Sermon for April 28th, 2019
1 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.
Wandering, Wondering, and Seeking Wisdom - Part I
I know a thing or two about wandering. Fourteen years ago, my two younger brothers and I had the brilliant idea that we wanted to hike part of the Appalachian trail. We had the perfect plan--it involved packing two large inflatable kayaks (and paddles) into our gear, hiking North at a section of the trail that ran more or less parallel to a major river, then floating back down to our basecamp. It should be noted that our combined hiking expertise at the time consisted of one college degree in English Literature, and two partially completed degrees in Social Work. I was 29, and my brothers were 21. What could possibly go wrong, right?
The first mistake was a few days into our hike, when we left the Appalachian trail to climb a nearby mountain, which our $3.00 map and trail guide indicated had a well-marked, easily accessible path to the top, with a nice scenic view. Probably the trail *was* well-marked and accessible in the 1970s when the map was produced. We quickly lost any semblance of a trail, or our location--on a map or otherwise. It was an overcast day, hard to tell where the sun was...by the time we got to the top it was dark (so much for the scenic view). The next day (still overcast) we wandered down the mountain, no idea which direction we were headed, and ended up going through the thickest part of the underbrush. I was wearing the pack with the heavy inflatable kayaks, oars sticking out every direction and getting caught in every bush and tree.
At one point in the midst of all this, my cell phone must have picked up a connection, and without my knowledge, butt-dialed Amy who was back at home, seven months pregnant with our first child. She could hear us talking about being lost, and whether the large animal droppings we kept seeing looked they belonged to a black bear or a brown bear? That's an important distinction, by the way. If you run into a black bear in the woods, you're supposed to play dead. If you run into a brown bear, you ARE dead. One of my brothers reminded me, of course, that it's not necessary (or even possible) to outrun a brown bear. You just have to outrun the slowest brother--you know, the one with the heaviest pack and all the oars.
To make a long story short, we never found the trail, the river, or even got to use the kayaks--we were rescued by a friendly state trooper who, thankfully, drove us back to our base camp and suggested that there were some excellent hiking trails in a nearby city park that might be more to our ability level.
We did a lot of wandering on that trip. We did a lot of wondering (like, "I wonder where we are?). And I suppose we gained some valuable wisdom along the way (kayaks and oars are definitely not useful for mountain hiking).
Last year, after a season of conversation and discernment, the session (board of elders) for First Presbyterian Church adopted a new vision statement--To be a church for Wanderers, Wonderers, and Seekers of Wisdom. I hope to spend some time in the next few weeks talking more about what that means, what that looks like, and how we can live into that vision.
In particular, today I want to focus on the first part: Wandering. What does it mean to wander, in a spiritual sense, and what does it mean for us to be a church that specifically reaches out to and embraces spiritual wanderers?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives three different definitions of the verb "To Wander," and I think all three can be viewed in a spiritual sense as well. The first is to move about without a fixed course, aim or goal.
In 20th century America, Christianity was highly focused (I would say *too* focused) on achieving specific goals: Conversion, salvation, getting into heaven when you die. There's nothing wrong with these goals in and of themselves, but if you're overly fixated on your destination, you sometimes miss some great things along the way.
The best example I can think of this is the Apostle's creed, which we say every Sunday in worship. It has a lot of great affirmations in it, but one thing bothers me: We say, "I believe in Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. Whoah! Wait a minute...he's born, and then within the space of one comma, he suffers and dies! What about his life? What about his teachings? What about the miracles, and the parables and all the relationships? Do we not believe in those, too? But that's what happens when we skip to the end because we are too focused on our fixed course, aim, or goal.
In any case, most people who come to the church in the 21st century don't come because they want to be converted, saved, or because they lay awake at nights wondering what will happen when they die. They usually only worry about those things when someone (typically from a church) convinces them they should be worrying about those things. That's kind of like the vacuum cleaner salesman who throws dirt on your carpet so he can sell you a solution to the problem he just created.
