Wander and Wonder With All Your Heart
As the spring bulbs begin to bloom, and the weather cannot decide if it is fall, winter, or spring we find ourselves in the season of Lent. 40 days, not counting Sundays, until two women will discover the tomb where three days prior the crucified Messiah was buried is empty.
Before we took on the name Methodist before we read the musings of John Wesley before we sit and meet for church conferences we are people who earnestly believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Before there were traditional and contemporary worship, polished organs and sparkly guitars there were communities centered in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We are a resurrection community.
During the season of Lent, we turn our hearts and minds toward that promise. We turn toward the empty grave, the stone rolled away, and prepare for G-d’s glorious victory over sin and death. We may not yet see how the stone could possibly have been rolled away, but we faithfully anticipate the stone’s movement just as we made preparations for the in-breaking of G-d’s justice and mercy at the manger during Advent.
Jesus promised his followers the power of evil, sin, and death would not have the final word, so like Israel in the wilderness, we will spend the coming weeks wandering and wondering where and how the grace of G-d will be revealed to us - as a community and individually.
This morning we find ourselves arriving in the promised land with Israel. It has been 40 years since they left the bonds of slavery in Egypt - led by Moses through the Red Sea and then into the wilderness. Israel’s journey of wandering left them wondering if G-d would be faithful or had G-d abandoned them, leaving the vulnerable yet again having just escaped the grip of the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Was the covenant made between Abraham and YHWH forgotten?
Did Moses really encounter the Lord in a burning busy on the Sinai Peninsula?
Both are legitimate questions, and questions I would imagine were being asked and seriously considered, because before year 39 - day 366 we read of Israel’s dissatisfaction during their wandering.
Exodus 5 - the Israelites complained because it seemed things were getting worse with Moses.
Exodus 14, 15, and 16 - the Israelites complained first about the taste of the water, then the food, and then the lack of water.
After 40 years, Israel arrived at the place G-d had promised to them.
After 40 years, Israel finally had a place where the weary and tired could find rest.
After 40 years Israel had a place where they, all of them, belonged.
G-d’s faithfulness had seen them through their time of wandering in the wilderness. Now, after they rested from their travels and began to establish a “new normal” we find the community responding to G-d faithfulness by returning the first fruits of the harvest back to the Lord.
Now do not worry, I am not going to continue with a sermon on giving or tithing. You can relax.
This morning we find Israel responding to the faithfulness of G-d through an act of piety. Much like many of the acts some of you will engage in during the season of Lent, Israel returning the first fruits of the harvest back to the Lord helped to draw them closer to G-d by recalling G-d’s own faithfulness to them. This liturgical movement of Israel mirrors many of the movements to come later as the Law was established, and as the rites and rituals of the community were codified on parchment and in practice.
These acts of the Law and acts of piety were deeply connected to not only Israel’s identity but also served as a litmus test to determine a person’s holiness and thus that person’s acceptance before the Lord (and in the community).
The Law was/is not all bad. For a community coming out of an extended period of wandering, the structure and routine of the Law, and acts of piety prescribed serve to help establish the “new normal” and social identity the community needed. Prior to the moment of the first fruits being given to the Lord Israel’s identity was that of the “wandering Aramen,” referring to Jacob, a nomadic shepherd. Jacob never stopped to establish roots the way Israel had now done.
But the pattern of movement would continue. The satisfaction felt as they arrived in the land promised to them by the Lord would not last forever. Israel would experience separation during the Babylonian exile and during the Roman occupation.
Separation from one another yes, but also separation from their ability to fulfill the Law that held their identity after periods of great wandering.
The Law established identity and created a mechanism for returning gifts to a generous Creator who saw Israel through times of trial and prosperity.
That is where the trouble began for the church in Rome. Paul, in his letter, is writing to address the issue of the Law, acts of piety, and a person’s worthiness for salvation.
Do non-Jews, Gentiles, need to adopt the Jewish Law, the Law of Moses?
Do Gentiles need to practice the same acts of piety as their Jewish siblings to receive G-d’s promised salvation?
Can anyone who is not a Jew, even if they are circumcised, receive the assured salvation from Jesus Christ?
Just as the Law made Israel righteous before G-d, can those not observing the Law in the shadow of the empty tomb be assured of salvation?
Are acts of the Law and acts of piety even necessary?
At the end of the day, the question was this - whose in and whose out?
Paul tells us, “Everyone who calls on the name of” Jesus will be saved. Full stop.
There is no asterisk.
There is no addendum.
There is no note referring us use to Romans 1 or Leviticus 18 to choose who can and who cannot be fully included in this community of resurrection.
Salvation does not come from the Law or works of piety. The Lenten practice you have adopted for the next 5 weeks will not make you more saved than the person seated next to you who will still be eating chocolate every night or drinking semi-reason to the alarmed amounts of coffee. The Lenten practice you adopt this Lenten season will though, open you to the righteousness of G-d and open you to experiencing the fullness of G-d as G-d reveals G-d’s generous heart to you and our community.
During the season of Lent, we are wandering our way to the cross and empty tomb. It is a season where we wonder what will happen next. Will disagreements keep us divided? Will we continue to legislate Law in a way contrary to Paul’s declaration that Everyone who calls on the name of” Jesus will be saved?
Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, your Lenten practice will not make you more “saved” than you were on the other side of Ash Wednesday.
The Law as Israel was following was not a bad thing. The Law worked to produce righteousness and holiness in a time when Israel’s identity was in limbo due to outside influencers that were beyond Israel’s control. The Law worked to offer the assurance of G-d’s presence in a period of waiting on G-d to make good on a promise. But as the story continues to unfold we see the generosity of G-d, and the promises of G-d fulfilled as Israel established itself in the promised land and later returned home after the exile.
Israel’s response to G-d’s generosity was to give thanks, yet as the early church began to find its way, Israel’s response to the generosity and the ordering of a community began to be used to separate and exclude people from the body of Christ.
The early church and we today forget that when G-d makes extravagant promises they are kept. We may have to wait but as resurrection community, we are able to enter periods of wander and wonder knowing G-d’s promises are always kept.
It’s not easy. Wander and wonder do make good bedfellows as we are finite creatures and have the tendency to keep our eyes on earthly promises - winter will always give way to spring, even when it seems as though the cold darkness wants to hold on for one last snow.
As we move closer to the miracle of Easter we will find G-d’s generous heart, not in the Law or in acts of piety, but in the ever-expanding wideness of the Kingdom of G-d. We will find what G-d has promised, and has already made good on is more generous than anything we could ever imagine.
A kingdom where all are invited to the gather around the table. A kingdom where because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, all have been reconciled and made righteous before G-d. This Lent, you may discover the generosity of G-d extends to places you once thought were beyond G-d’s reach - “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”