What Is It?

September 19, 2011
First United Methodist Church, Hermiston, OR
Exodus 16:2-15

The children of Israel are free. They are also hungry. Through the miraculous plagues of Moses, God has redeemed them from house of slavery and defeated their former overlords with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and brought them to the wilderness of the Sinai Desert. They’re hot, dirty, hungry, and whiny in a way only those first three conditions can produce. Did God bring us out here to die?

God responds by being faithful to God’s people: by feeding them in ways – from the nature of the food itself to the way it was collected – that would have them know this could only come from God.

God did not bring them out into the desert to die. God brought them out into the desert to live. God had a plan for these people, and it included neither slavery on Egypt nor starvation in the sand. They were to become a light and a blessing to all nations in their own, good land.

As people in the desert, we may know all about how God can take a person away from what is familiar and down a frightening path to a place known only to God, but that will figure heavily in their destiny and purpose. I know I do.

In May of 1993, I graduated from Eastern Washington University. I had been in college all four years Janie and I had been married at that point. We were living in a tiny little crackerbox in the Spokane Valley we were renting from some friends of her mom’s. I had been back in the area for about six years after living in Illinois, and Janie had been back for five after living in California ( and, actually, here for a short time, too). Spokane was home, and we enjoyed it. It is a fun place to live – not too big, not too small.
But I had this degree and a lot of loans to pay off. Janie, too, had an accounting degree she wanted to use. And one of Spokane’s few drawbacks was that even in the best of times, it is a very difficult place to find a job. We knew we would probably have to leave Spokane again.

I had sent resumes to every newspaper in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. I got one response: an interview at the Hermiston Herald. The interview went well, and I was offered a whopping $1,150 a month to be a reporter in their old offices about a block from here.

I had only been to Oregon once – to the coast for our honeymoon. We drove through here on the way, having lunch at the Crossroads in Umatilla and topping off my car’s radiator with water in the parking lot of the apartments next to the Mormon Church. I have to admit that I was, to be frank, not impressed. On the way back, we drove through a dust storm which started in Boardman and lasted until Connell. This made me even less impressed with the area.

So to be moving from home to here filled me with something less than ecstasy. Truthfully, I hated it. I hated the wind. I hated the sand. I hated the heat. I hated the dry. I hated the fact that everything was brown. I humored myself by saying we’d move on – hopefully back home – in a few years. I referred to my time here as my exile.

That was eighteen years ago.

You see, we ended up owning a house, then a bigger house. We ended up always getting jobs when we needed them. We started attending this church. We had a son. All of this from God’s hand. Always, God had things to keep us working and fed and housed and busy in Hermiston. We would often look to the north and think about how we could get back, but, in time, those thoughts, while never disappearing totally, are much less frequent now.

How long was it before the fleshpots lost their allure for the children of Israel? Forty years? Probably not even that. God had to fix things so that none of the people who actually left Egypt were alive to cross the Jordan. Only their children and grandchildren saw the Promised Land. Despite having been in bondage, Egypt was the only home that first generation knew.

I think this speaks to the general human condition: Better the devil you know. Resistance to change is planted deep in the human character. We just don’t like it.

Yet God called the Israelites out of bondage and into the wilderness and the promise of freedom and a good land. When they whine for food, they are not left to fend for themselves; to root, hog, or die. God provides not just fine manna, but meat – a luxury – as well. God gives water from the rock and makes clear that, though people complain, God does not provide out of anger but out of love.

Based on this scripture and my own experience, I can tell you this is how God works. God may set you on a path to the scary unknown, but God will also sustain you in the journey. God will address your hunger and your thirst and your needs. And God will place you in a good land at your journey’s end.

As I write these words, it occurs to me that it is likely the Lord is telling me I will never live in Spokane again. I would be lying if I said this did not inspire a bit of sadness in my soul. But we’ll survive. God had been wasteful in his blessings to my family here, and therefore I am confident that God will continue to shower us with his love and grace.

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Places – Thin and Thick

July 17, 2011
Heppner United Methodist Church, Heppner, OR
John 4: 20-24
Genesis 28: 10-19a

It’s always interesting when Scripture give us two seemingly-contradictory messages.  There are people who are really bothered by these sorts of things – I’m not. There are others who, on the other hand, pretend like things like this never happen, that they cannot happen – I don’t.

A lot of that has to do with how we, as 21st Century Americans, tend to read scripture. Becoming aware of this and some other approaches will make it a lot easier to talk about and understand the progression, the glacially-slow shift in the ideas of God and place between the world of Jacob, the world of Jesus, and the world we live in today.

