-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 6-30-2019 Pardeeville
(Psalm 119:1-8 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
The chosen people were poised to complete their transition from slavery in Egypt to entrance into the Promised Land. We go through transitions throughout our lives. Individually, we change from one job to another and, ultimately, from work to retirement. As a family or a group, we move from one home to another…even from one town to another. When you think about it, we may all be varying amounts of delusional when it comes to change. We claim that we don’t like change yet the one thing we can count on happening in our lives is change. A common transition for us is graduation from high school. Graduation is often called “commencement” because it is the beginning of something new. We could just as easily call it “transition” though…because it is a change in our lives…a big change!
I’ve attended graduation ceremonies in Mauston for all three of my children. Go back even further and you’ll find that I was a member of a graduating class a time or two. I suppose it works the same way in Pardeeville. Sometime late in May or early in June, the auditorium or the gymnasium is packed with administrators and faculty, the graduates of course, parents and family members, and folks who just like to see the local kids get their diplomas. But there are other things going on before the students march across the stage, receive their diplomas and enter new lives as high school graduates. One part of a graduation ceremony is the valedictorian’s address. The word “valedictorian” comes from a Latin word meaning “to bid farewell”. The words in these speeches are as different as the people who deliver them but the subject matter covers many of the same things. Memories of one’s high school career, the growth that everyone achieved, gratitude for all of it, and a look to what the future will hold not only for the speaker but for the entire graduating class. There is one thing common to every graduation ceremony but it often goes unnoticed. When graduation is over and the auditorium or the gymnasium is cleaned up and put back in order…the graduates go on to careers in college, in the armed services, in trade schools, and to many other places. Teachers, having prepared their students as best they can, don’t go anywhere. They stay right where they are.
That’s a lot like what’s going on in the Deuteronomy reading we heard this morning. Moses and the assembled Israelite people are on one side of the Jordan River. On the other side lies the Promised Land. The words we heard this morning are part of Moses’ last sermon to his people. This is indeed his farewell address. He has talked a lot about their memories, not in a four year high school career but in a 40 year trek across the desert. This morning, we only heard the final part of what Moses had to say that day. He recalls both their time of slavery in Egypt and their release by Pharaoh. He speaks of the great event at the Red Sea when God acted to save the chosen people from the Egyptian army. He talks about the covenant that God has established with the chosen people and how God entrusted the people with the Ten Commandments. Moses also remembers all of the major experiences the people shared throughout their 40 year journey through the desert. And he shares examples of the growth that his people have experienced along the way. On behalf of all the people, Moses offers his thanks to God for guiding them thus far and for placing them at the cusp of the Promised Land. It was well within reach now…a simple splash or two across the Jordan River and they were there. And, in the section we heard this morning, Moses suggests what the future has to offer the chosen people. “Suggests” is not a strong enough word but we’ll get to that in a moment. You see, Moses is near the end of his life. Moses will not be going to the Promised Land with the others. This is his chance to impart his final bits of wisdom to the Israelite people.
Moses offers his people choice and promise. He describes the consequences for making the wrong choice. And he concludes with an exhortation to choose life. We will make choices throughout our lives. In the remarks we heard this morning, Moses just puts it right out there. “Today” he says, “I am giving you the choice between good and evil, between life and death.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that! Behind this bold statement is the fact that Moses knows there will be distractions and temptations in the new land that his people are about to enter. He wants them to be aware that a choice is going to be necessary and that the wrong choice will lead to some pretty severe consequences. But Moses finishes with the words, “Choose life.” But it’s not just a suggestion to choose life. The phrase is in the imperative mood which many of us learned in school is a command. Moses is commanding his people to choose life over death and good over evil. Even though Moses will not be going with the others when they cross into the Promised Land, he knows life will be different for them there.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never given a valedictorian address. I’m sure I would remember that. Today’s final sermon may be the closest I will likely ever come to doing anything valedictory. After today, both First Presbyterian Church in Pardeeville and Terry McGinley will move on to what’s next. Sixteen months ago, our paths hadn’t yet crossed. Now we’re moving on to different things. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks about travelling the road that God has called you to travel. For sixteen months, we have been travelling the same road. We have been headed in the same direction. But soon there will be a difference between the road God calls you to travel and the road God calls me to travel. Both roads, however, will involve service to others. It has been a real blessing though, that we have been able to share the road with each other for a while. Interstate 90 is the longest interstate highway in the United States. It stretches from Seattle, Washington to Boston, Massachusetts, a distance of over 3100 miles. Interstate 94 begins it’s almost 1600 mile length in Port Huron, Michigan, just west of the Canadian border, and goes to Billings, Montana. But for about a 93 mile section, all of it in Wisconsin, I-90 and I-94 are the same road. I think this is a metaphor for life. We travel our lives alongside other people. But people come and go and there are times when we part ways.
Our lives are a series of changes…some we choose to embrace and some we try to endure. The one thing that does not change is God. Both First Presbyterian Church in Pardeeville and Terry McGinley will go on to what’s next. I look forward to discovering what interesting job God has planned for me. You already know what’s next. The leadership model you’ve been led to is a good one. It’s brand new. I applaud the patience that your Session members showed in discerning what’s next. There were times early on in our discussions about a team ministry approach, when the Session had more questions than answers about how and if this could work. It has taken a long time but it fits this congregation. I give thanks to God for your work thus far and ask you to continue to embrace this new model. Use the months and years ahead to fine tune how a ministry team approach works best.
If I had two words to add to your plans for the future of First Presbyterian Church it would be a paraphrase of Moses’ command to the chosen people as they camped on the bank of the Jordan River so long ago. They were poised to enter the Promised Land and to discover a different life for themselves. Moses told his people to choose life. I would ask you to choose God. Invite God into the discussions at every opportunity. You’ve done that so far and it has served you well…don’t ever stop! Different translations vary a bit but today’s scripture reading continually uses the phrase “the Lord, your God.” Remember those last two words…your God. You can emphasize whichever word you wish. If you say it YOUR God…that means that God belongs to you…you individually and you as the people of God at First Presbyterian Church. It makes God a very personal presence in your lives and that is never ever a bad thing! If you choose to say it your GOD…you are affirming God as your creator…as your redeemer…as your cheerleader…and as your spiritual guide. You are saying that, with God’s help, you will emerge on the other side of this transition stronger than ever and ready to continue your ministry to the Pardeeville community and beyond. The choice is remarkably simple. As you go through many more years of ministry and outreach as a community of faith, you can go it alone or you can invite God to be a part of the process. That’s a no-brainer. You will do just fine if you continue to choose God!
Transitions, regardless of their nature, can be uncomfortable at times but they are beneficial in the long-run. You’ve now completed the search for your next pastor. As you move forward, there will be other changes to make and you’ll make them. Remember to choose God to guide you through each and every one of them. For our ministry together and for the places God will guide us to tomorrow, thanks be to God!