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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Prayer for Feb. 28

Joyce Rupp's words can be a guide for us through this season of Lent:

It's time for the pilgrim in me
To travel in the dark,
To learn to read the stars
that shine in my soul.
I will walk deeper
into the dark of the night
I will wait for the stars,
trust their guidance,
and let their light be enough for me.

We gather as spiritual pilgrims who travel through both light and darkness, joy and sorrow, beginnings and endings. Let us rest here together in the kindness, and strength of this community. Let us gather hope for the days ahead of us

We pray for all in need of prayer, for all who are hungry and cold, for all who live with violence and war. We pray especially for the people of Chile in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake there and for the people of Haiti who are still recovering — for all who are hurt and for all who are grieving.

We pray for the joys and sorrows of this community:

And we hold in our hearts all the prayers which are unspoken, too tender and new even for words. Let us sit in quiet and listen to the sounds of morning or pray the prayers of our own hearts.

Go to the Place Called Barren, Stand in the Place Called Empty

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Today is the second Sunday in Lent. In the Christian calendar Lent is the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Lent is a serious time in the Christian liturgical year; it is a time for spiritual discipline and deepening in order to be ready for the Easter message of rebirth. Lent, which simply means spring, or more literally, the lengthening of the days, comes at a serious time in our part of the world, whether we observe it religiously or not. We are, most of us, yearning for spring these days. We are watching the ground with tremulous hope as the first spring bulbs start pushing their green shoots up. We are thinking with every last snow storm, this has got to be the last one. We live in New England. We understand what it means to wait for spring, to wait for the season rebirth. And even though we might be wishing it away, there is something important about this time of waiting.

As I said last week, I believe Lent is, or at least can be, an annual invitation to wake up. It is a time to prepare ourselves for the new life that is coming, both the literal new life of spring, and the emotional, metaphorical new life that we are trying to create within ourselves, within our families and communities, and within our world. Lent is a time for an internal journey, for some movement toward new life. To me, this is not ultimately about whether we believe in the literal truth of the Easter story, that Jesus died and came alive again. More, it is about a spiritual rebirth and what we might need to do in order to awaken ourselves.

Last week talked about one of the essentials of the spiritual journey being awareness of our mortality — the smallness of the time we have here. Today I am going to talk about another essential of the spiritual journey — the willingness to enter the wilderness and to see what we find there. In her book entitled Whole Earth Meditation, Joan Sauro writes simply: Go to the place called barren. Stand in the place called empty. And you will find God there. These words resonate with me. Go to the place called barren. Stand in the place called empty, and you will almost inevitably find that they are not barren or empty at all but full, full in ways you may never have imagined. (Whole Earth Meditation: Ecology for the Spirit by Joan Sauro, LuraMedia 1992)

The idea of Lent as a journey into an internal or spiritual wilderness is based or built around the story told in three of the four gospels about the span of 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his ministry and teaching. This was just after his baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin John. During this time he was being tempted by the devil, a creature who is not described at all, and about whom we know nothing except that the devil is able to quote passages of the Hebrew Bible from memory.

The devil doesn't really come up in our faith tradition but I had a rather interesting experience with the devil last week, or rather with my son dressed as the devil. I didn't know he was even aware of the concept until he was spending some time in the office with me and made himself a red construction paper mask and a red construction paper pitchfork, which he taped to the end of a long, thin stick so he had a good reach. He seemed to have gotten the devil and Cupid mixed up in his mind; maybe it was the prevalence of the color red, but he burst into my office, where I was meeting with a fortunately good natured member of the congregation, and declared himself the Devil of Love. He told us if he poked us with his pitchfork, someone would fall in love with us. Unfortunately, the devil Jesus encounters in the Gospel stories is far less benign.

The gospel of Luke tells the story this way:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' 11and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" 12Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.

(Luke 4:1-13)

Needless to say, there is no historical basis for this story though there is certainly a precedent for fasting in Judaism. There is also the precedent of Moses spending forty days on the top of Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments when he was leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Though in that story it is the people waiting down below who are tempted and succumb to the temptation and build a golden calf to worship as they are tired of waiting for Moses to return. The fact that the story of Jesus being tempted is included in some form in the three oldest gospels tells us, not that the story is true, but that the authors of the Gospels thought it was important. They wanted their readers to know that Jesus had bested the devil and fought off the temptations offered to him, for bread when he was starving, for power and glory and for special protection. What I find kind of interesting is that the Devil doesn’t seem to intend to leave for good, as least as the author of Luke tells the story — he merely departs until an opportune time. There is an implied threat that we will be back.

The Episcopal Priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor gives an interesting perspective on both the biblical passage and her understanding of the meaning of Lent in her essay titled The Wilderness Exam. She writes in part:

What I want to focus on… is where the test took place — the wilderness — because I have an idea that every one of us has already been there. Maybe it just looked like a hospital waiting room to you, or the sheets on a cheap motel bed after you got kicked out of your house, or maybe it looked like the parking lot where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job. It may even have been a kind of desert in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the wheezing bellows of your own breath.

Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. No food. No earthly power. No special protection — just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.

Needless to say, this is not a situation many of us seek. Most of us, in fact, spend a lot of time and money trying to stay out of it; but I don't know anyone who succeeds at that entirely or forever. Sooner or later, every one of us will get to take our own wilderness exam, our own trip to the desert to discover who we really are and what our lives are really about

(reprinted on the blog DayOne.org for Feb. 21, 2010)

In other words, we are all going to end up in the wilderness at one point in our lives and probably more than once. We are all going to end up in the barren place, in the place of emptiness, wrestling with whatever distinct and personal devils have our name on them. Maybe the devil with our name on it is addiction or depression, maybe it is a frightening health diagnosis, a house headed toward foreclosure. Maybe the devil with our name is widowhood or divorce or children or grandchildren whose lives are spinning out of control. Though I don’t think it is always or only bad news that can send us into the wilderness. Some acquaintances of ours just had twins after years of infertility and yearning. They are overjoyed but they are also in the wilderness, overwhelmed by the exhausting reality of parenting two tiny beings who want to eat every three hours.

