Where is the wilderness in our midst?

A sermon for Lent 1, Year B (21 February 2021)
Gen 9.8-17; Psalm ; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

Good morning. Here we are again—Lent. Do you feel as though you never left? Does it feel as though you’ve already been soul searching for a while? Perhaps you’ve felt—just recently—a sense of nascent, embryonic hope, only to suddenly be faced with ashes. Wherever you are, whatever thoughts and emotions are sitting with you this morning, welcome. Welcome to another Lenten journey. You won’t be alone as we move through this time, together. 

As a child I knew nothing of Lent. I had no context or reason for understanding it until college, which is where I also started to learn about fasting as a spiritual practice. For a time (then and later) I would occasionally embark on short term periods of fasting and prayer, sometimes accompanied by a vague purpose in mind. Admittedly, after so many years of observing and not observing the liturgical season, I cannot say that I’ve had a significant or memorable experience. However, (even still) I do love the thought of spending time on mountain tops, and can relate to Peter who—as we read last week—was ready to build a hut (or three) and just stay put. Who wouldn’t want to dwell with the presence of divine Love and Light and Life; much like the sparrow and swallow of Psalm 84? But the mountain top is not the wilderness wandering of Lent. And I think I forget that sometimes. I mean, we’re supposed to ‘get’ something for our troubles, are we not? Isn’t Lenten fasting or journaling or praying or what-have-you all about enlightenment? A deeper sense of peace? More patience? Clearer skin? A healthier gut? Why, then, am I waiting patiently for the Lord?

Of course, Lent is not transactional. It is not about finding the prize at the bottom of the box. Yet we swim in a culture that idolizes particular visions of health and wellness that is inherently tied to notions of, and expectations around, productivity and ‘sweat equity’ that color our perceptions of spiritual practice. So then, how might we come to understand Lent for Lent’s sake? Now, Perhaps you don’t have this problem whatsoever; in which case, I should probably be sitting at your feet, rather than you having to endure my verbal processing. (We can talk afterwards. I would love to learn something new.) My hope for now is simply to explore the idea of ‘wilderness’ and see where it leads as we enter into this particular season of Lent.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, Year B of the lectionary reading cycle—which means that last year we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation by the devil, in the wilderness, and next year we will read Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness. Each story begins nearly the same: Jesus emerges from the Jordan after having been baptized by John, and wanders off into the wilderness for testing. Matthew describes him as being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, while Luke notes that Jesus is both led by the Spirit and is full of the Holy Spirit as he goes. Both writers keep the longer narrative describing Jesus’ interaction with the devil as it culminates in the three trials. Both writers really want you to know who is this Jesus in relation to God and the prophets, and therefore Israel’s tradition.

Mark, who we read today, doesn’t have time for all that. According to Mark, Jesus comes out of nowhere (quite literally—Nazareth may as well have been a non-place), is baptized by John; he then sees the heavens open, the Spirit descend upon him, and hears a voice declaring ‘you are my Son, my beloved.’ Then immediately, the Holy Spirit who just swooped down, is driving him out into the wilderness. The verb Mark uses is the same verb for exorcism (ekballei). This is a dramatic event as depicted with classic Markan narrative whiplash. But in the rush of all that, as the story progresses, did you notice something? “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by satan [the “accuser” from Job]; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark’s gospel is the only one to include mention of wild beasts with Jesus in the wilderness.

Scholar Ched Myers, notes that in the Greek text there is a striking prepositional change relating both to Jesus’ entry to the water and the wilderness. Mark chapter one verse five says that “people … were going out to [John] and were baptized by him in the river Jordan.” The preposition for “in” is [en]. Jesus, however, was baptized into the Jordan, [eis] followed by the Spirit descending onto him [eis], before thrusting (exorcising) him into the wilderness [eis]. Myers goes on to note that the grammatical shift suggests a more complete submersion—perhaps even submission—not only to the prophetic mission heralded by John (along with its significant political implications); but also to the created order itself. He notes that, “While theologians usually understand Jesus’ baptism as divine empowerment ‘from above,’ we could just as well argue he was being en-spirited from ‘below’ through a deep submersion into his beloved homeland.”[i]

In other words, what we see in Mark’s gospel is how water and wilderness are linked in a more-than-spiritual way even as it is the Spirit that leads/guides/compels/thrusts Jesus (and all who would follow in his steps) out into unfamiliar terrain. I say ‘more than spiritual’ because too often it is easier to imagine our own private wilderness as a generalized ethereal place in which we have interiorized experiences that are no less real, yet are not consciously tied to where we are as much as how we are. But this is where other contemporary practices can come into play.

