September 25, 2011
Exodus 17: 1-7
Today we continue our journey towards becoming the beloved that we are. We continue to walk with Henri Nouwen through his book “Life of the Beloved” and we continue to listen as he speaks to us of how he found the movement of his own spiritual journey in the movement of communion, in the words: “Jesus took bread and blessed it; he broke it and gave it to them.
Last week we talked about the first movement, of being taken and blessed and we explored that it is when we accept that we are chosen by God, when we are able to see that God is invested in who we are and how we are, that our hearts open to seeing that God’s generous grace does not exclude, that God is also invested in who and how the other is. And we explored how being chosen by God is not a neutral thing — that God chooses us so that we will join God and each other as laborers in the vineyard, working for the day when all will have enough.
Today we will engage the second movement of this spiritual journeying – becoming broken. Jesus took bread, blessed it; and then he broke it.
But first, Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN.
For our honeymoon, Mark and I took a trip to Alaska. We brought our tent, sleeping bags, cook stove and back packs and headed into the back country wilderness. Have any of you been to Alaska? It is unlike anywhere else. Sweeping valleys, soaring mountains, dirt roads turning in to dirt paths and then disappearing all together. Awesome beauty, staggering vastness.
Now as a child my family did a lot of camping and I am very much at home in the woods. In fact, there is no place I’d rather be than surrounded by birch trees, Norway pines and blue spruce.
But being in the wilds of Alaska is an entirely different matter all together. The first night Mark and I camped, there was a posting on the sign board as we drove into the campground saying that a grizzly bear had been spotted in the area the day before and it warned us to be particularly careful with our storing and cooking of food.
That night, I do not think Mark and I slept at all. We lay in our little nylon tent rigid with adrenaline. With every drop of a pinecone or snap of a twig we sat bolt upright scanning woods around us in the dusty half light of the Alaskan midsummer night. We were completely unnerved knowing that there was something out there in the wildness of the woods that would not think twice about having us for breakfast.
“From the wilderness,” begins the passage from Exodus this morning. From the wilderness — a vast and wild place.
The wilderness of the Sinai is unforgiving. It is hot and dry, with little shelter, and lots of sand and rock. And the Israelites are feeling the strain of such a harsh landscape. Last week they were hungry, very hungry. This week they are thirsty, very thirsty. Journeying from this wilderness is not easy.
That sleepless night for Mark and I was certainly taxing. But the threat we faced was purely an external one. The bear that threatened us was in the woods and not in our souls. The external landscape was unnerving but internally, our hearts and our spirits were steady and full of joy knowing what our new life with each other was sure to bring.
But things are different for the Israelites. They face the challenges of not only an exacting external landscape of hunger and thirst, of heat and want. But they also face an exacting internal landscape full of fear at not knowing what their new life with each other and with God is going to bring.
For the text tells us that the people quarreled and complained, that they turned on Moses and most fearsome of all that they tested the Lord saying “Is the Lord among us or not?” The Israelites are thirsty yes, but more than that they are afraid. They are afraid that God is no longer with them in their suffering. They fear that they are alone, exposed. They know that the life they had before is no longer but they cannot yet imagine what life looks like now and they do not like it one bit.
I see some of you nodding your heads. You know that wilderness don’t you? At one time or another or perhaps even right now we all have been there. We have been in a place of vulnerability where we feel exposed and cannot yet imagine what life on the other side of all of this will look like.
· Some of us know the wilderness of losing some one so dear that we really don’t know how we will even go on breathing.
· Some of us know the wilderness of what it is to feel the pain and loss as bit by bit our body wilts under the burden of aging, or disease.
· Some of us know the wilderness of being seized with a worry that edges on panic as we tuck our children into bed at night fearing for their future, fearing for the world we are leaving them.
· Some of us know the wilderness of wandering through an empty house wondering who we are now that our children have left.
But as unnerving as all of this can be, there can be an even more fearsome threat. Nouwen goes so far as to call it a curse. And this is that we can begin to think that we are all alone in this wilderness of ours. Hurting and frightened, we have the tendency in these wilderness times to turn in upon ourselves in an instinctive posture of self protectiveness.
Now I was told that if one does encounter a grizzly bear, one is suppose to fall to the ground, curl up in a fetal position with one hand slung over ones head to protect the vulnerability of the neck and play dead. In that prone posture, we are told one has the best chance of surviving an attack.
