One night in the summer of 1998, while I was working at the Sorrento Centre as the summer staff youth coordinator, I stayed up all night doing possible the worst thing I could think of at the time. I used one of the office computers to write a last-minute application to the Vancouver School of Theology. Essentially, I just needed this nagging feeling that I was supposed to go to seminary, to go away so that I could get on with the rest of my life. My partner and I had just moved into our first home with my brother and I, where I had literally packed my stuff up thrown it into the house and left for the summer. I was meant to come back at the end of the summer and resume my job in the Richmond school district as a classroom assistant – because we were grown-ups now and we have a mortgage to pay.
So, at the 11th hour, without a completed undergrad, and while my friend made me cups of tea and proof-read my work, I wrote the application and the accompanying essays and sent them in on the deadline date- thankful it was over, that they could reject my application and I could get on with my life.
As you can see, that worked out really well for me.
Despite my best effort, I ended up in seminary and ordained, which wasn’t at all my plan, or my partners – it wasn’t the thing I had always wanted to do, in fact it was the very thing I was pretty sure I would be terrible at. Being accepted into seminary felt like I had been cast out into a wilderness that I did not at all feel prepared or smart enough for. It was a huge re-adjustment of myself and my expectations. And it was not something I felt like I had a choice about, it was something I just knew I had to do. I am not ashamed to say that my years in seminary came with several melt-downs and much swearing – some of which still holds true for me even now. Being in ministry has been a leap of faith and an opportunity for me to learn about grace and redemption and really one of the best and hardest things I have ever done.
Sometimes we take leaps of faith even when we aren’t sure that’s what we are doing or where we are going for certain – even if we are sure that we would prefer to go another way.
This morning we hear the part of the Exodus story that follows the whole ‘Golden calf’ debacle – when the Israelites took their gold, melted it and shaped it into a calf so that they would have something to worship. What comes next is Moses climbing a mountain to meet with God, who passes him just so that Moses can see their back and then Moses comes back with the two stone tablets having made a covenant with God. What we hear this morning is the conversation that Moses has with God between these two kinds of major incidents.
So in the part of the story that we hear today, Moses and the people are in the dessert, they have left all that they knew and are on their way to some other promised land that they cannot yet see and they are following a God who shows up in clouds and who won’t show their face. They have taken a leap of faith. They had followed under the premise that things would be better out of slavery but so far, it’s still been pretty hard and very disorienting. Things are scary and uncertain. They followed maybe feeling like they couldn’t do anything else.
This book, the book of Exodus is full of stories of the Israelites trying to figure out how to follow God, where God might be and what the rules of this new relationship with their maker looks like. They are working out how to be in relationship to and how to show reverence for God as their maker, rather than for a human ruler in the form of Pharaoh. What does it feel like not to be slaves anymore and what did this God require of them? This time in the wilderness is also where God comes closest. It’s where the people get creative – and confused and angry and all kids of other things too, but ultimately, they figure a lot of stuff out in the wilderness.
We are kind of in a wilderness of our own right now, don’t you think? We have come from a particular way of being – where were pretty sure of the rules, where we mostly knew what to expect, were some of us felt mostly safe and now we are in between that and whatever comes next.
We are lamenting what we had, we want nothing more than to go back to way that we knew, a way that we could anticipate, and we are learning along the way that we are going to have to organize ourselves differently. We are grieving. We are having to get creative – to find new ways of gathering, of worshipping, of organizing ourselves. We are sad and frustrated and uncertain. We are having to adjust our expectations of ourselves and each other. And – not unlike the Exodus story, this is taking far longer than we had hoped or anticipated.
Some of us are searching for where God is in all of this. And where we are in relationship to our God and to each other.
One book that I read on this passage offered the following on why we cannot see God’s face: “…if we grant that God is infinite and incalculably ingenious, we might imagine, as we look in our mirrors, God’s face behind our own. After all, we are each created …in the likeness of God. We should daily recognize God within our own features. For if we did so, we would recognize God’s face in each person we meet – and act accordingly.” 
And I that that maybe, as people of faith, this is the quest that we are actually on. We search for God but cannot see them, so we create all kinds of idols in the forms of all kinds of Golden calves, we create systems that ensure that one group of us holds the most power or has the most wealth and we become disoriented searching for where we are going.
And then something happens that shakes it all up – like say, a pandemic – or a climate crisis – or Black lives Matter, and it turns everything on its head, shuts everything down and fires start burning– and we have to begin again, we have to rely on each other differently. We find ourselves in the wilderness, with the opportunity to do things differently, to try some new things out. And these ‘opportunities’ might not always feel like that’s that they are – that is what faith looks like, I think – being open to the possibility that we will have to try again, and anew because we follow a God who takes sometimes takes our best laid plans, and turns them on their head and then says, ‘here’s a new opportunity to follow me, it might be uncomfortable.”
The Bible is full of examples of this:
- The golden calf might be one, when the people get bored of waiting for Moses to come down the mountain - Jonah, who was not at all interested in going to Ninevah and ended up in a whale
- Mary, mother of Jesus who we are told, as a young not-yet-married woman, maybe wasn’t planning to have a baby when she did – and certainly not a Messiah
- The disciples who waited for a literal return of Jesus after the resurrection who were really hoping that Jesus would come right back, literally.
And all along those of us who are people for faith are also searching for God in all of this, reading scripture for clues and wondering where they could be and how we could get here.
And just like in this book of Exodus, God says – I am right here – you can’t always see me because of the ways that you have chosen to live or the ways that you have chosen to treat each other – but I am right here and I have never left you – you are made in my image and I am all around you even when you can’t see me. Look harder.
It's possible that we can feel God most closely, if we are open to it, in wilderness times because we have to be open to possibility anyways, to new ways of being, because our expectations have been cracked open. It’s also possible that God sometimes feels non-existent in the wilderness because there are so many things to do and new ways of being and we are so exhausted and sad, that we don’t know where to look anymore or don’t have the energy to.
But I think that we are being invited to have faith in a God who always seems to have faith in us – who takes our best laid plans and re-works them, whether we want that or not and who says, ‘now, try this…’ And sometimes when we can hear that invitation, to try things another way – to be open to God’s plan – a plan rooted in love and disrupted expectations, things turn out even better, even more beautiful.
I wonder if one of the things that we are being asked to do in this time is to look around and see where God is – in ourselves – in our neighbours – in the rest of creation and begin to re-orient ourselves to finding new ways of being in relationship to all of it and to treat them accordingly.
Because we had a plan, a way of being – and it wasn’t working for everyone.
I think our plans are being re-worked, whether we like it or not and I think it is ok for us to have some feelings about that, we are going to come out of this to a new way of being, knowing some new things about ourselves and each other. And, I think that being open to a change in plans being open to love for ourselves and for each other, is what following God looks like.
The Book of Exodus is a great example of what this can look like and also of the fact that God, who knows us by name, has the power to disrupt our expectations whether we like it or not, and is never far away.
 Ellen Frankel The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins: New York, 1996)139