Sunday, March 29, 2020

Phil Kniss: When to walk toward death (and when not to)

Lent 5: Show us, God, your power over death itself 
Ezekiel 37:1-7, 11-14; John 11:1-45

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When is it right to walk toward death?
    That is a difficult, and complicated, and terribly important question.
    We live in a death-avoiding and death-denying culture.
        Our funeral rituals often try to shield us from the harsh reality
            that our loved one is dead, and not merely asleep.
    But in these terrible days we are living in—
        when a global pandemic is ravaging our lives,
        and images of suffering and death bombard us
            at every waking moment,
            and sometimes in our restless nighttime dreams—
        now it is hard to deny it.
    Death is at our doorstep.
    If we don’t personally know someone
        who has died from Covid-19,
        we soon will, I believe.

The widely varying responses to this pandemic
    from people in our communities
    says a lot about how we think about life and death—
        our own, as well as others.

So let’s first take a look at today’s Gospel story,
    and see what Jesus’ life and words have to say to us.

First, the background.
Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha,
    were Jesus’ closest friends.
    They lived in Bethany, a 30-minute walk from Jerusalem.
    They were right on the border of the capital of Judea,
        a hotspot of organized resistance movements against Jesus.

Just a few days before our story took place,
    Jesus was in Jerusalem,
        and he was accused of blasphemy and demon-possession,
        and they tried to stone him to death.
    Naturally, Jesus and his disciples ran off
        and stayed at a safe distance,
        on the other side of the Jordan River.

While hunkering down, keeping miles of social distance,
    Jesus gets a message, “Your friend Lazarus is ill, and about to die.”
    Jesus decided to stay where he was.
    He self-quarantined, so to speak.
    And all his disciples said, “Whew! Thank you, Jesus.”
        Thanks for valuing our lives and safety.

But two days later, Jesus changed his mind. John 11:7.
    “Time to go to Jerusalem.”
His disciples’ response?
    “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
    That courageous comment, by the way,
        came out of the mouth of the disciple
        we often accuse of being short on faith—
            “Doubting Thomas.”
    Thomas knew very well that a walk toward Jerusalem
        was a walk toward death.
        Not just Lazarus’ death. But their death.

So why would . . . and why should
    anyone intentionally walk toward death?
    We could ask that question of a lot of people in recent memory,
        if they were alive to give us an answer.
    We could ask Martin Luther King, Jr.
    We could ask Archbishop Oscar Romero.
    We could ask early Anabaptist leaders
        Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel.
    We could ask my 11th-great-grandfather, Hans Landis,
        A 70-year-old Swiss Anabaptist farmer-pastor
            beheaded because he chose not to leave town,
            even when the authorities didn’t really want to execute him,
                and gave him plenty of chances to escape.
    We could ask courageous men and women of faith—
        all kinds of faith, in every age.
        Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Michael J. Sharp.
    What does it take to walk toward death?
    Why did Jesus really go to Bethany,
        and why did his disciples willingly follow?

Probably not everyone in Jesus’ company
    had it all worked out in their minds,
    as they hit the road toward Jerusalem.
    But I have a hunch they knew there was something bigger at stake,
        than the possibility of their death.
    They also knew, I believe, that in some way,
        they were walking toward life.
    They had been with Jesus and witnessed
        healing, restoration, reconciliation, in the face of resistance.
    They had seen lepers restored to health.
    They had seen women and children,
        prostitutes and swindlers,
        Samaritans and Roman soldiers,
        given dignity,
        shown compassion,
        restored to right relationship.
    They knew what Jesus was really about.
        He was not about preserving his own life.
        He was about giving himself away for the life of others.

If you are paying any attention at all these days,
    you are seeing this same dynamic happening,
        over and over and over again.
    Nurses and doctors and other medical workers
        walking into overcrowded and under-supplied covid-19 wards,
        sharing facemasks and gowns,
        handling and wiping down sick and feverish human bodies,
        knowing full well they are putting their lives at risk,
        but also knowing if they didn’t do what they were doing,
            other lives would be in jeopardy.
    And first-responders, as always,
        are walking into danger, into unknown spaces,
        and not thinking twice about going in,
            because someone else’s life is in danger.

