Saturday, December 14, 2013

Keep Your Eyes on the Road

RCL Advent 3A
15 December 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Isaiah 35.1-10
            For anyone over the age of fifty the year 1969 probably holds some significance.  In July of that year Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon, the first human being to touch the surface of a non-terrestrial body.  I was sixteen and I joined my family, glued to our television set, watching this truly historic event.  But for those who are truly knowledgeable about history, an even more historic event occurred earlier that year.
            On the 27th of January 1969 I turned fifteen years and nine months old.  Under Colorado law I was now permitted to apply for and receive a learner’s permit so that I could exercise the privilege of driving the streets and highways of my home town and my home state.  I am pretty sure that I badgered my parents to pick me up from school and drive me to the license bureau as soon as school was over for the day.
            In those days many Colorado high schools had a drivers’ education course that most if not all eligible students took.  We had to learn the driver’s manual and the rules of the road.  Then we took turns sitting in the driver’s seats of training consoles, mock cars that went no where, but had screens projecting images of streets and highways, traffic signs and lights, and unexpected hazards.  Our machines had manual transmissions, not the fancy ‘four on the floor’ but ‘three on the stick’, with the gear shift lever positioned on the right of the steering column.
            One day my father bravely took me out on the dirt roads of the hills to the west of our house.  It was then that I realized that my classroom experience had not prepared me for the reality of Colorado mountain roads.  Turns came suddenly.  Climbing a hill meant navigating numerous switchbacks, zigzagging up the slope.  I often drove too close to the hillside of the road because the slope-side offered sheer drops of many metres.  But I learned and, on my sixteenth birthday, I successfully passed my driver’s examination and given my ‘solo’ license.
            For the people of Israel to whom Isaiah the prophet speaks today, their exile in Babylon was somewhat like my classroom experience in drivers’ education.  Just as my classmate and I studied the driver’s manual, so did the people of Israel have before them the words of the Torah, the books describing the history of the people during the monarchy and the words spoken by the prophets before the exile.  Just as I had sat behind the console of a driving simulator, so too had the people sat in their Babylonian synagogues practicing the behaviours that marked them out as God’s chosen people, the recipients of the covenant made with them at Sinai.  And then the day came when all the classroom sessions and the simulations ended.  Their exile was ended and they were allowed to return home to the land of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
            What they discovered, just as I discovered on those dusty roads in rural Colorado, was that navigating the present, negotiating the day-to-day realities of a return to Judah, was far more difficult than they expected.  It’s all well and good to learn four-way stop procedures and to look both ways before proceeding, but that does not prevent someone from running the stop-sign and smashing into you.  Maintaining the speed limit is good practice, but we all have to deal with slower or faster drivers and changing weather conditions.  The way back to Judah was not straight by any means and danger lurked on either side of the road, whether from jealous neighbours, disaffected companions or simple poverty and hunger.
            Yet the experience of navigating difficult paths is made easier by thorough preparation.  My own classroom training as a driver did, in fact, prepare me for the realities of actual driving; with each trip I was gaining the valuable integration of theory and practice.  So, too, did the people of Israel find that their study of the scriptures and faithfulness to the religious practices of the covenant during the exile prepared them for the task of rebuilding their homeland once they returned.  Theory and practice, you see, are two-sides of the same coin; theory may shape practice, but practice often re-shapes theory.
            Once again you and I find ourselves on the journey of the Christian year.  We’ve all travelled this road many times and its curves, dips and dangers are well-known to us.  But I am finding that, as I grow older, I greet each new Christian year with renewed enthusiasm.  I know the theory, but now I get to apply that knowledge to a new journey.  Despite my familiarity with the road, I am aware that I will encounter something that I have never noticed before, perhaps a scriptural text or a prayer or a hymn or, dare I say, a moment of revelation when something I thought meant ‘A’ may actually mean ‘Z’.  Those moments may lead me to re-assess my ‘theory’ and approach next year’s journey in a slightly different way and with changed expectations.
            For example, we are moving towards the establishment of a pastoral resource centre here at Saint Faith’s that will bring focus to our service to the homeless, the marginally-housed and others in need of support.  Our journey of the last sixty-five years has always included outreach, but now one dimension of that outreach has come home.  What will this mean for the whole congregation of Saint Faith’s?  How will we respond to the possibility that clients of that centre may decide to make Saint Faith’s their worship home as well?
            Then there is the truly risky venture of ‘evangelism’.  When this parish was established more than sixty-five years ago, we could depend upon our ‘market share’ of the population to fill the pews.  Most families relied on the income of one adult, the other tending to the home and to shepherding the children to school and other activities, the church serving as one of the providers of social activity.  This has changed significantly over the past seven decades, but one thing has not changed:  Many of our neighbours, friends and family members need to hear the good news of God in Christ.  They need to hear us talk about a vision of human community and a hope for the future that is grounded in the love of God, the compassion of Christ and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.  If we are a place of help, hope and home, then our journey includes inviting others to walk with us.
            So, here we are, two full weeks into the journey of this new Christian year.  We’re familiar with the road and we have some experience in driving it.  But there will be new twists and turns this year, unexpected developments and perhaps an obstruction or two.  We are a pilgrim people called to make straight highways in the desert.  We are pathfinders for God seeking springs of water for all to share in the dry lands of daily life.  May God guide us as we navigate this road and may our journey reveal to our neighbours, friends and family members, just as was revealed to Joseph, that ‘God is with us’, with us all.  Amen.


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