I am thrilled to be up here this morning. Even though it’s only a few seconds walk up here, the journey to this pulpit has taken me a lot longer…and the path still continues to amaze me.
This community of faith continues to amaze me too. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I’ve been supported and surrounded by so much love, so much sharing. I couldn’t imagine better traveling companions. So by way of prayer, let me just say:
Thank you, God, for placing me on a path with this loving congregation. And thank You for sending me traveling companions who are farther along on their journey than I am – whose faith in You is strong enough to not only sustain them along their own journeys, but strong enough to light the way for those of us stumbling along behind. Let my words today be a light to others along Your path. Amen.
I really am grateful for help along the journey, because following the path Christ sets before us can be pretty challenging. It’s not a trip you want to take all by yourself.
Prayer and Bible study help, but they aren’t enough by themselves. In fact, some Scripture passages can leave us feeling a bit lost.
Take for example some of the statements we heard from the Apostle Paul this morning in Romans 8 – there’s some tough stuff in there. And I’m not talking about the “foreknowing” language, because even Clover and John have trouble explaining predestination – so I’m just not going there!
But the rest of this passage describes an amazing, absolute, unshakable faith:
In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
If God is for us, who can be against us?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
These are pretty big steps, requiring some pretty big leaps of faith.
Paul goes on record here in Romans that he has complete and utter reliance in God’s purpose for our lives.
That’s the kind of faith that moves mountains. That’s the kind of faith I secretly wish for and am willing to stand up here today and admit that I rarely find. Because I have to be honest and share with you that sometimes I have doubts about God…about Christ…and about the Resurrection itself.
And whether you’ll admit it or not, many of you have probably felt similar doubts at different stages along your faith journey.
Sometimes that doubt comes when we face illness, unexpected tragedies, a loved one’s impending death. Sometimes it comes at the end of a life, when we’re facing our own mortality and wondering what really happens at the end. Sometimes it comes at the beginning of the journey, when we haven’t experienced enough of life to know how often or hard our faith will be tested, or how desperately we all need God in our lives.
When my husband Steve and I were newlyweds, about 100 years ago, living in Columbus while I attended law school, we found ourselves stuck along our spiritual journey. For the three years we lived there, we never found a church that “fit.” Maybe we didn’t try hard enough. Or maybe we were just immature, still seeking to be entertained, still looking for a church experience strong enough to yank us out of bed on Sunday morning and drag us off to worship.
At any rate, when tragedy struck, we had no church home.
I had no pastor, no faith community to help me trust that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, when a speeding car veered off the road, killing my closest friend in law school, a young mother with a 3-year-old son and a 10-month-old baby, and who was weeks away from graduating at the top of our class.
She was in a coma for 3 days before she died, and I prayed to God every hour of every day for a miracle to save her.
When she died, I was blinded by anger for what seemed to be God’s callous disregard of my most fervent prayers.
If you’d asked me, during those dark days that followed her death, whether I believed in God, I’d have cried “No!” What kind of a God takes a life filled with so much promise and leaves behind so much pain and heartbreak?
Yet even as I raged against God, God stayed beside me, holding my empty heart for weeks while I cried out against the waste of such a brilliant life and for the grief of the family she left behind.
And although I didn’t realize it at the time, God sent angels to stay with me while he healed my broken heart. I didn’t realize it because I was so far off the path, I couldn’t see that God had disguised these angels as my husband, my parents, my friends, even a radio program.
It was during this dark time that we first discovered A Prairie Home Companion. Steve was fiddling with the radio one Saturday night, probably looking for something to cheer me up, when the deep, comforting voice of Garrison Keillor filled our living room. Before the program ended, we had found our new church.
Like most people, our favorite part of this well-known program of folk music, gospel songs, even hymn-fest singalongs are the folksy stories Garrison tells about Lake Woebegone, a mythical town modeled on the small Minnesota town that he grew up in.
Especially during the early 1980s when we were church-less, the show was filled with moments of grace as Garrison shared stories of everyday life and love…and death…in a small Midwestern town. These stories were filled with humor and hope, laughter and love, rebellion and redemption.
One night Garrison described a fiercely independent, curmudgeonly old aunt of his who had raised her children to be equally fierce and independent, and who gave them what Garrison described as “unusual” advice. She told them:
“You can never pay me back for what I’ve done for you so don’t even try. The only way you can do it is to do it for your own children.”
I laughed because I had received the exact same advice many times from my own parents.
And then it occurred to me that Garrison had managed to share the central core of Christianity in a nutshell with his radio audience. And he did it so gently and with such humor that if you weren’t listening carefully you might have missed that he was actually describing God’s love and grace for each of us, which never has to be repaid, as well as Christ’s instructions to go out and share that love and grace freely with others.
Garrison’s weekly stories were sermons for us. Sometimes he even talked ABOUT sermons—such as the one the congregation of Lake Woebegon’s Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility heard annually on birth control—it went kind of like “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why’d you get on the train?”
