Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Grace In The Wilderness, February 15, 2015

Grace In The Wilderness
A Sermon delivered February 15, 2015
University Christian Church San Diego
Rev Dr Steve Shepard

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43.16-21)

In my thinking I keep coming back to the theme of “wilderness” as I think about our life in recent times. Ours has been something of a wilderness experience. The concept of wilderness, of course, has a rich history in our faith tradition. Our Hebrew ancestors had a seminal experience that was central to their identity when they were liberated from Egyptian bondage, miraculously crossed the Red Sea, and then "wandered in the wilderness" for 40 years before they reached their "promised land".

Our wilderness experience has lasted just over 2 years now, which is not too bad in comparison!

A wilderness experience is a time of change, a time of movement, often a time of loss. There is often a sense of disorientation, a shaking up of the ways things have always been.  Like that old Jerry Lee Lewis song: “There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.”

A wilderness experience is not necessarily a negative thing, although it may feel that way at times. It can actually be a very stimulating and creative time.

Frank Herbert, who wrote the novel Dune, said, “A person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing [us] to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens.”

I have noticed that about our church life recently – there has been lots of excitement and energy; an interest in revival, a new willingness to jump in and get things done.

The wilderness experience of ancient Israel was so significant that they have been trying to make sense of it ever since. The recent movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, was one more recounting of their wilderness experience in hopes of understanding it. Because when something like that happens, we humans have to make sense of it somehow. That’s just how we are wired.

Early on some of the best Hebrew writers and poets considered it a punishment for their mistakes. In the book of Numbers the writer says, “the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and [God] made them wander in the wilderness for forty years.”

Other writers saw it as was way of forcing them to trust God, a kind of coerced obedience.

After that some of them considered it an opportunity for God to treat them like a helpless child. In Deuteronomy the writer says to Israel, “in the wilderness… you saw how God carried you, just as one carries a child.”

Still others considered it an opportunity for God to teach them some hard lessons about life. In Deuteronomy 8 it is written that the wilderness was intended “to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you [some] good.”

Still other Hebrew writers explained the wilderness as a way of getting them to see what was in their hearts.

Jeremiah says to God’s people that “those who survived [their struggle] found grace in the wilderness.”

And then there is the novel explanation from the Book of Ezekiel: Israel’s wilderness was a time for God to be tested. The Lord was so angry that he planned to destroy the people, but at the last minute couldn’t do it, and God’s mind was changed. (Ezekiel 20) 

How do you explain our wilderness experience of the last couple of years? I am sure you like me, have tried to find meaning in it. What has it been for you? A punishment, a time of testing, an occasion to learn life’s hard lessons, or a way of finding grace?

Maybe it has been a little of all those things. Okay – not the punishment part. Let’s discard that one.

Here’s my point this morning: Our wilderness journey is an opportunity to find grace.  And grace will be ours as we “learn our way through” this transition period, taking responsibility for our life together and perceiving “the new thing” that God has in mind for UCC. There is grace in the wilderness for us.

A Wilderness Year

The year 1978 was a wilderness year for me and my family. At the time we were living in Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. At the end of 1977
·       I lost my job,
·       I lost my income,
·       I lost my church family,
·       and much of my personal support,
·       I even lost my denominational affiliation, which for a minister was no small thing. I was in transition big time. Fortunately Cindy was still gainfully employed.

Our son was less than a year old when the year began, so for most of 1978 I was Mr. Mom, a stay at home dad.
·       I changed a lot of diapers,
·       made sure Nathan was fed well,
·       took him to the park and the occasional dr’s appt,
·       gave him afternoon naps
·       and did all the other things that go along with caring for an infant.

As with any wilderness experience, despite the difficulty, the uncertainty and the personal struggle, it was an exciting and memorable time.  It turned out to be one of the best years of my life. It was the year of my first connection to University Christian Church, as I got some personal guidance from ministers Wayne Bryant and Rich Perry. 

In the middle of that wilderness year, I had a literal wilderness experience. Here are some pictures of that experience 37 years ago. 

I took a group of church youth on a weeklong backpack in the wilderness of Sequoia. We parked at the Lodgepole Camp ground on a Sunday afternoon in July and headed north into the wilderness, getting only a few miles in before setting up our first night’s camp. 

That first night a bear made off with one of the two bags that held our entire food supply. So there we were, Monday morning at our campsite, packing our backpacks, looking at only half of the food we had brought for the entire journey, debating what to do.

These kids were pretty adventurous so we decided not to give in to our losses. Instead of heading back down the trail to our cars, we headed up the trail, further into the forest. To our great surprise we made it through the entire week just fine. Our stomachs weren’t full after every meal, but we never went hungry. We not only survived, we thrived and we came home with great stories to tell and a readiness to go again.

We discovered that what we had was enough.

UCC, we are discovering that same measure of grace in our life together at this particular time. We have lost some important leaders in our church life recently:
·       Paul Svenson,
·       Tim Tiffany,
·       the Girl Band,
·       Paula Elizabeth,
·       Ron Dewes,
·       Pastor Jill,
·       and others.

