THE FORK IN THE WILDERNESS
Reflection for September 25, 2011
Rev. Naomi King
- Exodus 17:1-7
- Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
- Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
- Psalm 25:1-9
- Philippians 2:1-13
- Matthew 21:23-32
Give a shout out if you like to be wrong in big spectacular ways – like friendship ruining ways or marriage ruining ways or ecologically ruining ways or life ruining ways of being wrong. Most of us dread this way of being wrong, even as we end up finding ourselves in the midst of these unrighteous ways of being. I don’t know which I find worse – the part where in the middle of unrighteousness I’m feeling fully justified in the path I’m pursuing – or the ineradicable reality of getting to live with the results of that unrighteousness for the rest of my life. Both parts of it are pretty humbling.
Raise your voices if you like to be wrong in little thimble full ways – you’re shaking the empty box of your favorite cereal because you just knew you had more, or taking another bus back to the correct transfer stop, or your friend just dropped a ream of paper on you filled with facts about a dispute you’ve forgotten you had. Few of us really enjoy this way of being wrong, startled to laughing at our selves. These smaller ways of being wrong often hurt and they can increase our sense of frustration, fill the cup of shame, and grind away at our ability to give thanks and live into a merciful justice.
Yet every day we’re on this faith adventure, we run the risk of traveling the unrighteous path.
Just the other day someone apologized to me for not being able to share something I had created on forgiveness. I was startled into laughing at myself. Why? There have been plenty of times when I would have been upset about not sharing something I had created, even something on forgiveness. I would have missed the unrighteousness of that expectation – one the person apologizing to me assumed I had.
I would really like to ignore all the times I tumble into unrighteousness. But if I’m truly going to live into the pledge of Micah 6:8 (Love the Lord your God, live humbly and work for merciful justice) or the five practices of love (God, neighbor/kin, alien, enemy, self) – the kind of living that can be called a righteous path – then I have to wrestle with being wrong and unrighteous, commonly signaled by either guilt or the bright flag of self-righteous indignation. I’d really rather focus on the wrestling other people have to do – people distant from me like politicians and corporate boards – than on my own. But then, that’s another topic for another day, when Jesus talks about the splinter in my neighbor’s eye and the Sequoia in my own. Today, every day, each of us have a chance to meet the risk of traveling the unrighteous path.
The risk of the unrighteous path is where all the tension comes in the heroic stories we tell and watch. One of the requirements for film box office success is that tension, and if we really want a blockbuster, then at least one person will change everything by doing the difficult thing and dragging along the rest of us back to the path of righteousness. Yet how many of us really love living that tension in every moment of every day?
Remembering that the story of salvation in the Bible is the deliverance of the people out of slavery into freedom, a metaphoric adventure we face every day, we’re once again with the folks in the wilderness. (See last week’s commentary for why Christians need to reconsider successionist and new covenant habitual interpretations.) We are still in the desert, the wilderness of cluelessness, unskillfuness, and unrighteous entitled tantrums. Many translations shorten that to “the wilderness of Sin”. We’re thirsty. We’re hot. We’re tired. We’re really thirsty. Unsurprisingly, we’re also quarrelsome. And we’re really, really thirsty. So we pick a fight with Moses. Because we’re thirsty. Now Moses doesn’t turn to God and shout, “Liar! Covenant breaker!” No, Moses turns to God and asks what he’s supposed to do. He names his fear. He’s asking what to do. And we’re still thirsty! Note the difference in the easy path, the thirsty path – blame someone and get irritable – and the difficult path, the path of submision – asking for directions. Now all this time, the people – who are supposedly too thirsty to do anything, yet have enough moisture in their throats to argue with Moses and shout at God, continue to ask “Is God among us or not?” There it is: the fork in the road between the path of righteousness and the path of unrighteousness. Just because we are in the wilderness, just because we have pain, just because the way is difficult is not evidence of God abandoning us. God is with us in our suffering too. The question for us to be asking in our suffering isn’t “Is God with us?” but “Given this, how can I best serve, Lord?”
That is a whole lot more difficult to practice than it might seem. How do we prepare ourselves so that when we’re in trouble, we can choose the better path?
Psalm 78 turns us away from our suffering and back to God’s great graciousness. We’re offered the ancient wisdom, that’s been hidden away from our bearing, and as we learn that wisdom, we can pass it to future generations. We remember the marvels God has worked and in that remembering, we can breathe into the space of wonder, how might God still be working marvels today? When I am laid low in my bed from pain so severe I literally cannot get out of bed, I turn my attention to God’s working marvels, the ones passed down to me through these holy texts and the ones that are all around me. I marvel at how few marvels I can know and name and give thanks for the astounding splendor of so many more. And so what? I’m still in pain, but my awareness of the pain isn’t what rules. What reigns is an in-breaking moment of spirit, of gratitude for God’s graciousness. In that yeasty, expansive moment, then I can ask, “given this, how can I best serve, Lord?”
(Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32)
When bitterness comes to rule us, we shrivel, dying to gratitude, to hope, to joy, and to serving the Holy. Bitterness wears a sharp edge of resentment and in bitterness we turn away from the practices of love, including loving ourselves, by focusing on our grievances. Bitterness dominates our lives when we cannot imagine being ourselves without holding onto that resentment and grief. Ezekiel observes a truth echoed by contemporary experts in human development and education: whatever forms the core of our spiritual lives is what we passes from generation to generation. Bearing bitterness from generation to generation is our failure – no matter what we learned from generations past, no matter what difficulties we’ve encountered in our lives. We always have the choice to let these dry bones live and turn back to the fairness of God’s graciousness.
When you read this text, don’t read it with the usual “prophetic” voice, loudly and insistently. Read the text aloud as though Ezekiel is sitting with you, in a quiet space, over a cool glass of water, bringing you the words of God that are words filled with loving kindness. If you’ve grown into the habit of the interpretation of condemnation, as I found I had when I sat down with this text again, you might find this difficult to do. Ask yourself why? Who are the stiffnecked people you want wrath to be brought down upon? How stiff is your own neck? The text changes dramatically when we change the tone of how we read it to one of a quiet, trusted friend, asking us to choose a way we can be together.
So much bitterness comes down to feeling unfairly treated, and that seems to be the bitterness the people in this text are worshipping. What’s fair? What’s equitable? We have some ideas about that, ideas that shape our hearts. But the coupling of mercy with justice in Micah 6:8 points toward our all too comfortable habit of equating justice with our personal satisfaction and ideas of revenge. God’s graciousnessness is challenging to our little fairnesses. That challenge has been and continues to be the chief reason to reject Universalism, as folks ask, “how is it just for God to love this person who hurt me? How is that also loving of me?” Applied even further, we ask with incredulity, “what do you mean I have to forgive these people who hurt me?” Yes, we do, because otherwise that hurt becomes a bitterness that turns us away from mercy, gratitude, love, and generosity. That’s a tough fairness, but also a gracious fairness, because we’re also in the mix, also forgiveable and loveable. When we turn into God’s greater graciousness and lay down the resentment about the tallies on our personal fairness equation, we’re freed to live, to work for merciful justice for all, and to love and laugh and serve. We get a new heart and a new spirit and we can ask,
“Given this, how can I best serve, Lord?”
When I was a very new Unitarian Universalist, I naively mentioned I was waiting for the time when we would bow down in reverence and prostrate ourselves upon the floor in humility. I was castigated for that, because “we” don’t have to submit. Of course we have to and do submit all the time. We submit to all kinds of stuff everyday, like carrying identification and weapons searches. We choose that kind of submission, because the alternative can be death. How interesting our resistance to submitting to God’s graciousness and generous love! Choosing submission is turning at the fork in the wilderness and choosing God.
When we submit to God, we freely choose this submission, living in this enlivening and enheartening path. Still, day after day there’s a continuous stream of messages around us and probably within us that draws us away from trusting in God’s graciousness and submitting to abiding Love. We’re not the first people, nor, likely, the last to struggle with this. The psalmists give us many such prayers to draw on this new heart and new spirit in God’s love. Our second Psalm offers us a way of praying with trust and choosing submission to a transforming Love, to learning and being instructed by God, to living humbly and in God’s mercy. Praying with trust and in submission, we ask, “Given this, how can I best serve, Lord?”
Loving God, our neighbor/kin, strangers, self, and enemies is tough work. One or more of those categories of turning in love challenges us, and it challenged the community in Philippia, too. I find that good news, because the community in Phillippia was busy with some amazing things that many of our religious communities would never contemplate. Does your community take care of every widow and orphan in your whole area? Yet there was still stuff going on that turned away from the way of Love, stuff that probably even Paul needed reminding from time to time. So he writes to encourage the people to live in mercy and loving kindness, to empty our overfull selves and to turn to serving others as our path of submission and humility. After all, what kind of discomforts are we enduring? If we’re following Jesus, we have to be willing, each and every day, to humble ourselves in obedience to God, even if that means we die by torture at the hands of the state. When we’re changed in humility, we stop shouting, “Ow! How long, Lord?!” and get on over to singing “God is good.” That’s a tough way of transformation. I’m still working on it, and I suspect a whole lot of us are still working on it, so we can at least encourage one another in this way of submission to abiding Love. Along the way, as we meet challenges and hurts and slights and offenses, we can choose to ask ourselves and ask each other, “Given this, how can I/we best serve, Lord?”
