Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mystery Trip: Gathered Community, Trust and Truth

Two vehicles, two chaperones, a minivan packed with teenagers, and a truck that was full to the brim.  We got on the road later than I had planned, and the storms were more constant than predicted. This was the bi-annual Mystery Trip.  The adults and the parents knew where these middle schoolers were going, but the young teenage guests did not.  I must confess that the adults would enjoy ourselves by making ‘accidental’ mentions of an incorrect destination, and offer packing lists with items they wouldn’t need.  
Great Sand Dunes NP in Colorado, not NM

There was a beloved trust involved in making that Mystery Trip work.  Healthy relationships and the clear understanding that we were going somewhere.  They were so convinced of their well-being, that these smart, well-traveled New Mexico teens were not paying much attention to our direction.  When asked, I would claim that we were going to White Sands National Monument, far to the south of Albuquerque where we began.  My guests didn’t read the road signs that said so many miles to Pueblo or Denver.  Or look at the directional light on the rear-view mirror with its big green N.  Nor did they notice the hills getting steeper and the trees getting taller.  We were well into Colorado before any of our guests began to question my White Sands fibs.

I was the opposite of a prophet.  I knew exactly where we were going, prophets don’t know exact details.  Prophets strive to speak truths, and I was deliberately misleading.  In Hebrew the common word for a prophet is transliterated nabi.  It signifies that a person is called to a boundary duty. The responsibility of the prophet is to speak across the divide to name divine truth to earthly power.  What boundary speakers like Isaiah communicate is that God sees the people, sees that we have not done what we promised.  We have chosen self-satisfaction over our pledge to be good neighbors.  We have chosen a glittery sheen of happiness  that barely shrouds the fear and jealousy we share.  We have chosen to keep our heads down and our sources narrow.  The beautiful thing about that mystery trip was the love and the trust; the scary thing was the inattentiveness, and self-centeredness, and numbness to everything beyond our tiny caravan.

In the mass of wrongs and untruths that surround us, the word of God through the prophets such as Isaiah, is pointing to the ultimate healing and hope of what we know in later Christian theology as the promised reign of God.  There is a dark storm of meanness and uncaring that makes that promised reign seem distant.  I know this storm it isn’t new, and I believe that it isn’t all hype and distractions.  That disturbing highway pullover of an interracial family of two priests last summer, those are my friends.  Cruel graffiti on churches, racist yelling on the commute, hateful notes left on windshields: these things are happening to your families, my friends, our neighbors. I have had a hard time breathing when I read the news. I turn the radio off more quickly than I used to. The promise of a peaceful forever gathering in Zion seems a long long way from here.  How do I learn to breathe God’s promise?  I gather and I pray and I study.  And the judgment I am slowly hearing is this,  I believe I have been like my teenage guests on that mystery trip.  So carefully tucked in a comfy space with people I know, that I have become blind to the heartache and the storm and the misdirection right beside me.
#adventword plus #christmasword

This is the first day of the fresh season of Advent, and I began my morning with the first word of the word a day devotion #shine.  I needed that word today, and I was pleased to find that Brother Almquist of SSJE shared this shining glimmer of hope today:

Rather than experiencing the sorrows of our world as a source of desolation,
hear the news as a clarification for what we are to be about as followers of Jesus Christ:
to bear the beams of God’s love and light and life, especially to those who wouldn’t otherwise know it.

The promise of God’s love is of a holy mother hen gathering her children under her wings, the promise of a refugee rescued to a safe boat on a stormy ocean.  Advent is oriented to the final times and the final things, how we are called to gather for others and not ourselves, and to be gathered now as then: all all all.  We practice Advent prayers and studies and hymns because God’s reign is already, and oh so obviously also not yet. We have a long way to go on this journey with Christ, many miles to watch and listen to the road before us, behind us, beside us, all around us.  We watch with and for Christ, so that we may learn his ways of peace with justice. 

Scattered all around the nave are new paper stars.  I am sure if you dig in books and under pew cushions you might find a few old ones from Epiphanies past.  Here today are new stars, a symbol of the first Sunday of Advent.  A symbol for the prophets, like Isaiah.  Those holy people who stand between heaven and earth, who point to a twinkle in the sky and say look, there, is something important we can barely imagine.  From here a star is just a pin prick of light, but if you could travel to it you would find a bright blazing sun.  What prayer or teaching or judgment do these boundary dwelling prophets bring to light in you?  At communion find a star and carry it with you to the altar, and then after receiving communion as a gathered community, carry it back to the baptismal font with your whispered prayer for the hurt and numbness, and dissolving the meanness and whatever questions you bring to God’s enlightenment this Advent.  

You might recall that our Mystery Trip got off to a late start.  We should have been to our destination before dusk,  but we were running behind.  And then there was a storm.  A strange and otherworldly Rocky Mountain summer thunderstorm.  Breathtakingly beautiful and white knuckled frightening at the same time.  As we drove around curvy roads in heavy rain, a calm voice came from the back of the van.  ‘Jane, just tell us where we are going.  Tell us that we are not going camping and we are not sleeping on the ground out here in the middle of who knows where in this storm.’  I knew we were close to our destination, but in the storm and in the dark I knew the time for truth had come.  ‘Well, I need you to hear me. We are going on a camping trip. We are almost there. All your gear, everything we need, your parents snuck it to me, and is in the truck that Mary is driving in front of us.  So yes, we are going camping, and we are sleeping on the ground in tents that we must set up in the dark and in the rain.’ 
The tents, on the next day.  At a state park near Lake Isabel.

If this were cheap fiction the response would have been weeping and cursing. However, it was not.  That vessel held a beloved community on a journey together.  So, instead of bitterness and doubt the response was ‘Oh!  Ok.  That sounds like fun! I just wanted to know.’  We practice Advent because the night is stormy and our knuckles are white, and we need to be brought out of our dull numbness and narrow vision.  Christ is coming, do you see what he sees?

I invite you to consider, how is God inviting us to gather?  
How is Christ keeping us awake on the journey? 
And how is the Holy Spirit challenging you to strive for our destination?  

Recalling the desire of God to gather us in peace with justice, please repeat after me.   Be still and know that I am God.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
November 27, 2016

The link for the audio, in case the widget doesn't work...

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