Monday, August 31, 2015

Back to Egypt

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The scripture was Exodus 17:1-7:

For the past few weeks, I, like probably many of you, have been receiving notifications on my computer that Microsoft would like me to upgrade to windows 10.  I was not one of the 10 million people who upgraded on the first day.  And to be honest, the real reason I have been putting it off, is not because I am opposed to technology, because I’m fine with the way things are now and I don’t want to have to learn a new system, because let’s admit it, change is hard.  I remember the transition when Microsoft came out with office 2007 and the substantial changes to the tool bar that came with it, and I couldn’t stand it.  But now that I’ve been using it for so long I realize on the backside how much better the changes actually were.  I didn’t like it when I was going through it, but now you couldn’t get me to go back.  Now there are times in which I want the newest updates because the current product is inferior, but those are fewer and farther between.  But that means there are some changes we like and there are things we are opposed to.  And this is true for all of us.  Even people who seem to love change and are always waiting for new things to be coming out, there are changes that they would be opposed to, and on the flip some people who seem to resist everything will suddenly be behind some other change because it’s something that they want to see happen.

With the completion of our Healthy Church Initiative consultation weekend last week, we stand on the precipice of change.  And I use the word precipice here deliberately, because the prescriptions that have been given to us by the HCI team can cause us to go one of two ways.  The first is to take a step away from the cliff.  That’s the safe and the easy way to go.  That’s the way that says, I don’t want to change, I don’t want to do anything different, I don’t want to take a risk, I don’t want to go anywhere new, and while I can be convinced to stay right here, my preference would be to take a few steps backwards right at the moment to make sure we are safe.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with that position.  We have an innate desire to protect ourselves, not to take unnecessary risks, and this goes all the way back to our caveman days when going outside the cave could get you eaten by a tiger, and so our self-preservation tendencies kick in and we want to do the safe thing.

And yet, on the flip side of that, if no one had ever said “yea, there might be a tiger out there, but there might be something else that’s even better than the risk of the tiger, and really what’s the risk of the tiger in the first place, and so I’m going to leave the cave and step boldly out into the world.”  If no one had ever done that, we wouldn’t be where we are today.  If Chuck Bader had not decided to take a risk and start a new church on the Westside, if others hadn’t taken a risk to join in a new church, if they hadn’t taken a risk and decided to buy this property, if you hadn’t taken a risk and built this building, to name just a few risks taken, none of us would be sitting here today.  At some point in all of those decisions, the church, the people, stood at the precipice and looked over and said we have no idea what the future holds and what’s going to happen, but we are going to step out in faith, step beyond the ledge, step beyond our comfort zones, step into the total unknown and see what happens.  And yet I also know there were others who were saying “no” through the whole process, because that’s part of who we are.

In the passage we just heard from Exodus, we jumped right into the middle of the story.  Moses has already asked the pharaoh to let the people go, the plagues have already happened, the people have already fled and crossed not the red sea as we so often hear, but instead we are told it is the reed sea, and they are now out wandering in the wilderness, and they’re a little upset with what they see and what is taking place, and in particular they are upset that they have no water to drink, and even though it’s not said, I know they are asking Moses, “Are we there yet?” “How close is it?” “When are we going to be there?”  Anyone ever been asked that on a long trip?  Anyone ever asked that on a long trip?  When the girls ask me that I always tell them that we are closest we have been all day.  But the people actually might have some reason to be disgruntled because it’s only about 250 miles from where they left and modern day Jerusalem, and yet here they are wandering seemingly aimlessly not making much, if any progress, towards their goal, and so they go to Moses and complain, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kills us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

Whenever a complaint is raised about something, usually there is what the statement says on the surface, but then there is also the underlying statement that goes along with it.  The people are concerned that they are going to die of thirst, and certainly that’s a legitimate concern.  But the underlying statement or complaint is about what they are doing.  What they are really saying to Moses is “Sure back in Egypt we were slaves, but at least we had food and water and shelter.  Sure they beat us regularly, but we knew what was going on and we knew what to expect.  Sure we hated it, but there was some security in it.  Why did we have to leave?  Why did we have to change?  Why did we have to go out into the unknown?  Why can’t we just go back Moses?  And, oh, by the way Moses, this is all your fault.”  Because it often seems like the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t.

Someone once said to me that every church has a back to Egypt committee.  It’s usually not a formal committee, although sometimes it is, and it’s not always the same people because the membership changes based on the issue, but somewhere along the line, all of us have said, why we can’t just go back to Egypt?  Why can’t we go back to the way it was before?  I don’t like Windows 10, why can’t I go back to Windows 7?  Sure, there were lots of problems, but at least we knew what was going on, there were things we could trust and believe in, and we felt safe, why do we have to be out here in the wilderness, wandering aimlessly?  Why do we have to be out here in the unknown?

Now one of the things I have liked about this congregation, and something that the HCI consultation team also made note of, is that there isn’t really a desire to move back to some golden era of the church, which means that we should be open to new ideas because we are more concerned about where we are going rather than where we have been.  But in the midst of the transition, it’s easy to forget where we are moving to, especially if it takes a while to get there, and so that’s where we continue learning from Moses and the Israelites about how to deal with change.