How do we move on after losses like that? We discover grace in our wilderness by understanding that who we are right now, and what we have right now, is enough to move forward. We make it enough. Our financial resources, physical resources, and especially our human resources are sufficient to get the job done. How can I say that? Because, in the words of Isaiah, God is “about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, don’t you see it?”

Hand wringing will not serve us well; faith in the God who has been in this church for over 100 years is what we need. And will lead to some pleasant surprises.

Free Climbing El Cap

Last month, two men, Kevin Jorgenson and Tommy Caldwell, accomplished something that had never been done before. They climbed the 3,000 foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. And they did so without using all the apparatus used by every other climber who has ever ascended it. Here are some pictures of El Capitan and their climb of that monstrous peak.

It was considered impossible to free climb El Capitan, using only one’s hands and feet and a safety rope.

·       The face was too steep.
·       The dangers were too great.
·       The toll it would take on one’s hands and feet was too severe.

But they did it. It took an amazing amount of planning and preparation, but they did it. It took them 19 grueling days to make that 3000’ vertical climb from the Valley floor to the top.

They rested in tents that hung out from the cliff, hanging hundreds of feet above the Valley.

The climb was broken down into 32 “pitches” or sections. The most difficult section was about half way up where their route took them sideways rather than straight up. On that particular section, one of them fell 11 different times, and dangled like a spider on a string before being caught by his safety rope.

It was a wilderness accomplishment that captured the attention of people around the world. Even President Obama tweeted them congratulations afterword and said, “So proud of Caldwell and Jorgesen for conquering El Capitan. You remind us that anything is possible.”

There is something about that climb worth noting: they planned for the occasional slip, and learned how to survive what would have been deadly falls. They endured the occasional mishaps for the sake of their primary objective.

All of us are tempted to think that the future of UCC is all about whether I will like the pastor, or whether I will get enough out of worship, or if the music meets my needs. But there is grace for us in our wilderness when we keep the mission of this church the most important thing. And what an incredible mission we have.

Our mission has to do seeking wholeness in our lives and in our community. It has to do with helping the homeless. It has to do with celebrating God’s presence within each one of us in worship. It has to do with welcoming and assimilating people into this fellowship without regard to sexual orientation or any other human condition. 

We have an amazing mission that must ever be kept before us. It is larger than each one of us, but it includes each one of us.
Those mountain climbers kept their primary objective in sight at all times. They overcame the occasional mishap for the sake of the mission. As we do that in our life together we will find grace in the wilderness.


The recent motion picture Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, is the true story of a young woman named Cheryl Strayed.

She had experienced some tragic losses in her life.  Her mother had died of cancer -- way too young.  Her marriage had fallen apart – in large part because of her own poor behavior.  She had spent years in reckless living, jumping from relationship to relationship, finding herself in a downward spiral. She found herself in a hopeless place, a personal wilderness, struggling for wholeness and peace.

Jerry Harvey wrote a book about organizational life some years ago, with this title:  “How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back, My Fingerprints Are Always On The Knife?” It is an unwieldy title to be sure, but the message is clear: take responsibility for whatever has happened to you, for that is the beginning of grace and an avenue for change.

Cheryl Stayed understood that and took responsibility for her actions. After a lot of soul searching she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She was not an experienced hiker. She did not even live on the west coast; she was from Pennsylvania. Her resources were limited. She simply knew that something was needed to bring healing and wholeness to her life.

The Pacific Crest Trail is an amazing wilderness journey. It is called one of the best trail experiences on earth. Beginning here in San Diego County at the Mexican border it winds over 2500 miles ending at the Canadian border in Washington State. It meanders over foothills and through deserts before following the backbone of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains.

At one point in her journey she meets another hiker named Stacey.
“Why are you here?” she is asked.
“I don’t know. I just need to find something in myself,” she replies.

She went OUT from her home, OUT and away from her losses and her friends. She went OUT into the forest, OUT into the wilderness. But she went inward and discovered who she really was.

As she reflected on her journey she wrote,
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.” 

She learned something in her wilderness that we are discovering as a church: that her past losses could not defeat her. She had the resources within herself to complete her journey – and not just barely. She finished her trek with great flair, defeating the twin demons of fear and a mentality of scarcity.

UCC’s wilderness journey is a time to outwardly search for a new pastor. But grace will be ours – in the process – as we journey inward and discover who we really are as UCC. How deep is our faith? How great is our love? How strong is our allegiance to our God and our church? And how patient are we as we wait for God, who promised, in the words of Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, don’t you see it?”


In Stanley Elkins novel “The Living End”, God is asked “Why all the variety and differences in the world, why all the mess and madness?” God’s answer, “Because it makes a better story.”

Our journey may not feel like it right now, but there is grace in the wilderness for us as we get a vision of the larger picture. For in God’s scheme of things, it’s all a part of that “better story” that awaits us. Amen.

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