Where is your wilderness?

Sometimes you have to move away in order to understand how much you are formed by place. Wilderness was part of my upbringing, my formation as a human being. A native Coloradan, as a kid I camped and backpacked in the Rockies. I went to college out in California. I swam in the Pacific and spent some time falling off a surfboard or two. I even climbed a bit in the desert at Joshua Tree. Then after all my years out West, I moved to Washington, DC for seminary and stayed there to serve my first church. I have to tell you these days I am grateful to live back on this side of the “gateway to the West.”

When I lived on the East Coast I travelled a fair bit, through Virginia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas. There’s beautiful country out there, but I couldn’t escape the impression that people lived too close together. Out East you can scarcely find an unsettled valley. As I grew to know the East Coast, I realized I would never be totally at home. I would always feel a bit crowded.

Maybe you’re like me, and when you heard Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey say to Mary, his oldest daughter (who has just failed again to secure a marriage): “Go out to America, bring back a cowboy from the Middle-West who will shake us all up,” maybe you also thought, “I resemble that remark!” Maybe. One of the gifts we have out here, out in the West is Wilderness. We are still a little wild out here.

Today’s Gospel begins: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Notice the prepositions: “up and into.” The Spirit of God isn’t leaving Jesus “down and out,” words you might expect of someone walking away from polite society. Nope, the Spirit is leading Jesus up and in. “Into the wild” those words express reason, purpose. Sometimes you have to leave behind the busyness of life, the hurry, the crowds. Sometimes you have to go somewhere quiet. The literal translation of the word in Matthew’s Gospel is “a lonely place.”

In the wilderness that we are free from human constructions of reality. Out of the cities and societies we create and manipulate we find reality a bit more raw, untouched by human hands. I remember coming back from backpacking trips in my teens to return to the “real world,” and wondering which world was more real. We are invited out from under the fluorescent lights of the shopping mall, out to bathe in the darkness of a star-lit night.

I spent a number of summers working sleep-away camps in Colorado. One particular summer, I was assigned to the ropes course staff. Each day we were assigned a group of teenagers and sent off in the morning to the “low ropes”, a series of games and challenges designed to build the team. In the afternoon, we got to take the kids up to the high ropes, help them put on helmets and harnesses. They climbed walls, walked tightropes, and eventually leapt from a platform 60 feet in the air and almost unfailingly screamed as they sailed on a zip-line down through a mountain valley. It was a great job.

In the transition time over lunch, between the low ropes and the high ropes, we had the group sit on the pine-needle covered forest floor around a giant wooden circle. Painted on the circle were three more concentric circles. The outer ring was deep green, and it was labeled “safe zone.” The innermost ring was labeled “danger zone” and was painted bright red. Between the two, in yellowish orange, was an area we called the “challenge zone.” We explained to the teens that the hope of the whole ropes experience was to bring them into the “challenge zone.” We didn’t want you to feel like you were in danger, but we also didn’t want you to be totally comfortable. Human beings tend to grow when they are challenged. You can fall asleep when you’re safe. You freeze up when you’re petrified. You can learn about yourself when you’re nervous.

For someone living at the time of Jesus, the wilderness was a challenging place. Away from the safety and security of your tribe, in the wild you were vulnerable to robbers and predatory animals. Galilee and Judea are surrounded by desert. Water is not always easy to find. What Jesus was doing could be dangerous. But this episode is just the first of several in the Gospels where Jesus goes away by himself, to a lonely place. Jesus often heads out alone to the wilderness. Like his cousin John the Baptist out there with the locusts and wild honey, the faith of Jesus is nourished by time apart from the safety and security of his group.

Now, some of you might be wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about the devil. What I find interesting about this devil is following the names for Jesus’ adversary. An interesting progression happens in Jesus’ awareness of the character in this chapter. Matthew references the character as “The tempter” when he first appears to Jesus, famished after 40 days of fasting. After the first temptation, the name changes to “the devil,” the diabolical one. That Greek word is still a little diffuse. Where “devil” in English is more specific, diabolos in Greek can mean “adversary” less specifically. Diabolos can even mean “lawyer.” By the end of our reading Jesus yells “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus calls out Old Scratch by name. Out there in the wilderness, I wonder if it took Jesus awhile to discern with whom he is contending. But when Jesus knows the name, he can say “away with you!” When you know the name of your demons, are you able to banish them?

This episode is perplexing. Why would the Spirit of God lead Jesus out to face Satan? I know, and I bet you know dogmatic answers to that question: “It was so he could be tempted in every way as we are, yet not sin.” Congratulations, we pass catechism class. But I’m not sure passing catechism will help us follow in the way of Jesus on this one.

