The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 9, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 3:21-24
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In the Wilderness: A Sanctuary
It’s good to be back after last Sunday and a few days before and after it off. I asked our organist Matt Killion how things went last week, afraid he might say “Out of sight out of mind, Joel!” But he said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Insofar as that’s how any of the rest of you feel, I’m humbled. I know I feel that way about you on my Sundays off. It’s nice to be back together.
I am grateful to Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, the Reverend Doctor, for filling in last week. When I got back Wednesday morning I listened to her sermon, delivered here last week. She read from the book of Genesis, as we will do again today, but she read from the twenty-first chapter, the narrative that describes Hagar and Ishmael’s being cast out into the wilderness. She challenged us both as she began and as she concluded her sermon message to consider our own “wildernesses,” those places in our lives when we feel most alone, most vulnerable, most abandoned. “Where are the wildernesses in which you are wandering today? Where are the barren, dry places in Pewee Valley?” she asked. And where do we find “God” in their midst?
For those who were here last week, you’ll remember, and for those who weren’t you may recall that Hagar and Ishmael were all alone in this wilderness of Beer-sheba. In verse fourteen of chapter twenty-one Abraham gives them bread and a skin of water and sends them away. In verse fifteen, the bread has been eaten and the “water in the skin was gone.” Hagar prepares her son to die, setting him under a bush and moving “a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot.” At this point the scripture tells us, she did the only thing left to do, she “lifted up her voice and wept.” And God heard, the story tells us, for when Hagar opened her eyes she saw a well of water and mother and son both survived.
And so, Elizabeth asked us, “What wilderness are we wandering in today? And where do we find our God?”
Pray with me … And listen for the Word of God. Read Genesis 3:21-24.
Then the Lord God made clothes out of animal skins for the man and his wife. The Lord said, “They now know the difference between right and wrong, just as we do. But they must not be allowed to eat fruit from the tree that lets them live forever.” 23So the Lord God sent them out of the Garden of Eden, where they would have to work the ground from which the man had been made. 24Then God put winged creatures at the entrance to the garden and a flaming, flashing sword to guard the way to the life-giving tree.
The Word of the Lord … Thanks be to God.
The last four verses of the third chapter of Genesis. Our Genesis reading for this morning. The first wilderness recorded in the bible, the first “casting out,” the first expulsion into the wilderness in our biblical witness. I trust that all of you remember well what has led up to this moment for Adam and Eve. Creation, temptation, confrontation, and condemnation. Expulsion into the wilderness East of Eden. It would be pretty sad book, the book of Genesis and the whole bible, if the stories ended there. With our wandering all alone in the wildernesses of our lives. But the stories never, ever end that way in our bible. The reality for the ancient Israelites, one that was made clear in the Hagar/Ishmael narrative as well, is that God is always present with them, with us. Even in exile.
The whole Genesis story, really the story of the whole Bible, including (and especially for us as Christians) the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the whole story of the Bible is not a simple account of inevitable human disobedience and the subsequent divine displeasure. It is a story about the struggle “God” has in responding to the facts of human life. In this very first narrative, the actions of Adam and Eve warrant death. Right? They disobeyed the law of the Universe. But right from the start, “God” (and understand that reality, our reality, any way that is most helpful – “God in the sky” or God as Love itself), right from the start, “God” insists on life.
So two things are crystal clear in the opening chapters of our story: We live in the wilderness of creation, but we live here with God. The central question for the rest of “this book” (the Bible) has to do with how we are to live with the rest of creation in God’s world on God’s terms.
We’ve talked about all of this is on past Sundays and we will again, I know. But it’s crucial, it’s absolutely necessary, for us to remember that we are not called out of the wilderness to live a life separate from it. I know that’s the central message of some of the most prominent Christian communities around the world, most especially here in the United States. It may be a message that you, too, embrace, even as Presbyterians: That Christians are called out of the world to condemn it. That Christian communities are “cities on a hill” separated from culture and awaiting the world’s destruction so that Eden may be restored. But that is not biblical teaching.
That is, as Elizabeth also expressed last week, the ultimate “us versus them” scenario. But theologically and biblically speaking there is no such construct as “us and them.” It is (and again, I must credit Elizabeth from last week) “I and we,” and “I” can never, ever be separated from “we.” We are all in this together. Everyone here in this room and everyone outside of it. The question since the dawn of time has been, “How are we going to live together in this wilderness?”
