Stories From the Wilderness: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Scripture: Numbers 11:4-6, 18-20

We’re spending this Easter season journeying through the wilderness with the Israelites as we plod through this collective wilderness period of our own caused by coronavirus and the fear, uncertainty, and isolation it has created.  Last week, we heard the story of the Israelites’ very first wilderness experience, right after they make it across the Red Sea, and they realize they don’t have any water to drink, and all of a sudden the Promised Land feels a lot farther away than it once did.  But God shows Moses how to make bitter water safe to drink, and this sets the tone for the whole rest of the wilderness journey, where the people fear not having enough but God always provides.

I told you that in Exodus, this is how the wilderness period is remembered above everything: as a time of God’s grace and provision – and we talked about ways we are seeing that even now.

The book of Numbers, which tells the story of the wilderness journey starting on the other side of Mount Sinai, has a slightly different memory of the wilderness. Numbers is full of stories of people complaining. They don’t like what they have to eat, the people they’re going to have to face in the Promised Land are scary, and the leadership of this whole endeavor leaves something to be desired.  And God is always getting mad at the people for their complaining. In fact if you go back and read the rest of chapter 11 you’ll see that I left a bunch of parts out about God’s response to all the complaining, including fire and plague. Go back and read it; it’s kind of fun and will leave you with all sorts of theological questions.

I should be clear that I don’t think that anything that is happening now is the direct result of God’s wrath – nor do I think that fire and plague is the way God normally operates, even though it can be really easy sometimes to look at natural and human disaster and feel like God is telling us something.  I believe in a God who is continually working for good in the midst of the bad, a God from whose love in Christ Jesus nothing can separate us, as we read in Romans 8.  I do think it’s worth thinking about what it is that seems to make God angry, and in Numbers, entitlement and lack of gratitude are big ones.   Sometimes I think I would have been in trouble.

In Exodus, when the people got hungry, God sent manna from heaven for them to eat. It appeared in the morning like dew, and each day the people collected only enough for that day, because it would be there again tomorrow. We’re told that the Israelites ate manna for forty years, right up until they entered the Promised Land.

I suppose it’s understandable that the taste of manna started to get old after a while.  I think Jon and I are to that point already as we try to keep meals simple and not make too many trips to the store – we both agreed this week that we were a little over oatmeal. There starts to be a murmur in the camp. “We’re tired of bread,” the people say – the “rabble” or “riffraff,” as Numbers calls them – “we want meat.”

And then, the kicker: “In Egypt, we had meat.”

It snowballs from there: Remember all the good food we used to eat in Egypt? Those were the days! Of course, they were slaves in Egypt, but that small fact seems to be forgotten now.

God’s response, for God’s part, is: Fine! You want meat? I’ll give you meat!  Eat meat until it comes out of your nose! And sure enough, a wind blows from the sea and brings quails with it.  And also the complainers are beset by plague.

Again, let me reiterate that  if complaining brings divine wrath, I’m in trouble too.  But I can see the problem: all the people can do is look back, but God is trying to lead them forward.

These days, in our own wilderness, we’re just beginning to hear some conversation about going “back.”  Some states are just starting to take measures to open back up their economies. Protesters are gathering at state capitals to demand that we all get back to business as usual.  And even though here in Virginia we’re still under this stay-at-home order until June 10, I admit that my mind has begun to turn to what things will look like when all of this is over – or at least when this first part of things is over.

And meanwhile, I’ve seen and heard lots of people asking the question: Do we really want to just go back? Or are we, perhaps, misremembering what now seems like the good old days?

I don’t mean that there isn’t plenty to miss: visits with extended family and friends; working and making money, for some of us; exploring new places; worshiping together in person of course, and being able to physically welcome people into our church building – but then what about all the other stuff, the long and painful commutes that make us wonder if all of this is really worth it, the constant busyness and pressure to produce, even the way we pack our calendars with social events and never make space for silence and stillness, to listen to God or care for ourselves or to pay attention to the needs of our neighbors?