Some practices involving a more embodied approach seek to address the over-spiritualization with which we wrestle. Walking the labyrinth, or (as Canon Britt will tell you) the Camino are examples of this more embodied spiritual experience that engage us at a different register; one that we may not have words for but that we know can change us, push on us, press upon us like hands on clay. Embodied spiritual practices offer a tangible countercultural posture that help us see daily life in a different light. Having to stop and think about patterns of consumption, activity, movement, where and how we are spending our time and energy—that level of consciousness can be a gift at the right time. Not only that, but as the early desert saints, and so many others throughout time and history, will attest, sometimes we need to get completely outside ourselves–our communities even–before we can give God the attention we feel is due. As one contemporary writer describes it, “desert spirituality is a lived experience of faith involving deliberate deprivation of various sorts as a paradoxical gift of one’s environment.”[ii] Some days, the axiom ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it,’ is the truth we need.

Of course, I say all that to you, a community who already thinks about these things, who wrestles with notions of comfort, ease, and provision, as we are a full year into a deadly pandemic that is taking the life and breath away from already vulnerable and marginalized sectors of our society. We are on the cusp of a half million people dead within the last year at the hands of a novel virus as it shapeshifts and mutates according to certain bodies it comes in contact with in its travels. In the past year our own bodies have changed as our diameter of life narrows; a walk through the neighborhood takes the place of gym time, or coffee shop ventures and visits with friends further afield. I don’t know about you, but the cushion on my desk chair is a fair bit flatter than it used to be. For the past year, the wilderness has come to our very doorsteps, even seeped into our homes.

And yet, how has that changed how we imagine the wilderness of Lent? If I may, I would like to imagine a different kind of wilderness, following the gospel story of Jesus. I would like to suggest that the wilderness is indeed linked to our baptismal waters, and that it exists—in a very real way—in proximity to those waters. Beyond the symbolism of Jesus Christ (Jesus the God-man) in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, is the lived experience of Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus the man-God) in the wilderness with the wild beasts unsheltered, fasting, for over a month. A wilderness place—geographically, ecologically, symbolically—is a liminal space, a marginal zone. Life is there, but it is a precarious life, always on the verge of perishing. Every ounce of energy expended in the wilderness is oriented toward survival; the nature of such life that can survive is not always recognizable.

When I think about the possibility of such a place here in our watershed, I think about the triangle hillside just above Shilshole where 57th crosses over the train tracks and then dives down to the street below. It is a triangle of brush, slender trees, composting leaves, and the occasional tent dweller. It’s places like this, places where there is a tent or two (or ten), where shelter/provisions/protection (such as they are) could be swept away at any moment…might we call those wilderness places? While it’s true that the gospel narrative of Jesus in the wilderness presumably takes place far from any civilization, that the story of temptation and testing is intended to demonstrate the divine affiliation Jesus alone carries as he carries the Spirit with him; nevertheless, we have this story: that Jesus traversed waters and wilderness. And as one scholar writes, “Borders and margins are always dangerous places to cross or in which to live. However, by freely moving into those dangerous places, Jesus calls into question the systems that promote and enforce order and demarcation.”[iii]

I must apologize if you’re feeling a kind of whiplash as I make a hard pivot—metaphorical, narrative, conceptual—from the interiority of desert spirituality that typically helps us to navigate Lent, to the material realities right where we live. And I do not mean to suggest that we somehow ‘ought to’ physically enter such spaces. . . I wonder, though, what can happen when we begin to recognize the wilderness spaces within our own Cedar River watershed from which we draw water for baptizing and for remembering our own baptism. How is it that the marginal and marginalizing spaces that push life closer toward nonlife, the human to become inhuman how can those play upon our imagination? It is this wilderness that tangibly informs our spirituality at a communal and social level. Consider all the ways we seek out health, wellness, monetary security: and is it too far a stretch to say some of that motivation comes from fear, anxiety; a hesitance, a refusal to enter wilderness? We see the wilderness spaces in our watershed as uninhabitable, undesirable—yet there are persons there, some with not-so-wild beasts of their own, perched on the edge of precarity.

How does that make you feel?

Jesus, led / filled with / and expelled by the Holy Spirit, went from his baptismal waters of the Jordan River into the watershed wilderness. For forty days he was tempted/tested by the satan, humanity’s accuser. He was there with the wild beasts and was tended by angels. When he returned to Galilee he proclaimed the good news of the coming reign of God. Jesus traverses waters and wilderness in order to declare and initiate New Creation, new life—where God’s covenant with all flesh—all flesh—is filled with everlasting life. And as we will see, not even death can stop the life generating power of our God—not physical death, and certainly not the many ways our human systems and societies bestow death upon those pushed to marginal places.

If Lent is our annual wilderness pilgrimage, where is the Spirit leading you?

[i] Ched Myers, “A Call to Watershed Discipleship” in Anglican Theological Review (vol 100.1), p. 75.

[ii] Rachel Wheeler, “The Revelatory Tide: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Water Crises” in Spiritus (vol 20.2), p. 178.

[iii] Manuel Villalobos Mendoza, Abject Bodies in the Gospel of Mark, (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012), p. 94.

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