A new way in the wilderness

A New Way in the Wilderness, a sermon on the Chicago Consultation, among other things, delivered on the Second Sunday of Advent, 2002, by the Very Rev. Tracey Lind, dean of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

By Tracey Lind

What did they go out to the wilderness to see: a man in camel’s hair? What did they go out to the wilderness to hear: a voice crying: Prepare the way of the Lord? What did they go out to the wilderness to taste: locusts dipped in wild honey? What did they go out the wilderness to smell: sweet dusty earth? What did they go out to the wilderness to feel: the sun, the wind, and the dry desert air? Why do any of us go to the wilderness? What do we hope to find? I suppose we go to the wilderness to find ourselves, and hopefully, to find and be found by God.

And often when we get there, we are, in the words of Alfred Delp, “shaken and brought to the reality of ourselves.” No wonder, the scriptures take us to the wilderness in Advent, and then again in Lent. God wants to shake and awaken us to the reality of ourselves, and then fill us with hope and expectation for an uncertain but emerging future.

This morning, we hear from two great spiritual guides of the wilderness: Isaiah and John the Baptist. Isaiah, the prophet of the eighth century BCE, spoke of “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” upon which the Spirit of God would rest. He wrote of that branch growing out of a chopped down tree, a remnant people full of hope and promise for the future who would wear the girdle of righteousness and the belt of faithfulness. Some eight hundred years later, the gospels recall another prophet, a righteous and faithful man who lived in the wilderness and wore such a girdle and belt. He spoke of an axe lying at the very root of the tree, cutting it down and throwing its bad fruit into the fire.

Might the shoot of Jesse grow from the stump of this tree? And what message of good news would this shoot bring to those brave souls who venture into the wilderness hoping to find and be found by God?

The message proclaimed in the wilderness is the good news of Shalom: God’s amazing, marvelous, unbelievable, utopian promise of the peaceable kingdom where domestic animals (the lamb, the kid, the calf and the cow) lie together in community with their natural predators (the wolf, the leopard, the lion and the bear). And in the midst of them, a baby is at play and a young child is the leader.

What are we to make of this vision? It’s really quite simple, says the prophet of old. “In the day, the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples.” He shall be an emblem, a sign, a flag that shows whose kingdom this really is – this wonderful realm of God! It is nothing less than God, reconciling all creation to the hopes and dreams of the Eternal One.

This prophecy envisions a new creation and a new way of being in the world. It proposes a new community that is diverse, inclusive and welcoming – a circle of friends who were once strangers and perhaps even once enemies. This prophecy portrays a new realm of peace: creation reorganizing itself around common expectations, hopes and dreams into something wonderfully and radically different where everybody and everything is rooted in the way of justice, love and mercy and kindness. In the darkest of days, this counter-cultural vision of God’s reign proclaimed in the wilderness offered and still offers hope for those who have eyes to see it, ears to hear it, a nose to smell it, a tongue to taste it, a heart to feel it, hands to embrace it, arms to carry it, and feet to walk it around the world.

In the past few weeks, wandering about in the wilderness, hoping to find and be found by God, I have had two glimpses of God’s new realm becoming that I want to briefly share with you this morning. As many of you know, I am one of the conveners of We Believe Ohio, a movement uniting diverse religious voices to achieve justice. At our last Greater Cleveland Steering Committee, we were talking about “Declare Ohio a Political Sleaze-Free Zone” – a petition that I hope every member of Trinity Cathedral will sign and urge their friends and family to sign. This now state-wide (and hopefully national) effort calls for clean, instructive political campaigns that promote democracy and keep the focus on the critical issues of the day, rather than slinging mud at fellow candidates attacking minority groups, and polarizing voters for the purposes political gain. To learn more about this effort and sign the petition, go to the web site www.webelieveohio.org.

During our discussion, a Muslim member of our steering committee spoke passionately about the anti-Muslim sentiments being expressed by some presidential candidates, and about the hateful, anti-Muslim tirade of radio talk show host Michael Savage. It was an emotional conversation that made some in the room feel uncomfortable and anxious. However, her honesty and passion resulted in what one might say was remarkable action, but what I know is becoming typical of these companions in faith.

Following our meeting, a Jewish member of the Steering Committee convened a conversation with a variety of religious and civil rights leaders that now is organizing itself into an ad hoc coalition to speak out against bigotry in broadcasting. Our Muslim colleague wrote to us about how much it meant to have a rabbi leading this effort. She later told me, that now she had a better understanding of how the LGBT community must have felt in the 2004 presidential campaign when gay marriage was the divisive issue of the day.

Through We Believe, interfaith leaders are being challenged, changed and comforted by one another. And that change – this movement – is contagious. The interfaith landscape of Greater Cleveland is changing. We have been offered a glimpse of the community God intends for us to become, an ensign for the always-emerging realm of shalom-salaam – a new community of peace and reconciliation organized around common expectations, hopes and dreams.

This past week, I returned to the windy city of Chicago to participate in an amazing consultation of Anglicans from around the world: bishops, priests, deacons and laypeople; academics, pastors, and activists; gay and straight; black, white, and Hispanic; Global southerners and northerners.

We came together, in the words of, Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa (an indigenous, New Zealand, Anglican scholar and activist) to reclaim who we are as “relatives in the Anglican family” and to work toward “a global Anglican communion recovery plan.” We gathered, as what Dr. Te Paa called: “a small portion of the global tribe of God’s imperfect, vulnerable, ambitious, generous spirited, self-serving, sacrificial, complex, contradictory, faith-filled, and to a large extent, indecently obedient Anglicans” to articulate a path through the wilderness crisis in our beloved and broken church. We came together as members in the communion of saints to develop a strategy for moving forward toward the gospel promise of God’s justice, love and mercy for all people with a commitment to nonviolence, story telling and active listening, repentance and restorative justice.

On the first snowy day of winter in Chicago, a group of Anglicans took the first steps of making common cause: setting our hope on Christ, rejecting the theology and practice of scapegoating and pitting one group of oppressed people and concerns against other, and embracing instead a theology and practice of full inclusion and justice for all God’s people.

What will become known as the Chicago Consultation gives me hope for our church. What has become known as We Believe Ohio gives me hope for our state. The conversations, consultations, and gatherings of faithful women, men and children around the globe in what Dr. Te Paa calls the small “c” of communion give me for hope for world, and with that hope expectation for the good news that we can once again proclaim to the world. Perhaps we will become a new voice of the Holy One crying in the wilderness.

In the name of the God who loves us, the Son who gave his life for that love, and the Spirit who breathes that love into the weary and wounded wilderness of our lives. Amen!