For a time Dan and I lived in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson, Arizona. It was a beautiful place – wide open space, cacti with brilliantly colored flowers and amazing wild life. Our house was on the foothills of the Santa Rita mountain range, which is home to the Madera Canyon. This canyon, plunging some 9000 feet from the mountain peak, is riveted with ravines known as arroyos. The Santa Rita’s are famous for the birds that live and migrate through, especially the seasonal hummingbirds that come every spring and fall.
This mountain range is also one of many passage ways used by undocumented people who cross the border between Mexico and the US, some 45 miles to the south. Some of these people are truly awful –involved in the drug trade and human sex trafficking. But most of the people coming across are simply trying to find a way to make a living. As I understand it the issue is one of a global economic concern – of how corporations, industry and governments have impacted the world markets in such a way that the farmers and local people have lost their financial base. For example, in Mexico and Central America the small local coffee farmer, unable to compete with large coffee corporations, can no longer earn a living wage. Farms that have been in families for centuries are sold, people move to the cities for factory work only find that no positions are available. Struggling and starving, desperate people make the dangerous journey to come across the border in the hope of earning a viable living wage. Most of what they earn will be sent back to Mexico to support the family that remains behind. Fair Trade coffee and tea are effective responses, aiding the local farmers to earn a living wage, stay on their farms, and eliminate a dangerous border crossing.
The desert sand around my house was filled with foot prints of people who travelled only at night. If the desert is a dangerous place during the day, with high heat and dehydration, night is even more dangerous. Snakes, mountain lion, bobcat, and coyotes, prey on human beings and animals alike. But even more dangerous are human beings who prey on other human beings. Leaders escorting people across the desert illegally, have zero tolerance for anyone who becomes injured or ill.
In 2009 I attended a border crossing memorial service, which is held once a week in Douglas, Arizona. People are organized to process down the main street that leads to the border crossing station. Each participant is asked to carry one or more simple wooden cross. Each cross contains the name of a person who died in the desert near that border crossing. As the procession moves down the street the person in front pauses, reads the name of the person on their cross, their age, and the year of their death - “Maria, 4 years old, 2003.” After the reading the cross is set down. Sometimes the people have no identification and so the marker simply says, “male, about 18 years old, 1999” or “female, about 25, 2003”. Then the next person moves ahead and repeats the ritual. Before long the street is lined with crosses, the line goes on for a mile or more. White crosses, plain wood crosses, one after another, all in remembrance of a real person who perished in the desert.
The remains of over 5000 people have been found in that one small region in the last decade.
When I read this story in Exodus, of the Israelites wandering for forty years, getting hungry and discouraged, I am filled with some real life understanding of how difficult this journey was. It’s no wonder they began to grumble to Moses and his brother Aaron, complaining about the lack of food and water and wondering why they ever left Egypt in the first place.
Even if you have never been in the desert each of us has surely had a time in our lives when we have wondered, “Why me?” or, “God, where are you?” times when life is filled with challenges and struggle and difficulty, fear and grief, worry, frustration, and anger, have become so much a part of everyday life that despair is the “new normal.”
Our readings have two themes this morning – “where is God?” And, “what does God’s justice look like?” The point is, how do we remain faithful when life feels unfair?
The Israelites are blaming Moses for their starvation. Moses appeals to God for help and God assures Moses that food will be provided – bread in the morning and meat at night – enough food that the people will know that God is with them. Enough food to help this band of frightened wandering people learn to trust in the goodness of God, for God will always provide.
In our Philippians reading Paul is in prison, facing the real potential that he will be executed by the Roman soldiers for being a follower of Christ. Still he writes this letter encouraging the Philippians to have hope, to trust in the goodness of God.
A journey of faith is one that includes many dimensions. Being a Christian does not mean that we are exempt from the bad stuff. As a person of faith, informed by prayer and scripture and a community of others who have struggled, a community that prayers with and for us, we come to trust that God is with us on this journey, that God intends to sustain us and help us through, even when we have no idea how God is helping, nor even how we are going to manage. But the truth is when we have travelled through a few of these challenging times we begin to understand that God is indeed with us, and somehow we do make it through, and somehow we do come, eventually, to a place of healing and wholeness. Sometimes all that means is we feel at peace and have a sense of wholeness - even when nothing in our lives has really changed, except how we feel. Sometimes God’s grace, God’s presence is being manifested through a transformation of our inner selves, more than in the change of external circumstances. Sometimes God’s grace is made manifest through others, the community, who surround us in prayer like a shawl around our shoulders.
Our readings this morning serve as a reminder that the key, to moving through the challenges and growing in our faith, is three fold: our willingness to walk the journey, our willingness to walk with others in their journey, and our ability to trust in the goodness of God, even when all the evidence is to the contrary. We cannot skirt our problems, nor push them away, nor ignore them, though we may want too. Our gospel reminds us that God’s justice requires us to be attentive to how, as individuals, our actions impact others, and how one culture can affect the rest of the world – to pay attention too and understand how, what we consume, even our cup of coffee or tea, impacts the global economy and affects the livelihood of our sisters and brothers.
In so doing, we will come to know that not only does God hear our prayers, joins us in the journey, sustains us in our struggles, and loves us just as we are – BUT God expects from us that we will do likewise, that we will be attentive to our neighbors. Thus, instead of being lead by our anxieties and apprehensions, we become disciples, we become the hands and heart of Christ, guided by the love of God.