Counting On God, V: Twelve

HomeCounting On God, V: Twelve
August 26, 2018

Counting On God, V: Twelve

Passage: Matthew 10:1–4

Click here to listen to this sermon.

A Moment for Wilderness Reflections: Alexander Dawson, Sydney Durdov, Tyler Hurley,
Braden Jones, Tessa Minturn, Kate Savino, Kiley Urban


Wilderness Reflections 2018

Kiley: A week in the wilderness made a big impact on us. Getting away from all the things at home was the first step, which is difficult at first, but by the end, we could see that there are more important things than a phone. Being separated from society was difficult, it made a big impact on us. It gave us time to think.

Braden: Wilderness means being in a place that is so peaceful, huge trees in every direction, five days of wilderness food cooked from a homemade fire, sleeping in a tent. The food was surprisingly good, actually. It was a difficult trip, challenging, hard. Every day, several times a day, there was something that was surprising.

Alexander: It was surprisingly hard and more challenging than we expected. It’s hard to imagine how difficult carrying all your food and supplies for a week is going to be, and canoeing and setting up camp. It makes you feel very accomplished at the end, but most of all it renewed our sense of gratitude for all that we do have here.

Sydney: Being in the wilderness takes quite a bit of mental strength, not just physical strength. We barely saw other people all week long, too. One day, we spent three hours alone with God out on a rock. It was definitely odd, spending time alone not knowing just how long that time alone was going to feel, but I do think that it allowed us to connect with God, which was the main goal of the trip.

Tessa: Looking back, that time alone at the rocks without distractions is really unique, just being able to look out onto the water and at the trees and think and pray. It might not be a surprise that we learned about God on this trip. What really made an impact was that we prayed a lot on this trip and it really changed how we thought about the world and about God.

Tyler: We became closer to one another and to God, learning about God and beginning to believe in God more than before. We were surprised how many ways there are to communicate with God—that God is everywhere. Whether on a long paddle or a long portage, God was there every step and every paddle throughout the day.

Kate: God helped us to get through it, the difficulty, the challenge, the hardship, but God was also there when the hard time came to an end, with a good dinner and rest. Being alone with God was an experience of connection with God, in all the different ways of connecting with God. We are very thankful for this trip and the people who went on it, and the ability to notice God in nature, in all of creation. Thank you.

Here we are, in the middle of a sermon series called “Counting on God.” We are exploring numbers, not the book of Numbers, just numbers. So far we’ve covered 1, 3, 5, 7 and today 12. Next week 40 and we’ll quit right before Homecoming Sunday at 50.

The number 12 can be divided several ways. If you divide it into 3x4, there is one theory, one explanation that because 3 is a divine number (as Jo talked about a few weeks ago) and 4 is an earthly number—associated, for example with the ancient elements—earth, water, air, fire—then the number 12 is a perfect symbol of the unity between heaven and earth, of divine and earthly things. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s an interesting theory—the number 12 uniting creator and creation, infinite and finite.

12 does appear in various places: we’re right at the cusp of becoming again the 12th man, or at least Seahawks fans are, we have 12 months in a year, 12 inches in a foot, 12 jurors in a courtroom, 12 steps toward sobriety, 12 hours (times two) in a day, 12 grades before you finish high school. The number 12 orders our lives, gives structure, discipline, a method to the madness, and some order in the chaos.

The number 12 is scattered across the Old and New Testaments. Most notably, Jesus had 12 disciples. Scholars agree that Jesus probably did actually have 12 disciples, that the 12 disciples were not just symbolic, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus choosing 12 disciples wasn’t also symbolic—likely following and building on and referencing the 12 tribes of Israel. And, those 12 tribes existed to symbolize and stand for each of the 12 sons of Jacob whose name is later changed to Israel. 12 tribes, 12 brothers, 12 disciples. In the Old Testament, the number 12 came to represent all the people, the whole community, not just the 12, maybe in the same way that when we say “all hands on deck” or “boots on the ground” or “take a headcount” we don’t just mean hands or boots or heads, but the whole person. The part signifies the whole. The 12 signify the whole community of God.

Our scripture passage for today is simply Jesus calling his 12 disciples. Matthew 10:1–4

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him

As today is our Moment for the Wilderness, it seems appropriate to talk about two writers, scholars, faithful men who took seriously the gift of the wilderness, it’s solitude, it’s silence. I hope, too, that we will find a connection to the 12 disciples and be able to see ourselves in all of these stories, watching for what God might be calling us to do and say and experience in the world.

