The pastor of a new appointment and two of the church members are out on the river fishing in their boat. Twelve o’clock rolls around, and one of the members notices a nice spot on the bank to have lunch. He turns to the others and says, “That looks like a nice spot for lunch. What do you say we have eat over there?”
The other member agrees, and so does the pastor. The first member stands up in the boat, steps out onto the river and walks over to the bank. The pastor looks on with amazement, and thinks to himself, if this member is holy enough to walk on water, surely he can.
The other member stands up, picks up the picnic basket, steps out of the boat, and walks over to the bank and sits with the first member. Again, the pastor thinks, if his members are holy enough to walk on water, surely he can.
The pastor stands up, steps out of the boat, and sinks into the water. The first member turns to the second and says, “Think we should have told him where the stepping stones are?”
It’s important to know where the stepping stones are, because if we don’t, or if we forget where they are, we may find ourselves sinking to the bottom, fast.
The same is true for God’s people. God watched his people, Israel, repeatedly forget where the stones were. God had shown them the stones—He had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and gave the Law to Moses. God didn’t offer the Law to be some kind of killjoy, or to place some unbearable burden upon them. God gave them the Law that they might have the kind of life that He knew they could and should have. God gave them the Law to offer them stepping stones on how to live in relationship to Him and with one another. In this morning’s reading, the Psalmist recalls that God’s Word was to help them get where they needed to go—the psalmist didn’t see God’s Word as stepping stones, though, but as a light: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” God’s Word is that which shows God’s people how to live in the darkness.
However, the people kept losing track of God’s Word—as John put it, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”[i] In other words, continuing our illustration today, God’s people, either out of ignorance or intentionally, kept missing the stepping stones, and found themselves sinking deeper and deeper in sin.
However, God did not abandon His people to sink into darkness of sin and death, lost forever. God decided to make the stepping stones a lot clearer. He began by calling the prophets to confront the people with their sin, and call them into the light, and they still struggled to find the stepping stones rather than sinking. So God, Himself, came as the Water Walker, as the “Word of God made Flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ to reveal once and for all where the stepping stones were in a way that they could never be missed. Jesus, through His birth, life, death, and resurrection, revealed to the those who walked with Him, and all God’s people who have followed since, just where the stepping stones are that will lead to the life that God wants and desires for us—the life, the enteral life, that He created us to live in.
Yet God did not stop with Jesus…though it was the perfect revelation of the stepping stones of life, God knew we would still need to be reminded where the stepping stones lie—He knew we were a people who forget. Jesus even acknowledges our forgetfulness and God’s faithfulness, once more from the Gospel of John: “…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”[ii]
God, out of His grace, continues to place stepping stones for us to travel upon—to reach the lives that God desires for us—He gives us His Word, the Bible, that reveals how God desires us to lead our lives—each stone perfectly revealed as we look through God’s written Word to the Word made Flesh, Jesus.
God also, through the sending of the Holy Spirit also gave birth to the church, and so God offers us this gathered community as a stepping stones to guide us down His path.
Within the Church, we find that God has also placed the stepping stones of Sunday School, Bible Study, Missions and Outreach, and Christian Fellowship—just to name a few—that offer to carry us over the waters of this world, to carry us over the waters of sin that would seek to drown us, and help us walk to shore, to the fully realized life eternal that God has offers to us the moment we surrender our lives to the Lordship of Jesus. Praise be to God that He has and continues to place stepping stones before us that we might successfully navigate the river of life to the shoreline.
That new pastor needed to know where the stepping stones were so that he could cross the water and join the church members. In fact, every new minister coming into a new church needs to know where the stepping stones are—because if the pastor does not know where the stepping stones are, he or she may never be able to get to where, we, as part of the Body of Christ, need to go. Without the stepping stones, the pastor can sink. The same can be said for the congregation. If the pastor does not let the congregation know the stepping stones that he or she knows amount, then the church may struggle and sink, never getting to where God is calling them to reveal His Kingdom in this world.
A big part of learning where the stepping stones are involves simply getting to know one another—knowing the history behind us, the present situation, and the hopes for the future of one another. In a few conversations, I have already started trying to learn the stepping stones here at Harkers Island. I stress, I have only started. Over the next year, I hope to meet and talk with each of you individually, so I have a long way to go. I have talked with a few of you in the week I have been here—and already seen the God’s grace at work in this church through those who sought to help my dad and I find the front of the truck, and more importantly, the response of this congregation to my mom’s unexpected hospitalization. In those conversations, I have shared a little of my history, but this morning I would like to share some of that with the rest of you, and fill in a few more details of who I am and how I came to be here.
