Awakening in the Wilderness

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Scripture 1

Scripture 2

Sermon Title “Awakening in the Wilderness” by Dr. Ruthann Johansen

It is a great pleasure to worship with you this morning, to see meet new friends, to see those from across the years, and to remember persons formative in my faith life who were part of this congregation years ago.

I want to begin with some short lines from Adrienne Rich’s poem titled “Transcendental Etude” because it frames/inspires all that I want to say this morning. Listen to her words: “…there come times — perhaps this is one of them/ when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die….” [1] Ponder that for a few moments, wondering how persons can take themselves more seriously. And what you think taking ourselves more seriously might mean?

In her book The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart, Canadian activist and author Astra Taylor, argues that the greatest thing we human beings share in common across the world is insecurity. Paradoxically, it is our insecurity that bind us together. Taylor explains that regardless of social position, education, economic class, race or gender — we humans are linked together through our insecurity. She asserts that insecurity — whether it is innate or manufactured — drives our competitive consumer culture and global economic system. This morning I would like to test Astra Taylor’s conviction about our shared insecurity and Adrienne Rich’s invitation to take ourselves more seriously first against the biblical texts Ted read for us a few minutes ago and then second in relation to our current wilderness experiences. Have we missed anything in these fairly familiar texts that may make them relevant for our awakening in our wilderness moments of human history?

The scriptures

The theme of insecurity dominates the Book of Exodus. The Book depicts the harsh reality of human history within which the experiences of the Israelites emerged. Our assumptions that the Hebrews were from the beginning a pure racial group may need reconsideration. British Biblical scholar and theologian Anthony Bartlett suggests that Abraham and Jacob were semi-legendary ancestral figures of a number of families, which were adopted as ancestral stories by an ethnically diverse group.

We know that the Israelites were held in bondage in Egypt. What we may not appreciate is that the land of Israel was located in a transitional zone or “corridor” between the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia and the city states of Canaan, an area hard to hold onto and continually destabilized by wars among these groups and conquered territories. Tremendous upheavel created groups of people deprived of lands and rights who were forced to hire themselves out as mercenaries or for hard labor.

Perpetual conflicts created a class of dispossessed and stateless people known as Habiru, a term that means outsider.  The term can refer to nomads, fugitives, slaves, rebels, any workers of inferior status who are captured and forced to wander in strange lands. The Hebrews — a word that sounds much like Habiru — were such a group –a shifting population of displaced people, initially a socio-economic class that evolved into an ethnic group.

What is at stake in this passage from Exodus is that although these dispossessed Israelites have been freed from captivity, they are now grumbling refugees in the wilderness without food. In effect their question is “what good is deliverance when we don’t have food?” In verse 9 Moses instructs Aaron to tell the congregation that the Lord has heard their complaining. Aaron advises the people to “Draw near to the Lord,” and as the Israelites looked toward the wilderness, the glory of the Lord appeared in a cloud. What is happening here among and within these restless refugees? Their view and experience of God expands. They are awakening in their wilderness circumstances to the reality that God is not simply a deliverer but also One who hears and provides, acting on behalf of the hungry. Provision occurs in the context of apparent lostness in the wilderness, in depravity and need. The manna story of Exodus 16 gives these habiru enough for the day, which is a stark warning against the hoarding greed of imperial rulers that capitalizes on insecurity and breeds the myth of scarcity.

Turning to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard recorded in Matthew 20 we may once again expect to have our own sense of insecurity increased by our notions about justice. In chapters 18 through 20 in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus addresses questions, often raised or prompted by his disciples, about rank, privilege, or entitlement.

For example, Matthew 18 opens with the disciples’ questions about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Do you recall Jesus’ answer? He sat a child in their midst and said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” He continues with warnings against causing little ones to stumble, then a parable about caring for a single lost sheep, then advice about temptations to sin and how to handle sins against oneself, and about forgiveness. In chapter 19 he teaches about divorce, blesses little children, and then addresses the rich young man’s question about what good deed he must do to have eternal life. Again, you will recall Jesus’ unsettling conclusion: “…I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” From this background then Matthew takes us to the story about the laborers in the vineyard.

