The Wilderness of our Lives – March 10, 2019

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday in Lent

The wilderness: by definition an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. I am always amazed at those who seek it out in some form, even living there for a time in all its barrenness, crudeness, and endangerment.  I would never have been a good boy scout. The very thought of camping out in such a place gives me the willies. My comfort level around camping out stops at a Holiday Inn.

Jesus spent 40 days and nights in such a desolate place and didn’t just camp out there, he fasted from food—no franks and beans or s’mores by the fire. Can you imagine not eating for 40 days straight? How many of us get grumpy when we skip a meal? How wearisome is it to have to fast the day before the dreaded colonoscopy procedure? And in his hunger and fatigue and utter vulnerability, Jesus is tempted by the forces of evil. First, he is tempted to bribe people, second that he impress people, third that he dominate people. He rejects all three demonic proposals.

The evil one can be very resourceful. Every one of the three temptations called on Jesus to inflate himself, to take the wealth, power, and glory that was his as Son of God and use it for himself alone rather than for the sake of others. The devil got nowhere with Jesus but, as the text tells us, he was not about to give up and would just wait for another opportune time.

The story of the people of Israel that we hear in today’s passage from Deuteronomy is describing a liturgical act recognizing the faithfulness of God to the Hebrew people. What we are hearing in Deuteronomy today is the climax of the exodus story.  After almost 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites are poised to enter the promised  land.  After nearly forty years of feeling lost and unsure, roaming through the wilderness, after being chastised for bad behavior, and after having spent a good deal of their journey being perplexed and hungry, and wondering why they left Egypt in the first place ,now they sit overlooking the Promised Land which is in sight.

I think there is good reason why we hear these two stories at the very start of the season of Lent. Places of wilderness come in all sizes and configurations. The wilderness places about which we hear in the scriptures today, those uncultivated, scary, lonesome places and life circumstances are a metaphor for the uncomfortable, unwanted, anxious times in one’s life.

Sometimes the only way you become aware that you’ve landed there is that you look around to see who can help you find your way out and you come up empty. We don’t like that kind of wilderness and, in fact, we spend a lot of time, energy, and maybe even money to escape it. We also know that the success rate in accomplishing that can be pretty low.

I don’t think that the wilderness places in our life are about testing our faith. The truth is that there is nothing we can do to be deserving of God’s love. There is no contest we must win. Grace is a free gift given without condition. I don’t think the wilderness is designed to make us more remorseful so that God will draw nearer to us. God is already as close to us as our heartbeat. Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.

I think the wilderness is a place for growth and clarity. I think it is where we discover how to live fully by the grace of God alone and not by what we think we can supply or achieve on our own.

I’d like to suggest that we look at the wilderness – the uncertain, confusing, challenging places we encounter— first, in our own lives and then in the life of this faith community. What is your own experience of that empty, barren, time when you may have been tempted to act in a way that went against your belief and value system?

Maybe you’re there right now—in a wilderness time of life. Maybe these readings from the scriptures and my preaching about them has provoked memories of a time when you were. Maybe you fear that one may be looming on the horizon. Remember that God’s Spirit led Jesus to that place and also led him out of it.

In our wilderness, we may be tempted to doubt God’s presence with us and dream for us, to compromise our integrity, forgetting that we are God’s own beloved and to question, God’s enormous, unfailing love for us just as we are—warts and all. And the evil one can be very resourceful in trying to make us believe that.

Distasteful as it is when we are smack in the middle of it, the wilderness is one of the most reality-based, life-changing places one can be. It can be transformative. It can be a place of clarity and discovery. To be honest with you, as I count down these next two and a half months before I retire as your rector, I am sitting in my own newly fashioned wilderness and trying to imagine what lies ahead and if there is a promised land out there awaiting me.

This year, as we have done for so many years, we embark on these five weeks of the Lenten season as a time of more intentional prayer, self-reflection, maybe some aspect of fasting, and acts of service or generosity to those in need. But this year is not like every other year. Our world seems so beset by violence, intolerance of differences, utter bigotry and hatred, and the sins of greed, deceit, and arrogant pride. The forces of evil are again at work just waiting for an opportune time to snag those who can easily be tempted to abuse power and misuse wealth.

And, as it is true for our nation and the world, this is not just another Lent for the people of St. Paul’s on the Green. We are now a parish preparing to celebrate the twenty-six years of ministry of its rector and to begin to say the farewells and, with that, the grieving process. We may enter this Lenten season with feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and bewilderment.

I wonder if it is not the Lent to think differently about what this season and this journey wants to teach us about our lives, our relationships with God and one another, our place in this community and our commitment to it, our evaluation of what it means to us and so many and what we are willing to do to keep it vibrant, strong, and healthy.

I think the journey we hear about in the first reading is really a journey in which we celebrate God’s unimaginable love, grace, mercy and abundance. And more than that it is about sharing that good news with others. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of “nones” — those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or of no particular religion — will reach 1.2 billion worldwide by 2060. In the United States, 23 percent of the population currently claims no religious affiliation. Young people are particularly likely to identify as nones. Last year a study by Understanding Belief researcher Stephen Bullivant revealed that 70 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.K. identify as having “no religion.”

As we make the journey of this Lent which will lead to your journey as a community to welcome new ordained leadership, we don’t have to get stuck in the wilderness. There is work to be done. We’ve built this city on a commitment to radical welcome and to growing, to be here for the very next person who comes through the doors. And we are all called to be missionaries – to go out and invite those who may be hurting, abused, seeking more in their life and floundering in their own wilderness experience looking for a way out. Can we imagine what a Lent it could be, what an amazing journey, if we made that our focus?

Benedictine nun and progressive catholic author, Joan Chittister, says of Lent: “Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve what we should have done and did not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.”

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