But, the only problem with this fetal position, of curling in on one’s self, is that it is hard to see. Our gaze is so deeply within and our heart so tuned to self preservation that we cannot see much around us. And because of that, it is easy to think that we are on our own, that God is gone, that our friends have fled and that we are left alone to be devoured by that which wounds us.
And then worst of all, as we lay all curled up, we might even begin to think that we deserve this pain, that somehow we must have brought it on our selves, because we are so deeply flawed.
· My marriage failed because I am not loveable.
· My child is having a hard time because I am a failure as a parent.
· My career is going nowhere because I don’t have what it takes.
Nouwen writes “we see our pain as confirmation of our negative feelings about ourselves. It is like saying, “I always suspected that I was useless or worthless [or flawed in some deep way] and now I am sure of it because of what is happening to me.” The fear, isolation and self absorption that over takes us in these wilderness times are signs of our brokenness, not the wilderness itself. What makes the wilderness in the Exodus account a wilderness of Sin, of brokenness, is not the fact that it was a harsh landscape, that it was hot and the people were thirsty. What makes this wilderness a wilderness of Sin is that the people turned from God. They turned from the truth that they were God’s beloved, chosen and blessed by God. They turned back into themselves so much so that they no longer could even see God.
I find it incredibly moving to know that these Exodus accounts of wilderness and brokenness are the defining, foundational texts of the Jewish people. These are the sacred texts that the people return to over and over again to deepen their understanding of who they are and how God is with them. I find it deeply moving that these most beloved foundational texts are the ones that reveal so profoundly the brokenness of the God’s chosen people.
These identity forming texts reveal that becoming the beloved means accepting that we will have wilderness times and in their midst we will very likely experience brokenness. Brokenness within ourselves, brokenness in our relationship with others, and brokenness in our relationship with God.
But to read these texts is also to remember that in the midst of this brokenness, God loves us so much that God will not leave us in a place of brokenness. God is there whether we see it or not, God is there actively leading us from the wilderness of Brokenness while at the same time dropping bread from heaven and drawing water from rocks.
And this, of course, is the work of Jesus. In the passage from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, Jesus is standing in the temple, the epicenter of Jewish religious authority and the religious leaders, those who pride themselves on being models of righteousness, devout followers of the law, are squaring off with Jesus about his authority to do and say what he does and what he says.
But Jesus sees right through their robes and vestaments and into their hearts, and into their brokenness that they do not face. He tells them that tax collectors and prostitutes, those who were considered to be the most sinful, the most broken people of the day, will enter the kingdom before them, these chief priests and elders. For the tax collectors and prostitutes, like the first son in the parable, are not blind to their brokenness. They see it and in their brokenness they have a change of mind, which in Greek means metanoia, a turning and opening of mind, body and soul.
It is the tax collectors and prostitutes who have the courage to accept that they are broken people and in doing so to uncurl from a posture of self protection and isolation, and to turn instead to one of openness and receptivity to others and most of all to God.
It is changing of our minds that we practice every Sunday morning at the start of our service in our prayer of confession. We practice accepting our brokenness and we practice uncurling our bodies. We practice how to turn back to each other and to God. For the journey out of the wilderness is one that we do together, loving and supporting, helping and carrying each other through the difficult times. The wilderness may still be scary and hard, and like Mark and me that night we may get little sleep when we are in it, but with each other to lean on and with God to guide us, can find our way through these times of wilderness together and in wholeness, not brokenness.
I’d like to close with a story that one of our Sunday school teachers told me last fall after a lesson on how we can count on God when we are going through a hard time. The teacher told me that one of the kids in her class, a first grader at the time, who had just made the transition to the wilderness of elementary school said that yes, she knew what the lesson was all about. Because the other day when she at recess when it was time to go back into the building, she did not know what to do. And she was really scared because she could not find her teacher; she did not know what door to go through; what line she was supposed to stand in. And then she saw a boy who was a few grades older that she knew from church. And she said she was so happy to see him, because she knew that she did not need to be afraid any more. She knew that he would help her, that he would show her the way. So she ran right over to him. And that’s what God is like right? She said.
May it be so for us and we be so for each other. AMEN
 Henri Nouwen. Life of the Beloved; Spiritual Living in a Secular World. ( Crossroads: New York, 1982) p. 78.