This parable recounted on the blog Telling Secrets, is by the South African activist, Olive Schreiner,and it is one of my very favorite sacred texts for it evokes the collective ongoing journey of humanity. Schreiner, like that lonely woman on the path, had once searched for a passageway out of the narrow confinement of Victorian life. Growing up as a child of Wesleyan missionaries, Schreiner questioned her family’s beliefs about the propriety of South African society. While she never abandoned the vision of peace and justice she heard promised in scripture, she forged a different path, making a way to the waters’ edge for activists, feminists and pacifists after her.
Schreiner offers us an alternative Advent vision of the path through the wilderness. Her path through the South African wilderness mirrors the long journey through deserts of the ancient near east. Isolated and remote these two divergent paths through the wilderness both lead to a fabled river that forms the boundary between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be. A path to the water’s edge…
For the ancient Israelites that journey led to the Jordan, that ancient boundary between the exilic wilderness and the dwelling place of the Divine. That river, first crossed by Joshua and the people centuries earlier, is the symbolic threshold leading to the promised land. For the exiles in Babylon to which Baruch writes, the Jordan symbolized a homecoming, the heralded arrival of a people long displaced, coming back once again to the home which God promised.
Imagine the joy that this vision must have evoked for the people of Israel, long displaced and cut off from their families.
“See your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you”
An image of the lost found. Rejoice, O Israel, for God will bring your children back to you. Do not fret the journey, for God has already prepared the path.
“God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of Divine glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from the Holy One.”
To those living in exile across the wild desert of the middle east, the image of a safe, straight path meant everything. The Divine preparation of the path, the lowering of the mountains, the raising of the valleys was more than a symbolic gesture of the coming dream of God that would radically shift the socio-political landscape. For those living far off across the desert, this meant a safe and speedy return home across the river Jordan. The wilderness between Babylon and Jerusalem was treacherous. A straight path without the obstacles of mountains and valleys signaled a sure way home for the children of Israel, a path to the water’s edge.
It is no coincidence then that in this text from Luke, we find John also standing at the water’s edge. There at the Jordan, in that liminal space between wilderness wandering and the promised land, John invites people into the rushing, wild waters in preparation for the coming kin-dom.
John understands that there is still more work to do. For while, it is true that the Israelites have literally crossed into the promised land from their wilderness wanderings, the journey is not yet complete. In fact, the promised land once attained was not at all what they expected. Not only did it come at the cost of those who lived in the land before them…through warfare, death and destruction…but it turned out not to be the place of tranquility, peace and justice they imagined. Centuries of violence, conquest and oppression proved that. In fact, from the time they crossed to perhaps the present day, it seems the occupation of this land brought more conflict and chaos than peace and prosperity.
Mere occupation of the promised land did not usher forth God’s dream of peace and justice. For that, the people had more work to do. That is why John called the people to a baptism of repentance of sins. For John, this was not merely a verbal act by which sins are confessed. But rather it was, in Greek, a metanoia, In the words of Herman Waetjen, it was
“a turning around, a 180-degree change of direction, and therefore a change of mind. It is a movement into transformation that involves the total person. Repentance, as a termination of participation in the old moral order and an entry into a new moral order, inaugurates the active construction of a life and a way of living that corresponds to God’s [dream] for human beings. In time Jesus will instruct the disciples on the ethics of this new road into life. This is how to make the paths straight for the coming ‘kin-dom of God.’”
In fact, Jesus’ ministry will be consumed with instructing the disciples on how to forge that path in the world…through love, compassion, non-violence, forgiveness, and mercy.
While in the passage from Baruch, the people are promised a divinely made path, here in Luke, it is the people themselves who must forge their way not just to the water’s edge but in and through it in order to prepare themselves and the world for coming kin-dom of God. For still there exist barriers to the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even in the city of Jerusalem, in the city of the holy of holies, still there is something lacking for the completion of God’s promise. These barriers are ones both imposed from without and constructed from within. The people themselves have been kept from God by the powers and principalities of the world, and by themselves.
We recognize these barriers and obstacles to the Divine, don’t we? We who have oft been kept at bay by the institutional church know what it is like to have our path blocked. And at the same time, we confess we recognize the barriers and obstacles of our own making… towering mountains of hesitation, uncertainty, apathy; dark valleys of fear, anxiety, doubt; chilly, churning rivers of self-loathing, internalized oppression and despair. We, too, know what it is like to wander lost in the wilderness of life, don’t we?
John reciting the well known words from the prophet Isaiah, calls the people to join with God in the construction of a highway back to the Divine, by preparing a path for themselves and for their community that will lead them home to God, to the dream God has for them, to the fulfillment of the promise of shalom, God’s vision of peace and justice for the world. This is the message of John. Tear down the barriers, make the road plain, for kin-dom is surely coming and we must be prepared to be met by the Holy.
