WHY DO YOU WANDER!
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
October 15, 2017
Text: Matt. 18: 1-14
As many of you may have figured out, I was not a sit-down, listen-to-adults, and don’t-get-into-trouble child. I used to get bored on those family vacations in Alabama visiting my Aunt Ruby, the one who used to tell me Bible stories as she plucked chickens. There were no other children, that is, white children, to play with except for a cousin or two who were really prissy Southern girls, and they did not live nearby. This was farm country.
Aunt Ruby had set the boundaries of her house and yard as an area for me to play. Well, one morning, I realized there must be children down a dirt road where I was not supposed to go. I could hear them playing. I must have been around eight-years old at that point. So I took off down the dirt road. The sight of the share-cropper shacks–and they were shacks–startled me. I had never seen places like that before. I couldn’t believe that people actually lived in them—water from a pump and outdoor privies to be shared by several families.
I must have been there with those children who played with me for some time when one of their parents saw me and became very upset. At that time I didn’t understand why, but she took me back to my aunt’s house full of all kinds of apologies. By that time of the morning I was filthy, of course, and I got a real scrubbing because it was only an hour or two before dinner; like many farm families, the heavy meal was in the early afternoon.
After I got cleaned up, my aunt Ruby told me to sit beside her while she put dinner together and she told me the parable we read this morning. “Do you know what the lesson is of this parable?” she asked. I shook my head, relieved that I only had to deal with a Bible story rather than being yelled at. She looked sternly at me and said: “The lesson is: don’t wander.”
We all wander, of course; some of us wander physically, others spiritually. We all search for something that connects with our experience, our lives, our thoughts and feelings. The dictionary defines wandering as walking or moving in a careless or aimless way. But wandering, the wandering of our consciousness, mind, and soul, is neither careless nor aimless. It is part of the search to define who we are and our relationship to God.
Wandering as part of the human condition appears early in Scripture. After Cain kills Abel, he cries out to God: “Behold! You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from your face. I will be hidden. And I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.” Here wandering is part of running away from one’s past. Sometimes we feel hidden from God and in the midst of despair, we can even feel cast out from God’s presence. Here we are without moorings, feeling rootless, and disconnected.
Wandering can also be connected to finding some form of temporary refuge. “A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down to Egypt and sojourned there.” This passage from Deuteronomy is one of the oldest texts in Scripture. The reference to Arameans is found in ancient Syrian texts from the city of Mari, discovered in 1933 and excavated in the 1970s. Those texts refer to place names of wandering by the nomadic pre-Israelite tribes, back to the time of Abraham in Scripture. The temporary refuge was Egypt, connected to the ancient myths of Jacob and Joseph.
Modern refugees wander but their wandering is neither careless nor aimless. Their wandering is actually a wandering from a place of terrible destruction and violence. Jeremiah’s cry in Lamentations speaks to this: “They wandered, blind in the streets, defiled with blood.” The New York Times has been exploring the resulting wanderings of Rohingya driven from their villages. There was a time I admired Aung San Suu Kyi, but her silence on this atrocity is deafening.
In addition to physical wandering, there is also spiritual wandering. Many of us wander spiritually, searching for a place where we can call home. The recent surveys on religious identity by the Pew Charitable Trust indicate the percentage of people who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition continues to grow, especially among the millennials. The reasons vary, of course, but many cite what they consider to be the hypocrisy of Christians doing un-Christian things.
What’s really interesting is that many who have either wandered away from traditional religious organizations or have consciously chosen to withdraw from them also claim to be searching for that “something” that connects them to life. Others, of course, are just so bound up in our money-oriented culture that the church or synagogue pulls them away from their materialism.
Others cite the attitude of many churches on homosexuality, clergy sexual abuse, or inaction on the deep issues of our time such as poverty, violence, or war. And there are those persons who say they are searching. The church should be a place for those who care about the important issues of our time and for those who are searching. Rather than being a place of dogma, the church should be a place of questioning. That’s what makes us who we are.
All of us, like sheep, have gone astray, as it says in Isaiah. And we go astray in different ways. The parable tells us that in spite of our wanderings that we will be sought out. We are sought out in different ways and find our moorings in as many different ways. Having the care and support of others is critical to our search and wandering.
The parables that are attributed to Jesus are always in a context of some event. The one we heard earlier is told after Jesus says that we need to become like children to approach the kingdom of heaven and that we should not put stumbling blocks in the way of others. So how do we approach the kingdom as a child?
It certainly does not mean that we just blindly accept whatever is told us. I think it means that we must always be open to questioning and that the stumbling blocks constitute the attitude that tells us we should not question authority. Going back to my Aunt Ruby, her response of “don’t wander” was more than telling me I could not go down the road to the sharecropper shacks.
It was telling me that I should not even ask why certain people–the colored people in her polite language–had to live the way they did because when I asked her why, she responded with that old story of Noah’s three sons and the curse of Ham which even as an eight-year old I knew was sheer nonsense. Both that terrible man she had married and my mother were more direct in different ways.
My mother told me that something “bad” could happen–what that was supposed to be, I did not understand at that time. Uncle Evans just started railing in unrepeatable terms; he always was a disgusting person. But the lesson could not have been more clear: don’t wander!
The response of not wandering was akin to the stumbling block put in my path because children are supposed to ask the questions that adults have long put aside. Children ask why people suffer, why war and violence occur, or why some people hate others. In the words of the song from South Pacific, we have to be taught to hate. It does not come naturally. The differences of color and class are taught. They are the stumbling blocks.
God, the eternal Presence in our lives, does seek us out to embrace us. And as we are sought in different ways, we respond in different ways. Wandering is essential to our spiritual growth and we should embrace those who wander looking for ways to connect to God. This is not to say that sometimes wandering seems aimless and without a clear sense of direction.
With our societal focus on “getting things done” sometimes we do not take the time to wander. Wandering helps to promote our critical faculties. My Aunt Ruby used to give the old matriarch of her clan old and leftover clothing, for which Zaida showed the appropriate gratitude. After my trip down the dirt road, I asked her why I couldn’t go back. She told me that it was not me who would get in trouble, but them. I only understood that statement much later.
The wandering I did that morning erased the myths told me about how happy the sharecroppers were to have those buildings called home. I wandered more and learned more. Times have changed, of course, but we all still face challenges to our preconceptions. As we wander, we need to open ourselves to the infinity of possibilities that any one event, book, idea can give.
There are dangers inherent in wandering, to be sure. That is one of the purposes of community, to be a pillow for the fall that inevitably comes. For just as we catch others so are we caught—in love and care.
Let us pray: We thank you, O God for the mind and soul to wander. In the name of him who wandered always, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.