Sunday, February 14, 2016

(Lent 1) Looking for the promised land

Lent 1: Living Ink: Letting go of the pen
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

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All of us, I dare say, are looking for the promised land.
    We are all in a wilderness, in one form or another.
    We are not fully settled.
    We are people on the move, living in a world on the move.
Not all of us like it that way.
    At least not all the time.

But it is an undeniable fact that we live in a shifting landscape,
    and that we often respond to our moving environment,
    with some movement, or counter-movement of our own.
Movement is a given part of being human. It’s a sign of life.

Movement is certainly a factor in the current political scene.
    Many people are unhappy with the status quo.
    They are looking for some new, and still mythical, promised land.
Left or right, same story.
    Whether they are trying to start a populist revolution,
        or yearning for the glory days of America’s dominance.
    Whether they identify the enemy as Big Business,
        or as Big Government,
        politicians that look most likely to shake things up
        are the ones winning, for now.
    Candidates who even smell like the status quo,
        run a distant second or third.

A lot is changing in our culture, our country, our church,
    and around the world.
    And things seem especially volatile right now.
        But really, to be human is to live with constant movement,
            with a certain level of wandering.
        Almost daily we face some sort of shifting sand.
    Something we thought we could always count on,
        shifts beneath us, and we need to adjust.
        We steady ourselves, find some solid ground.
            Then something else shifts underfoot.

Sometimes the shifts are deep and personal.
    A loved one dies.
    An intimate relationship fails us.
    Illness or accident alters our life forever.
    A life-long vocational goal suddenly becomes out of reach.
    Finances evaporate.

Sometimes the shifts are broad and communal.
    Global communities get shaken to the core.
    Acts of terror, war, natural disaster
        change families, tribes, and whole cultures forever,
        in one terrifying moment.
    Violent oppression can make life so intolerable
        that millions of people choose to run from home,
        and find some land, any land,
        that can safely shelter them.

In no way is all movement equal.
    I’m not saying that the cultural dissonance in middle America
        fueling our political anxieties,
        compares in any way to the horrific suffering of Syrian refugees.

But there is some shared human experience there,
    that gives us the capacity to empathize;
        to feel something when we see the suffering of refugees.
    That common element in human experience
        is that we all know at least a measure
            of homelessness,
            of disorientation,
            of wilderness.
        We are never fully certain where our next step will lead.
        So we live with a continual longing for home.

        Even in our most secure houses and havens,
            in the most comfortable nests we build for ourselves,
            there is always a measure of uncertainty, if not anxiety,
                that makes us double-check the locks,
                inspect the fire extinguishers,
                and make the insurance payments on time.

    We want to know that home,
        a predictable place of stability and security and belonging
        will be there now, and into the future.
        We know change is inevitable.
        But we don’t want to linger long with instability or uncertainty.
        To be human, is to want to make sure.
            That’s how we’re wired, and that’s not a bad thing.
            Our survival as a species depends on it.

    Even radical political movements
        that, on the surface, appear to be all about change,
            about shaking things up,
        are really an effort to regain control over our future.
    They see the changes already happening
        as a threat to the future they envision.
    Radical political movements are not pushing for
        constant and perpetual change.
        They are not against any status quo.
        But they want a new and different status quo,
            than the one currently in place.

    We may all invite some change.
    But we also want to get to a point, sooner rather than later,
        that change resolves into a new, healthy normal.
    We want to settle into a new place to call home.

Now I’ve been describing human nature in general.
    But personality also plays a role in how I deal with change,
        or being in the wilderness.

    I, for instance, am wired to prefer predictability.
        If I am at point A, and need to get to point B,
            I prefer to know the precise location of B,
                how far from A to B,
                and the most efficient route.

    On road trips when I was a kid, we relied on 10-year-old maps.
        We aimed the car toward a town large enough to have motels.
        Then we stopped at one after the other,
            until we found a decent one with empty rooms
                at a price we could stomach.
        Same thing for restaurants and gas stations.
            Always an adventure.
        Today, a device we carry not only has current maps,
            but shows accidents and construction delays,
                and arrival time, to the minute,
                and hotel and restaurant options,
                and gas prices at every pump.
            We can reserve a room and read a menu
                hours before we arrive.
                Little is left to chance.
                Suits me just fine.

    If only we could buy a device
        that mapped out the path for congregations on the move . . .
            and for denominations.
        Something that revealed all the possibilities,
            all the potential obstructions and detours,
            and the price that would be paid,
                for each available option.

    Of course, there is no device like that on the market.
        And if there was, I think God would prefer we not buy it.
    At least, that is the strong impression I get
        from the scriptures on this first Sunday of Lent.

    God seems to have a high regard for wandering people.
        It makes for a closer relationship to his people.
    Wanderers are more dependent on their connection to God,
        so they invest more energy in that connection.

    Take the Israelites, for instance.
    They wandered 40 years in the wilderness.
        Yes, it was a form of punishment for disobedience.
    But God also knew
        that some pretty important things happen in the wilderness.
    Wilderness brings growth opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.
    Wilderness provides opportunities for learning
        that comfort and stability can never provide.

Near the end of those 40 years in the wilderness,
    we have this text from Deuteronomy 26.
    This text is an order of worship.
    A liturgy sketched out in outline form,
        not unlike what we put in our bulletin every week.
    Moses gave them this liturgy for future use.
    He said, after you settle down in the land,
        after you plant and harvest your first crops,
        after you start feeling secure,
        after you’re at home again, worship God this way.
    Bring your first-fruits of harvest,
        place it before the priests at the house of worship,
        and then recite these words to the priest.
    And their little speech begins with,
        “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”
    When they are settled,
        at their first worship service, after their first harvest,
        the first words out of their mouth are,
        “I am the child of a wanderer.”

