Walking In Alaska
Girdwood Chapel Sermon, June 11, 2017
“Walking in Alaska”
Matthew 28: 16-20
I apologize for not being with you all last week. Originally, I thought that I would be at a cabin, keeping all others awake with my chainsaw like snoring, but instead I was attending a conference...keeping all others awake with my chainsaw like snoring. Just kidding. I was at Annual Conference, which is the the annual meeting of all of the pastors and lay ministers in the state of Alaska. In fact, my very first experience in Alaska was attending this conference last year. It is a moment of reflection that illustrates how the ministry of the Methodist church in Alaska is being accomplished and how that ministry pertains the the mission of the Methodist Church worldwide. One of the questions the Bishop asked was, “What would ministry in Alaska be like if the Methodist Church had not established this mission field?”
Upon my reflection of the conference, it is probably the answers to this question that gave me the most to think about. I believe it was these answers that also set the tone, in my mind, for all other aspects of the conference, for it is possible to simply this question into more personal and more introspective questions: What is the purpose of my ministry? I have been in ministry for nearly a year, what has gone right? What has gone wrong? Have I brought people to God? Have I pushed people away? Have I provided comfort when it was needed? Have I missed the opportunity to share God’s Word?
When the Conference was over, I was certainly fatigued. The subject matter, which we will discuss at a later time, was deep and caused enveloping theological discussion among all who attended. But, moreover, I noticed something seemed off. Something seemed weighty. So, I was thankful that Duane was with you on Sunday morning. Torn between sneaking into the Chapel a little late (so we would truly be changing roles) and taking the time to recover and reflect, I chose the later. I am sorry that I missed Duane’s inspired Word, because I heard from many it was beautifully done. But, I wanted to commune with God in a certain amount of solitude and in a way that I hadn’t done in quite some time. So, I threw on my backpack and put Mojo in his harness. Together we made our way up Crow Creek Road to the trailhead at Beaver Creek Pond. I took in a deep breath and looked ahead up the trail and said, “Walk with me God.” Then I began a walk in Alaska .I would like to tell you the story of this walk, but I want to tell it from the perspective of our Christian lives.
The path that Mojo and I found ourselves on was new to us. Others had walked this path and the way was explicitly marked and, as far as I could tell, pretty well groomed. Yet, I was unsure of what was ahead. I could only see a little bit in front of me before a turn in the path or an object obstructed my view. The only way for me to extend my view was to move forward, deeper down the path. To be honest, I was a bit scared. I was by myself, walking a path that I had been warned had certain dangers. There was the threat of coming face to face with a bear or the possibility of getting injured. I knew that walking this path by myself was not the smartest thing to do, but at the same time I felt prepared for any encounter along the way and, I knew in a certain way, that I was not alone.
This is how most of us begin our walks in our Christian life. Let’s be honest, it is somewhat terrifying to make the commitment to live for Christ and not for ourselves. In many ways we lose control over the paths that we will journey on. We may find ourselves on a path that is unexpected and unfamiliar in service to our God, and we may be terrified to move forward on the journey. We also know that there are things out there that desperately do not want us to complete our journey. These things threaten us by causing us harm or creating great difficulty in moving forward. But, we know from the very beginning of the journey that we are not alone. We are carried by the Spirit and we are protected through God’s Grace and our pack is full of salvation given to us by Jesus Christ.
My head was full of many questions as I began my trip into the woods. I began to pray out loud so as to alert any wildlife to my presence. Much to the chagrin of all in the forest I even began to sing some various worship songs, with some country tunes to boot. I am not sure if my singing protected me or endangered me, but I was full in, and in an empty forest, I thought I sounded pretty good. But, as I made my way further along the trail I became acutely aware that I was moving deeper into new territory. The trail became narrower and the terrain became slightly more technical. Twists and turns were more common and my ability to see ahead and behind was obscured by the growth directly surrounding me. It became harder to concentrate as I made my way forward. I was distracted by my own thoughts of worry and of fear. I became concerned that I might have missed a turn and was on a different path that led to a different exit as I moved too far in a direction opposite that I should be going. My senses became heightened and I listened for every sound, every movement, every clue as to whether anything or anyone was nearby. I was happy to be alone, but would have enjoyed the peace and comfort of seeing another accomplishing this journey.
