A Sermon by Logan Skelly
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
27 March 2011
Scriptures: Romans 5: 3-5, Exodus 17:1-7
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“May God grant you traveling mercies.” This was the blessing college friends said to one another at the weary end of the semester. With hope and thermoses of coffee, we took to the open road. Some of you today will need imagination to understand the challenges of travel “back in the day.” Instead of GPS satellite global positioning systems we used something called “road maps.” Instead of using cell phones, instant messaging and Blackberries in emergencies we carried quarters for something called the “pay phones.”

Despite these hardships, in my youthful ignorance I found the term “traveling mercies” quaint, if not poetic. But God’s mercy is neither, and it’s much deeper than mere forgiveness or unmerited favor (grace). The Hebrew equivalent of mercy, “hesed,” infers a personal relationship with God, who has made a covenant with Israel. Unlike human mercy it cannot be exhausted, but it isn’t blind to human failures either. Mercy is unbounded love that promises forgiveness, faithfulness, and patience on the one hand; and requires justice, responsibility, and obedience on the other. It is not cheap grace or discipleship without cost. “May God grant you traveling mercies, is an invocation to remember who you are! Remember, God is with you whatever happens. Even in the driest of journeys, there are pools of refreshment.

Today’s lectionary scripture, this third Sunday of Lent, is about people on a journey and living “in the in-between”-between the homes they left and the homeland they seek and between promise and its fulfillment. The home they left was Egypt, a place of servitude, forced labor, and misery. The homeland they seek is Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, a dream land-and their “in-between” experience is the wilderness desert of Sinai. Theirs is a journey of faith, and they will need traveling mercies. For food and water, they have only what they can find or carry, and there is no refrigeration. Instead of maps, they have the stars. For communication, they have the presence of community and payer. Theirs is a journey of discovery, of trial and failure, and of preparation. In fact, because of their waywardness, they wander for forty years until they’re ready to inhabit their promised land.

Lent is the forty days before Easter, which began on Ash Wednesday, and recalls Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism–forty days alone, with hunger, thirst, cold desert nights and the scorching heat of the day. Here his resolve to be a savior-king will be tested. His time in the wilderness prepares him for his mission that leads him to Calvary and beyond.

People remember and imitate Jesus’ trail in order to prepare for Good Friday. Because I’m a candidate for ministry people have the urge to tell me what they’ve given up for Lent, like chocolate or wine, or watching Glee, or using sarcasm. Some confess with good humor “And I’ve already failed”! I went to the Rev. Missy Shiverick for advice: “What shall I do for Lent?” And she said: “You must learn to preach longer sermons.” And I want you to know: I’m working on that this morning! Now seriously, whatever we give-up or attempt to learn is not done to gain God’s favor or to find clemency. We sacrifice in order to focus on what’s essential.

After all, life is so crowded with stimuli that it’s hard to discern God’s presence, a mindfulness that will provides comfort and direction. The Lenten journey leads us to the cross and beyond. It is a time to remember the deep mercy of love that does not let us go as we move through life’s stages. Our traveling mercies are also moments when we recognize the sacredness of our own lives and apprehend truth–truth that challenges, transforms, and sets us free. Israel’s wilderness journey has much to teach us about our “in-between” journey of life.

Exodus, you’ll recall, begins with God responding to the affliction of God’s people in Egypt. “Let my people go!” Miracles and wonders ensue; plagues and terrors are put upon the Egyptians in order to free the Israelites. The last was the most dramatic: the crossing through the sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. The people of Israel are such a picture of humanity! There is singing, dancing, and such jubilation. They are fee. Saved! But then celebrations fall Silent, and voices turn to accusation as supplies run short. The dream of shining vineyards around the bend becomes a mirage on the horizon ofthe shifting sands and rocky places of the Sinai. Exodus 17:1-7, called a composite story, is the last of four accounts about other enemies: starvation and thirst. In the first, the water is bitter, and Moses puts wood in the water that sweetens it. In the next, there is no bread, and God provides manna. In the third, there is no protein, and God provides quail. In the last, there is no water at all. Here Moses is the complaining voice. God says, “Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go, strike the rock. I will be standing in front of you …and water will come out of it, so that the people will drink.” Over and over again, the people complain, and God provides. They cry, and God answers. This refrain resounds: Remember, I am the God who brought you saves you!

The Mercy of God’s Presence: Princeton Professor Bernard Anderson said that the wilderness brought Israel face to face with God’s “saving presence and commanding presence.” Both are features of a sacred trust. Our scriptures paint a vivid picture of the saving presence. The commanding presence wasn’t just about obeying God’s laws. God’s commands are good for the people. The “congregation of Israel” wasn’t prepared for the wilderness. The people weren’t organized or unified with a collective understanding, and they weren’t ready to waltz into Canaan as a nation. In the chapters that follow our reading they egregiously break God’s laws – even worshiping pagan deities – and their complaining turns to murderous rage. They need the wilderness to shape them and the God of that hard, dry land to transform them – to bring order into their rabble of social, morai, and spiritual chaos. God provides and God also requires obedience. “And what does the LORD require of you — but to live justly, and to love mercy, and to travel humbly with your God?” Another prophet puts it this way: Obedience is better than sacrifice.

The Mercy of Hope: In his commentary on Exodus, Terence Fretheim underscores the education of the wilderness. Yahweh is a parent, giving people freedom to test limits and learn consequences. One of the benefits, it seems, was the people learned to hope. Famed child psychologist Erick Erickson believes that hope is essential for success and learning hope begins in childhood, as children find that they are rewarded for their efforts. Baby cries and parents provide. Later, children learn which hopes are reasonable and which are rewarded with freedom and responsibility (positive reinforcement). Hope is more than a wish; it’s “a projection” into the future, based on expectation and learned experience. In the wilderness the people gradually learn not to look back on the past with selective memories of the charms of Egypt; and they learn not to “project” into the future a present moment of suffering, making of it a certain cataclysm. Recognize anyone you know? The wanderers in the wilderness mirror what is common to all of us. Take heart: ” ….suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance praduces character; and character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts.” This is mercy to write on the tablets of our hearts.

The Mercy of Community: Holy people of many faiths take retreats to solitary places, seeking truth or the solace of meditation, as Jesus did. The point of a pilgrimage is to return to one’s home refreshed, awakened, and prepared for the future. The people in the wilderness traveled together as a community. We are by nature communal and social beings, created for relationships with one another and with God. Knowing others, in fact, helps us to know ourselves. We are nurtured in families and villages. We work together, partner with one another, form bonds of friendship, and become neighbors. In all, we are made to love and be loved. The Church is one such helping community, a fellowship called to minister to one another and to all who are in need. There is no reason to wander alone or in silence. There’s a story in Anne Lamott’s memoir, conveniently called Traveling Mercies, which tells the story of a seven year old girl who becomes confused, frightened, and lost on her way home. A kindly policeman finds and comforts her, and then drives her around, so that she can regain her bearings. Suddenly she cries out: “Stop. There’s my church, and I can always find my way home from here!”

Remembering: Last year, as a chaplain at Cleveland Clinic, I visited my units on Ash Wednesday. It was a moving experience for me, especially in the setting of a place of healing. I put my fingers in the ashes, traced the sign of the cross on the forehead and said: Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.

Living is our “in between,” a journey of wonder, discovery, and love; a journey with periods of drought, characterized by suffering that comes with living. For some of us, the last two years or so have been especially dry, with underwater mortgages, inadequate employment, illnesses, deaths and loses, and troubles in the home. In our journey of Lent, as we remember Christ’s preparation for Good Friday, may we also remember the deep mercies of knowing God, the hope that does not disappoint, and the fellowship and companionship that we find in community with one another as we travel along the way.

May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you. My God grant you peace. And may God’s mercies go with you now in this life and the next. Amen.