September 1, 2019

“Sojourners Together”

Hebrews 11:8-16

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

September 1, 2019 (Pentecost +12)


One of the most memorable journeys I have been on took place when I was in seminary and I accompanied a group of college students on a week-long mission trip to Mexico.  They were students from Asian American Christian Fellowship groups in Northern California—San Jose State, UC Berkeley, UC Davis.  The plan was for us to drive to Calexico, park our cars at a church, cross over to Mexicali and then take train to a town in the Sonoran Desert. We would work on a teaching farm for a week.  The farm was run by a Christian mission whose purpose was to feed the hungry.  


The trip down to the farm went rather smoothly. We met our guide at the border, and everyone crossed over without any problem.  It was a long train ride, but we made the best of the time.  The college students were full of energy, laughter and joy. 


The week working on the farm was hot and physically demanding, but we got to learn about the work of the mission, and we ate the most delicious Mexican food cooked by a local woman.  The time passed quickly, and before we knew it, we were packing up to return home.  The adventure began when we learned that there was a strike and the trains had stopped running.  We consulted a local pastor, who advised us to not wait for the trains and to catch the bus back to Mexicali.  Everyone else had the same idea.  Because of the size of our group we all couldn’t ride on the same bus, so we split up into groups and caught different buses that left at different times.  We made plans to meet on the U.S. side of the border.  We prayed together and said our goodbyes at the bus station.  I was in the last group to board a bus.


We all rejoiced when we gathered at the border. My group, being the last, was met by the other two groups who had gone ahead to pick up our cars.  We all had stories to tell.  The earlier buses were packed, so the students had to stand or sit in the aisle of the bus the entire way.  One bus broke down and had to be repaired.  Our bus made an unscheduled stop at a gas station, where one of our team almost got left behind because she went to the restroom.  Another student wasn’t a U.S. citizen and had forgotten to bring her green card.  Others had stories of interacting with the people on their bus, playing with children, and doing funny things to keep cool or comfortable while in cramped conditions. All the while, the team knew that we were praying for each other and that God was going to get us back home.  


Of all the things we experienced on that short mission trip, the one that made the biggest impression on all of us was the trip home.  While we bonded over the week digging shallow terraces and weeding fields at the farm, our relationships really deepened when we faced the uncertainty of the trip home together.  


Journeys have a way of bringing people together.  They often send people to places that are new or unknown.  They take people out of their comfort zones.  They can be risky, or viewed as adventures.  Journeys can help us focus on what’s important.  Journeys can teach us to trust God and the people with whom we are journeying.  


The Bible is full of stories of journeys: Abraham and Sarah packed up their household and went, not knowing exactly where God wanted them to go.  Jacob was on a journey to meet his estranged brother Esau when he stopped to rest and wrestled with God.  The Hebrew people took a 40-year journey in the wilderness after being released from slavery in Egypt.  The Israelites journeyed to Babylon when they were exiled.  Jesus didn’t have a permanent home during his years of ministry.  Many stories in the gospels took place while Jesus was going from place to place ministering to people.  The disciples were on the road to Emmaus when they unknowingly met and walked with the resurrected Jesus.  Saul was on the road to Damascus when he had his dramatic encounter with Jesus and became a follower.


We Christians are journeying people.  We are part of a great legacy of sojourners. Just like all those who have gone before us, we are on the road, on an adventure as we follow God’s direction to God’s kingdom.  The path may not be clear and may contain twists and turns.  But we know that when we are on the journey, we have a great opportunity to deepen our faith, know and love God better, and build relationships with one another.


Our Scripture reading is from the chapter in Hebrews sometimes known as the “Roll Call of Faith.”  It lists all the people who lived by faith in God, beginning with Abel, son of Adam and Eve.  It mentions Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the Hebrew people, and Rahab.  Abraham is commended for traveling to the promised land and living “like a stranger in a foreign country”(v. 9).  The writer wrote with admiration about these people who trusted God with their lives, even though they didn’t quite reach their promised destinations:  “All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth”(v. 13). 


There is the sense in our reading that living by faith means being on a journey, walking toward God’s kingdom.  The point is being on the journey rather than arriving at the destination.  So while the heroes of the faith didn’t always get to their destinations, they lived with the awareness that they were “foreigners and strangers on earth,” and were not at home.  


