Last winter, my immediate family planned a trip to Hawaii to escape the cold and the snow. We often like to travel all together, but because of my weekend work responsibilities, the rest of the family took off earlier, while Brandon and I stayed here in Iowa to get through church on Sunday morning and then fly out.
Our original plan had been to fly out on Sunday afternoon, but about a month before the trip, they cancelled that flight and rebooked us for first thing on Monday morning. So our alarms were set for 4am, our bags were packed and we were ready to go. And then the text message came. Our flight had been cancelled. There had been storms that weekend in Dallas, flights were backed up and ours was being bumped. We had been rebooked for Wednesday morning.
I instantly got on the phone and tried to see if there was any way we could get out of town sooner. Except the hold time with the airline was estimated to be an hour or more. Brandon and I live near the airport, so I decided to go and try to get in line and talk with an actual agent at the ticketing counter. Only, the lines there were nearly out the door. Everyone was trying to get out of town and no one was going anywhere. There were no earlier flights to be had.
We decided to make the most of the day and built a fire in the fireplace at home and tried not to grumble. The next day around noon, we got another text from the airlines. Our flight Wednesday morning out of Des Moines had been cancelled, too.
I think I spent about three hours on the phone with the airlines and the soonest they could rebook our tickets was on January 1st. It would be another two days before it would be possible to get out of Des Moines due to the back up all throughout the system. I cried. The good lady from the airlines tried her best to help make something work, but it was a mess.
I finally asked if the flight from Dallas to Hawaii was still taking off the next morning. It had been only the Des Moines leg of the trip that had been cancelled. And sure enough, it was still going to be leaving at 9 am Wednesday morning. Brandon and I looked at each other, and decided to drive to Dallas.
We picked up the rental car around 4pm, left Des Moines around 5, and drove through the night. When we arrived, exhausted, around 4am, we found a quiet corner in the airport to take a short nap, made our flight, and made it to Hawaii to spend the rest of the trip with our family… only three days late.
In our scripture this morning, the Israelites are on a journey as well. While Brandon and I were trying to escape the cold of winter for a warm, sunny beach, the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt and now they were headed for the Promised Land. God was leading them to the land flowing with milk and honey. Only, they didn’t quite know how to get there and they trusted God to lead them.
This was supposed to be a fairly simple trip, and yet at the outset, God planned to lead them the long way round. The pillar of smoke and fire was taking them on a journey that would avoid most of the difficulties they might encounter along the way. But no road is easy and the setbacks they experienced were far greater than a few cancelled flights. If you continue reading through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Israelites experienced loss, frustration, bickering, and ended up wandering for forty years in the wilderness. There were times in the journey when the destination seemed so far away that they wished they were back in Egypt. And despite the daily guidance and food provided from above, there were even times they forgot God was with them. Ultimately however, just like we finally touched down on the rainbow isle and got to spend our vacation with my parents, siblings, and three amazing niblings, the Israelites finally made it to Canaan.
While we might not be on a physical journey, the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of Immanuel are on a journey, too. John Wesley often talked about how we are going on to perfection and I think part of that means that we as the church should always be working towards the Kingdom of God and growing not only in our personal faith, but we should be transforming the world around us to look more like the “Promised Land” every single day. As a church, we need a compelling vision to hold in front of us, a picture of the destination we are longing for, so that we can actively work to bring that reality into being.
But like the Israelites, our journey has been and will be marked by setbacks. Most journeys are. We, too, have experienced loss and decline. In fact, I bet some of you in this room can remember when this sanctuary was built in order to accommodate when we had over 500 in worship every single Sunday. And, there are times of disagreement and disunity. We won’t always be able to find the best worship times for every person and we won’t all agree on what a faithful Christian response is to some of the toughest conversations of our day.
Last week in fact, an email came out from a new group that has formed within the UMC called the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The email contained a video that highlights the three central beliefs of the organization. That God is good, the Bible is true, and that Promises should be kept. And yet, how those three very simple statements were defined is not something that all United Methodists agree upon. So I became part of a group of young clergywomen that created a statement in response, trying to expand and enlarge the conversation.
When Bishop Bickerton talks about this journey of faith we are on, he knows that it will not be easy. But he offers a couple of simple lessons that might help us arrive together at our final destination. As I have thought about the journey of the Israelites, my own adventures in travel, and the journey we are currently on as a church, I find them helpful.
The first lesson I want to highlight is what my colleagues and I were attempting to do last week as we drafted a response to others in the church. And that is the see yourselves and others as a work in progress. I think this faith that we share is not simple, but it is complex and messy and real. We are always learning and growing and going on to perfection. Or as Paul put it, “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way I have been completely known.” (1 Cor. 13: 12). And so that means we should constantly be in dialogue with one another. We need to admit our shortcomings and leave ourselves open to the possibility that we might be wrong. We do not need to have it all together or have all the answers… we are still on a journey!
The second lesson relates to that idea. In the famous words of Vanilla Ice, we need to stop, collaborate and listen. It is often the people we disagree with the most who can help us to get farther on our journey. We need to collaborate across generations, with our older folks helping out our young parents and our younger folks providing support and care for their elder counterparts. In his book, Bishop Bickerton shares a story from Zimbabwe and Bishop Nhiwatiwa. In the Shona language, the word used for the spirit of collaboration is chabadza . “If you approach a person working in a field, you do not say, “May I plow your field for you?” Instead you say, “May I help you plow your field?” Chabadza represents a willingness to enter into relationship with someone else on the journey.” (p. 36) And it is a willingness to let to, let others help, and to let it be done another way. This is the spirit that we embody here at Immanuel whenever we put the needs of another person above our own and let go of our way in order to let God move us in a new way.
The final lesson is one that I needed to remember many times on our long journey to Hawaii. You need to lighten up, loosen up, and have a little fun. The journey we are on is difficult, and if we don’t open ourselves up to find the joy in the midst of the journey it will feel like its longer than it actually is. We need to enjoy the ride, remember that we are loved by God, let the Holy Spirit encourage us every step of the way. Here at Immanuel, there are so many opportunities to have a little fun as we grow in this journey of discipleship. You can sing and dance with the kids in Children’s Church. You can laugh together over coffee in Faith Hall. You can step out of your comfort zone and make a new friend. You can stand up and let God move you when the music starts playing. You can roll with punches and smile more and see where the Spirit will move.
Above all, no matter where we are on this journey, God is with us, pushing us, pulling us, prodding us, and never letting us go. Like the cloud of pillar and fire never left the side of the Israelites, the presence of God is in this place and will continue to guide us every step of the way. Amen.