February 25, 2010

Sermon 2/21/2010


SERMON FOR LENT 1 C
FEBRUARY 21, 2010
MICHAEL COFFEY

Texts: Luke 4:1-13


(Sanctuary is decorated with barren, dry branches
and sand in the baptismal font)

Welcome to the wilderness.

You are hungry and thirsty, and you get no relief.
(A chalice is carried from the altar to the font,
and is poured out. It is filled with sand that falls into the font,
which also contains sand.)

You are dried up, and you get no rain.
(A handful of sand is lifted from the font
and slowly slips through the fingers.)

You are broken, and you keep losing parts of yourself.
(A dry branch is carried and pieces snapped off.
Each piece is handed to someone until they are gone.)

And the Spirit brought you to this.
Welcome to the wilderness.
The Spirit brought you here.

As hard as it is to imagine it,
the Spirit guided Jesus directly from his baptism to the wilderness,
to hunger and thirst, and to dryness,
and to know our broken humanity with all its temptations.
It was the same pattern as God working through his chosen people Israel,
Spirit-led directly from the Exodus liberation,
into the wilderness wandering and texting for 40 years.
And as much as it doesn’t fit our neat and clean theologies
about God’s gentle love and comforting presence,
the most startling word is spoken today about how God works:
The Spirit drives us into the wilderness
when we need to go there.

The wilderness is when and where you feel and touch and fear
that you are hungry and thirsty,
that you are dry inside,
that you are a broken man, a broken woman,
and part of a broken world.
And when you feel and touch and fear it,
it doesn’t just go away,
it lingers, and it takes you deeper,
and it makes you confront an awful lot about yourself,
and your faith, and your assumptions,
and all your false securities.
And even though it isn’t at all obvious at the time,
like the story of Jesus,
the Spirit takes us to these places,
because we need to go.

The temptations Jesus faced came directly from his wilderness time.
He is tempted to act both out of his great weakness,
and out of his great strength.
He was hungry and thirsty, feeling weak and needy,
so get what you need however you can get it.
He was given the name Son of God and anointed king,
so wield that sword and that political power for yourself.
He knew God loved him and called him to do great things,
so make God prove himself to you.
His temptations came when he was weak from the wilderness
and his strength could be used in all the wrong ways.
What was revealed to Jesus in his Spirit-led, necessary wilderness time
is the same thing that is revealed to us in our necessary wilderness time:
clarity.

Your hunger and thirst will tempt you.
Your dryness will tempt you.
Your brokenness will tempt you.
Until we get clarity on the one true thing,
everything else will be a temptation to us:
Our hunger and thirst is for God alone.
Even if we don’t believe it or understand it
or know how to name it:
our hunger and thirst is for God alone,
and we have to confront everything
in our weakness and in our strength
that gets in the way.
Welcome to the wilderness.
The Spirit brought you here because you need it.

Sometimes, actual time in the wilderness
is our very powerful and transforming Spirit-led experience.
Many of us have known the incredible force of nature
and how it makes us see and learn and grow and contemplate.
I read a story in a book called Soulcraft.
It’s partly about wilderness encounters and how they transform.
A woman, June, went into the wilderness with a group.
June was a psychotherapist. Her mother had died when she was 10.
She was terrified her whole life of bats.
While they were out enjoying the campfire,
a young bat landed on her.
It never flew into any of the other 15 people there, just her.
It got tangled several times in her shawl and in her hair.

June went off for a few days of solitude and fasting in the wilderness.
During that time, bats kept coming to her.
She realized this must be some kind of meaningful encounter.
At sunset, when two bats came to her,
she shouted out how afraid she was of them,
and asked what they wanted to tell her.
Suddenly, she became painfully aware of how she had felt,
ever since childhood, like a victim.
She felt like a victim of other people
and of circumstances she couldn’tcontrol.
This drove her to dive deeper into her own pain,
and inevitably, to allow herself to contemplate
the terrible pain and grief of her mother’s death.
And just like the young bat getting tangled in her clothes and hair,
she realized she had let her pain at being abandoned and orphaned
get her tangled in others, and caught and stuck in her life.

June was driven to the wilderness
so she could know her weakness and her strength,
and no longer act out of either thoughtlessly or harmfully.
The wilderness drove her to her own pain and fear,
and before it got better it got worse,
and then she had clarity.

We also end up in the metaphorical wilderness
when we must confront our own weakness and pain,
and our own misused power and strength,
because we can no longer hide from it or deny it.
I saw Tiger Woods’ apology speech the other day on television.
If you believe he was sincere,
then you can see that he has been driven into the wilderness.
He has been forced to confront his weakness and his strength,
his failure and the pain he has caused others.
I started to get the sense that he understood,
that as painful a time as this was for him and his family,
he needed to go into this wilderness.
He needed to confront who he was,
what he was doing,
what he was truly longing for,
and why he was searching in all the wrong ways.
And it might just be,
that if he stays in the wilderness long enough,
before the lure of fame and wealth and power grab him again,
it might just be that he will find clarity.

Jesus goes into the wilderness to know his own weakness,
his own strength,
his own dryness,
his own hunger and thirst,
his own connection to the brokenness of humanity.
And none of it threw him off track.
He found the clarity he knew and needed to affirm:
God was with him in the wilderness,
and God was all he truly hungered to know.
The Spirit had driven him to testing and toughness
for a reason and a purpose.
He could now follow his calling
and not be tripped up by his own human weakness,
and not be trapped by his own strength.
He could live with clarity in the one true thing:
God is all we truly long for and need,
and God is with us in the wilderness of life,
as well as the green garden and the urban landscape.

Jesus could not fully face his calling to be faithful to God,
until he faced all other options
and saw them for the illusions they are.
That is his testing.
That is our testing.
We get lured in by so many other options
that feel like the security and the help and the love we need.
But the sad thing that we all know now and again:
These false alternatives leave us even hungrier and thirstier,
even dryer,
even more broken.

The hardest thing to hear in this text
is that this wilderness time
which is so fraught with fear and risk and pain,
is Spirit-led.
We are tempted to think any deeper encounter with our own pain,
any physical trial or experience of our limits,
should be minimized and quickly comforted.
But wilderness time is all about going deeper,
and living with the hunger longer,
and naming and feeling our pain before healing it.

Confront those,
learn to accept and understand those,
find the proper place for those in your life,
and temptation will not grip you in the same way.
To be sure,
we are not Jesus and do not do this wilderness work perfectly.
But we do follow Jesus in his way,
and we have guidance and mercy and love to do it through him,
and in the infinite grace and endless embrace
of our wilderness God.
And with God’s own guiding Spirit,
we do find that clarity:
we do come to know the one thing we hunger and thirst for:
communion with God.
And look what God brings us: bread, wine, grace, mercy.
Welcome to the wilderness,
and welcome to the food that feeds us all along the way.

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