The end of teaching for the year is coming up on us, so my working days will be less oriented toward ‘what hitherto-unprepared lectures do I have to give this week?’ and more toward ‘what backlogged obligation can I clear away?’ This will make a considerable difference for the better, I promise.
I preached again this Sunday, this time at St Aidan’s in Clarkston, and I utterly omitted mention of it being Mothering Sunday (and almost avoided mention of Refreshment Sunday). This is not out of defiant despite of mothers, or my mother, or Margaret, or anything; I just followed the logic of the sermon as I was writing it out, and ‘mothers’ really didn’t enter the flow of the thing. No worries, though — we had plenty of matricentrism in the liturgy.
The text of the sermon below, and then I’m off to cobble together the slides for tomorrow’s lecture on theological interpretation.
St. Aidan’s, Clarkston
Joshua 5:9-12 / 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 / Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain”
+ In Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have known one another, you and I, for a surprisingly long time. That is to say, three years isn’t a long time by itself, nor is it a particularly surprising interval — but I’m surprised, and you also may be surprised, that this nomadic academic clergyman who first hopped onto the East Kilbride train to help out Fr Nicholas back in the spring of 2010 has now lived in Scotland for nigh onto four years, and is eagerly awaiting permission from the Home Office to attain the status of having ‘Permanent Leave to Assist at St Aidan’s’.
My itinerant life illustrates the folly of thinking that one has put down permanent roots and made a home in this world. Few people are more inclined to staying put than I, much to Margaret’s frustration! Yet here I am, four years in Scotland after one year in North Carolina, one in Princeton, eight in Chicago, five in Princeton, four in St Petersburg, three in North Carolina, four in New Haven, four in Pittsburgh, five in Maine… the itinerary begins to sound like the wanderings of the wilderness generation, who spent years in Ezion-geber, then on to Kadesh-Barnea, to Mount Hor, to Zalmonah, to Punon, to Oboth, to Iye-abarim, to Dibon-gad, to Almon-diblathaim, to the mountains of Abarim, the plains of Moab….
Several weeks ago our Old Testament lesson read from Deuteronomy, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father’; this morning’s lesson speaks of an end to this wandering. Israel spent years and years as slaves in Egypt, and then forty more years wandering in the wilderness of Sinai — ‘with no fixed abode’, as the police reports say — and in this morning’s reading, their wandering days are over. Joshua leads them across the Jordan in the way that Moses led them across the Red Sea, and when at length they camp in the milk-and-honey land on Canaan’s side, they observe the Passover. ‘On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.’
Those verses strike me as bittersweet. Be it granted that Israel had spent a long time wandering; be it granted that they did not always appreciate having the same miraculous food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day; be it granted that they had been promised a land in which they could settle and flourish; granted all these things, still those years in the wilderness were spent under the guidance of God, fed by God. This morning, Israel celebrates its arrival in the land, and the manna ceases. God will never desert his beloved Israel, but now that they eat the crops grown in Canaan, they no longer depend directly on God for their daily nourishment. They’re on their own now.
And to mark their graduation, their passage, Israel takes boulders from the Jordan and rolls them up to form a circle of standing stones, not altogether unlike the stone circles we see around Scotland (though apparently Israel more practically chose rollable stones rather than the angular stones we see in typical Scottish archaeological sites). The name ‘Gilgal’ comes either, as we heard this morning, from God saying ‘I have rolled away, gallothi, from you the disgrace of Egypt’, or from the circle, the word gilgal itself, of stones that the people made.
Gilgal, the circle of stones where God rolled away the disgrace of the slavery in Egypt, emblematised their realisation that they had at last, at long last, arrived. But that made for a problem as well; for Israel, as for us, the time when we think we’ve finally reached our goal only begins a new range of struggles. Years of wandering hadn’t ended Israel’s trials — after settling into the land, they would face invasions, civil war, exiles, and the persistent temptations of wealth, power, and privilege. Eventually Gilgal became a sign of apostasy: ‘Every evil of theirs began at Gilgal; there I came to hate them.’
Gilgal was the end of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, but the beginning of Israel’s struggles against the problems of life as a settled people. We may tire of a journey, day after wearisome day, and we may long for the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey; but we pass through by way of Gilgal, and that stone circle reminds us that others have been here before us, that they too have longed for a respite from toilsome wandering, and that once they settle down, once we settle down, we learn that settled life doesn’t mean no problems, it doesn’t even mean easy problems. It means different problems.
When Israel moved ahead into Canaan, they exchanged their footsore restless striding ever onward, and the vulnerability of life without protective city walls, for confinement by the walls they built, and for the fetters of being possessed by your possessions. And at the end of the day, the thick city walls did not protect them; the possessions for which they fought were lost, burnt, pillaged. No longer led on their way by the God who was their pillar of cloud by day and their pillar of fire by night, they got lost.
The longing for relief, for settling, for the modern consolation of closure lie before us in Lent. ‘How long till Easter?’ we may ask, or ‘I want to say Alleluia again!’ But forty days is not so long to spend on this road, and once we enter Eastertide and the season after Pentecost, we won’t have escaped any of the problems that irritate us during Lent. Every day is Lent. Every day is Easter. We observe the different seasons to remind ourselves that both sorts of living are possible — to guard ourselves against casually assuming that we know well enough what self-denial is like, we don’t really have to do it, or against refusing ever to celebrate the promise that God’s power for perfect joy can make itself felt even in hard, lonely, heart-breaking times. We separate Lent and Easter for the practice of showing ourselves deprivation and feasting, but sadness and travail accompany us into Easter — and undefeatable life, glorious, beautiful truth persists in our presence even at the heart of Lent.
The stone-rolling, rolling stone life of wayfarers suits some, and fatigues others, just as we know that some people — I, for instance — crave the comforts of a settled home. If it be determined that Glasgow is Gilgal, that Scotland will be the land flowing with… well, with rain if not with milk and honey, if Scotland be the promised home where I will finish my work, then I will make my way to some circle of stones and affirm again my praise of the God who has brought me so very far. But I don’t suppose that whether I’m a prodigal child in a faraway country or a hard-working obedient child in the bosom of my motherland, that in either condition my troubles will be lifted from my shoulders just by virtue of having gotten somewhere, or having done just what my Father tells me. Rest, and homecoming, in the end aren’t something we deserve, but something we receive as a pure gift (just as the wayward son in this morning’s parable didn’t deserve the fancy clothes and the feast) — and in receiving these gifts we discover that they were always at hand, every step of the way. Glasgow is Gilgal, and Clarkston is Gilgal, and Sheffield and Swansea and Boston are Gilgal. We’re coming home, we are home, and we’re heading out again, all at once, until time shall be no more.
Gilgal may be a going-forth as much as it’s a coming-home, but going-forth isn’t all it is. In the week, there is a Sabbath; in the decades, there is a Jubilee; in Lent, there is Refreshment Sunday; in the whole cyclical year, there is Easter; and in this church, this plain, beloved, sometimes leaky church, there is manna. There is water from the stone. There will be the bread of heaven, and the cup of salvation, such that mortals shall eat the bread of angels; and God will provide for us food enough. Even before we can return and fall to our knees, saying ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your child’, God will reach out to us and say, ‘Tomorrow you will eat the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. But now, you’ve come a long way, you’re hungry. Today, one more time — manna.’