Thursday, March 9, 2017

Desert Wilderness

First Sunday of Lent Year A
Genesis 2:7-9, 15-22, 3:1-7
Psalm 83 (Nan Merril) Stanza One
1 Thessalonians 3: 4-9, 12
Matthew 4:1-11

As we begin our Lenten journey today, we hear about Jesus being led into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights in the gospel. Something you’ll come to know about me is that I have a love/hate relationship with the theological notion of the ‘wilderness’ so I’m pretty sure this won’t be the only wilderness homily you get from me.

When I hear the word wilderness, I think of the woods. The north woods in the Midwest, with pines and birches and pristine lakes. Or the woods of New England, in the foothills of the white mountains, particularly in autumn. This type of wilderness is my sanctuary. I spent summers and weekends camping in this type of wilderness and for me it’s a site of refuge and safety,. But the wilderness we hear about today is different – because the desert is a far cry from the north woods. And it’s enough to terrify me. Or it was. I’ve come to appreciate the desert and I want to share some of those moments.

Back in 2005, shortly after moving to LA, I had one of my first transformative moments with the desert wilderness. We decided to visit Death Valley. We left LA after work on Friday so we drove in around 10 or 11 pm. We couldn’t see a thing, and there was no availability to camp, so we ended up staying the night at a motel on the far side of the park. I thought nothing of the drive the night before, but the next day, driving back into the park during the light, my heart was in my throat. The sharp turns and steep drop offs seemed so much worse during the harsh light of day.

We went to Death Valley because it seemed a big thing to visit. I was expecting cracked, parched earth with no life for miles. But what I found was nothing like this. The valleys were awash in wildflowers and badwater basin was flooded with people windsurfing and kayaking on it. It was incredible. Teeming with life at every corner. And yet camping on the desert floor, I longed for the safety of the wilderness I knew, even if it had bears or coyotes or wolves – I knew how to deal with that. I didn’t know how to deal with rattlesnakes or scorpions. But we survived. And we kept coming back, because despite the fear, there was this overwhelming potential and exhilaration there.

Five years ago, on a trip to Israel & Palestine, I had the opportunity to stand on the dunes of the Judean desert as the sun began to set. It was after a long day of visiting villages in the West Bank, we were making our way back to Jerusalem via the Jericho road. Our guide had the bus pull off and we trudged up sand dunes (which is not as easy as it looks in the movies, by the way) and as the sun began to set, we red this gospel passage. Now, I’d been on sand dunes before – the Indiana dunes on the southern coast of lake Michigan, the dunes in death valley, but this was different. As night began to fall, we were advised to stay close, this was not our home, we didn’t know this desert, and it would not be hospitable to us. We joked about throwing each other off the dunes, but always with nervous laughter – much is hidden in the desert at night and if one of us fell, we weren’t sure we’d make it back up. There was a vastness and a vulnerability.

Today we heard about being Jesus being led out into the desert, into the wilderness, to be tempted. The wilderness is also where Moses leads the Israelites and where Jesus goes to pray. This wilderness is more than a desert swept landscape. Away from the rules of society, it is a type of no man’s land, rife with danger and the potential for transformation. It is the borderland that William Countryman describes as exhilarating – simultaneously dangerous and yet life-giving. (CITE) and that Gloria AnzaldĂșa’s describes as a place of contradictions. Lent is the liturgical time wherein we enter into this wilderness, this borderland, as people on a journey – both of self-discovery and of hope. We listen to stories about the Exodus from Egypt, about Jesus’ time in the desert and we begin to examine our own lives, remembering that as Christians, we are [called] to the margins.

In the wilderness of Lent, we are often stripped bare of our defenses. Outside the walls of the city, out in the wilds of Judean desert, in the no man’s land on the U.S.-Mexican border, we are vulnerable beyond measure. This vulnerability is one we may often shy away from because it requires a stripping down, a stripping away. Like the bush that is trimmed of its dead branches until green growth is found and it may flower again, we are stripped of all that is unnecessary. It is a time of preparation and reflection, but a time of exploration as well. When we remove all that we are and all that we hold dear, we give ourselves the potential to discover something new, to transform into something new. The unbound potential that is only accessible when we let go of what is holding us back. And we don’t know where we’ll end up on this journey. God’s promises often take us to places we might not want to go – to deeper valleys, drier deserts, seasons of conflict, uncertainty and loss. But we have to remember that in these places, there is always potential for life and flourishing.

I invite you to consider this Lenten wilderness, this borderland, as an inbetween space. A place not just to be passed through in our anticipation for easter, but as a chance to live into this potentially destabilizing wilderness. To see the potential transformation that is possible in this place that is both both dangerous and life-giving.

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