again, upon request…
“Lost and Found”
First Mennonite Christian (Moundridge, KS)
August 4, 2013
There are at least two ways to get anywhere. There’s the direct, efficient, know where you’re going way, and there’s, well, let’s just call it the roundabout way.
And I must confess that especially at times when I’m going somewhere new, I have a tendency toward the roundabout way. Here’s how it happens.
I will go online and look up the address on Google Maps and then decide we’re ready to go. My partner Jamie will say, should we print out a map? I will say confidently no, no – I’ve got it in my head. I know where I’m going. We’ll head out, usually with me driving.
Inevitably, after a short while I will say, well I think this is where we turn. It’s either this street or the next one or the one we just passed. Jamie will twist uncomfortably in the passenger seat and say, do you want me to look it up on my phone? Of course not, I say, a little bit defensively. I know the general direction we need to go. We’ll find it eventually.
Usually the journey continues as we wander up and down a few extra blocks, Jamie checking her watch, me vehemently resisting her encouragement to rely on 21st century technology to get us anywhere. We arrive. We’re fashionably late. Everything works out, and then a few weeks later, it happens again.
Our scripture for this morning begins with the people of God headed out of Egypt. After years of forced labor and recent plagues and pestilence, Pharaoh had finally let them go, and leaving was their first big step toward the promised land. The immediate next question for them was this: how do we get there?
Well there are at least two ways to get anywhere, and at first glance, it seems obvious. Of course they should take the most direct, efficient route; that they should flee as quickly as possible, cover as much ground as they could before Pharaoh could change his mind. If point A was Egypt, they should make a beeline for point B, the promised land.
The quickest route would have been straight up the coast along the sea, along the southeast side of today’s Mediterranean. This route would take them directly into the lands of the Philistines. The Philistines were known at the very least to be well armed and protective of their territory. They were ready for a fight, and though the fleeing people of Yahweh were themselves physically prepared for battle, the story tells us that the Lord had other ideas. So instead of heading efficiently for the land of milk and honey, God led the people the roundabout way and camped at Etham on the edge of the wilderness.
And if we know anything about the wilderness, we know it is far, far from the promised land.
I recently learned about disorder called topographical agnosia. It’s a real thing and seems to have to do with how the brain functions. People with this disorder are not able to identify landmarks that help them understand where they are spatially from moment to moment. They cannot connect common markers to where they are in the world, so a person who goes to work the exact same way every single day would still need to consult his or her directions every single day. It’s hard to believe, and I’d be skeptical myself except that I know someone who suffers from this affliction. She is lost all the time. And I share this today because that’s what it’s like to be in the wilderness.
In our scripture here in Exodus, but also throughout the biblical narrative, the wilderness is a prominent theme. It is a physical place, stark, barren, uncivilized with none of the comforts of life and few spatial markers that would keep the people from getting lost.
But the wilderness is also a theological place. It’s a place that strips the ancient people of their existential security, and their spiritual comfort. It’s a place for wrestling with self and with God, for getting lost and getting caught up in our doubts and insecurities and fears. The wilderness is a place for looking deep inside of ourselves and for looking carefully out at a world that is filled with brokenness and injustice and uncertainty.
I suspect we’ve all been in the wilderness. I suspect even that some of us are in the wilderness today.
Hindsight tells us that the people of God made it to the promised land eventually. Eventually they came up out of the wilderness. But when we meet them today, they don’t know where they are going. They are lost. They are lost physically on a roundabout route that doesn’t look like the directions on any map.
And they are lost theologically, because they are living in a space between being an enslaved people in Egypt and being a free people of God with a mission and a purpose. They were lost in the space between their bondage and their liberation.
Their weariness from the walking was no doubt piled on top of their weariness from centuries of oppression, enslavement dating nearly all the way back to their ancestor Joseph, whose bones they now carried with them. This is what it’s like to be in the wilderness.
Without something to guide them, the lost soon-to-be Israelites would never have made it.
And then, the story tells us, there before them was the Lord, not appearing this time as a king or commander or warrior, not appearing in human metaphors or manifestations but through immediate, immanent, natural phenomena. In front of them and prepared to lead was the divine presence, a pillar of fire by night to give them light, and a pillar of cloud by day.
To understand the full meaning of these spectacular pillars, we need to take a side trip into the world of grammar and rhetoric. These two pillars, fire and cloud, can be understood as what is called a merism.
A merism is a figure of speech that takes two contrasting words to refer to a whole thing. To search high and low is to search everywhere. To include both young and old is to include everyone. When the Hebrew Bible story says God created the heavens and the earth, this means that God created the whole universe. When the pillars are both fire and cloud, both night and day, the merism is offering us an inclusive, broad view of time, as if to say that God will always be present as the Israelites’ guide.
And perhaps also as if to say that the divine is always in front of us too.
It is one of the most profound messages in our scriptures, this great paradox, this message that the pillars show up in the wilderness not when we have everything together, a map and a plan and a direct route from point a to point b, but when we’re on the roundabout way, in the lost space.
Our mission as God’s people doesn’t become clear by figuring it out ourselves or keeping it all together, but just the opposite. Right at the time when, we don’t know where we’re going or what we’re doing, and we have no other choice but to turn and look for God’s presence in our midst.
It’s there, where we’re lost, that we are also found.
The Exodus story was taken up not all that long ago a couple hundred years or less, not all that far from here by African-American slaves in the south imagining freedom. In this version of the story, the white landowners were the Egyptian oppressors, and the slaves were searching for freedom. So right in front of God and everyone else, a system of coded communication was developed and carried through songs that we’ve come to know as spirituals. In dusty fields as evening fell, simple melodies that recalled the Exodus story were sung softly to indicate the coast was clear and that the time to head for freedom had come.
The instructions were subtle in those African American spirituals still familiar to us today: wade in the water, a reminder that tracking dogs would lose the scent of someone whose footsteps toward liberation were through creeks and rivers. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home: chariot drivers, conductors on the underground railroad will be arriving soon.
The divine directions were there, pillars, night and day right in front of everyone, in those barren wilderness spaces, but only the ones who were powerless enough to have to paid careful attention, understood what they meant. And what they meant was freedom.
One of the themes that shapes the entire biblical story, the entire mission of the people of God is the movement of our text today from bondage to liberation. The movement from enslavement to freedom.
And so this is what guides us in our mission as God’s people today too. When we are lost and when we see others lost – that’s where our mission is. When we are longing for freedom and when we see others longing for freedom – that’s where our mission is. When we have been left out, marginalized, overlooked, oppressed or when we see others who are on edges – that’s where our mission is.
Sometimes when I think of this Hebrew Bible story, I think those pillars of cloud and fire were so obvious that no one could possibly miss them. They hovered right in front of the people by day and by night, never leaving their place – the ancient version of today’s flashing digital signs saying this way. But other times, I think the people could see those pillars because they were in the wilderness, and because they were in the wilderness, they were lost, and because they were lost, because they were in need of directions, they were paying extra careful attention. And we should too.