SERMON: Even in the Wilderness

January 8, 2006

One of the most surprising things that has happened to me since I began my career as a Unitarian Universalist minister is that I have begun to trust in something I can only call “grace.” That may not seem sufficiently skeptical for a person who is called to lead a congregation that insists on reason, rationality and just plain common sense in religion, but I can’t help it. In the past six years of active ministry, I have experienced grace so reliably that I’ve had to just take a deep breath and admit that something good is going on.

This week is no exception. Many of you know that in order to facilitate planning and communication, ministers like Telos and myself have to come up with our sermon titles weeks—sometimes months—in advance. At South Valley, we use the “word of the month” to guide that process, but often we are titling a service and a sermon long before we have any idea what we will actually talk about. We look at the word of the month, the time of year, and take a huge leap of imagination and make something up. When we were planning this month’s services, I said to myself, “The word of the month is ‘Faithfulness.’ It’s January, which is often a hard month for people. I should talk about being faithful in hard times as well as good times. I’ll call it ‘Even in the Wilderness.” That was it. Not a terrifically thoughtful process. Just putting together a few pieces of what I know and hoping that something will grow from there.

The grace that I have come to rely upon is not really supernatural. It is a kind of connection, a sense that once I open my mind and spirit to something, I begin to encounter it. Once I have created the titles for my sermons, I find that I begin to encounter things that fit with them. This week, it began with an email from another minister who was a bit panicked about her own sermon. This colleague of mine is doing a sermon series called “Our Theological Toolbox” and found herself not quite feeling up to the task of doing a sermon for UUs on faith.  Another colleague chimed in that he was preaching on a similar topic, “faithfulness” and that he was hoping to work with the Christian story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He recognized in that story three “stages” that Jesus went through: Welcome, Wilderness, and Witness.

Interesting, isn’t it—that several UU ministers would be talking about such similar topics? But it gets better. As I usually do, I checked the websites of several of my colleagues in other traditions. One of them, and Episcopal priest in Norway, mentioned that in her tradition, today is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. She talked about the liturgy and the meaning of this event in her tradition, and lo and behold—the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—being welcomed by God and John the Baptist, and then moving into the forty days in the wilderness. Her reflections, though far more orthodox than I’m used to, helped me remember the power of this story for so many people.

And so, completely unexpectedly, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness. And I’ve been thinking about the parallel story of Moses and the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness for forty years. And I’ve been thinking about how relevant these stories are, even in a more skeptical congregation and age.

Even though these are old stories, I think they have a timelessness that continues to make them important. We all go through times of welcome, wilderness, and witness. Perhaps our times of welcome are not as dramatic as being baptized, having the sky open up, a dove alight upon us and the voice of God saying, “This is my child, in whom I am well-pleased.” Yet, I think most of us can identify a time or two in our lives when it seemed as if we were clearly starting out on the right path. The changes in our lives were welcome and we welcomed the new direction ahead. Graduations, weddings, the beginning of a new job, the addition of a child to the family, even discovering and being welcomed to a new congregation—all these can be welcome moments.

I think too, that we all go through times where we feel we are wandering in a wilderness: times of loss, confusion, loneliness, and doubt. Again, maybe our experiences aren’t as dramatic as being tempted by the devil or receiving manna from heaven, but the experience of the wilderness is the same. We all wander sometimes through times of uncertainty and pain.
Parker Palmer, a well known Quaker educator, tells of being in the midst of a mid-life crisis and deciding to take an Outward Bound course in order to learn how to navigate his own wilderness. The story begins with Palmer leaning backwards out over a 110 foot cliff with a rope and harness over his body. He begins, “I was told to lean out over God’s own emptiness and walk down the face of that cliff to the ground 11 stories below.”

I remember the cliff too well. It started with a five foot drop to a small ledge, then a ten foot drop to another ledge, then a third and final drop all the way down. (On the first drop) my feet instantly went out from under me and I fell heavily to the first ledge. The instructor observed astutely “I don’t think you quite have it yet. You are leaning too close to the rock face. You need to lean back farther so that your feet will grip the wall.

That advice, like the advice of some spiritual traditions, went against my every instinct. Surely one should hug the wall, not lean out over the void. But on the second drop I tried to lean back, better but not far enough and I hit the second ledge with a thud not unlike the first. “You still don’t have it,” said the ever-observant instructor. “Try again.”

