Was It Meaningful?

Rev. Seth Patterson
September 24, 2023

Scripture: Exodus 16: 2–15 (abridged)

Hello friends! It is good to be here with you again. I returned from my sabbatical and am very grateful for this community’s gift. Thank you. Thank you for the gift of distance, rest and time. Thank you for giving me the gift that will allow me to be a more whole, less tired and more responsive Minister here. Thank you.

It was a wonderful Sabbatical! It was very restful. It was so, so meaningful. We did travel some and I was also home a lot. I spent as much time as I could alone. I spent as much time as I could with my family. I slowed way down. I would finish my days feeling fulfilled but couldn’t always even remember how I filled my time. I joked that I would someday make a wonderful retired person.

In short, my Sabbatical was filled by incredibly normal things done in extraordinary time. What I mean is that I didn’t really do anything different than I would have without a Sabbatical, but I did all those normal things in expanded time. We went on the same family trip that we would have done anyway, but we went for three weeks instead of two. I read a dozen or so books instead of a couple. I cleaned the refrigerator, but it took me two days instead of part of an afternoon. In short, the gift was not so much in what I did, but in the abundance of time. That was not what I expected. I experienced time differently than I knew was even possible. I discovered a spaciousness that I’m not sure I have ever known as an adult.

With one exception, I did not attend any church. (This December is my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and my sister and I took them on a trip to Maine to revisit where we lived when we were all younger. We attended the 200+ year old church that was once our home, but for me the motivation was more nostalgia and remembering than worship.) Even though I didn’t really attend church, I was constantly surrounded by, surprised by and struck by the presence of God. Several Sunday mornings we would be doing something wonderful like drinking coffee in our backyard or standing by a waterfall in an old-growth Pacific Northwest forest and Nora would lean over and say something like, “Welcome to Church today.”

I felt God everywhere and often. The gift of spaciousness held my heart wide open. I felt God as my child watched Orca whales leap and feed in the San Juan Islands. I felt God in the tender eyes of the bison grazing near us as we were hiking in Yellowstone. I felt God in the silence as I spent a weekend alone at a lakehouse in Northern Minnesota. I felt God in the hailstorm pounding the stretched surface of our yurt in the Black Hills. I felt God in the hand of my spouse on a long walk at Bdote near the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. I felt God in the massive scale of Mt Baker in the North Cascades and the cold, refreshing waters of Trillium Lake near Mt Hood. I felt God in my backyard hammock, in the books I was reading, in music, in time with friends and family. I felt God and was frequently awed by the depth and proximity of this love. I didn’t know what to expect when I left for Sabbatical, but the spaciousness of time allowed me to be nourished in unanticipated ways.

I felt the presence and love of God in places extraordinary and plain, mundane and special. In my connection to other people, the earth and my own breath. I felt God—and not in a church building.

In some places this would be a radical statement because I would be contradicting the power structure that many churches built when they can said that God can only be present in here. A church building, while unique and sacred in its own way, is not a magical portal or conduit to the Divine. I suspect that this is less shocking in this particular congregation. People in this community often describe the ways that they encounter God in nature, family, art, music and silence in places that are not this building. This is a community of faith that is not particularly held captive by hierarchal theologies that hold God as always heavenly distant until we are good and sit in the right place with the right leaders.

So, if God is ever-present and can be found everywhere, what are we all here doing here? If God needs no special words to be lured into showing up, if God is accessible to us just for being open to God’s presence, then what is this all about? We can find exceptional music in other venues, words of challenge or wisdom on thousands of podcasts, books and other media, we can see friends and take classes other places—so why do we keep showing up here? The societal obligation to attend church has waned, so why church? In a world that offers for consumption so much of what was once unique to church, what brings us here together? Why do we choose church? Why do we hope that others will join us in choosing this church?

