As a child, I did not grow up in a liturgical church. I didn’t know what Lent meant until I was an adult. And, Ash Wednesday with its smudge on the forehead was held suspect. There is a certain amount of mystery that is part of this journey through Lent as we walk through the 40 day journey beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter morning.
Every New Members’ class begins with folks telling their faith journey stories. The idea of telling our story often strikes fear in many of the hearts of the participants. However, there is inevitably a great sense of gratitude after having had the opportunity to hear each other’s stores. And, what is always surprising, only because I tend to forget it, is the truth that everyone has a wilderness story. There is often some event that is either told or eluded to by most everyone that has to do with a desert or wilderness experience. There is often a piece of grief that is still tender in the person’s life or there is the memory of a painful place that was a crossroad that led to a new beginning. It sometimes comes in the form of a deep loss: divorce, illness, job loss, death, separation from family and sometimes a lost dream. There is always some story or fragment that propelled each person to seek God in a new way. It is often at that pivotal place in a person’s life where a new path is chosen.
There is a starkness to Mark’s Gospel lesson that fits the setting of the desert. In typical Markan style, it’s a matter-of-fact story that is not the least bit comfortable. It has an up-beat beginning. Jesus makes the journey from Nazareth and joins John in the waters of the Jordan and becomes baptized. As he comes up out of the water, there is high drama. The text says that the heavens are “torn open” and the Spirit descends like a dove upon Jesus. And a voice comes from heaven announcing “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then comes the disconcerting part: The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, where he spent forty days. He was tempted by Satan, he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
In that forty days, Jesus spent time reflecting on his own forefathers and foremothers who had spent forty years in the wilderness. We all know what it is like to be tempted in the wilderness seasons of our lives…we know what comes to our minds to entice us to cover up our pain. It is challenging to allow ourselves to let go of trying to fix our pain and to be in it trusting that God is with us in the midst of the loneliness…trusting that if we stay with it that the Spirit will make known to us the lesson that we need to learn.
Like any of us, Jesus had to confront his own past in order to discern where God’s invitation was for his future. He reviewed his history album that offered the tales of those who had failed the test of temptation. At the same time, he was given an opportunity to struggle and clarify his own calling. He was offered both danger and protection. It’s a story of challenge and endurance and ultimately, discernment.
It is this season of Jesus’ life that enabled him to identify with those that he encountered during his time on this earth. It is this desert journey that allowed him to identify with those who came along-side him, or sought him out, or brought their children to be healed. One of the keys to his ability to have empathy with others is that he understood the wilderness.
Sam Keen, in his book, Your Mystic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling wrote these words, “When we tell our stories to one another, we, at the same time, find the meaning of our lives, and are healed from our isolation and loneliness, strange as it may seem, self-knowledge begins with self-revelation. We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.” Our Lenten theme is “Sharing Our Sacred Stories” and today, Rev. Jim Martin will begin another Faith Story series by sharing his story.
I inherited my Grandmother’s Chocolate pot. It was a wedding gift to my grandparents when they married in 1923. I have made many moves in my life, and every time I’ve unpacked, I’ve breathed a sigh of relief when I’ve found the chocolate pot undamaged.
Some of you will recall, and probably some of you experienced, the massive earthquake in the Bay Area where our family was living. Our youngest son, Matt, and I were home when it hit. The house began swaying like nothing I had ever experienced. We knew to immediately move to a doorway, and to stay there until the swaying subsided. I remember Matt going to the shelf and picking up the chocolate pot and holding it in the doorway during the swaying of the house.
It was while I was on a retreat in Austin, Texas, when this story came back to me. I realized that the chocolate pot is one of my rainbow symbols. In the midst of a dysfunctional family, it was my grandmother who loved me unconditionally. The chocolate pot represented that love. The fact that my son knew how sacred it was symbolically represented passing on that love to the next generation.
The work of the church is about holding that rainbow of love for each other. It’s about clinging to the image of the dove coming from the heavens and the voice giving the promise: “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” To follow the way of Jesus demands that we cling to that promise for each one of us, and that we hold it for one another –especially in the wilderness when we are tempted to go back to patterns and ways that are not good for us but perhaps entice us because they are familiar.
