A Wider Perspective
Last weekend, 13 of us from our congregation— 8 kids and 5 adults — went to Camp Bible at Lake Bridgeport. It’s an annual event sponsored by our North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. This year, there were 141 3rd through 5th graders and 41 adult leaders from 27 different churches around North Texas. Camp Bible is 24 hours of fellowship, fun, worship, and Bible study.
And I want to tell you, I LOVE church camp. I think church camp is an incredibly powerful way for kids to connect with God and to begin to deepen their spirituality. It’s also an important opportunity for them to meet kids from other churches, to connect them with the bigger story of God’s work in the world. My wife, Whitney, and I are committed to sending our own children to every camp that our North Texas Conference offers as they’re growing up. It’s that important to us, and that awesome.
Three of the adults from our congregation were involved in leadership at Camp Bible this year. Brian Welch was an Army medic, which more than qualifies him for the role of camp nurse. He’s done that for a few years now. Abbey Echols, our Director of Children’s Ministries, was one of the Camp Directors. And she asked me to be one of the leaders for the worship rotation. Shawn KinCannon, a parent from our church who went with us, commented how cool it is to see our congregation playing a leadership role in Conference-wide Children’s Ministries. I totally agree, and I think it reflects the emphasis we place on Children’s Ministries here at First Methodist Sherman.
As I was leading the worship rotation last Saturday, there was an activity that was particularly memorable. The kids came through in groups of 20 or so. Each group was given a stack of cards, and on each of these cards was listed a different part of a worship service: closing hymn; call to worship; benediction; offering; sermon; etc. Their task was to put the cards in the proper order, from the beginning of a worship service to the end.
I’m pleased to report that the kids really took this activity seriously. As soon as I explained the task, they gathered in a circle on the floor and reviewed the cards, 14 in all. I expected them to take 10 minutes or so to put them in order. But almost immediately after they started, one of the kids said, “Um, Pastor Chris, we have a problem here!”
“Really?” I said. “What is it?”
“There’s no card for Children’s Time!”
Now, on the one hand, the irony was not lost on me. That at a Children’s Ministry event teaching kids about the various parts of worship, we forgot to include Children’s Time. But on the other hand, the kids were unintentionally providing a perfect illustration of how human beings tend to show up in the world.
There were 14 cards in the deck that they had to put in order, with lots and lots of possible combinations, since not every church does things exactly the same way. The cards included some terms the kids didn’t recognize. And a group of 20 of them had to agree on the proper order of these cards. That’s a lot of information for a group of twenty 8- to 11-year olds to process.
But within just a few seconds, almost the first thing they noticed was that the thing that most directly affects them — Children’s Time — was missing. Of course, right? Because that’s kind of the way we are as human beings, isn’t it? We tend to be most focused on the things that directly affect us.
Mind you, I’m not judging this, because it’s natural to be most focused on what directly affects us. I promise you, I would have immediately noticed had the sermon not been one of the cards! But this does have the potential consequence of narrowing or limiting our perspective to our own interests, needs, and wants. “Our” being defined differently from person to person, beginning with me personally, then gradually expanding to include family, community, state, country, and sometimes beyond. It’s kind of a theological myopia — caring mostly about the things nearest to us. We’re all prone to it because it’s part of the human condition. And while it shows up prominently in children, it doesn’t necessarily get better with age.
For example, you may have read this week that in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which has devastated the U. S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, almost half of those surveyed did not realize that Puerto Ricans are U. S. citizens. It’s actually worse among younger adults — only 37% of those ages 18 to 29 know that Puerto Ricans are Americans. This is not just a problem of geographical knowledge. Because 81% of those who realized that Puerto Ricans are American citizens supported sending aid to the island. (I’d love to talk to someone in the other 19%, by the way, but that’s a different sermon.) While only 44% of those who did not realize Puerto Ricans are Americans supported sending aid.
Well, today is all about broadening our perspective. Because today is World Communion Sunday. World Communion Sunday began in 1936 as an effort to bring Christian unity and peace. We celebrate our oneness in Christ, across cultural, national, and denominational differences, as we seek to serve the world and God’s children.
