Sermon: Wondering and Wandering in the Wilderness

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[Given on Sunday, February 22, 2015,  by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church –  Kansas City, MO]

Mark 1:12 (1:9-15)

O God,
take our minds and think through them,
take our lips and speak through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire
   with love for you;
may your kingdom come,
on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
Mark 1:12 (NRSV)

Soaking wet, Jesus, fresh from the waters of baptism was driven by the Spirit of God into the Wilderness. In being baptized by John, Jesus was entering this revolutionary religious movement begun by John the Baptizer in which the religious authorities and systems would be overturned and revived. Jesus enters this revolutionary religious movement and, immediately after signing on the “dotted line,” he is driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness.

He isn’t called first to go and confront the Temple authorities who had sold their religious identity to their Roman overlords.

He isn’t called first to go and confront the Pharisees who were filled with “law,” but who lacked in “love.”

He isn’t called first to confront the Roman Empire and to declare the Reign of God which overthrows kings and kingdoms.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first recorded canonical Gospel, Jesus’s first ministerial action was being driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness.

There is something about the image of Jesus being “driven” out into the wilderness that begs some of our attention, this morning – it warrants our reflection. It seems to suggest that there was some unwillingness, some reticence, maybe even some fear and trepidation of going out into the wilderness. After all, there are devils and wild beasts in the wilderness.

Nonetheless, Jesus, soaking wet, fresh from the waters of John’s baptism of revolutionary religious renewal and revival, is driven out by the Spirit of God into the wilderness.

As we engage this season of Lent in preparation for the Paschal Mystery of Easter, if we listen closely to the Spirit of God, we may find that we ourselves are being “driven” out into the wilderness.

The wilderness motif in scripture is a place of preparation. You remember the story of Jacob don’t you? Jacob, the usurper, who stole his brother Esau’s birthright with a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup and lived his life burning bridges and breaking relationship left and right. Well, God had plans for him, but before he could get there, he had to go out into the wilderness and wrestle with the angel, or with God, or with himself (depending on how you interpret the story). In this famous struggle he wrestles all night long with his opponent, until he utters those immortal words – “I will not let go until you bless me!” His name is changed. He is now “Israel” – He who strives/wrestles with God. His wilderness experience prepared him.

The Prophet Elijah, to whom the Gospel of Mark goes to great lengths to connect Jesus, also had a transformative experience after forty days in the wilderness. After fleeing Jezebel and Ahab who wanted to kill him, Elijah found himself in the wilderness ready to give up on his mission, but he heard the still, small voice of God in a deafening silence. His wilderness experience prepared him.

Beloved, if we are desirous of walking this pilgrim’s path with God, we too are called to walk into the unknown of the wilderness. I know that in our day of GPS and Google Maps, we are unaccustomed to being lost and wandering… and wondering.

For the past few weeks I have been engaged in conversations with a whole host of people about what Church could be. These conversations have revealed to me something that I want to share with you – we are all pilgrims. I hope you’ve got on your traveling shoes, because each and every one of us is a pilgrim. It doesn’t matter if we were baptized fifty years ago or if we are discerning a call to Holy Baptism now. It doesn’t matter if we are “Cradle Episcopalians” or, if you’re like me, a “Recovering Baptist.” It doesn’t matter if we identify as “Christian” or “Spiritual but not Religious.” Each of us is a spiritual pilgrim wandering and wondering through this wilderness, seeking a moment of refreshment as we continue our journey towards freedom. Each of us has something to share and something to learn. The formation and creation of a new worshiping community is not simply about doing some “cool,” but it is about a willingness to be changed by our relationships with one another.

Over the past few weeks, I have worked with an organization called CCO – Communities Creating Opportunities – to create a series of trainings on conducting conversations of race in faith communities in response to the unrest in Ferguson last fall. These trainings have brought people together from across Kansas City, across denominational lines, across the Troost divide to heal the deep wounds caused by years of racism and distrust. These conversations have created a whole new community of people who are willing to enter into difficult conversations and spaces, to talk about uncomfortable subjects and topics, and to build relationships with people who arise from a different narrative than themselves.

These experiences of wilderness open up new possibilities about the work of God that is happening among us – the creation of new communities, the tearing down of old walls, and the revolutionary re-creation of our world.

But, I would be lying if I stated that the wilderness was a “safe” place. The wilderness, by its very definition, is an unsafe place. It is a place filled with danger and uncertainty. It is not a place for the weak or the faint of heart.

Last weekend, the youth of our Church went to Washington, D.C. for their 2015 Youth Retreat. We navigated a frigid, urban wilderness, served hot meals to those who were homeless, heard the deafening testimony of human cruelty told in a pile of shoes stolen from victims of the Holocaust, and reflected on the slow evolution of the expansion of the American experience etched in the stones of the National Mall.

The pursuit of peace and justice – the call that each of us agree to in our baptism – is a call that is inherently unsafe, but wholly necessary. In a world where Anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia continue to be on the rise – we need seekers of peace and justice in this wilderness. In a world where people are still discriminated against because they are Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, or Transgender, we need seekers of peace and justice in this wilderness.

The wilderness is inherently unsafe. The wilderness has a way of forming and reforming us. The wilderness has a way of radically reshaping our worldview. It was in the wilderness that Jacob became Israel. It was in the wilderness that the newly emancipated Hebrews became a nation. It was in the wilderness that Jesus himself had to contend with how he was going to use his power – for himself or for the world.

That Jesus – the one who said to “launch out into the deep,” the one who bid Peter to step out of the boat and dance on angry waves, the one who told his disciples to “Go ye therefore into all the world and preach the Gospel” – still drives the faithful into the wilderness.

The wilderness is inherently unsafe. There are wild animals in the wilderness. There are devils in the wilderness. But if we are driven out by the Spirit of God into the Wilderness, then the Spirit of God is with us in the wilderness.

We aren’t walking this pilgrim’s path alone, but God – the molder of ever hill, the digger of every valley, the planter of every flower, the pruner of every tree – God is with us in the wilderness.

The wilderness may be messy, and scary, and difficult, and uncomfortable, and dangerous, but beloved, I am glad to know this morning that God is with me and that God is molding a miracle from this mess.

I wonder what wilderness God is driving you to into, and I wonder what beautiful things God is making of the dust.

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