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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sheep in the Wilderness

Sunday, October 12, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Covenant Presbyterian Church

Scripture Readings: Exodus 13:17-22 and John 21:15-19

A few weeks ago, Pastor Molly asked me if I would play with the idea that we are, as a church, beginning a journey into the wilderness. Jason will preach next week and will continue that theme, so my job this morning was to get you out of Egypt and onto the journey. I’ve been pondering this thought for the last two weeks, and here’s what I think is true: I don’t have to get us out into the wilderness—we are already there.

I was going to try some funky things with the youth and with you all here in worship this week. But, as often happens in the wilderness, things got a little out of hand with our ministry. I’ve spent hours over the last two weeks—and some of you have too—trying to figure out how to configure our youth
ministry and Sunday school so that we can best love and serve our students. This is loving, faithful, intricate, intense work, and I’m grateful to everybody who has participated in these conversations. And we’re not done yet! But because of those conversations, some of our youth are here this morning. That’s not nothing, and I’m grateful.

I know a little something about being in the wilderness, and I bet some of you here do too. The Israelites, for 500 years, had been settled in Egypt. It wasn’t all peaches and cream, and their original condition as guests had degenerated into slavery. They were a people groaning for their freedom, and the Lord heard their cry.

We too at Covenant have been groaning under the weight of old ways that no longer serve us well. The story of how we got from Egypt to the wilderness is as long and complicated as the story of the Israelites. There’s not time to tell those stories this morning, but perhaps we might say this:

There was a time in our memories when things were pretty good around here.
Then there was time when things began to fall apart.
We tried to duct tape it all back together, because that’s what people do.
Duct tape is only a temporary solution.
We hit the road and headed into the wilderness.

So here we are. A small-ish church in a big building. A traditional Presbyterian church in a mostly black neighborhood (where Presbyterians traditionally have not taken root). A church hard hit by the economic recession. A church that must find a new way or die trying.

As we leave safety and security behind, we might ask ourselves,
What is the promised land we are headed to?
How long will it take to get there?
By what road does the Lord lead us?
Where is God in the midst of the journey?
Are we even allowed to know the answers to these questions?

Like I said, I know a little something about the wilderness, and I bet some of you do too.

10 years ago, in April 2004, I attended a youth conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was a full-time youth director for my home church in California in those days. They had sent me to Princeton to complete a certificate in youth ministry, seeing as how I had absolutely no formal theological education. 2004 was my second time in Princeton and the completion of that certificate. As the conference drew to a close, I sat out in the central quad and watched students go about their business, and I was filled with a bittersweet longing to study at Princeton. Bittersweet because there did not seem to be a way in my life to fulfill that longing.

It seemed to me in 2004 that we had a very stable life back home and that we could not/should not/would not change it. I thought, in 2004, that we would live in that house and work in those jobs for the next 2 decades as our children grew. I had a vision for our life that said my children would go to school with their neighbors from kindergarten through prom. My oldest son and the neighbor’s oldest daughter were born on the same day, hours apart. My family was there (and I figured they would live forever in the same place too). I had been part of the same church community for almost 20 years.

How do you walk away from that to enter the wilderness?

Well over that next year we saw that the finances wouldn’t work. We had been deluding ourselves for a while. The schools were not meeting the children’s special needs. Neighbors moved. The church was changing. Our family configuration changed to include death and moving away from one another. What had seemed viable and stable in one moment in 2004 was revealed as an illusion. We had a lot of choices about which direction to head out into the wilderness, but we didn’t have the choice to stay out of the wilderness.

One of the options was to come to Princeton to study. And I claim this to be true: in the last decade of wandering in the wilderness of my life, my studies at Princeton and my service as a pastor have been a sweet and beautiful gift. The wilderness provides much beauty and joy, even in the midst of danger and risk.

I know something about being in the wilderness, and I imagine some of you here do too.

In the last decade, since I left a life that in my memory was stable and secure, I have moved five times. My husband and I divorced after 15 years. We have almost raised two very challenging children. I have lost 3 cats. I finished my Master of Divinity and became an ordained pastor. I came out publicly as a bisexual/queer woman. I started and dropped out of a PhD program. I pastored a church for three years. I resigned from that church. My grandmother died, my mother had breast cancer. I have spent hours/days/weeks learning by necessity how to navigate the mental health and special education systems in New Jersey. We have been on welfare and Medicaid. We have been a day away from homelessness. I have paid for groceries with my last pennies, carefully rationed our food, and supplemented from the church free basket. I have lived in places where the roof leaks and the landlord doesn’t fix it, and then the ceiling starts to cave in, but there's no place else to go.

I have learned never to say no to free food. Because in the wilderness, you do not know where the next meal comes from.

I have learned that sometimes you just survive and it is not very much fun. In the wilderness we live day to day. 10 year plans are hard to make in the wilderness. Planning beyond tomorrow requires great effort in the wilderness. This is both blessing and a curse.

But there are great gifts to this unstable, “liminal” space!

In 2006, when I entered seminary, Professor Sang Hyun Lee preached a sermon for our opening worship. In that sermon, Dr. Lee introduced us to the concept of “liminality”. He challenged us to consider seminary as a “liminal space”—a space in between what was and what would be. He suggested that we let go of all that we had been, and allow our experiences at seminary to change us. It would be like swimming out into the sea—one must let go of the shore in order to really get out there. It seemed to me as I heard that sermon that I had already let go of the shore—I had already let go of so much in order to get to Princeton. I embraced the idea and threw myself into my studies.

What Dr. Lee did not tell us is that when you do this, when you let go of what you have known and let the waters take you out to wild places, when you let yourself be changed, well, then it is incredibly difficult to get back to the shore.

And I can tell you that when you finally do get your feet on dry land again, everything will be different. Either the landscape has altered irrevocably, or you have. There is no going back to Egypt, my friends. And the Promised Land is not always what you thought it would be.

I would argue, in fact, that some of us will not make our way out of the wilderness again. Some of us will glimpse the Promised Land we hope for our children, and while we may have faith that the journey leads to this land, we ourselves will not enter that land. For it turns out that wilderness journeys sometimes take decades to complete. For Moses and the Israelites, it took four decades.

I really thought that I would finish seminary and take my family to some quiet, small-ish church somewhere. All signs pointed to the midwest or western PA, and I interviewed for a couple of those calls. But as it happened, I failed an ordination exam, which delayed my ordination and call process, which gave enough time for the whole family to inform me we weren’t moving out of New Jersey, which resulted in a complete change of plans. Again. And so we stayed in New Jersey, which I never planned on. And now I’ve fallen in love with this place.

This is not the ministry I thought I was called to. I thought I was done with youth ministry. I thought I would stay in New Jersey three years only. I thought I’d be pastoring a church full-time five years already by now. In a million years, I never would have thought I’d still be here in this state, working for three churches, a university, and the urban mission cabinet. I would not have guessed or planned on working in Trenton, attempting the impossible task of reconciliation and love across racial lines. I would never have guessed that I would be a queer, divorced, single mother pastor, casting my lot in with a church that was also stepping in to the wilderness.

People tell me all the time that what I do is not sustainable. And they are right. I am wandering the wilderness seeking the Lord’s call in the midst of it, and I don’t always know where I/we are going or how I/we are going to get there. There’s no master plan for this work I am doing, and every plan I have tried to lay out has been blown to bits by the everyday realities of wilderness living.

I’ve been watching the television show, The Walking Dead. I don’t know if you are familiar with the show, but it is basically a series about a zombie apocalypse. All of humanity is infected with a virus that causes people to turn into flesh eating zombies when they die. All of civilization is overrun by the zombies, and the show follows a small band of survivors as they desperately seek some semblance of sanity and stability in the wilderness. Driven by fear and anxiety, they often despair that life in the wilderness is not worth living. And yet they hold on to try another day.

One of the characters, an older, religious grandfatherly type named Herschel, looked out at the landscape of their life together, stared at the flesh-eating zombies come back to life, and said this: “I can’t profess to understand God’s plan, Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.”

Old Man Herschel sure had it right. When we are in the wilderness, God’s plan can seem bewildering, even nonsensical. What NOW, Lord?

And yet there is clarity in the wilderness. When you are being hunted by flesh-eating zombies, and the world you once knew is no longer valid, all the illusions are stripped away and we are left with only the basics. When you aren’t sure of what 10 years out will hold, you stop planning that far ahead. When survival is measured in daily increments, who you are and what is important to you becomes crystal clear. One of the things I love about The Walking Dead is a complex treatment of ethics in the midst of wilderness survival. They don’t shy away from the ugliness of survival. But they don’t give up on the goodness of humanity either. In the wilderness, who we are becomes clear in our daily ethical choices. How we distribute our resources in the wilderness says everything about who we are.

We are not alone in the wilderness, though. We have companions—sometimes surprising companions! A few years ago this church held a Thanksgiving dinner for the community. You all put flyers out in the community inviting any and all to come to the banquet. One of our youth, Maniya, and her family came to that dinner as strangers. Maniya met some of the youth here and started coming to church and Sunday school with Ms. Sandy. Some time later she brought her cousin. And then some time later they brought their three friends. And now, this fall, we have 20 students on our roster whose sole connection to this church traces back to Maniya and Ms. Sandy and your Thanksgiving dinner. It was an incredible act of evangelism that has borne much fruit. We are, it is true, struggling to understand one another’s cultures, but we are nevertheless sharing this wilderness journey with each other. If we are faithful to this journey, faithful to these companions, what will our fellowship look like in a year? Three years? Ten years? Who knows! It is too hard to see that far in the wilderness. But I do know that at the end of today I will drop off our students and tell them I love them. And it is my faithful intention to continue to travel this wilderness in friendship with these students and with this congregation.

