Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Wilderness Faith." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in Lent.

"Wilderness Faith"

Mark 1:9-15

There’s a hymn in our hymnal that we sing sometimes, “There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place. And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord. There are sweet expressions on each face. And I know they feel the presence of the Lord.”
            Somehow, I don’t think the “sweet holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove” adequately describes the Spirit in Marks’ account of the gospel. As Jill Duffield says, “Mark’s Holy Spirit dove does not sit cooing on a nearby branch, placidly watching.  No. Mark’s version of the Holy Spirit was an angry bird long before the video game came on the scene. The descending dove tears apart heaven to get to earthly Jesus as he comes up out of the waters of baptism… Somehow that image of a gentle bird, branch in its mouth, doesn’t do Mark’s Holy Spirit justice.”[1]

            Jesus had come from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. A voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
            And then, immediately, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness.  Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.
            Now, both Matthew and Luke give us more details about those forty days. Mark’s sparse account leaves a lot more to the imagination.  We might like to fill in the gaps of Mark’s account with details from Matthew or Luke. Some of us might like to minimize the power of evil or tell ourselves there’s little we can do to resist evil. But I wonder if it isn’t more faithful to pay attention to the sparseness in the story…and spend time in the silence …and to invite the story to speak our truth to us.

            There’s a popular Sunday school curriculum for young children called “Godly Play.”  One of the key phrases teachers use in “Godly Play” teaches “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” The children are encouraged to run their fingers through large, wooden sandboxes, and to imagine the scorched landscapes Biblical characters encountered as they sought to follow God. Fierce heat. Jagged rocks. Scarcity of water. Wild animals. Blistered feet.
            “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.”[2]
            We don’t know how Jesus spent those forty days and forty nights. Did he walk for miles each day, or camp out in one spot? Where did he sleep? Did he climb up into a cave? What was the silence like, hour after hour? As the days stretched on and on, did he fear for his survival? Did he question his sanity? Did he have visions?

            What we do know is that Jesus didn’t choose to go to the wilderness, and that it was dangerous.  “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.”
            Does that ring true for you? Most of us don’t choose to enter a wilderness place. We don’t generally seek out pain or loss or danger or terror. But sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness anyway.  It may be in a hospital waiting room… a troubled relationship… a sudden death of a loved one… a crippling panic attack… loss of a job… a financial crisis.
            Can we bear to think it’s the Spirit that dries us into the wilderness among the wild beasts? When we’re suffering, we might wonder if this mean that God wills bad things to happen to us?
            Sometimes people will try to tell us things like this.
            I don’t think so.  But I do believe that God can redeem even the most parched and barren times in our lives   and that the dangerous places can also be holy.
            I hesitate to even say this, because I remember that at times Christians have suffered under the false teaching that God gives us human pain and suffering for some greater good. I’ve heard the old platitude that “everything happens for a reason,” and I don’t believe it.  I’ve had a hard time believing it for a long time, because of all the suffering I’ve seen and because I don’t believe the God I love and trust, the God who is love, goes around dispensing suffering and pain to teach us lessons.
            A few days ago, I heard part of an interview with Kate Bowler on the radio, on NPR, and I knew I needed to read her book, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved).[3]
            Kate is a Duke Divinity School professor with a Christian background. She was best known, until recently, as an expert on prosperity gospel teachings and author of a book on the subject. Married in her twenties, a baby in her thirties, she got a job at her alma mater straight out of graduate school. She said she felt breathless with the possibilities. She writes, “I felt that God had a worthy plan for my life, in which every setback would also be a step forward.  I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful, with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life’s journey. I believed God would make a way.” She continues, “I don’t believe that anymore.”[4]
            In 2015, at the age of 35, Kate was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.  
            Kate prayed the same prayer every day: “God, save me. Save me. Save me. Oh, God, remember my baby boy. Remember my son and my husband before you return me to ashes.  Before they walk this earth alone.” She says, “I pleaded with a God of Maybe, who may or may not let me collect more years. It is a God I love, and a God that breaks my heart.”
            She had so many questions. “Why?  God, are you here?  What does this suffering mean?”  Sometimes she thought she could almost make out an answer. But then it was drowned out by what by now she’s heard a thousand times. “Everything happens for a reason” or “God is writing a better story.” Apparently, she says, God is also busy going around closing doors and opening windows.
            For Kate, THE WORLD OF CERTAINTY had ended and so many people seemed to know why. Most of their explanations were reassurances that even her cancer is a secret plan to improve her. “This is a test and it will make you stronger!” Sometimes, they’d pepper their platitudes with scripture verses.

            So, what I do believe, is that sometimes our life journeys take us to desolate and dangerous places. I don’t think this is because God takes pleasure in our pain or gives it to us to teach us something-- but because we live in a broken, fragile, dangerous world that includes wilderness places. I believe God is with us in ways and through people we might experience as angels.  I believe goodness is stronger than evil and that God can take the things of death and wring from them new life.
            I believe that there aren’t as many simple or certain answers as we might want to believe.

            So that’s what I wanted to say before we go back to the story of Jesus in the wilderness, and to wondering why God’s Beloved Son Jesus needed to be tempted and what it might mean.  

            I think Nadia Bolz-Weber is right when she suggests that temptation--Jesus’ and ours-- is always about identity. It’s about who we are and whose we are.  “Identity,” Nadia says, “is always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own.”[5]
            But almost immediately, other forces try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong.  Forces within capitalism tell us we need to buy certain kinds of cars or houses or clothing to show we have worth.  If we’re poor, parts of society tell us we’ve made bad choices or are lazy or just haven’t tried hard enough. “The weight-loss industrial complex”[6], our parents, teachers, the kids at school all have a go at telling us who we are.
            But only God can tell us who we are.  Everything else is temptation. If we’re out in the wilderness and we hear a voice on the wind telling us that we don’t have enough, that we aren’t good enough, that we can’t keep ourselves or our loved ones safe without gates and walls and bombs and assault weapons-- that’s temptation.
            If God’s first move is to give us our identity and tell us we are Beloved, Satan’s first move is to make us doubt our identity.  As we wander in the wilderness, in dangerous and desolate places, we are tempted to doubt that we are God’s own--beloved.
            The gospel story we heard today reminds us that we will have times of doubt and temptation. The wilderness experience is not unique to Jesus.
            Our times in the wilderness can teach us more about who we really are.
            As Mark tells us, there were angels in the wilderness. They might not have glistening wings and golden halos. Our angels might not come in the form we might prefer.  And yet, somehow, help comes.  Rest comes.  Comfort comes.  Angels come and minister to us. And sometimes we are angels to others.         
            That’s we do in the church, when we are out in the wilderness.  We minister to each other. We minister to each other. We whisper “beloved” …” child of God” into each other’s ears.
            I hope and pray that when angels in various forms whisper “beloved” into our ears, that we will listen and trust in the good news.
            When we’re in the wilderness, we can trust that God is with us, and that we are not alone.  We can trust that we belong to God and that God has named us and claimed us as God’s own.  We can trust that evil will never have the last word. We can know that love wins.
            Thanks be to God!   Amen.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 18, 2018

[3] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved).  Random House, 2018.
[4] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason, Kindle location 69.
[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.” (Jericho Books, 2013), page 139.
[6] I like Nadia’s description of this, on page 139.

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