Sigurd Olson is known as the father of the Boundary Waters. His love for the wilderness began as a child when he would spend hours with his ear literally pressed to the ground listening. He would listen to the rustling of leaves and pine needles, the song of chick-a-dees and red-winged blackbird, and the hoot of the owl. As a child, he would lay on his back and wish he could fly up to the clouds and he would hear the honk of the geese and wonder, “Where are they going, and why?”[1]

His father was a strict Baptist minister, the kind of father who had a quite narrow understanding of experiencing God only in very formal ways, but as Sig’s experiences in nature grew and grew, it was there that he began to experience God. His father only approved of three professions: becoming a minister, a farmer, or a teacher. Sig considered becoming a missionary briefly, and farming would have been fine, but it just didn’t feel right. He ended up teaching science at a local community college in Ely, Minnesota, and spent much of his teaching career being one of those teachers who always said “yes” when students asked, “Can we have class outside today?” The wilderness was his classroom, his sanctuary, and his home.

In order for the Boundary Waters to exist and be protected, legislation was signed over the decades by President Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, FDR, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter, and Sig Olson was right there in the middle of it all. Sig grew to become an elder statesman of Minnesota who advocated for the protection of the wilderness saying more than 40 years ago, “In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence—oneness—wholeness—a spiritual release.”[2] What happened, though, to his surprise, was that the more time Sig spent in the wilderness, the more time he needed to spend advocating for the wilderness. He spoke before Congress, shook hands with presidents, stood before special committees, and was a leader on behalf of the wilderness in tense and unpopular times, when some in Ely, Minnesota were seeing how protecting the trees meant less logging and thus fewer logging jobs, or prohibiting motorized vehicles meant selling fewer motor boats. There are obvious economic impacts when it comes to caring for the environment. The more Sig sought the wilderness, his own Listening Point, his own place of reflection and writing, the more Sig was tugged out into the world to protect and advocate for the wilderness that he loved—not unlike our wilderness guide Dave Freeman whose time in the wilderness has taken him deeper into the wilderness, while simultaneously taken him farther into the public eye.

Thomas Merton, on the other hand, started out far from the wilderness. Life started out as noise. His longing for silence—stillness—wholeness came on suddenly, unexpected. In fact, when he decided, out of the blue, to become a monk, he was sitting on the floor of a friend’s apartment, eating scrambled eggs and toast, and drinking coffee after a long night of listening to jazz in clubs throughout New York City so loud all anyone could do was smoke another cigarette and be consumed by the sound (this being the late 1930s when no one thought anything of smoking, as Merton puts it, 41 cigarettes in one night, until your throat is raw).[3] His desire for solitude came on so quickly that there was nothing to do but just say it out loud to his friends. They were supportive, or at least didn’t try to convince him otherwise. Maybe they just didn’t know how to react. They were going to just go on like that, nights listening to jazz and mornings recovering. But Merton was headed toward solitude.

I’ve been to the monastery where Thomas Merton ended up spending the rest of his life: A Trappist monastery just outside Louisville, KY called Gethsemani Abbey. The monks there are all vegetarian. They eat in silence, too. When I was there visiting, I remember the tall grasses where the ticks hid, ready to jump onto unsuspecting visitors. But I also remember the silence. That is a strange feeling: eating in silence with a room full of monks who are so used to eating in silence that they don’t even notice your own acute awareness of (and awkwardness toward) their silence.

Thomas Merton, once there in Kentucky, dreamed about something even more radical, an even more counter-cultural departure from society. He read about a monastery in Italy that was almost entirely hermits: a whole community of people living intentionally solitary lives. There is a ceremony: putting away a hermit. It is an ancient ceremony where the hermit is declared “dead to the world,” not dead, just dead to the world (someone brings him food on some regular schedule, I don’t know the details). The whole community walks down to the foot of the mountain, just below the hermit’s cave, and when the bishop finishes the prayers, the hermit climbs up a rope into his cave and pulls the rope up after him.[4]

Thomas Merton dreamed of pulling his rope up after him—a solitary life alone with God. The ultimate TAG Time —time alone with God—that lasted for days, weeks, months, drawing you deeper into God’s presence.