What about the lack of access to healthcare that so many in our country have, and the fact that so many people in minimum wage jobs can’t even afford to take a day of sick leave, and the gap between rich and poor that has only been magnified by the disproportionate extent to which poor people and people of color have been affected by Covid-19?  Do we really just want to go back?

I’ve heard this period of social distancing called the Great Pause.  As someone who is now more exhausted than ever, I take some issue with that – and I know there are those of you who are still heading out into the world for work as usual – but for all of us, I think, life has changed.  For all of us, something has shifted. And I don’t care if you come out of this with a new skill or hobby or an impressively clean house or watched literally everything on Netflix or any of those things you might use this time for if you have it, but I do think it’s a chance to reflect on where we’re going next, because I think there are lessons to be learned here in the wilderness that might have the potential to make us new people on the other side.

These days, I’m grateful for the chance to watch my kids grow up minute by minute, even if the loss of our usual rhythm has been hard for us all.  I’m grateful for the chance to enjoy the beauty of spring from my own neighborhood each day instead of just driving past on my way to and from work. I’m grateful for the way worshiping on Zoom has been able to include people that in-person worship can’t.  These are things I might consider how to hold onto, in some form. Maybe God is working in and through things like this, wanting to lead me somewhere new. There may be new life in this yet.

What about you?

What have you realized you don’t need to go back to?

What’s something from this wilderness time that you hope to hold on to?

What new place might God be leading us toward?

 

Stories From the Wilderness: Sweet Water to Drink

Scripture: Exodus 15:22-25

You may remember (or you may not, because let’s face it, everything is a bit of a blur these days) – but you may remember that back in the fall, we journeyed with the Israelite people through the book of Exodus, including both their escape from Egypt and their many years spent wandering in the wilderness as they learned what it meant to be God’s people.  If I had known that in the spring we’d be going through this current wilderness period of COVID-19 and social distancing and worship via Zoom, I honestly might have held off until now.  But I do think this is the perfect time to join the Israelites back in the wilderness, anyway, because I suspect that some of the spiritual lessons they learned during that time might be relevant for us now.

We’ve done Exodus, so for this Easter season, we’re going to be mostly joining back up with the wandering Israelites in the book of Numbers – except for today, when we’re throwing it back to Exodus.  That’s because Exodus and Numbers have very different takes on what happened in the wilderness.  Exodus mostly tells the story of what happens leading up to Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai, and Numbers starts on the other side of Sinai.  Numbers has a bunch of stories that mirror stories we already read in Exodus – like the Israelites receiving manna and quail to eat – except these are the post-Sinai versions of these stories, and they tend to sound a little different.  In Numbers, God is often exasperated with the people for how little they’ve learned and how much they always complain.  But in Exodus, while there’s some of that, the wilderness is depicted overall mainly as a time of grace and provision.  The people were in this place of having to put their full trust in God for the things they needed, and God took care of them.

So I wanted to start there.

The story we just read comes from Exodus 15, just after the Israelites have made it safely across the Red Sea.  This is their first wilderness experience.  They make it across to freedom and suddenly realize: there’s no water to drink.  And when there finally is some water, they still can’t drink it.  This is understandably alarming.  So the people complain to Moses, Moses cries out to God, God shows Moses a stick to put in the water, and the water becomes sweet, or good to drink.    And God will continue to provide in other ways as the people journey on.

So today I want to open up this sermon to you.  I know sometimes spiritual lessons are best learned in retrospect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find things to be grateful for along the way, right?  In this wilderness period of the past month or so, as we’ve been facing disease and isolation and fear and just kind of have to keep going: How is God sustaining you?  How have you experienced God’s grace and provision in all of it?

 

Thanks be to God for all the ways God has shown up and continues to show up to and with and for us now.  Amen.

