“Wilderness without a Map”
Matthew 9:35 – 10:23
Rev. Andrea Castner Wyatt
June 20, 2020
Trinity Episcopal Church, Newtown CT
When Jesus calls us to follow him, when he sends us out to serve, as lay people and clergy, a GPS would be helpful. When we are on a journey, or a pilgrimage, we want a road map - a clear set of directions, a destination, landmarks, some sense of certainty about the path. Poet William Stafford says: we “want a wilderness with a map.”
In the life of the spirit, following Jesus, there is often no such thing. When we least expect it, we can find ourselves praying, along with Trappist monk Thomas Merton, “MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
When Jesus calls us, in Matthew’s Gospel today, when he sends us out to serve, we “want a wilderness with a map.” Instead, we’re off the grid! And sometimes, when we look to the Bible for help, we can’t even get the story straight! The story of Jesus calling fishermen to be disciples - it’s in each of the four Gospels, and it’s different every time!
Matthew, today, and Mark tell it when Jesus is just beginning his ministry. John tells it AFTER the resurrection! It is a story of reconciliation between Jesus and Simon Peter. In Luke, Jesus simply informs Peter “from now on you will be catching people.” It is a proclamation, not an invitation.
With Brother Merton, today, we cannot see the road ahead. We cannot see where it will lead. We met and gathered today wearing masks, actors in a strange play with no script where we don’t even know how to greet one other, social distancing. Can you tell I’m smiling, underneath my mask? My lipstick budget has gone way down!
We’re in the midst of a catastrophe, a global pandemic. There are no rules for how to do this. How do you do a job interview in the time of COVID? Lockdown restrictions are easing, but people are still dying. When will we have treatments, a vaccine? How do we be church, when we cannot gather?
We “want a wilderness with a map.” This life of discipleship, this pilgrimage of the spirit, requires of us a radical sense of openness to the unknown, the unexpected; tragedies, surprises, serendipity, grace. We embark on a journey with Jesus. We don’t know where it will lead. He doesn’t tell us what it will look like. It looks different for each and every one of us, because God’s creation is infinite in its diversity and variety of design.
What of those fishermen who follow Jesus? They drop their nets and walk with him – literally – from town to town, as he preaches and teaches and casts out demons and lays his hands on people and heals them. They walk with him as he performs miracles, as he gets angry in the temple, as he prays. They walk with him to his death; they walk with him in renewed life. Walking with Jesus – no GPS, no map.
Jesus asks for help. Did you notice that?? Wise people know when and how to ask for help. He knew he couldn’t do it alone! Jesus gives some pretty fascinating instructions. 1. Don’t pack too much. Travel light. Stay nimble and flexible. 2. Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves. Wow. You will be tested. Be savvy. 3. If people can’t accept your gifts, shake the dust off your feet and keep moving! Don’t let anything disrupt your inner peace. 4. Stay humble. Remember it’s the Spirit who speaks through you. You are just the vessel.
Jesus collects people to serve with him. Walking with Jesus also means walking with each other. In the late 1980’s, I was a Chaplain intern at Boston City Hospital, supervised by a Catholic nun. Sister Michele would listen to me, as I spoke of tragedies I saw unfolding in hospital beds. She listened to my frustration at pain I witnessed - AIDS, gunshot wounds – and how there was nothing I could do to make it better.
I will never forget the day she said to me: It’s not about fixing things. “This is a ministry of accompaniment.” We simply walk with people, and share their journey. I have a better understanding now of the power of presence.
Being Church these days is a form of ‘wilderness without a map.’ How do we minister to people, how do we grow disciples - when they’re out there, not in here? How do we fish for people? We have to re-frame our whole paradigm, and that’s not an easy thing to do. After a recent Annual Meeting, I found myself saying ‘We could spend all our time maintaining the bureaucracy – the organizational structure - of yester-year … but I don’t think that’s what Jesus is calling us to do.’
The Holy Spirit is alive and well in unexpected places and people. I found something so compelling in the Episcopal Church, I upended my life to be part of it. It was disruptive. I lost a lot. But I discovered creative, spirit-filled people experimenting with new ways to reach people with the message of Jesus.