The first point is to be careful what you ask for, especially in prayer, because you just might get it.  I say that because why did the Israelites find themselves in the middle of nowhere complaining?  Because they cried out to God for help and God delivered them.  Of course in the midst of the wilderness, they forgot why they were there and that God was involved, and notice that they don’t even cry out to God or even complain to God.  Instead they cry out and complain to Moses.  But I think Moses has forgotten a key piece of information as well, which is the second point.  And that is that while Moses knows what’s going on, he hasn’t necessarily communicated that to everyone else.  This is one of the downfalls of leadership and the reason why some changes are never successful.  The people were not there when Moses was called by God and they were not there when Moses talked to God, the people where not there when Moses negotiated with the Pharaoh, they weren’t there when all the prep work was done, when all the conversations and planning happened, and there is no indication that Moses ever told the people any of that information, so they had ever right to be mad.  So the second rule is to make sure the communicate.

The third thing is the flip side, and that is that leaders have to lead.  What does God tell Moses to do?  Go ahead of the people and take some of the elders, or the other leaders with him.  That means leaders have conversations outside of the group.  This does not mean that back room deals are being struck; it’s simply that it’s impossible to do everything that needs to be done if everyone is involved.  It also means that leaders have to be out in front of the group, doing what they are called to do, which is to lead.  It’s really hard to lead from inside the group or from behind.  And As Christians we should know this because we are told to pick up our cross and what? Follow.  We are called followers of Christ.  That means that Jesus is leading us and we are following, so leaders have to lead.  Now what that also means is that the leaders will probably have accepted things long before the rest of the group has.

Many of you have probably seen this graph before, which is a simple bell curve, but it tracks out how people accept things, we might call it the change adoption life cycle.  This was actually first formulated based on a study of how farmers adopted to the use of new types of potatoes.  But out front are innovators and early adopters, sometimes leaders, sometimes people who are just looking for new things to or try.  Next comes the early majority.  But before it moves to them, there is said to be a chasm between the early adopters and the early majority.  It is in this chasm that lots of ideas or fads go to die, because this chasm also represents a tipping point, of moving past a fad and into a trend.  Every trend starts out as a fad, but not every fad becomes a trend, because trends have staying power and greater buy-in.  There are lots of early majority and certainly the later majority who want to wait it out, who think if they just wait long enough that it will go away.

The church loves to latch onto the newest fads which quickly come and go, and so we have taught people to wait things out knowing they will go away.  Some people even do this with the preacher.  They think I don’t like this preacher, but I’m going to just wait him out, I was here before he came and I’ll be here after he goes.  That certainly applies to the back end of the curve, the laggards, who think they are never going to adopt it no matter what.  And sometimes that’s true, but usually it’s not, because even the laggards eventually come on board with changes and I can say that because I know that none of you went to an outhouse this morning or cooked over an open fire or rode your horse to church, which means that all of us have made adoptions to changes that were initially resisted.   As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “all truths pass through three stages,” and I’m going to say this applies to change as well.  “First it is ridiculed.  Second it is violently opposed.  Third it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Which moves us to the fourth point of what Moses has to teach us about change, and that is not to give up or give in just because there might be some opposition.  Because not only does God tell Moses and the leaders to go out ahead of the group, but God tells Moses to take his staff with him and to strike a rock to bring forth water for the people to drink.  So if the people wanted water, the thing they were complaining about, they couldn’t stay where they were either, they would have to go forward to get the water.  If you have something you want to see achieved, you can’t stay where you are, you have to move, you have to go forward, which is the final point of change and that is that you have to know where you are going and always keep that in mind and communicate that point.

The Israelites were going to the Promised Land.  That was their goal, and although it took them a lot longer to get there, 40 years in fact, the leaders kept them moving in the right direction, even with all the stops in between.  As they say, you don’t ever drive from Los Angeles to New York.  Instead you drive from LA to Phoenix, and from Phoenix to Albuquerque, and from Albuquerque to Oklahoma City, and on and on, and even though it might seem like you’re not getting there, you have to focus on the smaller pieces to get to the ultimate goal.  Which means that just at the time you want to be most excited because things are happening, is exactly the time that expectations have to be reigned in, because otherwise disillusionment will set in.

Many of our prescriptions are going to take us a long time to get in place, and they are going to take a lot of work, and even then we might not see immediate results.  Because this is not a silver bullet.  This is not going to solve all of our problems, what they help us do is to help us all get moving in the same direction, working towards a common goal, and realizing that we are all in this together.  This is not Pastor John’s plan, or the HCI team’s plan, this is our plan, and if we don’t get large buy-in it will never work, and it will never work unless we are willing to participate in the process, which includes giving our feedback on what is happening.  That does not mean complaining, that means constructive questions and ideas and that has to happen at the beginning.  We are going to be holding several different town hall meetings to discuss that dreaded word change, so participate.  You have no grounds to complain on the backside if you did not participate on the front side.  And what we also have to know is that once we have done this work, even done our best work, we don’t get to sit back and relax, but instead we get to go out and do it again.

Change can be difficult, but all of us are open or closed to change based on our participation, so my call today is multiple.  First is to be open, second to recognize and communicate your own hesitations but recognize them for what they are, third is to let the leaders lead and be willing to follow, or to step up and lead yourself, and finally is to believe and trust. Believe and trust not only in the process, but more importantly to believe and trust that God is the one calling us out into the wilderness because we have asked for help, which is what Moses says the people are truly asking “Is God with us or not?”  We have to believe and trust that when we follow God that God will not only provide the way, but provide the answers and promises that we seek.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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