Rev. Josh Pawelek.
I remember a moment, about twenty-five years ago, driving home from college on spring break with my friend Rob. We were heading east on Interstate 80, late in the day, crossing through the Delaware Water Gap where the Delaware River cuts through a ridge in the Appalachian. The sun was setting. Dark shadows lengthened across the thickly forested, low-lying mountains. I’ve been to more remote areas, but at that moment, for whatever reason, it felt pretty remote. I made some remark about the wilderness, how one could disappear into it—into those dark hills. I don’t remember his exact words, but Rob responded that the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. There’s a relationship. Although I wasn’t sure what to make of his statement at the time, it struck me as important. So I’ve held onto it.
Today I still think Rob is right. The wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. They mirror each other. They speak to each other. The darkness of the mountainside at dusk speaks to darkness in us. The emptiness of the sky overhead speaks to emptiness in us. The fullness of lakes after spring thaws speaks to fullness in us. The lush forest speaks to what is growing and vibrant in us. The vastness of the desert speaks to vastness in us. The raging river speaks to what is raging and uncontainable in us. Perhaps those features of wilderness that excite us, that call to us, that fill us with awe speak to what we find exciting in ourselves, speak to our passions. Perhaps what we fear in the wilderness—what makes us pause, turn back, flee—speaks to what we fear most in ourselves. There’s a relationship.
Our June ministry theme is wilderness. I love this theme at this time of year as the days grow warm and summer arrives. For me, summer—whether we’re talking about summer the season, or our spiritual summers, which can come in any season—summer is the time for exploring and experimenting, for stretching and growing, for traveling to the borders of our lives—to the edges, the boundaries, the margins, the fringes, the frontiers. Summer is the time for venturing out, for crossing into the unknown, for wandering in the wilderness that lies beyond our well-worn paths.
Perhaps the most familiar use of wilderness as a spiritual concept comes from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Here wilderness is the place where one finds challenges that must be overcome; the place of suffering and misery that must be endured; the place of temptation that must be withstood; the place to which scapegoats, criminals, lepers and all the supposedly unpure people are exiled. Many of you have a basic familiarity with the story from the Hebrew scriptures of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years following their exodus from centuries of slavery in Egypt. Many preachers use the Israelite wandering as a metaphor for whatever struggle or challenge we’re facing in our lives. We have to wander in the “wilderness” of that struggle or challenge in order to find ourselves, to prove ourselves, to come of age, to complete our quest. We have to wander in the wilderness in order to grow in some necessary way. We have to wander in the wilderness before we can be whole, before we can come home, before we can come fully into our “Promised Land,” whatever it may be. This is a powerful narrative. It’s a sustaining narrative. Struggling people can endure more easily if they believe their struggle will ultimately end and some good will come of it.
But if we’re being honest about the Biblical record, that’s not entirely what God had in mind. The wilderness time was a punishment. God had done great things for the Israelites in Egypt, but they still don’t believe God can bring them into Canaan, the “Promised Land.” They don’t believe it because spies they’ve sent into Canaan come back saying, essentially, “We’ll never defeat the Canaanites. They’re bigger than us.” In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13, verse 32, the spies say “all the people we saw are of great size…. And to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”
Upon hearing this report, the people start complaining—the latest in a long string of complaints. They say it would have been better to die in Egypt. They wonder if they should give up and go back to Egypt. This lack of faith angers God. It’s the last straw. God wants to disinherit them and strike them down with a plague immediately. After a long negotiation with Moses, God forgives them, but says, nevertheless, “none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.” Their children will enter the Promised Land, but for the complaint-ridden exodus generation: “Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness.” They are consigned to the wilderness not to discover faith anew, but because they lack it. It’s a punishment. And it’s for the remainder of their lives.