    There’s good reason for this speech.
    Now that they have stopped wandering,
        they are at risk of forgetting who they are.
        It’s not the settledness of the land that defines them.
        It is not rootedness that makes a home.
        It is being with God that makes a home.
    In the wilderness . . . or in a land of milk and honey.
    While wandering . . . or while enjoying stability.
        The Israelites find their true home
            when they live their lives in dependence on God.

Our Gospel reading today, Luke 4, was another wilderness story.
    Jesus was propelled by the Spirit into a deserted wilderness.
        For 40 days he wandered and fasted there.
        For 40 days he reflected on his life and calling.
    There in the wilderness he was tempted by the devil.
        His temptation was to leave the wilderness,
            to walk away from the unknown, the risky,
                the place of vulnerability and dependency;
            to walk away from where the Spirit propelled him,
                to a more comfortable and secure place.

    First, he was tempted to reject hunger,
        to take matters into hand, turn stones to bread.
    Then he was tempted to turn away from risk of rejection,
        to grasp the political power that was his by birthright.
        “All the kingdoms of the world can be yours,” the devil said.
    Then he was tempted to turn away from any human limitation
        and exercise his power to be sensational.
        “Jump from the temple and God will save you,” the devil said.
    But Jesus said no to all three.
        And I believe these were real, and strong, temptations.
        They were temptations to short-cut the wilderness,
            and seize control,
            and manage his future,
            and no longer be needy or dependent on his father.

Jesus was able to say no, I think, because
    the wilderness reinforced where his true home was.
Rather than experiencing it as God’s punishment,
    he accepted the wilderness as a necessary training ground
        for the spiritual disciplines
        of yieldedness and patience and relinquishment.
    The wilderness was not where God abandoned Jesus.
        It was where Jesus learned to abandon himself into God’s hands.

I think that is still the role that wilderness can play,
    if we don’t run from it too quickly.

I don’t know precisely what kind of wilderness
    each of us may be facing
    as we begin this journey through Lent.

For individuals,
    there’s every imaginable wilderness out there—
        the wilderness of broken relationships,
            of lost jobs,
            of lost dreams,
            of spiritual emptiness,
            of physical illness,
            of relentless grief.
For communities,
    there are also many ways to be in a wilderness—
        the wilderness of an uncertain future,
            of long-term conflict,
            of schism,
            and the fear of obscurity and cultural irrelevance.

Whether as individuals or groups,
    we can name ways we are in the middle of a wilderness.
    Some of us are hightailing it out of there as fast as we can.
    Some of us are standing on the edge,
        trying to decide whether or not to enter.
    Some of us, maybe, are choosing to embrace the wilderness,
        at least for a while,
        because that seems to be where God wants us right now,
            and it seems to be where, we hope,
            God will help direct us to our new, true home.

Everyone of us has a longing for home.
    Some of us are looking in the wrong places.
    Some of us are trying to find our home,
        by running away from the wilderness.
        Eventually we’ll end up in some wilderness, anyway.
        Eventually, the best laid plans don’t hold up.
        When that happens, will we survive in the wilderness,
            if we’ve spent our whole lives running from it?

I am coming to believe that unless we embrace
    the uncertainties and risks of being in the wilderness,
    we will not understand what being at home is about.
We will find our truest home,
    when we come to feel at home with our homelessness.
    Because it is precisely at that place
        of being at the end of our resources,
        of experiencing desert,
            that our dependency on God will flourish.
        It is at those times when we have little to hold onto anyway,
            that we are more ready to relinquish our selfish purposes
                to the purposes of God.

    Or to use the metaphor we’re working with in this worship series,
        God, the author of my life story,
            has invited me to join as co-author.
            The time will come,
                when I find myself in a place of wilderness,
                when I have writer’s block, so to speak,
                when the story can’t be coaxed out of my pen.
            Then, I simply must let go of the pen,
                and allow the creator of my story,
                the one whose creative vision drives the plot,
                    to do the writing for me.

It’s really no surprise that the Christian life works that way.
    If the spiritual life is about being open before God,
        of bowing in the worship of God,
        of yielding ourselves to God’s will,
        then it makes sense that we will best learn to live that way,
            in a place where we can’t manage on our own,
            in a place of barrenness where
                raw trust in God is the only way forward.

This is the role of the season of Lent,
    if we are willing to accept it.
    This is a season to let go of the tyranny of self,
        and be invited into another way of being.

So now, for a few moments,
    I invite into a space for reflection, and writing.

Take the slips of paper in your bulletin.
    Perhaps you’ve already read these questions,
        and have been pondering them.
    Are you, or those you love, in any sort of “wilderness” right now?
    What is the “promised land” you seek?
    How is God’s love and presence being made known to you?
Take a few moments now to jot down some initial thoughts,
    and responses to those questions.

[two-minute pause]

Now, do with that slip of paper what you wish.
    Here are some possibilities to consider.
    Put it in a place where you will see it again, repeatedly, during Lent.
    Or write your name on it,
        and hand it to a pastor or elder at the door as you leave.
    We will then share it with the pastors and elders,
        and make it a matter of prayer and care.
    Or take it with you to the next time you meet
        with your small group, or S.S. class, or meet a friend for coffee.
    Being able to name, to others,
        the ways in which we are in wilderness,
        I think increases the likelihood that this wilderness
            will be a place you look back on
                as a time of important formation
                rather than a season of despair.

—Phil Kniss, February 14, 2016

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