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Wilderness – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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Exodus 33:7–11a
Psalm 137:1-6
John 7:4-26

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us!

Were you in the chapel on Tuesday, June 29 – our last Eucharist in the chapel before the renovations? If so, you will have heard our brother James’ sermon in which he gave us that unusual but accurate translation of the opening words of John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” John is reminding us of the story of the Exodus when God accompanied the children of Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. God dwelt among them in a tent – the tent of meeting – at the edge of the camp.

When James preached that sermon a couple of months ago, we had no idea that God would literally pitch his tent among us! But here we are, the people of God, the ekklesia of God, gathered together in a tent, in the presence of the Living God. The tent of meeting.

This tent is a wonderful image/metaphor for the life of our community right now. For in a real sense we are on a journey – a kind of wilderness journey. But of course true wilderness has nothing to do with sand dunes, cacti and searing sun. True wilderness is the experience of having the familiar patterns of our life suddenly turned upside down: the breakdown of regular routine and patterns. Perhaps many of you have experienced something of the wilderness in your own lives – perhaps the loss of a home, or a job, or of health, or a spouse, or a dream. It is as if someone has shifted the kaleidoscope, and instead of your life being a familiar and comfortable shape, you suddenly experience dislocation and disorientation.

And yet, it seems, God mysteriously chooses to call men and women into the wilderness deliberately. Scripture is full of such experiences. “Therefore says the Lord, I will allure her, woo her, into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her,” we read in Hosea. The wilderness, for all its fearful unfamiliarity, is the place where God is waiting for us. It is the place where we are stripped of our self-created virtues and where we stand naked and vulnerable before the Lord. It is the place where, as Jesus himself discovered, we face our demons and temptations. But it is also the place of conversion.

In the history of Israel there are two great wilderness experiences – two great experiences of conversion. The first is the Exodus, the journey out of Egypt to the Promised Land. The second is the Exile, when they were taken captive into Babylon, and the Temple destroyed. These two wilderness experiences were both devastating and disorienting. And yet they were crucial experiences which God used to transform those people into God’s holy people, like gold in an assayer’s fire.

In the first experience, the Exodus, they learned above all to trust in God. God was leading them into an unfamiliar and uncertain future, and they didn’t like it. They complained and moaned, “why did we ever leave the fleshpots of Egypt. Yes, we were slaves, but at least we knew where the next meal was coming from. We are going to starve to death. We’re going to die of thirst.” Yet God was faithful and supplied their every need. But it took forty years, a whole generation, to form them into a people who put their trust in the Lord their God.

Then secondly, the Exile. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” – words from Psalm 137. The Exile was a devastating and profoundly disorienting experience for Israel. The most catastrophic part of the Exile was that the Temple – “the dwelling place of the Lord” – was no more. Without a Temple, how could they carry on their worship? “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Yet out of this devastating experience they learned a profound truth. When Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem he offered up a great prayer to God. “There is no God like you in heaven above or on the earth beneath. But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings Ch 8) The truth they learned through the Exile was that the worship of God was not dependent on particular places or particular buildings.

We hear that very same truth on the lips of Jesus when the woman at the well compares the holy places of the Jews with that of the Samaritans. “Believe me,” he says. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:23-24)

In both these experiences of wilderness the Israelites were radically stripped of the things which they believed they needed to sustain their life. The certainty of food and water every day in the desert. The presence of the Temple to fulfill their duties to God, in the Exile. But the in experience of being stripped in that way, they actually had to ask what is of the essence. They learned that the essence of their life as the people of God was to trust God and to worship God in spirit and in truth.

And I believe that is the same for each one of us. When we pass through experiences of wilderness in our lives, perhaps experiences of stripping, of loss, we can learn just how much we cling to things in our lives which actually are not of the essence. Such times can invite us to let go of these lesser things in which we trust, in preparation for the final letting go at death when all we will have is our trust in God.

And then, the tent reminds us we don’t need a beautiful chapel to worship God. It is a joy and blessing and a privilege to be able to worship in a beautiful building with stained glass windows, an organ, lovely vestments. (And I am looking forward to being able to reopen the chapel.) But those things are not of the essence. We have all we need here – God’s people gathered in God’s presence around a simple table on which there is bread and wine. Here, in our midst is the Risen Lord.