Jesus, just two chapters from now, tells his followers when they pray to include the line “lead us not into temptation.” Even as an adult Christian, I stumble on that line. I’ve never liked the idea that God could lead us into temptation, that we have to pray to ask God not to do so. This morning, I find myself wondering whether Jesus had this experience in mind when he gave the disciples that line of prayer. Did Jesus’ time in the desert in chapter four influence his prayer in chapter 6? Was Jesus shaken by what he saw out there in himself?

Really, as some of you know too well, we sometimes don’t choose to find ourselves in that lonely place. When we discover ourselves suddenly out there, in the desert, not of our own choosing, it is important that first we get out of danger. Make your way out of danger, but then step two is important as well. Learn from the discomfort. We often rush that second step.

I’m a novice when it comes to contemplative prayer. The particular way of praying I’ve been practicing for a few years now is called “Centering Prayer.” It’s a form of Christian meditation where you attempt to totally quiet your thoughts.The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian. Centering prayer teaches you to gently let go of the thoughts, to return to the quiet.

Once I was caught a bit off kilter in Centering Prayer when I was able to sit for several minutes with remarkably few thoughts. I didn’t even congratulate myself for my lack of thought, which I often do. This time I was just quiet. Then I teared up. I just started crying. I didn’t know why then, I’m still not totally sure what the tears were about.

Thomas Keating, the principle teacher of Centering Prayer, often tells folks not to be surprised if they are suddenly overcome by emotion. Many of us keep ourselves so busy that we don’t fully experience the moment. We don’t allow ourselves to fully feel the feelings of stress, loss, and general frustration in our day to day life. When we face a particular trauma, we often rush through, busily moving to the other side of the experience. Keating says he’s sometimes found it helpful to have a grief counselor at Centering Prayer retreats, because when someone is able to find that contemplative silence, old traumas can resurface.

“Lead us not into temptation” makes some sense from this perspective. What loving leader wouldn’t want to spare his or her followers the pain, if they could. But Jesus knew himself well enough to know he needed the time apart. He needed to wrangle his demons.

Brene Brown is a professor of Social Work and an Episcopalian. Her books and TED talks have become incredibly popular over the past few years. Brown talks about the courage it takes to be vulnerable, to open yourself up, to really talk with people about what you’re facing. She says that to really be embraced in a community we have to have our sufferings and our pains embraced as well. We can’t just say, “I’m doing fine.”

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes guts to say, “I’m struggling over here.” But folks, we all struggle. It takes temerity to admit imperfection.

This is the first Sunday of Lent, the beginning of a long journey with Jesus. In the end we encounter suffering and sacrifice. I wonder, could this Lent be an invitation? Could we ask: “Where is your wilderness?” Where can you go to be vulnerable? Where will you face your demons?

Will you venture into the literal wilderness? Will you sleep a night out under the stars in the quiet? Or perhaps, Will your wilderness be more metaphorical? Will you spend some time in silence? We’ll have opportunities for contemplative prayer here at the church on Mondays. We’re going to start church with some silence each week, and you’re allowed to get to church early. Really, you are.

Wherever you find wilderness, will you take the time to be vulnerable, to name your demons, to step into the more challenging aspects of your life?

If you decide to undertake a wild journey this Lent, I wish you every blessing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Know that Jesus has gone this way before. Know that God will never leave you. In my life, I have found God more easily in the “lonely places,” than in the busyness of life. Wilderness has value. Journey safely, just not too safely.

Where do you locate hope?

Where do you locate hope?

I know this is a dangerous Sunday to talk about hope. As soon as I ask that question, some folks here will say “I place my hope in Tom Brady.” Others will say “Matt Ryan.” And most everyone will say, “I’m just hoping Mike keeps this sermon short.” Well…there’s always hope right?

But I’ve found myself returning to this question again and again over the past weeks. Where do you locate hope?

I’ve been thinking about hope as I’ve listened to my more liberal/progressive friends try and gauge their reactions to the last few weeks. “Don’t worry, this new president won’t last very long.” “Impeach him now!” These statements are sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but in the spread between sincerity and sarcasm, I hear a sort of testing: “How long?” How long do we have to keep up the resistance? How long until we can stop showing up at protests. When can we stop all this writing and calling our legislators? How long? What moment, what change, will indicate that we’re done? A resignation? The rescinding of an executive order? What exactly are we looking for? Where do we locate hope?

My more conservative friends are asking a similar set of questions: How long are these liberals going to keep this up? Why can’t they get over it? What will be the sign that we were right? What will stop them? These are also questions about the location of hope.

