Why the wilderness?

This is the sermon that I wrote to be preached on Lent 1, Year B, 2018.  Because of a death in the family, I will be away from the Christ Church pulpit, and so it will go unpreached.


You’ve probably seen the picture by now.  It has been posted all over social media.  Every news outlet on the planet has shown it.  It was taken by Joel Auerbach of the Associated Press and it is of the mother of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student, sobbing, embracing another woman who is also in tears, with the familiar black mark of an ashen cross on her forehead.

Parkland School Shooting Joel Auerbach - AP

It is perhaps the most poignant portrait of anguish that I have ever seen.  Having been reminded earlier in the day of her own mortality and need for God, hours later, this faithful woman found herself standing in the wilderness, lost, and in search of hope.  It has been less than a month since western Kentucky had to endure its own wilderness moment when a fifteen-year-old student at Marshall County High School opened fire in the commons area before school began on January 23rd.  There were no ashen crosses that day, but the images are unsettlingly familiar by now.  Students running for their lives away from their school, a place that is supposed to be one of the last remaining safe havens.  And parents, their eyes somehow both keenly focused as they search for their children among the mass of humanity and yet also blankly staring into space, in shock, and unable to take in what they are seeing.

Of all the photographs I’ve seen after a school shooting, and by God, I’ve seen way too many, the image of this Parkland, Florida mother with the sign of the cross on her forehead just will not go away.  Like most priests, I ashed my fair share of people on Wednesday.  Those who came to the altar rail were in various stages of life.  Some came at 7am, eager to rush off to work.  Others came at noon, as their schedule allowed.  Some were older, a couple were so small as to be held in the arms of a parent or grandparent.  As those familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” echoed through the Nave, each of us was invited in that moment to meet God in the wilderness.  For most of us, that wilderness is a creation of our own imagination.  It is the wilderness of no chocolate or red wine.  It is the wilderness of extra Bible readings or longer prayer times.  It is the wilderness of Lenten fasts and disciplines, wherein we meet God on our own terms.  The mother in that photograph began her day thinking she would be entering a wilderness of her own design, when, without warning, she found herself driven well beyond her comfort zone, out – way, way out – into a wilderness of fear, unknowing, and agony.

I’ve often wondered why it is that after his baptism, Jesus finds himself flung by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness.  It raises all sorts of difficult theological questions that God would hand God the Son over to the Devil for 40 days of temptation.  All sorts of bad theology has come out of Jesus’ wilderness experience.  It usually rears its ugly head in the aftermath of a tragedy and sounds something like, “Everything happens for a reason.”  “God has a plan.”  “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  All of which is absolute garbage.  Sure, nothing can happen totally without reason, but sometimes that reason has nothing to do with the people affected by the thing that is happening.  Sometimes that reason is greedy politicians or a angry young man or decades of doing nothing in the face of actual threats to our children.  Yes, God does have a plan, but I can assure you that God’s plan does not include the gunning down of 17 innocent people in a high school in Florida.  And if you look into the face of that mother, you can be damn sure that she’s smack dab in the middle of more than anyone should be asked to handle.

As she stands in the middle of the wilderness, flung there not by the Spirit of God, but rather by the devil and the powers of hell, the last thing this woman, or any of the families affected by any of the more than 270 school shootings that have happened since Columbine needs is a platitude about God’s plan.[1]  What they really need in that moment is for God to be there, walking alongside them in the grief, shock, and pain.  This is, I think, why Jesus is flung into the wilderness immediately following his baptism, so that he can be there when each of us finds ourselves in the wilderness because of illness, natural disaster, violence, abuse, harassment, degradation, or whatever else the devil and the powers of evil might throw our way.

On Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after the Parkland shooting, I was in the car early, listening to Golic and Wingo on ESPN Radio as they interviewed Stugotz, a sports radio personality who lives within walking distance of Margory Stoneman Douglas High School.  They asked him what the feeling was in the community.  His answer reminded me that because of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, God is able to understand what these families are feeling.  It also reminded me that as the body of Christ, we are invited to stand there as well, to bring the love of God to those who are lost, wandering in the wilderness.  “Some of the acts of kindness I saw yesterday,” he said, “you know… it takes something like this to get us to act like that… Where we are ok with someone cutting us off.  We are ok with a car parked in the middle of the road because it is a parent looking for their kid.  We’re ok getting out of the car, on our own, to help a kid looking for his parents, which I saw countless people doing yesterday with kids that weren’t even their own.  You’d like to think that’s how we’d always treat people… The way people acted yesterday, I wish that was the way people would act forever.”[2]

According to Mark, Jesus didn’t have any choice in whether he would enter the wilderness or not.  He was thrown there by the Spirit and spent forty days living in that godforsaken place so that the next time someone found themselves in the wilderness, it couldn’t be godforsaken.  Jesus was there, wrapping his arms of love around those two mothers, gripped in fear and sadness.  Jesus was there, helping terrified children find their families.  Jesus was there, holding the wounded and the dying in their hour of need.  Jesus was there. Jesus is here, even as we feel lost and alone in a wilderness of anger, fear, and grief.  And Jesus invites us to be the body of Christ by entering into the wilderness where others find themselves to offer God’s compassion and love.

