Lessons for the Journey

Format Image

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. 


These are the jobs we are assigned to do as the Church Council, according to the Book of Discipline:

  1. Plan and implement all the programs of nurture, outreach, witness and resources.
  2. Administer the church organization
  3. Envision, Plan, Implement and Evaluate the mission and ministry of the church.
  4. Act as the administrative agency of the charge conference.

That is a lot to accomplish for a group that meets for 90 minutes once a month. Yet, according to the Discipline, all of this is our job to provide for.

So, how is it possible?


Exodus 18 (MSG)

13-14  Moses took his place to judge the people. People were standing before him all day long… When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s going on here? Why are you doing all this, and all by yourself…?”

15-16 Moses said, “Because the people come to me with questions about God. When something comes up, they come to me. I judge between [them] and teach them God’s laws and instructions.”

17-23 Moses’ father-in-law said, “This is no way to go about it. You’ll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you—you can’t do this alone. Now listen to me. Let me tell you how to do this so that God will be in this with you… Your job is to teach them the rules and instructions, to show them how to live, what to do. And then you need [to appoint competent people as leaders over smaller groups]… They’ll be responsible for the everyday work of judging among the people. They’ll bring the hard cases to you, but in the routine cases they’ll be the judges. They will share your load and that will make it easier for you. If you handle the work this way, you’ll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also.”

24-27 Moses listened to the counsel of his father-in-law and did everything he said.


The advice Jethro offered Moses was to delegate.

He didn’t have to shoulder all of the responsibility himself. He didn’t have to do it all on his own. And by delegating responsibility and sharing authority, both Moses and the people would flourish.

First, he had to train those additional leaders and equip them… you can’t be responsible for something if you don’t know what the expectations are.

But then Moses had to get out of their way. He didn’t have time to micro-manage. They didn’t have time to continually come back and ask if they were doing it right.

They all needed to trust one another.

As a result, Moses could periodically check-in and evaluate his leaders. And, he was available when there were big issues to discuss.


As the Ad Council, we could look at our purpose statement as defined by the Book of Discipline and try to shoulder it all ourselves, as Moses did at first.

Or, we can delegate.

When we delegate, we make clear the expectations by setting goals and strategy and communicating our vision and mission. Then, we need to empower our committees to do the work of ministry.

We give them a budget, we make sure they understand our vision as a church, and then they have the responsibility and authority to do whatever they need to do, within those parameters, as their work.

This means the council is freed up to truly handle the big picture and major decisions. We are freed to hold the church and committees accountable for living into our mission and vision.

“If you handle the work this way, you’ll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also.”

Holy Ground

In our scripture video just now, the creators left off one snippet of a verse. Right at the very end, the Book of Romans reads:

Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

Do good. Love. Feed the hungry.

What does piling burning coals of fire on someone’s head have to do with any of that?

If you are anything like my, you might have assumed this had something to do with sending someone to hell. That your actions of good will serve to highlight their deeds of evil and justice will eventually come to them.

And to tell you the truth, I’ve skipped over that verse, or ignored it, like the creators of the video did… for a long time. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the scripture.

But one day, I learned about what it really meant to pile burning coals of fire on someone’s head.

As we just explored with our children, we need fire to cook our food. We need fire to warm our houses. Fire can seal up wounds and provides light in the darkness.

In the ancient world, a fire meant the difference between life and death.

So what happens when your fire goes out?

Without resources to start a fire again, you would have to go begging with your fire bowl, and pray that someone would take pity on you, and share some burning coals from their own fire with you.

Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Pile burning coals upon even your enemies heads.


We have been called to serve. We have been challenged by Jesus Christ throughout the gospels to step out of our comfort zones and to give of ourselves to others. Even if they don’t look like us or talk like us… even if they are our enemies.

But this call doesn’t start with the Paul or the gospels…. It goes back to the beginning.

Moses was called… through fire… to help set the people free.

He was an ordinary guy, living in extraordinary times. He was the child of a slave. He was a murderer. He stuttered. And yet God got his attention through a burning bush and called him to serve.

God’s power transformed his weakness into strength. And through God’s power the people were freed.

Moses just had to show up.

Today, we are going to hear some stories of folks from this church, who were called to serve in Omaha this summer. I hope you will hear that they are ordinary folks, just like you. But they heard the tug on their heart to go, to serve, to feed the hungry, and build houses for those who were struggling. They heard the call to pile burning coals on a neighbor’s head… to help make sure they have everything they need to survive.

Along the way, they changed lives… but I hope you will also listen for how they were changed.


[sharing from members of our mission team]


The call to serve is not just for some people in the church. It is for all people. There are thousands of ways to serve.

This week, we have a special opportunity to serve and feed the hungry through Meals From the Heartland’s annual Hunger Fight. On Wednesday afternoon from 2-4 pm, we will be taking a group of 30 from the church to pack meals for those who are hungry.

We still need lots of volunteers, so if you can give a few hours to change lives… please sign up as you leave!

In two weeks, we are going to fill out our time and talents sheets. But before they show up in your bulletin, I pray that God would light a fire in your life. It might not be as dramatic as a burning bush, but wherever you feel your heart strangely warmed… wherever something out of the ordinary catches your attention… wherever you sense like you could make a difference (as ordinary as you might be)… listen.

Listen to that call to love, serve, and pray. Listen for where God is trying to get your attention.

My prayer is that as you offer yourself up for service, the fires of God’s love will transform this church, this community, and this world. And that God would transform your life, too.

Fire does that you know.

It takes what is ordinary and transforms it.

The Gift of Joy

How many of you are happy all the time? Every waking minute of your lives? C’mon now… raise your hands! No one? No one at all?

How many of you are joyful? How many of you have the joy of the Lord in your heart every day? Maybe a few?

This morning – we have the blessed opportunity to remember the Spirit’s gift of JOY in our lives. This IS the day that the Lord has made, so let us rejoice and be glad in it… Let us pray.

The first question that comes to my mind when we think about this thing called joy is: What is it? In the scriptures, we read about joy all the time. We hear familiar scriptures about how we are supposed to rejoice always, about how the faithful break out into joyful song and shouting… but really… what is that allusive thing called joy… and how do we experience it?

Let’s take a journey back into time and revisit one of those familiar stories from our childhood. Shari has already reminded us of this tale of adventure and miracle, as Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea.

I want you to imagine yourself for just a second as one person among the masses of people waiting there on the edge of the water. You are tired, you are completely out of your element, and suddenly you realize that the very people you are escaping from are about to over take you. You can see the dust from their chariots rising up into the sky and they are coming closer… and closer… and you are camped by the water and there is no where to run.

Are you experiencing joy? Do you have any sense of happiness pouring through your veins? Probably not.

But then, something amazing happens. Behind you, there on the edge of the water, Moses raises up his arms and the winds start to blow. And though you can hardly believe your eyes, the waters are pushed to the side by this blustery breeze and a path of dry ground begins to appear in the midst of the sea.

The people around you begin to shout and Moses commands you to move through the water and fearfully at first, but then in absolute wonder you pick up your pack and move. It is a long journey across, but something propels you. There were signs and wonders done back in Egypt, but this is something else. These walls of water that surround you and threaten to fold in any minute is proof – is a witness – to the fact the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is with you!

Tired you reach the other shore and turn yourself around to see how far you have come. Your people are still making their way across, but they are making it! And that is when you realize the Egyptians have reached the other shore and are about to come through that same miraculous path that was just your salvation.

But then it happens. That strange pillar of cloud and fire that has been traveling before you and behind you descends upon the Egyptians and their chariots get stuck in the mud. They fearfully turn to make a retreat, but the last of your people have reached the shore and Moses steps up to the waters and in an instant, the sea covers the Egyptians and leaves you safely on the other side.

What do you feel now? Standing there in the awesome presence of God’s mighty works… what comes to your heart… go ahead – shout out the first thing that comes to your mind!

As Shari helped us to remember, the first thing the Israelites did was sing… they sang a song to the Lord saying: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation”

This song of praise is but the outpouring of joy in the lives of these people. They have witnessed first hand “God-with-them” and like the hymn we just sang… Joy to the World… in the presence of our God, joy fills our hearts.

