Behind the wilderness
Behind the wilderness August 30, 2020 Paul Escamilla
Moses is herding sheep in Midian for his father-in-law Jethro. He’s there because he was fighting injustices in Egypt and it didn’t end well. His people were slaves in Egypt, and he pushed back against their mistreatment, as any of us would instinctively do, to see a wrong and wanting to make it right, to see hurt and wanting to step in and address that hurt. But Moses was misunderstood, and eventually everyone turned against him— those he was advocating for, as well as the forces of opposition. And there’s no more acute sense of estrangement I believe in this life than to have one’s good intentions misconstrued, hope for a better world like anything else. Hope is durable, yes, but also so delicate. This young man who had hoped for a better world, more fair, more just, when we meet him in today’s story, now is hoping only for a regular paycheck. I hope I’m not describing you today. But I could be describing you, describing me. Weariness with the work can wear us down, until all we’re wanting is to be left alone so we can just get by and leave the great work to someone else with more heart, more enthusiasm, more gifts and graces for it.
Moses in this moment gave expression to what generations later would be the Psalmist’s cry — “Oh that I had wings like a dove I would fly away and be at rest. I would wander afar and lodge in the wilderness far from the raging wind and tempests.” So he does. We’re told that he takes the sheep that are under his care beyond the wilderness to Mount Horeb; only in the Hebrew text the preposition is “behind” the wilderness. Moses takes the sheep behind the wilderness and there he sees a strange phenomenon, a burning bush, and hears a corresponding voice. I’m intrigued by that wording, that phrasing in Hebrew—behind the wilderness—what it suggests to us as the story unfolds, a spiritual experience that is that of people of faith, of all the ages, throughout time, that experience that the wilderness can hide treasure, can be a place of unanticipated gifts of grace and illumination. Moses went behind the wilderness and there encountered God.
The artist Georgia O’Keeffe gave us a modern analogue to that spiritual reality. Residing in the forsaken desert reaches of northern New Mexico, she beheld, and then cast onto the canvas the treasury of color, tones, and hues, and shades of light and shadow in all its brilliance that she could see there in the wilderness where others could not. “People think of the desert as barren,” she wrote, “but in truth it is filled with secret and glorious color.” Behind the wilderness, hidden treasure.
We are in a wilderness of sorts, aren’t we? Far more difficult for some than for me, maybe for you, but challenging nonetheless for all of us. Challenging for an entire planet at one level, to one degree or another. A pandemic that has taken jobs, health, lives, school, routines, stability, innercalm, and domestic tranquility away from us; overlaid with social strain and upheaval, reckonings with our nation’s past and present racial divides and disparities.
A wilderness. Is there something behind that wilderness? Is there an epiphany; a revealing of God, in the midst of all of this struggle? Is there for us a burning bush? A voice? A presence? A revealing of a holy path to freedom and wholeness and peace? Does the wilderness hide treasure by which we might find hope and healing for our lives, our communities, our nation, our world? Usually it’s the map that leads to the treasure. In this instance, such a map would be the treasure that leads us into life and reconciliation.
We have a young neighbor, a pair of daughters, who are usually inside cordoned off. They’re schooling at home and sometimes they make an appearance on the sidewalk, and Liz and I brighten when they do. We come and stand on our porch and engage them, and Liz saw one of them the other day and said to her, “You look so tall. Can you grow during the pandemic?” And she said, “It’s hard to grow, but you can grow.” You can grow and we must seek to grow even during this time, to open ourselves to the risk that beyond orientation we go into disorientation openly, willingly, receptively in order to be found in reorientation, transformation. We can grow, choosing to leave behind an old order and allow for the disorder, as Richard Rohr would put it, that leads us finally to a reordering, a new ordering, a transformation of our lives, our society.
We can grow. As a church, we’ve endeavored in the month of August in holy conversations, Grace Notes and Possibilities, in Zoom gathering and pictures. We share with one another lament and loss, grief and gratitude, even sometimes tears in that sharing, and often laughter, the commingling of those things, and in all of it a deepening of our relationships with each other. A sense that a conversation about grace really became conversations by grace. New expressions of pathways and fresh possibilities for being the church and finding that map that is the treasure that leads us to be the people of God in new and faithful ways during this time and beyond it. Behind the wilderness we’ve sought to encounter the burning bush. Maybe only there in the wilderness can it be discovered at all.
