Sermon from February 18, 2018

God Teaches the Humble the Way    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
February 18, 2018   First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 25; Mark 1:9-15
(and the wilderness story in Matthew 4 and Luke 4)

Many religions provide annual periods designed for spiritual deepening.  In Judaism the Season of Teshuvah spans the forty days leading to Yom Kippur.  In Islam Ramadan is a month-long time for increased holiness.  Some Buddhists observe Vassa, a three-month retreat every year.  We have to struggle to maintain an ideal, holy way of life in this world, and the wisdom of these religions says that it helps if we go through an annual period of more intense, focused spiritual struggle.

Lent is meant to be one of those times when we learn through our trials to trust more completely in God.  The reward of the Lenten wilderness is the possibility of entering the Promised Land, of rising resurrected at Easter dawn, of emerging from our struggle full of the Spirit’s gifts.  Lent invites us to undergo the self-emptying called kenosis, the transformation of our heart called metanoia, and draw closer to the deepest spiritual state of divine union, experiencing our oneness with God and all creation.  Lent asks us to become transformed as Christ was so that we will help transform the world as Christ did, to be more like God’s realm of lovingkindness and peace.

The contemporary Franciscan spiritual teacher, Richard Rohr, talks about the kind of transformation Lent is designed to help us undergo.  He says, “Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with your shadow…. It is in facing your conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that you grow up. You actually need to have some problems, enemies, and faults! You will remain largely unconscious as a human being until issues come into your life that you cannot fix or control and something challenges you at your present level of development, forcing you to expand and deepen. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding, that we break into higher levels of consciousness.”

How can we find our way this Lent through the wilderness of our shadow self, our failings, our wounds? How can we be transformed to a higher level of consciousness so that we experience the joy of Easter dawn and fulfill our calling to serve as instruments of light in a world under a siege of violence and greed?

A Lenten hymn addresses those questions.  Here is its first stanza:

God, this wilderness seems trackless,
Dark night of soul a starless blackness.
Wounds, wrongs and losses tempt despair.
All my stumbling steps betray doubt.
My flailing mind can find no way out.
At last I fall to humble prayer.
I quiet as I wait.
The swirling sands abate.
Faith, courage, love:
Like stars they rise.  Light fills my eyes.
Christ shows the way, his truth makes wise.

The first thing we need to acknowledge is how painful and scary it can be to enter the Lenten wilderness or the shadow place that the great Spanish contemplative poet, St. John of the Cross, called a dark night of the soul.

We need to take in the full implications of that brief description Mark gives us: Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.”  We need to feel how dangerous Mark intended that to sound: wilderness; Satan; wild beasts.  We need to allow our image of Christ to include real, honest temptation, so strong that it tore his soul apart with desire.  We need him to have suffered and struggled as we have.  We need to know that wherever we go in the dark wilderness within us, Christ has been there, too, and is waiting there now to walk with us.

We also need to allow ourselves to be imperfect.  The Christian writer Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird that you cannot be a good writer unless you are able to write a lousy first draft.  We cannot be good followers of Christ’s way unless we are able to stumble over the rough terrain of our wrongs and flail around in the dark of our doubt.  We need to have compassion on ourselves.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a book about South Africa’s journey after apartheid called No Future Without Forgiveness.  We need to accept forgiveness for where we have been in order to have a future that moves beyond where we are now.

Later this spring we plan to have another “Songs That Can Change the World” event, this time featuring South Africa’s freedom songs.  Photographs of Nelson Mandela have been in the news this week because of South Africa’s Presidential transition.  Mandela emerged from twenty-seven years in prison a man of enormous moral stature, filled with forgiveness and compassion and peace, but it was a struggle for him to become that man.

There is a scene in the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom where he enters his tiny cell on Robben Island for the first time at age 46.  It sinks into him that this is where he will be for the rest of his life, sleeping on a blanket on a cold, hard cement floor, looking out a small window into a lifeless, concrete prison yard, cut off forever from his beautiful wife and young daughters.  We see him stumble at times and flail in rage, grief and despair.

Mandela grew up Methodist, he taught Bible Study in college and after prison he delivered sermons and honored the church, but I do not know what role religion played in his transformation in prison.  What we do know is that he went through an inner process that enabled him to manifest Christ-like qualities when he emerged.  He had reached an advanced developmental stage and spiritual state that saw the true oneness of all people.

I suspect that Nelson Mandela’s cell echoed the 25th Psalm.  These words sound as if they were written in prison:

To you, O God, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust…
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all the day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O God,
and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth
or my transgressions….
You lead the humble in what is right,
and teach the humble your way.
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.

Humble prayer quiets and calms us when we are struggling.  It gives us patience.  It increases our faith and courage for the wilderness and dark night we face.  It leads to the kind of developmental growth and spiritual transformation that Mandela experienced.

Humble prayer is like going outside at night after being inside a brightly lit house.  At first we stumble around blindly, but if we stand and wait, our eyes adjust, and we can find our way through the darkness by the light that was there all along but we could not yet see.  That is the way of humble prayer.

The second stanza of the Lenten hymn says,

Holy Spirit drives and leads me,
It teaches me, its angel feeds me
If I give God my will’s control.
Then when demons come attacking
And tempt with all that I feel lacking,
I turn to God and lift my soul.
Christ takes my outstretched hand.
He, too, has walked this sand.
He leads me through.
Strength to endure, faith’s steps made sure:
God’s steadfast love holds me secure.

Most of us find in the shadows of our inner truth that we have some old, deeply ingrained patterns that have not been helpful or healthful.  We get stuck in our ways, or we get addicted, and our will to continue following the same path becomes overpowering, even when we know it is not good for us.

The wisdom of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is profound and powerful, and it is related to the wisdom of Psalm 25.  It guides us to turn our will and our life over to the care of God.  The 12 Steps take us on a wilderness journey of ever increasing dependence on God, trusting that God will lead us safely through life even as our old habits or demons come attacking.

We are like the cat in the fable that I told during the children’s time.  The fox knew all kinds of ways to escape the hounds, but sometimes the hounds arrived while it was still trying to decide which to use.  The cat knew only one, but it always worked.  It heard a distant bark, and up a tree it went.  All we need is one simple trick to escape the dogs, one way to climb a tree to safety, and that one trick is this motion of humbly turning to God, of reaching out our hand to Christ, of opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and empower us.

“He teaches the humble the way.”  This is what Centering Prayer teaches us.  Turning to God over and over again in humble prayer will get us through whatever wilderness and dark night we face, one small step at a time.

And where is it leading?

The final verse of the hymn says,

Spirit leads to confrontation
With foes of soul and of creation.
Christ leads us out to serve all earth.
Wilderness is our preparing
For paths of loving, healing, caring.
Dark nights of soul are throes of birth.
We reach the other side
Stripped of self-will and pride.
We rise, all God’s.
We follow on where Christ has gone
Down paths that lead to Easter dawn.

Nelson Mandela said that until he changed himself, he could not hope to change others.  That is why Lent invites us to deepen our spiritual life.  We change ourselves so that we may have the hope of changing others and changing the world around us into something more like God’s realm.

Let us seek that path through the Lenten wilderness now by turning to God in humble prayer.  Let us pray in silence…

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