Brothers and Sisters, I’m going to ask you to forgive me for beginning with a little self-indulgence this morning. 2 months from now I will have been retired for 3 days. This is the First Sunday of the last season of Lent I will be your pastor. The “lasts” are coming fast and furious now, and while I wouldn’t describe how I’m feeling about this as “sad,” I do have to say I feel “full”–full of emotion. Looking around at all your beautiful faces and around this space that has held so many moments of joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, I am just so full of gratitude for having had this time with you. There is a Sufi saying I’m trying to live into– “When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found.” Lost and found. Weeping and laughing. That’s some of the wilderness I find myself in this Lenten season. And that’s just in this aspect of my life of moving toward retirement. There are so many emotions and thoughts swirling around all of us in this particular time in our nation’s history, in this week after yet another school shooting.
Rick Hamlin wrote an article in the New York Times this week entitled, “What will you give up for Lent?” In it he says, “Lent has its origins in an Old English word for spring, but I sometimes like to think it’s a reminder that our lives are not a right. They’re a gift. In a way, they’re ‘lent.’” (2/14/18) My years with you have been such a gift to me, never for a moment taken for granted, and so even this wilderness time is a gift, a time of letting go, as wilderness times are, a time of testing what should be carried forward and what should be left behind; a time of discerning where our journeys are leading us and how we will find our way. My intention for this season – which is a real challenge – is to adopt Howard Thurman’s wisdom, printed in the bulletin for the time of preparation– “I must let go of everything but God.”
Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is as sparse and bare-bones as they come– just two verses, that follow his 3-verse description of Jesus’ baptism: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Such a packed 2 verses! There’s Mark’s favorite word immediately! Enthous!, Jesus’ head still dripping from his baptism as he’s driven out into the wilderness. And did you notice he was driven there by the Spirit? Pope Francis has suggested that we translate the words of the Lord’s Prayer differently–instead of saying, “Lead us not into temptation,” Francis suggests “Do not let us fall into temptation.” That may indeed be a better translation of Jesus’ words in the prayer, but in Mark’s gospel, it is quite clear that the Spirit drove–led– Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted.
“Tempted by Satan,” Mark says, which doesn’t necessarily mean the guy with the horns and forked tail. Satan originally was a member of the heavenly court, who acted, like he did in the book of Job, as the prosecuting attorney–devil’s advocate, if you will. We have no dialogue between Jesus and Satan in Mark’s gospel–no mention of bread or glory or power–but if one were heading into the world as God’s beloved, to bring good news to the poor, to announce that the kingdom of God had come near, you’d better get clear about just who you are and Whose you are. You’d better be tested, because there are all sorts of powers and principalities just waiting to gobble you up and destroy you. He was tested for 40 days, Mark says–as long as it took to get clear.
“What does it mean to wander in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and face your demons?” Rick Hamlin asks in that NYT article. “How would I do that today? How do you give up all distractions and listen to that inner voice that tells you what you need to be doing but you can’t quite face yet? The idea fills me with a weird combination of joy and dread,” he says.
And so he points to the discipline of emptiness, which for him is most easily done on the subway, watching and listening to the doors open and close, the people getting on and off the cars, letting his mind just be open and empty. Maybe for you it can happen with the rhythm of arms and legs pumping while you’re cross-country skiing, or with the slosh of the water as you wash the dishes or the warmth and order-making as you fold laundry, or maybe you are able to find time to simply sit still and observe your mind. What demons might you encounter and face down? Whether you face them or not, they’re probably there, so what if you were to “give up all distractions” as Hamlin says, “and listen to that inner voice that tells you what you need to be doing but you can’t quite face yet? The idea fills me with a weird combination of joy and dread,” Hamlin wrote. What about you?
