Going to Arabia

( A sermon using Galatians 1:11-24, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost)

“We’re going to Spangola,
where they all speak Spangolese,
and no one tells you what to do
and people live in trees.”

In August of 2001, when the world seemed a safe place and the possibilities limitless, I went out West for a week. I scheduled the trip and reserved plane tickets, and then something unexpected happened. My two younger children were asked to be part of a staged reading of a musical about a group of orphans who escape to the magical land of Spangola. The performance date? The very day I would fly to Salt Lake City.

The best I could do was to attend the dress rehearsal the day before. Magically, the children made their way to Spangola in a rehearsal room at Portland Stage Company, the composer playing the guitar as their accompaniment. My daughter had one solo line, and my son had a small part to play. They were 6 and 10, and the whole thing was delightful.

Spangola remains in my mind as a symbol for places where mystical things happen, where we find out more about ourselves and gain the courage we need to return to the real world that demands our presence.

Spangola is like Arabia, the place Paul went after his revelation experience. The letter to the Galatians doesn’t describe what happened to Paul in that revelatory moment. We have to rely on the Acts of the Apostles, in which the story is told several times, to picture what he experienced. At that time, Paul was still Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee devoting his life to stopping any Jews who did not comply with the received understanding of what it meant to be faithful. Naturally, he had no fondness for the followers of Jesus, that radical teacher who told people adherence to the particulars of Levitical law did not matter, that they only needed to love God and neighbor and self in order to achieve salvation. The rules about diet and sacrifice and touching and working did not matter as much as loving God and letting that love spill over into care for others, particularly the “least” of God’s children, the ones with the greatest needs. To an observant Jew such as Saul, this watering-down of God’s law was absolutely maddening, and it was in a frenzy of zeal that he pursued the followers of Jesus’ Way.

To accept that Way, to believe that Jesus was truly from God and part of God, demanded an enormous change from Saul. We read in Acts that on his way to Damascus, Saul had a meeting with Christ and believed what he saw. He lost his sight, a symbol of the spiritual blindness that allowed him to persecute others, and then he got it back again, a symbol of his new vision of God’s love for humanity.

The Damascus road changed Saul’s heart. But it’s one thing to have your heart changed and another to change the way you live from one day to the next. For most of us, it is more than the work of a moment. We need time and space to let the revelation become part of us, part of the way we live; we need time to let it become real. And sometimes the way we need to do that is to leave the regular workaday world behind.

Saul, now calling himself Paul, tells the Galatians that he went to Arabia. It’s an interesting place to invoke. For you and me, it might mean Saudi Arabia, or the historic Arabia of Aladdin and the Arabian Nights. I couldn’t remember seeing references to Arabia in the New Testament, and sure enough, you won’t find it anywhere other than in the letter to the Galatians. N.T. Wright links it to Mount Sinai, the place where the tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, were given to Moses. Paul, then, tells us he went to a place that was the touchstone for the Law he had fought so brutally to uphold.

Mount Sinai is also a desert place, a high place, and a spirit place. Like many other faraway natural destinations, it is a place to decide what really matters and to determine who you really are.

Where do you go to recharge, to get perspective, to assimilate changes, discoveries and revelations?

It’s a good question as we continue to explore what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century and consider the question of how we order our time, of how we arrange our lives. We live in a part of the world where summer is short and sweet and irresistible. We’re already able to look around and see who is not here, and after this big choir Sunday, we’ll all be viewing what comes in the next few months as “summer church.” It wasn’t all that long ago that this church had no services at all in the summer, and it wasn’t alone, and there are still churches that close for the month the pastor takes vacation. Everyone stops to breathe more deeply, to look around, to move from the chores of shoveling and scraping ice to the more beloved tasks of digging and mulching, of planting and simply admiring what comes out of the ground.

I look forward to the moment when my own vacation will begin, when I will lay down certain responsibilities and drive or fly away to refreshment and recreation, to contemplation and consolidation, both to the big cities that I find so exciting and to the mountains my husband finds as necessary as breathing.

