by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
(Note: the following is a portion of my sermon delivered at St. John the Divine on October 21, 2021, for the Celebration of New Ministry. — RLS) …
As I have shared already in my tenure with you, I believe a critical aspect of church leadership in this current moment is calibrating continuity with change. God-willing, I will be challenging us in the days to come to do two things at once: to carry forth the very best of all that makes SJD so special in the first place, and also to embody new ways of being church that may feel different for us. To regard SJD not merely as a hub of high-quality religious programs for our members — though certainly not less — but also as an incubator of innovative mission for the sake of our neighbors and this city. I believe we are being called into a future that will be shaped at least as much by pioneering ministries reaching “out there” as by refining and improving settled ministries already here.
We see this spirit captured this evening in the opening verses of the Book of Joshua. Joshua is tasked with replacing the larger-than-life figure of Moses as the leader of God’s people, a people who during the previous forty years have not shown themselves inclined to appreciate good leadership, much less new leadership. Joshua must articulate the people’s continuing identity even as they are challenged for their next chapter in salvation history.
Joshua, freshly commissioned, exhorts the Israelites to be “strong and courageous.” He says that four times in his speech. And one wonders if that is a pep talk to himself as much as to everyone else. “Be strong and courageous?” What does that look like for a congregation like this one?
The Book of Joshua opens up a meaty portion of the Old Testament and a crucial epoch in Israel’s history that has a particular theme or tension woven into it. This narrative tension in the historical books Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles involves a people whose experience has been shaped by wandering 40 years in the wilderness and, who at the end of their journey, have at long last begun to settle down. What is it like for the people of Israel who have been on the move to start living as if they have arrived? What is this like when this happens in the Church?
Beginning with the Book of Joshua and continuing through the next seven books of the Old Testament, the people of God settle. Israel establishes kingship. It establishes a capital city. It establishes religious structures (e.g., the Temple), and enshrines religious life in laws and offices. What is gained? And what is lost?
Up to this point, God has been with his people living in tents — mobile structures intended for people on the move. Indeed, again and again, God will remind Israel that his covenant is not lived out in buildings and laws and religious organization. His covenant is embodied in people; it is relational more than about real estate and rituals. Yes, God continues to move in their history. But there is a tension between settling into a particular place, into particular patterns and practices and losing their calling. Churches and church leaders who have a pulse have to be aware of this tension.
If this inauguration address of Joshua rings in our ears, let us be strong and courageous to move into new territory where God is moving.
My brothers and sisters in Christ: Susalee and I felt called out of a very comfortable, settled ministry in Nashville, TN, because of all the parishes in the entire country, I could not think of a single congregation other than St. John the Divine that I could be a part of that is more capable of being a thriving, large parish in this new era. I am convinced that thriving churches of the coming decade will have to develop a much more intentional missional consciousness. By which I mean what begins as a contagious commitment to Christ gets lived out in contagious community with one another that will also include new people. And that contagious community spreads like a holy virus into the City of Houston… (bad metaphor!)
Joshua exhorts the Israelites to obey the Lord, not to veer to the right or to the left so they may have good success wherever they go. But pay attention: Joshua ties success to movement. Wherever you go, you are going forth into new territory in fulfillment of the promises of God who is himself on the move. And you can probably be assured that godly success does not often look like worldly success since the success that is won for us happens on a cross.
Joshua moves out with his people. The name Joshua in Hebrew means to save, to deliver. As you probably know, an alternative form of that name in the Hebrew Bible comes eventually to be translated as Yeshua, which comes to us as the name… Jesus. The one who saves. The one who delivers.
He is also the One who sends. We belong to a sent and sending Lord Jesus! And the Lord has also sent us the Holy Spirit. Those who get the gospel in them, who yearn for the Spirit of God, never retreat to stationary religion, to settled church life. We are meant to be a movement. And among the many bad and challenging things of the past 20 months, one good thing is that the church has been unsettled enough to relearn that.
"Christian leaders overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what God can do in five."
—Doug Paul, Kingdom Innovation
What does it mean to be a church in the city? How does a church love its city? Above is a talk by Tim Keller given at Biola University several years ago. All or parts are well-worth a listen. Keller is the founder and senior pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, as well as the popular author of numerous excellent books. He also launched a ministry called Redeemer City to City that helps plant urban churches in global cities around the world.
2450 River Oaks Boulevard, Houston, TX 77019 Map