This week, there is a backstory to “where we are” in the scripture passage. There is, in life, always a backstory. There is always that moment in time that arises out of an act, a decision, a movement, that reverberates out—into the future. That is where we find ourselves today.
And that is exactly the point at which the people who told, and retold, and ultimately wrote down this story were at. They were struggling to answer the question “Why are we here?” How did we, as a faith community, get to this place… in this time?
Most scholars point to the story in Exodus as having been written down around 600 BCE, with the events along the banks of the river portrayed maybe happening around the 13th century BCE. However, Drorah O’Donnell Setel notes that, “… there are no (sources outside of the bible) to confirm their actual occurrence.” Whether or not these specific events ever occurred, this story has resonated. The narrative has shaped the identity of a people for generation upon generation.
When this story was first committed to a manuscript from an oral tradition 2,700 years ago, the Israelites were struggling to figure out who their God was. What dreams did God have for them? They had been overrun by the Babylonian empire. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Their political, religious, and economic leaders had been forcibly taken to Babylon. Now the Israelites were seeking ways to understand, “Why am I here?” Why are WE here?”
This sacred tale of despair and hope emerges out of an unlikely trajectory. This is a story of an infant child that sets the course for the Hebrews escape from slavery. “Why are we here?” is the improbable answer to a random, desperate act of a mother reverberating throughout history. We are a witness to a moment of death defying, creative resistance. This simple basket defies Pharaoh’s decree and launches a trajectory that impacts generations to come. This is a backstory that includes the midwives who had saved this child at birth, the mother who loved him, the sister that watched over him, and the princess who rebelled against her father’s order. This story sets the stage for a “why we are here” in response to God’s dream. For the Israelites, and for us, it was… it is… important to tell this story.
This is a story that seems rooted in a place without hope. A plot that weaves Holy Threads that reach beyond a particular instant in time. This is the backstory that plants a seed for a journey to something totally new.
Each and every one of us has a backstory. Some of our life experiences are as traumatic as this story of Moses and his (as of yet unnamed in the story) sister, Miriam. Some of our life journeys have been less dramatic. But in some way, through some story, we have each been drawn by a something, by what I identify as a God Something, here. Thus, I ask you to ponder this question in your heart: Why are YOU here?
I believe, in part, that I am here this morning to tell THIS story—Memorial’s “backstory.” For we too have a history that sets the stage for developing our understanding of “why we are here.”
How many of you know the story behind why we are HERE, in Fitchburg? I know that many of you have lived this story. I hope that I can do justice to it today. For me, reading this morning’s Bible passage in Exodus stirred the memory of Memorial’s journey. Poignantly, the words intertwined with the recent death of the Rev. Dr. Jon Schultz. Jon served this congregation for 25 years. He was the pastor of Memorial UCC when the church moved from Madison to Fitchburg. Jon’s memorial service was yesterday.
So THIS is Memorial’s backstory. If you are not familiar with our history, I invite you to pick up one of the celebration booklets. The packets were put together in 2017. That year, we celebrated the church’s 100th anniversary. I owe thanks to those of you who contributed to the book and to the Rev. Phil Haslanger for this historical overview of our church.
There is a particular story in Memorial’s history that excited me about serving here as pastor and teacher. I loved Memorial’s embrace of being “a church on the move.” I find it profoundly biblical that over our 100-year history, members of this congregation have taken the risk to move 3 times. In “Stories of Then, Stories of Now,” it is noted that from 1942 through the 1980s, Memorial UCC was located on Madison Street in Madison, near Camp Randall. “But as the congregation aged and the nation’s currents shifted away from established traditions, Memorial became a congregation in decline… During the 1970s, the congregation struggled with what to do. The number of children in church school dwindled (to zero, or nearly zero). At the same time, the Southwest Wisconsin Association of the United Church of Christ was looking to start a congregation in Fitchburg.” The question was asked, where was God leading?
Through conversations, prayers, and dreams, in 1986 the congregation took a prophetic vote. They voted to move HERE. You might have noticed the cornerstone placed in the front of the building (to the left of the main doors as you leave today). We have now called Fitchburg home for 30 years. We are HERE, because our church ancestors had the insight and wisdom to listen, sense the movement of the Spirit, and take the chance to follow Jesus–selling one building to build something NEW… here.
This is our backstory, the “why we are here” as a faith community. If you look just beyond the sanctuary doors, there is a beautiful, multicolored quilt. Writing this reflection, I really wanted to take the quilt down and have it HERE, right in front of us in worship. I wanted to remember about all the people that pieced it together. It visually represents our move from the Madison Street location to this building on Lacy Road. However, when I took a look at how lovingly, and how firmly, the quilt is affixed to the wall, I quickly changed my mind! Instead, I invite you to take a moment after worship to stop and read the story of the quilt that is posted on the wall.
Beloved, we are HERE. This is how we, as a faith community, got to this place… in this time. But what about you? Why are you here?
Would you be willing to briefly tell us, in a sentence or two, what brought you to Memorial UCC?
During the service, people spontaneously responded to the question. Here are a few of the responses posted during the week on Memorial’s group FaceBook page:
- “For the community, the family I have found here who are as flawed and imperfect as I am. A family that shows their love of God through their actions, not just their words.”
- “I have found God’s acceptance for myself & my family. God’s love & Spirit abound here and is carried out into the community.”
- “Yes, for the community and family. I think we are trying to live the life that Christ modeled for us. Of course, we don’t always succeed, but it’s important to keep trying.”
- “To learn and struggle with my faith with others as we try to live a good Christian life. To give voice to a love of singing and music. To share laughter and tears with others who accept me as family as we travel this life’s journey. Lots of reasons…”
Thank you for sharing your stories.
In part, as a faith leader, I am here today because I was drawn to serve in a place that has woven into its DNA of being a church on the move. For me this is a movement that is love filled, hopeful, and creative as we listen to the Spirit at times when life seems to have totally fallen apart. We are a part of a spontaneous act—biblical and here today—of resistance against death. And understanding that something new, something God, is always growing into the future.
Thus we are HERE. May we collectively hear God’s Dream reverberating in our understanding of WHY we are HERE… and how we got to this place.
Reflection on Exodus 1:22, 2:1-10 offered November 10, 2019
 Setel, Drorah O’Donnell. The Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha. Edited by Sharon H. Ringe and Carol A. Newsom. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998. 30.