We all have the authority to turn and live. That’s what Jesus teaches us in this section of this gospel. God has given every one of us that authority, to turn and submit. Who among us has never said something like, “no way! I’m not forgiving!” “no way, I’m not swabbing overflowing toilets again!” “No way, I’m worth more than that kind of work?” And then later, we stop and consider, and pray, and turn and practice forgiveness, swab the overflowing toilets, and take the work we’ve been offered, giving thanks for being able to serve and be remembered by God for something we can do. We are like the son who rebels going to the vineyard and changes his mind. We, too, can change our minds later and go. We always have that authority to write our lives into lives of integrity.
Maybe we believe we’re always ready for the choice to submit to the humble labors that are less pleasant. Maybe we even proclaim, “just send me,” but when we sit down and consider the job we’ve been given rebel and set it aside and don’t tend to it. We might even make excuses like, “that’s someone else’s job,; it shouldn’t be mine,” or “not my table,” or “I don’t really have the authority to do that.” Then we’re like the second son. The community at Qumran and the People of the Way didn’t share much in common, but they did share this: we are called to lives of integrity and those lives are not lenient. There is no easy in them. As Pamela Eisenbaum observes in Paul was Not a Christian (2010), the issue that both the People of the Way and the Qumran community shared about the Pharisees was that the Pharisees apparently had a lot of loopholes and excuses for appearing to live in submission to God’s way, of being too lenient in practice as a result. I’ve seen that tendency in myself. I’ve known it well in every religious institution I’ve ever belonged to. I know it in society at large. We give away our authority to submit to God’s transforming Love regularly, and in doing so, we show what we really believe….and it isn’t a belief in God’s transforming Love.
If you’re like me, which son you are, and how well you’re believing changes from day to day, maybe even hour by hour. There is no compulsion on the path of righteousness, and there is, in fact, darned little self-announcing of being righteous. There is, instead, a whole lot of messy wonderfulness as we are the heart of the Holy moving with the Spirit in the world and we meet awe and thanksgiving right there in the middle of the sewer. This way isn’t slavery; it is about deliverance from enslavement to idolatries that drain, dry, and kill. It is about being ready to ask, “Given this, how can I best serve, Lord?” and then go and do as asked.
Every day we meet the fork in the wilderness when we have choices to make: choices about turning to the idols we easily create from our selfishness and worshipping at the altar of the prosperity gospel, and choices to turn away from those altars, turn back to God’s graciousness and fullness. We have the authority to make that choice, each and every day. Even if others should try to bully us or badger us or forbid us or seduce us away from choosing God’s graciousness and fullness, we still get that choice. Even when we’re hurting, when the world doesn’t seem anything like what we would wish to call good, we still get to make that choice. That’s authority given to us, graciously, without compulsion to be on the path of righteousness. Shall we turn the frequently habitual way of wrong relationship? Or shall we make a habit of turning, with humility and love, to the generous way of right relationship? Whatever’s happening, are we cultivating the habit of turning to God’s graciousness and asking, “Given this, how may I best serve, Lord?”
Transforming Love guide and encourage me in taking the fork in the wilderness that leads out of the desert of sin, of leaving aside bitterness and of accepting a merciful justice often past my understanding. May my heart grow wide and deep, filling with love in emulation of my teachers and of my Creator. May I turn today away from the idolatries I find so attractive, take the authority I have, and submit humbly to the way of Life, asking how I might serve, and giving thanks for this life. Amen.
Complementary Stories from Folktales & Children’s Literature
“The Lute Player, A Russian Folktale.” Allen B. Chinen, M.D., Once Upon a Midlife: Classic Stories and Mythic Tales( 1993) p.74-76
Ann D. Kofsky, Noah’s Swim-a-Thon (Union of Reformed Judaism Press) (2011)
Melanie Watt, Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can Press) (2008)
“The Clothesline, a Jewish Folktale” http://www.learningtogive.org/materials/folktales/Clotheslines.asp
“The Fairy Shilling, an Irish Folktale” http://www.learningtogive.org/materials/folktales/FairyShilling.asp
For youth groups: Louis Sachar, Holes (1999) or the film version (2003) directed by Andrew Davis.