    So . . . have any of you in recent years
        struggled with being cynical about the state of our human race?
        Have you worried what will become of a people,
            so self-centered,
            so blinded by privilege and entitlement,
            so cold and callous toward people
                they don’t know and don’t understand?
        Have any of you not had thoughts like that on occasion?

    Well, take heart.
        There are still people today acting like Jesus,
            who value the well-being of strangers enough,
            to risk their own safety to bring hope to someone else.

    I thank God for everyone of them.
    I pray for them.
    I salute their courage, and wish I could be more like them.

The reason, dear church,
    that we have closed and locked the doors to our building,
    and are working from home,
    and are going to extreme measures to safely live-stream
        a worship service led by six people,
    the reason is not because we are being selfish,
        and don’t want anyone in our church to get sick.
    It is because we are called to be like Jesus.

We are sacrificing something we value, something we want—
    which is to be together and share our lives face-to-face.
We willingly give that up,
    in order to slow the spread of the covid-19 infection,
        which is absolutely threatening the lives of people
            who are the most vulnerable,
            who are the most marginalized,
            who are the least likely to have the resources and support
                to recover from an infection.
    And these are people we don’t know,
        who live all over our community and country and world.

    I get it that we are frustrated.
    I get it that we hate to see church services closed to the public.
    I get it that people think it would be a beautiful thing
        to be filled up on Easter morning,
            two weeks from now.
    I get it that we are all sad about all the things
        we are giving up this Lent,
            against our wishes,
            in this unwelcomed extended season of giving up things.
    I get it that when we are sad,
        it’s a good thing to own our sadness,
        and express it to others.

    And I get it why churches in particular,
        have a hard time shutting doors,
        because that’s the opposite of what churches want to do.

    It seems so selfish to keep people away.
    But listen to me.
        It is not selfish.
        It’s exactly the opposite of selfish.

    We are sacrificing something we value,
        because it might keep someone we don’t even know
            alive and healthy—
            someone we might not agree with, or even like,
                if we ever met them.
    As hard as it is to give up these things,
        let us embrace the sacrifices we make,
        and give thanks for the example of Jesus, who showed us how.

I try to extend grace where I can.
    I understand not everyone sees it this way.
    But let me just say this, in no uncertain terms.

    It is a sin against God for a church to ignore a ban on meetings
        and open their doors for mass gatherings
        and then claim they are witnessing to the Gospel of life.
        I say that because it has happened, and keeps happening.
    It is shameful for any business or governmental leader,
        who claims to be a person of faith,
        to brazenly threaten to reopen and save the economy,
            when the known result will be suffering and death
            for people far more vulnerable than they are.

    If these pastors or Christian business leaders or politicians
        think they are following Jesus
            in his brave walk toward death,
            as he set his face toward Jerusalem,
            then they are deluding themselves and harming others.
    And they are dead wrong about Jesus and his motives.
    Jesus made that risky journey toward death
        to save the lives of others, not to harm them.

    He went straight to the grave of Lazarus,
        and spoke life into that dead man,
        and by doing so, spoke life into the whole town of Bethany,
            and spoke life to powers that be in Jerusalem itself.
    Jesus accepted the reality of death.
        He wept outside Lazarus’ tomb.
    But he also knew the power of life over, and beyond, death.

    I implore church leaders everywhere,
        and business leaders of faith everywhere,
        the whole community is your responsibility.
        For that matter, the whole country, everyone in it.
        The homeless, the immigrant,
            the elderly, the prisoner, the chronically ill,
            the refugee, the unemployed and underemployed.
        These are at the greatest risk of death,
            the greatest risk of catastrophic economic loss.

    Be like Jesus.
        Make the sacrifice you are called to make,
            willingly, gladly, and with determination.
        So that someone who is smaller, weaker, poorer,
            sicker than you,
            has a better chance at a full and rich life.

    There is no doubt in my mind.
        If Jesus were here today,
            he’d personally be helping lock the doors of the churches.
        He would be on the front lines of the battle in our hospitals.
        He would be in nursing homes bathing the old and frail.

    We are in this together.
    We will survive.
        Maybe not every person.
            But God’s people will.
        The purposes of God will survive.
            They will even thrive.