At the same time my children were going to Spangola, I was flying west to a part of the country I had never seen. They were amazing places, all new to me: Arches, the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon.

I like to think I can find the spiritual in any situation, or rather that I can find time to stop and look for it. I’ve always enjoyed the beauty of the natural world. But as I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon, breath and words torn from my body, I felt incredibly awed by God’s hand in nature. I had the same feeling just after wondering if I was going to collapse from heat exhaustion or elevation sickness at Arches!! I found myself in places that felt strange, even alien, but at the same time extraordinarily beautiful and God-filled.

Perhaps that word is the key: extra-ordinary, outside the realm of the usual.

My children will live in that extra-ordinary world at camp this summer, both at Pilgrim Lodge and at music camps, too. When we go to camp we leave behind parents, chores, pets and friends. We connect or re-connect with our camping community, with the adults and peers who represent that separation from the rest of the year. We may find the space in which to grow spiritually and live differently, unhampered by the expectations and assumptions of home or school or neighborhood or even church.

How will you find that space this summer?

It’s funny, but exactly the time we are looking for extra-ordinary space is Ordinary Time in the church calendar. After six months of the drama of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost, we are into the season of the green paraments that never seem to go away. The church calendar will plug along with passages from the gospel of Luke and dramatic stories from the Old Testament that make us wonder how we can really be connected to that heritage when it seems so foreign to our gospel texts.

We’ll be wondering the same things Paul must have wondered as he traveled to Arabia. How could he connect the person he had been with the awe he experienced on the Damascus road? He couldn’t just start talking about it with people, evangelizing on behalf of Christ, although he would spend the rest of his life doing it. No, first he needed time to let the changes soak into his body, into his daily practices. He needed to figure out what fit and what didn’t. He needed to face his own guilt and shame over the way he had treated the followers of Jesus, and he needed to heal.

So he went to a great place of the Spirit of God, one of those thin places where heaven and earth do not seem quite as separate. Eventually he would go to meet with those he had persecuted. Eventually he would become the great evangelist we know from the stories in Acts and the letters he wrote to the churches. But first he went away, to the mystical mountain, to the place he understood to be the source of Wisdom. First, he went to Arabia.

Wherever you spend your Sundays this summer, I hope you will find time to seek those thin places, those places of the Spirit. I hope you will go to the ocean or the desert or the mountains or the skyscrapers, the high and lovely and deep places where wonder and mystery bring us closer to God. You’ll find them in Spangola; you’ll find them in Arabia; you’ll find them where you seek God. Amen.

8 thoughts on “Going to Arabia”

  1. This is a lovely sermon, Songbird. I have a summer already scheduled with medical tests for me, and wisdom teeth extractions for the Lovely Daughter, and attentiveness to the needs of young adults trying to launch themselves, and the departure of someone who matters a great deal to me. But there, looming ahead in August, is an 8-day silent retreat in Ontario, or Arabia, or Spangola. Thank you for a beautiful reminder of why.

  2. Love the beautiful picture. Bryce was my favorite too when my family took the same trip you did. I was only 10 then!

  3. The only vacation I’ll be on this summer is to visit my inlaws, whom I love, in southwest Georgia. I’ve been considering taking some work along to stay busy, but you’ve inspired me to see their home (which is lovely, set near a beautiful river) as a thin place when the Spirit is ever-present. Great reminder–the work can wait. Thank you.

  4. deep sigh. Thanks. Needed that. Like a drink of fresh water. I’m going to a thin place for one day and night in the mountains…only 36 hours but I will make the most of it! But any place can become a thin place if we seek God in that moment…I love that you ended your sermon this way.

  5. It’s 5:30 am and already, the day is hot and humid here in South Florida. Yesterday was way busy and today will be quite similar. What a gift then to get to “hear” a wonderful sermon that I really needed. Thank you!

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