Today we give thanks to God that in Jesus Christ the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.

Today we give thanks that in the sacrament of bread and wine God pitches his tent in our hearts.

So let the feast begin: Alleluia!

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10 Comments

  1. DLa Rue on November 20, 2012 at 06:00

    I usually read the sermons; today I listened to the tape. It was clear from the car horns, the whizzing sounds of the traffic and the geese honking that you were indeed outside, and that somehow underlined for me the exposure, the vulnerability, of the time in the wilderness: no acoustical protection from the distractions of the world, and no guarantees that weather or winds might not suddenly interrupt the proceedings. Concentration in the face of such things must have been so difficult in the time you were away from the monastery: in retrospect, now that it’s been a bit, it may be possible to say more clearly what has been different for the community since that time. Having just moved a few months ago, I’m still unpacking and re-assessing, myself, so I suppose it’s a parallel process. I’ll look forward to seeing you all Thursday AM!

  2. Martha Holden on August 4, 2011 at 22:14

    Thank you, as always. I do not recognize what I am clinging to until I am thrust into the wilderness. It is only in that harsh light, the harsh light of knowing in Christ that I do have all that I need for right now, right now, it is only in that light that I can recognize that to which I am clinging. I find that I cling to the stangest things…….. often constellations of assumptions that I have no words for. Thank you for the stimulation.

  3. Derald W. Stump on June 5, 2011 at 19:31

    Your sermon stirred up memories of Alex who welcomed us for so many years as “pilgrims” came to the door of the tent [monastery] and of the truly wonderful leadership of Fr. Granville Williams who was superior back in the 1950s. There were challenges in those times as there are now. Thank God for such a great succession of talented leaders over the years in SSJE !

  4. jane goldring on October 11, 2010 at 14:02

    thankyou for that homily jeffrey it certainly hit home. some of the churches are meeting about going together. jim miller who filled in while our rector was away reminded us that our church is a building and we are the church. some of the churches in lambton deanery are talking about going together as some smaller ones are having problems meeting their budget. my neice is rectors warden at her parish and has been going to the meetings of the three churches. john came over so he was able to hear your homily with me. jane

  5. Lucia Lloyd on September 28, 2010 at 11:58

    Yes, this was a very meaningful sermon for me. Since the congregation I serve is worshipping outdoors this summer (and in a rented house in winter) as we wait and hope to return to our church building which is now occupied by a breakaway group who left The Episcopal Church, it helps to keep in mind the gifts of the wilderness experience. God is with us everywhere!

  6. Ed Devany on September 25, 2010 at 16:49

    At the time of a personal wilderness (Parkinson’s disease eating away at my time, body, mind, including recent hallucinations) this sermon was eapecially appropriate, moving and inspiring.
    So many times before this has been the case with SSJE communications, sermons, services. Grateful thanks as always to you, the order, and God. Ed Devany

    • Christina on February 10, 2013 at 07:11

      For Ed Devany:
      Just in case you read this, Ed, my thoughts are with you this morning. My beloved also had Parkinson’s disease for thirteen years (diagnosed.) It is a long journey. God be with you. Christina

  7. Rev D Shepler on September 24, 2010 at 18:06

    Thank you brother Geoffrey! My wilderness isn’t over yet, but the tent has become precious to me. May the Tent of Presence always dwell with you and the Order of St John, the Evangelist, and all of us. Amen.

  8. Br. Thomas Lawrence Greer, BSG on September 23, 2010 at 21:57

    Br. Geoffrey,
    What a wonderful sermon. This sermon spoke to my own “wilderness” experiences. What a blessing it was to hear this message this evening. I look forward to hearing more of the Brother’s sermons and possibly becoming a friend in the FSJ.

    Peace,
    Thomas Lawrence

  9. Kathryn white on September 23, 2010 at 19:27

    Thank you Geoffrey. I now serve a congregation in transition and i pray daily for so many people who find themselves in the wilderness — you brothers are among them. Thank you for your words of assurance and hope.

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