“Since my next try would be the last one her counsel was not especially comforting. But try I did, and much to my amazement I found myself moving down the rock wall. Step by step I made my way with growing confidence until, about half way down, I suddenly realized that I was heading toward a very large hole in the rock, and – not knowing anything better to do — I froze.

“The instructor waited a small eternity for me to thaw out, and when she realized I was showing no signs of life she yelled up, “Is anything wrong, Parker?” as if she needed to ask. To this day I do not know the source of the childlike voice that came up from within me, but my response is a matter of public record. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“The instructor yelled back, “Then I think its time you learned the Outward Bound motto.” Wonderful, I thought. I am about to die, and she is feeding me bromides. But then she spoke words I have never forgotten, words so true they empowered me to negotiate the rest of the cliff without incident. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.

“If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” What a good motto. After all, none of us can escape the wilderness. Eventually, even the best life has times of sorrow and loss. And the truth is, the wilderness times and the welcome times are two sides of one coin. Only the most boring and meaningless path would never stray from the familiar. Only the most boring and meaningless life would never risk wandering into times of confusion and change. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it,” is a kind of faithfulness. If we’ve chosen lives that occasionally ask us to take an unknown path or walk over a precipice, we might as well lean into it.

Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, minister of Fourth Universalist Church on Central Park in New York City and an amazing writer, says:

Being a cynic is frankly against my religion, and a betrayal of my religious heritage as an African American that includes knowledge of a God that “makes a way out of no way.” But this reflection is, in fact, a dispatch from the wilderness. Religious leaders loathe being called to the wilderness—despite the fact that it really does come with our territory. But the wilderness is precisely where we are. It doesn’t matter that, across time and across faith traditions, the wilderness very often turns out to be a spiritually fruitful place. In the short run, life in the wilderness is hard, and insecure, and I do not want to be there.

I love Rose’s insistence on being clear that the wilderness she is describing is not simply a fairy tale. It’s hard. It hurts. We resist it. And yet, at the same time, she refuses cynicism. “the wilderness very often turns out to be a spiritually fruitful place.” God “makes a way where there is no way.” Faithfulness is holding on to that, even in the midst of the barren, scary, painful places.

Our choir sang earlier the words of Shelley Jackson Denham:

Faith is a forest in which doubts play and hide;
insight can hear the still small voice deep inside.
Web of Life, may this thread I weave
strengthen commitment to all I believe
Vision be my guide as I seek my way
lead me into this tender day;
speak through me in all I do and say.

I’ve always loved this hymn, in part, because of its insistence that faith and doubt always go together. “Faith is a forest in which doubts play and hide.” There is no faith without doubt as well. Still, facing them together can “strengthen commitment to all I believe.” Both the times of welcome and the times of wilderness are a part of what strengthens and deepens our commitment and our understanding of what it is that really matters to us.

This, I think, is where witness comes in. Wendell Berry wrote:

I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the dark wood of error any number of times… The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. …I have had my share of desires and goals. But my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.

Both Rosemary Bray McNatt and Wendell Berry do something I find beautiful and praiseworthy. They speak the truth. They tell their stories without glossing over the pain OR the grace. They speak of the difficult and the beautiful in the same breath. They refuse to hide their failings or their faithfulness. They witness to all of life, and by doing so, they remind us that all of life is holy, all of life is sacred, all of life is worthy of our attention and our faithfulness.
Welcome, wilderness, and witness seem to come in cycles. They are the stuff of grace—that surprising power that makes a way where there is no way—or that finds connections that we can hold onto while we walk together on this sometimes perilous, but always sacred journey. I am glad that we travel together.

And if, sometime in the future, you find yourself wandering in the wilderness, I leave you with advice from Equipped to Survive: A Kids’ Wilderness Survival Primer: No matter how bad your situation, you…must never give up. All you have to do is hold out until help arrives. You can do that. Don’t panic. Use your brain. Hang in there. YOU WILL SURVIVE!

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.


One thought on “SERMON: Even in the Wilderness

  1. Thanks for posting this up Sean! It was nice to be able to read your sermon here since we missed it on Sunday!



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