December 10, The wilderness way

 The wilderness way

Isaiah 40:1-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28

Here’s my initial reflection/preparation paragraph for the sermon today, this second Sunday in Advent – I wrote it months ago when the air was still warm and the days were longer; at that point, in early-October, when Advent still seemed far off, I wrote:

John the Baptist is not a regular guy. He stands at the edge to proclaim his message of repentance – the edge of town, the edge of tradition, the edge of normalcy. He has to do it this way, because it’s hard to get a fresh look at ourselves or our status from an insider-perspective. Does it take a walk in the wilderness or a voice from the wilderness to awaken most of us?

I wasn’t thinking about anything specific at the time, and I certainly wasn’t thinking particularly about the “edge” places in my own life or in the life of the congregation.  

But some time not so long after I wrote those words, only about a month later actually, Jim Chinworth announced his upcoming retirement – set for spring of next year – and suddenly this winter has looked different to me.

We had a conversation at Executive Board two Wednesdays ago, we’re putting together a search committee, we need to meet with our district executive, we’ve got to write a congregational profile and have another look at the job description…we’ve got to get moving.

We have to start a process, because to make a change like the one we’re looking at, takes time and planning – and not only time to fill out paperwork and arrange for meeting times and look at profiles and schedule interviews, but we need to take time to think, time to evaluate and reassess, time sit with ideas and uncertainties.

It takes time to do a pastoral search, and it takes trust. It’s not like you take one piece out of the puzzle and push another one in. I suppose you can try to do that, but it would be foolish to think that change of this sort isn’t without its unknowns, isn’t without some unpredictable aspects, isn’t even without some uncomfortableness. And so, winter is starting to look a little bit to me like –dare I say it – wilderness.

And it looks a little bit that way because a search “process” -- although the word “process” makes it sound like a straight-ahead thing – isn’t a straight-ahead thing. There is always some wandering; some steps forward and some steps backward. When we come upon change – for us as a church, in terms of the means and shape of our ministry, and in my own case, in terms of colleagues and office interaction and sharing of pastoral work -- our first instinct is to try to manage it with process. Let’s have a plan and let’s get moving. And why not? If there’s a vacancy, let’s fill it. If there’s a need, let’s pursue it. If there’s uncertainty, let’s get things nailed down.

In fact, let’s get right to the heart of the matter, okay? Let’s do all the institutional work, the connecting, the arranging, the recruiting, the things that keep us upright and stable. After all, who wants to walk out to the edge of what we know? Who wants to curl up in the middle of a question?             

It reminds me as I’ve thought about the scriptures for today – and in particular the main character in the gospel text – that in terms of the posture and location and attitude that John the Baptist is known to have, that he really is a weird guy. Not just because of how he dresses and what he eats and in the case of this version of the story, what he says, but because he chooses the wilderness. That’s where he not only calls out for others to repent, but where he locates his own spirit, his own questions, his own view of the future. He chooses the edge of the familiar. He chooses questions and challenges. He chooses to upset the apple cart.

And us? Well, we aren’t exactly John the Baptist are we? In that, we like what we know. We are, quite honestly, status quo people. If the price of keeping what is familiar right where it is, wrapped around us like a warm blanket, is a loss of broader or renewed perspective, or different possibilities, well then, we will just have to pay that price, because, look, our lives are established in certain ways – at least that’s how we see it.

Certain work belongs to certain people, and certain people inhabit certain places, and certain relationships have a certain shape, and certain expectations guide a certain sense of satisfaction, a certain sense of contentment, a certain feeling of familiarity. And given a choice between things as they are and things of unknown prospect or possibility, we like things the way we like them; that is, the way they are. It may not be perfect, but its predictable, it may bear some improvement, but at least it is our way of being, of living, of relating. 

And all that is just to say, that my confession, our confession, is that settled-ness and familiarity is quite often our default setting, and whenever change pushes us into some sort of unfamiliar and unwelcomed place, and it tests us, maybe even upsets us, or disorients us – well then, that’s a wilderness experience of sorts, isn’t it? And the wilderness doesn’t have to be all that wild to have the effect of disorientation. It just has to be something that seems to be lacking in normalcy or familiarity or certainty.

Such wilderness isn’t what we would choose, particularly if it is the sort of thing that promises some measure of deprivation, that leads us into some environment that’s too hot in the day and too cold at night, some set of new experiences that may be unfamiliar and maybe even unpleasant, something that grabs us by the shoulders and gives us a shake and says, “Look, while you were cruising along, you may not have noticed, but you left the roadway – either through accident or inattention or just because the road you were on suddenly ended – and now you’re in the middle of nowhere, or what seems like nowhere – and you may want to get things back on track, but there may not be any track right here, so you’re probably going to have stop where you are, and maybe have a look inside and out, look into your spirit and soul as well as to the heavens, to find some of the resources you need, and all of that’s going to take a while, and you might be a little lost for a while…and that’s the way it is.” That’s the coldness of winter. That’s the effect of change. That’s the walk in the wilderness.

But, shoot! (is what I want to say) I don’t want to be a little lost for while! I want a road map, a process, a way to get from point A to point B. I don’t want wandering. I don’t want wilderness. I want civilization. I want sign posts. Or even better, I want things to be the way they were just moments ago, just days ago, just weeks ago.

