The Wilderness of our Modern Lives

A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017, by the Rev. Bingham Powell.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. We have begun our forty-day sojourn through the Lenten wilderness. Not a literal wilderness, of course, not here in the rainy and even snowy Willamette Valley, but a metaphorical wilderness, perhaps even a spiritual wilderness. People often enter this period of Lenten wilderness with some sort of spiritual practice of giving up, traditionally understood to be fasting and not eating meat during the season. Although today it’s more commonly fasting from sweets, or coffee, or curse words, or television, or social media.

In the Gospel that we just heard, it says that Jesus was led by the Spirit into that wilderness. I hope that all of us who have taken on a Lenten practice were led by the Spirit in that process. Mark’s Gospel puts it a bit differently. Mark doesn’t say that the Spirit led Jesus, but rather that the Spirit drove Jesus, a bit more intense language. Being led makes it feel like you’ve got a choice in the matter. You can choose not to follow the person trying to lead you, but being driven is something against your will. That’s something in which you have no choice. And that is the reality of the Lenten wilderness for some, and probably for all of us at some point in our lives. We find ourselves in the Lenten wilderness not of our own volition or choice, maybe not even during Lent. The wilderness of unemployment, for example, or inadequate employment; the wilderness of relationships falling apart; the wilderness of families torn apart; the wilderness of grief over recent or upcoming death; the medical wilderness of cancer, or chronic pain, heart disease, HIV, depression, PTSD, and so many more; the wilderness of fear that permeates our lives in the media and our civic life so intensely these days. Some of us may be in that wilderness right now. Maybe we’ve been there for a while. Some of us may not be there right now, but we’ve been there and can remember what it’s like; or maybe we’ll find ourselves in such a wilderness before this season is done.

These two types of wilderness are quite different, of course. The wilderness you choose, versus the wilderness you are driven into are different. And just as training is inadequate in fully preparing us for the real thing, it does give us a sense of what the wilderness is like, and can connect us with Jesus and his own struggles.

Whenever I’ve thought of the desert wilderness experience of Jesus, I’ve tended to focus on the sparseness and heat of the environment. This morning when I saw the snow, I couldn’t help but chuckle about how ironic it was that this was our reading today. I’ve also tended to focus on the hunger and the temptations that the devil offers him. But this past summer I got a new image that has been sitting in my mind. I went to Atlanta, Georgia, for a conference. The conference was held at an Episcopal church that has numerous Tiffany stained glass windows that are all related to the life of Jesus. It starts with the Annunciation, then goes on to Jesus’s birth, Jesus as a child in the temple, his baptism in the River Jordan by John, until you get to the window of the wilderness. All of the other windows have been chock full of images, but the wilderness window is very sparse. It has a rock with Jesus sitting on it with his head down, and a snake down in the corner. Jesus looks lonely in this window. And that was an image of Jesus that I had never thought of before: Jesus, lonely during these forty days. It is an image that I can’t shake, and it has haunted me in my reading of this Gospel story. I’d never thought about his loneliness out there for those forty days, a loneliness that he would again feel when most of the disciples abandon him when he went to his cross.

Out there in the desert, he did, for those forty days, have connection with others. First it was the devil, that old crafty tempter as we heard in the Genesis reading, trying to build a relationship with him by offering Jesus survival and protection and power. In that Tiffany window, the snake is down there to remind us of that visit by the devil. But not all connection is good, of course, for the price to pay for what the devil offers him is much too steep. Jesus rejects this attempted exit from his isolation.

After the devil departs and Jesus is alone again, in comes another connection. This time the angels, the messengers of God, come to care and support and nurture him and end that loneliness that he is experiencing. These two possible relationships that Jesus was offered out there in the desert are quite different. The relationship the devil offers is a transactional relationship of power and greed: worship me and I’ll give you these kingdoms; be in a relationship with me and I will give you stuff--a quid pro quo. But the relationship that the angels offer has no quid pro quo. It is pure, unselfish love and grace.

I am not suggesting that we should all go out and try to be lonely for Lent. That is not the point of this sermon. I’m not advocating that you purposely enter loneliness as your Lenten discipline. Rather what I am wondering more and more is if we are already in the wilderness of loneliness, or at least the wilderness of isolation which will often lead to loneliness as a society. Have we already been driven into that second kind of wilderness, the kind that does not neatly fit into a forty-day liturgical season with a day off each week, a wilderness that manifests itself in isolation and loneliness?

It has been almost two decades since Robert Putnam published the book, “Bowling Alone”, in which he made the case that we are more isolated than we have ever been as a society. And we have seemed to isolate ourselves more and more in the time since. Those community gathering places have continued to decline; I doubt we know our neighbors any better today than we did a couple of decades ago. I read an article a few months ago about the decline in friendships, especially for men, in the 21st century. Technology, which seems like it should help connect us by making connection easier, has been doing the opposite. Kids have school, fortunately, but for adults there are fewer options for us to connect, and fewer of us are taking advantage of those options. Church is one of the last few places where adults go to gather with other adults in a community. Not just as individuals gathering in the same place but disconnected from each other, as when you go to a coffee shop where no one is talking to another, but rather on their phones using the free wifi. There the people are together, but are not in relationship, not in community. But the church is a place where people are truly in relationship with each other, sometimes crossing boundaries of who we would normally interact with, offering dignity and respect to every person.

In many ways this is a sermon that preaches to the choir, as that old expression goes, for you all gathered here today, and you know that community matters. It matters to you; this community matters to you, and that’s one of the reasons you are here. You are the great resistance to the isolating forces of our day. Every time we show up for each other and engage with each other, we are resisting these powerful forces that are driving people into the wilderness of isolation. As folks who know how valuable relationship is; as a people who worship a God who wanted to be in relationship with us so badly that God came down here to be one of us, to live among us and live our life. We know how important this is, and so it is our task to build community, to build relationships, to build bridges and friendships to help move this world through the wilderness of isolation and loneliness, through Lent, through Holy Week, through Good Friday, and into Easter. Because that is the real Lenten task: to move towards Easter.

But we have to go through the desert to get there, and there are no shortcuts if we really want to discover the new life, the transformed life of resurrection. We have to enter into that loneliness, into that desert and start building real, deep, abiding relationships; relationships of support, and nurture, and affection, like the angels offered to Jesus. Not relationships that are transactional, relationships of greed and power like the devil offered. We have to be committed to a different way of life, a life of connection to each other and to this world. Building a relationship and community not only in here, but out there, also. A community grounded in love and grace.