“Spirit enough for the wilderness”: a sermon on memory and nostalgia

“SPIRIT ENOUGH FOR THE WILDERNESS” Sermon for the 100th anniversary of

ARMENIAN MEMORIAL CHURCH, WATERTOWN

SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 24, 2015

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Every time we tell the story, the peaches get sweeter. Once upon a time, my Great-Aunt Josephine was flying back to the United States from her childhood home in Italy. And like any good auntie, she had stuffed her pockets full of good things to eat, enough to get her home and enough to share. But the security guards at the airport stopped her. “Can’t take those agricultural items out of the country, m’am.” No amount of arguing changed their minds. No offers to share her peaches would persuade the guards. Here she was, being sent away from her home on a ten-hour flight where all she’d have to sustain her were plastic airline Dixie cups of pale cut fruit drowning in a sickening sea of sugar water. My aunt shouted in Italian back to my cousins in the security line:

Manga! Eat! Eat quickly!FullSizeRender

And so they did. Faster and faster as the line moved forward, eating those perfect peaches before they were taken away!

We ask one another, do you remember? Do you remember how sweet those peaches were? Like ice cream, right? No, no, like honey! The flesh so ripe that it pulled away from the pit as soon as you bit in, juice running onto your hands and down your chin. And the color! Like a sunset, yellow fading to orange to deep red at the core. The sweetest peaches you’ve ever seen, as big as your head and perfectly formed. They’ll have those peaches in heaven. Or was it nectarines? Or apricots? It coulda been apricots…

“The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

“If only we had basturma! We remember the lamb we used to eat in Cilicia for nothing, the apricots, the pomegranates, the labneh, the khanum budu, the choereg, but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

Memory will sustain us, but nostalgia will choke us.

We are in the wilderness, right now. The nature of the Church in North America is rapidly changing. Massachusetts is the fourth least religious state in the country. Less than 25 % of Massachusetts residents attend a religious service at least once a week. Denominations and traditions do not signify what they used to. 44% of Americans will change their religious identity at least once in their lifetime, and that number is on the rise. Increasingly, if people attend a church, they attend it 2, maybe 3 times a month, and they are slower to commit to membership, if at all. People are joining less churches, less social clubs, less civic organization, less cultural institutions, less bowling leagues, less Kiwanas, less Nights of Vartan chapters, less Ladies Aid Societies.

And maybe even more profound for the Church, more and more people in our broader culture feel like they have deep spiritual connections and commitments, but do not choose to affiliate with religious institutions. We look out, and all we see is scrub brush and desert.

We are in the wilderness. Moses hears the people weeping, longing for their homeland. They remember a time when the food was abundant, when the pews were filled, when there were so many children that we needed to build a new Sunday school wing. A few months ago, I visited a church in Pittsfield. Back when the church was full, they built on a big new 1960s Sunday School wing and it was filled! When I visited in 2015, they were raising money to tear down that 60’s addition because it no longer serves them. The addition took up too much money in the budget to heat, with a long staircase it wasn’t physically accessible to everyone, and without the classrooms full, they just didn’t need the space. The faithful thing for them to do was to tear it down. A parishioner at the church asked me “Why are we the only ones who have to change?” Where are the days of milk and honey and peaches the size of your head? So many churches are struggling to adapt to a changing culture. Our broader culture does not prop up church membership any more. The wilderness is wide and we’re all in it.

Wilderness is a place of testing. The Hebrew Bible scholar Frank Yamada writes “The wilderness, which becomes a metaphorical place of God’s testing in the Bible, is the locus for both human and divine difficulty. This harsh setting challenges both the Israelites and their God.” As Yamada says, the wilderness is a place that challenges both God and God’s people.

We are in the wilderness and in this time of testing. And in the wilderness, in the desert, we sometimes see mirages. Our vision gets distorted. You hear it with the Israelites. In the wilderness, they are remembering their former meals, big banquets and abundant feasts. Except that never happened. In the wilderness, they forget their former suffering and distort their memory for a sort of nostalgia of a time that didn’t exist. Memory will sustain us, but nostalgia will choke us.