I listened to a podcast recently, people who do mission development in our Episcopal Church. And there was the voice of my friend Tom Brackett, who works with the Presiding Bishop. He caught me in his fishing net, gave me hope at a time when I despaired about church. He was talking – on this podcast - about that feeling I named after Annual Meeting – that the organizational structures we created generations ago may actually stifle or inhibit the work of the Spirit.
He said: It’s like people who build (or inherit) a beautiful bird cage and sit around wondering where all the birds are. Those birds are beautiful and they’re out there! Rather than tinkering with the cages, how can we get out there - and find and welcome and bless the birds we long to be around? And invite them.
In 2006 my favorite preacher Barbara Brown Taylor published a book called Leaving Church. There’s a picture on the cover of a bird sailing blissfully out of its birdcage. At the time, I too was leaving a church, and people in it I loved. Jesus was beckoning me to follow him onto the street, a peripatetic ministry called Hospice, on the sacred threshold between life and death. I have always found God in margin places, liminal spaces, places of tragedy and loss.
One of the questions I was asking back in 2007 was this: how can you build a house around a guy who is on the road? How can we build a church around a Savior whose ministry is out in the world? We gather, we are fed, we are sent: how we do so is changing, has been changing for 2,000 years now. Perhaps change is the constant. It is, after all, a Gospel of transformation; how we live it … is in constant motion.
I was up late the other night, and did some research on your founder the Rev. John Beach, whose conversion caused “alarm and consternation” in Newtown. He may be my new personal hero! I formally left the UCC a dozen years ago, and I still haven’t found anyone else who renounced Congregational ordination vows to become an Anglican priest. Now I have John Beach. Beach seems to have fallen under the sway of Samuel Johnson, one of 7 Congregational clergy who renounced their ordination in the ‘Great Apostasy’ at Yale to become Anglican clergy. A colonial wilderness without a map.
I found a blog on the history of Redding about Rev. Beach in 1731:
‘From a serious and prayerful examination of the Scriptures, and of the records of the early ages of the Church, and from the universal acknowledgement of Episcopal government for fifteen hundred years, compared with the recent establishment of Presbyterian and Congregational discipline,’ he was fully persuaded of the invalidity of his ordination, and of the unscriptural method of organizing and governing congregations as by them practiced.
He therefore, ‘In the face of Almighty God,’ had made up his mind to ‘conform to the Church of England, as being Apostolic in her ministry and discipline, orthodox in her doctrine, and primitive in her worship.” Boom! Now I have a companion on my lonely journey.
These days it’s not about an epic battle between Congregationalists and Anglicans in a colonial context. Our time of ministry is so very different. Some call it the end of Christendom, that long era when Church held a prominent place in society. It’s more like we’re back in the earliest days of the Jesus movement – trying to figure out how to share the Gospel to people and cultures who’ve never heard of it! We are those early disciples and apostles, sent out to serve. 1. Pack light. 2. Be wise. 3. Keep moving. 4. Stay humble.
Ministry in the time of COVID, in the latter days of Christendom, is forcing us to experiment with new ways of being church! Is this coming year a digital hybrid, some here, some at home? Would Rev. Beach film a sermon with his IPhone camera, Zoom with his peeps?? I bet he would!
We want a wilderness with a map. Instead, we have our creativity, our willingness to innovate and adapt, a sense of humor – and humility! – and we can find new ways to share the gifts of our Anglican heritage with a new generation. We have each other, spirit companions on the way. Jesus and the disciples and the apostles, we’re on the road TOGETHER. That’s the way it always has been, and always will be. Maybe, that’s all we need. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Rev. andrea castner wyatt
The Rev. Andrea Castner Wyatt is honored to accept the call of Trinity Episcopal Church to serve and lead as Rector. She looks forward with joy to walking with the people of Trinity Church, and to discovering with you what Jesus is up to in Newtown, CT. Contact Rev. Andrea at email@example.com or by calling 203-426-9070.