Most people I have spiritual conversations with tell me they have a sense of something missing in their spirituality, but aren't exactly sure what it is. They aren't looking for someone to tell them all the answers or how they should live, but rather a group of people who will explore a particular path with them, and help them come to their own conclusions. We aim to be that kind of church, for those kinds of people--people who are wandering, more interested in the journey than a fixed destination. In ancient Hebrew, the word used to describe God's spirit is רוּחַ (ruach), which means air, breath, or wind. We are people willing to go where the wind (or the Spirit) blows us.
The second definition of Wander from Merriam-Webster is "To follow a winding course, to meander." Our scripture passage from Deuteronomy describes an ancient Jewish ritual, where each year at harvest time, people would bring the best of their harvest, offer it to God, and share it with each other (notice they were also commanded to share the best of what they had with the foreigners who lived among them). As part of the ritual, they would recite the following words:
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien." Later, "The Lord brought us out of Egypt . . . and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey." And of course anyone who knows the story also remembers that in between Egypt and the promised land, the Israelites wandered around in the desert for 40 years.
Why all this meandering? If God is God, why not just poof the people into the promised land? Why did they have to go South (and then East, and West, and South again) in order to go North? God knows that the straightest path may be the fastest, but it's usually not the best. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that in your spiritual journey, in your faith, if you have never left the beaten path, if you have never wandered through adversity, through diversity, engaged with competing and conflicting beliefs and traditions...then there's probably not a lot of depth to your faith.
For this reason, we aspire to be a church that promotes spiritual wandering, meandering, questioning and exploring. That's not to say that all spiritual paths are equal, or even that all paths are good -- as human beings, we have certainly come up with some pretty warped and dangerous belief systems (some of them even within Christianity).
But we also trust that a God with the capacity to orchestrate the movements of the stars and the laws of physics would have the ability to guide us in our wanderings--to show us the truth that can be found in other paths, other traditions, as well as the falsehoods that can often be found in our own.
St. Augustine, in the 4th century, famously said that the world is like a book, and those who never wander it only read one page. It's worth noting that before Augustine eventually settled into the Christian faith, he explored and *practiced* almost every religious tradition available in his time. He was still a skeptic of Christianity when he was welcomed (and employed as a teacher) by the church in the city of Milan. They didn't try to convert him. They just loved him, answered his questions, were patient with his skepticism, and trusted that he would eventually find what he was looking for. May we, too, be that kind of church--a church that welcomes, loves, and respects those who are meandering their way, slowly, toward the divine.
The third (and final) definition of Wander in Merriam-Webster's dictionary is "To go astray, morally." This definition already has a built in spiritual angle to it. Whatever your belief, whether you are a Christian, a Zoroastrian, a secular humanist... Whatever ethical code you subscribe to, even if it's one you came up with by yourself, this one thing is certain: At some point, you will fail to live up to it. You will disappoint yourself, your friends, your loved ones, your God--because you aren't perfect; you're human. And humans make mistakes. We go astray, we wander.
But we also have an amazing capacity to forgive--ourselves, each other, and (in our tradition) we believe in a God who is quick to forgive us, too. What does it mean to be a church for people who wander in this sense, people who go astray, morally? Well, first, it means we're a church for everyone. And we don't get to pretend that *we* are somehow more righteous or better than those who are not sitting here Sunday mornings -- we're all in the same boat...and it's sinking. We are all worthy of second chances, do-overs, mercy and grace. When we fall down, we get back up. Better yet, when someone falls down in our midst, or in our wider community, we reach out a hand to help them up.
I'm going to end today with a poem that you're probably going to get sick of hearing this year, a poem by the author J.R.R. Tolkien, of Hobbit and Lord of the Ring fame. I love this poem not because I'm a Tolkien nerd (though clearly I am) but because Tolkien himself was a man of deep and abiding faith. On the surface, this poem is about one of his fictional characters -- Aragorn, the beggarly wanderer who turns out to be the heir to the throne.
But just below the surface, if you listen carefully, I think Tolkien was writing about you, and me, and all those who wander in this life; about the unlikely, unexpected people that God loves to call into service. When he speaks of deep roots, he is speaking of faith. When he speaks of fire, he is speaking of spirit. When he speaks of broken and renewed, he is speaking of failure and forgiveness. And when he speaks of gold and kings and crowns, he is speaking of the quiet, hidden dignity, the immeasurable worth and potential that God has breathed into every person.
All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king