Call Me by My Name: February 23, 2020

Audio version click HERE

Good morning.

While preparing for this very first sermon I got a taste of the gender non-conforming and trans-liberation theology that is currently being written exploring new ways of understanding old stories and this offered an invitation to me within scripture that I hadn’t anticipated encountering. I have spent most of my life assuming that I did fit into the kin-dom despite not feeling fully named as the transman I am. I am using the term kin here, not king, to emphasize familial belonging and disrupt a hierarchical understanding of God’s people. My assumptions started in small ways like the verse in Genesis 1:27, “So God created humankind in God[‘s] image”. My introduction to a queer centric reading began when my friend Jo Clifford, a Scottish playwright, actor and activist, named gender variant saints like Joan of Arc and Joseph and his dream coat (actually a princess dress). I have discovered that it is possible to hear God call us by our claimed names in larger and explicit ways, today I will talk about how Jesus calls the gender variant both in speech and example.

First, it is important to acknowledge how gender permeates our names and language. Joy Ladin, a professor, poet and theologian, uses a metaphor I hadn’t heard before, she explains that, “Gender was my mother tongue, a tongue that lectured me constantly…tirelessly telling me what I must and couldn’t be” (Ladin 16). While not everyone is going to perceive of the world as teaching and training us a gendered language, this concept is one that is more apparent to gender variant people and those raised female. Ladin was describing her experience of the world growing up knowing she was different, but not understanding how to name who she was or what her path could look like. These gendered concepts are generally couched in binary terms of male and female. Ladin goes on to explain that binaries are powerful, “They organize reality so effectively that they tend to seem like built-in features of existence rather than human interpretations of it” (Ladin 22). A binary is a way of relating two things, such as black and white or night and day; this way of categorizing often sets up a duality that only allows for the two options. Binaries are simply a human way of categorizing, labeling and accounting or naming.

Names are important. We are each given names at birth. Some of us find new names and new ways of calling ourselves in the world. When our names are forgotten or misused a small wall is built up. Like when the barista spells your name incorrectly or someone introduces you wrong. These small slights are often invisible to us because so often our names are correct. For gender variant folks, or to use a new term from my reading ‘OtherWise gendered,’ names can be a fraught situation. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what is a good name or whether they want to use your new name. The use and acknowledgment of a name is important, it offers respect. It is for that very reason that I have been searching for myself in scripture, because I don’t want to just feel called by family and loved ones or my community. I also want to be called by God.

The way that we conceptualize gender and sex now is not the same as it was in Biblical times or before. Therefore, we cannot map our current meanings and categories onto those that are used in the Bible because they do not fully conform to one another for cultural, social and physical reasons. Gender variance is not new, it is very ancient. Chris Paige, whose words we used in our call to worship, explains that we should

“Beware of those who would tell [us] that gender diversity is something new, that gender diversity is a white, liberal, privileged invention, or even that people of transgender experience are historical late-comers to movements for liberation. We are talking about several centuries of resistance to the violence and erasure embedded in Western settler-colonist ideology. Such resistance is intentionally ignored, erased, or demonized by the powers that be and yet remains ever present for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.” (Paige 13)

In early Jewish culture there are at least six different gender categories: male, female, androgynous, saris, tumtum, and ay’lonit. The four latter categories are essentially different types of eunuchs, who occupied the liminal space between male and female within the hierarchical gender structure of the time. It is important to note that while we could say that intersex or other gender variant people are similar to eunuchs, the eunuch played a very specific role in society which we no longer have. Eunuchs were allowed in spaces that men were not and were given powerful positions because they could not abuse their power in the same way a man capable of procreating could. Often they were created from conquered people in war as a means of control and dominance.

In modern times there is gender diversity with very different names and societal meaning such as transman, transwoman, genderfluid, non-binary, genderqueer, FTM, MTF, transmasc, and trans-. There are also other third gender variations from indigenous cultures all over the world. There are new terms being created all the time and part of the joy of that is that we are naming ourselves in new ways and finding the terms that are right for each and every one of us.

