Where Do We Go From Here?
I’ve Been Meaning to Ask…
We are nearing the end of our “I’ve Been Meaning to Ask…” sermon series. We’ve been wrestling with and reflecting on some great questions: Where are you from? Where does it hurt? What do you need? These questions are intended to help us connect to one another, to ourselves, and to God. They are meant to be conversation starters and I hope we’re just getting started. Our question today is “where do we go from here?” It’s a great question. As with each of the others, it’s challenging to answer. I think that in order to even begin to answer this question, we must first figure out where ‘here’ is. Maybe we need one of those big maps that has a red dot or an arrow that says very clearly “You are here.” Something to locate us in this particular time and place. I don’t know if you’ve ever been lost in a mall or a museum or an airport but those kinds of maps are helpful. They are orienting. I suspect we could use a little orientation these days.
In a much larger and less tangible sense, I wonder where we feel like we are right now? I’m going to ask us some questions to, perhaps, help locate us. They are rhetorical-ish but I’d actually like for us to raise our hands when we hear something that feels true. When we look around and see other hands we may feel a bit less alone. We can often trick ourselves into thinking we’re the only ones and more often than not it isn’t true. Articulating our feelings, demonstrating our own vulnerability lets other people know they’re allowed to do the same. So, where do you feel like you are right now? Overwhelmed? Grieving? Unmoored? Disoriented? How about content? At ease? Grounded? Or are you unsure? I could do this all day, by the way, but I won’t. There. We’ve got at least some of an idea of where ‘here’ is, even if ‘here’ is different for all of us.
I love the story of Naomi and Ruth. It’s special, unique, not what you’d expect. It speaks of real human loss and hardship, tenacity and faithfulness, the importance of relationship and community, transformation and the great surprise of God’s mercy and grace. It’s a story of family: biological and chosen. At the beginning of the story, and we’ve only read the beginning, all is not well for this family. Naomi not only loses her husband but her two sons, as well. In that day and time, this means she is now destitute. Without a husband or sons, she has no options. Thank you, patriarchy. She has plummeted to the bottom of the ladder and there isn’t a way for her to get back to the top. Naomi has taken hit after hit and assumes that God has turned against her. She knows that her daughters-in-law are in the same boat and in a “save yourselves” kind of way she tells them to go back. Go back to your homelands. Go back to your families. It’s the safest choice. It’s the most logical thing to do. Orpah does just that and we don’t get to hear the rest of her story. Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to go back. She hitches her wagon to Naomi’s star however ill-advised and sets off into the unknown with her grief-stricken mother-in-law. At the fork in the road of her life, Ruth chooses the risk. She chooses uncertainty. She chooses to keep moving forward even though she has no idea where she’s going or what will happen.
I don’t know about you but I’ve had more Naomi days in the last 18 months than I’d care to admit. There’ve been plenty of days when I’ve been weighed down and stopped in my tracks by difficult feelings. Just call me sadness or anger or bitterness or malaise. And like Naomi, I, too, have thought the safest thing to do would be to go back. Go back to what you know. Go back to what feels most comfortable. Go back to what seemed to make sense in life and church and the world. It feels like it would be easier if we could just go back. Doesn’t it? It’s a tempting path to take. The thing is, though, grief and hardship and upheaval change us. Whether we realize it or not we are changed, the more spiritual sounding word would be transformed. When we go back and attempt to return to what once was we often find that it’s not the same. The circumstances have changed, we’ve changed, they’ve changed, the place has changed…in this life, not much stays the same. Going back isn’t really the good thing we thought it would be; too much has happened, too much life has been lived, whether we realize it or not we’ve grown and our transformed selves cannot simply return to what once was.
Continually throughout the pandemic I hear all of our longing to go back. We can’t wait to get back. We can’t wait to go back. We can’t wait for something, anything that looks familiar. The thing is, though, I’m not sure we can go back. We’ve all been changed. Our priorities have been clarified. Our lives have been turned upside down. The world has changed and continues to change around us. So, we have to figure out what it means to go forward even when we have no idea where we are going. Where do we go from here? I sure can’t tell you. But I suspect that God can. I have a sneaking suspicion that God knows exactly where we go from here. And we can choose to move forward in faith with the belief that God is up to something good. We can choose to move forward in faith not certain of our destination but certain that God is with us as we journey together. I think we’re in a “do the next right thing” moment which is tricky in and of itself because we have to discern what that next right thing is. Ruth decided that her next right thing was to head off into the unknown alongside someone she loved, someone she knew needed support and encouragement and companionship. We know that her story turned out beautifully and things ended up better than she could have imagined but in this moment, at the beginning of that story, she had no idea.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that I hoped the conversations we’ve begun with this sermon series and its questions will continue. The conversations with ourselves and one another and with God, I think, will help us in our discernment of the next right thing. As the church, a body of Christ followers, we are meant to love and serve our neighbors and to do that well we have to know what’s going on around us. We have to identify the needs that aren’t being met. We have to identify where people are hurting. We have to know where people are from, where they’ve been, and where they feel like they’re going. We have to know these things about ourselves, as well. In order to love and serve those around us, as we are called to do, we should be having deep conversations both with God, with one another, without ourselves, and with whomever is beyond these doors. We should be keeping our eyes, our ears, our hearts, and our minds open…never assuming that we know best or that we know what the needs are before we ask or that we can understand that experience of another without knowing them.
It makes us nervous when we don’t have all the answers. It makes us nervous when we’re not sure what’s coming next. This is true in our lives and in the church. What if folks don’t come back to in person worship? Spoiler: Not everyone will. What if the way we’ve always done things isn’t the way things need to be done anymore? Spoiler: It’s probably not. What if we have to reallocate our resources and revision what it means to be church? Spoiler: These things seem like a good idea. What if we, inside this building, are not actually the focus? Spoiler: We’re not. What if God is calling us to join in what God is already doing in the world? Spoiler: That feels like exactly what’s happening.
I recently watched a TEDTalk with Celeste Headlee, a journalist and author you may have heard on NPR. Her TEDTalk was titled 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation and she makes some excellent points. She’s had a lot of experience interviewing people and having conversations on the radio. While I think the 10 things she names are excellent, and you should all hop onto YouTube this week to check out the full 11:44 of her TEDTalk, my biggest takeaway was one of the last things she said. She said that whenever she’s talking to people, she tries to keep her mouth shut and her mind open, and that she’s always prepared to be amazed. Be prepared to be amazed. That’s the thing that hit home for me. What if we approached every conversation that way? What if we approached life that way? What if we approached God that way? What if we approached church that way? Be prepared to be amazed. That idea has several implications chief among them, I think, are two things: we don’t know everything (and so often we think we do!) and the unknown is an opportunity rather than a scary thing. Be prepared to be amazed puts in a posture of expectation and wonder.
There’s a good bit of trusting God that has to happen in all of these things. I think we get ourselves into trouble when we try to take the reins ourselves and don’t trust that God has a pretty good handle on our lives and the church and, even when things feels as awful as they do right now, the world. What would it be like if we trusted God to give us a vision for our lives, the church, and the world? What would it be like if we trusted God to lead us and guide us as we seek to be faithful disciples? What would it be like if we trusted God to equip us with what we need to love and serve people well? I mean with both tangible resources like funds and material things and intangible ones like patience and care and empathy and grace. What if we opened ourselves up to new ways of doing, being, loving, living? What if we faithfully took one step and then another and then another and kept moving forward held tightly in the promises and love of God? Even on the hardest days, I think we can do that. Even when I’m pretty sure the world is falling in around us, I think we can do that. Even when I have no idea what to do next or where God might be calling me/us to go, I think we can do that.
Ruth reminds us that we don’t have to know the end of the story before we can step a foot out in faith. Ruth reminds us that going back really isn’t an option but going forward with God absolutely is. Where do we go from here? The best answer I can give is: Be prepared to be amazed and I think that’s a good place to start.
We’ve done it already this morning. Just a bit ago we all took a step forward in faith when we baptized Emerson Schaaf. In our tradition, we believe that God loves us before we are aware of that love, that God claims us before we are aware of that claim, that God knows us because it is God who created us in love. That is why we baptize babies. We don’t know where Emerson will go from here…maybe he’ll be an artist or an athlete, maybe he’ll win the spelling bee at school, maybe he’ll work with school buses like his grandpa or for the railroad like his dad, maybe he’ll feel called to ministry like his mom…we don’t know. What we do know is that like all of us Emerson is deeply loved, called, claimed by the God who will go with him wherever life takes him. That’s the truth we hold onto…for Emerson, for ourselves, for our families, for the church, for the world. Be prepared to be amazed, keep your eyes, ears, hearts, minds open to discern what God is doing and jump right on in to whatever that may be.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers
Associate Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Care