Ah my friends, we arrive at the crux of the matter, why go into the desert anyway? Why go on these wilderness journeys, why not hide our head in the corner and just refuse? It isn’t fun. We talked about how crisis is so often the thing that gets us off the couch and into the wilderness, we talked about losing all that we think we are and need to be, that holy stripping of identity and boundary markers by which we say, ‘I am this.” We talked about getting lost and how scary it can be, and how much we want to be in control, so we resist ‘letting go and letting God,” because that reminds us all too much that we aren’t in control anyway and we really want to be.
So why go? Why face our mortality every year, looking death in the face and saying, yes we know this is coming and we are mortal. Why do it? Why not stay where everything looks grand and beautiful and if it doesn’t we’ll just tuck our heads and our hearts away and refuse to look. What I don’t know, I don’t have to face, so there.
I imagine poor Lazarus and his sisters must have been wondering the same sorts of things as they waited for their friend, the healer to come and heal Lazarus and he just didn’t come. What good did it do for them to believe when he didn’t come? I feel for Mary and Martha in their recriminations when they bluntly say to Jesus, “You could have saved him. You didn’t come. You didn’t show up.” Bam. There it is. So why look death in the face if you can do nothing to prevent it, why embrace hope and salvation if it isn’t coming? Our Lenten practice of facing our own darkness, our own mortality every year must have some benefit right? I mean because we keep doing it. So why?
We finally hit that point in our journey when rock bottom shows up. When we experienced this holy stripping of identity, of boundary markers, that place where we can say, Hi, I’m Cyndi I’m…and all those things we hold precious are listed, I’m Joyce and Gunther’s mom, I’m Betty ‘s daughter, I’m a Christian, I’m here to help, I’m this, I’m that, all of this is just gone. This is a holy striping. It’s what happens to Job. When all he has is just ripped from him and all he has left is “I belong to God.”
One of my favorite confessions begins by identifying our chief comfort, that we belong to God and no one and nothing can take that away. The man who wrote that, Frederick the Electorate, did so as he was being hauled before the courts on a charge of heresy. The outcome of the trial would determine whether he lived, or was burned at the stake, so he needed to be sure. He needed to know that he was staking his life on something solid and sure and the most important thing he could grasp hold of, not unlike Job, is that he belonged to God.
This is what a wilderness journey does, it strips us down until all that is left is our essential truth. Every year we rehearse this, we gather together and remind one another that is part of who we are. Mortal, vulnerable, fragile, and that in our tender mortality who we are matters a very great deal. Yes we are dust, and to dust we shall return, but what we do in the meantime is an act of co-creation. We are not powerless automatons but vibrantly alive and graced by the love of God, God’s very self. That is amazing!
In our day to day acts we miss this. We get busy with our to-do lists and we miss that every act we give our energy to matters. It matters whether we speak ill of one another or good. It matters whether we stand with the outcast or the insider. It matters whether we forgive the errors of those we love, choosing love and connection over our insistence that some things just should never have happened! These things matter intensely. And when we allow our self to feel our mortality, feel the need for a legacy, all of this matters.
When we face our wounds and dare to look into the cracks and crevices of our brokenness, we see where we have gone astray, where we have missed the mark and stop fooling our self that somehow it was justified. That we only said this hurtful thing or did that other thing because so and so did this, and we realize there never was an excuse big enough or important enough to justify our being less than we were created to be. Oh, we might say, that person promised me this, and it’s okay if I hurt them because they failed to produce it…but it was never about them, was it? At our rock bottom, in the act of having all our justifications stripped from us, all that remains is that we hurt someone who may or may not have failed us. Ouch. Just ouch, because that is NOT who we want to be. We wanted to be so much more than that!
So we rehearse it, we stop every year and check ourselves. Who am I really? Am I living up to who I said I’d be? Who God created me to be? How far off the mark am I? One of my favorite authors, Stephen Levine, captured this practice well in his book, A Year to Live. As a hospice worker he had noticed that many of his patients were experiencing these glorious ah-ha moments when they could see clearly how far off the mark they had gone and how little they had to lose by moving back toward that mark. The same theory is captured beautifully in that song by Tim Mcgraw, Live Like You are Dying. The lyrics from that song that really touch my heart are the “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying,” He had nothing left to lose, “I hope you get the chance to live like you are dying, “ he tells his young friend. Well, Stephen Levine decided that darn it, he was going to do just that, and he spent an entire year pretending that he only had a year to live.
This is our Lenten practice. A place where we stop and remember that we are all mortal, and we will all wonder in the desert at some point. We will lose loved ones, we will see opportunities pass us by, we will some day have that final spring, the one where we, hopefully, stop complaining about all the mud and just glory in the daffodils, we will have that final summer and we hope that as those long evenings go by they aren’t filled with regret that we failed to forgive this person and we failed to repair that relationship because we were just too daggon scared. It felt too doggon vulnerable so we froze up and we didn’t do it.