Our current binary understanding of gender and the world can skip over these fruitful moments which name gender variance in the Bible. Often efforts to uphold gender conformity within scripture appear to come from fear that a new understanding will preclude or erase meanings that we have already agreed upon. Instead I want to take a multivocal approach, following the Jewish tradition; allowing a new interpretation of scripture to sit alongside a previous one. I want to allow this trans liberation reading of scripture to enhance our understanding and help us grow as Christians and people in the world.

In this passage from Matthew Jesus extends the invitation that has been given earlier in the Old Testament, in Isaiah. Here Jesus is explicit in including eunuchs in who is allowed to come into the kin-dom and what kind of welcome they will receive, illustrating how God shows radical justice through inverting power structures, culture and expectations by using gender variant folks. Jesus does this through naming varying types of eunuchs.

I’m going to read the passage from Matthew again: “But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

This is the invitation I have been waiting for.

I chose this translation because it uses the word eunuch. Some versions use ‘unmarried’ or those ‘unable to marry’ following the context which Jesus is talking about. However, that ignores a connection to the Old Testament, referencing Isaiah 56:4-5. Jesus’ own celibacy would have given him experience with the stigma that eunuchs faced. Arguably, here “Jesus is placing himself into an analogous situation with the eunuchs.” (qtd. in Paige 69) Some scholars have argued that Jesus is a eunuch.

The first two categories of eunuchs that are named are widely used throughout historical and Biblical contexts, however, the third category that Jesus mentions is not. This is the first time “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” is used at all. One way of reading this verse is that Jesus has made themselves a eunuch for the kingdom. I’m interested in this idea because it allows me to reclaim my identity within a religious context. I can think about my transition as a means to align my spirit with my physicality. I can think of my body’s changes as a radical way of embodying the kin-dom. What is important about that? It means that this journey I have been on which has felt purely secular, medicalized and very much removed from my faith in any tangible way can be reimaged and understood as a healing and prayerful way to authenticity.

To understand the power of what Jesus says in the Matthew verse, I will read Isaiah 56:4-5.

For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
Even to them I will give in My house
And within My walls a place and a name
Better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.

This is a new commandment. Here God is telling the Nation of Israel that they will not be cut off even if they think they now cannot be accepted into God’s kin-dom. Israel has just been conquered by the Babylonian Empire and taken into indentured servitude, likely resulting in some of them being castrated in the process. The power of God’s inclusion in Isaiah 56 is an inherited promise of legacy, connection and inclusion. This is radical. It opens up the kin-dom in ways it has not been opened before and connects to the story of Abraham and Sarah. So Jesus’ statement of inclusion in turn echoes God’s new commandment but also the beginnings of the Hebrew people. Connecting OtherWise gendered people to the very beginning of God’s people.  

What does this mean? What if you can’t relate to what I’m saying?

Just as much as categorizing and labeling is detrimental it is also our human desire to be included in those named spaces, particularly in God’s family. In holy spaces God uses our names. Can we ever understand the divine without imposing our human perception? I don’t think so. Instead I’ll go back to Genesis, “So God created humankind in [hir] image, in the image of God [zie] created them”. That is all of us. We are all there, each and every one of us in every iteration of our being, in every change and new beginning of us.

My pastor friend, Maxwell once told me, “Do not compromise who you are, how you express yourself or who you love in hopes of becoming an acceptable Christian.” As Jesus shows we are named, called and accepted by God; there are no limits to God’s image and no limits to God’s kin-dom.

Works Cited

Ladin, Joy. The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah From a Transgender Perspective. Brandeis University Press, 2019.

Paige, Chris. OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation. OtherWise Engaged Publishing, 2019.

Tanis, Justin. Trans-gender: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith. Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2003.

Trusting God Against all Odds: February 16, 2020

Audio version click HERE

The Israelites were camping on the edge of Canaan, poised to enter what they were told was the Promised Land.  We like to tell the part of the story in which the Israelites were led triumphantly out of Egypt and slavery.  The Red Sea parts and pharaohs army is drowned.  We write lots of songs about this part of the story.  Let my people go, we sing. But when we get to the part where they form themselves into armies to go to war to take this land from others we skip this part and join back up for the wandering in the wilderness for forty years.   

