Monday, September 21, 2009

Wherever You Go

Sermon Sept. 20, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

Someone asked me to post my sermon, so here ya go. No pressure to read it though :-)

Hey, hey, hey — don't be mean.
No need to be mean.
'Cause, remember:
no matter where you go... there you are.

--Buckaroo Bonzai

First Scripture Reading: Exodus 13:17-22

Second Scripture Reading: John 13:36-14:7

“When we see the face of God we shall know that we have always known it. He has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within, all our earthly experiences of innocent love.” –C.S. Lewis

It’s a well known fact that I have little-to-no direction sense, even though my undergraduate degree was in Geography. This is known by those who ride in my car and who often end up going for longer rides than they planned. It is known by those who wait for me at the other end of my journeys, wondering when I’m going to get where I’m going. It’s known to a few of you here in this church, who have received phone calls from the road asking one more time, “How do I get to your place?” And so your gift last week, of a GPS unit, was a kindness beyond imagining—both for you and for me. I can’t say I’ll never get lost again, but at least (if the battery is working) I’ll be able to get unlost without folding and unfolding those paper road maps that never go back together the right way.

One of you wrote this poem to include in the card, and I want to share it with you all in case you didn’t read it. I am still so delighted to have shared my ordination with you all and to find myself the pastor of a church—in fact I tell all who are interested and many who are not. Grocery clerks, gas attendants, and bank tellers—perfect strangers all—have found themselves swept away in my excitement. So in that spirit, celebrate with me one more time through these wonderful words:

Congratulations to you on achieving your goal
With hard work and prayers you’ve reached deep in your soul
From student to Pastor, to Reverend you’ve grown
With New Covenant Church you have a place to call home
Guidance through it all, with help from above
Support of Family, friends and a congregation of Love
Spiritually finding your way with the Lord’s helping hand
We hope this little gift will help you find your way around land
We are sure you will find this handy gift like a friend
There when you start, in between and at the end
With Love, your friends at New Covenant Presbyterian Church

When I opened the gift last week, somebody said, “We wanted a pastor who knew where she was going!” And you are all so dear to me, that I hesitate to confess that I really have no idea. Life plays itself out one day at a time, and while the journey is marvelous in its ups and downs and twists and turns, the destination point remains as elusive as ever. Perhaps you know what I mean?

Well, the Israelites knew, that’s for sure. It was a complicated business getting them out of Egypt to start with. Pharaoh didn’t want to lose his slaves—maybe they were vital to the economy or maybe it just looked bad to let a group of slaves wander off. Either way, it took 10 plagues to convince him to release the Israelites, and even then he sent an army out after them to bring them back. As they began the journey out of Egypt to go to the promised land that God had promised their ancestors, the Israelites were like young children wandering in the wilderness. After 430 years of living in Egypt, they had a certain kind of sophistication and intelligence about where they lived and how to get along, but living in the wilderness was a whole other thing.

There were two roads the Israelites could go along to get where they were going. One was perhaps a well-traveled route along the Mediterranean sea shore. But if they traveled through that part of the land, they would certainly encounter the Philistines and have to fight their way. The Lord thought to himself, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” It was too early to face such a challenge, and so the Lord moved them along another route—a wilderness route—the path along the Red Sea. This reminds me of the picture on the front of your bulletin—the sign saying “Keep Right” with one arrow pointing to the right and one to the left. Which way does one go in the midst of such conflicting messages? The Israelites, I might point out, had no GPS, or even a folding paper road map. And so the Lord went in front of them to guide their way; a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. They could travel day and night without difficulty, and the pillars remained steadfastly with the Israelites as they made their way through the wilderness along the road less traveled. And that turned out to be a good thing, for when we take the road less traveled, we might avoid battles with the Philistines (or other obvious road blocks), but we often end up in interesting and unexpected adventures along the way. And so this wandering through life, not really sure where we’re going, seeking after a utopian promised land, following the Lord as best we can—these are all a part of our biblical heritage. Our hope always lies in the promise that there will be a better tomorrow, or at least a different tomorrow, and so we make our way through the wilderness just as the Israelites: lost, confused, wondering whether to return to Egypt, or to keep pressing on toward an unknown destination in God.

Then along came Jesus—a long time separated from those first Israelites. Several thousand years had passed, along with wars and settlements, exile and resettlement. Tragedy, triumph, family squabbles, whole cities destroyed and new cities built. Generations upon generations, just as God promised. And then finally, as we Christians understand it, the coming of the Messiah. God, who would be with us again, not just as a pillar of cloud or fire, not just as a briefly glimpsed Spirit or vision, but flesh and blood, human and divine, God with us, drinking and eating, loving and laughing, weeping and healing. The gospels tell us that people left their families and careers behind to follow this man Jesus. And for three years he wandered through cities and towns with his disciples, teaching and healing, bringing a message of peace and wholeness to those who listened; a message of liberation and freedom to those who were oppressed; a warning to those who would harm others or try to keep them from God.

