The wilderness. When you think about the wilderness, what is it that comes to the forefront for you? For some, you go to a desolate and scary place. Others of you might find it exciting and beautiful. Wilderness has been in my consciousness for a few months now.
I’m sure most of you know that I have a horse ministry that I offer when I’m not working here at CUCC. I call it Dancing Spirit and I often collaborate with Elizabeth Thompson who has a ministry called Eremos Consulting – Eremos meaning Wilderness in Greek. When the pandemic hit in March, we had to cancel 2 retreats that we had scheduled and started offering weekly meditations that we called Dancing the Wilderness combining our 2 names. Some of you have seen our videos. Our intention is to recognize that this pandemic can make us feel like we are in the wilderness – uncharted territory that we don’t know exactly how to navigate. And we recognize that wilderness can be both a place of wandering and feeling lost, but also a place of respite, discernment, beauty and wonder.
Yesterday we offered our first in person retreat of the year and sticking with our theme we called it Dancing the Wilderness. What made me say yes to Nicole when she asked me to preach today when I knew I was leading a retreat on the same weekend is beyond me. But as I prepared for this sermon, I realized that the Wilderness theme was present in the lectionary text so I guess there was a reason.
So the wilderness …
Let’s start with that Exodus story. The Israelites were fleeing slavery, wandering in the wilderness, following Moses and looking for the Promised Land from God. Along the way they faced many hardships and were sometimes hungry, sometimes thirsty, sometimes frustrated, and sometimes wondering what in the world they were doing and why. They cried out in despair. They were looking for answers and direction. Sound familiar to you?
One of the things they received as they wandered the wilderness were these 10 commandments – what many commentators describe as directions for a way to live in community with God and with one another. Amy Erickson, states “The commandments, are not simply a list of rules given to whip into shape a stiff-necked people; instead, they are better viewed as a means to form and nurture an alternative community, bound not by common goals of wealth and prestige, but rather by loyalty to a god who has chosen to redeem a group of slaves from a life of bondage. The commandments mean to sketch out a space where human beings can live fruitful, productive, and meaningful lives before God and with one another.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1068)
Of all the things the Israelites were looking or hoping for, I’m not sure these 10 commandments were what they were expecting. Now the other thing about these 10 commandments – am I the only one who doesn’t understand and finds troubling (to put it mildly) the line about not coveting my neighbor’s slave? That is for a different sermon.
What I think about is - what is it like when I am in my own wilderness? I think receiving this message would give me some direction but so not what I thought God would be offering!
But maybe that is what the gifts of the wilderness are – we receive what we need, not what we think we need. How can we see the wilderness as a place of wonder, discernment and maybe even respite?
Earlier this week I was feeling down, funky, lost, frustrated and tired. I guess you can say I was in a wilderness moment. I went out to the labyrinth I’ve built on our property to walk, pray and listen. As I walked in, I intentionally named everything I wanted to release. All the grumblings, burdens, anger, resentment, and frustration I was feeling. And I let myself feel in my body the stabbing, the heaviness, the cloudiness, the swirling, the chills, the heat. I noticed all the horse manure on the way in throughout the paths and walked around it, a bit annoyed because we have 5 acres of land and this is where they chose to leave piles. I also saw the rocks out of place and paused to put them back in line. There were wildflowers blooming too and I was careful not to step on them, but I had no appreciation. Once I reached the center ready to receive whatever God had for me, I paused, still feeling all the emotions and sensations I named on my walk in – they hadn’t quite all released. I looked down and saw the 2 rocks placed there – 1 a large rose quartz and another a heart shaped rock. I smiled and closed my eyes and then I experienced a huge release with a vision of God flooding light into me. It danced and pulsed playfully like a cool strobe light, and I let myself receive that nourishment and delight. When I opened my eyes and walked out to return, I noticed lots of things differently. The wildflower colors were more vibrant and beautiful. The manure made me smile knowing the horses had been there earlier. The rocks on the path had beautiful colors and patterns. And Harley (our dog) was racing around in some adventure having a grand time. It all made me smile and I noticed that I felt rejuvenated, refreshed, and more focused than I’ve been in a while. God walked with me in the wilderness, filled me with light and helped me realize I am not alone and reminded me of love, gratitude and hope.
This is one experience of being in the wilderness. You have your own – whether it’s a literal time out in the wilderness or like mine – a spiritual one.
Some of you know that I am a huge fan of Brene Brown’s work and her book Braving the Wilderness really speaks to the current landscape in our country. Brown often talks about humans being hard-wired for connection – that we need connection with each other to survive and thrive as a species. It’s a theme she writes and speaks about over and over. And yet, what we see occurring in our culture is that we are more divided than ever, and fear, anger, and anxiety are front and center.
One of the things that strikes me is that amidst this pandemic, political tensions, and confronting our racist history – past and present – it is remarkably similar to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness with things in disarray, wondering what in the world is happening and what are we doing and why? Do we let that wilderness make us feel trapped, alone and burdened or how can we be curious, be discerning, find respite and hope? How do we get to a place of living in connection, truly belonging to God and with one another, especially when everywhere we look it seems like we are getting further apart?
She offers 4 elements in her book that I think goes along with the 10 commandments.
“People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
Speak truth to nonsense (her word -bullshit). Be civil.
Hold Hands. With Strangers.
Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.”
From Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging about what it means and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2017 by Brené Brown. All rights reserved.
I could probably do a whole sermon series on these 4 elements filled with examples from our current times and from the Bible illuminating these truths. Your mind is likely going over examples of when these haven’t been followed in the last few days, weeks, months, or years. By others of course – not us!
But aren’t these 4 things exactly what God asks of us? Isn’t this what Beloved Community means? Boiled down – these sum up the 10 commandments in modern language. Not easy to be sure but our call as Christians in the world.
When I learned about the 40 Days of Prayer As Our Nation Prepares to go to the Polls from a clergy colleague, I knew right away I personally needed to participate and many of you have chosen to join me on the journey. You might recognize the acknowledgement of 40 Days (or 40 years as is the case of the Israelites) and wilderness experiences. Noah, Jesus, Lent – our tradition is filled with 40 in relation to wilderness. Anyway … what I appreciate about this 40 Days of Prayer practice is that it is really helping me go deep and is challenging me to move beyond my comfort zone. To move beyond the surface and pray for healing of divisions. To pray for God’s blessing on everyone – even those who are on a different side. To pray and envision God moving within each of us to answer God’s call to create God’s kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven. To pray for understanding that God is at work even when I don’t understand or can’t see it. To offer my weariness and burdens knowing that Jesus walks with me on this journey. To pray in quiet and stillness because it’s ok to rest and trust in God’s abiding vision and love for us and the world. It’s not an easy practice, but one so necessary and one that can bring us closer to living and being in that space where we can live as Erickson says, “where human beings can live fruitful, productive, and meaningful lives before God and with one another.”
On this World Communion Sunday as we gather with believers from across the world – how about we find what holds us together? How about we lean into the discomfort of all of our emotions and feelings and not rush to fix them or pretend they aren’t there, but really feel them for as long as it takes? How about we walk out of the wilderness, holding hands (virtually of course) with one another knowing that the God who calls us out of the wilderness has a heart large enough to love everyone? How about we take the first step and not wait for someone else to start? Let’s find the wonder in the wilderness and let God lead us.