Pentecost 15A 2011
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Friday night a satellite fell out of orbit and burned up on re-entry, except for a few pieces that landed wherever they landed. This week the news carried stories about whether it was at all likely that any of us would get hit by a piece of satellite. NASA calculated that the odds of a person being hit was 1 in 3200, but, because there are 6 billion of us on the planet, that means that the likelihood of you being hit was 1 in 3200 times 6 million, which is something like 1 in 2 quadrillion. We had far better odds, NASA said, of winning the lottery, which is 1 in 175 million.
And yet, people play the lottery. Maybe some of you were out in your yards Friday trying to catch a piece of satellite, but I think you’re smarter than that (plus, it was raining). What makes the lottery so attractive is the remote possibility that we can become instantly rich, without having to work for it for years and years. That’s not the only lottery people would like to win – wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a pill we could take that would make all our fat vanish overnight, or a process that would instantly implant all the knowledge we needed so we didn’t have to go to school for twelve or sixteen or twenty years? How many of us would like to have an instant cure for cancer, or heart disease, or fibromyalgia, or lupus, or arthritis, so we wouldn’t have to go through surgeries and treatments and therapy? I can’t count the times over the years when I have stood by a hospital bed, or said to a family grieving the death of a loved one, or said to struggling parents or to people whose marriage is dissolving, “I wish I had a magic wand to make all this better.” And I wish that thirty-eight years ago when I was appointed to those three little churches in Madison County, I had known the little bit I know now about myself and life and God and ministry. We all want to win the lottery. But that’s not how it works.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. When you look at a map of the Exodus, like the one on the front of your bulletin today, the route makes no sense. Why didn’t Moses and the Hebrews make a beeline along the coast of the Mediterranean for Canaan? Why did they wander around the Sinai peninsula, taking forty years to travel the same distance as from here to Baltimore?
The Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. Not stages from the old West, mind you. They traveled by fits and starts. They wandered, sometimes in circles. They would travel a few miles, and then camp for months or for years. And, amazingly, the Bible says all this was as the Lord commanded. Why?
In Margery Williams’ fairy tale too wonderful just for children, The Velveteen Rabbit, the rabbit is a toy largely ignored by the little boy who owns him, and he is kept in the nursery cupboard with the other toys. He is befriended by the Skin Horse, an ancient and battered toy who once belonged to the boy’s uncle. Other toys in the cupboard, especially the mechanical ones and the tin soldiers, make fun of the horse and the rabbit, because they aren’t real.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
The Hebrews needed to become real before they entered the Promised Land. They had to leave behind their old ways of believing and acting, they had to be loved by God for a long, long time, and they had to learn a new way of thinking and being before they could live into the promise that God had for them. And, the Bible tells us, some of them never made it. Many died in the Wilderness. Some wandered off on their own. Some probably went back to Egypt. They traveled slowly, starting and stopping, in stages, because that’s how God designed them. And us.
Those of you who were trained to be teachers learned, somewhere along the way, about the work of a psychologist named Jean Piaget. Piaget said that children pass through stages of intellectual development. From birth to about age two, children learn through the motions they make and the sensations that result from those movements. Our granddaughter, at fifteen months, has just learned to walk, and is learning to talk by experimenting with sounds she makes with her mouth. The next stage, Piaget said, about to age seven, is when children learn that words and objects can stand for something else, but they are still very self-centered and assume that everyone sees things from their point of view.
From about seven to eleven, children learn that others don’t always see things the way they do. They begin to imagine things outside their own experience. Then, from about age eleven on, children can begin to reason in abstract ways, and think about possibilities and ideologies.
About fifty years ago a psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg said that there are stages of moral reasoning that parallel what Piaget said about intellectual development. Very young children behave so they won’t be punished. Then they begin to see that other people have different points of view, so they begin to negotiate: “what’s in this for me?” The next stage focuses on social conformity: “But Mom, everybody has a cell phone!” Or, this is what good people do. Then, Kohlberg said, young adults realize that there are different ideas about right and wrong, so they negotiate an agreement with each other so they can live with each other. That’s the basis of a functioning society.
Now, developing intellectually or morally doesn’t come automatically on a third or seventh or twenty-first birthday. Some people get stuck: there are adults, for example, who steadfastly maintain that if a car is in front of you, even if you’re staying the same distance behind them, they’re traveling faster than you are. There are adults who insist that God rewards you for being good and punishes you for being bad, and there’s only one way of looking at life and that’s from their own eyes -- which is what a three-year old believes. This is why sometimes it’s so hard for us to discuss moral issues with each other: people are operating at such different stages of their intellectual and moral development.
About forty years ago a young theologian named Jim Fowler took Piaget and Kohlberg’s stages of development and said there were corresponding stages of faith development. Small children live in a wonderful world of fantasy and magic, and receive stories about God with trust from parents and others. When children are school-age, they become much more logical and literal about their beliefs. If the Bible says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, then he was. When children become teenagers, they are most influenced by the beliefs of their peers, and they have a hard time seeing out of their own box. Young adults begin seeing outside their own boxes, and become disillusioned with their former faith. That’s why there are so few young adults in church – they’ve outgrown their old faith, and are in the process of deciding what they do believe. In midlife, people realize the limits of their logic and begin to embrace paradox and mystery, outside the boxes. Lastly, said Fowler, a few people come to a place where they see a great oneness in diversity, and abandon themselves to serve others without concern for themselves.
I was blessed to have studied with Jim Fowler when I was in seminary. His work has become hugely important in Christian education and faith development. Fowler was trying to teach us that we all travel through the wilderness in stages. We don’t get there – become real – all at once, like winning the lottery. That’s a lie that was promised by generations of revival preachers who told their congregations that if they would just come down to the altar rail and give their lives to Jesus, then all their problems would be instantly solved. I wish! I believe in coming down to the altar rail and giving your life to Jesus. I’ve done it. I did for the first time at age seventeen, and it did change my life. But it wasn’t winning the lottery. I’ve had to grow and change and develop, much too slowly, and I’ve learned that I have to go to that altar rail every day and surrender my life to Jesus and let God change what God can that day. And I expect that to go on, not just until I die, but for eternity. We journey by stages, as the Lord commanded.
This is why if you still believe as you did when you were three, or seven, or seventeen, or twenty-seven, or as you did yesterday, you’re never going to make it to the Promised Land. This is why all of you who come to worship but skip Sunday School, or our weekday Bible studies, or fellowship groups, aren’t on the journey. If you can’t look back at the way you believed or thought or acted or felt a year ago and see some difference in who you are now, you’re stuck. A friend of mine said some years ago that he measures his journey with God by asking himself the question, “Who do you love today that you didn’t love a year ago?” If he can’t answer that question, he says he’s not following God.
Thirty-two years ago, when I was about to be ordained an Elder, Bishop Goodson lined up all of us who were being ordained in front of the Annual Conference, and asked us the same questions that have been asked all Methodist preachers since John Wesley formulated the questions in the 1700’s. Goodson liked to do a little sermon between each question. One of the questions is: “Are you going on to perfection?” Before we could answer, the Bishop said, “If you’re not going on to perfection, where are you going? If you’re going on to imperfection, you’ve already arrived.”
We travel to the Promised Land by stages, as the Lord commanded. This is how God made us. There’s no lottery, no pill, no magic wand to bring us to the fullness of God’s design for us. It’s long, hard work that literally takes an eternity. And if you’re in the same place you were at seventeen, or last year, or yesterday, you’re in a rut. And, as another preacher friend of mine used to say, a rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out.
We journey by stages. "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."