Sermon preached March 1, 2009
First Sunday in Lent
Ah wilderness. What do you imagine when you hear the word “wilderness”? Do you imagine tall pines, a quiet lake, loon sounds. We might imagine a place of wonder and beauty and mystery, a place of peace, a place for thoughtfulness. The Psalmist’s words might come to mind. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4)
My guess is that if you have been in the wilderness much at all, you know that it is not all placid and wonderful. Maybe you have had a bear steal your food while you were camping. In Minnesota, the woods are also breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Who of us haven’t had a nice outdoor experience ruined by those pests? The wilderness can be a place of rain and mud and leaky tents.
The Bible, not being written in Northern Minnesota, knows nothing of tall pines, quiet lakes and the haunting cry of the loon. When the Bible speaks about the wilderness the picture is of a desert place, a place of hard rocky ground, of little vegetation, and little water. The wilderness is a dry and difficult place, a place of harsh landscapes, scarce resources and wild beasts. It is often a lonely place where a person must confront oneself without the surrounding noise of a busy world. It is a place of temptation.
Paradoxically and serendipitously, the wilderness, while retaining all those characteristics, is also a place where God is encountered. The Israelites, after being liberated from slavery in Egypt, find themselves wandering through the wilderness, but they meet God there (Exodus). Elijah, fleeing Jezebel, makes his way into the wilderness, and meets God there in the “sound of sheer silence” (I Kings 19).
The writer of The Gospel of Mark probably has such stories in mind when he tells the story about Jesus we heard this morning. Mark’s story draws upon these classic biblical stories, the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, Jesus in the wilderness for forty days. Elijah meeting God in the wilderness, Jesus having the angels wait on him. Mark’s story is full of action, adventure, drama – the heavens are torn apart and a voice speaks. The Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness. The question that some posed a few years ago was probably misspoken – “what would Jesus drive?” Jesus doesn’t drive, the Spirit does, but it doesn’t say what she drives.
There is temptation, though Mark leaves the exact nature of the temptation to the imagination, unlike Luke and Matthew. The wild beasts may be an echo from Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom where the wolf lies down with the lamb, the leopard with the goat (Isaiah 11). The story ends with a crisis and a new beginning – the arrest of John, the ministry of Jesus.
“Wilderness wanderings/wonderings is our theme for Lent and we will be looking at the wilderness as a difficult and wonderful place. We will use the image and metaphor in a number of ways. This morning the focus, based on this story from Mark, is the wilderness as a place of temptation and a place of encounter with God. But if wilderness can be a metaphor for a great number of realities of life – and I think it can be, which to choose. What wilderness do we want to visit this morning.? Early in the week, on my way to the church I heard Kerri Miller and Krista Tippett talking about our current economic situation. That is a wilderness situation – a place of uncertainty, of difficulty, maybe of danger, a place of wild beasts – in this case a hungry bear on Wall Street. Krista Tippett hosts the MPR program Speaking of Faith and she and Kerri Miller were discussing the spiritual aspects of what is going on, how this can feel like a spiritual wilderness. Speaking of Faith has begun a segment called “repossessing virtue” to talk about the moral and spiritual challenges of the economic downturn, and about the kind of moral and spiritual resources this wilderness is calling forth. There is great material there, and I may use it some upcoming Sunday.
I also considered exploring some of my own personal wilderness of the past few weeks, the experience of watching my father slowly waste away from liver cancer – the ups and downs of all of that. It, too, has been a wilderness experience, difficult, uncertain, confusing. Again, I may come back to this in Lent.
As the week went on, however, I became convinced that I wanted to talk about the wilderness time I think our church is in. If wilderness is a place of uncertainty, of difficulty, of challenge, of risk, then I think we are in a wilderness time here. Where did I come up with an idea like that and what do I mean?
Maybe it started with some of the reflections I have been offering in the newsletter about Five Fruitful Practices of Congregations, a book written by United Methodist bishop Robert Schnase. Schnase argues that any church, if it is to be faithful in its ministry as a Christian congregation, and if it is to be fruitful in that ministry, should be engaged in five practices: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, extravagant generosity. I have, to date, written newsletter articles about three of these practices. During this time, I have sensed that we are in a wilderness.
Radical hospitality – being warm and welcoming and inviting. We love being warm and welcoming, and we get good feedback from many people about that. There is always room for growth, of course. Being inviting – we are very ambivalent about that. Somehow church growth has a negative connotation for some of us. We are hesitant to tell of our faith because we have been bullied, badgered and battered by other well-meaning people of faith concerned for our souls, and we don’t want to repeat such bullying. I understand. But like Jesus, we have good news to share – “good news of God,” good news that makes a difference in people’s lives. We need to share it with authenticity and integrity. Part of that good news is that a new kind of community can happen when people together seek to live in response to God, the community called the church. Yet some are hesitant to invite others into this community, considering such invitation self-serving. Is the church helped by new members – of course – but we hope those who become members of the congregation are also helped in their lives.