Easter: Thomas Still Doubted

Scripture: Mark 16:1-7; John 20:19-29

It’s customary, in many churches, to read the story of so-called Doubting Thomas the week after Easter, so I suppose I’m skipping ahead a little bit.  Maybe it would be right to linger a little more on the surprise of the empty tomb, the good news that comes after so much bad news and turns it all around.  But everything is a little different this year, including Easter. Instead of gathering together in a sanctuary filled with lilies, we’re all in our own homes.  Instead of dressing up, we’re on the couch in sweatpants and leggings (speaking for some of you, I assume.)  Instead of eating an Easter meal with friends and extended family, we’re making do with whatever’s in the cupboard.  It’s a kind of un-Eastery Easter.

And maybe it’s not the first time.  Maybe you’ve had some un-Eastery Easters before.  Maybe you’ve struggled your way through your first holiday after the loss of a loved one or maybe you’ve been away from home and the people and traditions that are meaningful for you.  Maybe you’ve had to work, or maybe you couldn’t afford any sort of special celebration.  Maybe you’ve been alone.  I know on Easter last year I went home after church, had lunch with my mom, and then went to visit my dad in the hospital where it was just beginning to become clear that this was the end of the road for him and his fight against cancer.  Everything felt like death; nothing felt like resurrection. Sometimes, for all of us, the hollow ache of Holy Saturday rings truer than the empty tomb.  This year, we’re just in that place more or less together (allowing, of course, for differences in our current personal circumstances.)

And there’s something beautiful, I think, about celebrating Easter anyway.  There’s something hope-filled about celebrating Easter in a way that doesn’t feel like Easter at all.  It’s not necessarily a happy, optimistic kind of hope.  It’s more the kind of hope that grits its teeth and refuses to let go.  It says we don’t need the lilies and the new clothes and the honey-baked ham or even the triumphant music for the good news of resurrection to be true.  We can let it be true right now, just as things are.

At the beginning of the service we heard the account of the resurrection as told by Mark, who says that the women got to the tomb just after sunrise Sunday morning.  In John’s Gospel, the account begins “Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”  While it was still dark, a couple of women went to the tomb, expecting nothing more than to visit a grave.

Instead what they found was an empty tomb, a risen Christ, and a force of love that could not be held down.  In that moment, everything changed.

Or did it?

“It was still the first day of the week,” John tells us, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples.  This is later that same day. This is still an Easter story.  We are now in a post-resurrection world.  And the disciples, who don’t know that yet, are huddled together in a locked room.  It’s their own self-imposed quarantine lockdown from a world they now have every reason to be afraid of, both because their leader has been arrested and killed and who knows who might be next, and because everything they had come to believe in and everything that had given them hope had suddenly been shattered.  It is there, in the midst of their fear, that Jesus appears to them and offers them peace.

Even then not all of them got the memo.  Thomas, for reasons that go unexplained, wasn’t there with the disciples when Jesus appeared, and he’s not terribly inclined to believe their secondhand account that their fearless leader has returned from the dead.  It must have sounded an awful lot like wishful thinking to him, or maybe some sort of questionable coping mechanism.

It is Easter. The disciples are huddled together in a locked room and Thomas still doubts.  Fear and doubt both still exist in this post-resurrection world.  An empty tomb hasn’t magically changed all of that.

And, even more so – outside that locked door, the Roman Empire is still in charge.  An empty tomb hasn’t toppled an oppressive government, and that was what a bunch of people hoped Jesus would do in the first place.  The people of Israel and of many other nations suffer just as much injustice as they always did – even in this post-resurrection world.  The first Easter was, in its own way, a rather un-Eastery Easter.

And yet, for each person who hears the good news that Jesus is alive, for each person who gets to touch his wounds with their own hands, something shifts profoundly.  Women who came with burial spaces run to tell the others.  Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”  From their locked room, the disciples spread out to the far reaches of the empire to feed people and heal people and go to prison and risk their own death and tell people the good news.

The whole world was filled with death but now, Jesus lives.

This isn’t all there is.  The death, fear, anxiety, stress and isolation of this current moment isn’t all there is.  It will give way to life and love and grace.  Maybe not soon, and certainly not without suffering along the way. But it is bound to, because Jesus lives.  The abundant life God wants for us can’t be held back.  Not in the end.

