Union University Church
Nov 19, 2017
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In November of 2016, hours after the Chicago Cubs broke a 108 year old curse to win the World Series, the cemeteries of Chicago sprouted Cubs’ hats and flags draped across the tombstones of loved ones. Sharon Sokas said that she had put a Cubs’ flag on her husband Michael’s grave because she watched the entire series with her husband constantly in her mind.
“He would have been ecstatic,” Sokas said as she stood at her husband’s grave. “He would have been thrilled. That’s why I feel like I went through this World Series for him.”
Think of the number of things that we have seen in our lifetimes that people in the past worked for and longed for, yet never lived to see: for some, walking on the moon, for others the fall of the Berlin Wall, for all of us here the legalization of gay marriage, the Mars probe, the first African-American president. In these moments, our celebrations are populated by the memories of so many who we know would have rejoiced with us at that moment yet whose passing occurred before the fulfillment of their dreams.
Of the thousands of Israelites who fled before Pharaoh’s army, only two families finally cross the Jordan River to see the Promised Land: the families of Joshua and Caleb. Earlier in the story, Joshua and Caleb had been two of the 12 spies sent to check out the land of Canaan, but when they returned from their reconnaissance mission, ten of the 12 spies told Moses and the Israelites that Canaan was a frightening place. They’d be better off hunkering down in the wilderness for the rest of their lives. Only Joshua and Caleb trusted in God’s word and encouraged the people to move forward, but the Israelites allowed the fear of the ten to consume them and refused to go, so the people wandered for forty more years until that first generation of escaped slaves died out. I wonder how many times during that 40 years the people regretted that long ago fear. As their sojourn in the wilderness burned away their uncertainty and strengthened their spirits, I wonder how many times they dreamed of the unfulfilled promise and hoped that at least their children would live to step foot in the new land? When Joshua and Caleb finally did lead the children of that generation across the Jordon, certainly they carried with them the memories of parents, grandparents, and friends thinking, “How they would have loved to have been here with us for this moment.”
The story of the Hebrew scriptures is the story of men and women always working their way toward the land of promise — whether it be the physical land of Canaan or whether it be the spiritual land of justice and compassion envisioned by the prophets. And like the Hebrew people, most of us will spend a greater proportion of our lives in the wilderness, working toward a promise that we may never see. We will work for greater equality among people, for the alleviation of poverty, for understanding and acceptance of others different from ourselves, for the healing of the earth, and for the eradication of hunger, and though we may experience moments when we cross into the promise and have a long awaited struggle rewarded, for most of us for much of our lives, the fullness — the totality — of the promise waits just out of reach on the other side of the Jordan. What we feel, however, as the frustration of unfulfilled dreams, the Bible sees as necessary to our spiritual development. In fact, the wilderness experience of the Israelites was so central to the self-understanding of the Jewish people that the gospel writers saw echoes of that experience in Jesus’s own time in the wilderness before he began his ministry. Because in the wilderness, scripture tells us, our faith is tested and strengthened, and in the wilderness we can learn the crucial lesson of how to be at peace with our doubts, how to accept our frailties instead of berating ourselves for our imperfections and failures. In the wilderness, we can learn how to trust in God’s presence and strength instead of depending only on our own limited selves. The people of Israel initially entered the wilderness as people who may have been physically free but who were still bound by the chains of Egypt on their hearts. It took a generation for them to learn who they truly were as a people and who God was calling them to be. God knew that the Promised Land isn’t just a physical place — it is a way of being. If that first generation had crossed from the Red Sea and hiked directly to Canaan without stopping, they may have physically set up tents in Canaan but they would still have been slaves in their hearts and minds, slaves to the injustices, doubts, and weaknesses that Egypt had wrought on their spirits. It took a generation to prepare them to be the people God needed them to be.
So what happened for the Israelites in the wilderness that prepared them for the Promised Land? What might be happening for us as we struggle with the frustration of our wandering, with the desert of our longings and the unfulfilled promise?
The first thing that happened was that the people learned to see.
In the late 1800s, a French entomologist named Jean Henri Fabre was walking in the woods one day when he saw a number of caterpillars marching in a long unbroken line front to back, front to back. Curious about this behavior, he captured a couple dozen of the caterpillars, took them home, and placed them on the the rim of a large flowerpot. He linked them nose to posterior and started them walking in a closed circle. For days, the caterpillars followed one another around the pot like a perpetual merry-go-round, and although food was near at hand, the caterpillars were obviously going to starve to death rather than break their endless march to nowhere. There was no caterpillar who was able to see beyond the butt of the one in front of it, no caterpillar able to envision a journey’s end, and so there was no caterpillar to lead the others out of the ceaseless circle.
Before the Israelites could live as God’s people, they had to know what living as God’s people looks like. They had to be able to envision the end goal of their journey. That meant that they had to understand the true nature of God’s mercy and justice, and think about how to build a society that would be truly grounded in the tenets of compassion, community, freedom, and grace. The only rule they had known previously was the authoritarian rule of Pharaoh where the people’s needs were inconsequential to the way the society was structured, and it is likely that had they raced right from Egypt to Canaan, they would have set up a society similar to the totalitarian dictates they had known before. It’s all they could see. In the wilderness, God showed them that they could be a nation where all people are holy, and all people valued in God’s eyes, but it took a generation for them to begin to even comprehend what that might look like. And we know from the biblical witness that even after that generation, the people who finally crossed over the Jordan were still mere infants in understanding. Throughout their history, they continued to fail as often as they succeeded and constantly needed the prophets to open their eyes again to God’s vision.