    By the holy, life-giving breath of God,
        there will be a return to life,
        every bit as remarkable
        as the vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones,
            that we read earlier,
            where the breath of God blew on those dry bones,
                and flesh and sinew came upon them,
                    and bound them together,
                and the breath of God brought to life,
                    not a recently deceased person,
                    but dry bones.

It can happen again,
    as we open ourselves to the breath of God.

In response, I invite us all into a time of confession,
    wherever you may be,
    wherever you are sitting, get comfortable.
    Put yourself in a posture where your body can be at rest,
        and your mind alert.
    Perhaps with your hands in front of you,
        with upturned palms, ready to receive.

    Reflect for a few moments,
        on the places and people in your orbit
            where death is threatening.
    Ponder the reality of that threat.
        Identify it. Name it.
        Allow your mind to focus on it for a minute.

    Breathe in and out.
    Breathe in the breath of God, which is life.
    Breathe out fear of death.
    Breathe in the Spirit-breath of God, which turns death to life.
    Breathe out despair.
    Breathe in hope in God’s promises.
    Breathe in your acceptance of God’s promise of life.
    Breathing out your fear and anxiety over death.
    Breathe in and out.

    Let us sing now together, as one voice, but in harmony:

    Breathe on me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew,
        that I may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.
    Breathe on us, breath of God. Fill us with life anew,
        that we may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.

Now, hear these words, and believe them:
    This air which has been filling and refreshing our lungs,
        is the breath, the wind, the Spirit of God in Christ.
        It is full of life. It will change us.

—Phil Kniss, March 29, 2020

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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Phil Kniss: Viral blindness

Lent 4: Show us, Jesus, how you define blindness
John 9:1-41

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There is a saying that “desperate times call for desperate measures.”
    True enough.
        We’ve been getting a taste of that recently.
    But that doesn’t say everything.

    Desperate times also call for patience,
        for thoughtfulness,
        for courage,
        for compassion.
    Sometimes moving at a measured and deliberate pace
        is better than running in desperation.
    It’s especially better than “running blind.”

“Running blind” is a vivid metaphor
    that today’s Gospel story from John brings to mind.
    And it feels like many of us, right now, in the age of Covid-19,
        are running blind.

A blind person on foot is better off walking, not running.
    Even better, with a white cane feeling the ground ahead.
    But when you “run blind” you have no buffer,
        no cushion,
        no warning.
    Only a desperate hope that there’s nothing in your path
        to bring your run to a tragic end.

In this Gospel story about blindness,
    there are actually quite a few characters who are blind, figuratively.
    And they are running blind.

And what’s a blind runner?
A blind runner is a desperate runner.
    They are desperate because wherever they are right now
        feels dangerous,
        feels out of control,
        feels like a place where they cannot bear to remain,
            even one moment longer.
    Some of you might be feeling that right now.

Well, in John 9,
    pressure was mounting against Jesus and his movement.
What Jesus taught, and what he practiced,
    was on a collision course with the establishment—
        both the religious establishment, and the Roman Empire.
    Everyone was feeling the pressure.
    The disciples were obviously in the cross-hairs
        of the authorities.
    The parents of the formerly-blind man were under pressure,
        because they didn’t want to be accused
            of being aligned with Jesus.
    Even the neighbors were confused and baffled,
        because they couldn’t put the facts together
        in a way that made sense or felt safe.
    And the Pharisees clearly were on edge,
        because their tightly-constructed ethical framework
            was falling apart in the wake of Jesus’ ministry.
        Jesus ignored religious regulations
            like working on the Sabbath,
            and associating with unclean people.
        Nevertheless, he was a powerful healer and influencer,
            and he was gaining ground,
            while the establishment was losing ground.

Everyone in this story,
    except for Jesus and the blind man,
    was running blind, out of desperation,
        out of a desire to regain some control over their situation.

And you know, “running blind” can be contagious.
    Like a virus, it spreads.
    Until nearly everyone is running blind.

So is there a vaccine against viral blindness?

Well, if the blindness in this case,
    was the need to be in control,
    then the vaccine was compassion.

Isn’t it striking, what was missing
    from all the back-and-forth dialogue in this story?
    Nobody but Jesus showed any compassion for the man himself.
    Everyone else looked straight through the man,
        as if he wasn’t even there,
        and tried to get their control issues resolved.
    The disciples tried to resolve a theological issue
        about the connection between sin and birth defects.
    The neighbors had an issue with the evidence:
        was or wasn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?
    The Pharisees were obsessed with their fear
        that this healing, if proven,
        would unravel their tidy theological framework.
    And the man’s parents said as little as they could,
        to avoid having a conflict with the synagogue.

Nowhere, in 41 verses of dialogue,
    did anybody walk up to the man who was healed,
    and ask him, “What is it like to see for the first time in your life?”
    No one seems interested.
    No one simply and sincerely praises God,
        for showing his love and mercy to this man.
    One would think even sworn enemies of Jesus,
        would find something positive
        in a man born blind being able to see again.

    But God’s compassion on the man completely escapes them.
    Instead, they turn inward, tending to their own control issues.

This dynamic is present in our own lives today.
    We could probably apply it to our political lives,
        to the church,
        to the many social, physical and spiritual ills in our society.

But let’s also think about it today,
    as it relates to this coronavirus pandemic we are in the middle of.
    Many of our choices are being taken away—
        choices about how we physically move
            around our community,
        where we go and who we’re with, and so on.
    We should, we must, we will,
        abide by these choices being made for us.
    But we still have complete choice, complete agency,
        to view ourselves,
        and those around us,
        with the love and compassion of God.

When we realize our own behavior,
    as innocent and well-intentioned as it may seem, in normal times,
    might be endangering the life and well-being of others
        more vulnerable than ourselves,
    then perhaps we will find more compassion in our hearts.
    Perhaps our own fears will subside.
    Perhaps, in our physical separation from each other,
        we will find space for a deeper human and spiritual connection.

Perhaps, as we prayerfully release to God
    our need to control the outcome of our lives,
    we will find within us the power of the Spirit
        to walk in hope, and in love,
        and in compassion for all those who are suffering.

I believe that as we lay down control, and pick up compassion,
    we will discover that we are no longer running blind.
    We are walking, in faith, in trust, and in hope.

Peace be with us all.

—Phil Kniss, March 22, 2020

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Sunday, March 8, 2020

Phil Kniss: Born again (without the hyphen)

Lent 2: “Show us the extent of your faithful, loving presence”
John 3:1-17

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The hyphen has done a lot of damage
to our understanding of salvation.
Of course, it’s not the hyphen’s fault.
It’s our fault, for sticking it where it doesn’t belong.
Hyphens are great. I like hyphens.
But not where they don’t belong.

For a long time,
we’ve put it between the two words “born” and “again.”
It doesn’t go there.
And no, this isn’t a grammar problem.
It’s a theology problem . . .
I suppose you’d like me to explain . . . Okay, I will.

When you take two words
that describe some kind of event or process or story, really,
like the concept of being born . . . again,
and you put a hyphen between those two words,
you turn it from a beautiful, robust, descriptive noun phrase
into a flat adjective: “born-again Christian.”
As all grammar police know,
when you use a phrase as an adjective, it needs hyphens.
A child can turn six years old, without hyphens.
But a six-year-old child, needs hyphens.

But what a shame to hyphenate born-again!
To take a wonderful and messy
and many-textured and multi-layered and richly metaphorical
naming of a complex process of holistic transformation,
and to turn it into something flat and shallow!
A category of Christian!
A box to label people!
Rather than a life-long and deeply defining
process of transformation.
It’s just a shame.

So this morning, my modest aim in this sermon,
is to delete the hyphen, once and for all.
I aim to rehabilitate our love for this
beautiful metaphor that Jesus himself used—
the experience of being born . . . again.

I suppose you’ve observed we don’t talk an awful lot
here in this congregation about being “born again.”
I think we are a little skittish about it.
Probably for noble reasons.
It’s been over-used and over-applied.
And it has, thanks to the hyphen,
come to mean a particular category of evangelical Christians.
And in the public mind this category is often associated
with people who are narrow-minded
and judgmental of others.