Garrison’s stories were funny but they also fed our souls and kept us on a spiritual journey, reminding us how much there is in this world that doubt cannot explain.
Even the traditional sign-off sounds like church. Every week, the story ends with a kind of benediction as Garrison tells his audience:
That’s the news from Lake Woebegon,
where all the women are strong,
all the men are good-looking,
and all the children are above average.
And aren’t we all? Really?
The point of telling you about our radio church days is to share something about spiritual journeys that it took me a long time to learn: It’s okay to step off the beaten path for a while, to admit to our doubts, to take them out and study them.
Tragedies such as my friend’s sudden death can shake our faith to the very core, flooding us with the pain of disbelief, drowning us in waves of doubt.
And it’s not just tragedies–many things can block our way along the journey.
One of the pillars of this church–one of the pillars of this faith community–isn’t afraid to admit that she has an awful lot of issues with the cross hanging up here. With what it represents, with how it’s been used to instill fear and guilt into people, with whether it should be symbol of God’s love for us.
And it’s not just us here in this sanctuary. Mother Teresa heard a call from God and devoted her life to caring for the “unwanted, unloved, uncared for” members of society. By the time she died, she’d founded more than 2,500 orphanages, schools, hospitals and hospices throughout the world.
Amazingly, though, the letters and journals of this compassionate woman recently revealed that for the final decades of her life she was in spiritual agony, believing that she had lost touch with God and with her faith.
But here’s the thing: her doubts didn’t stop her journey. Whether Mother Teresa still believed in God or not, she kept putting one foot in front of the other, continuing along her spiritual journey, carrying the cross of her disbelief. And when she needed to stop and catch her breath, when she needed to admit to herself that she wasn’t sure there even was a God, she did it without giving up the journey she’d once felt God calling her to take.
Everyone who seeks God–from agnostics who aren’t sure they ought to even waste their time looking, to Mother Teresa desperately seeking confirmation of God’s existence and purpose–we’ve all experienced the uncertainty of the Christian journey.
It’s okay to admit that sometimes we feel as though God is not for us, that there are times when we feel completely separated from the love of God, and that we just don’t see God working for the good of anyone! It doesn’t mean we’ve failed as Christians, or that we might as well give up all hope and faith. It’s okay to take a break, try something different, maybe sit out a few dances, just catch your breath and wait and see what happens next. Mother Teresa did it. Jesus did it. We all do. We all need to.
This church’s recent Desert Pilgrimage to Ghost Ranch had a full schedule…every single day included a trip to some kind of faith community, where we could witness another type of faith journey. But many of us decided at one point or another during the week that we’d had enough of other people’s journeys and we needed a breather, a morning or afternoon off to catch our breath and process what we’d been experiencing. We needed a break to be like Jesus in the desert–Jesus who didn’t go into the desert to find other people but to find God and solitude and silence and space for prayer.
We all step off the path at different points in our lives, to look around, to take our bearings. There’s no reason to feel guilty about it. It doesn’t mean we’ve stopped all forward motion…we may just be gathering our strength, evaluating our route.
If any of you are hikers, I’m sure you’ve come upon fellow hikers who’ve stepped off the path and sat down on a rock or a fallen log–maybe to catch their breath, maybe to check the trail map. No one looks with disdain or scorn on them…these pauses are an accepted part of any long hike.
And if you’ve ever gone climbing, you know that sometimes you reach a plateau and find other climbers ahead of you who have reached the same spot and are now sitting and admiring the view, enjoying the moment. You don’t look around and think “What a bunch of slackers….just sitting around instead of sticking to the original path.” We expect climbers who reach a certain point to stop and take as long as they need to enjoy the view and reflect on where they are and how they got there.
Spiritual journeys need scenic look-outs too. Life is supposed to be about the journey, not the destination.
Susan Andrews, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), wrote that “Christianity is not an idea but a lifestyle, not a destination but a journey, not a product but a process, not a routine but a relationship.. and …not an answer but courage to live the questions. All that Jesus asks for in return is our commitment to abide, to stay, to hang out with him for a while, and God will do the rest.”
Trust that in all things God works for the good of those who love him?
Trust that if God is for us, no one can be against us?
Trust that nothing and no one shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Easy words to say, hard words to believe.
But Susan Andrew’s reminder to “Abide with God…hang out with Jesus”? That I can do.
And her words help me to hear Paul’s statements of faith in Romans not as stiff faith requirements describing a narrow path of certainty that we step off of at our peril, but as assurances that no matter where we find ourselves, we never journey beyond God’s loving care–even when we’re too young, too tired, or too blinded by grief to see it.
So, yes, let’s take the staff of God’s love for the journey, but let’s not forget to take along fellow faith seekers, maybe a radio to listen to, and above all a bench to rest upon from time to time.