Third Sunday in the Season of Creation – Year A
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 18, 2011
Let us pray: O God guide my words and the ways they lead us – that they may be focused on your way for us, your people. Amen.
First consideration might suggest that there is not a lot of difference between the designation of “Land Sunday” which was assigned to last week and “Wilderness Sunday” which is the suggestion for this week's theme. The difference is even less pronounced in a part of the world where “going out on the land” is a phrase that is somewhat synonomous with an understanding of spending time in the wilderness. As I reflected on this this week, I found myself asking the question what's the difference between “land” and “wilderness”? It was a question similar to the one I posed last week when the young people were here at the front - what's the difference between a rock and a stone. The answer to this latter query was suggested as follows: a stone is a rock that is being used for something. In keeping with that type of definition, my suggestion for an answer about the difference between land and wilderness is that wilderness is land that has a certain element of risk associated with it. It is this element of risk that makes wilderness both attractive and frightening. Wilderness is a place where we are physically left to make our way with fewer things and intensified survival skills.
There is however, another level to the concept of wilderness that goes beyond the physical. Interestingly enough, while wilderness can often be understood as a place where we are left alone to fend for ourselves, it is also a place where intimate relationships with the holy can be forged or deepened. Wilderness in the scriptural record is a place where people go to be in communion with God. It is a place of higher inherent danger and seemingly as a result it is a place where we are likely to encounter the divine in a more profound and tangible way.
I offered the past two weeks in this new season of creation some reflections on what I consider to be the birthpangs of this change in the liturgical calendar – especially in the form of new sets of readings for each Sunday. Last week I told how the new readings led me in a direction that I was not expecting, but which were helpful in leading me to a deeper consideration of “land” as a gift of the creator. It seemed I was headed in the same direction this week, but I was less enamoured with the suggestions for this week. Ultimately I reverted back to the original lectionary readings as the basis for this reflection. However, I do want to refer briefly to the original suggestion for a gospel reading today. It consisted of a choice between the Matthew and the Mark accounts of the baptism of Jesus. They both tell of Jesus being baptised by John at the Jordan River and then of how Jesus went into the wild where he encountered the deprivations of thirst and hunger, leading him to some deep spiritual turmoil as he dealt with temptations that would serve his own personal needs more than his desire to open the way of God to the people of Galilee and of course, ultimately to us.
That's one of the most recognisable characteristics of wilderness – a place that presents physical hardship or danger and an opportunity to deepen our spiritual connection.
Those same characteristics were described in our reading from the Hebrew bible this morning. The Israelites journeyed in the wilderness as refugees from oppression in Egypt on their way to the land promised to them by God. They too faced physical hardship – wondering where their food and water would come from and in so doing ending up in a deeper and closer connection with their God.
The gospel passage we heard today is the thought provoking parable of the workers in the vineyard. It's a story which challenges our sense of fairness, turning it upside down. Our expectation is that we will be paid according to the number of hours we work, our level of education and the amount of responsibility that we are asked to take. But Jesus turns this upside down, suggesting that work could be valued not by how much of it we do, but rather by asking the question: what level of income do we need to have enough to eat and a safe and comfortable place to live? The workers were paid not according to the number of hours they worked, but according to a minimum daily wage – which rewarded the labourers with the same amount of remuneration regardless of whether they worked eight hours or one hour.
What does this have to say to us in consideration of the theme of wilderness? Well, not so much about wages – wages are usually of little consideration in wilderness sojourns. But it does offer at least two other insights. The first is that our needs are often a more important consideration than our rights. In the wilderness it is not about whether we deserve something, it is more about whether we will be able to satisfy our physical requirements. A six figure income doesn't help one bit if we run out of trail mix on the third day of a six day trip. And I suspect that offering top dollar to your trip partner for some of their trail mix, would only work if they have more than enough of their own trail mix, or if they have an altruistic and communitarian ethic, or if they can look beyond the present context. The point is that wilderness presents different priorities.
I believe that this is the point of Jesus' parable. His story invites us to consider different priorities. In story form he offers us a perspective on God's realm that suggests a different way of valuing. God's economy has a different base than does ours.
Last week I talked about the land and the way that many people regard land as pristine wilderness, untouched by human presence and development. I mentioned how many people compare this to the urban environment – most noticeably different because of many levels of development. A point I made is that we are conditioned to equate undeveloped land (which could be a synonym for wilderness) with being holy and developed, built-up land – cities as unholy – more distant from the touch and presence of God. But we know that cities are very much safe places for many people – places where community and acceptance can be found. Urban areas are also wilderness for many people. Places of fear and danger. Places of loneliness and separation. The parable of the workers invites us to think in upside-down ways – to consider for a moment our pre-conceived or conditioned notions and how they can lead us to stereotypical generalizations and the dismissing of ideas that may lead us to real connection with the holy in our lives.
Is it not possible to think of wilderness in less concrete terms and consider all the different ways we encounter wilderness in our lives. Where are the places where we meet fear and danger? Where are the places that quicken our senses, increase our taste for adventure, lead to deeper experience of God in our lives.
I think the intention behind the development of a new season in the liturgical year is to help us focus on the relationship we have with the world in which we live. The themes of the weeks: Forest, Land, Wilderness and next week River have been intended to help us focus on the natural world. However I have been surprised at the way my own reflection has led me in some different ways – beyond a first reaction which might suggest four weeks of thanksgiving for the gift of creation to one of lament and confession along with the gratitude, beyond a kind of typical Canadian holding of wilderness in awe and wonder to a broader understanding of God's gift of creation as encompassing not just the distant and vast geography which we are used to, but also the tightly packed urban places which are home to the vast majority of the inhabitants of the earth. And also to see creation as encompassing the sum total of this place which we call home – which at once is both huge – beyond our imagining and so small that we can picture it as but a speck of dust and water in the vastness of an expanding universe – stretching out in ways that we continue to discover and inward in every increasing circles which exude both greater understanding and greater mystery even as we explore.
I can't help but think that the spirit of Jesus – who continually invites us with story and action to think about things in new ways, is at work here. I wonder what direction we'll be led in next week? Amen.