World Communion Sunday reminds us that, no matter how much we love being American Methodists in Sherman, Texas, we are part of a much bigger story of what God is doing in the world. Just like we have to teach our kids that Christ’s Church is much bigger than what we do on any given Sunday morning in this place that we all love, so we have to remind ourselves that there is a wider perspective of God’s work in the world, of which we are an important part. But of which we are only a part.
To help us think about this, we’ll be turning to the lectionary Old Testament reading for the morning…
[Read Exodus 17:1-7]
In the Wednesday night Bible study I teach, we’ve spent the past couple of weeks in the Book of Exodus. I had forgotten just how engaging these stories are. They’re central to our salvation history. They’re also really well told. And they give us some keen insight into the human condition.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, God calls Moses to lead God’s people out of Egypt. With Moses as God’s spokesman, God sends ten plagues upon Egypt, plagues that convince pharaoh to let God’s people go. But after the Israelites have left, pharaoh has a change of heart. So he takes his army and he chases the Israelites to the Red Sea.
And at this very dramatic moment, as God is leading them out of slavery, God’s people begin to gripe: “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’” (Exodus 14:11-12).
Their perspective is so narrow that they can literally only see what’s in front of them (a seemingly impassible body of water) and what’s behind them (pharaoh closing in with his army). Never mind that God just sent ten plaques upon Egypt to free them from slavery.
You may know what happens next. God gives Moses the power to part the sea. The people walk across on dry land. Then the sea closes on pharaoh and his army. And you’d think that would be evidence enough that God’s got this.
But no. The people almost immediately start complaining about what they’re supposed to eat and drink. As if God’s just going to let them die in the desert. We read: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses…in the wilderness. The Israelites said…’If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we…ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2-3). All that is backstory to our passage this morning.
In our passage this morning, by the time the people complain to Moses at the place he names Massah and Meribah, which mean “test” and “quarrel” respectively, Moses has had enough. “Oy, vey, God!” he says (I’m paraphrasing), “what am I going to do with these people?!?!” And this is before the infamous incident with the Golden Calf. (We’re going to read that story next week.)
The wider perspective here is the Israelites are in the midst of the most important event in their history. For our Jewish brothers and sisters, this is the most important story that they teach to their children. This is the event commemorated by the Passover feast. In the Jewish tradition, this is God’s most spectacular example of deliverance and redemption. It’s the act of God that begins their journey to the Promised Land.
The wider perspective here is that the Israelites have been slaves in Egypt for 430 years. And now they’re free. They’re being led by the greatest prophet in their history, Moses. Deuteronomy tells us, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (34:10). In other words, the people are in good hands, both divine and human.
And yet, what are they able to see? What are they focused on? Their hunger. Their thirst. Their fear of the unknown. There’s perhaps no better example in Scripture of theological myopia. This natural human condition that causes us to see only what’s right in front of us, what’s near, while missing the big picture that God sees.
I’m certainly not judging them for it. Quite the contrary, actually, because I can relate. I can get pretty wrapped up in the wants, needs, and interests of myself, my family, my congregation, and my community. It encourages me to know that all of God’s people for all of our salvation history have struggled with this problem.
The question is, what do we do about it? How do we get a different set of lenses that can help us with this problem?
Well one thing we do is celebrate World Communion Sunday. To remind ourselves that we’re part of a bigger story. To remind ourselves that Methodist Christians in Sherman, Texas are but one branch on Christ’s family tree.
So we’re willing to work with other kinds of Christians. Like we’re doing with Family Promise, for example. And like we did a few weeks ago when we made relief kits for hurricane victims.
We’re willing to reach out to folks whose culture is different than our culture. Like we’re doing with our East Sherman Initiative, for example, which we’ll be hearing more about in the coming months.
We care about the concerns and problems of other people in other places like Puerto Rico, whether or not they’re Americans, too.
In short, we remind ourselves that there is a wider perspective than we typically pay attention to. And we try to pay attention to it.
We also do things like take our children to church camp. To teach and show them as early as we can that they’re part of God’s story, a much bigger story than they see in their day-to-day lives.
The theme of this year’s Camp Bible was Reunion: Family and Friends, the People of God. Capturing the theological truth that as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re all connected in a global mission and ministry.
May God grant us the awareness and the willingness to remember that truth. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.