The scripture I asked George to read to you today is one of those stories that doesn’t work well for postmodern readers.  We have good reason to be suspicious of stories that make it sound like God wants her children to walk onto land where others are living and steal it from them by force.  But if we cut out all the stories in the Bible that make us uncomfortable we will get in trouble.  Because we will not let the stories of our religious history teach us anything.  Plus, we fall into the danger of letting other people tell our story and interpret for us.  As Ursula Le Guin writes: The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.

I believe these stories carry profound truths inside myth.  Joseph Cambell said, Myth is much more important than history. And so, in the context of story and myth, I invite you into a journey with me today of spies and giants, milk and honey, danger and promise.

We stand on the edge of the Promised Land with the Israelites this morning.  A census has been taken in order to organize the Israelites for war.  They know that in order to live in this land they will have to push others off.

I went to Jordan and Israel a couple years ago.  The night before we left I read once more through our itinerary for the first day.  We were going to Mt. Nebo, where the Bible says that Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land….even though the promise would not be granted for him to enter.  What I read said that Jericho is usually visible from Mt. Nebo….usually.  So at the last minute I ran and got my binoculars and stuffed them into my suitcase.  I wanted to see Jericho…the Promised Land….from Mt. Nebo, just like Moses did.  Little did I know that fateful decision would have me stuck in customs for long time before my binoculars were eventually confiscated…along with the children’s walkie-talkies of the man standing next to me.  I was chastised for thinking that I could bring spy equipment into Jordan.  If you don’t think that these myth stories of spies invading land continues in the modern world, you are naïve.

Anyway, back to the Bible story.  The Israelites are standing on the edge of their dream to be a people of land…of substance…of freedom.  They have been formed into an army for military engagement but it seems wise that they do some recon first.  Moses tells the twelve tribes to each select one person….male, of course… to go and check out the place.  He instructs each tribe to choose a spy.  Caleb, from the tribe of Judah and Joshua, from the tribe of Ephraim were two of the twelve chosen.

Moses sits down with the twelve and tells them what he wants to learn from their recon.  “What is the land like?  Are the people weak or strong?  Are they numerous?  Are the towns walled or unfortified?  Bring us back some of the fruit of the land so we can see what is grown there.”  Moses basically wants to know two things:  the military might of the residents and the fertility of the land.

After forty days they return with grapes, figs and pomegranates.  (Yes.  The number forty plays a significant role in this story.  It alludes to a significant time of testing and transformation.)  Eleven of the spies return and say, “We have good news and bad news.  The good news is the land is flowing with milk and honey. I mean, aren’t those grapes delicious.  The bad news is that the people of this Promised Land are strong and the towns are large and fortified. Besides the descendants of Anak live here.”  The descendants of Anak were known as notoriously large warriors.  Goliath was descendant of Anak.

With this news the Israelites start murmuring among themselves but Caleb from the tribe of Judah stands up and says, “Don’t worry it will be fine.  Let’s leave right now and take this land.”  Do you have a person like that in your life?  That person who when you say, “It is all falling apart and is going to turn out horribly wrong” says back, “It’s going to be fine.”?

The rest of the spies can’t believe Caleb’s Pollyanna attitude and so they ramp up their story, “Are you crazy?  We can’t win against these people. They are giants and next to them we look like grasshoppers.  They will devour us.”  This is news to Caleb.  Nothing he saw made it look like the inhabitants of this land were cannibals.  But it is eleven voices against one voice.

The Israelites lose it.  They cry all night and then they say, “We should have just died in Egypt.  Why would God lead us out here just to have us killed?  Let’s choose a new leader and return to Egypt….back to slavery….back to the land of our oppressor.”

Joshua, one of the other spies, suddenly stands up next to Caleb and together these two spies boldly say, “Have you forgotten God’s promise to be free?  God is with us. Who can be against us?  God is leading us on this march to freedom.”  But the Israelites will have none of it.  They threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua. 

