I give my readers fair warning. This sermon is not meant to entertain, please or coddle. It is meant to spell out for us one of the most difficult aspects of our faith. Furthermore, it will set the tone for all of Lenten preaching and teaching during the season. If you didn’t like it at the end count it as a good introduction to Lent!
We live in a nation divided. The other day I spoke with a woman, a member of one of our churches in another city. She approached me because she was afraid. She felt pushed out of her own church because her political views were conservative. Even at work she felt that she could not endorse her positions openly for fear of belittlement and estrangement from her co-workers. On a deeper level she is afraid that if the policies of our current administration are not followed the nation will be at risk, and she and her family will be in danger.
At the same time I speak with people all the time who presume that everyone shares their disappointment with the direction our government is taking. If the policies of the current administration are carried out, they say, we will all be in danger of becoming a nation of xenophobes, frightened at anything that is new or different, walled in by our own fears. The danger from within far outweighs, in these peoples’ minds, the danger from without.
Then there are those who are afraid that they will be targets of this current administration’s actions. I spoke with another member of one of our churches who is facing deportation from an order that was issued almost 30 years ago and ignored, but is now reactivated. He is truly afraid that he will be separated from his family and sent back to a nation he hardly knows.
The common thread, of course, is fear. Fear has a way of driving us into the wilderness. Whether we like it or not we find ourselves looking around and discovering that all the anchors of our bearings have broken free from their moorings. Like a compass whose needle is no longer magnetized, all our old points of orientation have failed us. In fear we reach out to what we know, and find that many who shared our common foundations have abandoned us. We often feel profoundly alone.
This is bad news and good news. The bad news, of course, is that nobody likes feeling like they are drifting. Anxiety goes up, irrational behavior emerges more and more, people get polarized and generally obnoxious with one another. It’s nobody’s picnic.
The good news, of course, is that the wilderness experience is woven into the very fabric of our faith. In every instance the end of the ordeal was a clearer, stronger call to the journey of faith.
In the Old Testament Abraham was asked by God to leave his home in Mesopotamia to live in a land he did not know, and he became the father of many nations. Moses fled Egypt after murdering someone, met God in the burning bush on the back side of Mt. Moriah, and was sent back as liberator of Israel. Israel, a rag-tag mob of escaped slaves wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and emerged a people with a faith and a calling. King David spent 13 years running from King Saul before he became the greatest king Israel ever knew. Israel spent 70 years in exile in Babylon and returned a people purged of the idolatry of Baal and broken of its dependence on a king. Noah spent 40 days in the belly of the big fish before emerging a chastened and more obedient prophet.
In the New Testament our Lord spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. Jesus sweat blood in the Garden on the evening of the first Maundy Thursday. St. Paul spent at least 3, maybe as much as 10 years in Arabia before beginning his ministry, and then spent a lifetime of suffering preaching the Gospel all over the Roman Empire.
The life of the Church follows this same pattern. The early Christians stood up to being tortured, thrown to the lions, burned and crucified for 300 years with such zeal that Tertullian, one of the great Fathers of the Church, wrote at the end of the 2nd century, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The earliest monks and nuns left the comforts of city life to do battle with the devil in the deserts of Egypt and Syria and gained a reputation for moral authority lacking in the governmental system of Rome. As Western civilization sank into the dark ages the churches maintained a light of order burning in the midst of the chaos for 300 years. As Medieval Europe seduced the monasteries into wealthy and undisciplined disorder, people like Francis, Dominic, La Salle, Bernard, Hildegard, Meister Ekhard and Julian of Norwich rose from the morass to call the Church to its high calling in Christ.
Reformation fires broke the monopoly of Rome in the west and gave birth to new forms of the faith. Counter-reformation movements gave us Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. In the popular deism of the Enlightenment people like William Law and Lancelott Andrews called the Church to renewed piety. The Great Awakening in the United States in the 19th century fired the religious imagination of an emerging nation, and the middle of the 20th century, out of the despair of the Great Depression, the protestant church in the United States witnessed the greatest missionary effort ever seen in the Church.
The really bad news is that the ordeal of the wilderness makes us a people of faith. Without the desert there are no angels. Without the night there is no dawn. Only in the wilderness is true growth in faith and action accomplished. Only in surrender to the cross is there resurrection. In the disorientation, loneliness and loss of the wilderness the God of grace has a chance to rearrange things within to make us more and more like the Son of God. Eric Law, in his great book, Inclusion, Making Room for Grace, (Chalice Press, 2000) describes multicultural ministry as moving enough outside our comfort zones to effect real change without getting into our paralyzing fear zone where nothing happens but hasty retreat. The wilderness is that delicate space between the irritation of discomfort and paralyzing terror.
The bad thing is that it is so darn uncomfortable.
The good thing is that in the midst of that discomfort we cannot help but grow.
In a minute I will call the Church to the observance of a holy Lent. It is a time when the Church is invited to follow Christ into the wilderness. At this point in our common life all the world is in a wilderness. To follow Christ into the wilderness is to follow him into the world as we know it. Our common wilderness is far more upsetting than merely giving up chocolate, beer or red meat. It is a wilderness of fear, hunger, alienation, loneliness and anger. It is the ongoing wilderness of the disinherited, the marginalized and the powerless.
The first step into the wilderness is taken by realizing that what is hurting outside of us mirrors in some way what is hurting inside of us, so that we can scapegoat no more. Comfortable, easy Christianity is no longer even an option. It has gone by the wayside, and we will not see it again for many years. We must face the fact that our common humanity is groaning in anguish and answer it with the courage to change and grow into something we cannot yet see, but that by faith we hold to be something truer to the heart of God.
Yes, the wilderness looks like bad news, but the wilderness with Jesus is a place of emerging renewal. It is the one place of true opportunity. We might wish to pray, “Lord, let this cup pass from me,” but we ought to be standing, with squinty eyes, tight fists and squirming feet, to proclaim by faith, because sight still evades us, “Thanks be to God!”