the twenty-first sunday after pentecost

Reflecting on the Journey
It’s only in the wilderness that god’s people “advances!”

Week eighty-four in the wilderness! Week eighty-four! That’s one year, six months, twenty-nine days! And like I’ve said before, it all began as a joke. Not so much a joke as a way of using humor to de-fuse, to distract. Of course, that was long before everything stopped being funny. Today, nearly seven hundred twenty-five thousand dead. Not counting family and friends left behind. Not counting the walking wounded. But I decided to keep counting. Not as a way of making lite of the suffering. But as a way of understanding this moment. Theologically speaking, we’re in the wilderness! Theologically speaking, we’ve been in the wilderness for a long time. No-longer, but not-yet! Trapped somewhere in between! It’s “Groundhog Day,” all over, again and again! A forever today! An everlasting present!

And this is the Sunday – the sermon – we think about that. The ventures unending. The paths untrodden. The perils unknown. And what comes to mind, this month, is, simply, the journey. Going from one oasis to the next. Putting one foot in front of the other. And it happens only out here! Only in the wilderness! At the beginning, that’s how it was for Israel. Only in the wilderness were they going somewhere. Only in the wilderness did they have a destination.

In Egypt, in the mud pits, they were captive. Enslaved. Building cities they’d never live in. They groaned. They cried out. But it was god who would have to come to them, since they were unable to go to god. So, they sat. And they waited. And they watched.

Whey they, finally, got to Canaan, it was no different. After all, this was Jerusalem! Mt. Zion! The temple! This was the center of the universe! The heart of creation! The dwelling place of god! There was nowhere else to go! And so, the world would have come to them! They sat. And they waited. And they watched. In Egypt, it was an anchor. In Palestine, roots. But either way, Israel. Never. Moved. They were sStationary. Static. Still. And it was only in the wilderness – only in the wilderness – that they went anywhere! And you know, the same thing can, pretty much, be said about us! The church! God’s newTestament people!

First thing most congregations do when starting out is buy a piece of land. And they construct a building. And then, they spend the rest of their life paying for it. That’s what we did, back at the beginning. And then, too, we sat. And we waited. And we watched. Foxes have dens. Birds have nests. And we … we have our steeple. Of course, the doors were always open. For everyone – anyone – who happened to wonder in. But we became an address. Two coordinates on a map. At least, until we could no longer pay for it. Until a virus drove us out. And we ended up here. In the wilderness. Caught between yesterday and tomorrow. Wondering why people stopped coming.

But for the first time in a long time (for the first time ever?), we’re moving! And god’s, finally, doing what we ask god to do, every Advent! “Stir up power,” we say. “Stir up our hearts! Stir up our wills!” Are we driven? Probably! Drawn? Absolutely! A pillar of cloud, by day! A pillar of fire, at night! God’s hand leading! God’s love supporting! Our lives united, not by a common staring point. Our lives joined, not by a shared destination. But brought together because of the journey! Fixed! Focused! Because we’re here! In the wilderness! Together!

Here, in the wilderness, that’s all we have! Each other! There’s nothing – no one – else! Think about it! Right here! Right now! The only thing that makes us church … is US! The only thing we have to offer … is US! US and, well, the message, the gospel, the good news, god proclaims and administers to us! The message, the gospel, the good news, god proclaims and administers through us! We have nowhere to lay our head! But we do have each other! And that’s a good place for a journey to begin!

All the things we, once, thought so necessary, so indispensable, well, let’s just say, we’ve learned better! Stained glass? Offering plates? Youth groups? Women’s groups? Choirs? The only thing we have is us! Us and the story! The story of a god who so loves the world! The story of a god who sets aside paradise! The story of a god who takes on flesh-and-blood! The story of a god who lives among us! Between us! Who suffers and breaks and bleeds and dies and rises to do it all! Over and over again!

As we move, that message goes with us! Or should I say, the message moves and we’re carried along in its wake! Either way, life is different! New! Unleashed! Untethered! To explore strange new worlds, as Kirk would say! To seek out new life and new civilizations! To go – to go boldly – where no one’s ever gone! And we do it without ever leaving the planet! Our space … our final frontier … isn’t above us! It’s here! In the wilderness surrounding us! That’s where the ventures are, the ventures of which we cannot see the ending!

Truth is, the journey, for us, never ends! The church’s wanderings began a hundred generations, ago. And we’re no closer to an ending “than when we first begun!” The wilderness goes on forever! A wilderness for our parents and their parents before them! A wilderness for our children and their children after! Believing-in means we’re nomads, travelers, pilgrims! Always on the way! Forever in between! And that building we knew so well … that building we trusted, that we believed in … It had become our mud pit, our Egypt! Our temple, our holy of holies! Holding us back! Keeping us in!

But one more time, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, god brought us here! Into this wilderness! And step by step! From one oasis to another! God still leads! And the purpose, the reason, the goal, is simple. God does it so we can love! Love just like Jesus! Love just like Jesus, first, loved! That doesn’t happen in Egypt! And it can’t happen in Canaan! Only here in the wilderness! Only here on the way! Love can! Love does!

So, my friends, the church has left the building! Left the building so we can, finally, become! So we can, at last, be! What we have always been! A people! A people for the wilderness!