The world in which everyone in this sanctuary lives is defined by several things, one of which is the fact that we are all Americans. As such, we believe in certain things, and have common approaches to certain things. We revere our history, particularly our Constitution. We all learned the same things about it in school: it is the supreme law of our land, it is our plan for government, there are checks and balances, and it provides the means to address legal conflicts, specifically our courts. If we have a constitutional conflict, it is the courts, often the U.S. Supreme Court, that give us a solution.

Flawed as we know it is, we still believe deeply in this arrangement. This belief – and a wider faith in the rule of law – helps define us as Americans. And, because we can’t really turn off being an American with a light switch, we apply this approach to other things. Many American Christians treat the Bible like the Constitution. This seems to make at least some sense: we have the Torah, which is the Law. Part of this is the Ten Commandments, a list of prohibitions. In the New Testament, Jesus instructs His disciples and the people, on things to do and not to do. This is easy for us to understand. We get this.

This legal approach runs into difficulty, however, when we consider two passages, separated by several centuries, that – let’s face it – say two contradictory things. The legalist, the literalist would protest this. “God does not change!” the legalist would likely say.

And the legalist would be right: God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. What is left unconsidered, though, is that God’s people do change.  The Bronze Age clan-based society of Jacob looks nothing like the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time, which is different still from the constitutional democracy of today. We are different, and because we are different, what God is doing with us – how God is working in the world – is different.

This realization impacts what Scripture means. First, it is relational. It exists for our benefit, not God’s, and it is about the relationship between God and God’s people. Because the second party in that relationship changes, the relationship itself changes. Scripture reflects that; therefore it is also historical. It preserves what was in order to illuminate what is and what could be.

With that in mind, we can piece together how the idea of place has been treated in the 2,500 or so years since Jacob beheld the ladder.

God had promised to make a nation of Jacob, as God had with his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. In fact, Jacob’s name would one day be changed to Israel. God further promised to bring that nation back to the land in which Jacob was lying and dreaming. Jacob awoke and proclaimed the place holy, calling it Beth El, the House of God. It was what modern folk familiar with Celtic spirituality might call a “thin place,” where the barrier between earth and heaven is, well, thin. More on that later.

In a world of tribal societies, territory was important. Having the tribal deity live in a particular tribe’s land – be they Hebrews, Hittites, or Aztecs – underscored that importance. From the Hebrew’s Beth El to the Israelites tent of meeting and Mt. Sinai to the Jews’ Temples in Jerusalem, place remained important to God’s chosen people.

This last development of their culture, though, started to cause problems. When the northern kingdom of Israel split from Judah, Israel’s King Jeroboam set up two high places so that his people would not feel the need to go to Jerusalem in Judah. Place is now, in modern parlance, a political football. As both kingdoms sank into iniquity, high places proliferated, as did idolatry. Prophets saw this, and began to decry both the worship of false gods in these high places as well as the making into a false god of these places, even the temple. The more apocalyptic of the prophets foretold of their destruction, even the temple.

The Samaritan woman, a woman of this northern kingdom, brought up this problem in her conversation with Jesus to steer it away from the uncomfortable subject of her many husbands. However, Jesus uses it to state that place in worship will be done away with in favor of worship done in spirit and truth. The real temple is in the spirit, the heart of the worshiper.

He wasn’t very ambiguous about this. He used simple words and relatively short declarative sentences. It should have been pretty clear. Nevertheless, after a few hundred years, those calling themselves followers of Christ were making places important again. A good deal of it was for political reasons not unlike those of Jeroboam: control of a place deemed holy meant power, and all human organizations seek power. Much of it, though, was a more innocent way to set apart places from a world that was seen as evil. These were monasteries and convents, which we still have today, along with retreat houses and church camps.

As this point I must declare that nobody loves Wallowa Lake Camp more than I do. I would live there if I could. But as beautiful as God’s creation is there and at Suttle Lake or Magruder or Camp Elkanah, it is not the place that brings one closer to God. It is not the place that is thin.

The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, and Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a retreat center in Texas. He wrote the following:

“If you want to use the thin place metaphor, then you might want to say that the purpose of thin places is to help us realize that all places can be thin. Or, better yet, perhaps the purpose of a thin place is to train us to make the other places in our lives thinner. Moreover, when we realize that the Spirit of God dwells within us, we will come to believe that we are called to be thin places, as God makes his presence known through us.”

The idea of “thin places” implies that there are other places – let’s call them “thick” – in which God’s presence is not evident. They are less attractive than Wallowa Lake. They might be factories, insurance agents’ offices, or the cab of a combine. They might be schools, rail yards, or saw mills. Mundane places. Or disturbing places like battlefields, refugee camps, or places where illegal activities take place.

It is in those places where God seems to be absent that we are called to make God evident. It is in those places where the least of our brothers and sisters are made the smallest that we are called to lift them up. It is in those flavorless, dark places that we are called to be salt and light. It is in those thick places that we are called to be thin.

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