Another reason to maybe distance ourselves from the term,
is that it’s been coopted by celebrity culture—
it’s been claimed by politicians, athletes, musicians, actors.
Jimmy Carter, when he was running for president,
was probably the first major politician to go public
that he was a born-again Christian.
That made news in 1976.
And many others politicians followed suit.
Then all manner of other celebrities joined in.
Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Jane Fonda,
Mr. T, Chuck Norris, Anthony Rendon, and many more,
at least at some point, declared themselves “born again.”

None of us know the motivation behind these public declarations.
And we shouldn’t attempt to judge them.
I would guess it runs the whole gamut
from those who sincerely wish to give witness to their faith,
to those who might be just a little bit opportunistic.

The trouble with all these public declarations,
it that it reinforces the use of the phrase as a category,
instead of describing a deep transformation process.
Public figures often throw in the hyphen, and make it an adjective,
identifying with a category: born-again Christian.
They may not go on to describe what this new birth
actually entailed for them, at the core of their being.
They may not tell us what they sacrificed in the process.
They may not get very vulnerable,
and speak about the pain and the mess
that went into yielding themselves to this
“mothering God who gives us birth”
to quote one of our hymn titles.
The birth process is by definition hard labor.
And everyone involved knows it.
The celebrity hyphen creates a category.
It doesn’t tell us a story.
And that’s unfortunate.

So let’s talk about one particular story.
The one we heard from the Gospel of John today.
The night-time encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.

This is the story where this phrase comes from, of course.
Jesus used the metaphor of re-birth
to describe the process of transformation
that he was inviting Nicodemus to consider.
Incidentally, the phrase Jesus used is sometimes translated
“born from above,” and sometimes “born again.”
Both work. Either way, this is not a casual metaphor.
Birth refers to something hard and painful and messy.

And I’m not even talking about the one giving birth.
We all know that’s hard labor—either by personal experience,
or by hearing someone else’s testimony,
or by watching “Call the Midwife” on PBS.
What I’m saying, in regard to this metaphor of Jesus,
is that being born is no picnic.
From the point of view of the person being born,
the ride down the birth canal is not a joy ride.
It’s excruciating.
It’s hazardous.
It’s messy.
It’s utterly life-changing.
It’s death to the old life, death to the status quo.

First birth, or re-birth, same deal.
It’s a radical reordering of our lives.

I’m guessing Nicodemus already knew something
about how hard this road would be.
Even before Jesus gave Nicodemus those unsettling words
about being born again . . .
Even before Nicodemus came to Jesus with his questions . . .
I think he had an inkling the answers he would get
were not going to be easy ones.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.
It was safer that way.
There is a lot we don’t know about Nicodemus
and his motives for asking those questions.
But as a Pharisee, as a leader of the Jews,
Nicodemus had a lot to protect in his current life.
If he had any intention of keeping
his respected position in the community,
he had better be careful around Jesus.
If he was going to go directly to this rabble-rouser Jesus,
and ask honest, searching questions,
he had better be discrete and private.
You never know who is listening and lurking in the shadows.

Nicodemus was very much like a baby in the womb.
Safe. Secure. Comfortable.
I doubt he was ready
for that excruciating trip from womb to world.

Yes, he was fascinated with Jesus.
The idea, the concept, of becoming a follower of Jesus
was a compelling idea to think about.
And he had thought about it.
That’s why he had questions.
But Nicodemus apparently had too much at stake
to become a disciple just yet.
He was curious,
but not curious enough to stake his whole life on it.

Jesus told him that one who is born of the spirit,
lives in the Spirit,
and the Spirit, Jesus said,
is like the wind that blows where it will,
and you can’t see where it coming from
or where it’s going.
I’m guessing Nicodemus needed a little more stability
than the wind could afford him.
He needed his life to be a little more predictable than that.
Maybe Nicodemus went home to think some more.
John 3 doesn’t actually tell us.

Did Nicodemus ever allow himself to re-enter the womb of God,
and be born again?
We don’t know.
We do hear about Nicodemus twice more in John’s Gospel.
In John 7, the chief priests and Pharisees
hold an emergency meeting,
planning to arrest Jesus, and Nicodemus pipes up.
He didn’t actually defend Jesus.
But he did bring up a legal technicality
that was in Jesus’ favor.
But even those few words of caution
raised suspicion about Nicodemus.
Then after Jesus’ crucifixion, in John 19,
Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea
in quietly embalming and burying Jesus’ body.

But we don’t know whether Nicodemus ever took the risk
of letting go of the securities of his position as a Pharisee,
letting go of the securities of the womb,
and being reborn as a true and open disciple of Jesus.

Nicodemus may have lived the rest of his life
as a curious and sympathetic Pharisee and nothing more,
because he lacked the courage
to open himself to the possibility of rebirth.
He may not have had the will to submit himself to
the risk,
the trauma,
the vulnerabilities, and
the indignities
of birth.
And then to enter into a new way of life.

Just like many of us.
We too hold a big part of our lives
safely ensconced in the protection of a womb.
Our mothering God is trying
to help us bring to birth new life.
But we have our securities to which we are clinging—
securities that, as it turns out, actually get in the way of life.
They keep us from being reborn into the life we were made for.

If his standing as a Pharisee and a leader in the Jewish community
was the security that held Nicodemus back
from a full-on sacrificial engagement with agenda of Jesus,
I wonder what securities are holding me back?
or holding you back?
I wonder what answer we would give ourselves,
if we would each take an honest and searching self-inventory?
What am I afraid of losing,
by saying a deeper yes to Jesus and his Kingdom agenda?

Of course, a follow-up question then becomes,
“What deeper joy and fullness of life am I already giving up,
by staying in the womb where it’s safe and warm?”

These are thoughts that have crossed my mind in recent weeks,
as I held my newborn grandson Huck in Ohio, and
as I held my newborn grand-nephew Luis last week in Sarasota.
Those babies don’t have the capacity for conscious reflection right now,
but those small little bodies,
just weeks ago were wrapped in protective warmth
and darkness and life-giving fluid,
and everything they needed they received
automatically, continuously, and without effort.
Now, they are being assaulted by a world
of bright light,
loud noises,
cold air,
hard surfaces,
and empty space for their limbs to fly around unprotected.
They are being forced to learn to inhabit this new and wild world.
They don’t know it,
but that is the only path toward life.
Holding onto the womb would be a path to slow death.

So why do we fight it?
Well, we know why.
We are afraid to let go,
and allow our mothering God do the work of giving birth.

I’ve been getting by email the daily reflections of poet and pastor
Steve Garnaas-Holmes,
who blogs at

His lectionary-based poems often inspire.
And his poem a few days ago on being born-again was no exception.
Let me read it, in conclusion.

He begins by quoting today’s Gospel, John 3:4
“Nicodemus said to him,
‘How . . . can anyone be born after having grown old?’”

Then he writes:

I’m sorry. There is no how.
There is no jump, leap, crawl,
climb, push or swim.
There is only allow.

Being born again
isn’t something you can do.
It’s something your mother does
for you.

Breathing in and out
you descend into that dark tomb
that only when you enter
is a womb.

Much you can’t save,
you must shed to fit,
surrender to become
a fracturing seed
like broken bread.
What you leave behind in the grave.

Dying is your only choice,
surrendering your only how.
The rest is gift and mystery,
and God’s work, not yours.
There is only allow.

Well, he is right.
There is only “allow” — not figuring out “how.”
But, the “allow” is challenging enough for us
who would prefer the safety and security of the womb.

In what part of your life,
is God inviting you to let go and enter into a new space?
A space that may feel threatening right now,
but is actually the path to a deeper and richer life?

I invite us all into a few moments of silent reflection
on these crucial questions.

Where, in my life, is God inviting me into a new birth experience?

What am I afraid of losing,
by saying a deeper yes to Jesus and his Kingdom agenda?
What I am I holding on to?
And what would move me toward “allowing” God
to birth me into a new and transformed life?

—Phil Kniss, March 8, 2020

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Sunday, March 1, 2020

Paula Stoltzfus: Gifts of the Wilderness

Lent to Easter: “Show Us”

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

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Gifts of the wilderness

A few years ago our family travelled from our home in PA to Taos, NM for an intentional time of wilderness experience.  We wanted to do some hiking, camping, and canoeing as a family.  John and I wanted to engage in reflection pertaining to faith, life, and vocation.  It was a wonderfully challenging space for family relationships, earth discovery, and some good mid-life refocusing for John and I. 

