A long time since we broke bread together. Since we felt that peace which passeth all understanding as it spreads throughout our entire body as we receive communion alongside our fellow parishioners. Such a very long time since we harmonized a favorite hymn or embraced one another in a hug or handshake at the Peace. For the first time in our lives, we may now have a glimmer of understanding for what it was like for the Israelites wandering or for Jesus wrestling with his identity in the wilderness. Before it was just a story, and now, as a community we understand the quality, the feel in our bones, of what it means when we say a very long time.
When we began the season of Lent last year, we had no idea it would come to be so different from every other Lent in our lives. We entered the wilderness, and we have remained here. Don’t get me wrong, we have observed other liturgical seasons, marking Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Yet the quality of this time has been of a year long Lent. No one needs to tell us about the meaning of fasting this year. We understand in our core what it means to fast from communion. Both the communion we experience when we are in-person worshiping together as well as the communion we experience when we break bread together and receive the Holy Eucharist.
We also know that while this wilderness seems to drag ever onwards, that there really is an end insight. Vaccines are being distributed. Case numbers are lowering. The vestry is working on fixing our sound system so we will be able to offer streaming and in-person worship sooner than later.
As we climb this mountain, we might imagine that soon we will be greeted with a beautiful vista; then we will descend down the mountain to the way things were. Right? We can go back to the way things were, and finally sit back and relax.
That’s what usually happens isn’t it? I mean, when Jesus emerged from the wilderness, it was to go have lunch at his mom’s house, right? And the Israelites, they got to set up camp and relax, right? Unfortunately, the version of these stories where people get to relax after their time in the wilderness, did not seem to make the canonical version of the holy scriptures. Instead, when people reemerge from the wilderness it tends to be when the real work sets in. For Jesus, it is when his public ministry began. For us, it will be a time to reimagine what it means to be the Church.
A wise colleague said to me recently that once all of our churches have reopened to in-person worship, churches will choose one of two paths. Some will return to in-person worship, take a deep breath, relax, and in their exhaustion, stop actively being the Church, which will ultimately lead to their decline and closure. Some churches will return to in-person worship, take a deep breath, and double down in their efforts to reimagine who they are and what their mission is NOW, having lived through this experience together. It is these churches who embrace the work before them that will survive, and even thrive, in the ever shifting sands of the changing Church. This will happen across the Episcopal Church and every branch of the Jesus Movement. This will happen across every kind of institution, period.
I realize, this is not what anyone wants to hear. We are tired, and ready to resume what we once thought of as normal. But that’s now how this faith business works. When we emerge from the wilderness, our most vital work will just be beginning.
Some of you have heard the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson hired the team to explore the newly acquired territory of the unexplored west. At the time, there was a working assumption that the geography of the west would be similar to what folks knew of the east. The team carried canoes, presuming they would be a vital tool as they relied on waterways to make their journey. Instead, when they reached Lemhi Pass, the view they beheld was not a river that would take them further west, but rather an endless and terrifying range of mountains (Bolsinger 27). It was here that Lewis & Clark were forced to shift the mental model they had been working with. They abandoned their boats, found horses, and shifted gears (Bolsinger 93).
Tod Bolsinger reflects on the journey of Lewis & Clark in his book, Canoeing the Mountains.
He writes something that I think is pertinent for all of us to sit and pray with:
“And at that moment everything that Meriwether Lewis assumed about his journey had changed. He was planning on exploring the new world by boat. He was a river explorer. They planned on rowing, and they thought the hardest part was behind them. But in truth everything they had accomplished was only a prelude to what was in front of them.
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were about to go off the map and into unchartered territory. They would have to change plans, give up expectations, even reframe their entire mission. What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. There were no experts, no maps, no ‘best practices’ and no sure guides who could lead them safely and successfully. The true adventure--the real discovery--was just beginning” (Bolsinger 27).***
We know that in the not-so-distant future we will emerge from this wilderness and begin our own true adventure. Which is why these last weeks in the wilderness could be a gift if we shift the mental model we have been working with to see our situation somewhat differently. It is also why this is the Lent to double down in our spiritual practices. This is the Lent to embed scripture into our daily life. This is the Lent to pray every day. This is the Lent to meet regularly with a spiritual companion and share what is happening in our lives and pray together. This is the Lent for us to double down in our efforts to be still, and know that I am God, as the psalmist writes.** This is a season of preparation.
When we finally emerge from this wilderness, this year long Lent, we will have our most important work together to date. And we are a merged congregation, who already knows and understands a thing or two about change, grief, resilience, leaning into our faith and onto one another. Remember, when we tell our story, we always say we emerged. This idea of ever-evolving into something new, stronger, and more whole. This might be an important time for us to remember we did not only emerge on Emerging Sunday on April 23, 2017. We did not just emerge in our first year together. We are the people of Saints James and Andrew, and we are an ever emerging Church, as we seek to follow God’s ongoing call.
As we begin Lent this week, I invite us to lean fully into our faith and embrace this season in the wilderness. May it prepare us for the vital and important work of mission and ministry that lay before us. Amen.
*The number of days since COVID-19 was identified as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
*** Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory. InterVarsity Press, 2015, Downers Grove, Illinois.
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