The Journey and the Crossroads
September 13, 2020 | Sarah Stewart
There are those days that you will always remember, not the wonderful days of some joy in your life, but the days when something terrible happened in our world. We just remembered the anniversary of September 11, 2001. That was such a day for many of us. And I expect that for most of you as for me, there is a day in the middle of March of this year, that will also remain in your memory forever.
For our family, it was Sunday, March 15. You'll remember perhaps that we had church here that morning. We had wondered all week if this was the right thing to do. Many churches canceled their services that morning. I think I talked to our lay leaders and our staff every day that week trying to figure out the right thing to do. And finally, we decided we would have worship here, a group of about 50 people came together. We didn't have any coffee hour, we had a short service, people kept their distance, no handshaking no hugging, but we were able to be together and
know that it was the last time we might be together for a while. That evening I sat around the dinner table with my family, and when we got a call from the school district, we answered it even though we don't usually answer the phone during dinner. We put the call on speaker, and we heard the superintendent tell us that school was closed and would move online for the rest. Well, we didn't necessarily know then for at least a few weeks and it turned out for the rest of the semester. And I held my son's hands as they hung their heads and realize just how much life was changing all at once. We knew we were in for hard times. We heard that case counts go up on the radio every day. We wondered if the people we loved were safe. We mourned those who died, we prayed with those who were sick. I will remember Sunday, March 15, as the day we entered the wilderness.
Now we do not relish our time in the wilderness. We don't like it here, we humans; we dislike the uncertainty, the suffering, the loneliness, the privation. We miss the comforts of our former lives. And we long for the promised land that's somewhere out there in the future ahead of us. Yet this is where we find ourselves right now on this journey, betwixt, in between, held in a liminal space. As uncomfortable as it is, it is here in the wilderness, in the between times, where the holy can speak to us most clearly. This is where we find our true selves, on the journey to discover the way we need to go. We can think of Sacred Journeys in the wilderness. I think of Muhammad exiled from Mecca. I think of Jesus tempted beyond the Jordan. But the sacred story that comes most, to my mind is the Israelites in the desert. So, you know this story pretty well I think, the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt with the pharaoh’s army swallowed up in the Red Sea behind them. When they have nothing to eat, God sends manna and quails so that they won't starve. They make camp at Mount Sinai. While Moses is up the mountain talking to God, the people form the golden calf in an effort to have something concrete to worship. Moses comes down and through struggle the people Israel finally accept the covenant, the 10 commandments, and the law. God says I will be your God and you will be my people and the people accept the covenant. You know that's the story the way we remember it. But that is nowhere near the end of the story. Israel wanders in the wilderness for 40 years. Those Israelites have so much more to live through. They make their way to Canaan and they discover they're afraid of the Canaanites, they have to overcome that fear. They lose their original leaders; Aaron, Miriam, and Moses, and they have to accept new ones; a difficult time for any community. They become a people united together by something more than their hardship; they form alliances with other tribes they have enmities, they discover their moral center. And in those 40 years they live into their covenant, they expand their law. They break and renew their sacred agreements over and over again as they learned what it means to be Yahweh’s people. It is in the wilderness that the Israelites become the people who are able to enter the promised land. It's only in the wilderness that they can meet their guy. It was there that they learned who they were and where they were going. If you think about the story, the Israelites had to go into the desert to meet their God. He was waiting for them at Mount Sinai. Even Moses, when Moses first encounters the god it's not in the cities of Egypt, it's in the wilderness in the burning bush. The Holy speaks to people most clearly in the margin. Betwixt in between. In the literal or spiritual wilderness. When we're comfortable we just don't hear that voice as clearly.
This is in so many stories; Jesus flees to the desert after his baptism to understand his mission more clearly, Ruth finds community with strangers, the Buddha has to leave his comfortable Palace in order to learn his spiritual mission and become enlightened, Julian of Norwich receives her visions only in extreme illness, and even in that suffering says, “all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” So here we are in our wilderness, as a people, it's going on longer than we would like, and where in this time are we hearing the call from our deepest values and our highest calling? I hear the voice of God in the cry for racial justice that goes up from Kenosha, from Rochester, from Louisville, from Minneapolis, from all those places where black and brown people have lost life and limb at the hands of the police. This is surely a divine voice calling us back into covenant, calling us to justice, calling us to hear the voice of the Holy, from those who are most at risk in our community. I hear the voice of the Holy in the cries of our earth for relief from overuse and abuse of our natural home. The Israelites were led by a column of cloud and fire. Can we hear the divine voice and the fires raging on the west coast? The voice that says the planet is too hot, and we must change our ways. That voice commands us to use our industry and innovation to help and not to harm. It is the divine voice of the Earth
itself, crying out to us for peace. And then here in the wilderness, and especially in this particular wilderness that has imposed a kind of solitude and silence and quieting down on our lives. We hear more clearly that inner voice that clarifies what's really important in our lives. We hear our deepest values ring true to the suffering of the COVID pandemic. Sorrow for the precious lives we have lost, solidarity with those who have lost jobs, who struggle to feed their families, who don't know where the rent will come from, compassion for those still laboring under the symptoms of coronavirus, some for months after their acute illness ends. The voice of our deepest values speaks to us and says that in our land of plenty flowing with milk and honey, it didn't have to be this bad. We must emerge from the wilderness into a better world for all.
God speaks to us in the wilderness. But whenever we're on a journey, we need to be on the lookout for tricksters and dangers as well, because by definition when we're wandering in the wilderness, it means we don't exactly know which way to go. We're in this in between space, we're on the threshold of one thing or another. There's not necessarily a blazed trail in front of us telling us ‘just walk this way and you'll get there…Promised Land 200 miles ahead.’ No, we are on uncertain ground and sometimes we come to a place where our path…this… maybe beaten down place of grass that we're walking, and we think maybe this is the right way to go and when we come to a crossroads, a place where another path seems to cross ours and now what do we do? do we go forward? do we turn to the left or the right? And the stories are full of meeting the trickster at this point at the crossroads where you could make a decision and where things could go wrong. Stories of the American South say you meet the devil at the crossroads, the trickster at the moment of decision. I think about those birds in the story that Juliet and Abby told this morning, on their long journey, they must have faced decisions about which way they were supposed to go. Should we really go over this fiery mountain? are we headed in the right direction? And like those birds, our heart commitments will help keep us on the right path. What are our deepest values? Helpfulness, caring, respect, understanding the truth, loving the truth, as we say in our covenant, and seeking after it, sharing leadership with one another, practicing honesty and community. We don't know how long we'll be here, in this wilderness; we need these gifts to get us through. I wish I had a different answer for you. But we don't know how long we'll be here in this wilderness, the wilderness of coronavirus, the wilderness of racial injustice, the wilderness of the Earth's pain. We are in this for the long-haul, friends. What I do know is that it is here that we become ourselves, here that we know who we are, here that we are found and become the people who can enter the promised land. Not some other place, but here, not some more comfortable reality, but this spot betwixt in between, not some other people, but us, not some other time, but now. We may yet discover that on the journey, we find the promised land after all. That if love and goodness can hang together with power, even the wilderness can bloom and the dry land run with water, so that all can drink, and be whole again.
I love you all. Amen.