I have the great privilege of living in the wonderful state of Minnesota, and among its 10,000 lakes and many other reasons to enjoy the great outdoors, Minnesota is home to one of my favorite places, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. More than 1 million acres of protected beauty filled with thousands of lakes and streams, waterfalls and rock formations, surrounded by forest along our border with Canada. This is a place that was prepared for us by the slow work of glaciers and now we too have the opportunity to slow down the pace of life for a short time while we marvel at the wonders of creation there.
Typically, when you enter the Boundary Waters, you are using a canoe to get around. You might enter in one area, load all of your equipment, food, clothing into the canoe and paddle across a lake, and then you take everything out and carry it through the woods to the next lake, where you load it all up and paddle across again. Whether you like to move camp sites each day or plant yourself in one spot for a week, typically the goal is to pack light. Remembering that everything you bring will be carried on your back at some point.
A few years ago, some friends and I decided to take a very different kind of trip into the boundary waters. We decided to pack as heavy as we possibly could. Heavy enough that our boats were filled to the top, and it looked like we were pushing a barge through the lake. We planned to find a spot and stay put.
Where typically one would forgo all of the comforts of home, this time we brought lawn chairs, a cooler full of steaks and brats frozen to last the week, as well as fresh potatoes and onions. We had hammocks and tents for everyone, and even ended up with an extra, because when you are bringing everything, you don’t always realize you have over packed. We had a small table to cook at, a coffee press and fresh roasted beans to keep us awake all night as we played some quiet songs on the guitar that we squeezed into the boat as well.
We were going to enjoy ourselves in our secluded slice of paradise. Even when a thunderstorm that evening bent the trees so low that my hammock was resting flat against the ground, I wasn’t worried about not being able to sleep comfortably. Though I had to quickly take down my own hammock and tarps to keep them from being torn apart in the wind, I found plenty of room in the 4-person tent my friend had brought for himself. We weren’t even crowded as we watched an old movie on his phone before sleeping like a log.
After a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy, I set up my hammock again, and I took a 4-hour nap, because you can do that kind of thing there, and because the waves were still a foot high on the lake and too wild to want to go anywhere. I slept until I was awoken by the sound of a boat thumping up onto shore in my quiet and secluded corner of the island and I looked up to see two of the most tired and worn-out people I have ever met.
Remember, part of the appeal of the Boundary Waters is that you are secluded. The idea is to avoid other groups as much as possible to preserve the wilderness and to be respectful. To have unexpected visitors hit the shore ten feet from your hammock is more than a little unusual. I walked over to see what had brought them here and found that while I had a safe and comfortable place to rest in the storm, they had been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to leave the wilderness.
While I ate my breakfast that was better than what I usually eat at home, they were loading their boat early that morning hoping to be out soon. And while I took a 4-hour nap, they were fighting those foot high waves until their boat flipped, half of their belongings were lost, their tent, their clothes, and more; and they clung to what they could hold on to for several hours in the very cold water.
In the middle of this giant lake, they couldn’t set their boat right, so they just floated in the wind and the waves until they finally found a large rock they could climb onto. They turned the boat over and set off again, hoping they would make it.
Trying only to keep from flipping again, and going only where the waves led them, they had found this shore. Unsure of where exactly they were on the lake, or how close to home they might be. Now they were not sure if they would be welcome crashing our party, so they were quite apologetic. They asked if they could only rest a moment and then be pointed in the right direction.
In our reading for today, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go, I will come again, so that where I am there you will be also.”
In these words that I so often use as part of a funeral service, we find comfort in the far-off place prepared for us beyond this world, but Jesus was rarely only talking about that far-off someday when he invited people into life into the kingdom of God, and so today I invite you to consider the ways that we find ourselves in that place prepared for us whenever we help to prepare a place for others - in our daily lives, and in our hearts.
The kingdom of God, and Jesus’ invitation for us to find our place within it, is not only something meant to give us comfort as we leave this world, it is also an opportunity for us to see God at work here and now in the most extraordinary ways, and also in things as simple as a meal shared, or making space when others have not felt welcomed.
I am happy to say that our camp came to see that perhaps this abundance of amenities that we had packed in was placed here for more than just a week of relaxing. We pulled up a chair and made a fresh pot of coffee for our unexpected guests. We asked them to please stay until dinner, because the waves were too unpredictable, and we had plenty to share. We hoped the wind would relent as the evening set in and we could help them get back to shore, but after a dinner of steak and potatoes, the waves were worse than before. So, we begged them to please stay, because even though they had lost their tent and sleeping bag, we had an extra of each of those by accident. We had plenty of warm clothes to share, and we had marshmallows to roast.
So, these two found themselves in a place prepared unknowingly just for them for the night, and after a hearty breakfast, two of us went with them to make sure they found themselves safely home.
As a delightful side note to this story, I called to check in a few days later, when our group left the wilderness, and it turns out someone found their bag and brought it to the outfitters. But what is most incredible is that the people who found that bag also flipped their canoe that day, and they lost their own tent. They ended up using this one they had found to keep warm for the night. Even this lost bag ended up exactly where it needed to be to prepare a space for someone else.
I can say I never imagined I would get to see a story like this unfold, much less say I got to make marshmallows in the middle of it. We certainly didn’t plan to host guests in our 5-star basecamp as they called it, but just as they found, unexpectedly, that a place had been prepared just for them, we found that here too, was a place prepared just for us. Here was the opportunity to find the truth of Jesus’ words – so that where he is, there we might be also.
It is the work of Jesus Christ that daily invites us into his kingdom here and now. It is the Holy Spirit that has prepared us to follow him into his love for the world. Whenever the opportunity to love arises, that is the place that Jesus has prepared for us, so that we might be closer to him as we love our neighbor.
He also promises that his followers will do miracles greater than any the disciples had yet seen, and each day is one more opportunity to see the truth of that as well.
You may believe that it is only two hungry strangers you are feeding from your abundance, or perhaps it is only a warm fire shared with someone who is cold, or only a few dollars that buy one stranger lunch today. But, because the kingdom is alive and at work, how many thousands are fed each day because Jesus has prepared that place for us? Collectively, how many are warm and fed today because those who believe have seen Jesus in their neighbors, and felt that call to follow him to that place prepared in love?
Jesus does not simply hold your spot at the table in some far-off heaven. He is inviting you to pull up a chair today. So, have a seat.
Thanks be to God. Amen.