Ah, wilderness…

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“Then, the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were scared.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were powerless.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were anxious.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were angry.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were resentful.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were uncomfortable.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were vulnerable…

There is a pivotal moment in our faith story when, to put it one way, humanity gains consciousness of itself.

There is a moment in the story of our existence when choices are made, questions are asked, and humanity—the A-dam, the earth-thing, realizes that there is complexity in the world. The man eats the fruit that the woman receives from the tempter.  There is choice and consequence. There is discomfort. And, humanity must engage with the discomfort in a way that will either foster spiritual growth or perpetuate denial and stagnation.

In medieval times, the Church imagined this space and time in the language of hymns, chanting O Felix Culpa, O Blessed Fault. We recognize this from hymns that have incorporated it into our celebration of the Incarnation, Christmas:

Blessed be the time
That apple taken was
Therefore, we mon singing
Deo Gracias!

There is this intriguing juxtaposition where the Church realized the fault that had been done while also realizing the potential for spiritual growth—that growth into the likeness of Christ that we speak of in our Baptismal Covenant—that is possible in and through this strained human existence.

That through a fateful encounter with a piece of fruit, our own spiritual lives can bear fruit and we can be brought, through grace, into the fullness of God’s promise for us.

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

They knew they were naked, yes…

And the eyes of both were opened!

These are the deep teachings of the Season of Lent, teachings that weave together these remarkably powerful threads:

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness…”

“The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

To be sure, such a reflection is not the “easy part” of our Christian practice. They run counter-current to the perspective that sees Church and Christian community as only a refuge from struggle, from discomfort, as if it is removed from the struggle and confusion of human life rather than the gathering of human life that has struggle and confusion. In this Lenten space, the Church becomes a place where we engage with discomfort—with this heightened consciousness—in such a way that we grow through it.  Or at least that is possible…

It reminds me of these moments in my childhood, back at Egypt Missionary Baptist Church, when we had weeks of the familiar hymns that everyone knew and the typical sermons that didn’t really provoke the imagination in any way—they only provoked the stomach to growl when they went too long.

We had weeks with the comfortable, the familiar, the expected, and then, something happened: my great aunt showed up, crying, with folks gathering around her to hold her and hug her. As a young child, I watched as she shared her struggles with the congregation, and they had to lay her down on the pew and fan her.

Looking back on that moment, it was odd, to be sure. It was uncomfortable. And, I may very well look down my nose at it a bit and think it out of place or inappropriate.

Yet, there was something deeply meaningful about a space that acknowledged human struggle head on and offered a willingness to grapple with it—as a part of spiritual practice. Eyes are opened and things are realized…

Those moments, to me, were Wilderness Church, if you will. It helps me to begin to imagine what the wilderness might hold for us during such a time as this.

We never really choose to walk calmly into such a wilderness. We’re driven there, pushed there.

We may want to read quickly through the Biblical texts that present this Wilderness space, but we can’t avoid them:

After Jesus baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness in today’s Gospel reading. He enters that stark, uncomfortable space and is met there by the same tempter who led the A-dam, the earth-thing, and the Eve, into the complexity of human existence.

There are many ways to interpret what happens to him in the wilderness. The Sa-tan comes, the adversary, the tempter, trying to lure Jesus into a sense of security and safety and quick fixes to a difficult situation: if you will but do this, I will grant you certainty.

Three times the tempter tries, and three times Jesus resists the temptation to escape from his discomfort.

Jesus resists taking the easy way out of the situation, because he knows that, in order to show that he has fully embodied the complexity of human existence, he must not only face it head on…he must go through it. He must stay in the wilderness and carry within himself the deepest angst of our life as well as the greatest potential. In other words, pay close attention my friends…because Jesus is showing us how to live…fully…as human beings.

We live in a world of fast food, fast answers, fast google searches, fast responses…so much fast-paced life. This Season of Lent calls us to notice our misplaced desire for quick fixes and escape. It’s intriguing that the word “Lent,” scholars believe, comes from Old High Dutch and others, meaning “spring” or “lengthening of days.” It’s the season of the days getting longer.

In Spanish, there is something intriguing as well. The word for “slowly” as in “speak more slowly please” is, you guessed it, Lento. Habla mas lentamente, por favor.

We could rightly pray, Viva mas lentamente, por favor. Live more slowly, please…

Slowing down.

Going through.

Facing head on.

Feeling…experiencing…life.

Discomforting things will happen when we do this. Don’t be afraid. That’s supposed to happen when you’re in the wilderness.  That is the space of spiritual growth and maturity in our faith.

“The eyes of both were opened, and they realized they were naked.”

And, be assured that we are not left in this wilderness unattended. We are not left out there, on our vision quests, cut off from a source of compassion. Look closely at what happened to Jesus. There, in the stark, barren, frightening, threatening, anxious, uncomfortable space of the wilderness, a remarkable thing happened.

After he refused the easy, comfortable way out of the situation…suddenly….

“Angels came and waited on him.”

There you go….

 

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Lent I, Year A
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11
March 5, 2017

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