Now, my job is to take a look at Scripture with you this morning, to open up our tradition in the church. I’m afraid our lessons this morning do not point to quick resolutions. There aren’t easy answers. For the Bible, hope is not a short-term project. For followers of Jesus, hope can be built on nothing less than Jesus’ dream. Our hope rests on the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s people find themselves in a state of grumbling. They have returned from exile, but their cities are in ruin. It seems that God is not hearing their prayers. In the theology of the time, the proper response to God’s silence was fasting. So all through Judea they put on sack cloth. They rolled around in ashes, and still, still, God did not hear their plea. Isaiah gives them a shocking reply:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah’s people want a quick resolution. They want God to hear their plea, to honor their fast. “It doesn’t work that way,” Isaiah says. You have forgotten your own kin. The people are suffering because the structures of society are unjust. If want God to hear your cry, if you want to “make Judea great again,” tend to the hungry, the homeless, the suffering. Remember the poor. You get a sense of the tradition Jesus develops in these chapters of Isaiah. For Jesus, as for Isaiah, God is especially attentive to the treatment of those who are lost, least, and left out.

So it is no surprise that the Gospel also complicates matters. “Be salty” Jesus tells his followers. “Let your light shine.” These passages are a meditation on the quality of discipleship. What does it mean to follow Jesus? Don’t lose your flavor. Don’t hide your light. The kingdom is coming, he tells them, but it’s not coming quickly. Steel yourselves. Be Salty. Shine.

Last week, as I listened to our hymns, as we read scripture together, it sort of dawned on me again how much of our Christian tradition is built for resistance. Our faith was made for times like these. Christianity was forged in opposition to an empire. When Roman citizens chanted: “Caesar is Lord” Christians responded, “Jesus is Lord.” The great moments of Christian history tend to be moments when Jesus’ movement inspired resistance, from the early martyrs to Francis of Assisi’s stand for the poor, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, to Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, Christianity is built for resistance.

There’s a reason so many Christian hymns found resonance on the underground railroad, and during the Civil Rights era. The best Christian music is written and sung by people who are able to name their present reality, to say: “this injustice is not what God dreams for us.” Jesus teaches about the kingdom, the coming reign of God, the world as it should be.

I said this realization dawned on me last week, that so much of our scripture, so many of our songs, were written for resistance. I knew that resistance was there. I’ve read Howard Thurman. My favorite theologians tend to be liberationists from Latin America. But over the past eight years, I wonder if my sense of resistance grew more diffuse. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on the new president lately. I want to take a moment to think about the previous president, the role of the church over the last eight years.

I confess, when President Obama was inaugurated, I remember worrying a bit about all of the fuss. I worried that we were letting ourselves off the hook because we’d gotten such a man elected. There were celebratory posters and ice sculptures all over DC that January. The DC Metro (Washington’s Subway) even made a Metro-card with the President-elect’s face on it. When we inaugurated the president, it was with great fanfare, huge celebration. At the time, it was easy to see the celebration as a natural embrace from the highest majority black city in America of the first black president. Still, I remember some disquiet in my heart, some of which was there because the president-elect was saying “what’s the fuss about?”

I worried a bit more after the inauguration when the new president was pleading with his supporters to keep up the movement, to call their senators and congress-people. The president asked people to show up, to participate in the democratic process. Somehow it seemed the energy that got him elected dissipated soon after he was in office. I worry that for many of us, at least subconsciously, the election of President Obama served as a sign that we had “arrived” in the world for which we had hoped. Did we get complacent? Eight years ago, did we elect a president, or a savior?

That question may seem unfair, but it gets to my question about the location of hope. I am wondering if some of the hand wringing these past weeks since President Trump’s coming into office has come from displaced hope. It was easy to rest a great deal of hope in President Obama, even if he asked us not to trust his ability to bring change, but to hope in our ability. Still, it was one of my favorite artists Shepard Fairey who created THE poster of Obama’s campaign. The image simply featured Obama’s face, and the word “Hope.” As Christians, is there another way? Could we work with a politician while still locating our hope in an agenda far beyond that of any political party?

I’ve shared with you before the story of the friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Nelson Mandela, that nation’s first democratically elected president. Both men separately received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in ending apartheid and forging a new inclusive nation. For decades under the apartheid government, Bishop Tutu advocated for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. And in 1990 Mandela spent his first night of freedom in the home of the Archbishop.

It came as a surprise for Mandela when Tutu refused to join his political party, the African National Congress. But Tutu felt that he could not, as a church official, publicly identify with any party, even Mandela’s. For Tutu, the only loyalty he could profess was to God’s kingdom. Until the kingdom of this world became the kingdom of our God, no one party, no one movement, no one issue could define the hope of the Church.