The glory of our Lenten journey into the wilderness to examine and look at all the things within us that block love that shut out the light, that keep our lives small and timid, is that we get to choose differently. We get to really look deeply at how we are, or are not, living into the being God created us to be and imagine a different way of being. I imagine that this is a big part of Lazarus’s story. We really don’t know much about him, other than that he died, like all of us will, and he got a second chance. Just flip those tables Jesus! We get one chance to get things right, to say how much we love those we care about, to give forgiveness, to do and say all the things that God has laid on our hearts…except that Lazarus gets a do-over. Mary and Martha get a do-over, and that changes everything.
Now it’s hard work to go into the tomb if you don’t have to. It’s a challenge to face one’s humanity, one’s limitations, one’s faults and errors if you don’t have to. Even when we’ve been scared to death once or twice, it’s really easy to re-armor our hearts with lots of should’s and shouldn’ts and it ought to be this way or that, and fail to see what is right in front of us. We are so good at protecting ourselves from loss, so good at pretending that we if do all the right things somehow it will pass us by, that we need to stop every year and say, whoa, wait a minute, You are Mortal. You are dust and to dust, you, yes you, will return. Every year we take this journey, we pack our bags and we unpack our baggage and we take this journey. We look carefully at what we take with us and who we are and who we have become.
And then we get to choose again. Then we get to live like we are dying. The gems mined in your darkest moments are what give you a depth, a courage, a wisdom and a richness that can’t be learned elsewhere. And your ability to fly is in direct proportion to your willingness and courage to face your version of rock bottom. If you’ve ever been at the bottom and bounced back to tell the story, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Now I hope that during our Lenten journey you really looked deeply. That you thought about the ways you keep people from loving on you, and the things you tell yourself that keep you from loving others. I hope that you have looked at the ways you have kept your life small and ‘reasonable’ and perhaps you’ve looked at the ways you fight change, fearing loss so much that it’s hard to let anything go. I hope that you have been shook and all that you wish you could let go of has become a little looser. And I hope too that you have been gentle with yourself during this process, because it’s all okay. There is next year…right? It is in our human nature to pretend that we all have another chance coming, that later is okay, the story of Lazarus reminds us that later is sometimes too late, and even God, very God will weep.
So I hope that you have been shaken on this journey. Let your heart and soul be shaken, for in some measure we are all with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, sending out those messages, “Master come quick, the one you love is ill.” I wonder what words of forgiveness and love were shared around that deathbed, words which might not have been shared if they knew that Lazarus was going to get a second chance. I hope that whatever words of love or forgiveness, are spoken, that love isn’t being denied, that we are all clinging tightly to the knowledge that we belong to God, and that we can truly live as if we are dying.
I hope that in this shaking you have been gentle with yourself and gentle with each other, that those things you want to let go of have been shook loose and are ready to drop. I hope you feel ready to love deeper, speak sweeter, and express that audacious, bold love that we are called to. May it be so,
A few quotes from the sermon:
Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.
A stretch of sky, a garden wall overhung by green branches, a strong horse, a handsome dog, a group of children, a beautiful face — why should we be willing to be robbed of all this? Whoever has acquired the knack can in the space of a block see precious things without losing a minute’s time… All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.
Numbers 20 tells us that we need to be cautious of taking on too much responsibility especially when we are lost in grief, overwhelmed. Then especially we must be on the hunt for those moments of grace which call out to us, which help us find our center and our balance in God’s grace. This is the time when we must practice that essential discipline of seeking out and affirming all that is good, all that is true, all that is graced with beauty and shines with life. When we are in pain, or have shouldered too much responsibility, when the way has grown too long and we can’t see the end, this is the time and the place we must dig in and refuse to live in despair, to live in anger. This is when we must seek with all our hearts the grace and beauty of God. It may be the hardest place to seek it, but here more than ever we must seek and we must affirm that Love wins, Love is the first word, the most enduring and the final word. We do not seek a triumphal faith that promises us no harm will come to us, that all will always be bright and shiny and without flaw. No, we seek a faith that will live in us when all seems lost, when our hearts are broken. We seek a faith that will work in us and change us, that we might live beautiful, faithful, true lives no matter which valley we walk through.
It takes no special talent to look around our world and point out things that are numbing, depressing, or death-dealing. But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good., true, and beautiful demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts, and keep them open.
As we open up, we begin to see beauty everywhere, not only in nature but in human nature. There’s a lot of bad news out there, but there’s a lot of good news as well. Today we celebrate the unique and beautiful call of faith, that of paying attention to all of God’s love and grace, of being mindful and aware of the deep beauty and love in our lives, especially when we wander too long in the desert, when our eyes are downcast, when we lose those we love, when we just really, really want to hit that rock twice. To pause and notice, no matter how painful things are at the moment, how beautiful, how lovely, how enduring and persistent is the love of God.