The world doesn’t change just because of an empty tomb.  But the people who hear and believe it do.  Because if Jesus is alive, then they have new life too.

It’s easy to celebrate Easter when flowers are in bloom and all is right with the world.  But that’s not the world we have – and that’s not a world that needs resurrection.

Instead we gather as we can in a world that feels so much more like death than resurrection and we say Christ is risen.  And there is something beautiful about this, our small act of resistance.  It’s the kind of hope that grits its teeth and refuses to let go.

Good Friday: Out of Control

Scripture: Luke 23:44-46

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to feel like things are in control. I don’t need to necessarily be in control, but I need to trust that someone who knows what they’re doing is. And so I make lists, because if I can organize the chaos in my mind, then I feel like I am in control of it. And I make plans B and C and D. And sometimes I micromanage, to make sure that someone else has thought of all the same details that I have. And too often, I worry, about what happens when things don’t go right.

It’s not a good time in our world to be a person who needs to feel like things are in control.

But it’s Good Friday and it feels a little bit liturgically correct to feel like everything is out of control, because on Good Friday, everything is – or at least it seems to be. Good Friday is out of control because we really do, deep down, want to know that good wins over evil in the end and it gets better and the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and on Good Friday, all of those things threaten not to be true. On Good Friday, the forces of sin and death and evil have their final say. The Gospel writers tell us that darkness covered the earth from noon to three pm as Jesus hung on the cross – darkness, during the day, symbolizing the reversal of created order. It’s existential chaos – not unlike now.

It’s not the same, I know; the world has seen hard times before, and yet as I read the news these days and it’s all surging death tolls and photographs of makeshift morgues and warnings to not even leave the house for groceries if you can help it, it’s hard to just believe that everything is going to be OK, and in fact, it seems for some people at least, it isn’t. And what kind of sense or order is there to the universe if everything isn’t going to be OK?

In the Matthew and Mark, Jesus himself seems to express that existential agony as he dies on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He may know what’s on the other side of all this – the Gospels tell us he does – but in the moment it must have been easy to forget. The one who is God is forsaken by God; on Good Friday nothing makes sense. In John, by contrast, even as things look their worst, Jesus is always calm and in control, and as he dies, he bows his head and says serenely, “It is finished.”

In Luke, though, we meet a Jesus somewhere in the middle, whose last words on the cross are “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

He knows, presumably, that there is life on the other side of this; he may not know at that moment of his death just what that looks like or what it means to get from A to B. But he knows the God who has been with him from the beginning, the one he calls Abba, the one who is love. And so, even on the cross, he is able to say these words of trust; even in death, he offers his life into God’s loving hands.

I find solace in those words at times like this. “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” I may not know what the future holds and I certainly can’t control what it looks like – how close this sickness will come to me, what claim it will lay to me, what claim it will lay to my loved ones, or what it will mean for life as we know it moving forward. What is there to do but to keep moving forward in the footsteps of Jesus when death threatens to win? What is there to do but to entrust my life and the lives of those I love into the hands of the one who is love, who has loved us from the beginning?

 

Prayer:

Merciful God, we entrust our lives and spirits to your care. In the days of our greatest fear and grief, we choose to believe that you are working for good. We may not know what lies ahead, but we know that you are love. May we hold fast to this truth, on this day and every day. Amen.

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Scripture: Matthew 6:9-13

I saw a post going around Facebook mid-last week: it said, “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but today is Wednesday.”  For those of us who are spending all our time at home right now – and I know that’s not all of us, because some of you are essential employees – but for those of who are maybe only changing out of our pajamas on a good day, at least, time does seem to blur together more than usual, wouldn’t you say?

That’s one of the things that makes me glad that we are now entering Holy Week, which is a specific week with specific days with specific meaning: Palm Sunday.  Maundy Thursday.  Good Friday.  It’s a week that grounds us in God’s story in God’s time, even when we may not feel especially grounded in our own.

That said, Holy Week can feel like a bit of a time warp itself.  We start on Sunday with the crowds chanting “hosanna” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, five days later we’re at the cross, two days later there’s an empty tomb.

