(This is the first in a series of sermons using the Wizard of Oz as a way of understanding the spiritual life. Texts at the end.)
Come with me on a journey—a journey down the Yellow Brick Road.
This is a journey unlike any other you have taken.
You may be just beginning this journey or you may have been doing this for a long time. But it is the journey of a life time.
A lot of churches have this tradition where people get up and share their “testimony.” Although I grew up a Presbyterian, I also attended a lot of different churches and Bible studies, and for some of them that was one of the major parts of the meetings. Now if you have been a part of a Christian group where this is the tradition, it looks something like this. The pastor says something like, “who has a testimony to share,” and people get up and they tell their stories. Now when I say “tell their stories,” I mean a specific type of story—a conversion story. The basic outline of these stories are all the same. “I was lost, I was steeped in sin, I was in the gutter of life, I had hit bottom, and then I found Jesus (that part of the story is always a little different) and my life turned around, I am saved, redeemed, washed in the blood, headed for heaven, I am on the glory train! Hallelujah!” And if your testimony was really good, there might two or three people there who find Jesus right while you’re talking.
Now for the most part I think these stories are fine. It’s good for people to tell their stories, and it’s good for people to hear them. But I have two problems with the whole tradition. First, not everyone has an exciting story about how they met Jesus. “I went to Sunday School, and then youth group, and one night at church camp I decided to start taking my religion a little more seriously.” Now that is a fine story—just not all that exciting. The other problem I have with the whole testimony tradition is that the story stops when people come to Jesus. As far as I am concerned, that is where the story really starts.
And then I found that Presbyterians actually have a similar tradition—except a) we don’t call it a testimony, b) you don’t have to be lifted up from the gutter to have a good story, and c) the bulk of the story takes place after people have a significant encounter with the love of God. We don’t call them testimonies either. We call them spiritual journeys. You may be on a retreat or in a Bible study and someone says, “Does anyone want to share their spiritual journey.” That I like.
Because from the time we have our first inkling that God exists until this very moment, we are on a spiritual journey.
I have a testimony. It’s not as exciting as most, but it is a testimony, about how I came Jesus. But when I started hanging around people who shared the spiritual journeys, my story really changed. In my testimony, I gave my life to Jesus Christ in August of 1975, sitting on the back porch of my parents’ house in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I had actually done that a few times before, but it never really stuck until that hot, humid day in August.
But my spiritual journey? When I started telling that story I realized that God has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My testimony is all about me and Jesus. But my spiritual journey includes Sunday School teachers who patiently listened to me as I tried to provoke them by asking the really hard questions in class, or youth group leaders who put up with my shenanigans on youth retreats. It includes friends who walked with me along the way. It includes what I learned over the years from all the people who wrote all those books in my office. My story includes all the wrong turns I took, and the people who helped me find my way back. It includes colleagues and parishioners who have walked with me all these years.
A testimony is like Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic. A spiritual journey is more like the moon launch, which required the work of thousands of people.
Or, a spiritual journey is more like Dorothy making her way to Oz with her friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man the Lion, and Toto. It’s not a journey she could made on her own.
For the next seven weeks we are going on a trip with Dorothy down the Yellow Brick. We are going to look at Spiritual Journeys, using the Wizard of Oz as a kind of template for our journeys.
You see, we are all on a spiritual journey of some kind. And frankly, the more seriously you take your spiritual journey, the more you feel, as Dorothy told Toto, that you are no longer in Kansas. A spiritual journey is, in many ways, like a trip through Oz. Being Presbyterian, I realize that may sound far-fetched, but I assure you, it is not.
So come with me for the next seven weeks, down the Yellow Brick Road, to the Emerald City, to the place where there is a promise that we can find our heart’s desire. Come travel with me, as we make our way through this strange and fascinating land. Come and meet some really interesting people along the way, some of whom will want to help you in your journey, and some of whom want to stop your journey dead in its tracks. It’s not an easy trip, and its not necessarily a safe trip. But I ask you to come with me, down the Yellow Brick.
Jesus made a similar request. Of course, he did not ask people to follow a yellow brick road. But he did ask people to follow him. In today’s lesson, he calls Peter and his brother Andrew, then later, James and John. He found them in Kansas, or the Galilean equivalent of Kansas. Peter was casting nets into the sea, just like he did the day before that, and the day before that, and just like he was planning on doing for most of the rest of the days of his life. He was a fisherman, and that is what fishermen did. James and John were mending their nets. It was a normal day for people whose only real hope was that they would be able to feed their families with the day’s catch.
And then a tornado named Jesus blew into their lives. “Come and follow me,” he said, and lifted them up, up from their nets, up from their ordinary lives, up from all they knew about life and fishing. “I want you to leave Kansas, and come follow me down this Yellow Brick Road,” Jesus said, “and I will show you things you cannot even imagine right now. I will turn your worlds upside down. For a while you will not know up from down. I’m going to spin you around like you have never been spun before.”
