1 Lent B 2021: Don’t wait for the angels

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I’m starting all over again.
This is a second stab at a sermon,
the first one just didn’t seem right.
It may have been okay
if we weren’t in our eleventh month
of a pandemic
but context is everything. Right?

We don’t need the Holy Spirit to drive us
out into the wilderness
because we have been wandering it for awhile.
We just want “the other side.”

We’re like those ancient escaped slaves
brought by Moses through the wilderness
to the far banks of the Jordan River.
They could look across that small
meandering boundary but weren’t allowed to cross.
They had to sit down
and listen to another sermon
when right across the muddy way
was a land of milk and honey.

Slowly but surely,
chaotically and maddeningly,
we are getting vaccines.
Hope for “the other side” is named
as “July” or “the end of the summer”
or ”by next fall.”
But we are here, on this side,
with the threat and memories
of sickness, variants, and death.
For many of us loved ones are far away,
even if we can see them through plasma screens.
Good friends must keep a distance
and smiles go unseen.
Favorite cafes, bars, and restaurants
have closed.
We are close and yet so very far.

For some of us
the wilderness is knowing that our pain
is so much less than most people’s suffering.

Millions and millions and millions
have lost work,
live tenuously in the shadow of back rent
and food lines, or worse.
Around the world the pandemic
has only deepened the isolation
of those suffering extreme deprivation.

We see it,
know about it,
do not live it and
are far from doing anything about it.
In that scenario,
we are in the land of milk and honey
looking back across the Jordan
at those still in the wilderness.

Yet, somehow,
we feel as though we are wandering
in the wilderness still.
And we are.
Such is the strangeness of this time.

Obviously the boilerplate for Lent
comes from the gospel story
about Jesus in the wilderness for forty days.
But he got angels waiting on him. No fair!

There is yet another thing to notice about that story,
at least in Mark,
and it is a parfait of love and suffering.

First he has a private religious experience.
A voice in his head (remember, in Mark
only Jesus hears the voice),
tells him he is beloved.

That peak spiritual and emotional embrace
is followed by some kind of harsh wind
that transports him to a wild and desolate place.
It wasn’t a polite invitation to Lent,
it was coercion.

In the midst of a wildness,
home to beasts and the darkness of his shadows,
he gets some TLC from angelic counter-forces.

Then, after surviving that,
his spiritual mentor and a prophet like him,
is arrested.
So from the spiritual high
of an intense experience of both light and dark,
he now has to decide whether the risks are worth it.
Apparently he does, and goes off preaching.

Just as an aside, Mark is an economic story-teller.
He describes all of that action in seven sentences.
Our tradition lumps Mark in with Matthew and Luke
and so we lose Mark’s point of view.
Jesus was totally human,
had a spiritual awakening as an adult,
knew he was beloved by God,
and it empowered him to do what needed to be done.

And just an FYI,
Mark never proclaims Jesus as the only son of God.
The earliest Gospel doesn’t make that case,
nor offer any notion of a supernatural birth
or extraordinary beginning.
To Mark, Jesus was a human being like us,
who has an intense awakening
and allows it to change him.
Much like Noah, Abraham, and Moses.

When I am in the wilderness
and need a guide and a hand to hold,
I prefer that prophet and messiah
to the one Paul and John proclaim.
But that is just me.

Now, back to our wilderness wandering.

In normal times
the wisdom I would think to follow
is community.
Community is a spiritual practice, you know?
It is the practice of inter-dependence.

In order to practice community
we have to run interference with
the demons of individualism
and self-sufficiency
that whisper we don’t need others —
especially those others not like us.

You know those beasts.
They insist that we resist vulnerability,
that no one is to be trusted,
that we have to look out for Number One.
Those beasts.
They make community difficult, and impossible
if they have taken over.

The practice of community
involves throwing our lot in with others
as if – AS IF –
our well-being and survival
is dependent upon them.
AS IF we are all in this together.
You know, as if we are dependent
upon those who harvest the crops
and slaughter the meat
and drive the produce
and stock the shelves
and sell it to us.
You know, AS IF
we were dependent upon those folks.

That practice of community
also involves an intentional,
and continuous choice
to live connected to people we may not even like.
People we don’t agree with.
People we don’t want to be connected to.
All of that is required because it is real.
Interdependence is the actual nature of the universe
and it does not consider whether the elements in play
like each other or agree with one another.

So you see, the practice of community
is a big, complicated, and even
comprehensive practice
that includes our economic choices
and our political choices
and our social choices,
along with all our more personal choices.

That is why there are so many beasts and demons
at work to keep us from practicing it.
There is a lot of room in there
for those shadows to fly around and create havoc.

But you know, a community
making it forty years in the wilderness together,
like those escaped slaves did,
seems like a more realistic strategy
than waiting forty days in the wilderness
for the angels to arrive.

We are all in this together
whether we want to be or not.
We will do better practicing community
than waiting for the angels.

Plus, it is usually in the practice of community
that we encounter our own belovedness.
Often just after
we have run into our own beasts and demons.

So community is practiced a bit differently
during a pandemic
but the alternative is an awful isolation
that makes social distancing
seem like child’s play.

Welcome to Lent,
and a communal practice
of wilderness wandering.