God calls from that mysterious burning bush, “Moses”. And Moses turns and says, “Here I am.” God says to Moses, “Come no closer”. It is perhaps the first recorded instance of physical distancing. “Come no closer, Moses. The place where you’re standing is holy ground. Remove your sandals while you are here. You will deliver my people from Egypt.” And Moses says, “Who am I to do such a thing?” Who am I? Have you ever heard those words before? A better question, have you ever spoken those words before? An even better question, have you ever not? But an answer, instead, “Here I am, Lord. I have heard you calling. I will go where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”
We can be forgiven if that’s not our answer always. We can be forgiven for offering that other response that Laura spoke of earlier. Who am I? I’m not ready, I’m not able, I don’t know how, I don’t know where to go. Who am I? We can be forgiven if that’s the way we answer to God. Maybe we’re tired, we’re timid, we’re terrified. Maybe we’ve tried before and failed miserably, and our kite of earnest intention and aspiration and hope has got caught and tangled up in the power lines and we’re done. No thank you. In my ministry, there is no one who is more challenging to invite into the great work, the gospel work, than those who have been in the great work, the gospel work, before and were wounded in that work and left it behind. I’m describing in all those examples of resistance, I’m describing something of an inner wilderness, aren’t I? The tired, the timid, the “I’ve tried that and failed”, all of those wounds it hurts, all of the caution related to that. We might expect God, when Moses puts up that resistance, to say something like Laura mentioned earlier. “You can do this, Moses. I know you can. You are strong, you have the gifts for this.” A cheering section to get Moses up and going. But that’s not what we hear. “Who am I?” asks Moses, putting up a wall of defense and dismissal. And God answers, “I will be with you.” Those words, “I will be with you” resound through the arc of biblical history and human history. Whenever God’s people face fear or hardship, or daunting challenges that are way bigger than what we perceive our capacities to be, God speaks a word “I am with you.” No wonder the anglican priest Sam Wells has said that the most important word in theology is “with”.
Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind for us in a fresh way this weekend with a march on Washington, reminiscent of his leading a march on Washington, leading a movement that held such discouragements early and late, all along the way, at what point during the Montgomery bus boycott, months into that boycott, when the city of Montgomery was beginning to feel the pinch economically from that transit system boycott by those expected to sit in the rear of the bus. No longer was this a little quaint protest. It was becoming subversive to the city. Calls came in to Rev. King, about forty a day on average, harassing him and threatening him. But one night, around midnight, a call came to his home. He picked up the phone. The voice on the other end was unusually hateful, spiteful, vitriolic. “Leave Montgomery now if you do not wish to die.” In his book Strive Toward Freedom, King describes that moment he hung up the phone. Petrified, he went to the kitchen, fixed himself some coffee, sat down at the kitchen table, pushed the coffee away, cradled his head in his hands. He says, “The words I spoke that night are still vivid in my memory, that moment that became a turning point in my spiritual life. I prayed to God, ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But I am afraid. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I can’t face it alone.'” It was his Moses moment on the verge of shuttling those hopes for a new world and turning instead to something safer, something calmer, something more reasonable. A paycheck instead of a vision. God’s new society. He was done. I cannot face it alone. Dr. King says, “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. I experienced something like a quiet assurance, a voice I could almost really hear saying: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. I will be with you.”
Behind the wilderness, treasure. God seeks to cross that inner wilderness in each of us, whatever it represents, whatever the defense is, the excuse is, the dodge is, the tiredness, the timidity, the terror, the “tried that before and it failed”. Like Van der Post’s aboriginal tracker on the desert of our lost selves. There comes God to speak a word behind that wilderness, to kindle flame, where the word is “rekindle” a flame in our hearts, to do something, to mean something, to give something, to live our lives with purpose, beyond our own mere comfort and convenience and reliable paycheck, to love again. If the most important word in theology is “with” then maybe the most important word in the life in faith is that word, “again”.
Jan Richardson:“You will know your path not by how it shines before you but by how it burns within you, leaving you whole as you go from there blazing with your inarticulate, your inescapable yes.”
That yes, of course, is different for each of us. For some of us, it’s yes, I will open my mind to new ways of thinking about the world, seeing the world, understanding the world. Yes I will give. Yes I will serve. Yes I will volunteer. Yes I will advocate. Yes I will cast my vote. Yes I will write a note. Yes I will make a mask. Yes I will pray for the world and its people for God’s shalom to come among us. Yes I will love my neighbor, friend, and stranger. Yes in new and unfamiliar and even frightening ways. Yes is different for each of us, but it means the same for all of us. It means that God, the aboriginal tracker, has found a way across that faded dessert of our lost selves to the heart and has rekindled that flame, and again, we belong to God. We found the treasure, and it is a map that leads us into life bearing gifts of healing and of hope that also turn our way as well.
God is calling againsaying, “Will you go? I will be with you.” What will you say this time? How will we answer? I hope with a word to match our deepest hope for the world and for ourselves: yes.