[1] Lauren Pearle “School Shootings Since Columbine: By the Numbers” ABCNews, 2/12/2016, accessed 2/15/2018 (http://abcnews.go.com/US/school-shootings-columbine-numbers/story?id=36833245)

[2] Stugotz, interviewed on Golic and Wingo 2/15/2018, accessed 2/15/2018 (http://www.espn.com/espnradio/play?id=22451096)

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Driven Out

Mark is notoriously skimpy on the details.  It is part of what makes us pretty sure that Mark’s Gospel was the first.  The story was still so fresh. It was still being told, word of mouth, passing down from those who lived it to the following generation.  The world was still very early in the transition away from scrolls and to the codex.  Most folks would remain illiterate for another 1,500 years.  Important things were passed down by story, and not by text.  Yet, Mark decided the key details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection needed to be saved.  And so, he put pen to parchment.  The story he told wasn’t meant to be the full story, it was but the “beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Yet, there are occasions when, for reasons unbeknownst to us, Mark includes a detail or chooses a specific word, that makes us wonder.

In our Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B, we have one of those words that makes the exegete scratch her head and wonder.  It is easily missed in a story that jumps over months of time in just a few sentences.  From our third encounter with Jesus’ baptism by John since the liturgical year started to Jesus being tempted in the wilderness to John’s arrest and Jesus’ first sermon, these six verses certainly get the story moving forward.  As preachers know, however, Mark’s pace can be deceiving, and this rush through the wilderness is no exception.  After God the Father declares Jesus to be the beloved Son, Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit “immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

In digging into the word “drove,” I noted that Matthew and Luke, who are thought to have had Mark in hand when they wrote their own Gospels, didn’t keep Mark’s emphatic word, choosing two more passive verbs that are both translated into English as “was led.”  Further, the word Mark chose is the word repeatedly used to describe what happened when Jesus “cast out” demons.  In Mark’s understanding, the period of testing in the wilderness (more on that word later this week), wasn’t something Jesus was politely led by the hand out into, but rather he was compelled, even propelled, away from the comfortable words of the Father into a time in which his faith in God and himself would be severely tested.

I can think of times in my own life when there was a clear distinction between God leading me somewhere and God driving me in a certain direction.  Maybe you have too.  I’m sure at different times in his earthly ministry, even Jesus needed more of a push in a particularly challenging direction.  As we approach the season of Lent and take extra time to listen for God in our lives, what do you think?  Is God’s call in your life today more of a gentle leading or do you feel driven?

Temptation

Years from now, we’ll look back on this post as the day Draughting Theology jumped the shark. A cat meme? Really?!?

“Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” – The Collect for the First Sunday in Lent (BCP, 218)

As you can tell by the Collect above, this Sunday is all about temptation.  The tempter’s work starts early on as he finds a particular weakness within Adam and Eve (note Gen 3:6 specifically says that Adam was there the whole time) and exploits it.  He invites them to question God’s wisdom and resolve, he cracks open within them the thought that they too could be like God, and with that, they fall into the trap, eat the fruit, and have their eyes opened to the difference between good and evil.  Genesis tells us the first thing noticed what their nakedness, but I doubt that puritanical American opinions on the human body was the gift given from the forbidden fruit.  Instead, it seems that their nakedness was a metaphor for their vulnerability.  They now knew good from evil, they knew that the serpent had led them to temptation and they had made a mistake.  They longed for the goodness of God’s perfect vision for them.

Fast forward to Matthew, and we find the tempter, personified in a new way, seeking out Jesus’ particular weaknesses in the wilderness.  The story doesn’t tell us how long Jesus had been in the desert when the devil showed up, though you could read it as if all of this is happening on the 40th day.  Whether it is day 2 or day 40, the truth remains that the fasting Jesus was hungry.  The easiest entry point for Satan was through food.  When that didn’t work, he moved on to testing the relationship of the Godhead.  If your Father loves you so much, certainly he’ll catch you when you fall.  But Jesus is unswayed.  Finally, the devil goes back after Jesus’ humanity, aiming for that part that lies deep within all of us that seeks after power and control. “Worship me, and this can all be yours.”  Jesus, however, doesn’t just know good from evil, he is good – perfect goodness.  He withstands the temptations by placing his full trust in the Father; something he’ll have to do again and again over the next three years.

We are not immune to the work of the tempter.  Even know, he knows the particular weakness of each of us.  He knows our insecurities and our areas of excessive pride, and will attempt to exploit them and in so doing, turn us away from our relationship with God.  The truth of the matter is, the tempter will succeed more often than not, but the Good News is that the God who created us, vulnerabilities and all, is mighty to save.  Again and again, he’ll receive us back into his arms and recreate us as his beloved children.