Season of Creation 4A: Joel 1:8-10, 17-20; Romans 8:18-27
A couple of years ago I attended a clergy conference that included an opportunity to travel into Mexico to visit some of the ministries that were taking place on the border. We were loaded on a school bus in Douglas, Arizona and transported through the border patrol station into Agua Prieta, Mexico. There we visited the office of a coffee co-op and toured a local addiction rehab facility called CREDO – which has a profound ministry. This humble facility houses 92 people including women and their children, in crowded rooms with bunk beds. It also has rooms for men, similar to the women’s rooms. There are several meeting rooms and a dining area. Most of the structures are concrete walls and floors. In some instances the rooms have dirt floors. Every person in the facility works to keep the place clean, prepare food, support one another, learn about and engage in healthy behavior to support a life of sobriety. No one is turned away, and everyone in the facility has a place to live until they are sober for one year and can prove that they can earn a living and support themselves in an apartment. The quality of support is impressive. But what really amazed me is a story the director shared about a resident who lived in the enclosed section for the mentally ill patients.
One day, about eight years ago, the director received a phone call about a man found wandering in the desert. The Director offered to get the man and bring him to CREDO. The man had no memory of his name or his identity. Barely able to speak, he did not know where he was from or how he ended up lost in the desert of Mexico. Diagnosed as psychotic this addiction facility housed the man, gave him medication, and tended to him for four years. Then, one day, out of the blue, the man told the director that he remembered who he was. He told him his name, the names of his parents in California, their address, and their phone number. The director called his parents who were both astonished and delighted that their long lost son had been found, safe and sound. They too had no idea how their son had wound up in Mexico. Within a few days the parents arrived in Mexico to collect their son and take him home. To this day that family still sends money to assist CREDO in their ministry to those lost to addiction or mental illness. And, as far as I know, their son remains healthy and well.
Today we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Season of Creation, and the theme is, the wilderness. There are a number of ways that we can think about wilderness: wilderness of land, wilderness of spirit, and wilderness of mind.
The wilderness of land is of remote places like the desert areas, mountainous areas, the Alaskan tundra. Places where few humans live, let alone plants, vegetation, or animals.
Not only is there the reality of a wilderness of land, but there is also the concept of wilderness as a metaphor of reality. The man found wandering in the desert, who had no memory of his identity, was lost to reality of time and place. He was in the wilderness of mental illness, a wilderness of the mind.
There is also the notion of the wilderness as spiritual metaphor. When used this way we can think of ourselves as in a spiritual wilderness when life is overwhelming and we do not know where God is in the midst of our despair. This is the wilderness that our reading from Joel expresses – lamenting because all seems lost – the cattle wander about because there is no pasture for them, people mourning in sackcloth, and all around is devastation.
The Book of Joel is found in the section of the Bible known as the minor prophets. There are twelve minor prophets, so called because the books credited to these prophets are shorter than those credited to the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. In addition to Joel, the minor prophets include Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
Joel is believed to have been written sometime in the 4th century, BCE – before the common era, or some 2400 years ago. Joel is lamenting the devastation of the land from a plague of locusts. The book is filled with a sense of grief that God has abandoned the people. But because it is a prophetic book it also looks to the future when God will return and restore the land and the people to the fullness of God’s desire. The prophets use imagery and language that references wilderness experiences – land that has become a wilderness, and the spiritual life of the people lost in a wilderness with out a sense of God’s presence.
When my daughter was little we read a trilogy of books called Julie and the Wolves. It’s the story of a young Eskimo girl, orphaned at the tragic death of her parents and married off to an older abusive man. She escapes the marriage by running away, hoping to make it to San Francisco. Instead she ends up lost in the tundra of Alaska and is forced to learn how to survive on the raw elements of the land: ice and snow, plants and animals. It’s a fabulous series filled with the rich spirituality of a people who have learned to live in the wilderness of snow and ice. Of a people with a deep respect for the land and for all the creatures of the land, and of a young girl who loses her self in the wilderness only to find her true identity in the process.
The Christian story, filled as it is with wilderness experiences is ultimately a story of hope. We believe that in and within every wilderness experience is the profound reality of God’s presence. While there are times when we are unable to recognize exactly how it is that God is with us, our faith reminds us that God never leaves us, is always present, and journeys with us through our grief and despair. God yearns for us to live in peace, to be satisfied with life, whatever it brings our way, and to love others as God loves us.
The wilderness is not only a place of lament and despair, but as our reading from Romans reminds us, it is also the place of hope, for it is hope that rescues us. Hope – where new life begins and through which God’s creative self pours through, awakening us to our true identity, called to be the hands and heart of Christ – to be beacons of hope in the wilderness of life.
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