Rev. Christina Kukuk: Still with You
August 1, 2021 // Sabbatical Return // Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR // Rev. Christina Grace Kukuk // “Still with You” // Psalm 139:1-18, CEB
I brought a prop for us today. [Retrieve bottle of sand.] Today is my first day back in worship with you following a four-month sabbatical whose theme was “Hills Dressed with Joy.” And a brought a prop. Any guesses what this is? (Pause) Yes, this is sand. This is actually Sahara Desert sand from the desert in Egypt. Part of our sabbatical experience as a family included a pilgrimage into the Sahara.
God your plans are incomprehensible to me. Their total number is countless. If I tried to count them, they’d outnumber grains of sand. If I came to the end, I’d still be with you. (Psalm 139)
You may have heard a few times from guest preachers these past few months that a sabbatical is a unique thing in our culture, because Sabbath is a unique thing in our culture. In church life, a sabbatical is not a vacation. It is rather a time set apart for spiritual leaders like me to attend to our own spiritual life apart from our role leading, supporting, and caring for the spiritual lives of others. It is time to rest and renew, to learn and grow, while the congregation also receives gifts, learns and grows their own sense of calling and ministry. Sabbatical comes from the word Sabbath, that God-given hallowing of time inherited from our Jewish siblings. And, typically, sabbatical entails a lot of praying and reading and contemplation. It’s a chance to grow in a different way. To learn from the massive bullfrog in Frying Pan Lake another way to be a creature in this world. To be reminded by an astrophysicist’s poem how to imagine again. To be nudged by the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that the whole point of this endeavor – this life of faith – is being in relationship to a loving God and receiving that love. It’s an unusual thing in our culture. (Pause) So even though Psalm 139 wasn’t the Psalm we used almost two years ago when Linda and KayLynne and I started to plan for how we could all renew this year, it seemed like the right one for this week:
Holy One, you’ve examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans. You study my traveling and my resting.
Traveling and Resting. In my Spanish-language Bible, the psalmist sings “mi andar y mi reposo,” “Y todos mis caminos te son conocidos.” Mis caminos. My paths. All of my paths are known to you. All of my ways, literally. Whether or not there is physical travel involved, one way to understand the life of faith is as pilgrimage. And that is one of the ways in which we frame sabbatical. I can’t wait to tell you all of the ways in which connections kept happening, connections I had no idea would happen. Connections between a group of clergy colleagues and a journey through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius they were undertaking; connections between a book that Mark and Cheryl Goodman-Morris gave me and the desert of Egypt where those Desert Abbas and Ammas developed early spiritual practices of prayer; what it was like to stand in Alexandria and imagine those were the streets Mark walked on, the streets where he wrote his ancient story of the Good News; to step into ancient streams way older than this relatively young culture of the American church. I can’t wait to tell you so many stories, but this morning there is one particular story I think is really important to tell as we get back together. (Pause)
This is a story from our very first day of travel. It happened the day that we believed we would be leaving the country – after completing all of the paperwork, all of the COVID tests, making all of the arrangements we thought we needed. We flew from Medford down to LAX, and LAX is where we were scheduled to board the transatlantic flight that would eventually take us to Cairo. We were waiting in a line, a really long line at the Lufthansa counter to check in for that flight. There was a moment standing sleep deprived and stressed when my sense of hearing almost failed me. We’d arrived at some unseemly early hour before the international terminal even opened and sat for hours checking out emails for the COVID test results we needed to board and which we should have received a whole day before. We’d gotten the right test, but there was a hiccup – a snag that by the looks of the boarding lines at LAX affected about half of our would-be fellow passengers. (I won’t bore you with the specifics – it came down to how many hours since the test was administered and whether it was country from boarding or from entry into a country a transatlantic flight away and which country had just changed their requirements.) I was juggling suitcases and carryons at my shins with my hands full of passports and COVID test results and a wallet and a phone. It was dawning on me that we would not be leaving L.A. that day, that we would need to find somewhere to spend the night. The patiently diplomatic agent behind the counter had just invited me to step into another line so her colleague could rebook us on the next day’s flight, and I had one of those moments when all the background noise blanks out momentarily. Not that the noise had ceased, my brain’s ability to take it in did. I turned around in that dazed state to face my family speechless. Then one of my kids asked, “Are we going to be okay?” (Pause)
Are we going to be okay?
The thing about sabbatical we don’t expect – the thing about that cycle of renewal that Sabbath ingrains into the rhythm of our spiritual life and community – is that Sabbath keeping always entails some displacement. We stop the usual things. We step away from our roles. And we are displaced. That’s why so many sabbaticals include a trip to someplace else, even if it is not international. Displacement is part of the experience of journeying with God. And we had a moment of displacement there at LAX. We are also in a moment of displacement now as a congregation. At the most basic level, we are back together. Whoah! Is she still going to like us? Are they going to still be fun? What if they don’t need me anymore? What if she isn’t the same?” The big question underneath all of the others: “are we going to be okay?” (Pause)
As much as renewal seasons like this one in a church are the perfect time to remember who we are and what we’re about, when we read Psalm 139 again, it becomes clear that so very often our human assumption about this journey with God is that we will figure out the plan. The reason I want to know the mind of God, the thoughts of God, the reason so many of us assume that we do this religion thing is so that we know the plan, we know God’s will, for us and for this world. The reality is… we don’t. Spoiler Alert: Even when we think we do know the plan? Nothing ever goes exactly as planned.
In these moments when we step out of the regular routines, the relationships of duty and obligation – sometimes on purpose, willingly inviting that new growth and transformation — sometimes unwillingly, as when the Delta variant throws a wrench in ALL our plans for life and ministry – we land in a moment of opportunity. It’s a moment of opportunity the Psalmist in Psalm 139 gets. The psalmist sings of this relationship with God’s ever-presence:
If I flew to the edge of the universe, you’d be there. If I went down to the depths of Sheol, the unnamed place, you’d be there. If I shut myself into the closet, and shut out all the light, even there I would not be hidden from you, for darkness and light are the same to you. You are present in both. What I realized this week reading again Psalm 139 is that the point of this pilgrimage – the big ones that last four months, and the short ones that last only those ten minutes we listen for the Holy spirit on our morning walk – the point of this spiritual life is actually not figuring out God’s plan. [Whispers: It’s impossible.] The point of this spiritual life is not getting it right, figuring out how to do it correctly. Being with God and receiving all the gifts of that steadfast love no matter what happens. Wherever we are. That’s the point. not to finally figure out God’s plan. Comprehending God’s plan is not the point. Being with God is the point. (Pause)
So I need to tell you the end of that story about our moment in LAX. That moment when I whirled around to face my family, literally not knowing yet where we were going to sleep that night. That moment of utter displacement, when my child looked at me and asked, “Are we going to be okay?”
An answer came.
“Yes,” I said, finally finding a word.
“Yes. We are going to be okay,” I added, “Everything may not go exactly as planned, but we are going to be okay because we are together.” (Pause)
Comprehending God’s plan is not the point of following Jesus. (I don’t think it ever was, ‘cause the disciples… whew.) Understanding the plan is not the point. Being with God is the point of this spiritual life. That’s really good news for any one of us who has no idea what this next year is going to look like. Including me. Perhaps including you, too. [Shakes jar of sand.] God, your plans are incomprehensible to me. If I tried to count them, they’d outnumber grains of sand. I come to the end. I am still with you.