Passionate worship – worship that more deeply connects people with God, with each other and with the world. Even as I was writing about worship other developments emerged. Last year our average Sunday worship attendance dipped below 200. That means on a number of Sundays with two worship services, one of those services has about 100 people in attendance – and in this space, that feels uncomfortable. While pondering what that might mean for us, I also heard someone describe the style of worship in their church, a church in Pennsylvannia. I got excited by some of what I heard and so have begun conversations with staff and others, conversations that are on-going and intentionally quiet, about our worship life. Here are the conclusions I have come up with to date: (1) we need to make some changes in our worship life, though just what will change is uncertain; (2) there are no simple answers to improving our worship life and increasing attendance, if increasing attendance were easy every church would be growing; (3) we need to make changes not just for our benefit, but so we can continue to be a welcoming and attractive place for others who may want to join us – it is never enough to ask just what we want, never enough to ask just what will make us happy; (4) no matter what changes we make, some will be happier than others, and some will be unhappy. (5) Whatever changes we make in the near future may have to be changed again soon. That’s the nature of wilderness with howling winds and wild beasts.
Intentional faith development – I have also come to believe we are not doing all we can be doing on this score. In particular, we need to find a way to offer more opportunities for people to engage in meaningful Bible study, and we are working on that.
If wilderness is a place of uncertainty, of difficulty, of challenge, of risk, then I think we are in a wilderness time and place here at First UMC.
Here is where we need to pay close attention to Jesus’s story as told by Mark. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” There are many reasons we are in a wilderness time and place – sociological, demographic, cultural. In a culture that prizes the new and improved, mainline denominational churches are old news. In a post-denominational culture, “community churches” or churches with non-denominational designations have a definite appeal. Being a part of a church is no longer part of the definition of being a good person. Whatever other reasons there are for being in the wilderness, I believe we are also here because we have been seeking to follow God’s Spirit. We have followed God’s Spirit in being a church that wants to link faith and justice, relationship with God to doing good in the world. We are a progressive faith community that seeks to break through social barriers like race, economic division and sexual orientation. We are a community of faith that does not ask people to leave their brains behind, but invites people to bring their deepest questions into the church. I believe we have followed God’s Spirit in that, but we have come to that place where the way forward is shrouded in mystery, where the tracks in the desert have stopped and we are not sure what comes next. What will our mission look like? How will we build on our progressive heritage? Jesus emerged from his wilderness time to begin a new mission, bringing the kingdom of God closer in a new way. How will the Spirit lead us to bring God’s dream for the world closer?
In this wilderness time, there are temptations. We can play the blame game. We can blame each other. If only families were more committed to the church. If only parents stood up to youth athletic coaches and insisted we get Sundays back. We just need to get our priorities straight, our values in perspective. I don’t think most of that kind of conversation is helpful. You could blame me and I can blame me. People aren’t coming because of my preaching and my leadership. There is a degree of truth in that. There are a few people who are not here because of me. Unfortunately, that is almost inevitable. I followed two very gifted pastors – Elizabeth Macaulay and Cooper Wiggen. I do not have some of the gifts they have. You have not seen me leading worship with a guitar and solo voice, though I have been holding out a bit. I do play a little guitar, a little piano and an occasional drum – but you can’t lead worship with an air band. I have disappointed some and I am not what some are looking for. We are not going to be the church for everybody. I know that, and it still feels kind of awful when people leave or stay away. I will continue to learn and grow and change, and need to. I continue to take constructive comments seriously. But simple blame for a complex reality is a temptation we should avoid.
There is the temptation in this wilderness to let discouragement, which is inevitable, lead to despair, which is not - - - despair, that lasting feeling that we will not come out of the wilderness well and whole. Change is needed, and change is difficult. Despair whispers that we will not be able to change. Mainline churches are on their way out and we will be no different, that’s the voice of despair. Despair speaks directly to me, telling me that I don’t have what it takes to lead through this wilderness time. Despair is a real temptation that we need to resist.
A final temptation is to run from the unknown, to be unwilling to take risks, to avoid experimentation and the chaos that can come with it. We can try and do this by either refusing to make any changes at all or by making decisions too quickly, short-circuiting discernment.
The wilderness is a place of difficulty, of challenge, of risk, of temptation. It is not a comfortable place to be, but there is one last part of this story in Mark we need to hear this morning. Jesus went into the wilderness knowing he would not go alone, but would go with the God who called him “beloved.” We need to hear that word and hear it well – we are beloved by God, and that God is with us in the wilderness, in this wilderness time. Because we are beloved, we need not be battered by all the voices in our world that belittle us, that make us feel unworthy, that take away our zest for living. Because we are beloved, we live with a certain confidence that the good we do is never lost, but God uses it synergistically. Because we are beloved, we trust that even in the wilderness we can tame the wild beasts and witness streams and blossoming. Because we are beloved we trust that we will not be in the wilderness forever, but will find a new way to share and live the good news that with Jesus Christ God’s kingdom is always near, change is always possible. God is with us always, even where the wild things are. Amen.