Psalm 63:1-8I Corinthians 10:1-13
I doubt that I’ll ever be inducted into the Boy Scout Hall of Fame.
I was eleven years old, coming off a good three-year stint in the Cub Scout minor leagues. My best friend David Finehirsh and I had been drafted into the majors, the Show, the Boy Scouts. I never made it past my rookie year, Tenderfoot in rank, but I did get a sermon illustration out of it.
My first and only Boy Scout camping trip was somewhere out in the Georgia countryside. Once we had set up camp, all of us greenhorns were enlisted in an exercise in orienteering. We were blindfolded and put in the back seat of our Scoutmaster’s car. Mr. Dabney drove an old mint-green Chevy, and we crammed ourselves into the back seat. He drove us around for about fifteen minutes, getting our bearings sufficiently off, and dropped us by the side of our road. We had our gear on our backs, one compass between us, and a local map in hand, where x marked the spot where camp was, our destination. As he peeled off, we laid the map by the side of the road to figure out where we were.
We were city kids, all of us, and the first thing we looked for was the roads. There weren’t many out where we were, and therefore not many intersections to help us get oriented. We followed the road in the direction in which Mr. Dabney had driven off, figuring that was as good a direction as any, until that endless horizon ran into a side road. We pulled the map out again, found the road, and charted our course. We followed that path for a while, rising with a gentle hill, and taking the first street on the right, into what turned out to be a newly-built subdivision. It was there in that endless series of cul-de-sacs that we realized that this place wasn’t even on the map!
After what seemed like hours, but was probably far less than that, Mr. Dabney’s car appeared out of nowhere. We weren’t succeeding and needed a little scoutmaster ex machina, if you will, to get us back on track. Not only was the subdivision not on the map; we were hopelessly lost. We had read the map wrong and hadn’t even bothered to check the compass at all.
Mr. Dabney sat us down and pointed up. “Do you see the power line towers?” We hadn’t. He then pointed back to the map at our feet: “Do you see this line right here?” We hadn’t. It was the line marking the path of the towers. “You might want to use those to figure out where you are.” He stood up, got in his Chevy, and drove off again.
Suddenly, everything became immediately clearer! Within five minutes, we knew where we were and where we were going. Within half an hour, we were back at camp, packs unloaded, appetites at the ready.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. When I picture that country map in my mind these many years later, what jumps out at me first is the power line towers. It took Scoutmaster Intervention to bring them to our weary, turned-around, cul-de-saced little attentions, but once we saw it, it was so obvious we were stunned not to have seen it in the first place.
In a sense, something very similar is happening in our second lesson from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. The poor, marginalized community found itself gathering from the four corners of this diverse city. Paul’s letter is a response to a series of questions the Corinthians have sent to him, concerning all matter of things. Foremost are some debates within the community, including debate over various understandings of the common meal – their communion feast, we might say.
And as the focal point for our lesson this morning, Paul uses the Exodus narrative as the central metaphor. Perhaps it is that the Corinthians looked back to this narrative “map” of wandering and picked up some of the details right away. An enslaved people delivered by a loving God. Maybe it is that they look back and can see the hand of the one who brought them through troubled waters and sustained them in a barren wasteland. Perhaps they know the details well enough to recognize God’s movement, this preparation of a freed people for a land that held promise. Paul takes this well-worn, oft-folded map. And with the diligent hand of a Scoutmaster, points out something that might have eluded them, a line that cuts across that map, something that the benefits of time and history, of hindsight and faith alone would bring to light.
It is Christ, the one in whose name these Corinthians gather regularly, it is Christ who is sacramentally present throughout the narrative. He baptizes in sea and cloud. He nourishes in Manna and water from a rock, a rock which is his very self. Now I may risk pushing my original metaphor to the breaking point, but the Corinthians are relative newcomers to the journey of faith. Their feet are still tender, perhaps, following Christ, but needing guidance and support. They’ve gotten stuck in a series of dead-ends that have brought them to a place of conflict with each other and, perhaps, even within themselves.
As Paul pulls up in his old Chevy, he points out to them this sacramental presence of Christ which enables them to look back with more clarity. Sacramentalizing Exodus, revealing baptism and communion, means that the narrative takes on this added texture of sign, of becoming something that points beyond itself, invigorating this story of deliverance into one of transformation, of God’s merciful and wondrous work of movement and shaping. And it is in looking back with this new wisdom that Paul points a potential way forward.