I understand how the Israelites feel.  I’m tired.  I’m tired of fighting the giants of capitalism and consumerism, racism and privilege, greed and hate.  I read my newsfeed with increasing dread. I’m weary from trying to stay focused on the truth that no one is free until everyone is free. It seems to feel like a useless battle that won’t end in victory. Sometimes I lose that focus while I sit on my seat of privilege.  I’m tired of wandering in the wilderness.  I’m tired of the constant call to reinvent myself and my own life.  It would be so much easier if nothing bad or challenging ever happened in my life. 

The truth is that I just want to sit with my cup of coffee and get my nails done.  I’m worn out from trusting the goodness of God and relying on the people around me.  There are giants on one side and the other side screams bondage.  Which way should I go?  Add on to all of that the fears of all the other people I stand alongside.  Could someone just be in charge?  Hopefully, we will get a benevolent dictator this time.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  Anyone else weary?

The wilderness is a tiring place.  Staying here rather than returning to our earthly gods requires some risk and a whole lot of courage.  Accepting the gift and the responsibility of freedom is exhausting.  It is work.  It might just be easier to return to Egypt.  I know it is cowardly to say that.  But constantly standing on this edge of freedom with its sheer drop down into the abyss has me on edge.  We have a choice to make…redemption in the unknown future or the oppression amidst the way things have been.

Now back to our story. God meets Moses in the tent of meeting and says, “How long will my people despise me?  Really.  After everything I’ve done and shown them and they want to go back.  I should strike them with the same pestilence I sent to Egypt.  I should disinherit them.  I should reverse the exodus.  How about it Moses?  If I got rid of them I could make you…Moses…a great nation all by yourself.” 

Moses pleads with God on behalf of his people. He is a good leader.  He says, “Be slow to anger.  Abounding in love.”  “O, alright!” God says.  “But no one who remembers the slavery of Egypt, except for Caleb and Joshua, shall be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  You will have to wander in the wilderness for forty years until all that is left is a new generation.”

Have you always wondered why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years?  Did you think it was because they had a leader who refused to stop and ask for directions?  No. It was to allow those who rejected God’s promise… who refused to choose redemption…to see freedom as gift….the ability to influence this new community…the ability to live in this promise.   This is a story that demands that the people know they are free.  It is a story about claiming the freedom to live in community… freedom to be a people…freedom to seek a better way. This is a myth story that demands faith against all odds…all giants. It is a story about having a courageous relationship with God who stands with us on the risky precipice of our liberation.

It is your choice. I believe, as Robert Fulghum says, “It is still true, no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is still best to hold hands and stick together.”  God is beckoning us forward.  Let’s do it together.  Come and go with me to that land…that promised land…that land of milk and honey…where the lion and the lamb stand together…where redemption is our promise…where transformation awaits and we aren’t free until all are free.  Amen.

The Poor in Spirit: February 9, 2020

Tom Hostetler

Audio version click HERE

Super Sunday!: February 2, 2020

Dawna Welch

Audio version click HERE

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and as Pastor Susan mentioned last week – we have learned not to compete with your Super Bowl parties. And how could we? Compared to church, the Super Bowl offers:

  • Well, to begin with – food. (Do you remember the last time someone offered you chicken wings and beer during worship? Me neither)
  • Better seating. (Wooden pews are not meant for stretching out and getting comfortable)
  • And, some might say a reason to deeply and desperately pray! We pray in church, for sure. But usually not so hard that we break into a cold sweat from holding our breath while twisting in agony or exultation, when our team is on the 1-yard line about to score.

Whether you dislike sports or never miss a game, there is something to learn by looking at the Super Bowl through the lens of church.

Now, I will freely confess here – I am not a football fan, I do not have a pony in today’s race, nor do I have any legitimate predictions about who might win.  Maybe you do…. 

  • How many of you are pulling for the 49’ers? 
  • Who would like to see the Kansas City Chief’s win? 
  • How many of you are like me, you just don’t care?

Still, I plan to watch. And I plan to root for the Chief’s. Not because I really care or know anything about the team. But because for the past 7-years that my neighbors have lived next door to me – I have low key made fun of the Kansas City Chiefs flag they fly on their front stoop. Everytime I would walk past their house with my dogs I would think – “Oh bless their hearts – the Kansas City Chiefs…” And it turns out they’ve got an impressive team showing up to the Super Bowl. So, I am rooting for the Chiefs as my silent amends to my lovely neighbors.

