When I was appointed to be your pastor this year, I was amazed to realize what God’s Spirit was doing through this congregation called Maple Grove United Methodist Church, that after more than 100 years of ministry as a small, rural congregation, God was giving this congregation a new vision for a new future, in a new community that was springing up all around it. I learned about the steady, faithful ministry of this congregation who has cared for thousands of members over the years, who has held annual pancake breakfast fundraisers for the Bidwell-Riverside Community center & food pantry on Des Monies’ south side, and served countless meals for the Children & Family Urban Movement at Trinity UMC in Des Moines. The people of Maple Grove have a long tradition of seeking out the needs of their Des Moines neighbors and then partnering with other churches and agencies to be the hands and feet of Christ.
Then, a few years ago, the people of Maple Grove begin to feel a stirring, a nudging, that gave them an awareness that something new was on the horizon. There was a sense that God was leading them to take what may have seemed like a huge leap of faith at the time, to build something new. They could see that they were no longer as isolated as they once had been. Maple Grove may have once been the little white church with the red door, way on the outside of Des Moines… but the suburbs of West Des Moines and Waukee were growing closer and closer. New neighbors were building homes and planting gardens and raising their children just a mile or less away. And so, with lot of courage, they took that leap and dared to dream “what if?”
Today is an exciting day on this journey you have dared to take. Look around at what God has been able to build through you! But this is not the end of the journey! It is only a step. We are now transitioning into a new way of being God’s hands and feet, in a new space, and with opportunities to seek out and meet the needs of new neighbors.
I remember the excitement my family experienced when my husband Thomas was offered a new job with a company based in the Des Moines area in 2008. At the time we had moved back to Mississippi after his job in St. Louis had been cut. But he was commuting an hour away, and was missing out on time with the kids, and we knew something needed to change. The new job offer was to manage the Research & Development for a new business industry, and would be located in Arkansas, still a reasonable drive from our families in the South.
So he started the job in February and the kids and I stayed behind to finish the school year and sell the house. In June, the kids and I joined him in a small apartment in Arkansas while we looked for a house there. In August, we had just moved into the house we found when Thomas was told they were moving his job to Des Moines – So the next day we packed the van and moved into a furnished apartment in West Des Moines until we could find a house in Iowa. In October we moved our furniture from Arkansas to Ankeny, IA. And caught our breath. By the time we had finally unpacked and settled in, Thomas was told they wanted to send him to Italy for three years. And so we flew to Italy to research school and housing options, we started getting rid of things we didn’t want to take with us, we started getting moving bids, and in January, we were told, “Never mind.” It was a whirlwind year, to say the least!
I was thinking about that time in my life recently. It was an exciting, new opportunity for my husband and our family, but it was also a time in my life when I felt the most uprooted and the most untethered. It was one long year of transition. I had a conversation with my Spiritual Director about this recently, because I was noticing that I was beginning to notice again that feeling of being untethered, and I can imagine that for many of you here at Maple Grove, you may be feeling that way right now, as well. A transition is a period of time that exists between the already and the not yet. It can be a difficult time to navigate, not quite knowing how to feel or think or exactly what to do. You don’t have the old routines or familiar spaces to rely on anymore, and you haven’t yet established any new ones. In this time of not yet, it’s hard to know what our purpose is, what our tasks should be, or even what our next goals are.
There are many things in our lives that can cause us to feel this way – a new job, or the loss of a job, or even the retirement from a job; a change in relationship or family status, the loss of a loved one, an illness or injury; a new home, the loss of a home; the list could go on. Changing from the already to the not yet can be difficult.
As my Spiritual Director and I talked about that year-long transition I experienced in the past, he asked me what I learned about myself from that time. Well, for one thing, I think I learned that I can get pretty caught up in worrying about the future or grieving over the past that I may miss out on being present for the “right now” as it is happening. That year was a year of a lot of “firsts” for my three children who were young then, and I think that missed the opportunity to engage with them more, and to create even more memories with them during that time. He also asked me what got me through it. And I can say without a doubt that it was my faith. I kept a prayer journal for part of that year. In it, I wrote down my prayers, which were sometimes very hopeful, sometimes thankful, sometimes pleading for things to change, or to be able to go back, and sometimes they were full of anger or despair. But I believe that by pouring my heart out to God in that way, and in searching through prayer and Bible study during that time, that it became for me a sacred time.
Have you ever heard someone describe a particular time in their life as a “thin space?” It’s an expression used first by the Celts, and later other Christians, that describes a place in time in which it feels like heaven and earth collide and we experience something of the Divine. It can be disorienting. It can feel like we’ve lost our bearings, like we’ve become untethered, like we’ve suddenly seen our world or our situation with new eyes. Because out of this confusion comes clarity, and we begin to see a new world, a new possibility – perhaps even a small glimpse into heaven.
There was a particular scripture that I clung to during that time that helped me transcend my situation and reconnect me to a sacred truth. It was Jeremiah 29:11 – “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Jeremiah is speaking to the Israelites after they have been exiled to Babylon. They’ve had to leave their temple behind, and felt they no longer had a way to worship God. They were feeling untethered, they no longer had their bearings. But Jeremiah comes to remind them that God will be faithful to God’s promises. Meanwhile, Jeremiah tells them to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children, be a good neighbor, pray for your community and work for its welfare. Be present where you are. Be engaged where you are. Don’t get so lost in the past or so worried or concerned about the future that you forget to live right here, right now.
Friends, we can anchor ourselves to this truth – God has planned a hopeful future for this church called Maple Grove. And look around us today – not just at this building. But look with God’s eyes beyond these walls – to the townhouses and apartments down the street, to the homes and fields north and south of us, to the businesses to our east and west. Let’s ask God to open our eyes to the possibilities before us right here, and right now. How can God help us transcend in this time of transition, from 118 years of being one kind of church, to a new opportunity of becoming a new kind of church. What kind of already, but not yet church is God transforming us to be?
I came across a poem I wanted to share with you today, author unknown:
This is my church. It is composed of people just like me. It will be friendly if I am. It will do a great work if I work. It will make generous gifts to many causes if I am generous. It will bring others into its fellowship if I bring them. Its seats will be filled if I fill them. It will be a church of loyalty and love, of faith and service. If I who make it what it is, am filled with these, Therefore, with God’s help, I dedicate myself to the task of being all these things I want my church to be.
You’re about to hear a song called, “I Dream of a Church.” Inside your bulletin today is a colored card on which I invite you to write your dream for this church. These dreams will be posted to a Vision Board that we’ll be hanging in our conference room. It will help to guide all of the ministry plans and decisions that we’ll make over the next year. So your dream is important in helping us to discover just what the next steps on this journey will be. As we celebrate this step in our church’s journey, let’s dream about the ways God will use us in the next 100 years! Let’s pray:
“Loving God, we thank you for drawing us into community in this congregation that has been a place called home for so many. Inspire us with the lives of those before us, those ancient ones who have lived here in faith and opened up and given away your love to all those who needed it. May you change us with a vision to continue here as a constant presence for those who travel through life, a community of welcome that cares for all, believing into what is still yet to be. Teach us to discern your voice as those before us have discerned your voice, guided by its call and feeding on its promise of life and hope and belonging. May we be moved by your miracle of grace into all the places that make up our community, sharing what you have given abundantly like an ever flowing stream. Call us from our past, through the voices of our ancestors, in the songs they have sung and the prayers they have spoken that have shaped peace within this church, And may we join our voice with their voice, in the one great song of love that will be lived and celebrated yet, throughout this church. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.”