But they’re not. Things aren’t the same as they were. So, the questions that present themselves are the questions of how to walk into unfamiliar terrain; how to walk into change; how to set a course as best we can, but recognizing that the unknown is always a significant factor…

The prophet Isaiah points out that our sense of control, our sense of permanency is actually an illusion: The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. But, Isaiah also says that does not mean that God does not sympathize with our human condition. And that sympathy takes this form: God wishes for us not so much control, as comfort: He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.

How does that work? We can’t have control, but God offers us comfort? Surely the wilderness, with its message that you are not in control, isn’t a place of comfort! That can’t be, since comfort comes when we are in control, right?

You may not care to know this, but I spent 40-some consecutive hours in the middle of this past week staying only a few steps from the bathroom – that nasty intestinal bug that demands that every last thing that’s in you must come out, by whatever means possible. I could not control it. All my schedule…interrupted. All my plans…on hold. All my sense of physical well-being…out the window. It was miserable; I was miserable.

But strangely, in the midst of all that, I was comforted too – Comforted by knowing that the things I couldn’t do, others would care for; comforted by family members who said, “I’m sorry,” and “Is there anything I can do for you;” comforted by the knowledge that the world goes on without me and there’s nothing I can or should do about that.

For almost two straight days – through the day and through the night -- I was able to sleep for only an hour or two at a time. I couldn’t sleep for very long because of the sickness, but as I slept in that shallow state, I dreamed, I visited memories and people and places I haven’t thought about in a long time, I thought about my place in the world, in time and space, in this life.

I’d never do such thinking and dreaming like that, especially at this busy time of year, except I was too sick to do anything else. Wilderness, right? Things have to be stripped away, things have to be pried from our grip, things have to slip from our control before any of us are going to have visions, or dream dreams, or risk a new life, or change our familiar patterns.

When have we ever chosen to be vulnerable? When have we ever chosen to be reliant on others? When have we ever chosen hard questions? When have we ever chosen the dismantling of what we are used to? And when have we ever imagined that the God who wants us to let go of the things we grip with such determination – things like our power, our influence, our right to be right, our judgments and biases, our hectic schedules – that the God who invites us to let go of our illusions of control is the same God who stands ready to comfort us in our new-found uncertainty and vulnerability; and maybe not just comfort us, but convert us – into people of trust and courage?

Isaiah says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” I think that means that things need to change in our society, in our culture, in our government, in our institutions, but it also means that things need to be cleared out and cleaned out and smoothed out right in the innermost parts of us. Something needs to change in us, and it has everything to do with control and vulnerability and illusions and comfort and where all those things are located inside us and what we are willing to give up in order that we can see more clearly what might be ahead.

If Christmas comes to you this year just the same way it’s always come, then that would be very, very unfortunate. If nothing changes in your heart – in your perspective, in your sympathies, in your own sense of vulnerability in the coming of the baby Jesus, then that would be very sad. If you have accepted the status quo simply because you desire familiarity more than you desire a vision of the kingdom of God, then that would less than what God expects of you or hopes for you.

So, don’t settle. Don’t settle for civilization, when the path to the kingdom of God runs through the wilderness.

Father Gregory Boyle, who works with gangs in Los Angeles, putting former gang members to work in various industries that he himself has established, has recently written his second book. The title is “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.” The “barking to the choir,” comes from a quote by one of his former gang members whose attitude had been lacking and when Boyle tried to correct him, and the young man said, “Don’t sweat it…you’re barking to the choir.”

Boyle writes, “I immediately liked, of course, the combo-burger nature of his phraseology. The marriage of “barking up the wrong tree” to “preaching to the choir.” It works. It calls for the rethinking of our status quo, no longer satisfied with the way the world is lulled into operating and yearning for a new vision. It is on the lookout for ways to confound and deconstruct.” (p.10)

Hmm – a “rethinking of our status quo” and “no longer satisfied with the way the world is lulled into operating” and “yearning for a new vision” and “being on the lookout for ways to confound and deconstruct.” That’s John the Baptist language, Isaiah language, and therefore Advent language, isn’t it?

A few moments ago, I said, So, don’t settle. Don’t settle for civilization, when the path to the kingdom of God runs through the wilderness.

    Father Boyle offers the same caution, but this way, “Human beings are settlers, but not in the pioneer sense. It is our human occupational hazard to settle for little. We settle for purity and piety when we are being invited to an exquisite holiness. We settle for the fear-driven, when love longs to be our engine. We settle for a puny, vindictive God when we are being nudged always closer to this wildly inclusive, larger-than-any-life God. We allow our sense of God to atrophy. We settle for the illusion of separation when we are endlessly asked to enter into kinship with all.” (p.11)

I think he’s right: Let’s not settle for little. Let’s not settle for the illusion of control. Instead, let’s aspire to trust and courage; to vulnerability that is more in keeping with our actual human condition, than our illusions; to standing a little closer to the edge of the unfamiliar, where dreams and visions await us.

A little bit of time in the wilderness wouldn’t be the worst thing right now. In fact, a little time in the wilderness might wake us up to the presence of God, this God who cares for us and comforts us, who challenges us and changes us.



Benediction: A little disorientation, a little deconstructing, a little confounding, a little quiet, a little bit of desert, of heat or chill, of uncomfortableness – if you’ve got any of that, don’t run from it; walk through it. It’s the way the path to the kingdom of God gets straightened out – this highway in the desert. Be patient, be open – if you’ve feeling a little bit lost, a little empty, and willing to stay in that to trust God in that, you’re on the right track. Amen.


Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

December 10, 2017