A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, September 9, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 34:1-6 and Mark 7:24-30
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I can’t help but wonder how Moses felt there on Mount Nebo, looking over the Promised Land.  I wonder how he felt knowing that he had led his people through a desert, through the wilderness, right to the door of the land that they believed was supposed to be theirs, knowing that they were about to enter it, but he would not be.

I imagine him, there on the mountaintop, looking over the Promised Land, chatting with God, learning that he was going to die.  Had discussions with God become old hat for Moses?  I suppose I’d be filled with awe to have God saying to me, “Look over there and over there.  Look all the way to the sea.  Yep, that’s the land I’ve set aside for you.  Pretty cool, huh?  Oh, by the way, you know that part about you not being able to enter that land?  I meant it.”  Well, I’d be filled with awe right up to that last part, then I’d probably be pretty ticked with God.

Moses had one heck of a roller coaster of a life:  Born into slavery at a time when Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew male infants were to be killed when they were born; hidden in the bull rushes, only to be “found” by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought into Pharaoh’s house to be raised as her son; committed homicide when he killed an Egyptian overseer and fled the country to escape prosecution; got married and while tending sheep, had an encounter with a burning bush; called into a special mission and returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves; led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, transforming the people from a collection of freed slaves into a community of faith, a people of covenant; led the people right up to the border of what was going to become their new land.  And then God tells him, “Sorry, but you’re not going in.  You’re going to die instead.”

Jewish Midrash is filled with stories about Moses and God having a discussion about all this.  One goes like this.[1]
God:  “Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?”
Moses:  “But you killed all the first born in Egypt!”
God:  “Do you resemble me?  I cause people to die and I also revive them.”
I love the image of Moses arguing with God.

But I can’t read this passage without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.  One of his speeches, perhaps the second most famous of his speeches has been called his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech.  King delivered it on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (the Church of God in Christ headquarter) in Memphis, Tennessee.

Most of his speech was about the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike.  King talked about the workers and their strike.  He talked about racial justice and civil right.  He talked about the power of boycotts and nonviolent protest.  And he finished his speech by talking about himself.

“And then I got to Memphis.  And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out.  What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?  Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t really matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live  a long life; longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”[2]

The next day, King was assassinated.

Here we are, on the edge of something new.  This is not as momentous as the Hebrews entering the Promised Land.  This is not as earth-shaking as the assassination of one of American’s prophets.  But we are here, just on this side of finalizing a merger we’ve been exploring and considering for seven years.

There have been times when these seven years have seemed like a long time to me.  I’ve felt, at times, like we’ve been going in circles, not making progress.  There have even been times when I’ve wondered if it was worth the effort.  But most often, I’ve watched relationships grow and trust build and vision take hold and hope blossom.

Pardon me for being redundant, but there is something very special about the work we’ve done and this promised land we are about to enter.  All the literature I’ve been able to find about congregational mergers has been about mergers undertaken as a matter of congregational survival.  Neither Niles Congregational Church nor First Christian Church needed to merge into a new church.  But each congregation discerned that we could do more for the realm of God together then we could do separately, so we decided to merge and form Niles Discovery Church.

We decided to create a church that would be known for its extravagant welcome.  We decided to create a church that is united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  And so we’re creating a church[3] where we follow the path and teachings of Jesus to draw us closer to God, even as we acknowledge that other paths work for other people; where inclusivity means welcoming conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and those of all classes and abilities; where we know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe, and where we find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes; where we strive for peace and justice among all people; where we strive to protect and restore the integrity of our earth; and where we commit to each other and to God that we will continue on a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

I believe that this vision we have for our church is a biblical image.  One of the things that’s striking about our Gospel lesson today is the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.  We squirm a bit when Jesus, our loving and tender Savior, tells a desperate mother that she and her little girl are like “dogs.”  “Our discomfort – with Jesus’ humanity and his perspective as a faithful Jew – trips us up on this exchange, even though things turn out well in the end.”[4]  But Kate Huey suggests that this story might be an expression of one of the challenges the early church faced:  do we allow pagans (non-Jews) to be part of the church?

She points out, “Just before Jesus leaves on this little break from the crowds, he has shocked the religious authorities by declaring all foods clean and by focusing instead on what lives in our hearts.  Now, whether he wants to or not, he encounters a tenacious, determined mother in search of healing for her little girl, a woman who will not be turned away from the table of God’s grace, even if all she gets is the crumbs that fell to the floor.  She uses her wits in a culture that values riddles for figuring things out, and she wins both the argument and the healing she has requested of this teacher from another religion and another land.  Borders are crossed, hearts are opened, and so is the Christian mission, as Gentiles (and women) embrace the good news of the gospel.  Just as Jesus declared all foods clean, then, he declares all people ‘clean,’ acceptable, included at the table.”[5]

Take in this moment.  Be aware of this day.  Right now, we are on this side of the border, and in a few moments we will take the votes that are necessary to cross the “T”s and dot the “I”s so we will become a fully merged church, a new church for a new day, Niles Discovery Church, united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exception.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 1585.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm (8 September 2012).

[3] Based on the 8 Affirmations of ProgressiveChristianity.org, http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/8-points-flyer-2011-version/ (8 September 2012).

[4] Kate Huey, “Weekly Seeds” email from the United Church of Christ, commenting on this Gospel lesson, emailed 31 August 2012.

[5] Ibid.

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