Those of us with strong commitments to fairness don’t particularly like this parable, because it hardly seems like a reliable guide for employers and employees about equitable remuneration for work performed. The situation in Jesus’ day was that many small farmers — not unlike farmers today — were forced to give up their land because of heavy debts levied by Roman taxes. These without land or work gathered each morning, hoping to be hired for the day. But through the vineyard owner’s inexplicable behavior at the end of the day to pay each worker the same regardless of the hours worked and the understandable anger of those who had labored longest, the parable appears to be about something larger than work and compensation.

When we look closely at the unusual behavior of the vineyard owner and then the reaction that his behavior produced among the workers who had been in the vineyard all day, we realize that this story is about generosity and resentment, which hides covetousness. Indeed, the landowner says in verse 15, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  The workers who had worked all day in the vineyard grumble because of their misperceptions of the landowner, much as the Israelites misperceived their situation in the wilderness. The laborers consider themselves to be in a wild place of inequity. Entitlements for service and their belief in scarcity shape their expectations about what is just. In this parable, their notions — and ours — about justice are enlarged by generosity and mercy when all receive the same.

These scriptures help us consider the wilderness territory of our current physical and spiritual insecurity as they also point us toward a larger reality. Twenty-first century insecurities may be experienced as very personal anxieties born of cultivated competition, fear of “not measuring up,” poverty, disability, marginalization. We can also find insecurities exhibited politically and economically in the halls of government, socially in our schools, on the streets of our cities, in the influence of social media, and even in our churches. Insecurity abounds globally between warring factions in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Israel and Palestine, Ukraine, and Russia. Increasingly we recognize that our Earth habitat teeters with insecurity from human actions that contribute to fires in Hawaii, Canada, Europe, and to devastating floods in Libya. I suggest that these disquieting outer symptoms of insecurity expose our inner states of being. 

I return to Adrienne Rich’s words: “…there come times — perhaps this is one of them/ when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die….” What does it mean to take ourselves more seriously in the wilderness of insecurity? I think first it requires us to awaken to the illusions that shape our present wilderness reality. These include the illusions of competition that foster separation not unity, the illusion of weighing oneself and others on scales of worth and unworthiness, of feeling comfortable and safe in self-righteous isolation as others suffer, and of believing the fiction that the power of military force and violence bring security.

Our second awakening in this wilderness must be to a larger awareness, a Holy realm of reality where matter and spirit are intertwined, where we recognize the seeds of the divine Presence in creation and in our own and every life. When Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure, which made them fearful and insecure, he invited them to take themselves more seriously by moving into a fuller Reality.  His counsel to them, as it is to us, is to “love one another just as I have loved you.” And a little later he says, “Abide in Me as I abide in you.” Abiding is more than imitating; it is re-presenting. It is awakening and living from a daily transformed inner place of love that becomes the kingdom of God or the realm of compassion and mercy.

Through exile, bitter suffering, and limited understanding, both our biblical texts point us toward the Reality of love incarnated in Jesus. By facing and embracing the vulnerabilities in our wilderness we make ready for transformations into love. Franciscan sister Ilia Delio says it this way: “Compassion flourishes when we have nothing to protect and everything to share. It is the gravity of all living beings that binds together all that is weak and limited into a single ocean of love.”

Twelve centuries after Jesus offered this invitation, the Persian Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote these words, translated here into English:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

          Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

          Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

          where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

          Don’t go back to sleep.

Our invitation to awaken to Holy love in our wildernesses abides every morning,  always. May we not go back to sleep. May it be so. Amen.

Ruthann Knechel Johansen

September 24, 2023

[1] Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude,” The Dream of a Common Language, New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.