Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
August 25, 2019
Today is a celebration day for our church, and no one is celebrating more than the Pastor Nominating Committee, the PNC. All eight of us—Dave, Ada, Beverly, Ben, Stew, Laura, Elaine, and I—have been planning and waiting and hoping for this day. I hope all of you have already heard the good news that after a year of hard work, we have chosen Roger Veliquette to be our new pastor. You as the congregation will get to vote on this right after our service this morning.
About a year and a half ago I stood in this pulpit and preached from Deuteronomy 18. My text was about God’s promise to raise up a new Moses for God’s people. We were in an uncertain time as a congregation. Our pastor Jane had been gone for a few months, and the PNC was still several months away from being formed. Our old Moses had left, and the committee who would search for our new Moses was nowhere in sight. All we had to go on was God’s promise to be with us in the meantime.
Well, God has been with us during this time of transition, and now here we are. I am standing in this pulpit, preaching once more from the book of Deuteronomy. And we are getting ready to vote on calling our new pastor. God has worked through all of you, through your prayers and your financial support and your many gifts of time and talents, to sustain our church during this period of waiting and uncertainty. Thank you! And now God has brought us to this good new place.
My text for today is from Deuteronomy 26. As you’ve just seen and heard, it’s a text about celebrating God’s blessings; it’s a text about wandering; and it’s a text about sharing God’s bounty with the most vulnerable members of our community.
Deuteronomy 26 gives Israel instructions for a worship service celebrating the harvest. Israel doesn’t take the harvest for granted. They reach back into their distant memory and remember what it’s like to be homeless. They remember what it’s like to be hungry. They remember what it’s like to be slaves. Homeless and hungry and enslaved people don’t celebrate the harvest. But by God’s grace the people of Israel now have a home, and food, and freedom. And so they bring a first fruits offering to God, taking a portion of the bounty of the harvest to offer up to God with thanksgiving and gratitude. They say, thank you, God, for bringing us to this new time of blessing. The PNC members will join children and youth to make our own first fruits offering today. It’s the PNC’s way of saying, thank you, God, for bringing us to this good new place in the life of our church.
When the Israelites bring up their offering, they look back and remember their hard history. They acknowledge that their hard history continues to shape who they are. It’s like people around our nation this year remembering the beginnings of slavery 400 years ago. Our hard history continues to shape who we are today. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” Israel says. They are referring to their ancestor Jacob, who fled to Aram after falling out with his brother Esau, and later made his way to Egypt to find food during a time of famine. That word translated “wandering” in v. 5 doesn’t mean being foot loose and fancy free, like when you are on vacation in a new place. Wandering means leaving everything you know to search for a way to sustain your life. As the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire puts it, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Our ancestor Jacob wandered, because to stay put was to die. More than two thousand years later, this is still our common human experience. Millions of people around our world have left home because of violence, crime, poverty, persecution. They have left home because to stay put is to die. Today, a wandering Aramean is our neighbor—down the street, across town, in a Texas detention camp, just across the border.
Because they remember what it is like to wander, Israel’s harvest festival is not some private party, some invitation-only celebration. As v. 11 says, the harvest is to be shared with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you. In ancient Israel, the Levites and resident aliens did not own land. They would not automatically share in the bounty of the harvest. But they are explicitly included in the celebration. In the expanded description of the harvest festival in Deuteronomy 16, Israel is called to share the harvest and rejoice with servants, Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows. Why? Because Israel knows the heart of the stranger. They have kept the memory of being slaves in Egypt, where they were treated harshly and afflicted. They remember what it’s like to be vulnerable. They remember what it’s like to be wandering and hungry. And so it is not enough for their little in-group to be brought to a place of hope and abundance—the blessing God gives is to be shared with everyone, so that no one misses out, so that all God’s children can rejoice.
That’s what we are doing today too, with our first fruits offering. We want to share God’s blessing with others. The special offering this morning will go to La Casita and Grannies Respond Kentucky Action Group. Both of these organizations support immigrants and asylum seekers, people who desperately need to taste God’s bounty. On our celebration day, we do not shut our hearts to their needs. We want God’s blessing for them too. Our offering this morning is a way of making that concrete. We have funded this offering out of our PNC budget, but there’s an announcement in the bulletin about how you can support it too.
“A wandering Aramean was our ancestor.” The PNC can also resonate this verse. Even when it’s not a life-or-death scenario, wandering means not knowing where you are going to end up. We were a wandering PNC. We couldn’t stay put, without a pastor, but we had no idea where the search for a new pastor would take us. I have been on two PNCs now, and I can testify that their work is not linear. It’s never point A to point B. It’s more like this: Ѭ Our PNC was blessed with many strong candidates who applied to be pastor of our church. That was a blessing, but it also made things very hard. We were blessed with an awesome chair, Dave Bush, and with lots of love and trust and laughter among the members of the committee. I think each of us said at one point or another, I’m confused, or, I’m discouraged, or, I can’t see where this is all headed. I sure did. But we trusted the process, we trusted God to help us find the person who is best for CHPC at this time in its life.
After a long search, the PNC chose a wandering Michigander as our new pastor. Three years ago, right after the cherry harvest, Roger left behind his house, his church, his extended family, his family business, and came down to Louisville with Erin, Oliver, Julien, and Abigail to sojourn here. He didn’t know how it would all work out. Would he like seminary? Would his family settle in well in a new part of the country that has long hot summers and hardly any snow? Would they make new friends? Would they find a new church? If you don’t deal well with uncertainty, it’s better not to wander. But Roger had faith, which the book of Hebrews calls “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He was willing to walk by faith when he did not know what would happen, and now he feels called to pitch his tent with us. Roger has been on a journey, and our PNC has been on a journey. We both trusted in God when neither of us knew what was up ahead. And somehow, through lots of discernment and prayer and conversation, our journeys have intersected. God has brought us both to a new place, a place of hope and abundance. This is a celebration day for CHPC!
As we celebrate, we also reach out. This isn’t some private party. Celebrating God’s blessings to us is connected with paying attention to the needs of all people, especially those who are suffering and vulnerable. We follow Jesus, who loved the outcast and welcomed strangers and cared for those in pain. That’s one of the things the PNC loved about Roger. He cares about people who have been pushed to the margins. He listens for the voices of people who have been silenced. He knows that living with dignity means working for the dignity of all people. As we celebrate that our wandering search for a pastor is over, we lift up all those who are still wandering, who have left home because home is the mouth of a shark. We remember God’s beloved children all over the world who are poor and hungry, who are frightened, who are starting all over in a new place. We give thanks in a special way for the immigrants and asylum seekers who are connected to this congregation, and praise God for their presence and their gifts to our common life.
Today is a celebration day for us. It’s a celebration of how far we’ve come. It’s also a celebration of all God is going to do in this new chapter of our church’s life. Yes, there will be cookies and punch for CHPC folks to enjoy after the congregational meeting. But God’s blessing on us today is not something to hoard for ourselves—it’s something to share. To share with people who need school supplies, who don’t have a bed, who want to learn English, who are seeking asylum, who yearn for a society where their lives matter to everyone. God has brought us and the Veliquette family to this good new place. So we do what God’s people have been doing from the beginning: we lift up our hands in praise to God, and we reach out our hands to share with others.