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Our Time

Texts: Deuteronomy 6:4-13; 26:1-11

A few years ago, Bob Dunham, retired pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, shared a story with me. The story goes like this:

“It began with a telephone call… and a command. ‘I want you to come over right away. I have something to say to you’.

“The unmistakable voice at the other end of the phone belonged to an eccentric older woman in the first congregation I served, and I have to confess that her demanding tone didn't occasion much joy on my part. Some days I actually enjoyed sparring with her, but that morning I had a stack of work to do. I tried to describe for her the constraints of my schedule, but Mary would have nothing of it.

“So, I went. The drive across town afforded time for me to muse about what possible offense might have occasioned the command appearance . . .

“When I arrived at her house, she met me on the front porch, and escorted me into her living room and pointed me to an uncomfortable loveseat . . . she began to tell me about a trip she and her late husband had taken to Europe some twenty years earlier. Mary was the kind of person who missed no details in a story and then would add her own embellishments, so twenty minutes later I still had no idea why she had called me.

“But then she said, ‘The Alps’.

‘’The what’? I asked.

‘’The Alps. They were my favorite part of Europe. Such magnificent mountains! I want to tell you something very interesting about the Alps. That's why I called you today’.

“‘You called me over here to talk about the Alps’? I asked . . .

“‘Did you know’, she said, ‘that in the Alps there are a number of little cabins scattered all over, constructed as places of refuge for skiers and hikers? They are very plain, but very snug. Each one has a fireplace, and all one has to do upon entering a cabin is strike a match to light the fire already cut and set. Someone else has chopped the wood, so that the weary traveler can enjoy the benefit of the warmth of the fire’.

“‘Well, that's very interesting, but . . .’

“‘I'm not finished’, she said. ‘This morning, when I was thinking about that trip, about those cabins in the Alps, it dawned on me that all my life I've been burning wood other people have chopped for me, and I'm not sure I've ever thought to say so much as ‘thank you’. Now I think it is time I started chopping wood for somebody else. That's what I aim to do, and I wanted you to know’ . . .

Bob goes on to write, “For my friend that moment carried an insight into the meaning of life itself, and particularly into her own life as she approached her eightieth birthday. All her days Mary had lived in relative privilege and abundance, largely because of the labors and planning of others, but only that morning had she recognized her indebtedness. Only then had she discovered the meaning of grace.”

Poised to enter the Promised Land after a 40 year wait, Moses asks his people to travel lightly but to pack these words with them:

“When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things that you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12; NIV and NRV).

Moses gives this counsel to people he knows well, often too well. After all, he has been their pastor for nearly 40 years. He looks out over the future and he sees the day when the security system has been installed, the investments are paying a nice dividend, the club has issued an invitation to join and the promotion has just been announced. In such times, he can imagine his people forgetting who “chopped the wood,” who delivered them into this new land, filled with new possibilities, and to whom all life belongs. He can imagine them balking at sharing anything, offering such excuses as:

“Look, I worked hard for my money. It’s mine to do with what I want, Nobody helped me. Nobody gave me a handout. If others want to get to where I am, let them do the same!”

Long before the game of baseball was invented, Moses knew the proclivity of people to think that they hit a home run when they were born on third base. He knew how quickly you and I tend to forget we start fires that others have built.

As I think about Cove and all those members who came before you and all those pastors who came before me, I keep hearing the not so subtle reminder of Moses: “[You are about to enter] a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things that you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant.” To which, we could easily add: “And churches you did not establish.”

A few years back, we had one grand party here in honor of Cove’s 250th anniversary. It was a great celebration with guests from the Cove community, former members, and former pastors in attendance. During that memorable weekend, I looked around and could hear Bob’s friend, Mary reminding me: “all my life I've been burning wood other people have chopped for me.” Not just on our 250th anniversary but in this season of Thanksgiving, I am reminded of the fires you and I light that others have built for us.

Before entering the Promised Land, Moses asks his people to move into this new land with a deep sense of gratitude, always looking for occasions to “chop wood” for others. He says: “Pack away the memory that whatever the Lord has given you, it has been given to you to share, especially with the most vulnerable in your midst – the widows, the orphans, those who sleep on the street. Share then, not the dregs or what you think you can spare; share the first tenth; share the best of all you harvest, so that those who are in need will know no need.” Moses tells his people never to forget that others have built the fire they are now enjoying and so never neglect to build a new fire for those who will follow.

As I look back on my life, it takes my breath away how many fires have been built for me and how often I was oblivious to those gifts. Growing up, I never worried about my next meal, because my parents chopped that wood. In the college years, I never worried if I would survive classes that pushed me to my academic limits, because a dedicated team of professors chopped that wood. As a young parent wondering if I was getting this child-rearing thing right, I never worried alone because experienced and caring family and friends surrounded us having already chopped that wood.

If Moses has a word from God to speak to God’s people today and I believe he does, it is a word calling us to chop the wood for others who will follow us here at Cove. And chopping wood for others is something that Cove does exceedingly well.

A few years back, we dedicated solar panels on the roof of Cove Hall. When we did, we chopped wood not just for now but for others to be free of the burden of high utility costs in the future and more importantly, as a witness to how to steward God’s good earth.

About a month ago, Cove started the resettlement of a Syrian family. When we did, we chopped wood not just for this family but for the resettlement of future families in years to come. Before Covid, Chris, Marilee, and Libby from Cove joined with Lucille, Don, and Sheila from Covesville Baptist Church to start a “One Heart” group that meets monthly to listen hard, to speak hard truths and to reach beyond hard and longstanding racial barriers to create a community of friendship that makes God smile. When they did, they not only made friends for life, but they chopped wood for others to build future fires of honest conversation and heartfelt forgiveness across deep divides of all kinds.

“All my life,” Mary said, “I've been burning wood other people have chopped for me. There are so many people who have built fires for me. Now I think it's time I started chopping wood and building fires for someone else.” I am so grateful that Bob told me that story, because Mary was right then and she is right today.

Just as you and I have known the steadfast grace of God lived out by those who have chopped wood for us, it is time to start chopping wood for others. Not only is it time; it is high time.

It is our time.


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