The Desert: Wandering as Penitence & Discipline

Mary Magdala Community

“The Desert: Wandering as Penitence & Discipline”(c)

4th Sunday in Lent —  March 10, 2024

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D.  —

Pastor,  Mary Magdala Community,

Psalm 95 ends with this statement from God:

“Forty years I endured that generation;

            I said they are a people whose hearts go astray.

 So I swore in my anger, they shall not enter into my rest.” (v.10-11)

If I may be so bold as to speak for God, how the psalm ends is saying that the generation of adult Israelites who left Egypt did not enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.  Given the life expectancy of those days that generation of adults would have died off in those 40 years of wandering in the desert.  As the psalm indicates, God’s rest was to be found in the Promised Land.

This Lent I have been looking at three central categories to reflect upon, categories that mark the journey from slavery to freedom.  They are leaving, roaming, entering.  The people under Moses’ guidance had finally asserted their impulse to freedom by leaving Egypt, that place of slavery and oppression.  What happened next was not the journey they had envisioned.  Due to that generation’s abandonment of Moses and YHWH an abyssal rift opened and separated the people from the God who had freed them.  This established the people as a roaming nation, wandering in the desert, whose sin of denying YHWH required penitence and reconciliation.  Finally, forty years later the new generation was ready, prepared through struggle and deepening faith, for entering the Promised Land.

Two things were asked of the people upon leaving Egypt.  They were to affirm the one God and to honor the covenant.  Soon after they departed, as recounted in the book of Exodus, at Mount Sinai the people were presented with the commands of God and they responded with, “We will do everything that the Lord has told us.” (24:3)  It didn’t take long for the people to reject this God and this God’s covenant.  The golden calf that was made in Moses’ absence was the symbol of this rejection – this unforgivable sin.  The people did neither of the two things asked of them:  they turned away from the one God and they dishonored the covenant.

When one reads the book of Exodus, along with the other books of the Torah, one would be well-advised to acknowledge the view of scholars that multiple oral traditions and the length of historical documentation present us with the interweaving of storytelling.  What we have are stories that conflict with each other in their presentation of events and occurrences.  Exodus is not a linear history so much as it is a vault containing treasures that guide us and form our faith.  It’s for this reason that these three categories of leaving, roaming, and entering can serve as guides for us in interpreting this period of salvation history.

In particular, let’s consider the people’s roaming in the desert, roaming imposed upon them in light of their committing the unforgivable sin of rejecting YHWH who had shown such mercy and love as they asserted their own courage in the departure from Egypt.  As Psalm 95 says, “They are a people whose hearts go astray.”  In the desert the people had to deal with their own feelings of abandonment, feelings which made them truly a Pilgrim People.  I would like to take a look at two very different types of wandering in loneliness and emptiness made more acute by such feelings of abandonment.

First, is the decades long wandering due to the time it takes to acknowledge true sorrow and openness to reconciliation.  The remaining books of Torah (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) recount this journey of penitence.  I must confess that reading these books can, at times, be a mind-numbing trek through detail, rule-making, repetition, and seeming waywardness.  Stories of war, violence, revenge, and outright murder abound.  However, through all these stories the people are called to return to the two things that matter: 1) Affirm the one God, and 2) Honor the Covenant.  Wandering as penitence only makes sense when purpose reveals the goal.  For a covenanted people such a purpose is to experience fulfillment of the Promise.  In my view the Promise became too closely associated with attachment to the land, meaning that the Promised Land was thought to be the revelation.  We will take a closer look at Promise as person and not land in a future homily.  For now, we appreciate that a Pilgrim People recognizes penitence as a way to reconciliation – the way to renew one’s affirmation of the one God and to honor the covenant.

A second view on roaming has not much at all to do with sin   Rather, it has to do with abandonment when it feels to be the result of a capricious act of this one God.  It’s the kind of wandering that calls into question the very covenant which we have been called to honor and to fulfill.  Recently, I came across a correspondence between Jim Forest and Tom Merton.  Forest was, at the time, a young peace activist who would later co-found the Catholic Peace Fellowship, whose mission was to do whatever it could to stop the Vietnam War.  Merton, of course, was the Trappist monk whose influence from his cloistered abbey fell greatly upon the spirits of anti-war, peace movement activists.

Jim’s wandering in feelings of abandonment had to do with doing many activities to further the cause of peace and seeing that little to no movement toward peace was forthcoming.  He confided in Tom Merton this sense of what I’m calling desert wandering hoping to get guidance for what to do next.  Merton’s personal response to him became later published, and widely so, as A Letter to a Young Activist.  Merton’s response to Jim was direct, if not counter to what one would expect as sensible advice to an activist.  Merton wrote, “You must not depend upon results.”  And he added, “You will not survive America unless you undertake a discipline of prayer and sacrament.”

There you have it.  Affirm the one God and honor the covenant through prayer and sacrament.  In my earlier homily on Exodus as holy liberation, I offered that the basis of social justice can be found in these two responsibilities in faith of affirmation and honor.  It appears that this is likewise Thomas Merton’s advice, namely to work for peace equipped with prayer and sacrament.  It is a matter of hope that such advice releases us from wandering in the desert and places us on the footpath of entering into the Promise.  This is the Lenten journey of leaving, wandering, and entering into God’s rest.   Stay tuned.

Prayer (JR)

  All-Holy One of the Covenant, we gather here as companions in faith.  Together we join with all people who declare faith in you.  We, like those before us, find ourselves at times roaming in deserts – sometimes because our actions require us to repent and reconcile, and sometimes because our hopes have been lost in our emptiness. 

 We pray that our roaming will eventually lead us to you, regardless of the time it takes to acknowledge you and honor this journey to Easter.  Amen.

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