We are not alone in the wilderness! I insist that this is true. Our scripture this morning informs us that this is true: They set out from Succoth and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. 

Before us in the wilderness, the Lord travels as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. We are led, one step at a time toward a Promised Land. To our chagrin, the Lord often leads us down twisted paths—in the wilderness we take the long way home. Sometimes we go south to go north, east to go west. Sometimes we travel in circles. Sometimes the Lord leads us through wild, wild spaces in an effort to strengthen us. I don’t really understand it—like the rest of us I appreciate a well-crafted, efficient plan. It seems to me that we ought to be able to identify the Promised Land, and that once we have our goal, we can map out the travel plan, and from there it should be pretty straightforward.

But it turns out that the wilderness does not have paved roads. And it turns out that the wilderness is a confusing place, full of detours and risk. And it turns out that while flesh-eating zombies are good for clarity of purpose, they also don’t allow us to rest easy. And it turns out that getting through the wilderness is a very long term goal. We might not, each of us, see it all the way through.

In the wilderness, the Lord goes before us in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night, to lead the way and so that we might travel by day and by night. In the wilderness, the Lord does not leave our side, but rather travels with us in concrete, visible ways. Our work is to follow the Lord each day, wherever that takes us—even if it looks like a detour. Our work is to survive. Our work is to clarify who we are by the actions we take. In the wilderness, it is not our words that matter but our actions. In the wilderness we can choose to be the best of humanity or to succumb to the worst of it. But we will indeed be faced with that clear choice.

These last few weeks in the wilderness we have come to a challenging place in our ministry with youth and children. It’s been a difficult startup in a lot of ways. The wilderness has brought us companions we did not expect, and we have decisions to make about how to move forward in friendship and love. But if we can do this, if we can embrace one another and learn each other well? Well then we will have the best of traveling companions in this time of uncertainty and risk.

Because what I’ve learned about the wilderness is that the end game, the Promised Land, the 10 year goal, is not nearly as important as the companionship along the way. Let us hold fast to the promise that God goes before us both day and night, and let us embrace the challenge of cross-cultural ministry. It’s not about who we will be in 10 years—in the wilderness we are not promised 10 years. It is about who we are today.

In the gospel of John, Jesus visited his disciples one last time on the shore of a lake. They had a fish fry breakfast, and Jesus sent them out to live out his teachings without him. They had traveled with this man for three years and had been irrevocably changed by the experience. They would go on from here without Jesus as daily companion.

Jesus pulled aside Peter, that disciple who had denied knowing Jesus on the night of his Lord’s arrest and crucifixion. He pulled him aside and said, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 
Feed my lambs.
Tend my sheep.
Feed my sheep.

In the wilderness, it is that simple. Yes, the Promised Land hovers in the distance, but in the wilderness, our daily habits of caring for one another are all that keeps us alive. We will never make it to the Promised Land if we do not feed and tend to one another. If we turn on each other, we will surely perish—if we turn on one another, the flesh-eating zombies win. If we turn on one another, we become the flesh-eating zombies ourselves, hell-bent on destruction.

Feed my lambs.
Tend my sheep.
Feed my sheep.

I charge each of us here in this room today to find ways to feed others. But it is not just that. In the wilderness you should never say no to free food, because you do not know where the next meal is coming from. I charge you to feed others and to accept being fed. We will not survive without each other.

As I look at this church and it’s daily needs, I am convinced it will not survive without these beautiful, rambunctious, intense children from Trenton. I am convinced that they represent a door that is open to us to find new companions in our wilderness journey. As we reach out to the families of our youth, I believe we will find a richness in relationship that we could never have imagined.

As I look at these children and their daily needs, I am convinced that this church is key to their survival as well. I believe if they will stick with us long enough to learn their names and stories that they will be enriched by the aunties and uncles and grandmas and grandpas they will find here in this church. This is a church that loves children. It always has been. Even at our most curmudgeonly, cranky, difficult moments, this is a church that loves children. If they don’t quit us, I think they will be blessed beyond words by your love.

So I charge you not to quit each other. Stick it out. Ask questions. Look at each other in love, even when you don’t feel it. In the wilderness, we do not choose our companions, we are thrown together out of necessity. In the wilderness our daily call is to feed the sheep and tend the lambs. We follow the pillar of the Lord as it goes before us. We hold to the Promised Land as a someday hope. And we let go of the shore and the let the Lord lead.

Simple, but not easy. But at least we go with God.

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