Now you may be thinking, “Why on earth would anyone take up that offer?”
Well, in the first case, not every gets to choose. In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy did not choose to go to Oz. She was blown there. The tornado that picked up Dorothy’s house and blew her to a foreign land was in many ways the door to Oz. The tornado of God that blows into our lives is the door to a spiritual journey. Some people are blown into their spiritual journeys like Dorothy was blown into Oz. The tornado might be a major life change, or we start asking the kinds of questions that only God can answer. We may feel a deep absence in our lives, like there is a hole in our heart, and we don’t know how to fill it. We encounter the truth of Augustine’s words, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
Unlike Dorothy, who had no choice, when the tornado came it blew her without her consent, we can choose to enter the tornado of God that blows through our lives. We can enter by choice. Hear again the words of the First Lesson.
“Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty-headed life you grew up in.”
That would describe me. I told you my testimony was not all that exciting. It basically runs like this: I realized I was in a dead-end, empty-headed life. I was wasting my life, doing nothing of importance, yet knowing that I was capable of more. I was coasting through school, doing just enough work to get C’s and D’s. I figured the best thing I could do was to hitch my wagon to something bigger than me, something really big. The biggest thing I could think of was God.
The tornado of God had blown close to me many times, and sometimes I managed to step in it, but not for long. But I got to the point where I realized my life was dead-end, and pretty empty-headed. And that realization blew me to Oz, put me on the yellow Brick Road, on that spiritual path, the one that leads to our ultimate heart’s desire.
How is your spiritual journey going? Maybe this is a new idea to you, the notion that your relationship to God and the Church is actually a journey.
Maybe you have been on a spiritual path for a long time, but that path has changed recently. You were comfortable in your spiritual life, going with the rhythms and patterns you have been following for years. But now that path seems to have you in circles. Or it has led you to places that no longer feel comfortable for you.
Maybe you have just started down your spiritual path. For reasons you don’t fully understand you know there is “something deeper,” something that occurs below the visible surface of your life, and you have found yourself in a spiritual community that looks a lot more like Oz than Kansas. That can be stranger and scary territory. …
There are two ways to understand the spiritual life. Ann Tyler wrote a book called The Accidental Tourist. The book is about a travel writer, Macon Leary, who writes tour guides for people who hate to travel. If you have to go to say, Brussels, and you have Macon Leary’s guide, you will know where all the American hotels, are, where you can get English newspapers, Kentucky Fried Chicken or MacDonald’s hamburgers, and where you can find other Americans. In other words, if you follow the advice of his travel guide, it will be as if you never left home. You will never have to experience anything foreign, anything strange, anything that is out of the ordinary for you. That is the way some people approach their spiritual journeys.
When I lived in Germany, I met some other American students, and went on a couple of trips with them. It was like traveling with accidental tourists. They wanted to eat in Pizza Huts, and go to bars where everyone spoke English. I traveled with them to Bruges, in Belgium, and we never saw the city. We never ventured outside the bounds of our comfort zones. As we were leaving I realized I had been in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and I totally missed it. That was my last trip with them.
Yet that is the way some people approach their spiritual journeys. Long ago they joined a church and have been a faithful member of worshiping communities ever since. But they cannot say their involvement with God or a church has really changed them. It is just a part of their ordinary lives, never life-changing.
I want to offer an alternative. I want to invite you to Oz, to walk on the Yellow Brick
I want to say there is more. There is more to the spiritual life than just sitting in a pew, soaking up a good sermon, and then getting on with your life. It is a journey, and like a journey, you will not find yourself in the same place day after day.
I must warn you though, there will be difficult moments. A spiritual journey is not always a walk in the park. There can be some tricky territory along the way. Many people who take their spiritual journey seriously often come to a point where they might feel they are losing their faith. They find they cannot always believe the very things they have always believed. They start asking uncomfortable questions. That’s all OK. It is part of the journey. I once heard someone say that traveling is like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. You do it because it feels so good when you finally stop!
But there are rewards. A few months after I visited Bruges with the American students, I went back to see it a second time. This time I saw the city. I saw the beautiful canals that go through the town. I saw one of Michelangelo’s first sculptures. I ventured into the magnificent and overwhelming Gothic cathedral. I wondered through the art museum, and was introduced to Gothic art. I ate some horrible tasting cheese. I got lost a few times, and in getting lost saw things off the beaten path. I talked to people who actually lived there. I found new traveling companions, and we enjoyed the city together.
It was marvelous.
Come with me, down the Yellow Brick Road. Come and join us on this journey.
Peter 1:18-21 (from The Message)
18-21Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty-headed life you grew up in. He paid with Christ’s sacred blood, you know. He died like an unblemished, sacrificial lamb. And this was no afterthought. Even though it has only lately—at the end of the ages—become public knowledge, God always knew he was going to do this for you. It’s because of this sacrificed Messiah, whom God then raised from the dead and glorified, that you trust God, that you know you have a future in God.
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.