In Greek – the word for joy is chara which comes from the word “charis” which means grace. Joy is not a state of emotional happiness… joy does not come from within or from other people or from things… joy is the experience of the presence of our God.

That’s not so hard to believe, is it? As King David pours out his heart in the scriptures, he reminds us that he is filled with joy in God’s presence (Psalm 16). As Paul writes to the Philippians from a prison cell – he knows he is surrounded by God’s presence and so he is able to say “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

The joy that comes into our lives by the grace and presence of God is not the happiness of this world. For in the midst of some of our most painful and trying and difficult times – in the midst of times of grief and sorrow and tears… sometimes that is when joy surrounds us.

Joy comes to us in those dark times when we recognize that the Spirit of the Lord is still with us. Standing on the edge of the Red Sea, looking back and recognizing their salvation… the Israelites sang for joy. Standing at the graveside of a loved one and yet feeling the comfort of God’s presence – we find the strength we need to sing out of joy a song like How Great Thou Art. In the midst of a battle for health, when all else seems dim, we know that we are surrounded by prayer and by God’s spirit and so a smile does come to our face and laugher does echo across the room.

William Wordsworth wrote about being “surprised by joy”–when the grief and pain from his daughter’s death vanished and for a moment he forgot she was no longer with him. He experienced this amazing feeling of joy and it so overwhelmed him that he turned around to share it with his beloved daughter – only to remember again that she was gone. While the poem is about the grief that he feels nearly constantly… even that dark grief and longing is broken into and light could pour into his heart – even if for a moment – because of joy.

C.S. Lewis took that phrase from Wordsworth and he wrote a book describing his conversion to Christianity called Surprised by Joy – in which he pointed to his “accidental discovery and consequent search for the phenomenon” that he came to know as “JOY.” In Lewis’ mind – joy was something akin to the idea of longing… an experience of something so good and so unattainable that it could not be explained.

Joy is what we experience when we know we are in the presence of God. And joy is also our longing to know that presence of God more fully – each and every moment of our day.

So maybe the question that remains is: why aren’t we joyful every minute of every day?

Let’s go back to that familiar story of Moses and the Israelites and the Red Sea. Because, it’s easy to end the story there and have it all wrap up nicely and neatly. God saved the day and the people rejoiced! YAY!

But, this is not an episode of Veggie Tales Tthis is not some isolated story. . Chapter 15 in Exodus goes on with verse 22: Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went for three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. (which is Hebrew for bitter) 24And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’

Three days. Just three days of walking into the desert and already the Israelites have forgotten what God did at the Red Sea. Just three days in the wilderness and they forgot that God was with them. They forgot that God was on their side. The songs of joy in their hearts drifted into songs of despair.

Now, I don’t know about you… but if I learn a new song – it gets stuck with me for quite some time. I think I’ll be singing those VBS songs about God being my hero for weeks to come. In just three days, could they really forget the presence of God?

Apparently they could. And I must acknowledge, apparently we can, too. No matter how beautiful the sunrise is in the morning – sometimes I forget the joy of the Lord by lunchtime. Other things of this world crowd into my mind and my heart and I let the presence of God go unnoticed in my life.

The Israelites began thinking of their calloused feet and their dry lips and the weight of their packs and they thought less and less about how God traveled with them. And so when they reached a place of water and it was bitter, it was the last straw. They sat down and threw a temper tantrum. What are we going to drink?!?!

And in the midst of their despair, they were reminded again of the presence of God. Moses cried out and God showed him a piece of wood, and when Moses threw the wood into the water, the water became not only drinkable… but sweet.

When we believe that God has left us… and when we forget his presence, then joy is not our friend. As Jesus prepares his disciples for his death, that is his reminder. In John, chapter 16, Jesus tells them very plainly that when he is gone from their sight at his time of death – they will weep and mourn. There will be no comfort for them… because everything they think they know about him will have vanished… But that pain would turn into joy for very shortly they would see him again.

In the presence of God, we experience joy. Our hearts are filled with the knowledge that the one who made us is with us… that the one who saved us stands beside us… that the one who loves us leads us on to perfection.

We may not always see God. We may not always recognize God’s presence. But open up your hearts and mind… sit still for just a moment and you will know that God is with you – and you will rejoice.

Amen and Amen.