How about you? Do you all have plans to watch the Super Bowl?

What is it about the Super Bowl that draws both sports fanatics, and whatever the opposite of a fanatic is…. the indifferent? Is it:

  • Humans violently crashing into each other? 
  • Tormenting suspense? 
  • The possibility of a shocking half-time wardrobe malfunction? 

Rayna, my source for all things football and a SUPER fan – she has a familial loyalty to the LA Raiders, but is a Green Bay Packers fan by choice.

When I put this question to her, “Rayna, what is so special about the Super Bowl?” she effortlessly responded, “The Super Bowl is special because it has something for everyone:

  • football super fans who are ALL IN for the game (even if your team isn’t playing)
  • pop culture fans who watch for the commercials
  • entertainment enthusiasts are there for the half-time show
  • and even if none of that appeals to you there is simply to joy of gathering with family and friends, people you like.

I agree with her assessment – I can find myself on that list.

Ultimately the Super Bowl machine is driven by all of the above AND fans with intense dedication to their teams. The more invested you are, the more exciting it is.

Say the words, “Super Bowl” to any random person on the street, and even the ones least interested in sports will be able to tell you that this is professional football’s pinnacle of excellence.

But, the MOST devoted fans are the ones that feel so connected to the glory of a Super Bowl title, that they stand in front of the television screaming, “RUN!”, “GET HIM!”, “THROW IT!” as if the player can actually hear these commands! We may think our fandom makes a difference in the way our team plays; we can enter the stadium backwards or wear the same pair of socks each game. We can wear the “right” gear and chant the “right” cheers, but deep down we know those things don’t really matter. Because ultimately, it’s not about getting the win – It’s about being a part of something bigger than ourselves, together. That sentiment is so effectively demonstrated by the fans of the English, Liverpool Football Club.

At my house we pronounce football – Futbal because we are soccer fans. Of course, by their very nature, both US football fans and soccer fans in the UK really love their favorite sport. However, when it comes to fan dynamics, there is a world of difference – the most prominent being, the stadium atmosphere. From the starting whistle to the end of the game, fans will be chanting, singing and banging drums. It is not unusual for the crowd to break out singing, You’ll Never Walk Alone – in unison. Yes, the 1945 song from Rodgers and Hammersteins – Broadway show, Carousel. The song was an instant hit because of its war time message of hope, in times of adversity. The piece remained popular throughout the 50’s and in 1963, a recording by a prominent English band, Gerry and the Pacemakers brought it to the doorstep of the Liverpool Football Club. Legend has it that the organization had just installed a new PA system which they used to hype crowds with popular music of the day. You’ll Never Walk Alone was both a fan and player favorite. The song took on a much deeper and more tragic meaning after the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, when a human crush at the gate of the stadium injured hundreds and 96 fans lost their lives.  Those who perished are, to this day, known as the Hillsborough 96.

We belong to something much bigger AND we never walk alone. Jesus’ whole ministry was dedicated to teaching us that lesson! That is what is at the heart of the scripture Rayna read from the book of Romans. Jesus didn’t make it easy for himself by avoiding people’s troubles, rather he jumped right in and got involved. He took on the troubles of the troubled, and encourages them – encourages us – today, to do the same. In order that we may help each other grow and become one in the Spirit for the glory of God. Eugene Peterson says it this way, “May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to God!”. When Liverpool fans break out into song they are lifting up the team as much as each other and it is a stunning anthem to God.

The analogies of professional sports versus church aren’t perfect. Church isn’t made up of opposing teams in which we root against each other!  So, please don’t take me to task after worship by running that play too far down the line. But, there are parallels. For instance, the more games you watch, the more you care about the players, coaches and the franchise. Partly because of the time (and in some cases money) you’ve invested and the memories that have been generated. Isn’t that the same with church? Jesus said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

So, if worship does not have you on the edge of your pew, ready to leap into action, maybe you need to get more involved. Maybe it’s time for you volunteer to work with the children that sometimes distract you during worship.  Maybe it’s finally time to embrace the vulnerability of authentic leadership and offer to lead that Sunday morning Spiritual Formation group you’ve been wanting for yourself. Or maybe it’s just time to reach out and ask that person you admire from afar if they would accompany you through something difficult in your life right now.