And in the meantime, Jesus finds himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, after dinner has been eaten, after feet have been washed, praying as he prepares to face what he knows is ahead.

Jesus’ ministry began in temptation, as he contended with the devil in the wilderness right after his baptism. We might imagine things have come full circle now, as Jesus has to decide for the last time whether he’s really going to go through with all of it.  Maybe as he prayed that famous prayer, “If it is possible, take this cup from me – yet not my will, but yours, be done,” he remembered how taught his disciples to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

A few weeks ago someone emailed me, looking ahead in this series, and asked how we can pray that God not lead us into temptation.  Is it really God who leads us into temptation?  After all, in the letter of James, it says “When tempted, no one should say ‘God is tempting me.’”  It’s a good question that I’m not sure I have a good answer for, especially since I’m inclined to agree with James there: the world presents us with temptation; God leads us in right paths around and through it.  Some other translations take on the theological challenge by rendering it, “Keep us from being tempted” (as we read a minute ago – CEV), or “Don’t let us yield to temptation” (NLT).  Those translations take a bit more free license with the Greek, as far as I can tell, but I do think they help us think about the meaning of the line.  In the end, the truth is that we will face temptation one way or another. Our prayer should be that we will not let ourselves be led too far down that path, that God will deliver us before it’s too late.

When you hear that word, temptation, what comes to mind?  Something about food, maybe? Sex? I suppose either of those things could be within the realm of what Jesus meant, depending on the specifics, but they barely scratch the surface.  After all, if the next part of the line is “deliver us from evil”, or “the evil one,” that’s a lot bigger than the choices we make about our own apparent purity.  The Evil One doesn’t care if you have another piece of that cake. The Evil One wants you to fear your neighbor instead of loving them.

In some translations, instead of “temptation”, we might read “Do not bring us to the time of trial” (NRSV) which makes it sound even more specific, like maybe we’re talking about the end here: do not bring us to that final test, God, or if you do, help us to withstand it; help us to emerge victorious.  This is, after all, a prayer about God’s kingdom come on earth, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the language here gets kind of cosmic.  And that’s why when we pray it, we are praying something cosmic too: in the words of NT Wright, “it is the prayer that the forces of destruction, of dehumanization, of anti-creation, of anti-redemption, may be bound and gagged, and that God’s good world may escape from being sucked down into their morass.”[1] Deliver us, all together, from evil.

In their own book on the Lord’s Prayer, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas note that the language in this line of the prayer, ‘save,’ ‘trial,’ ‘deliver,’ are all “words of crisis.”  And I wonder if that makes them particularly timely words to pray now, as we face a global crisis – we are probably not in the end times, but it sure does feel like it sometimes.  Is coronavirus the kind of evil we pray for God to deliver us from?  I think we can and should – obviously at the same time we wash our hands and socially distance to the best of our abilities.  I also think it’s a good reminder that while anything that threatens the abundant life God wants for us here on earth, as it is in heaven, is evil, sickness isn’t the worst evil.  As Jesus says later in Matthew: “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul.”

Believe me, I say this as someone who tends toward anxiety in the best of times, and the news these days scares me.  I have no problem calling this virus evil.  But the worst evil is that everyday evil that tempts us as it threatens to kill our soul: our fear and hatred of each other, our playing life as a zero-sum game, where your gain is my loss; our inclination to make ourselves safe at any cost.

That’s the temptation Jesus faces in the Garden of Gethsemane as the Sunday hosannas fade and the tide of the week begins to turn.

As we enter this week, from Sunday to Friday and Sunday again; as we enter this next week of distancing and isolation and news that keeps us up at night, maybe you’ll find the words of this prayer Jesus taught ringing especially true to you: Give us what we need, each day.  Forgive us for the ways we fail you and each other.  Deliver us from evil – especially the evil that finds its way inside of us.

And may your Kingdom come, God.  May your Kingdom come.

 

[1] NT Wright, The Lord and His Prayer, p. 55