As we make our Christian walk our path is very wide at the beginning. We are new to the Scriptures and we are doughy eyed in the grace and love of God. We are seeing the world through new eyes and are able to see clearly ahead of us and reflect with great understanding of what forgiveness means on our past. We are invigorated to begin this new journey and we move forward with our young and untested faith. But, then life in our world of distractions kicks in. The path becomes less able to discern and our vision becomes obscured. The world beckons for our attention and wants us to step off the path. In doing so, we could become disoriented and take our eyes off of Christ, impeding our progress to the destination of our Christian discipleship. It is also reflective that the path to following Christ is not easy. The grade can change and the terrain can become more difficult. But, we must navigate through these rough times by placing our trust and faith in the one who walks with us.
Suddenly, I heard something behind me. It sounded like a grunt. Even Mojo was startled. He turned and stood between my legs and we looked downward at the path below us. My fingers wrapped the handle of the bear spray canister and I prayed out loud for a peaceful encounter. We stood watching, waiting, listening. Mojo’s ears were pinned back and his eyes were focused on the narrowing opening below. In an instant I saw the front tire of a mountain bike come around the corner. The rider looking up saw us and unable to climb the hill because of the roots, got off his bike with a grunt and jogged passed us. I nodded. He nodded. After he passed we continued with our upward climb as well. When we crested the hill, he was nowhere to be seen. But, I felt lighter. More confident. Less fearful. Ready to complete the rest of the hike.
Along our Christian journey we need encouragement. There are times where it can seem that we are unable to discern the path ahead or perhaps we just need some healthy motivation from others. This cyclist on the path, truthfully, could be one of you here today and I would have no idea. I did not converse with him or glean any information about his journey from him. In a way, this is representative of a lot of us when it comes to our Christian path. We do not take time to get to know those around us on the same journey. We meet in fleeting moments that have deep meaning, but then they fade away into the world around us. We touch each other but we do not grasp onto the understanding of God that we all have to offer one another. In a meeting that provided no voice, no personal exchange, I was brought great comfort by the presence of this other human being. What would have happened, if I walked with him for a bit?
Finally, I heard the familiar sounds of the highway as I neared the trailhead on the Bird to Gird bike path. Through breaks in the trees I could see the water of the Turnagain Arm and the snowcapped mountains across the water. Yet, it seemed that the path took me closer to the end, then would turn me further away. With each turn taking me the opposite direction I expected to encounter my biggest obstacle. To experience my biggest test. I thought this would befit the journey I had been on. Alas, that was not to be the case. I emerged from the forest onto the paved path and breathed a deep sigh of relief. I was happy to be where I was and I felt strong and I felt grateful.
Each path that Christ has set us on does the same thing. As we discern the path and develop an understanding of where we are being led and where we are to emerge, God prepares us for the moment. Even though it is in sight, it does not mean we are ready. God makes us stronger and God builds our capabilities to accomplish what is in front of us. When we emerge, we emerge with the confidence that God has prepared us with the capability to be faithfully dependent on God’s grace and mercy for what is ahead, because God has helped us conquer what was behind.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about a God of mercy and a God of Grace. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about redemption of a created people to the God they had set themselves apart from. Somehow, someway, we think that we are entitled to our desires because we have started on this particular path. Who are we that God should even consider us? But God has made us only slightly less than Godself.
Our Christian journey is dependent on holding onto the truth that our destination is unreachable without the presence of God. Every step we take moves us forward to being who God created us to be. Our lives will be made of many trails. Each having a different length and a different terrain. Yet, as each path is completed we emerge with a deeper understanding of who God is and what our purpose on this earth is. Perhaps, the greatest element of our journey is realizing that it is not about this short of time we spend traveling on earth. Through God’s grace we have been given the opportunity to walk with our Holy Creator for eternity.
Keep your feet on the path. Keep your eyes on God.