We are a team! And if the Super Bowl teaches us anything it’s that there is joy in the journey that we travel together.  As a process person, what I believe and what I want you to know is that how we get to where we’re going is equally as important as where were going! The strong don’t leave the weak behind. We build each other up with encouragement and enthusiasm.

Church is not a spectator sport. It takes more than just showing up with painted faces and cheering for the other players to do their jobs. We are team mates and we are all in it together! Win or lose, a team supports each other no matter what. Just like players in the Super Bowl hold out a hand to their teammates (and in the best of examples, their opponents) when they are down, just as players encourage each other on the sidelines when they are losing, or celebrate with them when they are winning, so are we called to endure and encourage one another as the body of Christ.

Whether you plan to watch the game this afternoon or not, make this day a Super Sunday! Why not:

  • Have a conversation with someone you have struggled to agree with in the past.
  • Compliment someone you have judged or dismissed, and tell them what you love and admire about them
  • Invite someone who feels awkward in new situations, to sit with you at lunch or to join you in a Spiritual Formation group
  • Take a hot bubble bath and forgive yourself for loving your friends and family but not the Super Bowl!

Church is the place where we train and practice our game, the place we work hard to develop our courage muscles so we are ready to move the ball of justice and love down to the end zone. And we want to do that with the same kind of enthusiasm and joy as those who show up for the Super Bowl whether their team is in it or not!

For God so loved the world. Not some, not this group or that one – the WORLD! That’s the win! So, no matter what happens today, tomorrow or in the upcoming year – whether you feel like a winner or a loser – you are irrevocably loved and called to share that good news with others, enthusiastically and with joy.


Memorial Sunday: January 26, 2020

Susan Boyer

There are those of you sitting in this sanctuary today that have been driven into the wilderness….that bleak, painful place that you ended up in, often times without your consent.  The wilderness is a place of danger, misery, dejection, wretchedness.  Ever found yourself there?  Perhaps it was in the emergency room of the hospital where the lifeless body of your spouse is stretched out on the cold table with fluorescent lights trying to keep the dark away.  The emergency staff has cut his or her clothes off in the futile attempt to safe a life. But it didn’t work and now you sit next to a body you loved and you can’t believe the indignity of it all.  Or you find yourself teaching your children how to deal with the sound of gunfire while you sit at the dining room table and try to normalize their lives.  Or you find yourself propped up in a recliner in the radiology/oncology unit where chemo drips into your body and you worry about your future. Or you are trying to decide whether to come out to family you know will reject you for being your authentic self. Or perhaps you are tending to the needs of an aging parent who no longer knows who you are and no longer knows how to be civil.  Or you find yourself trying to hide the empty bottle you just finished.  You want to stop drinking but the journey towards sobriety is a difficult to start.  Or you find yourself in a jail cell feeling like life as your know it is over.  Or you crawl into bed alone after you watched your partner walk out the front door, heading to the warmth of a different person in a different bed.   We all have our own wilderness.

In the wilderness you feel like part of your soul is gone.  You find that the ground beneath your feet has disappeared.  Fear is your constant companion.  Everything you did before the wilderness feels superfluous and so very far away.  It is like you were plucked away from what you now understand was only a fantasy…where you have built a fine life with an adequate pension and plans for an adventurous retirement and then the word cancer made all of that unimportant. You realize just how breakable and fragile you really are. 

At first you can’t stop crying.  You weep because this is not what you had planned.  You have never felt this isolated….tired…alone…lost. The illusion of control you lived with for so many years has been trampled underfoot. All the props you count on have been kicked out from under you. And suddenly, you are walking in the wilderness…parched…afraid…without a safety net….and trying to decide what it all means.  Like Job’s friends, well-meaning people show up to give you trite sayings to try to make meaning of this hell for you.  They are singularly unsuccessful.

