Eight years is a long time.
When we arrived at Blandford, one of our sons was barely one year old and the other … didn’t even exist yet. I had no silver in the temples. But when I stood up here on July 6, 2008, I preached on the story of Moses. He was the Biblical figure that I could relate to – not the parting of the Red Sea Moses but the on-the-run, which-way-is-up Moses. As I prepared for this, my final Sunday preaching at Blandford, I realized that it was only appropriate that I look back to the story of Moses again – and see the parallels.
When I arrived at Blandford, I was fresh off a year of working my dream job, as the associate chaplain of the University of Richmond. While the position had only been an interim – one I served for less than a full year – I honestly believed that I would work there for the rest of my life. My hopes and dreams had been tied to that job, and I expected that I’d stay there forever. But on April 1, 2008, I found out that the interim position wouldn’t be available in July, and I was thrust – late – into the appointment process.
Moses never believed his life could take all of the crazy turns it did. Moses, an Israelite who had grown up in the Pharaoh’s household, found himself suddenly ejected forcibly from his safety bubble. Fresh off a violent interaction with an Egyptian overseer, Moses goes on the run, lives in the wilderness with people who are not his own – and suddenly finds himself called by God to a position he never expected (Exodus 2).
Now, let’s be clear: I never wanted to be a pastor. Work with youth? Sure – but I’d done that already. Minister to young adults and their families? Absolutely. Provide care for the people of a church or campus? Okay. But be the “buck stops here” pastor of a church? I’m sorry, I think you’re looking at the wrong guy.
Moses has that conversation pretty directly with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3).
God: Hey, Moses! Over here!
Moses: Um, yes, strange voice from a burning shrub. What is it?
God: I’m God. The same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Moses (to himself): Yikes, this is a little intense.
God: I’m sending you to Pharaoh and my people.
Moses (half to himself, half to God): Who, me? What am I going to do?
God: I’ll be with you.
Now, at this point, I have to admit I really felt for Moses. As someone who had preached – spoken really – maybe three dozen times tops, I wondered how in the world I would come up with something to say every week. I mean, there’s inspiration, there’s preparation, and there’s perspiration. That first year, I wondered what in the world I was supposed to say – and how to say it.
In all seriousness, I have always been more comfortable writing it than saying it. But what was I, at thirty, supposed to say to people in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and even eighties? What could I say about God that these people had never heard before? What could I say that spoke to their life situations?
And God says back to Moses – and to me – “I’ll be with you. I will give you what to say. I will show up in ways that people understand that you’re with me and I’ve got this.”
Eight years is a long time.
But in those eight years, I’ve preached some duds, I’ve told some bad jokes, and I’ve done my best to remind myself and all of you that we are not alone, that God is with us, and that God’s plan for us is better than what we could’ve made up for ourselves.
Moses, over twelve plagues and several misadventures, sees God perform miracles, and then leads the people on a march out of Egypt that crosses the Red Sea, topples an army, and marches around toward the Promised Land. Sure, there were missteps – no one’s perfect – but in he process, Moses’ people are delivered to the Promised Land.
I’ve seen that process. I’ve seen the way that Blandford has grown – and I have grown – through hundreds of people served food, given coats, offered assistance. I’ve seen people baptized, married, and buried in faith as they continued in their journey. We started out pursuing CF3: Christ following, compassion filled, and community focused. We tried to make the main thing the main thing even as I – and we – worked out what it meant to be church.
And I realize how much I would have missed out on if we had never come here.
True story: in December of my first year, seven and a half years ago, I found myself in the district superintendent’s office. The conversation went something like this.
DS: So where are you going?
Me: Going? I’m appointed to Blandford.
DS: Yes, but it’s small. You should go somewhere else.
Me: I just started! There’s so much to do.
DS: Well, I almost moved you somewhere else in September.
Me (internally): You’re kidding me, right?
[He was not kidding.]
It’s amazing how life works out. How God sees a story in each of us that we couldn’t see for ourselves. How God would use a guy who wasn’t even looking to be a pastor…
I doubt the people who planted Blandford as an outpost of Washington Street could’ve seen what it would grow to be. Or that the people of Blandford who moved out of the city in 1989 could’ve imagined the highs and lows of the next twenty years. I know that no one had the wildest inkling of what would happen when Blandford and the Stand church plant were brought together.
But here we are, stronger, better, more kingdom-oriented, because of that.