I was raised in the southern part of Granville county, just northeast of Raleigh, in a small town called Butner, a town which in my childhood, was not a lot larger than Harkers Island. It has grown tremendously over the years, as a result of the federal prison and other institutions, alongside becoming a bedroom community for Raleigh and Durham.
I received my initial call to the ministry while attending a Conference Youth event in the summer after my junior year, so when I graduated from South Granville High in 1987, I went to Methodist College (now Methodist University) where I earned degrees in Philosophy, English, and Religion. However, while in college, I chose to ignore the stepping stones that God placed before me, and decided to walk my own path, choosing to walk away from my calling and live my life my way.
What happens when we try to live our lives our own way, rather than God’s way? We begin to sink…and I did. Yet God will continue to place stones in our path that will lead us back to Him. While running from my call I spent a little over two years working in day care for a national chain of child care facilities. I began as a teacher and ended up as assistant director for one of their centers in Chapel Hill. It was there that I met Anita, a newly single mom who had left a severely abusive marriage, and who had a daughter named Natalie that stayed in trouble constantly, resulting in many conversations between mom and the assistant director. We began dating, and our first unofficial date was to her oldest son, Ben’s, Christmas program at school—eleven months later, we were married in October of 1993. In the meantime, due to health reasons, I had left the day care and had began working as a health care technician at Murdoch Center, a facility for severe and profound developmentally disabled adults. A year or so after that, I began working on my teaching degree in special education at North Carolina Central while teaching at Murdoch.
God had begun placing stepping stones in my life, trying to get me back where He intended as I returned to my home church and Anita and I began raising Ben and Natalie in church. There, to shorten part of the story, God began calling me back to the ministry once more.
It was in 1995 that I finally surrendered to God’s calling to the ministry and one week after our son, Davey, was born, I entered seminary at Duke Divinity School. In December of 1995, I received my first appointment—to Salem United Methodist Church in northern Granville County and began my full agricultural indoctrination amongst the tobacco farmers. I graduated from Duke in 1999 and traded in the tobacco fields for the cotton and peanut fields of Northampton County, to serve the Rich Square Woodland Charge. In 2001, I was ordained an Elder in the United Methodist Church and, moved 12 miles northward in Northampton County, to serve a four congregations, know as the Milwaukee Charge. In 2004, God decided that I needed to leave the rural setting and learn to pastor a city church (though thankfully not a big city), and for the last thirteen years I served as pastor of St. Paul’s in Burlington, NC. This past Monday, I left Burlington, to serve God with each of you here at Harkers Island. And while I have always felt closest to God while vacationing at the beach, I look forward to learning from y’all what it means to actually live a coastal, island life, as we grow together in serving Christ here.
A little about my family—Anita was born in Raleigh and grew up in Durham, graduating from Northern High School. Her oldest son, Ben, is 34, and lives in Lenoir. Natalie just turned 28 and lives in Burlington. Davey, who spent the better part of this past week helping us settle in, graduated from Methodist University last month. He had to leave yesterday, as he is a church musician and currently plays for two different congregations in the Fayetteville area, while also working at a running specialty store. Our grandson, Joshua, is eight years old and has lived with us since the day he came home from the hospital. Joshua loves to play both baseball and football, and will hopefully move from flag-football which he played in Burlington, to contact football with the Beaufort-Down East Raiders. He will start the third grade this fall.
We are all, at least those of us who have taken up residence on Harkers Island, Duke Basketball fans. That sports unity ends there, though, because when it comes to the NFL and NASCAR, we become a house divided.
These are just a few of the stepping stones in your pastor’s life to help you know a little about me…and as our Staff Parish committee begins setting up visit schedules over the next year, I look forward to learning the stepping stones in each of your lives and in the life of Harkers Island UMC—learning the past, the present, and hopes for the future—as we strive to discern God’s will and calling together.
My brothers and sisters, Anita, Joshua, and I look forward with great anticipation to hopefully many fruitful years of ministry working side by side with each of you as we travel the stepping stones that God has laid before us through His Word, a path revealed to us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a journey continually enabled by the power of God’s Holy Spirit poured out upon us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] John 3:19
[ii] John 14:26