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Who says Jesus was alone in the wilderness?! That, as the song says, “he had to walk it by himself”? There was Satan, and the wild beasts, and the angels with him. Mark doesn’t have to say another thing, and my imagination runs wild with those images of the wild beasts–lions, wolves, gophers, antelope, doing what? Circling hungrily or just keeping him company? Maybe sniffing or even nuzzling him. “He was with the wild beasts….and the angels waited on him.” Angels in the form of wild beasts, or beings of light, or those magnificent creatures with wings and stature imagined in paintings by Raphael or Michelangelo?
Then somehow Jesus received word that John had been arrested, and he began his ministry in Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”
40 days and 40 nights. Alone, yet not alone. Testing out who he was and who God was. Coming to terms with the passing of his mentor John. Emily Heath, UCC author and pastor serving a church in New Hampshire, reminds us that we do not enter into these 40 days and nights alone, but rather with One who has been there–
Have you ever had a hard time with faith? [she asks] [yes] Jesus knew what that was like. Do you struggle to make hard choices? [yes] So did Jesus. Are you grieving? [yes] Jesus grieved, too. Are you preparing yourself for something new, something you don’t know how you are going to survive?[yes, and yes] Jesus knew what that was like too. I’m convinced [Emily writes] that when we go through these wilderness times, God looks at us with nothing but compassion and love, because God has watched his own child go through this…
Sometimes our wilderness places can do more than challenge us. They can change us. Sometimes we have to get lost before we find the beauty that surrounds us. It can take going to hard places, the desolate places, the painful places, for us to find joy. Sometimes we have to hit rockbottom before we can find the solid ground of our being.[The Christian Century, 1/31/18]
“I must let go of everything but God.” What does that mean? There is so much to let go of. I have filled a whole dumpster and more with old files and papers and bulletins and sermons that I do not need to take with me. I’ve donated a bunch of books to our library, have some set aside for the Serendipity sale, and still have loaded up boxes and boxes to take home, hopefully to read again and savor, maybe pass on to my kids, but at some point, will need to let go of. So there’s “stuff” to let go of. And then there is the position, the identity, the relationships of “pastor.” We will all need to let go of that, and transfer it onto Mark’s strong and capable shoulders. But there are times when I wonder, will I have any worth then? What if I’m no longer a pastor? Who will I be? “I must let go of everything but God.”
As we travel together on this wilderness journey, we’ll explore other lettings go— of assumptions, of privilege, of health, of loved ones, even of life. “I must let go of everything but God.” “Make me to know your ways, O Lord, the psalmist says. “Teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”
…But I must let go of everything
I must let go of everything but God. [Howard Thurman, the great teacher and mystic and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., wrote]
But God–May it not be
That God is in all the things to which I cling?
That may be the hidden reason for my clinging.
It is all very puzzling indeed. When I say
‘I must let go of everything but God’
What is my meaning?
I must relax my hold on everything that dulls my sense of Him
That comes between me and the inner awareness of His Presence
pervading my life and glorifying
All the common ways with wonderful wonder.
‘Teach me, O God, how to free myself of dearest possessions
So that in my trust I shall find restored in me
All I need to walk in Thy path and to fulfill Thy will.
Let me know Thee for myself that I may not be satisfied
With [anything] that is less. [from Deep Is the Hunger, 1899-1981]
“The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need,” as one translation of the 23rd psalm reads.
So, the challenge to me, to you, to all of us, as we begin this journey into the Lenten wilderness, is to travel light. “Traveling light [Philip Harnden writes in his book, Journeys of Simplicity]–imagine this meaning: unencumbered journeying, a graceful way of traveling this life like a single leaf. Now imagine another [meaning]: the light by which we journey, the light that shows the way. Our traveling light.” [p. 1] Travel light.
This season is a gift to us, “lent” to us, to travel together. As we try to let go of everything but God, may this prayer of Mary Luti’s be our prayer as well– “Holy One, may I live this Lent in bare truth, total trust, and knowing joy; for in life and in death I belong to you. Amen,” and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark