Thriving or Surviving

If you want shade today, when was the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago, right? When is the second-best time? Today! Today! What has that got to do with anything?

If we want to reverse the decline of this congregation and transform it into a thriving community of faith, when was the best time to start? (Wait for an answer) Probably 20 years ago. And when is the second-best time?  Today! Today. 😉

One of the many books I read while on sabbatical was one called Thriving Churches by the Rev, Lorraine MacKenzie Shepherd, a United Church minister, she and another minister, the Rev. Tammy Allan visited and wrote about thriving churches across the country and see if these churches had common characteristics.

When Covid19 hit, they called the churches and had a follow-up conversation about how they were meeting the challenges of Covid.  The first thing you need to know is that thriving didn’t necessarily mean large! Some of the churches they visited were small.

This was how they defined thriving congregations: 

This list is ambitious. The churches these two ministers chose to visit exhibited most, but not all, of these characteristics. However, they did prove to be thriving in both attitude and ministry. What Shepherd and Allan discovered was that these churches shared spiritual attributes that were similar to what was named in the early church. The spiritual attributes or habits that the people in thriving churches displayed were:

The key to these attributes is relationship… with God… with one another… with the community… the world… and the earth.

Do we want to thrive or simply survive?

It’s a question that the Israelites wrestled with in the wilderness. But how did they wind up in the wilderness?

Let’s pick up from last week where we heard about God calling Moses from the burning bush — telling him to go back to Egypt and convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free from slavery. Moses and Aaron went, and pharaoh was obstinate, so God sent plagues in hopes of breaking open Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Each plague caused suffering among Egyptians and their land and livestock, but did not affect the Israelites.

Pharaoh’s response was to oppress the Israelites even more. By the time of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, the Egyptians had had enough and let the Israelites go. The whole people traveled as fast as they could to the shores of the Red Sea, where God parted the waters and brought them across on dry land and the Egyptian army was defeated. After a few days, the people began to worry about water as the only water they’d found was bitter and undrinkable, and God gave Moses a tree whose wood turned the water sweet. We pick up the story about six weeks later, in the book of Exodus, chapter 16.(Teri Peterson)

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’

6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?’ 8 And Moses said, ‘When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.’

9 Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.”’ 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.

11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”’ 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.

15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’[a] For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.”’ 17 The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.

I’m focusing on the first part of the reading and then on the last.

2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

The Israelites were saying that they would rather have died as slaves in Egypt than be in the wilderness of freedom. It’s a longing that we often have… perhaps we don’t express it in quite the same way, but there is a longing for the certainty of the past.A constant refrain in churchland, not just this one, is that the past was so much better… the pews were full… there were plenty of children, and they were always well-behaved… it was easy to get people to serve on committees… and everybody got along!

Now, what I’m hearing is that things were so much better before Covid! 😉

It’s human nature to look back with rose coloured glasses… Guess what? The past wasn’t perfect… the past ‘glory s of the United Church were mainly glory days middle class white people, not for everyone. The past… the past that so many of you remember, was an anomaly in the history of Christianity. The past had some bound up in oppressive systems… remember when women couldn’t be elders? Remember when gay and lesbian people were excluded from participation? Remember when the sacraments were reserved for those who had been in regular attendance?

Some of us might like to go back to a time when we didn’t know about residential schools, and how Africville residents were forced off their land, when poverty was hidden… when women had to give up teaching when they became pregnant… but those days are gone… we have been freed from our oppressive blindness. We are in the bright glare of freedom! And some of us want to put on the shades that prevent us from seeing those things.

Believe it or not, I like to think that we are coming to the end of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. That’s how long it took for the Israelites to break free from the bondage of the oppressive systems that held them even after they left Egypt.

We have all been working really hard this past couple of years… looking at ourselves… and what our assets are… what God is calling us to do… creating some welcoming and hospitable spaces. The Transition Team and Executive in particular have been learning about church vitality and how we might foster that.

It might seem that there has been little progress… but as James Clear says in in Atomic Habits, “Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.

Imagine that you have an ice cube sitting on the table in front of you. The room is cold and you can see your breath. It is currently twenty five degrees… Fahrenheit

Ever so slowly, the room begins to heat up. Twenty-six degrees. Twenty-seven.

Twenty-eight. The ice cube is still sitting on the table in front of you. Twenty-nine degrees. Thirty. Thirty-one. Still, nothing has happened.

Then, thirty-two degrees. The ice begins to melt. A one-degree shift, seemingly no different from the temperature increases before it, has unlocked a huge change.

Similarly, habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold…In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hall mark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed. (James Clear – Atomic Habits – Adapted)

And we start to complain… 😉  I do too. I cry out to God, where are you? What happens when the Israelites cry out to God? God heard their cries… God hears our cries. God responds… with enough for the day… everyone has enough… not for tomorrow, except on the sabbath, but enough for right now. What do we have enough of for right now?

It’s Thanksgiving Sunday here in Canada and on the table we have a gratitude pumpkin… it’s going to be here all month… and we will name things that we have enough of right now.

What do we have enough of? (Wait…)

What does our church have enough of? (Wait)

I spoke earlier about atomic habits… small changes that over time make a big impact.

Are we willing to cultivate the spiritual attributes or habits that will lead to thriving? Are we willing to be:

Or at least one of those? 

Which habit will you consciously cultivate this week?

The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before they left behind the chains of the past and were shaped into a new kind of people, is it going to take us that long?

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity, amen!

Exodus 16: 1-18

Stairs Memorial United Church

Rev. Catherine MacDonald

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