And then you reach out towards the unknowable.  You cry out to God… sometimes for the first time in years.  It is in the wilderness where we seek God…hoping against hope she will hear us and ease the pain. 

I remember asking a group of church people one time to tell me the time they felt closest to God.  One of the men in the group was a medical doctor and who valued things that were certain, confirmable and conclusive.  When it was his turn to answer my question he had this far away look like he had walked back into the wilderness and he said, “The day my brother died.”

The wilderness…that place that can kill you…is also the place where faith is born in a new way.  The Bible is absolutely chalked full of stories of people in the wilderness.  The Israelites, freed from slavery in Egypt, find themselves being led by God on the roundabout way…through the wilderness.  It perplexes them.  “Why God?  Why would you free us only to have us die in the wilderness?” they cry. 

We heard in the Matthew scripture for today that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea.  He is identified as the one prophesied about in Isaiah:  “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”  John the Baptist went out into the wilderness to invite people to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  Jesus showed up where John was and John baptized him.  Then the book of Matthew goes on to say that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.  Even Jesus joined the long line of people who spent time in the wilderness…driven into it.

This is our annual Memorial Sunday.  We spoke the names of the members of our church family that we lost in the last year.  Their deaths are fresh griefs and their families are walking the roundabout way in the wilderness.  Francis Weller in his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, writes:

Every one of us must undertake an apprenticeship with sorrow.  We must learn the art and craft of grief, discover the profound way it ripens and deepens us.  Facing grief is hard work…It takes outrageous courage to face outrageous loss.  This is precisely what we are being called to do.

It was in the wilderness that Jesus was tempted. It was there he was emptied.  It was there he was broken open….just like we have been in our wildernesses.  It was there he announced himself to be the instrument of God’s will rather than his own.  He gave up the illusion of control.  He came out different.  He joined the long history of people who lost themselves and then found themselves in the wilderness.  As Joanna Macy writes:  The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.

Jesus took that wilderness with him as he preached and healed.  He saw other people’s wildernesses and spoke truth to their woundedness.  And to those who clung to their illusion of control, Jesus urged them to lose their lives to find themselves.  As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Jesus never protected anyone from the wilderness.  He dragged them into it.”

We want God to make the wilderness go away…or at least be less frightening …less dangerous….more safe and secure.  But the wilderness is a wild place.  It is the very place where we meet God.  It is the very journey in the wilderness that finally causes us to see things we would never see otherwise.

Grief was a voice to my soul.  It spoke truths to me.  “Life is precious.  Love is a gift.  Don’t take it for granted.  Notice each grace-filled, wonderful moment.”

Judah Halevi, Jewish Spanish philosopher of the 11th century speaks that truth in his poem:  These We Remember

Tis a fearful thing
To love
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
To love
What death can touch.

Grief was a voice to me.  It spoke truths to me.  It said, “You are not alone.  We have all spent time in the wilderness.  It is what we all have in common.”  Our fragileness…our woundedness…it is our deepest connection.  Grief helped me see those around me for the first time.  My suffering allowed me to see the suffering of others in a new way as I navigated the holy work of loving that which death can touch.  I wasn’t paying attention before…at least not in the same way.  Actually, I couldn’t even see it before. I didn’t know what I hadn’t experienced. But now everything is more real…more precious…more seen.  It truly is a holy thing to love what death can touch.

It is in the wilderness that we lose ourselves …..and it is in the wilderness that we find ourselves. It is in the wilderness we feel so alone…and it is in the wilderness that we truly see each other for the first time. 

David Whyte, one of my favorite poets writes:

one small thing

I’ve learned these years,

how to be alone,

at the edge of aloneness

how to be found by the world.

I invite you to come forward in a minute and light a candle or candles in memory of those you have loved that death has touched.  I invite you to come forward and mark your wild edge of sorrow.  I invite you to look around as you do. Notice the other candles being lit.  Our wilderness journeys connect us to each other…and to the great cloud of witnesses.  You are not alone. You are not alone.  You are never alone.  Be found by the world.  Amen.