Mindful” by Mary Oliver
I see or hear
that more or less kills me
that leaves me
like a needle In the haystack
It is what I was born for—
to look, to listen, to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over in joy,
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant—
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
We hear these words of Isaiah promising a beautiful future, one where predators and prey will befriend one another, but we must put this into context if we are to hear the fullness of this vision. It did not come to Israel during calm periods of peace, but during interesting times. It came to Israel during times when alliances with outside forces threatened the sovereignty of the state. It came to Israel during times when the economic systems promoted the wealthy and devastated the poor. It came to Israel at a time when, as Isaiah put it, “Your hands are full of blood” and there was no justice for the oppressed, poor and marginalized. It came to Israel during dark and frightening times.
I wonder if it might almost be heard as a parent comforting a child about to undergo surgery, yes honey, this will hurt, but one day you will walk again, one day you will play again, but yes, it will hurt. Our lectionary this year is insistent that we look at the darkness and brokenness within us. It’s terribly difficult to do and honestly, I was looking for a more upbeat and inspiring message today. One that would fill us all with hope, love and joy, But first, our scripture tells us, repent. The scripture from our lectionary that I didn’t read today was the one with John the Baptist yelling at the pharisees, repent you brood of vipers. I really wanted something more upbeat than that, but here it is again, Isaiah only a few chapters from yelling at Israel saying, God hates your worship, God won’t listen to your prayers, not when your hands are full of blood. We are reminded that advent is not only a time of anticipation but of preparation. Be gentle with yourselves this advent, but be persistent too. Take up your cross and be a part of the healing that this nation, this time, all of us, so need. We are the people who have been called to this moment, to be peace in the world, to bring healing, to speak the gospel word.
Oh, it’s a hard word today! A few days ago someone asked me how there can be so much darkness, so much pain in the world. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who became famous for documenting the stages of grief, once toured concentration camps in Germany. She was met there by survivors who had returned to the camp to tell their stories. Stories not only of loss, despair and death, but stories of redemption, of finding meaning and purpose in caring for one another, of finding hope in the midst of this most painful situation. As she toured the camp she began to notice that there were images of butterflies carved and scrawled in corners and over beds, in midst of these horrible living conditions, images of butterflies and she asked her tour guide about this. Her guide responded, “We knew we were in hell, that all we knew was gone and that everything was falling apart. Some of us believed that God was still at work in the midst of this, that God would triumph, even if we didn’t know how. We believed that God was remaking us and that in the end, God would be triumphant.”
So we turn to the hope, the promise, yes, the chrysalis looks like death, but something new is being born and we must stay faithful and stay present to this. Reverend Yolanda Norton, an assistant professor at San Francisco Theological, described it this way: “In Isaiah 11:1-10, the prophet finds himself in a season of despair. He writes in the interstitial space between destruction; a time that has seen and is anticipating devastation at the hand of the Assyrian empire. And yet, the prophetic speech of Isaiah is filled with a persistent hope that God will bring peace, order, and love in the midst of chaos and ruin.”
She goes on to remind us that while Isaiah is promising us that the end is secure and that God will not now nor ever abandon us, God does work through us and insists we participate in the healing of the nation. This is not a suggestion that God will magically make everything better even if we persist in tearing things down. Isaiah spoke truth to power, and that power was involved in tearing things down, in oppressing and hurting people. Get right with God, he said, do it now, but to the people he spoke words of peace, of promise.
This is the promise, that we have a savior and he will judge with righteousness, and his justice is restorative. Even the most venomous among us will be made whole, will be made well. Nature, red in tooth and claw, will become peaceful and a new paradigm will reign. And we are called to participate in this transformation. In the first chapter of Isaiah we are told what this will look like, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Christ is constant, God’s mercy and justice are constant, but we are not. So in the season of Advent we are called again to the paths of righteousness and of hope, of mercy to those who are vulnerable and justice for those who are oppressed. We are called to be a living witness to the hope we find in Jesus Christ. To live each day with the intention of lifting up those who are beaten down by life, who struggle and who are hurting. We are called to stay present to all the pain and loss in the world and to see it through eyes of compassion and not grow weary but abide in the promise, gain sustenance from the love and mercy of God.
Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who was interned at the concentration camps. He stayed present, he observed, and he noted what it was that made a difference, what it was that helped some survive while others, seemingly strong and healthy succumbed. He said later that what made the difference was the act of reaching out to others with love and compassion. In a vivid example of this a survivor recounts how, as a young man he and most of his neighbors were herded into a cattle car to be transported and on the way the cattle car was left on the side of the tracks in bitter, freezing cold. He noticed that one of his neighbors, an older man, was shivering violently and he went to him. He sat with this man all night, rubbing his freezing feet, holding him, keeping him warm and alive. When the dawn broke only the two of them were left alive, their act of solidarity, of keeping one another warm through the bitter night had saved them.
We are called to just such acts of solidarity. We are called to the audacious hope and conviction that even when things seem to be at their darkest, that God is still working a great good in us. We are called to righteousness, yes, but also a stubborn faith that even when the world seems to be tottering on its axis that God is in control, that God has good in mind for us and not evil. So we step bravely into this future, this incredible belief that we can stay present to the pain of the world, that we can have compassion for one another, and that love will win.