I am reminded of an exercise that is taking place here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. For the past two Thursdays, a group of us have been gathering to discuss Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christian. The book is an engaging, fictionalized account of McLaren’s own wrestling with the meaning of Christian faith in this changing, 21st century world. Part of the story is an exercise in history, looking back over the course of time to be able to recognize the people and moments that have shaped the world in dramatically different ways. We spent some time this last week looking at the move from the Medieval era to the Modern one, where the advent of the printing press and circumnavigation, the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo forever changed the way we think and view the world. Over that dramatic period of transition, several centuries ago, the map of reality was altered so fundamentally that we simply assume that this is the way the world was, is, and always will be.
And yet, I’m sure that each one of us, at least on some level, is aware that we may be in the midst of another seismic shift in history. We recognize dramatic new modes of communication and travel, science and economics, politics and warfare. Something potentially transformational is happening. Looking back, things might be clear. Hindsight might be 20/20. But for now, we might not be sure where we are or where we’re headed. Those power line towers are there, but we haven’t spotted them yet.
Where is it that your journey has taken you thus far? When you look back, can you see the people and the moments that have been the catalysts of your own spiritual transformation, of directing you to well-worn, trusty paths, or pointing you down untrodden roads that might just be worth the risk?
And where is it that you find yourself now, having followed these trails to which others have directed you, or which you yourself have discovered or stumbled upon? Like the psalmist, do you find yourself with thirsty soul and fainting spirit, searching for spiritual waters and divine nourishment? Or, perhaps, do you look around at this shifting world, unsure what lies ahead, equal parts hopeful and fearful, anxious for family and friends, concerned about profession, vocation, the beginning or the end of journeys?
Let us take a moment here, by the side of the road, and open up that map together. Given my previous orienteering experience, it’s clear that I’m in no position to point out the journey ahead. But I do think that there is wisdom for us in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. I’ll sum it up in two words. The first is a word of caution. And the second is a word of enduring hope.
The caution: watch out for idolatry. Idolatry, simply stated, is putting anything else in God’s place. As Paul replays the Exodus story in his letter, he reminds them of the stumbling Israelites in the midst of their journey. They worshiped a golden calf; they joined with those who followed lesser deities like Baal, joining in their rituals and practices; they doubted God’s provision in the wilderness, somehow forgetting God’s miraculous deliverance. Paul reminds the Corinthians of these details of the story as a cautionary word to them. Do not be prone to idolatry as they were. In other words, be sure that God’s desires come first for you both individually and as a community.
What might this look like for us? In 21st century America, there are plenty of temptations to idolatry, though we might not use such archaic language to define it as such. Maybe it’s better to say, “It is easy to get caught up.” There is our culture of conspicuous consumption of goods and resources. Violence surrounds us. It is in our policies, in our communities, in our homes, in our hearts. Fact is easily replaced with spin. As information and access to it increases, we are easily drawn to that which supports what we already think we know and begin to ignore that which disagrees with us. And power, whether it be political or economic or military or social, has an allure which seemingly pulls at us at every turn. In short, we could easily be stuck in a world of dead-ends that draw us away from paths of spiritual searching and life in Christ.
And it is here that the word of hope comes: God is faithful. God is faithful! There will be testing, Paul reminds the Corinthians, but God is still at work. God was there to deliver the Israelites, and despite their grumblings, their golden calves, their excesses, God remained with them through the wilderness, baptizing them and feeding them and transforming them and caring for them. It is no less true for us. As we consume, we must remember God’s provision. In the midst of violence, we must open our eyes to see Christ’s resurrection triumph over violent crucifixion. Surrounded by fact and fiction, we must draw on the deep wells of God’s wisdom. Drawn to lives of power, we must remain tethered to Christ who showed ultimate power in his willingness to be weak. And in a divided world, we must know of Christ’s witness to the possibilities of reconciliation.
Where are we headed? How will we navigate these roads that lie ahead? Ultimately, I remain unsure. But I do know that when we look back, we will see how we have been led, how God has provided those people and moments which continually transform us and baptize us to live into that life of promise in Christ.