Friday afternoon, as I was trying to avoid writing my sermon by messing around on Twitter, I got a call from St. Andrew’s in Sedona. The priest was stricken by the dastardly flu, and could I jump in for Sunday?
While I felt really bad for their rector, I love this church. They are wonderfully friendly, have very good coffee, laugh at my jokes, and, most vitally, sponsor the Annual Rummage Sale. This is a yearly garage sale for the church, and they invite Canterbury to come help pack things up when it ends…and take whatever they want, for free, from the leftovers. (The tales of the findings at this sale have spread far and wide among the hipsters in Flagstaff. Checkered blazers! Suspenders! Record players! Such irony as has never before been seen.) The students look forward to this sale ALL YEAR LONG.
So I was pumped to drive down the hill and jump in for 2 services.
I had to keep reassuring people that the fact I seemed to know what I was doing was not a product of divine intervention, but because the liturgy was written down! (And I had done this before.)
Here’s what I said.
February 24, 2012
Lent 1, Year B
Mark 1: 9-15
When I was a college student, I decided to spend the summer I turned 21 living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I had received a fellowship to ‘discern‘ my life’s work, and I wanted to go; I had never been before. My experience of being outside the country was limited to 2 weeks in France with my grandmother, and a weekend in London. So, I found a place to stay, I found a volunteer job, I found people to help me. My parents weren’t thrilled, but they weren’t stopping me either.
Right before I left, a friend from college asked me if I was afraid. I can’t recall what she said, but I think it was something along the lines of “People blow up over there; aren’t you scared?”
I thought about it. I wasn’t scared for my physical safety. I didn’t have a clear concept of that. I was twenty! I was magic!
I was afraid of something else. I was afraid that I wouldn’t come back the same person as I was leaving. Of losing the last of my comfortable notions about the world as a good, safe place, with cooler, wiser heads (which weren’t mine) prevailing in the end. And I didn’t want that. I was fine as I was, thank you very much. I could see the rough outlines of the wilderness demons staring at me from the distance, and I was not keen on heading there.
But it dawned on me , as I was kicked out of my taxi on the way to St. George’s the morning I arrived, because the driver refused to drive on the Arab side of town–I pondered, as I tugged my giant flowered suitcase down the street, that this was really not up to me at all. I had agreed to come on this journey, so I agreed to be shaped by the experience, scary or not. If my “Yes” had been authentic, then it had to be complete–prospect of demons and all.
Because, really, you don’t get faith without freakouts. Or, rather, you don’t get the pretty heavenly dove without then getting driven into the wilderness.
In Mark’s version of events, we hear again the story of Jesus’ baptism. But in typical Markan fashion, what is a blissful, pastoral scene in Luke, and John, and Matthew, has elements of the traumatic here. Jesus is no sooner baptised than the sky is ripped apart— this image which will reappear only at the crucifixion, the Spirit swoops down on him and a voice booms out. “this is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
and it’s this same descending spirit, we’re told, that immediately drives Jesus out into the wilderness.
One minute a dove, the next minute, a harassing, driving force. The Spirit is both, for Jesus in Mark’s gospel. And his call to minister, to be faithful is not just enlivening, pastoral words of love and comfort– those words in a broken world lead him necessarily into a wilderness of demons and turmoil.
Because for Jesus to live into the truth of what is said to him at his baptism, then he must go to the wilderness. He can’t just dance around it. If Jesus is going to live fully as God’s Beloved, and proclaim that all creation is beloved as well, then that mission will take him into conflict with the parts of creation that were broken. The parts of the world that don’t operate as if all of creation is good, or if all people are beloved by God. Jesus will have to confront those forces, in some way, in order to live out his baptism. He’ll have to go to the wilderness, and even to the cross. Jesus’s mission encompasses all of it.
And we are not so different ourselves. When we stand and say what we believe, we walk into wilderness too When we proclaim our belief in a loving God who made a good creation, we have to confront the fact that there are currently parts of creation that don’t seem so good. That are broken, and out of step. When we assert our belief that Jesus came so that all would know the unending love of God, we must confront the fact that right now, there are systems at work which hurt the children of God, and make them feel unloved.
In other words, that pretty looking dove will end up pushing us into some uncomfortable seeming places. Places where we have to look at things we’d rather not have to see. Think about things we’d rather not have to think about– all the broken and chaotic mess of the world. We’d like to stay happily on that riverbank, hanging out with John the Baptist, but eventually, like it or not, the voice of the Spirit pushes us on.
And really, that’s what Lent is for. Lent is for spending time in that wilderness, that discomfort. It is for taking time to examine how our world fails to match up with what we believe. There are ways in which our world is broken. There are ways in which our world is unjust, and there are ways in which we are broken, too.
Lent is when we stop and examine how well the way we live matches up with what we believe. We say God loves unconditionally and without limits, and that we’re called to do the same–how are we doing on that score with the folks around us? We say we are called to forgive like Jesus forgave– how are we doing?
Our baptismal promises pledge us to respect the dignity of every human being, to see Christ in all people, and to work for justice and peace for all. Do we live in a world that honors these promises of ours?
We won’t get it perfect. But we are called into those uncomfortable places of conflict because we have been marked as beloved by God. Because we, and everyone else, are so valued by God, that God has redeemed this world in the Incarnation, and God is perfecting the whole creation even now, and wants us to help out. People of faith don’t get to sit back in safe denial on the riverbank. This is our chance to pitch in, in the various ways we’re called to.
When I got back from Palestine, after that summer abroad, I wasn’t noticeably different, not really. Only a few things were different.
I had some trouble reading Middle Eastern history books for my thesis, because I got too emotional. I got overwhelmed in the grocery store by all the food, laid out like a kaleidoscope. I still can’t watch American news coverage of the Middle East. Small things.
But I would not trade that experience for anything. I had assumed that being faced with the realities of poverty and violence in the world would make me an unhappier person, a colder person. That didn’t turn out to be true.
Instead, ironically, I like to think I became a more driven, empathetic person. I came back, determined to do everything I could to help, and then everything after that. I was 20! I was magic!
To my shock, the wilderness I had been skeptical of, the truth that I had been wary of, hadn’t erased me. God was pulling me on, the whole time, and didn’t let me go alone.
So as we begin the journey of Lent, as we look towards our wildernesses, and we examine all the ways in which we are broken, the ways we fall short of who God knows us to be– be not afraid. There is no brokenness so messy, no demon so wild, no wilderness so deep that the God who called in the first place is not there already.