You see, the preparation for this journey toward the completion of God’s promise is a mutual endeavor between humanity and the Divine. Both are required to work together for the realization of the kin-dom.
Often in our liturgy at CWM, we talk of this as the co-creation of the kin-dom…something that cannot be done by God alone, nor by sheer human effort. Human and Divine need each other if this dream is to become reality. And, this my friends, is good news.
John’s call to us for transformation is at once individual and communal. We are called to turn our lives around, to begin a new on the path that leads toward God, while at the same time we are called to prepare the path for others. Like God who brings down the mountains and raises the valleys to cosmically break down the barriers for pilgrims on the path, we too are called to be preparers of the way. We participate with God in the preparation of the road that connects the wilderness and the world, that highway between our daily life and our encounters with the Holy.
Our Advent journeys are both about following and leading. Here at CWM, we have followed a path laid for us by members of our congregation who have since journeyed elsewhere. I am mindful of all those who have beaten the path to the water’s edge for us that we might be the queer church in Davis Square.
I remember David, co-founder, of CWM, who dreamed the dream and created space for the birth of a new type of church in the congregation he was serving. Without his vision and the hospitality of the people at Grace UMC in Cambridgeport, we would never have made it to the water’s edge. There on Magazine Street a dream was made reality and we took a step closer to who we are today.
I remember Tracy, a founding member of this congregation, who forged the path toward our communion table. Upon coming to worship the second Sunday in the month, Tracy, a former Roman Catholic was aghast to discover that we only served communion once a month. “But you can’t have church without the table? Do you think we could have it again next week?” Why not? And we took a step closer to who we are today.
I remember Joe and Craig, two other founding members of this congregation, who forged the path for our community meals. After a meager snack of store bought cookies and stale coffee, they suggested perhaps they could bring a light supper the next week. And what a meal it was complete with homemade apple turnovers and fresh pressed apple cider! And we took a step closer to who we are today.
I remember Dee Dee, our first intern, who suggested that perhaps the church become involved in local politics. She spent her first year making in roads into the greater Boston LGBT community for our congregation securing a feature in BayWindows, signing us as one of the first congregations to support marriage equality and creating name recognition for us throughout the community. Dee Dee initiated our commitment as a congregation to being active advocates for justice in the world. And we took a step closer to who we are today.
I remember Brian and Karen, Betty and Bill. I remember Jessica, Kirk, Terry, Jennifer, Susan, Jeff, and David. I remember Jen, Thi, Lucas, Jeremy and Chelsea. All of whom walked the path with us for a time.
These are just but a few of the faithful saints who have journeyed with us, helping to make a path to the water’s edge on which we now travel. While our paths have now diverged, their gifts remain with us as steps along the path, stones that built the bridge over which we now cross.
As many of you already know from our charge conference this past week, it has come time for paths to diverge again here at CWM. I have been invited to become the sixth Dean of Hendrick’s Chapel at Syracuse University beginning this March. My last Sunday with you will be February 14th. A new pastor will be appointed after the first of the year with whom you will travel further on the path. While we had anticipated that we might journey together a bit further to June, this invitation has sped our timeline up in unexpected ways…both for you as a congregation and for me as your pastor.
We have traveled this path together for nearly 8 years, forging the way forward together. It has been a mutual process in which together we made the path by walking. As I look back on our time together, I feel immensely blessed and privileged to have shared this journey with you for I myself have learned so much. Here I learned to be a pastor, here I found the meaning of community, here I discovered what it meant to truly be Church. As my faith home, you prepared the path for me. Thank you.
But now in the coming months our paths will diverge. The steps we have taken together, the path which we have tread, will remain. Only now God calls us forward to forge new ways of living and loving and being in different communities. While it is with real sadness and sorrow that we come to this unexpected turn in the road, we celebrate the path we have walked together and look forward in eager anticipation to the road that lay ahead.
Like that woman on the path, we, at CWM, find ourselves at the water’s edge, at the precipice of a new beginning. And, like John,we too exist in the liminal space of knowing the promise and yet not-yet living into its full realization. In this liminal, not-yet space, we are called to enter and cross over the river, to extend the highway, to forge ahead in new paths, navigating new territory so that we might wind our way closer to the Divine.
And while we confess that dwelling in this liminal space of already/not yet can be uncomfortable, raising our anxieties about our future, we have been called by God to make the way clear…not just for ourselves but for all those who will follow. Look around, the saints of CWM are not just those I have named. They are all around us. You are the ones who have made this path to the water’s edge…and now God is calling you forward into a new land, into a new space. God is calling all of us to enter the chilly waters that we might cross through to the other side and create new unimaginable paths that lead us and the world toward a greater realization of God’s kin-dom on earth.
Just as John has made the path to the water’s edge preparing the way for Jesus, so also, we too are called to prepare that path…and to extend it. The hope of Advent rests in us and in our courage to traverse the wilderness of our lives, making a path to and through the water’s edge for ourselves and for the world.