Today, we as people of faith are called by Christ to continue to bring our society into alignment with God’s promise of wholeness, goodness, and peace, and frankly, we still struggle with understanding what that looks like. Sometimes it is only in the wilderness when everything is thrown completely out of alignment that we suddenly can see what is really important. Right now for example, the recent wave of accusations of sexual harassment have cast our nation into chaos. We are uncertain now of what should be acceptable, what should be forgivable, and what should be condemned, and it feels as if we are wandering in the wilderness but that chaos is necessary because it is only through the arguing, the indecision, the doubts, and the confusion that we will be freed from our past easy comfort in Egypt. We need to be shaken out of our acceptance of injustice as the rule of the day in order to hone our vision of what a society grounded in equality truly looks like. If we can’t see where we want to go, we will end up like those caterpillars marching in an endless circle on the road to nowhere.
You have probably experienced this in your own life when an unexpected diagnosis or the failure of a relationship plunged you into a wilderness of the soul and yet later you realized that the struggles of those times actually helped clarify your understanding of yourself and what you value most in life. It burned out the unnecessary trivial concerns and focused your vision on what is most important. We may prefer to avoid the wilderness altogether but when we accept the wilderness as sometimes an importantpart of our faith journey, we can use what we learn there to see life and see our faith call more clearly.
The second thing that the Israelites needed to learn in the wilderness is to not let fear rule over them. At the beginning of the Exodus, the Israelites were afraid of everything: they were afraid of dying of hunger, they were afraid of dying of thirst, they were afraid of being left alone; they were afraid of their own shadows. Fear consumed them and it was their fear that led them to make some of their most grievous mistakes. Probably one of the most repeated admonitions in the bible is “Do not be afraid” because the bible knows the power that fear has over the human heart.
The legendary Knute Rockne, football coach for Notre Dame, was once facing a critical football game against a vastly superior Southern California team. Rockne recruited every brawny student he could find at Notre Dame and suited up about a hundred hulks in the school uniform. On the day of the game, the Southern California team ran out on the field first and awaited the visiting Fighting Irish. Out of the dressing room came an army of green giants who kept on coming and coming. The USC team panicked. Their coach reminded them that Rockne could only play eleven men at a time but the damage was done. USC lost. They didn’t lose to the Fighting Irish; they were beaten by their own fear.
Joshua and Caleb were the only ones of that original generation who made it to the Promised Land because they were the only ones who trusted God instead of trusting what their fear was telling them. The rest listened to their fear and never saw the promise.
Finally, the wilderness taught the people patience. In the Bible, the number 40 is an idiom for a very long time. If I say, “There were a bajillion people in line,” I don’t literally mean a bajillion, however many that is. I mean that there were so many I couldn’t count them all and that I was overwhelmed by the number. So too, when the Bible says that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, or that the people were in the wilderness for 40 years, it means, “It went on for so long that we lost count and began to think it was never going to end.” During the long long stay in the wilderness, the people learned patience. They learned that even if they couldn’t see the promised land, they could still work their way toward peace, freedom, and wholeness. They could teach the vision to their children so that they would carry on after they were done. They could learn to rejoice in the work itself even if they might never see the fruit of their labor.
Christ knew that the work to which we are called would be long, and sometimes hard, and for some of us, never completed, but that in faith we can learn to take joy in the journey together. On Friday night, I took six of our kids up to Rochester to attend prayer services at the Islamic Center, and then we stayed overnight so that we could also go to a Jewish synagogue, and the Vespers service at a monastery. It was a wonderful experience for the kids, but maybe one of the things they will remember the most was a spontaneous opportunity to express our faith together. We stayed overnight at Lake Avenue Baptist Church and as we left the church yesterday morning, a woman and her two little children came in looking for a phone. The kids were loading the car so I said, “You can use my cell phone.” The woman thanked me and made a call, and then began a long conversation with someone in Spanish which I couldn’t understand. All I knew was that she was becoming increasingly upset. After five minutes, we were ready to leave but the woman still had my phone and by this time, she was in tears so I was very uncomfortable telling her to wrap up her conversation. I approached her seven year old son and asked if he knew what the problem was. It turned out that someone who owed her money was refusing to give it to her and she had no money for food for herself and her two children. She was hoping to get at least $20 from this person to help them eat over the weekend.
If we didn’t leave soon, we were going to be late for the Temple service but the woman still had my phone so I realized that the easiest way to solve both this woman’s problem and mine was to give her some money for food. I only had $5 in cash so I ran out to the kids and said, “Do you think we can collect $20 between us all for this woman who needs to buy food for her family?” The kids immediately started emptying their wallets, literally throwing cash at me. I gathered the bills in my hands and dumped the pile of money into the woman’s lap. We don’t even know how much we gave her but we later calculated that it must have been 50 or 60 dollars. She was astonished, and her tears of fear turned to tears of joy. She leaped up and hugged me, hugged me again as she hung up and handed me my phone, and then sent her son out to our car to say thank you one more time. I found out later that some of the money the kids gave me was money for their own suppers so we ate light that afternoon but also light of heart. We didn’t eradicate poverty in the world or even in that woman’s life, but we knew the joy of serving, and experienced a moment of grace in this wilderness.
The lesson of the wilderness is this:
See the promise: in faith, learn to see the world as God would have it, a world of mercy and grace, of compassion for others, and justice for all people.
Don’t be afraid of the promise. Though the old world may feel more comfortable because of its familiarity, a new way of living together may bring unexpected opportunities and surprising joy.
Be patient, teach our children to carry on in faith after us, and discover the joy of the work of service while we wait to cross into the Promised Land.