Jon Burnham preached this Lent 3A sermon from Exodus at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on February 24, 2008.
In their journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel came to a place with no water. The people complained against Moses and tested God. The people of Israel journeyed by stages to the Promised Land. In a similar fashion, we journey by stages in our spiritual lives as we evolve through different levels of consciousness. James Fowler discusses the Stages of Faith development. Philosopher Ken Wilber has contributed greatly to this field of knowledge. We are on a spiritual journey through Lent and we journey by stages through this holy season from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday.
We journey by stages even in mundane situations such as training a dog to walk on a leash. I was inspired to walk my dog Pal on a leash after watching Cesar Millan demonstrate how to do it on his TV show, Dog Whisperer. It would seem obvious how to walk to a dog but if you will notice the people walking dogs in your neighborhood you may notice that more often than not the person is not walking the dog but the dog is walking the person. The Dog Whisperer teaches how a person may walk a dog and not the other way around. For instance, when walking a large dog the leash should be placed high up the dog's head just behind the ears so that when you pull on the leash the dog will feel constricted in the throat and so is more likely to follow your lead. Secondly, the dog should always walk one step behind you and never in front of you because this demonstrates that you are the leader and the dog is the follower. Finally, the most important part of the walk is how you begin the walk by stepping outside the door of the house. Cesar recommends you walk out the door first and let the dog follows behind you on the leash. By stepping out the door first you are demonstrating to your dog that you are in charge of this experience and that you will be walking the dog rather than the dog walking you. So there is a method even to walking a dog.
I followed the Dog Whisperer's advice as I began to teach my dog Pal to walk on a leash. Several months later, I was walking my dog, Pal, around the back yard of our house on a very hot morning in Mississippi. It was hot and humid and dry and dusty and I was thirsty. Round and round we walked inside our fenced in back yard. I had a leash with a short rope around Pal's neck and made sure he walked one step behind me as I had learned from the Dog Whisperer. As we walked and round the yard, I realized that I had been walking through a spiritual desert for several years. I found satisfaction in nothing. I was going through what mystics refer to as the night of sense which is a time of trial and a purging of the physical appetites. I was so thirsty for some experience of God. Suddenly it dawned on me that just as that leash tied Pal to me, his master, so Jesus had a leash around my neck that tied me to him. But while Pal was delighted to have the leash around me and was happy to be walking with me, his master, I was not delighted to have Jesus' leash around my neck and I was not delighted to be walking with my master, Jesus. I was not grateful. I was resentful. Like the children of Israel murmuring against Moses, I was murmuring against Jesus as Jesus was leading me on as if I were on a leash.
As the children of Israel as they journeyed by stages through the wilderness toward the promised land, so we as a congregation and as a society are journeying by stages through a time of great transition. From scientists we hear about the transformative power of nanotechnology that promises an upheaval in society only matched in the past by the industrial revolution. From medicine we hear of the possibility of new therapies that may enable humans to live into the hundreds of years of age as did some people in the Old Testament accounts such as Abraham and Sarah, who parented a child when in the 90s. How do we "go on ahead" of this society in order to find water in the spiritual wilderness of a postmodern world? The Spirit beckons us the church to "go on ahead" of the society and this is hard for us to do as a church. We are accustomed to being reactive rather than proactive. We are by nature a conservative organization. We Presbyterians are not know for being on the cutting edge of technology but we are known for being on the cutting edge of mission. When it comes to mission, we have a history of going on ahead of other churches and religious organizations. We are trail blazers in the area of mission to the community. If we are to build on our strength, we will be asking how do we go on ahead of other churches in reaching out to Southwest Houston in Christian mission? What human needs should we meet? How may we remain faithful to our tradition and yet use technology in new ways in our worship and service in order to remain relevant in this rapidly changing society? These are some of the questions of "going on ahead."
The LORD said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go."
Going on ahead requires courage and discipline but the effort is worth the reward. Failure to go on ahead means we may get left behind. So let us be about the task of going on ahead of the cultural changes we are living through and learn to flow with the Spirit into the bright future God is already arranging for us. These are exciting times to be alive and we are blessed to be alive at this time in human history. Let us fulfill our sacred duty to God and humankind by being faithful to our divine calling in practical and meaningful ways. Leadership means going on ahead of the people. Our Session needs to go on ahead of the congregation. We need to be out there leading them toward our next destination.
When we take the chance, when we put ourselves out there, when we go on ahead, and finally get there, wherever "there" may be for us, we make a startling discovery. We are not the first ones to be there. We may think of ourselves as trailblazers, first movers, early adopters, but we never have to worry about getting too far ahead of the crowd. However far we may go when we "go on ahead" we will find that God is already there. God is already there. That is what Moses and the elders of Israel found when they went on ahead of the people. In fact, God had already told Moses and the leaders that God would go before them and he tells them again in our text today. God says: "I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. So we relax in the knowledge that God has already gone on ahead of us and is already there wherever it is we are headed. God is there waiting for us at our future destination. And when we finally catch up to God, God says: "Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Go knows the location of the water of life. Our Session, our leaders, must lead our congregation to the water of life so that the people may drink. One of my favorite Bible verses is from Joshua, "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for danger, to give you a future with hope."
One day we may look back at this time in the history of St. John's and say, "That was the time when we searching for leadership. We were looking to the future but were uncertain how to get there. We were in a time of transition and everything seemed to be up for grab. We were not sure the Lord was still with us. We thought the Lord may have forgotten us. We questioned our leaders saying, "Give us water to drink." We were afraid we would die of thirst in that spiritual desert." But thanks be to God, we had leaders who went on ahead of us to a new level of consciousness, a new awareness of how we could be relevant in ministry to the community. And we will look back at this time in our history, and we will give it a name. So did the people of Israel. They called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"
We feel sometimes as if we are beating our head against a rock. That is how I felt that hot day in Mississippi when I was walking my dog in circles in that fenced back yard. I felt spiritually fenced in and I wanted out. Finally, I relaxed into the feeling. I said "Yes" to what is and a shift occurred. I accepted the idea that I may never get beyond this dry and parched place in my spiritual journey and that was okay. I would still worship God. Jesus would still be my master, even if it meant I got no water, no reward -- even if there is no heaven above -- I decided I would still be leashed to Jesus. I said to myself then, "Even if I die in this dry and barren place, I still love my master, Jesus. Even though God may kill me, yet will I still love him." A shift happened. It was still hot and I was still bothered an disappointed, but not I knew I could survive this stage in my spiritual journey. Shortly thereafter, a few months later, I experienced a shift in consciousness as I was delivered from the desert and entered into a higher level of consciousness that seemed like a spiritual oasis.
As individual Christians and as congregations, we journey by stages to ever high levels of consciousness. May the Spirit lead us all to a place of water, a place of refreshment, and a season of creative ministry and relevant ministry. God is calling the leaders of this church to go on ahead of the congregation to a new level of consciousness. God is waiting for us there. Leaders, let's lead. Followers, let's follow. Together, let's boldly live into this moment in history. Let's believe in ourselves and trust in God, knowing that one day we may look back at this time and say, "That was a time when we questioned God and challenged our leaders, that was our Massah and Meribah. That was an important point in the spiritual development of St. John's Presbyterian Church." This is a turning point. This is a time for repentance and renewal. This is a season of spiritual detoxification as we journey by stages into God's future, now.