Taos is in the north-central region of New Mexico in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  The ground appears mostly arid, with sagebrush growing like grass and dry bundles blowing across the landscape.  The air is drier than we were accustomed to and we were instructed to be extra mindful in staying hydrated.  There were many deciduous and a few coniferous trees in the mountains, but on the platous the trees were spread out, leaving the landscape barren looking at many places. 

Not surprisingly, where trees and life flourished the most were by the sources of water. But it isn’t so evident when looking at the landscape from afar.

Our family did a multi-day backpacking/camping trek where we hiked in one day, spent a couple of nights at the same campsite while doing some day hikes and activities in between.  One of those days, I spent a morning in retreat by myself.  I hiked up a trail that meandered along a small mountain tributary.  Free of anyone else setting the pace, I began my hike wanting to cover as much ground as I could.  My goal was to get to a lookout point. 

As the trail crisscrossed the tributary I began to notice little flowers and ferns and tall aspen.  I began to stop and use my phone’s camera to take pictures of the blooms.  One bloom led to another which led to noticing more specimens of life around me.  In what I felt like was such a dry and barren land, began to unfold into a landscape of beauty and complexity.  It took me slowing down and noticing the small things to gain appreciation for the larger landscape.

This isn’t quite the landscape that Jesus was sent out to experience in the wilderness.  We associate the wilderness as a place with few resources.  Sun and heat are plentiful, water is not.  It is a place with a barren landscape where shelter may be hard to come by.  The basics of life are challenging to keep up with. 

From a distance it seems as though it was a raw and unforgiving place for Jesus to be sent to.  However, I would like to back up a little more to consider the fuller landscape. Jesus was led to the wilderness directly after his baptism. In 3:16-17 it says, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (4:1) “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness…” where he fasted for 40 days.

I don’t think we should underestimate how hugely formative these experiences were for Jesus.  Jesus’ time with the Spirit, for it says the Spirit of God descended upon him and led him, was a time of strengthening Jesus’ inner being.  I see this time as one where Jesus became so intimate with God, that no amount of hunger or earthly vulnerability could tempt him.  Thus when the devil came to test Jesus’ earthly vulnerabilities of priorities, power, and possessions, Jesus’ strength in his identity and faith formation was evident in his ability to not waiver. 

Instead of seeing Jesus’ time in the wilderness as Jesus’ most vulnerable point, I have come to view this time as where he became the strongest.  Maybe not strongest physically, but certainly strongest spiritually.  He knew who he was.  He knew whose he was.  And he knew what his life was to be about.  For from this point, Jesus began his public ministry.

The Genesis account of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s orders not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, resulted in the consequence of knowing. Knowing they did what they were asked not to do. Knowing they were different from the rest of creation.  Knowing that their comfort and security they had with God was now replaced by needing to cover up and hide.

A commentary written by David Lose, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota who served at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, referenced two writers in his reflections on our Genesis and Matthew passages.

One was Blaise Pascal, a 17th century french philosopher who “spoke of the condition of being human as one of having a ‘God-shaped hole’...not seen as a flaw, but rather as the means by which God keeps us tethered to our life-giving relationship with God.”

Second was St. Augustine, a 4th century African Bishop that wrote in the first lines of his Confessions, “God created a restlessness in our hearts that can only be satisfied when we rest in God.”

Lose goes onto say, “read in light of these classic theologians, the Genesis narrative indicates that before there is "original sin" there is "original insecurity." Adam and Eve, then, are tempted to overcome that original insecurity not through their relationship with God but through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fruit that in that moment looks to be shaped just like their hole.”

In the midst of a picture of plenty in the garden, the serpent preys on Adam and Eve’s vulnerability in painting a picture of incompleteness and distrust in God the creator.  Their security was called into question.  Their hole was revealed.  Their belonging was challenged.

This sounds so similar to what the messages we receive from advertisements.  Their job is to convince you and I that we need to own or look or be a certain way in order to be secure.

Jesus refused the security of the things of this world.  The experience of his baptism and knowing that he was God’s beloved in whom God was well pleased, provided a foundation from which he grew in, in the wilderness. In what initially is seen as a place of weakness turns out to be a place that drew strength.

I have heard that there is a shadow side to our strengths.  I want to say at the outset, it is good to develop our gifts and call out strengths in ourselves and others.  Encouragement is positive.  It is okay to feel good about what we do.  However, when our strength becomes that which we lean on for our identity, security, and rely on for our self worth, there inlies the shadow where temptations are present.

If we tease this out a bit it may look like this…

Where is your identity and security tethered?  Where do you spend most of your thought space or time?

Maya Angelou said in an interview with Bill Moyers, that “you are only free when you realize you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high.  The reward is great.” Jesus discovered his freedom in the wilderness, tethered to God’s spirit for security, identity, and a sense of belonging which is no place but found in every place.  For it isn’t out there to be discovered but rather internally to be tapped.

We have voices all around calling, leuring, trying to convince us that our security is found through our profession, bank accounts, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the hairdo, makeup, and gym membership we have.  We are told our identity is found in our skin color, our gender, our sexual orientation, family history, political party, or any group designation. These are things identified outside of our inner being. Now they certainly inform our inner being. However, there is a caveat to each of these.  You are secure if fill in the blank. Your identity is fulfilled if fill in the blank. You belong fill in the blank.

Adam and Eve revealed our own temptation to listen to the voices of insecurity surrounding us. 

Jesus not only showed us but gives us the opportunity to claim God’s love for ourselves, just as we are, no designations needed.  Each of us is a beloved child of God.

Jesus experienced the wilderness as the landscape in which he grew into his belovedness in such a way that he was willing to stand alone resisting the temptations.  

The wilderness has been sought out for spiritual pilgrimages by people from different faiths over the ages.  This wilderness is not just physical but an internal spiritual pilgrimage.

I am drawn to Brene Brown’s thoughts on wilderness.  Brown is a sociologist who has done extensive research on people in relation to vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame.

Brown acknowledges that “theologians, writers, poets, and musicians have always used the metaphor of the wilderness.”  The commonalities “are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest.” The wilderness is “an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared.  The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it...But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”
When God is a part of our wilderness, filling our God-shaped hole, there is a deep sense of security.  When we live from our belovedness, then we no longer have to prove to anyone our worth or belonging.

Lent is a time to enter into this wilderness.  A time when we are invited to take a journey as Jesus did, challenging us to rely on God for our security and identity rather than the messages that swirl around us.

Lent has a tradition of giving up or taking on a discipline that we may dedicate the same amount of time in prayer or contemplation.  This has meaning for some and for others it has become dogmatic and lost meaning.  What I challenge you with this week is to reflect on what it is in your life that draws your attention away from or toward living into being a beloved child of God?  And what difference does it make for you?

When we stand from a place of God’s strength and security, our perspective changes.  Fears are kept in check, convictions of lifestyle shift, possessions loosen their grip. 

There should be a warning though, as Jesus did, we risk our lives living into God’s belovedness for us.  It is a place of risk, but one of great meaning and reward.

Here would be another opportunity for reflection, to experiment each day by saying these 7 words to yourself 5 times, emphasizing a different word each time.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.

We will never keep temptation fully at bay.  Ash Wednesday was a day to remind us of our mortality.  However, even in the most barren of places, God’s love endures forever.

And so we acknowledge our constant need for God’s presence to be with us on this wilderness way.  I invite us to pray together in song, When we are tested and wrestle alone, acknowledging our need for God to be with us on this journey.

Hymn: When we are tested and wrestle alone
(to be sung to the melody of ‘Be thou my vision’)

When we are tested and wrestle alone,
famished for bread when the world offers stone,
nourish us, God, by your word and your way,
food that sustains us by night and by day.
When in the desert we cry for relief,
pleading for paths marked by certain belief,
lift us to love you beyond sign and test,
trusting your presence, our only true rest.
When we are tempted to barter our souls,
trading the truth for the pow’r to control,
teach us to worship and praise only you,
seeking your will in the work that we do.
When we have struggled and searched through the night,
sorting and sifting the wrong from the right,
Savior, surround us with circles of care,
angels of healing, of hope, and of prayer.

Ruth Duck © 1996, Hope Publishing Company

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