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“Into the Wilderness”– Luke 4:1-13– Feb. 14, 2016

The story is told of a young woman from what was then the Soviet Union, who came to the United States to study theology. “Upon entering a supermarket for the first time, she promptly fainted. Her senses simply shut down, overwhelmed by the unending aisles and avalanche of products.” Or, of another woman “who was unable to find a particular brand of crackers on the supermarket shelf even though the box was right before her eyes. Its presence was masked by the surrounding thicket of other cracker boxes. “Apparently,” one writer says, “our capacity to take in what is most important and to perceive what we are most seeking has become clogged by unrestrained abundance, ‘confused [as it were] by adjacent irrelevancies.’” [John Mogabgab, Weavings, May/June 2001, p. 1]

Lent is a time for clearing away all those “adjacent irrelevancies” to see if we can discover what is most important in our lives. It is an entirely counter-cultural idea. If anything, we are taught to seek what is “important” by acquiring more things, doing more things, by taking in more and more information through more and more means and devices. “Too much information” is not only the response to the friend who wants to tell you about everything that transpired in the bathroom this morning, but also to daily life in 21st c. America. We are literally re-wiring the brains of our children and young people to accommodate this amount of stimulus, so, more than ever, the idea of Lent, of intentionally sifting through and letting go of what is not essential in our lives, seems at best quaint or archaic, perhaps escapist, maybe just one more of those self-help schemes that tout all sorts of remarkable results but end up being discarded after a couple of days.

“I was at least 25 years old before I learned that Lent wasn’t about punishing myself for being human,” Barbara Brown Taylor wrote. [“The Wilderness Exam,” Day1.org, 2/21/10] You may be familiar with that understanding of Lent–you must purge your appetites, confess all the deeds for which you are heartily sorry, give up anything that gives you pleasure, don’t smile too broadly, wear somber colors. More recently, there has been a move away from giving up some pleasure–like chocolate– or habit–like smoking– and taking on some useful or beneficial practice, like putting aside money to be given to some good cause, or writing a card or hand-written letter to people too long out of touch, or starting a gratitude journal. One of my favorite suggestions that I recently read was from the Rev. Michael Slaughter, who suggests “a forty-day fast from being a jerk.” If only we could prescribe Lenten disciplines for other people, right?!

To help him get clear about what was important in his life, we read in Luke that “the Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” The wilderness–eremos is the Greek word–and it doesn’t mean hot and dry, but rather uninhabited, lonely, with no human population [David Rensberger, Weavings, May/June 2001, p. 7]. “In a word, it means deserted.” “Desert” is probably how we picture the Judean wilderness that Jesus was led to, and it is a barren, rocky, dry land. But all wildernesses do not necessarily look like that.

One of you wrote on the “Wilderness” sheet in Webster Hall, that “the middle of North Star Bay in northern Greenland, in the fog” comes to mind when you think of Wilderness. Another wrote, “places in God’s creation that are WILD, natural, untainted by human activity-and-leftovers.” To someone who’s lived her whole life in Kansas, an ocean beach looks like wilderness. To a desert-dweller, an old-growth forest is a wild and scary place. Mountain ranges and rushing rivers can be places of wilderness.

But of course, the wilderness is not only a geographical location. Most of us have had at least one wilderness experience in our lives. “Maybe it just looked like a hospital waiting room to you,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, ” or the sheets on a cheap motel bed after you got kicked out of your house, or maybe it looked like the parking lot where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job. It may even have been a kind of desert in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the wheezing bellows of your own chest.” Maybe it was your own house the first time you walked into it after saying good-bye to a loved one; or the grain on your kitchen table you stared at after you spouse told you they’d had an affair. “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes,” Taylor says, “that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. No food. No earthly power, no special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.” [Ibid.]

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Luke and Matthew detail the conversation between Jesus and his temptor–conversations about bread, power, and safety. In our day, David Lose suggests, they could easily be about youth, beauty, and wealth, or confidence, fame, and security. [inthemeantime, 2/14/16] Jesus’ temptations “involve good things that come between God and ourselves,” which, when they become our sole focus, lead us away from our true vocation and relationship with God.” [Bruce Epperly, Adventurous Lectionary, 2/14/16] Maybe family is your temptation–such a good thing, a wonderful gift, but we can be tempted to devote all our time and energy into that tight circle of relationships and close ourselves off from the rest of the human family. Or maybe it’s fitness and health–being good stewards of our bodies is part of our faithful response to God’s good gift. But when they consume all our time, prevent us from ever being available for other experiences or people, when we define our worth by whether we win or lose, how we look, how we feel, then we might need to examine what lord we are serving.