Bishop Tutu’s faith was forged in resistance. He grew up unable to swim in the ocean at “whites only” beaches, unable to study in “whites only” schools. Tutu developed a suspicion of government, even a government run by one of his close friends, a member of his own tribe. When I try to conceive of what Jesus means when he tells his followers they are the “salt of the earth,” I can’t come up with a better image than Bishop Tutu explaining to President Mandela that he plans to keep an independent voice, in case he needs to stand up to the new government for the sake of the Gospel. That’s pretty salty.

So I return to my initial question: where do you locate hope? In the coming weeks, months, and years can we be wary of easy answers? When it comes to hope, can we play the long game? Can we persist against the desire for this all to be over? Can we overcome complacency? Can we build our hope on nothing less than Jesus’ faith and righteousness?

If we do, our hearts will be restless. As St. Augustine said, “our hearts are restless, until they rest in God.”

Placing your hope in the Kingdom of God gives you perspective from which to move. Placing your hope in that coming Kingdom where ALL God’s people are welcomed, where ALL God’s people are valued, placing your hope there gives you incentive to keep moving, gives you incentive to stay restless.

Will your restlessness help move you from sorrow to action? Will you stay salty? Will you let your light shine? Will you loose yokes and let the oppressed go free? Will you clothe the naked and house the homeless? Will justice be the fast you choose?

How long do we resist? Well Christians, if we place our hope in God, we resist until the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

We locate our hope in the Kingdom of God.

On Scripture

Today we celebrate the end of the year. Today marks the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in our Biblical Cycle. Next week we will begin with the first Sunday of Advent, a new year. Today as we wrap up our cycle of scripture, I want to consider our relationship with the Bible. Many Christians boldly claim the title “Literalist” in their approach to scripture. Most of you know,  I am not one of their number.

For example: I don’t believe that the writers of the Hebrew Bible were attempting to give a counter-argument to evolution. The Book of Genesis was never meant to give a geological date for the Earth. The questions of our scientific world are not the questions held by the people who developed the Scriptures. It is fruitless to try to argue against science with the Bible.

But that doesn’t mean means we should lay the Bible aside. The writers of Scripture held important questions, theological questions. The writers of the first chapter of Genesis included a refrain to their creation account. We read that “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and God created light and “saw that the light was good.” God separated the waters from the sky, the dry land from the sea, and “God saw that it was good.” God put forth vegetation, “And God saw that it was good.” God created the sun and the stars and “saw that it was good.” God created living creatures, “And saw that it was good.” God finally created humankind in God’s own image, and God looked on all that was created and saw, “indeed, it was very good.” Good, Good, very good.

Most scholars now believe that this story was written during the Babylonian exile. The people of Israel were living in a strange land, and hearing strange stories about the creation. Babylonians believed that life on earth was an accident, caused by warring and capricious Gods. Human beings were a side-show to the more interesting melodramas of the heavens. The gods liked to mess with people by sending floods and famines. The refugee people of God begged to differ. “No, God intended our creation,” they said. God saw that we were good, even us refugees. The earth is good. The sky is good. The people are very good. God intends us, delights in us, we are made in the image and likeness of God. Today, when the world can still seem a little capricious, especially to refugees. Famines and floods are still commonplace, and still today the Scripture tells us that God created us on purpose, and cares for us. That is very very good.

The Bible wasn’t written to contend with today’s science, but there are deep truths in Scripture. The Bible also wasn’t written in for our so-called culture war. We have to face that gender inequality, homophobia, and slavery are commonplace in our Scripture. That doesn’t mean they should be commonplace in our world today. One of the best guidelines I have heard for Scripture comes from a bumper sticker: The Bible is not a book of directions (plural), but a Book of Direction (singular).

We may not find exact data for our modern quandaries, but if we read the overall arc of the Bible, we can hear the deep rhythm of Scripture that still rings true: God creates us, God loves us, God yearns for us to be free to love God and one another.

You all know, I read a lot of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s writings. Tutu likes to tell a joke about the missionaries who converted his people to Christianity:

“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

But, he says, don’t underestimate the power of the Bible. He said, it is impossible to imagine what it would have been like for the black community during apartheid without the Bible. The Bible was the story they returned to for hope, for direction. Using the Bible, they came to the governing regime again and again and said, “let my people go.” Don’t underestimate the power of Scripture.

Today, as we come to the end of our cycle of readings, I invite you to consider your own relationship with Scripture. Maybe you’re like me, and you’re not a literalist. Maybe for you parts of the Bible aren’t asking the same question as science or history textbooks. Maybe you need some footnotes to explain the Biblical moral code. But can you still hold scripture with reverence? Can you still let these ancient stories inspire you, breathe life into you, as you work for justice? I have a sense in the years ahead, we’re going to need this Bible.