In the Christian scriptures Jesus goes into the wilderness after his baptism.  He fasts for forty days and then, in the midst of his hunger, Satan appears and tempts or tests Jesus. Jesus resists temptation. He passes the test. Satan departs. Here again we have this narrative of struggle in the wilderness—in this case a story of encountering and overcoming evil. Again, this kind of narrative is powerful and sustaining. We all have our wilderness struggles. Stories of overcoming obstacles and returning home, returning to friends and family, returning to a life renewed speak to and inspire us in the midst of our pain and suffering. Some of the best sermons ever preached locate the congregation in some wilderness, fortify them for the struggle, the test, the temptation—whatever it is—and then, from the mountaintop, paint with words that stunning picture of a land flowing with milk and honey, a promised land, a home at long last, a home we will reach if we can endure just a little bit longer.
That’s not the sermon I’m preaching this morning.
Twenty-five years ago my friend Rob said “the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us.” My concern is that the “Promised Land” narrative—as powerful, sustaining and inspirational as it is—is often too black and white, too either/or. It doesn’t allow us to fully value wilderness as a spiritual asset. It makes wilderness a place of suffering and trial, a place of punishment, a place where evil lives, but not a place that might offer its own wisdom, its own sacred power, its own sustaining wells. We move through it, always trying to overcome it and leave it behind. We privilege civilization; we abandon wilderness. And in so doing, I say we abandon something in ourselves. I’m convinced that something matters deeply.
Back to the Hebrew scriptures. Jon D. Levenson is a professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. In his 1985 book, Sinai & Zion, he points out that scholars are unable to locate the site of Mount Sinai with any certainty. Mount Sinai is the place in the wilderness where Moses talks to God, where he receives the Ten Commandments, where God’s covenant with Israel is articulated. One can argue it is the most significant site in early Jewish tradition. It’s the place where the Sacred speaks. The inability to locate it, says Levenson, is not simply a failure of “the modern science of topography. Rather, there is a mysterious extraterrestrial quality to the mountain…. [It] seems to exist in a no man’s land…. ‘The mountain of God’…. is out of the domain of Egypt and out of the domain of the Midianites, [in] an area associated, by contrast, with the impenetrable regions of the arid wilderness, where the authority of the state cannot reach. YHWH’s self-disclosure takes place in remote parts rather than within the established and settled cult of the city. Even his mode of manifestation reflects the uncontrollable and unpredictable character of the wilderness rather than the decorum one associates with a long-established, urban religion, rooted in familiar traditions…. The deity is like his worshippers: mobile, rootless and unpredictable. ‘I shall be where I shall be’—nothing more definite can be said. This is a God who is free, unconfined by the boundaries that man erects.”
Our spiritual lives may, on one hand, involve the familiar, the known—rituals, practices, prayers, meditations, worship, activism, service, gardening, the singing of comforting hymns, the dancing of familiar dances, being in community with people we know and love. We need these things in our lives. We need them to feel rooted, planted, grounded. But we also know that any repeated practice, any too familiar pathway, any rote repetition of words or principles, any unexamined theology can become stifling if it’s all we do. It starts to box us in, lull us to sleep, generate in us laziness, apathy, boredom. Thus, on the other hand, our spiritual lives also need access to wilderness—not because we lack a site for our encounter with evil, not because we’ve been consigned there for complaining too much, not because we’re on some hero quest in search of dragons to slay. We need access to wilderness because we are part of it and it is part of us. Its dark mountainsides can speak to us of our own darkness in a way civilization can’t. Its empty skies teach us of our own emptiness. Its full lakes after spring thaws inform us of our own fullness. Its rivers know our rage. Its deserts know our vastness. Its oceans know our depths. Its forests know our lushness. We need access to wilderness because it offers raw, unbridled truth—a truth not always easy to encounter, but with its guidance we can live with a kind of immediacy and presence civilization only dreams of—the immediacy and presence we so often notice in the way wild things live. Civilization as we know it is only the tiniest blip on the screen of human existence. Wilderness, not civilization, is the norm for that existence; and thus wilderness, not civilization, is our heritage, our birthright. Wilderness is our home as much as any Promised Land we may inhabit, either now or in the future.