But no matter how we got there, no matter what particular wilderness test is ours, they all have something in common. When we are in the wilderness, the illusion that we are in control of our lives falls away and we are confronted with the truth that we are not actually in charge of some very important things. In fact we are not in charge of very much except how we will face this moment. For most of us this is not good news, or at least it certainly doesn’t feel like good news. But Barbara Brown Taylor believes that it is. She believes that the “the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit filled, life-changing places a person can be.” She believes that the wilderness tests in our lives have a great deal to teach us — that when we are left at our most vulnerable, most stripped down and honest, we can, if we are willing and able to encounter that wilderness place, to stay in it and move through it and see what is there for us, we can find a deep sense of freedom, as well as clarity about our purpose in life, and understanding about what is real, what is dependable, what is trustworthy.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that it took her decades to understand that Lent wasn’t simply about giving something up that she loved but rather a time to voluntarily enter her own internal wilderness. By that she means that she now chooses and encourages others to choose to subtract from our lives something that we use as a kind of anesthesia, as what she refers to as an adult pacifier, during the period of Lent. She encourages people to give up a habit or practice that we know or at least suspect keeps us from fully feeling our feelings, from fully experiencing our lives as we are living them, things like Facebook or computer solitaire or alcohol or television. Not because any of these things are inherently bad, but because they are distractions. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, they are “things to reach for when a person is too tired, too sad, or too afraid to enter the wilderness of the present moment — to wonder what (that wilderness is) really about or who else is in it or maybe just to make a little bed in the sand.

I find Barbara Brown Taylor’s approach compelling though I also believe that our ideas, fantasies and misconceptions about ourselves and the world can be equally numbing, equally distracting as any habit or substance. Interestingly, while the temptations the devil puts before Jesus in the dessert might seem archaic or absurd at first glance, they are still completely relevant. The devil basically says, “I you are hungry, change stones into bread. If you worship me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours. If you are really the son of God, throw yourself from a tower and let the angels rescue you.” What are the temptations here? The first is a kind of adult magical thinking. Even though we may be quite sure we know what is real and what is not, we still believe in magical thoughts, thoughts like, “Of course I can make stones into bread. Of course I can take care of everything by myself and of course I am self sufficient.”

The second temptation is the temptation of power and control, which usually comes along with some measure of wealth and recognition and the accompanying fantasy that our lives, our needs, our desires are more important than those of other people. We think, “I am special. I have the right to be self-centered and selfish because I am important and my life matters more than other lives.”

And the third temptation is the temptation of rescue, the illusion that someone or something outside of ourselves is about to save us. The next relationship or job will bring us bliss and complete satisfaction. If we had more of something, more money or bigger houses, or less of something, less stomach fat or less of our current boss, everything would be fine. But these are fantasies; they are ideas that keep us distracted and disengaged from what is real. They keep us distracted and disengaged from our lives in the present moment. I think letting go of our illusions is one of the hardest tasks of adulthood and it is probably never done. But if we want to feed our true hungers, we must turn to real food, not stones. We need real bread and each of us needs to discern what real bread is for us.

Brown Taylor concludes her essay by saying:

It would be a mistake for me to try to describe your wilderness exam. Only you can do that, because only you know what devils have your (phone) number, and what kinds of bribes they use to get you to pick up. All I know for sure is that a voluntary trip to the desert this Lent is a great way to practice getting free of those devils… — not only because it is where you lose your appetite for things that cannot save you, but also because it is where you learn to trust the Spirit that led you there to lead you out again.

(The Wilderness Test, reprinted on the blog DayOne.org for Feb. 21, 2010)

The artist and writer Jan Richardson, who keeps a beautiful blog of her collages and reflections called The Painted Prayerbook, believes that the wilderness time of Lent can be for learning who we are by coming to understand who we are not. She likens this process to making a collage, saying, “The challenge of creating a piece of art lies not just in deciding what to include but also in discerning what to leave out. Every piece of art involves a process of choosing: not this, not this, not this. I can only find what belongs by clearing away everything that doesn’t…This is no speedy endeavor.” Jan Richardson says this is basically how the Gospel stories tell us Jesus responded to his testing in the wilderness, each time telling the devil, not this, not this, and each time he names what he will not choose, what he will not accept, he becomes emptier, more spacious inside. He has to let go of what he is not so he can be what he is.

When we let go of what we are not, what does not fit or belong, things can end up looking quite different from what we expected. As Jan Richardson writes, “and thus we come to another not-so-secret secret of the creative process and life: things don’t always go as planned. We may have to empty ourselves even of our attachment to our hopes, our expectations, our desired outcomes; sometimes we have to say not this to what we have most treasured, in order to make way for what truly belongs.”

Jan Richardson writes in a poem called “Desert Prayer”:

I am not asking you
to take this wilderness from me,
to remove this place of starkness
where I come to know
the wildness within me,
where I learn to call the names
of the ravenous beasts
that pace inside me,
to finger the brambles
that snake through my veins,
to taste the thirst
that tugs at my tongue.

But send me
tough angels,
sweet wine,
strong bread:
just enough.

(This material is from Jan Richardson’s blog, The Painted Prayerbook entry dated Feb. 14, 2010)

May we use this time of Lent, these weeks of waiting for spring through the last cold days of winter to enter the landcape of our own wilderness and find there just enough.

grad-rainbow

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