Scripture doesn’t answer that question very positively, at least not at first. In fact, it answers that question in the most depressing way possible. As familiar as you all are with what comes right before our reading this morning, you’re almost equally familiar with what comes immediately after it. The story of Cain and Abel and the first recorded death in the bible, murder actually, fratricide. Not a good first response to the question of the Universe. There is death in the wilderness, even “with” God. And we’ll explore that reality in the weeks ahead. But first …
I want us to remember something “in-between”, something in between expulsion from the garden and death in the wilderness. I suppose it would be found in the opening verses of chapter four, if we needed a scriptural reference. The union of Eve and Adam produces life in-between banishment and death. Life that is destined to sweat and toil as they have, life that is destined to be lived East of Eden, in the wilderness, but life nonetheless – that is, possibility and hope. And this life was, is, generated in a place beyond the wilderness, or better yet, deep within it but set apart from it. Life in sanctuary … in a sanctuary, if that sounds more correct to you. But life set apart from toil and trouble, life in a place set apart from “all that.”
Webster defines sanctuary, in part this way: a place of refuge and protection; a refuge for wildlife where predators are controlled and hunting is illegal. Fascinating that, given our Cain and Abel story.
Whenever we gather together, we first think of a secondary definition. Sanctuary: the most sacred part of a religious building, such as the part of a Christian church in which the altar is placed; the room in which general worship services are held; a place such as a church or a temple for worship. This room …
In the next few weeks, as we explore the wilderness, our wilderness, it’s important, I think, to remember that we have this reality – this physical place that is a deeper reminder of the “space” we have deep in our lives that is in harmony with God, with Creation, with Love and harmony. We gather here, not apart from the reality of the rest of our lives. All that is here, too. In fact some of you are thinking about your wilderness lives even now – the timing of afternoon events, preparation for long-awaited vacations, will this time here this week go twenty-minutes longer than usual like it did last week (!). No, this is not a place separate from the rest of our lives, but it is one set apart.
As we began this morning, we welcomed Samantha Philips to this place, this space. She recognized, on some level, that there is a reality here that allows her a brief respite from “everything else.” In so doing she joined our journey, and we joined hers. All our worlds got bigger. There is an opportunity to reflect here on “everything else,” an opportunity that we don’t get in most of the other places in our lives. We all recognized that at one point or another, otherwise we wouldn’t be here now. Oh, I know there’s an “obligation” deeply ingrained in many of us. We have to be here, because our parents made us – either just this morning or many years ago. But we also need to be here, on some level both understandable and inexplicable.
We are comforted here and find guidance here, through gathering with others preparing, confessing, being reminded of grace, hearing scripture and sermon, and responding, we are comforted here for our work and in our lives in every other place we go through the week. In our “sanctuary” we have reminders of what comes first. Before the banishments and flaming swords, before the sweat and toil, and before the jealousy and competition of life, there is “sanctuary.” This room includes many reminders of that. The cross is central. The pulpit and all it contains, beside the baptismal font; the choir loft that holds our two thousand year old song; and the pews, the seats that hold our tired bodies, our open hearts, and our willing spirits.
Our sanctuary is a place we gather, not to forget the wilderness, but to prepare for it. To prepare our lives again to meet God in the midst of life here, and beyond.
Which brings us finally to this: A little over a week ago, something new happened here. Many of you saw this for the first time last week and some of you for the first time this morning. We have placed a new piece of sanctuary art on the walls of our sacred room and balanced it with an older work on the opposite wall. There is, as I’m sure you’ve seen, some words of explanation about both in your bulletin. These “worldly things,” added now to all the other reminders we place in this space, are made sacred by the connection they create between the “mundane and the divine.” It remains for us to dedicate them to the Glory of that which we most commonly call God: Life and Love, itself.
I invite you to find the brief litany in your bulletin insert for this occasion and join me before we sing together of that which “grounds” us all. And as you do that, and as we prepare, remember this: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present sanctuary in our wilderness life.” Please stand with me and let us dedicate what is new to what is ancient … (read dedication litany together) …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / July 9, 2017