The North African Desert Father and Mothers, mystics of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries, moved out into the desert precisely to eliminate the world’s distractions and temptations. But they came to “believe that the greatest temptation was to have no temptation. As Abba Anthony once asserted, ‘Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the kingdom of God…[And even], without temptation no one can be saved.’” [Epperly, op cit.] We have to be able to recognize all those other gods beside God who appear so friendly and appealing and seductive.

So it is said that Jesus was human because he “was tempted like we are.” The point isn’t that he was tempted to overindulge in food or drink, or that he may or may not have had intimate relationships, but rather that he had to get clear about what was and wasn’t the God he would serve. Like an athlete in training for a race or a match or an event, he had to hone his skills, sharpen his abilities, strengthen his body and mind to manage his appetites, obtain clarity and grit for the task before him, which was nothing short of turning the world upside down.

The wisdom of this wilderness “vision quest” is largely lost to our culture, though still part of many other indigenous cultures. We in the church even have so domesticated this sense of wilderness, preferring instead the more “reasonable approach,” of reading, perhaps, or study, or coming up with a carefully arranged schedule or calendar. All of which can be fruitful, but the real wilderness experiences–those times when we are not in control, when what happened today was not on the calendar, when we have none of the usual landmarks by which to get our bearings, when the things and the people which have made up our lives are gone–those wilderness experiences will come to us, whether chosen or not.

And so gaining the skills and grit, but perhaps more importantly the clarity about who we are and Whose we are, will help us go through those wilderness. With what besides God do we usually fill up the empty spaces inside us? Busyness? Food? Drink? Exercise? Facebook? What good gifts from God have we used only to serve ourselves? What distracts us from our true selves, our true purpose, if we have ever even taken the time to discern what that true self or true purpose is? What are the cravings we have for things that have no power to save us or to give us real life? Are we tempted to think we are not enough, that we are not worthy to be loved?

We have 40 days before us to explore some of these questions, to sort out from the midst of all the distractions and abundance what is really important, to maybe let go of some of the things we use to numb the uncomfortable or scary feelings that arise in the course of our lives. The very prospect may make your palms sweat and your breath catch. We’ll talk each week about some skills and practices that may help us have more resilience in those wilderness times. But for the meantime, Take a deep breath. Then take another. Sit quietly for a few minutes and make sure your breaths are coming all the way in and all the way out. See if you can hear your heartbeat. You may feel like you’ll die without whatever you’ve been filling the emptiness with. You probably won’t. Breathe again. It’s just one day, one breath. And then another.

The wilderness may actually turn into a gift. “The wilderness,” Taylor says, “is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.” (Ibid.) For remember, it is not a “God-forsaken place,” as John Stendahl writes, “nor does it belong to the devil. It is God’s home. The Holy Spirit is there, within us and beside us. And if we cannot feel that spirit inside of us or at our side, perhaps we can at least imagine Jesus there, not too far away, with enough in him to sustain us, enough to make us brave.” [cited in K. Matthews, sermonseeds, 2/14/16]

So, finally, a blessing for entering this wilderness time. Just as Jesus was led into the wilderness with the name given to him at his baptism ringing in his ears, so may we take the name “Beloved,” which is also ours, with us into these 40 days. Receive this blessing from Jan Richardson–

Beloved Is Where We Begin

If you would enter

into the wilderness,

do not begin

without a blessing.

Do not leave

without hearing

who you are:

Beloved,

named by the One

who has traveled this path

before you.

Do not go

without letting it echo

in your ears,

and if you find

it is hard

to let it into your heart,

do not despair.

That is what

this journey is for.

I cannot promise

this blessing will free you

from danger,

from fear,

from hunger

or thirst,

from the scorching

of sun

or the fall

of the night.

But I can tell you

that on this path

there will be help.

I can tell you

that on this way

there will be rest.

I can tell you

that you will know

the strange graces

that come to our aid

only on a road

such as this,

that fly to meet us

bearing comfort

and strength,

that come alongside us

for no other cause

than to lean themselves

toward our ear

and with their

curious insistence

whisper our name:

Beloved.

Beloved.

Beloved.

-[http://paintedprayerbook.com/2016/02/11/lent-1-beloved-is-where-we-begin/]

Amen.

 

 

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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