This seems to be the conversation that I returned to. On Rally Sunday, DeWayne preached an excellent sermon reminding us that being church together can be difficult yet restorative. He said beautifully, “There is timelessness in the wisdom of reconciling with each other and restoring those who may become estranged from beloved community. Embodying and enacting the love, generosity, and forgiveness that God shows us is the surest way to make the Divine presence manifest whenever and wherever we gather…”

Then last week, Beth both agreed and wisely countered that church can also be easy. With amazing clarity she reminded us that, “We come to this place hoping for healing, praying for comfort, longing for acceptance. If we decided that we were to practice holiness—that is to emulate the loving kindness of our abundant God, to live out the tenets of faith that Jesus taught, to trust in the Holy Spirit to bind us together in beautiful harmony, being church would be easy.”

It seems we are trying to find our way together into a new world. One foundation is crumbling and we have not yet constructed the next, so we have the opportunity to reimagine why we are here together. What a life-giving conversation we are allowed to be a part of! A conversation like this was not welcome for many generations, and we are being given this gift.

Sometimes, though, when you enter new conversations, new possibilities, new lands, it can be uncomfortable in unimagined ways. Our scripture for today is one of my favorites because of its exceptional human-ness and reflects this tension quite well. An abridged reading of Exodus 16 which takes place after leaving Egypt, the People are in the wilderness. Let us take a breath and open our hearts, souls and minds in the reading of this ancient story:

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and his brother Aaron in the wilderness. The People said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then God said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the People saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that God has given you to eat.”

The People had been released from bondage, from enslavement, from being of low caste in an unfamiliar land and given freedom and autonomy. And still, eventually, after being in the wilderness for some time, they begin to complain. At least in captivity, they knew what was going on, had some structure, had food! In the freedom of wilderness, they were uncomfortable and hungry and frustrated.

Then through the ever-present, abundant God they were able to avoid starvation. Yet, what was provided was not what was expected. Their nourishment was not anything they had experienced or understood. In fact, this surprise food called ‘manna’ literally means in Hebrew, “What is it?”

The People took a risk to leave the certainty of their captivity and made the choice to participate in something different, something unknown. And because of that choice, that entrance into something new and different, they became fully nourished and fed, but in ways that were unexpected and unknown. They chose to leave the safety of their predictable captivity and enter the new and God was always present. They made a choice to be a community in a new way and they were nourished, but in ways that were previously inconceivable.

This is why we might choose church, even though church buildings don’t uniquely own or possess God. This is why we might choose church and invest in this community even though most of our church things can now be consumed elsewhere in one way or another. When we choose this community, when we choose to be Plymouth together—whether in worship, in song, in a class, a meal, some piece of art or justice work, a social event—we are choosing the possibility that something unexpected might arrive and nourish us in unexpected ways. There is an intentionality to the choice of being community together that can help open us up to the unanticipated, to the manna that may feed you, to the present God.

The question I ask myself when reflecting on my sabbatical is “Was it meaningful?” Both difficult and easy things can be meaningful. And meaningful moments often arrive in unexpected times and forms. Intentionally choosing to be here together allows us also to be open to the magnitude of the ever-present spirit and share in the abundance together, no one needs carry it all alone. And we can be inspired by each other. What is meaningful to you can open my eyes to something new. Finding meaning helps us to be participants with open hearts instead of consumers seeking only the exceptional.

What is meaningful to you here? How does your participation in this community nourish you in possibly unexpected ways? How can you be inspired by the meaning-making of those also choosing this community with you?

Together we can open ourselves to the new, leave the false safety of our captivity behind and trust that we will still receive nourishment. We can show up and be participants not consumers. We can consume the various components of church anywhere, but participating in this community may reveal to us one more unique space and time when God’s always loving presence can surprise us and nourish us. God is always with us and around us and within us and connecting us to each other and all living things—and God is accessible anywhere. And we have chosen to find something new together here. By choosing this place, this community, this church, each other(!) we have the unique opportunity to be more open to God’s presence, to the Spirit that breathes with us, to hope and love, to be open to the unexpected together. May we all explore together the question, “Was it meaningful?”

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