Now, I realize and many of you may remember that Moses didn’t make it into the promised land. He got to see it, but he didn’t get to walk in with the people he’d lead there. Someone else did that – Joshua. The torch was passed, the process continued, in much the same way it will be here as the United Methodist appointment project brings the next pastor to Blandford. It’s part of the process that we trust to keep us focused on the kingdom of God.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I will miss this – and each of you. I am sad, and I know that some (many?) of you are sad. We have become a family here, and been through much, both highs and lows.
But… I am aware that God sees the big picture. That Moses was good at one thing and Joshua was good at another. That the kingdom moved forward at the right time and the right place.
That God continues to hear the cry of his people and raises us up to follow God and be lights to those around us.
That God sent his one and only son to a world desperately in need of a leader, a friend, a comforter, a challenger, a savior – and that churches like ours are to be the outposts of the good news in the world today.
It’s all part of the plan.
I hope that you will embrace Reverend Colwell with the hearts you wrapped around us when we arrived. I hope you will dream and pray about what the kingdom of God looks like right here and give her the support, prayers, and hard work that you gave us.
But, there’s one more thing I noticed about Moses’ story as I prepared for this last word of challenge and comfort. And I realized it was for me.
My admiration for Moses has often been aimed at the way he heard God’s call and was faithful in the midst of his own fear. How Moses knew he was inadequate and yet continued to push forward. How Moses did things in spite of his fear.
But the truth is that Moses wasn’t alone. And I don’t mean to overspiritualize it with God’s presence. No, Moses had a team – Moses was part of a community, even if he couldn’t always see that community.
Moses had Miriam, who saved him from death as an infant, pulled him from the river in a basket, found his ‘nurse’, and supported him, rooting him on as he led the people of God (Exodus 2).
Moses had Aaron, who served as the priest – who spoke the words for Moses when Moses didn’t know the words to say (Exodus 4:14).
Moses had Joshua, his mentee, and his warrior, to do the things that Moses could not do (Numbers 27:18).
Moses had Hur, who helped hold up Moses’ arms when Moses grew tired in the most important battle he fought (Ex. 17:12).
Moses had his father-in-law Jethro who reminded him that he could not do it all himself, that he needed to delegate and grow others in leadership (Ex. 18:11-23).
Moses didn’t do it on his own. And I haven’t been alone. While my family and friends have been powerful encouragement and support to me in the eight years I have been here, I realized that in the time I spent here, I have surrounded by the people, by the team, that Moses was surrounded with.
You have been my Miriams, my Aarons, my Joshuas, my Hurs, my Jethros. You have challenged me, filled in the gaps, been those things that I failed to be. And for this, I will be forever grateful.
Thank you for serving as nursery workers and Sunday School teachers even when our children were the only ones in the room.
Thank you for boldly taking on crazy new ideas you had never heard before, whether it was some wild fundraiser – or gathering coats for kids you’d never met.
Thank you for defending the church (and its pastor) in parking lot conversations and via text. You know who you are.
Thank you for being willing to accept a “green” pastor.
Thank you for believing in me.
Thank you for loving me, for loving us, for pursuing the vision I had and for the vision God put on your church leadership while I was here.
Blandford stretched me, challenged me, and, yes, gave me many of these silver hairs on my temple.
But this place, and you its people, reminded me of my call – and what God sees in my life.
Moving forward, I hope that you remember. What we were – and who we are. With these things, I hope you can see the great potential God sees in you individually and corporally.
You are and will be someone’s Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Joshua, Hur, or Jethro. Without you, the church isn’t whole, the kingdom of God isn’t complete.
God is still calling, in burning bushes, responding to the cries of all humanity. God is still seeking us, to answer the call, to be faithful, to go.
I pray that you will remember that Jesus died on the cross for you – to save you from your sins and yourself – to help you realize the life that God meant for you in the first place, full of joy, and peace, and hope … and love.
I pray with all my heart that God would continue to find people in Blandford who still hear that still small voice – and rise to the challenge – whether it’s loving those others ignore, serving those in need, or embracing children who need a home.
I pray that you will be bold – to pursue the dreams and hopes that God puts on your hearts, and on the heart of this church.
I pray that you will continue to believe that despite the church’s size, location, finances, or whatever other excuses are laid before it, that this church can make a difference in the community.
I pray that you will see the world as full of possibility not impossibility, with the focus on what Christ has done, and will do, through us.
I pray that you will forgive any hurts I have caused – and pray for us as we journey to the next place God has called us to.
I pray that at the end of the month, that you will recognize that I will no longer be your pastor, but I will always be your friend. We will see each other again – on this side or the next!
As we pray all of these things together, may God grant us grace as our journey unfolds, in new directions, with great promise, and hope for the future in the kingdom of God.
The kingdom is here – and not yet – but we get to be part of it when we answer the call. Amen.