We need opportunities to search for our sources of faith at the foot of holy, mysterious mountains rising out of remote landscapes beyond all established jurisdictions. We need encounters with the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. We need wind rushing against our backs. We need experiences for which there are no words. Such encounters have the power to jolt us out of our settled, habitual ways of thinking, being and doing. Such experiences have the power to set our spirits free. Such encounters have the power to change us. I loved this quote from Vancouver School of Theology student, Emma Pavey, from a paper she delivered this past weekend. She said “we are ambivalent toward wilderness: it represents lostness, wandering, chaos and isolation, but also grants ‘thin’ moments of transformation.”
So how to get there? Scholars don’t know the location of Mount Sinai. But maybe that’s ok. Rob said the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. Perhaps the Sacred that lives and speaks freely and truthfully out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions also lives and speaks in the wilderness places in us—in our darkness, our vastness, our rage, our emptiness, our fullness. But how do we access that wilderness? Like the wilderness around us, the wilderness within us can also be inscrutable, unknowable, beyond words. So often it exists beneath our awareness, in our unconscious depths, in our dreams, in our intuitions and hunches. We know portions of the landscape, but so much lies beyond knowing.
Earlier I read Meg Barnhouse’s meditation, “Going to an Inner Party.” I suggest she offers here one route into our inner wilderness. She says, “I love the flickering things that bump along the edges of mainstream consciousness. These glimpses of an inner wisdom flash like fish in a creek, and if I can grab one by the tail I feel like I have a treasure.” She’s saying our unconscious puts words and ideas together without thought, as if by accident, or perhaps by accident. She’s learned to pay attention to these accidents. She’s learned to receive them as pearls of wisdom, and as sources of joy. The meaning isn’t always clear. There’s lots of interpretation involved. She finds it mostly amusing. But something deep within is speaking. And she’s listening. And it’s giving her a chance to look at the world differently, to make new connections she wouldn’t have made otherwise. That’s what wilderness does for us. Her meditation reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comments in his 1844 essay, “The Poet” about the effect poetry has on us. In response to “tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms,” he wrote, we get “a new sense, and [find] within [our] world another world, or nests of worlds.”
We get back to our wilderness by listening to the flickering things that bump along the edges of consciousness. We get back to our wilderness by noting our dreams, by following our intuition, trusting our gut, letting ourselves feel deeply all our joys and sorrows. We get back to our wilderness by allowing ourselves moments of spontaneity and unpredictability. We get back to our wilderness by living, as best we can, like wild things, like children: immediate, unbridled, alert, raw, honest. It’s my faith that as we get back to our wilderness we’ll discover that the things we hold sacred live and speak there too.
My friend Rob once wrote a song called “The Blue of the Road.” It’s a song about driving, perhaps on I-80, heading east through the Appalachians, as the sun begins to set. In that song he says, “there in that wild blue ride the insights of your life, that wisdom unlooked for, the solution to the gnawing ache in your heart, and the laughing simplicity of effortless release, letting go. Like the answer to a prayer, the matter of course toward what is still right and true in your life…. When all is chaotic, when the days of your life are as dry autumn leaves scattered across the main streets of your home town. Get back to these great arteries, these long edges of grace that cut through the wilderness, these wonderful highways that put you at one with yourself and the last seeds of your American dream, and reopen your heart, and cause you to remember what you’ve always known: this great frontier has been with you all along.”
Amen and blessed be.
 Numbers 13: 32, 33b. (New Revised Standard Version)
 Numbers 14: 22-23. (New Revised Standard Version)
 Numbers 14: 29a. (New Revised Standard Version)
 Matthew 4:1-11. Luke 4:1-13. Mark 1:9-13.
 Levenson, Jon D., Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1985) pp. 21-22.
 See the abstract to Emma Pavey’s paper, “Wilderness and the Secular Age,” delivered at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association’s Annual Meeting on June 2, 2013 at http://www.academia.edu/2626584/Wilderness_and_the_secular_age_-_abstract.
 Barnhouse, Meg. “Goning to an Inner Party,” The Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal (Boston: Skinner House, 1999) p. 63.
 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) p. 374.