Rev. Danielle K Bartz July 18, 2021
Exodus 35:4-21 “Explorers”
“To Captain Meriwether Lewis. The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principal stream of it, as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean…may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce. – President Thomas Jefferson 1804”
The assumption was accepted by nearly everyone. The newly acquired Louisiana Territory would provide a direct water route across the continent, ensuring economic prosperity for the newly formed United States. President Thomas Jefferson enlisted highly respected Captain Lewis with a mission to explore the new territory and determine the easiest water route to the Pacific Ocean. Captain Lewis, along with his co-leader William Clark, put together a group of explorers of diverse backgrounds and skill sets, a group that would be known as the Corps of Discovery.
They knew the beginning of the expedition would be difficult. They would have to paddle upriver through completely unknown terrain. But, then, they assumed, would reach the continental divide, what they thought would be nothing more than a few rolling hills, and the course of the water would shift and it would just be quick day’s float downstream to the Pacific Ocean. The Corps of Discovery set out on their expedition weighed down by the assumption that the west of the continent would be the same as the east. That what they already knew would be what they would find. Along the way they did receive help and guidance the native people’s of this land. In fact the Mandan Tribe had warned the Corps of Discovery that mountains lay ahead. But, the mountains Lewis and Clark knew were the mountains of the east, the tree-topped rolling hills of the Appalachians.
But, what lay ahead of them was not a range of mountains easily navigable like the Appalachians. Instead, what they discovered were the Rockies. It was terrain they had not only never seen, but couldn’t have possibly imagined. They assumed the path west of the continental divide would be the same as the path they had just canoed east of the divide. That it would be familiar and easy to manage because they would have experience in that type of terrain. And it would be downstream, with the Pacific Ocean, and its promise of prosperity, would be just beyond it. I remind you, this was not the theory of the ignorant few. Everyone new to this land believed it. But, there they were, staring at the Rocky Mountains ahead of them. This was not familiar and it didn’t take long for the group to realize that things were not going to be as easy as they suspected. The Corps of Discovery understood that they would be going off the map people had imagined.
They could have looked at those mountains and given up. Determined the challenge was impossible to overcome, return east to familiar footing and told President Jefferson the young nation would just have to make do with what they had and how they had always done things. It would have been an understandable decision. All they had were tools needed for navigating rivers. They didn’t have snowshoes or climbing gear. They had canoes. And they couldn’t ‘canoe the mountains’. They could have given up, but they didn’t. They were a professional group, determined, eager to serve, and believed strongly in their mission. They left their canoes behind, and relying on grit and the kindness of the Native Americans they encountered along the way, changed the course of our history.
We have spent the last month reflecting on how we have been dislocated because of the pandemic. We were dislocated historically, removed from what we thought we knew about ourselves. We found ourselves temporally dislocated, unable to track time easily as the daily habits of our lives changed. And our relational dislocation, a growing problem well before the pandemic, became acute as we struggled to relate through distance and polarization. And the final dislocation, physical, removed us from the embodied experiences we drew comfort in. We couldn’t gather in this familiar space. We couldn’t gather in person and instead had to live our lives physically separated. This is so opposed to how humans are wired to live, physical isolation is considered the cruelest form of punishment.
We are not the first generation to deal with this, of course. We have turned to the familiar story of Exodus and followed along with our ancestors as they wandered in the wilderness, separated from everything they knew. Under the leadership of Moses, they learned to trust in God, and God provided everything they needed. And today we heard God’s instructions, given through Moses, about how to create a place that is holy and set apart for worship right where they were, with the items they had at hand. They didn’t need a physical, unmovable, place like a temple or sanctuary – every place was holy and the sanctuary was created by what they had around them.
I don’t know where you worshipped while we were removed from this space. Perhaps it was the same place you eat your meals or watch television or participate in online gatherings. Some of you I know joined worship online from your cars while on the move, and while someone else, hopefully, drove. Some of you had worship playing in the background while you went about your chores. Whatever you did, however you found ways to worship, you created a space that was and is holy and set apart, at least for a time. And you learned, even if you desperately missed this particular space, that worship can happen anywhere, at any time, and in more ways than you can imagine.
Our physical dislocation has been acute, but I also believe it has taught us more about our resilience than any of the other dislocations we have experienced. It taught us that, with some creativity and determination, we can find our way through any wilderness of separation. Yes, we had to leave behind what we knew. We had to let go of the assumptions that had previously guided us. We had to trust that God knew the way forward, and if we were brave enough to follow, then we would find our way across the obstacles. And by doing so we have had to accept that where we will end up is not where we were before. Where we will end up is still beyond our imaginations.
Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery looked at the Rocky Mountains and left their canoes behind. They explored the west and eventually found their way to the Pacific Ocean. When they returned home they had stories to tell, wisdom to share, and an entirely new map for those who went after them. They had new respect for the land, the native peoples who evolved here, and for their own resilience to walk an unknown path. They had to teach the people along the east coast that the future of trade looked different than they imagined, and new solutions would have to be found. And they described to the people, undoubtably initially disappointed, that what they had before them was far more glorious and rich and wonder-filled than anything they had experienced before.
The pandemic has led to dislocations that have been a tremendous challenge for us, and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future. We have grieved what we lost and worried about where we will end up. But, just like our Israelite ancestors we have found God’s presence the entire way. We have looked around and found manna and water from a rock, a miraculously passable sea, and sanctuaries for worship made with nothing but what we had around us. And like Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, we have been brave enough to leave behind our canoes and begun to explore unimaginable territory. Ahead of us our challenges, yes, but also wonders and riches and God. We will go together, make each place holy with what we have, and create a new map that leaves behind old assumptions. Some say church is stuck in the past. I say church is a tool to explore the future. So, let us all become explorers. Amen.
God of Wonders, everywhere we look we see your presence and blessings in our lives. Even in the unfamiliar. When we look in the face of a stranger, we see you. When we look for rolling hills and instead find rocky peaks, we are looking at you. When the path ahead is not what we expected, we see you guiding the way, each step provided to take us out of the familiar and draw us closer to your dreams for us.
God, we are grateful for your presence along all of the paths of life we have before us. And we ask that you continue to make yourself known, especially when we are unsure. When we doubt, give us courage. When we fear, give us strength. When we are weary, give us rest. And when we celebrate, fill us with gratitude.
As we commit to exploring the future you have for us and for your church with openness of mind and eagerness of spirit, we know there are far too many for whom the luxury of exploration is not possible. For those who must focus only on survival, we ask that you surround them with your loving presence. Give to them strength and hope and resilience to continue.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, a guide along the way, who taught us to prayer together by saying…Our Father…
 Phrase coined by Tod Bolsinger in “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory”