29 May 2011 01:54 PM

Fed by Wilderness

A sermon by Deacon Sue Mosher, May 29, 2011

Last year, I visited the sacred island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland. Late on my first full day there, the group I was with had dispersed, and I was walking slowly back from the beach to my bed and breakfast. It was just me and the sounds of the waves and the sheep. Suddenly, I realized that a mist or fog was drifting in, quickly reducing the visibility all around. I felt a tug of panic. I had to walk across a wide, rugged field to reach the one gate that led to the road, and that field was full of rocks and sheep poo. What if I couldn't find the gate? What if I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle? The serenity of the shore fled, and I quickened my pace until I stepped back onto the island's single road.

St. Columba's Bay, Iona, ScotlandWhat had I been so afraid of? What was the worst that could have happened? There are no wolves on Iona, and the sheep weren't likely to nibble me. Yet, I really did not want to be enfolded in that fog and left unsure of my directions.

Of course, that moment of fear pales by comparison with what so many families have endured and continue to dread in the wake of the horribly destructive tornadoes and floods in the center of our country. Our hearts and thoughts and prayers reach out to them. Yet, at the same time, we can be swept up in the amazing beauty of a storm in its fury, especially when captured on video or in a photograph. On the walls of our own homes, we may hang images of wild landscapes, "fierce landscapes" in the language of Belden Lane, the professor of theology at St. Louis University who provided our second reading. He points out that our romantic fascination with wild terrain is a relatively new development, occurring just in the past few centuries.

The viewpoint of most people throughout human history has been more like that voiced by Yasmine, a contemporary Los Angeles woman, in the recent book 6 Billion Others:

I'm scared of large mountains, I'm scared of the oceans, so I guess you could say that I'm also scared of nature because it's so powerful. The ocean is so immense, the mountains so gigantic, and then there are those animals. To be perfectly honest, I think I'm scared of nature.

I'm sure many in Missouri and Oklahoma and Louisiana and Haiti and other countries would agree.

Nature is not just a force or location distinct and distant from civilization. Sometimes it inserts itself into our everyday lives, touching our most primal fears. And yet some of you, I know, have gone deep into the wilderness alone and found yourselves. You were in good company, for there is a paradox that seekers have understood for millennia, especially in that desert wilderness which lacks sheltering trees and cooling streams, the kind of wilderness that we read about in the Bible. The early Christians, writes Belden Lane, viewed the desert as "an unfriendly, intimidating domain; but for those able to endure its purifying adversity, an image also of paradise. If desert terrors can be sustained," he continues, "as the self is laid bare under its harsh scrutiny, dry land becomes an avenue of hope."

Hope weakened when I learned not long ago that Pastor Lillie was leaving us. My first reaction was, "Oh dear! Back to the wilderness."

"Back to the wilderness": Which wilderness did I have in mind? The backcountry of the American Southwest or our eastern forests? The isolation of a Scottish island? Or the deserts of the Bible stories where Elijah heard the sound of silence, where Jesus was tempted, and where the Israelites were transformed into God's people? Could the emptiness of being without a settled minister lead to the promised land? And could that sense of wilderness have relevance for the other barren places in our personal lives, when we have suffered losses both great and small?

The desert wilderness is not a kind place. Like all of nature, it is indifferent to the suffering of those who seek it or are led into it. Indifference is a difficult word, which Belden Lane uses in our second reading to mean something other than the passive-aggressive cold shoulder of a disdainful look. Instead, it is what the early Christian desert fathers and mothers would have called apatheia, the root of our word apathy, but again, something different from the modern meaning. To these spiritual forebears, apatheia was not a state of boredom, but rather a loosening of attachment to specific outcomes, a softening of focus, and a gradual shedding of emotions. In such open, receptive indifference lies the possibility of seeing the naked, unfiltered truth-the truth about ourselves, our neighbors, and God. Once we truly know who we are, we are free to serve others out of love, not the desire for attainment, and to know and trust deeply in the steady presence of God in our midst.

Such a clarification of identity takes place in all the Biblical wilderness stories, including the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted and then comforted by angels. However, it is in the details of the wanderings of the Israelites that we can find the most clues about what happens when people are transformed under God's guidance. These signs may also console us during those dry times when things in our personal lives seem drained or going against our expectations. So, let me share six lessons we might learn by revisiting the Exodus story.

Lesson #1: Be prepared for a difficult road, and beware the quick fix.

We learn in Exodus, chapter 13, that God led the Israelites by the hardest, longest way. They could have reached Canaan by traveling north along the Mediterranean, but that would have taken them past the Philistines. But that could have meant war, and in the face of such conflict, they might have turned back toward Egypt. Furthermore, Belden Lane explains that in the Jewish tradition of the Talmud, it is understood that the Israelites

are shoved down the difficult path so there will be no thought of ever turning back. They cover grueling miles of terrain so tortuous they will never be tempted to recross it in quest of the leeks and onions they remembered in Egypt.

Lesson #2: Don't forget our ancestors.

Exodus also tells us that "Moses took with him the bones of Joseph". Those relics provided a link with the distant past and their common ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. Dave Skidmore, in his sermon two weeks ago, explored the value of memories in helping us both recall the past and "re-member", in the sense of reconnecting what has been divided.

Lesson #3: Be aware constantly of the presence of God, both in the fullness of Creation and passing even more intimately among us.

God appeared as a presence among the Israelites first as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, then later within the portable tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, which the Israelites carried with them.

They also experienced the hand of God in the wilderness itself, in all its immensity and harshness, a landscape in which they could not feed themselves, but had to trust God, which brings to . . .

Lesson #4: Move from a culture of scarcity to one of abundance.

The wandering Israelites knew hunger and thirst, until they also learned to depend on God. And from that day forward, they were fed, and they thirsted no more. Water flowed from solid rock to give them something to drink. Manna appeared on the ground in the morning, and flocks of quail, always exactly enough as was needed, even on the day before the Sabbath, when twice as much food was available, in order that none had to be gathered on the holy day. What a huge difference that must have made in their attitude! Once they were slaves laboring hard in Egypt. Now they had only to reach out their hands to find abundant food-although it was not yet ready to consume. They still had to work to make full use of that abundance. God guided them into sufficiency, humility, and gratitude, not laziness.

Lesson #5: Acknowledge and celebrate our diversity, especially the varied ways in which God calls us.

Today's Jews commemorate their ancestors' sojourn in the wilderness with the seven-day festival known as Sukkot, in which they build "booths" or temporary, outdoor shelters where they eat and spend as much time as possible. As one celebrant puts it, these "few measly branches standing between me and the elements . . . [help] me remember that God is the one who makes everything and protects me".

Central to Sukkot is a ritual that involves the waving of a bundle of four different plant species. Jewish commentators suggest that the four species represent the four different kinds of people who formed the Hebrew nation:

    • Those who study the Torah or the Law but do not possess good deeds.
    • Those who possess good deeds but do not study the Law.
    • Those who lack both the Torah and good deeds.
    • Those who have both the Torah and good deeds.

Thus, no one is excluded from the community.

Lesson #6: Seek forgiveness; offer forgiveness; accept forgiveness.

Despite the fact that they did not thirst nor did they starve, the Israelites grumbled. They whined. They made idols that were more tangible than the pillar of smoke or the pillar of fire or the hidden Presence inside the Ark-and they bowed in worship before those false gods. And yet their own God, whose name was too holy to speak, forgave them again and again and continued to nurture them. They learned the meaning of steadfast love and reconciliation and forged a new, common identity that has lasted even down to our day, despite dispersion and destruction.

But before they gained that new identity, they had to be stripped of all their attachments. As in the opening words that Eric read from Stephen Mitchell's rendering of the Tao Te Ching, their ambitions were weakened, they lost everything they knew, everything they desired. But once they reached a state of "not seeking, not expecting" - as the Tao puts it - they could welcome all things, including God 's dwelling among them, both as a guiding spiritual presence and also as a provider of material sustenance. In their history, the harsh wilderness came to represent the sacred place where God courted Israel as a bride, so that the prophet Hosea could later express God's desire for his people in these words:

I am going to seduce her and lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. There I shall give her back her vineyards, and make the Vale of Achor a gateway of hope. There she will respond as when she was young, as on the day when she came up from Egypt.

As we've seen through the Israelites' story, the wilderness offers many lessons, but its chief teaching is that it cannot be tamed to our will, because it belongs to God in all its harsh beauty. As a contemporary Sahara dweller told a National Geographic writer:

The desert is very simple to survive in. You must only admit there is something on earth larger than you . . . the wind . . . the dryness . . . the distance. . . . You accept that and everything is fine. The desert will provide. Inshallah. If you do not, the desert will break you. Admit your weakness to the Sahara's face, and all is fine.

Admit that we don't know. Admit that we need God not only to set before us the way, but to help us discover our true identity.

I believe that God's abundance is already here, that we already have everything that we need to thrive, as long as we center ourselves on God. It is just that the road forward seems terribly obscure. Many spiritual writers have described this seeming darkness as being for our own protection. This explanation from the late Gerald May, who lived and taught here in the DC area, could be applied equally to the ancient Israelites, to our congregation, or to any of us who struggle with the fierce landscapes through which life leads us:

To guide us toward the love that we most desire, we must be taken where we could not and would not go on our own. And lest we sabotage the journey, we must not know where we are going.

So, what is it exactly that we're supposed to do in the face of such ignorance? How are we to cooperate with the God who is eager to lead us, to feed us? It may sound overly simple, but we can start by saying, "Yes-yes, I'm willing to see what happens if I put a little more trust in God and rely a little less on my own efforts. I'm willing to take a little more time to see if I can hear the 'still small voice' of divine guidance and encouragement." And so that we may take courage from and support each other in this task, may I ask that we begin by praying together:

O Source of Life, O flowing stream of unconditional Love, we long to experience your Presence among us, by day, by night, in the wilderness, in the city. Let the wind of your Spirit release us from ambition and certainty until we can see the abundance you have set before us. Guide us to use it wisely. Give us the patience to listen deeply to each other and to listen to the spaces between the words. Grant us the heart to forgive each other our wrong turns and stumbling as we move through the wilderness toward the gateway of hope, along the avenue of hope, accompanied by all who wish to make the journey with us ... and with You. Amen.


Tao Te Ching, 3 & 15 (Stephen Mitchell paraphrase):

The Master leads by emptying people's minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.

The Master doesn't seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.

Deuteronomy 8:2-10

From The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden C. Lane:

The desert is a place for learning to lower one's expectations almost to the point of absurdity, being content increasingly with less and less, giving up living ambitiously for lofty "ends" of any sort. One discovers there the importance of the simplest of "means," ignoring everything else that doesn't serve the ordinary.

That's how one comes, at last, to find strange comfort in the desert waste, only by embracing indifference, learning to delight in nothing so much as simplicity. Solace lies at the still point of emptiness-beyond hope, beyond proof, beyond consolation. Deliberately aiming the exercise of indifference at oneself, one releases little by little the anxious thoughts of the distracted ego. The false self is gradually starved by inattention. One learns also to be indifferent to others, ignoring surface impressions so as to open oneself to radically different people on the clean, level ground of an unspoken humanity. No longer driven by short-lived feelings of sympathy or pity, one consistently, doggedly works for justice without thought of reward.

Ultimately one becomes indifferent even to God, remaining blithely unconcerned about particular answers to prayer, about anything one might previously have wanted to "get" from God. One waits, instead, in curiosity to see what comes in the dark uncertainty of the night, content simply with God alone. Prayer becomes less a matter of petition than of relationship.. .. The wilderness traveler arrives at that lonely desert place where love is now possible because it finally is wholly free, released of every frantic need to exploit and possess.

Posted by Sue Mosher at May 29, 2011 01:54 PM
Posted to Sermons