And then, like all seasons, this one came to an end in the death of Jesus. There would be another spring after this winter, but it would never be quite the same again for the disciples (or for us), and so Jesus called them all together for a last meal. At that meal he offered a meditation—last thoughts on what had come before and what now lay ahead. As he said good-bye, Peter said, “but, where are you going, and why can’t I come with you?” It’s a reasonable question, I think. Letting go of people and places we have loved is never easy—and it’s harder when we cannot see ahead what is coming. I can imagine saying the same thing—I’ll come with you, I’ve got your back, whatever you go through, I’ll stand with you! Yet Jesus knew they weren’t ready and that his path would take him places they could not follow, and so he left them with these words of assurance:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

I am the way, the truth, and the life. These few words have caused such unimaginable trouble in our world! For many, those words are an exact road map of how to get to the Father from wherever you stand. Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, becomes a rigid path—no other thoughts are allowed, and those who follow other paths must be corrected or destroyed. Wars have been (and are still) fought over whether Jesus is the absolute truth for all people of all times. Entire populations of people have been demonized and dehumanized in the name of Christ because of their beliefs or lack of beliefs. In discussing relations with other faiths and traditions, Christians of all stripes today (including myself) use these words to block dialogue in the interest of keeping the purity of our faith. Such safeguarding may be necessary at times, but it still makes me sad and worried for how we will love one another on this earth. I worry about those who are shut out when we close so tightly around these last words of Jesus; words meant for his closest intimates in answer to the sorrowful question: “but Lord, how will we know where to find you?”

A pastor friend of mine once preached on this passage and said this: If you want to get to San Francisco from Santa Barbara, you might ask several people how to get there. One might say, follow the 101 freeway north, San Francisco is about 350 miles thataway. Another person might tell you, take the 101 north until you get to Cambria, then veer off on Highway 1—that’s the scenic route and you won’t be sorry—ocean vistas and redwood forests line the way—that’s the way to San Francisco. Another might tell you that it’s better to go south on the 101 freeway and then cut over the backroads to Interstate 5. It’s a straight line from there, the speed limit is higher, and you can get there faster that way—that’s the way to San Francisco. And finally, another might say, “Why don’t you just fly?” The pastor’s point was that “the way” to God might look a little different depending on where you started, what your resources are, and what your priorities are for the journey. This has made a lot of sense to me over the years. And yet, it wasn’t until you all gifted me with the GPS unit that I found a satisfactory image for this passage. I bet you didn’t know you were sending me on a spiritual quest this week!

It began on Tuesday with the Presbytery meeting in Hammonton. Although I had been to the church once before, I still had no idea how to get there. The children were with me in the car, and they really, really dislike it when I get lost. So we plugged in the GPS and decided to experiment with it. At first it told me to go all the way down 295 and then cut over to 206. But I was pretty sure it would be faster to take 206 most of the way, so I decided to get off 295 early. We weren’t really sure how the GPS would handle this, and I was prepared with my paper maps, just in case. But as we veered off the GPS-recommended path, it simply said in a nasal voice: “Recalculating.” By the time I had exited the highway, the GPS unit had refigured where we were and how we could get where we were going, and it was ready with new directions. My sons were enchanted, and spent the hour-long trip there and back watching the GPS and back-seat driving.

And as we drove, I realized that the GPS unit always knew exactly where we were and where we were going. Every time we veered off course, it made corrections in the route to get us back in the right direction. We made some detours, we wandered this way and that, and still we arrived at Hammonton church for the meeting. And as I drove, it came to me that although I have no idea what the ultimate destination is for my soul, God does. And although often I have no idea where I am or what I am doing or how this is going to get me anywhere at all, God is present and knows where I am. And so the course corrections and u-turns that we all go through have some sort of purpose and do indeed get us further along the way, straight lines or no. I can almost hear in my head as I detour in life the voice of the Holy Spirit saying, “Recalculating.”

And so Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life—for the disciples and for us. Yet Christ is not necessarily a straight line or a well-trod path. There is room for complexity and nuance, for detours and sight-seeing along the way. Some detours are longer than others, but they do not remove us from the sight of God, who remains with us regardless of our path.

Occasionally, the GPS loses the satellite signal, and then the best thing to do is pull over and stop for a minute so it can reconnect. What will you do this week to reconnect yourself? What delightful or dangerous side streets will you wander down? Perhaps you are one to pray or one to study scripture. Maybe it is your habit to serve others; sometimes it is important to serve yourself. All of these things come into the service of God, and when you are lost, it is time to stop and reconnect, to seek the source of all life and listen for what is next. Sometimes its just another detour, I’m sorry to say.

For we do not know the way, except that the way is Jesus, and Jesus’ way was love. So as we continue down this road together, let us love one another as wholly and completely as we are able. For Love is the beginning and the middle and the end. And wherever we go, there we are, and wherever we are, God is there.


  1. Great sermon Katie - I'm wandering myself right now and appreciate the encouragment.

  2. Thanks, Maggie! Sure do miss you all back home...

  3. I guess this is a family trait...thank goodness for google maps on my blackberry.