVE observed it forever. Every year since, and down to our own day, Jewish families have gathered at the traditional Seder meal. The patriarch of the household asks the children, "What makes this night different than all other nights?" The youngsters respond with the Exodus story of God's miraculous deliverance of their people. In a unique way, it is the story of the formation of a "family" - competing interests and rivalries that had characterized the twelve tribes of Israel now united forever after into one. A holy nation, set apart, God's chosen people.

Why the annual observance FOREVER, as the scripture says? One reason is that families need regular reminders that they are "in this together," and that despite occasional conflicts, difficulties, and even disasters, a diverse group is still ONE. Another reason is that there is a need to look back occasionally to celebrate and remember with gratitude what and who has gotten a family this far. A third reason is that families need to see where they have come from to provide some incentives to press on with the journey - a prod from the past, if you will.

As those of you who keep track of these things are aware, this text is the Old Testament lesson in the Lectionary for today and is joined with the Epistle lesson in Romans plus the Gospel lesson which you heard earlier from Matthew. All of them have to do with this "family" relationship shared by God's people: the Exodus passage - the establishment of the family, the Romans passage - appropriate behavior in the family, the Matthew passage - handling conflicts in the family. No doubt some wonderful sermons will be preached around the nation on these passages today, but rather than spend a great deal of time in dealing with them individually, I would rather focus on this overarching message that WE ARE FAMILY. We are joined at the heart by the blood of Jesus Christ. We have been brought into relationship with one another by the power of God's Holy Spirit. And we have work to do. We can take this anniversary Sunday and use it as a divine prod from the past to help us plot our course for the future.

Most of you are aware that, four years ago, when I came into this pulpit as your pastor, I was surprised to be here. I had planned to be in Kansas, beginning a new pastorate with some wonderful people whom I had already begun to get to know. But the Lord had other plans. As in no other decision in my entire life (even marrying Christie), I can say that God moved me to come to St. Paul Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, so, despite some reluctance, here I came. I wish I could say precisely WHY God chose for us to be together, but any reasons I came up with would only be guesses. We have shared some great joys as well as some devastating sorrows. I have not been the perfect pastor who would unfailingly be there to meet every need, nor could I have been. But for the most part, you have forgiven me my shortcomings (which does not often happen in churches, as is evidenced by the incredibly high turnover rate of pastors these days) and we have moved forward. I am grateful.

If, as they say, "the past is prologue," what does this family have coming in the future. I cannot say. However, if we allow our past to prod us along, we are presented with some exciting possibilities. Just as our presidential candidates have been laying out their vision for America in their campaign speeches, let me share some hopes and dreams for St. Paul as we begin our fifth year together.

Just looking around our campus we are presented some intriguing possibilities. For example, we note our location - a middle-class residential area that has changed somewhat from the time the church was organized almost 40 years ago. Instead of new homes being built and filled by young families with their ga- zillion children, we now have homes with some age on them, in which reside people also with some age on them - the parents of those youngsters who filled the streets a generation ago, now grandparents - plus other working-class families who have moved in to take advantage of relatively inexpensive housing. No one would call our neighborhood affluent. There are still children around, but their lives are very different from those of a generation ago - the streets are not safe, Mom has to work, life is more dangerous.

Are there some creative ways we could reach out to our neighborhood as it has changed in recent years? Of course. One of the great legacies of those who were the movers and shakers at St. Paul in the early years is this property - plenty of space, good physical plant (some age on it now, but still very good). Let us put it to use as a tool for outreach.

Three things I can think of off hand. We NEED to look seriously at the establishment of a day-care enterprise. Pre- school, after school, or both. I know we have had such programs in the past, and there were probably good reasons for stopping them at the time. However, considering the desperate need for such services, and with us having such a wonderful but under- utilized physical plant, for us to do nothing is incredibly questionable stewardship. No doubt, we would have to make some modifications to bring buildings up to current code, but I have to believe that the effort would be worth it in the end. We need a Task Force established to look into the feasibility as soon as possible.

A second opportunity: considering the number of youngsters in our vicinity whose parents work during the day and who must return from school to an empty house, let us look into establishing an after-school tutoring and recreation program which would encourage the good study and social skills that are needed to be a success now and will be basic in the 21st century. Such a program could be staffed by a combination of paid and volunteer staff.

A third possibility: with our good facility, why not consider establishing a special program for those interested in developing specific skills. I am thinking now of the possibility of putting together a Computer Learning Lab that would serve the needs, not only of neighborhood youngsters who do not have access to a computer at home, but also the entire community who might want to learn the basic computer skills that would help them get jobs or just be comfortable with the changing world that expects computer skills of everyone. There are already volunteer technicians out there who are willing to donate their time and skills to help get things up and running; there are foundations which would help with start-up costs. The only thing necessary to get such a ministry established is the decision to proceed.

By the way, MINISTRY is exactly what these programs would be. Each of these ventures are not simply offered as an adjunct to a social services system - they are ways to reach out to people EXPLICITLY in the name of Jesus Christ.