During this Black History month we are called to remember through the Special Music today about those who spent their whole lives in the wilderness and who had no protection from the wild beasts of slave owners. The song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is symbolic of the journey to freedom which was used by the Underground Railroad. The song encodes the escape instructions and a map. At face value the Drinking gourd refers to the hallowed out gourd used by slaves and other rural Americans as a water dipper. But in the song the water dipper is used as a code for the Big Dipper star formation. It points to the Underground Railroad. Its focus is on offering escape instructions. It offers a freedom route from Mobile Alabama to the Ohio River and on to the destination of freedom.
he song became a rainbow symbol of hope. It carried over generation after generation throughout the long continued journey of the Civil Rights movement.
Yesterday I had the privilege of officiating at the wedding of two women who have been together for 25 years. When I held their wedding rings and offered a blessing over them, I was profoundly moved by the symbolism of those rings. Never did they expect to be able to move out of the wilderness and fully claim who they are both individually and as a couple. The price of remaining in the closet is so very costly. I treasure the work that has taken place by this community to take a stand for marriage equality. It was a friend of theirs who knew this community’s history that allowed them the courage to come and meet with me and talk about the possibility of being able to be legally married. And, I am grateful for being able to serve a church that supports my being that officiant. Those rings became a rainbow symbol.
I remember being in high school and having friends ask what I’m giving up for Lent. The usual was chocolate. I wish it was that easy to come to grips with this text. But, as always, the invitation to all of us is to enter into the story. It demands that one turn the weekly routine on its head in order to create space to go inward and discern where one is being tested in one’s life.
What do we learn if we review the stories of our forefathers and foremothers—those stories that we were born into. What do we learn if we review the past deserts or wilderness journeys of our lives? Will we find a familiar pattern? What will be identified as the wild beasts? Who or what will be labeled as the angels? Will we experience an invitation by God to break a family pattern and/or a personal disordered cycle? When have we experienced a knowing that we are a beloved child of God? Perhaps more than anything, it’s so challenging to believe that we are loved unconditionally by God. And, what is God’s invitation to us for our outer journey? Where are we being invited to add some action to our lives in order to deepen our faith journey? I’ve chosen to sign up for the Carbon Fast for Lent that is printed in our bulletin. Letting go of chocolate would be far easier for me than the discipline of letting go of my lead foot while driving.
A year ago, theologian Karen Armstrong was in Portland speaking at Trinity Episcopal Church. She had recently worked with TED the non-profit organization based on technology, entertainment and design to promote the work that she has been doing. She spoke about the two arenas that she sees as most important, environmental and Building bridges between the West and the rest of the world. Her focus and teaching is on compassion lived out in the Golden Rule which is a teaching in the six major faiths which she has brought together. The focus is on a call to action. This group is committed to leave nationalism behind while focusing on global concerns. She had the highest praise for Pakistan which has wholeheartedly embraced this work and has created a network of Schools of Compassion. As I’ve been reviewing the work that churches and non-profit agencies are doing to stand with refugees, it is disheartening to see the lack of compassion for families, particularly women and children, who are caught between drug lords and gangs in their own country, and their often painful journey in our country as they attempt to find a place to tell their story and to seek compassionate help. On Wednesday night, we were honored to hear the story of Jose Angel.
May this season of Lent, this period of 40 days, be a time of challenge to look at not only our individual history story but our church’s story and the global story. While our nation seems so stuck on immigration issues, our Christian faith calls us to care for the sojourner, the stranger, the alien and the foreigner. I give thanks for Pope Frances words warning us against the threat of globalization of indifference. How do we hold hope for those who live in fear of being returned to their own country where violence awaits them, while living in fear that they will be found out and treated as criminals in this county? What they need and desire is their own drinking Gourd Song that offers the promise of freedom—a rainbow of hope.
In this in-between time, in this wilderness season, the Search Committee is invested in analyzing the profiles of clergy who have indicated an interest in serving this church. They are seeking a match of pastor and people. They are focused on the stories of clergy and seeking to find the one with the history and stories that will best serve this community.
The best way for us to support the Search Committee is to hold them in our prayers as we continue to do our own inner work as well as our outer work. There is something mysteriously powerful about a community that is committed to nurturing their spiritual journey. May God’s grace sustain us and grant us insights as we journey together and through our actions may we become signs of hope. Amen.