Today’s scripture readings:
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
A few years ago—long before any of us imagined a global pandemic might rock the entire planet and turn all of our lives upside down—the Gloria Dei staff read a book together called Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. It’s a book about Christian leadership in a time of unprecedented change. The book begins by recounting the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was charged by the United States government with exploring the vast expanse of land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. (Set aside for the moment what we now recognize to be true—that the Lewis and Clark expedition was an invasion of lands already occupied by indigenous peoples and the beginning of a process that would ultimately remove these peoples from their land and destroy their cultural heritage.) Lewis and Clark set out to find the Northwest Passage, a water route that would connect the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River. As President Jefferson instructed them in a letter, they were to find the “most direct and most practicable water communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce.” Discovering this route would have been an absolute gamechanger for the fledgling country, giving the United States complete control over the continent’s resources and trade.
Meriwether Lewis seemed exactly the right person for the job. He was a river explorer. He excelled at rowing. When, after 15 months of rowing upstream, the expedition finally reached the source of the Missouri River in what is now western Montana, they were certain it would be just a short portage to another river that would gently float them westward to the Pacific. But that was not to be. Instead, they found mountains—huge mountains, “terrible” mountains, extending as far as the eye could see. There was no navigable river. There would be no water route from the Pacific to the Mississippi. Now Lewis and Clark were “canoeing the mountains.” These river explorers—these expert rowers— would need to become mountaineers. Everything they thought they knew was out the window. All the skills they had acquired over so many years of paddling would be useless. All their preparations had been for naught. If they were going to make it to the Pacific, they would need to trust in God to provide new skills and insights to meet a challenge they hadn’t expected.
Today’s Gospel reading is actually two different stories, but I think the lectionary was smart to put them together. In the first scene, Jesus is in his hometown synagogue teaching the people. In previous chapters, Jesus has been out and about on a great preaching tour: healing and teaching, calming the stormy seas of Galilee, amazing the disciples. But here in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus fails to inspire. It’s because he’s a known commodity. The locals think they have him all figured out. They ask each other, “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and aren’t his sisters here with us?” The lady who lives down the street from Mary and Joseph remembers Jesus growing up with her son and how they used to knock around in the woodshop together. By now her son has gotten married and given her grandchildren, but Jesus? He’s still living the bachelor’s life, not even taking care of his mother. Frankly, they have a hard time taking him seriously. They know what a rabbi is supposed to be like, and Jesus isn’t it. He’s not what they expected, not the kind of teacher they were prepared to hear in the synagogue.
In the second scene, Jesus sends out the disciples to carry out his ministry on their own. He pushes them from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the kinds of lives and work they have known to a ministry that is strange, challenging, and new. They’d grown accustomed to following Jesus around, a cluster of disciples watching rather than doing. Now Jesus sends them out and commands them to exercise authority over the unclean spirits—to do for themselves what they’ve only seen him do. As if that weren’t strange and difficult enough, Jesus tells them to go without anything they could depend on: “no bread, no bag, no money in their belts”. Don’t make housing reservations, he says. Don’t take extra clothes. Leave your assumptions behind. Don’t bother with preparations. They would need to trust in God to provide new skills and insights to meet the challenge before them.
Both of these stories revolve around how to prepare for the unexpected. Jesus says, essentially, you can’t. Our knowledge and skills and careful preparations just won’t cut it when we’re thrust into circumstances we couldn’t possibly have imagined. That’s when we need to learn to relinquish control and trust that God will provide what we need.
It’s funny: the staff read Canoeing the Mountains in 2019 and then had some great conversations about “adaptive leadership,” or how we lead when we find ourselves in uncharted territory. We talked a lot, had some philosophical conversations about leadership, and dipped our toes into some adaptive strategies. But I can’t say that it really changed much about how we did anything around here. Then, one week in early March 2020, the world changed in an instant. The church building was closed, and in the course of about 72 hours, we needed to figure out how to move everything—including our worship services—online. You all went through exactly that same experience in your own lives, in your own workplaces and schools. In a way, it’s maybe good that we were forced to jump in without a lot of preparation, because we couldn’t have possibly known what we would need, and thinking too long about what would be required of us to endure a pandemic probably would have only stressed us out. We all just had to jump in and trust that God would provide what we needed. And the truth is, God did provide. That’s not to say there weren’t any bumps along the way or that nobody struggled. Plenty of us have struggled—are still struggling. It has not been easy. But somehow, by the grace of God, we have received what we need to get through each day, each week, each month of this pandemic.
And now we’re beginning to emerge into something that looks at least a little like what we remember before the pandemic. Today is the last Sunday we have pre-recorded a worship service to be broadcast on Sunday morning, which has been our practice the last 15 months. As we have begun worshiping in the sanctuary again, next Sunday our online service will be a live broadcast of the 10:45am service happening here in person. More and more of you have been making your way back here on Sunday mornings, and if you haven’t been back yet, we hope we’ll see you soon. We miss you. Of course, we’re not back to normal. For one thing, children under 12 still can’t be vaccinated, and we know many of you are wrestling with how to keep your family safe even as we’re opening our doors again and lifting our COVID restrictions. Others of us are fully vaccinated and still find that being together with groups of people makes us a little anxious.
It’s true: it’s going to be a long time before the world feels like the “normal” we used to know. In the weeks and months ahead, it may slowly begin to feel like we’re returning to how it used to be. But if the past 15 months have taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t get too comfortable with what we know and the way things are now. We should never feel so certain that we have all the knowledge and skills we’ll need to encounter any challenge, as though we’re completely self-sufficient and don’t have any need for God or anyone else. Even the best paddlers can find themselves stranded in the Rockies, forced to become mountaineers. One of the most important lessons we learned during the pandemic is the same lesson Lewis and Clark learned when they found themselves “canoeing the mountains”—the same lesson Jesus taught those first disciples when he sent them out empty-handed to do his work in the world: When we find ourselves caught by surprise, unsure how to proceed, stretched beyond our limits, God will provide.
Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christians Leadership in Uncharted Territory (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity), 2015.