I’d heard about Thomas Merton, I’d read some of his writings, I’d been to his monastery, but I’d never read a biography on his life. It’s worth reading a biography on Merton, or some of his own spiritual writings—they are true to life, not esoteric (how else would we know about the eggs and toast? It’s very true-to-life for a spiritual writer). I read a two-person biography—one that followed the interconnectedness between Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan—a surprising connection. I picked it up to read in Minnesota in the wilderness because Bob Dylan is from Hibbing, Minnesota very close to where we were this summer. I thought the Dylan story was the one I would get into, but the Merton narrative caught my attention in ways I didn’t expect.

After 20 years of asking, begging, asking, begging, asking, begging his Abbot to let him have his own hermitage, the monastery finally said yes. Merton built a little cinder block house with an outhouse—famously, a snake lived inside his outhouse, which would have abruptly ended my time as a hermit. And, like Sig, Merton found that the more time he spent apart from the world—living alone—the more the world tugged at him to engage. He sought out newspapers, magazines, academic papers, anything he could get his hands on in a world before internet, relying on visitors and snail mail to bring him news of the world beyond. He wrote letters, wrote books, published again and again, responding to the late 1960s issues of race relations and the Vietnam war. He wrote poetry. He listened to Bob Dylan on his record player, and Joan Baez paid him visits at his little cinder block house. Letters poured in from around the world, speaking engagements, a tug to step out of that solitude he so longed for.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Two thousand years later—two thousand years after Jesus first called those 12 disciples, we are still figuring it out. Does discipleship mean solitude, like Sig and Thomas Merton were seeking? Does it mean time alone with God? Is it writing? Ideas? A civilized exchange of words in an uncivilized world? Is discipleship friendship? Is it working in a hospital healing wounds? Is it serving the homeless, the vulnerable, the quote-unquote untouchable? Is it visiting prisoners? Is it seeking justice inside the courthouse? Or on the streets? Or… Is discipleship continuing your school work? Is it dropping everything to make a major shift in your life?

Today’s scripture passage is a little boring: a list of names. But, there is one thing to notice there. Jesus gathers his 12 disciples, and when he does, he gives them all authority. He doesn’t say to them: here’s my database of all the sick people in Judea, help me plot a course so I can tend to them all quickly and efficiently. He says: here’s the power that I have, the power that God has given me, have it. You can do these same things that God is calling me to do. Here is the power to—as Eugene Peterson’s The Message version of the Bible puts it, “tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.”[5] Jesus didn’t consolidate power for himself, he spread it out, he gave it away.

“Tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.” That sounds possible. It sounds beautiful, really. Messy, yes. Difficult, yes. Life changing, yes. The 12 disciples are called to “tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives,” so the number 12, in some way, symbolically is a part that signifies the whole, then we can’t help but see ourselves in the calling of the 12 disciples. We can’t help but do likewise, “tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.”

Maybe another wilderness writer (I love wilderness writers, they see the world with a clarity we often miss), Ellen Meloy, put it best—maybe discipleship means:

Stay curious. Know where you are—your biological address. Get to know your neighbors—plants, creatures, who lives there, who died there, who is blessed, cursed, what is absent or in danger or in need of your help. Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down.[6]

God calls us in both directions: inward, toward that deep presence of the divine, an inwardness that requires TAG Time: Time Alone with God. And from that time alone, that solitude, that prayerfulness, God calls us out into the world, to be active disciples in the world, disciples who receive the authority to care and tend and heal and advocate and love, the authority Jesus is offering, and do just that. And, maybe, that active discipleship—serving and doing—also calls us back inward, toward that deep presence of God. May you hear that tug—inward toward God, and outward toward God’s people. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.


[1] Eggerling, Kristin. Breath of Wilderness: The Life of Sigurd Olson (Colorado: Fulcrum, 2016) 16.

[2] Olson, Sigurd, Testimony. Congressional Field Hearing on behalf of the Subcommittee on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. Ely, Minnesota. July 8, 1977.

[3] Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. (Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 1948), 276.

[4] Hudson, Robert. The Monk's Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

[5] Peterson, Eugene. The Message (Colorado Springs: The Navigators, 1990), Matthew 10:1.

[6] Guiliford, Andrew. Outdoors in the South West: An Adventure Anthology (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 374.