We too are on a journey of faith, and while we may not live to see God’s reign fully manifest on earth, we all nonetheless keep taking steps, moving toward the heavenly country that is our true home. Being on the journey means not settling in any one place for a long time, or always being aware that we are not home.  Being on the journey means continuing to take steps toward God, walking in God’s ways, growing in faith, trusting that through the Holy Spirit, God is journeying with us, and following Jesus.


This image of the journey is powerful and helpful to us as we think about how we live as Christians in our community and world. It’s no coincidence that our Future Directions Statement #3 uses the image of a journey to describe the kind of church God is calling us to be and become as we move forward.  Let’s read it together:

We recognize that everyone is on an ongoing journey of faith and that we are at different places on this journey.  We provide a safe and welcoming place for people of all ages to explore their relationship with God through worship, fellowship, friendships, small group studies, interest groups, service, ministry teams and more.  In all of this, sojourners will feel loved and cared for so all will grow in their relationships with God.


This Future Directions Statement tells us several things.  First, it says that while we are all on a journey, we are at different places, and that’s okay.  Some of us are just starting the journey, while others are farther along.  We welcome people at whatever level of faith they are at.  And if you want to learn more, there are Bible studies and our Intergenerational Activities on Sunday morning.  If you learn more by hanging around people of faith, you can do that too.  Chances are that if you have a question about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit, someone else has asked that question too.  They may not have the answer, but you could have a conversation about your question and you would learn something together.  What I hope happens or will happen here is that we can be comfortable talking about our faith in Jesus, asking questions, giving testimony to God’s grace in our lives, and encouraging each other to see and evaluate our lives through the lens of faith.  Those who are just starting the journey and those who have been on it for a long time can learn from each other.  We exist to help people be on the journey of faith and to take the next step, wherever they are. 


Secondly, in spite of the fact that we are at different points along the journey of faith, we know that we don’t make the journey alone.  We are on the same path, walking toward God in God’s ways.  And that is what draws us together and makes us one.  One of the reasons Sundays are the best day of the week is that we get to see each other and spend time worshiping together.  I’m sure you are aware of the dilemma I have each week when we pass the peace of Christ.  I see you greeting each other and starting conversations, and then we need to gather everyone back together to continue on with worship.  Passing the peace would take all morning if we let it go. But it’s important to recognize the presence of the people with whom we gather to worship.  It’s important to recognize that we are here for each other. We’re not solitary Christians.


Third, we help each other on this journey.  We walk with each other, we assist those who may be tired, we give direction for those who may be wandering, we accompany those who may be feeling lonely, we give rest to those who are weary.  One of the valued parts of our worship services is the Prayers of the People, when you all are invited to voice prayers for your loved ones, for the community and world.  And you know that when you pray, we all pray along with you, and that our prayers will continue on during the week.    


We are on this journey together, helping each other take the next step, and the next step, and the next....We are walking toward the heavenly country we call home.


The challenge is not to stay in one place, but to take the next step, to move forward individually and together as a church. How do we do this?  Since we rolled out our Future Directions Statements, we’ve used the term “experiment” to refer to things we are trying to move forward together.  I like it because it tells us we can try something and see if it works or not. Failure is an opportunity to learn. Experiments can be short-term things that may lead to longer-term ministries.   Or they can just be one-time events.  The main thing is that they keep us moving, taking steps toward our destination of the kingdom of God.


I hope this review of our Future Directions Statements during the past month has been helpful to us, to keep in mind where we discerned God is leading us.  If the Future Directions Statements have sparked an idea or question, would you please let someone on the Leadership Team know?  We can help you pursue your idea or get an answer to your question.  Remember, we’re all on this journey together and we need each one of you to continue to move toward the future.


The main thing for us to remember about our journey of faith is that God has invited us to be on it, and is with us, calling us forward toward our heavenly home.  Jesus has gone before us and knows all the twists and turns, the dangers and sorrows, the joys and celebrations of this kind of life.  And we have each other for encouragement, for support and help. Thanks be to God that we are all sojourners together.