Memory reminds us of hour God delivered us in the past. Nostalgia takes that memory and simplifies it, runs it through an Instagram filter to a hazy sepia picture where we miss the complexity, obscure the failures, forget the worm in the center of the peach. Nostalgia chokes us because it is not real and can never be attained again.

The Israelites are nostalgic for a banquet that never quite happened. The pit of that peach gets caught in our throats, and we can never quite taste such goodness again.

But memory, memory sustains us in the confusion of the present time, remembering how God delivered us out of Egypt. Memory sustains us when death lurks all around, remembering how Jesus Christ was raised from the tomb. Memory invites us to draw on the resources of the past, but not to be bound by them. You have done this. Your parish has done this. When it did not serve you anymore to lead services in Turkish, you changed. When your name did not reflect you anymore, you changed it. When you wanted to make sure you connected to your heritage, you added a little classical Armenian into your liturgy in the Lord’s Prayer. You have shown yourselves to be a faithful people who can change and adapt, trusting God to remain constant.

In the wilderness, we get small and anxious that we will not have enough. We remember, maybe mis-remember, former times of abundance and fear we will never see them again. The people are weeping, and Moses is stuck. Moses says to God “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” Maybe you’ve felt this burden too. Maybe you who have pastored, served on parish council, taught Sunday school, led the Ladies Aid Society, maybe you’ve felt the wilderness. Maybe you who have shown up to week after week to sing in the choir, to lead music ministry, to make sure there is coffee and something sweet, maybe you too have felt the scarcity of the wilderness. In the wilderness, we get anxious that there are not enough material resources and then we get anxious that there are not enough spiritual resources.

Moses, who has led the people into the desert, worries he cannot lead the people out. The weight is too heavy, as if the well being of each of the pilgrims rests on his shoulders alone. But it is not weight alone to bear. We are reminded that it is God, not Moses, who created each of these people. We are reminded that it is God, not Moses, who directs their path through the wilderness. In a place of scarcity, Moses pleads with the God of Abundance.

And what does God do? God redistributes the spiritual wealth. God tells Moses, “Go, gather the elders and the leaders of the people and bring them to the tent of meetings.”

Now, maybe I’m just reading this like a Protestant, but it sounds to me like God is calling a congregational meeting. Go and gather the people.

And when they gather, what happened? The Spirit is poured out on all of them. Verse 25: Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on Moses and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied .

In the anxiety of the wilderness, God takes the resources present, the elders and leaders already with them, and blesses them for shared service. You longtime members of this church, this is your legacy which only will live on if you share it. You new members, you who join event today, this is your adopted heritage, remembering that in the Body of Christ, none of us is native born, all are adopted. Members and guests and friends of Armenian Memorial Church and the whole body of Christ, we are the all the people blessed by the Spirit in the wilderness .

There is so much Spirit, that it falls onto the people outside the gathered. There is so much Spirit, that it blesses and empowers not just those who are authorized, but on people back at the camp, who no one expected.

There is Spirit enough for the wilderness. Not just for one person, but for all the gathered. When we serve the God of Abundance, there is enough.

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to pray for you. I am no Moses, but as your sister in Christ, I want to bless these gathered people on behalf of the Church:

Gracious and loving God, you have shown your faithfulness in the generations of Armenian Memorial Church. A people who could have been dead, have risen. A church that might not existed, has stood firm. We praise you for the names known to us and the names known to You alone. Number each name and write them in the book of life.

This day, we ask for your blessing upon this congregation. As you did with Moses and the Israelites, take Your Spirit and spread it wide. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His spirit on them!”

We claim you again this day, a God of Abundance. When we see scarcity, remind us of your generosity. When we get stuck in the desert, remind us of your provision. When we get small and fearful, assure us of your generosity. When nostalgia of ‘what used to be,’ clouds our vision, clear our eyes for the path you have ahead of us. When we are stuck in the tomb of Holy Saturday, take our hands and guide us to Sunday.

You guided our ancestors out of Egypt, you led our foremothers and forefathers to this place, you endured the suffering of the cross to rise on the third day, Holy One , send the Spirit of the living God to dwell among us. Bless us. Anoint us. Pour your spirit out upon us that we might all be prophets. In the name of Christ, I bless you. Amen. 

Amen.

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