Speaking of reaching out, the St. Paul family has already done that in some creative ways. As you know, this church has a presence on the World Wide Web - we were the first congregation in Greensboro to go online and utilize this new and mind-boggling tool. Several times each week, I get e-mail from people who say they have read and been blessed by the sermons and helps they find on our Web site (this week I got a note from Dr. Kenji Kawashima, a religion professor in Tokyo). As time goes on, Internet access will become as commonplace as cable television (and as easy to use). The technology has already been invented that will allow you to sit in front of your TV screen, click a few buttons, and then watch this worship service either as it is going on live or at sometime later when it would be more convenient. No purchase of TV or radio time necessary. What a wonderfully inexpensive tool to minister to those who are home- bound or hindered from being here because of work commitments or who would never otherwise hear because they would not THINK of actually coming to church. All we need to make that a reality is some technical equipment here in the sanctuary similar to what we would need to videotape an event plus the Web site (which we already have). Let us be ready to act as soon as the time is right.

We saw another creative method of outreach this summer as our youth sponsored the city-wide Margaret Becker concert. To Chris Freeman and Sonny Bunn, on behalf of this congregation, I say thank you for, first, coming up with the idea, then, putting it together in such yeoman-like fashion, and then actually pulling it off in such a short period of time. You and those who worked with you did something just short of incredible. It may not have resulted in generating the huge attendance or the huge dollars that had been dreamed of for our youth ministry, but so what! This was a first-time effort, and it was terrific. No doubt there are lessons that were learned that will make subsequent events even better. The message here is LET'S DO IT AGAIN and KEEP COMING UP WITH CREATIVE IDEAS. We can let our light shine in the neighborhood, we can let our light shine in cyberspace, let us let it shine in the Triad by coming up with special events that minister to the entire community.

By the way, speaking of youth, our youngsters are a vital part of the congregation. Folks say they are our future. Not so! They are our PRESENT. As such, our youth deserve to be consulted on affairs of the church and ought to have a voice on the session. I would hope that, this year, our session brings a proposal to you to establish the position of Youth Elder who would serve a one-year term on session following election at the annual congregational meeting which elects our officers. The Youth Elder would have full voice and vote, but would only be asked to commit to one year of service (rather than three) so as not to be unduly burdening on those who intend to leave Greensboro for college.

Other things may be on the horizon. Because of lifestyle changes, work commitments, family demands, and so on, we may need to look at adding a worship service on a Saturday night or a Friday or a Thursday. If we are serious about reaching people for Jesus Christ, we are being less than fair by saying to them by the way we schedule worship, "We want you, but only if you will set aside 11:00 AM Sundays." We need to look at other study opportunities during the week besides just Wednesday evening.

Are there other ministries we might establish? Of course. Put your sanctified thinking caps on and come up with ideas. And do not worry about money when you are doing your dreaming. Good planning requires a mindset that thinks in terms of abundance rather than scarcity. If God wants us to do something, God WILL provide a way for us to get it done.

One more thing. The Romans passage we read earlier emphasizes the need for loving one another. Yes, that means treating each other decently, providing care in times of difficulty, and helping to meet needs. In terms of the life of this St. Paul family, that will mean saying YES when you are asked to take on a task. I hear too much frustration from committees which are charged with recruiting volunteers to serve as officers or teachers or even baby-sitters. Part of Christian commitment is a commitment to SERVE. When you are asked, say YES.

I wish that I could say that, if we do all these things, all will be sweetness and light. We know that is not the case. Conflicts will inevitably arise. The only churches that are free of conflict are those that are doing nothing, and that freedom from conflict will be short-lived because somebody will soon want to know why the church is doing nothing. Conflicts WILL arise, because we are sinful human beings. But scripture knows that and gives us guidance in dealing with the problems. First, try to settle things one on one. If that does not work, recruit one or two others who will join you as a silent witness to see that the confrontation is handled in a Christian manner. No one wants to come to the place of breaking fellowship, but if that is what is necessary for the health of the whole body, so be it. Surgery is painful, but sometimes unavoidable.

That Gospel lesson is intriguing because it contains one of our favorite statements: Jesus says, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." We love to remember that promise as we come together for our worship and service. But notice the context - Jesus says he will be with us in the middle of our church fights. As Matthew presents it, right before the statement we find these words about dealing with conflict; immediately after Peter is asking "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?" The message is that when these times of crisis arise, I AM THERE, says the Lord, and I am watching...Remember that, and see that you act like Christians.

One final thing I am counting on as we move into this new year together - your prayers. Four years ago, as I began my work with you, I asked you to promise to pray for me EVERY DAY, and I promised I would do the same. Three years ago, I asked you to promise to pray for me EVERY DAY, and I promised I would do the same. Two years ago, I asked you to promise to pray for me EVERY DAY, and I promised I would do the same. Last year, I asked you to promise to pray for me EVERY DAY, and I promised I would do the same. Now I am asking again.

To be honest, the job of parish ministry is getting harder. The word from ministers all over (including this one) is, "No matter what I do, I know that it is never enough." "I want to please everyone, and I don't." "I want to meet everyone's expectations, no matter how impossible, and I can't." On top of that I want to meet the needs of my wife and children, and they suffer in the attempts to handle the rest. Combine that with a fast-food society that wants what it wants when it wants it and gets rid of anything that disappoints, and we sow seeds of despair that grow to a harvest of despondency and depression. This is going on EVERYWHERE! I NEED YOUR PRAYERS. I will not survive without them. Will you pray for me every day?

Four years and counting. Using the past as a prod, we can say "Hats off" to the past; "Coats off" to the future!(1) There are limitless possibilities. What will that future hold. I do not know. But I know WHO holds the future. And I am content with that.

Amen!


1. Source unknown, posted by Dan Shutters on PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 1996 09 08, #240, 9/5/96

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail