Sermon from March 1, 2020

Where Are You?
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
March 1, 2020    First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91; Genesis 2:15-17; Matthew 4:1-11

Imagine God’s delight in the Garden of Eden.  Imagine God traveling over the whole universe, past black holes sucking swirling stars into nothingness, past planets dim and lifeless or overheated and choked with acid clouds.

Imagine how lonely God would feel in that universe until, at last, God reached this blue green earth where life flourished, where consciousness evolved, where there were creatures who recognized and loved God’s presence.  Imagine how God would feel in the slanting golden light and warm evening breeze in the Garden of Eden, walking together with the first man and woman in peace and quiet gladness, sharing the wonder and beauty of it all.

And then imagine the day when God arrived to find them hiding, and saw the apple core in the grass at the foot of the tree and the serpent slinking away with an evil grin.  Imagine how God’s heart would break.  Can you hear the longing in God’s voice asking, “Where are you?”

Imagine how God is feeling now to see what humanity’s selfishness and greed have done to the beloved earth.

“Where are you?  What were you thinking?”

Deadra Ashton told me about taking an Environmental Studies class in high school when such courses were new.  One of the books for the course told what would happen if we kept burning fossil fuels and polluting soil, water and air and using up non-renewable resources—heading straight for a planet that could no longer sustain human life.  Deadra remembers thinking, “You must be kidding.  We would never be that crazy!”

“Where are you?” God asks.

Where are we now?

Martin Smith’s classic book of Lenten readings, A Season for the Spirit says that the Spirit wants to drive us into the wilderness as much as it did Jesus, and part of our task there is to face the truth.

A few days into Lent the daily reading in Smith’s book is entitled, “The Anaesthetic Begins to Wear Off.”  It does not always feel good to acknowledge the truth.  We practice distraction, avoidance and denial for good reason, but this time in the church year and this time in history both demand we have the courage to confront the truth and let the Spirit help us evolve to meet it.  We need to do this in order to get through our wildernesses transformed, and with the gifts we need to transform our world.

Richard Rohr says, “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. I doubt whether there is any other way.”

Lent is not about suffering for suffering’s sake, nor growth for growth’s sake.  The Spirit, or God, is a name we give to the force that created the universe and caused life to evolve.  Jesus was full of that Spirit.  He taught us to lay down our lives for our friends, neighbors, even our enemies, because God put us here to create the conditions for abundant, joyous life, the realm of God on earth, the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, a feast where the vulnerable, weak and lowly, and outcasts, strangers and enemies all are met with compassion and served with love.

The Spirit that evolved human consciousness is ready to lead us through and beyond our personal wilderness to the fulfillment of our truest self and deepest calling, and beyond our collective wilderness to a sustainable, equitable, peaceful and just way to live on earth.

That is Lent’s purpose.  So how can we work with the Spirit to get there?

The first step is to ask the Spirit the same question that God asked Adam and Eve: where are you?  The Spirit is a living force, it is all around and within us every second of our lives.  If we are not experiencing its comfort, guidance and power, it is only because we are not asking it, “Where are you now?” as we take each step through the constantly shifting sands of our lives.  Instead we allow forces to direct our journey that may be disconnected or even opposed to the sacred way of the Spirit, whether they be the greed of corporations or the selfish desires and fears of our egos.

Thomas Merton wrote, “The [person]…who lets God lead…peacefully through the wilderness, and desires no other support or guidance than that of pure faith and trust in God alone, will be brought to the Promised Land…. [and] taste the peace and joy of union with God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation p 239, Chapter 32 “The Night of the Senses”)

Merton tells us to be “heroically faithful.” (p 243)   If we can be patient and humble and keep calling back to God, “Where are you?” we can develop another kind of sense to guide us through any crisis.  Spiritual intuition of the right way comes when we are still, and trusting in God, and patiently listening for God’s voice. (p 237)

The Episcopal priest and teacher of Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault, wrote a book called The Wisdom Way of Knowing.  In it she says that surrender, in the sense of handing oneself over and entrusting oneself to God, opens the heart to the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit.  Bourgeault says, “That person becomes a powerful servant of humanity…whose very being radiates blessing and spiritual strength.”

The act of letting go that finds a way through the wilderness is the same whatever the crisis.  Bourgeault tells a story about a friend who was driving through a remote wilderness in Maine in late winter when her car broke down with night approaching.  She was on her way to deliver an entire year’s inventory of her pottery to a trade show.  Her car held all her hope of financial security and, indeed, her survival.  She was in a dangerous place, vulnerable, alone and getting cold.

But as she felt her panic rising, she decided to practice the surrender Bourgeault had taught her.  She took a few breaths and said to herself, “Well, I’m still here.  God is still here.  I wonder what will happen next?”

What happened next was that she noticed where she was and saw its beauty.  The marsh along the road showed signs of spring coming.  She knew the truth of her danger, but she also knew the goodness of being alive in that moment, and the truth of the Spirit’s presence.  She felt at peace.  She was too enraptured to notice the sound of a truck coming.  It pulled over behind her.  It just happened to be a tow truck.  It just happened to be going to the same town she was.

Bourgeault says that in any situation of danger or opportunity we can find ourselves responding inwardly in one of two ways.  Either we will brace, harden and resist, or we will soften, open and surrender.  If we train ourselves to keep surrendering to God no matter what, we will remain in alignment with our innermost being, and through it will come the guidance and power of the Spirit.  Bourgeault teaches, “Bracing is never worth the cost.”  “Never let anything knock you out of presence.” (Wisdom Way of Knowing, p 73ff)

Jesus was extremely vulnerable after forty days of fasting in the wilderness.  He was in danger of giving in to selfish temptations, but instead of asking where material comfort and security were, he asked where God was.  As a result, his inner turmoil passed and left him in peace, and angels came and waited on him, like a tow truck that just happened to be going where he was going.

This practice of being present to the Spirit can transform our suffering, it can reveal the Garden of Eden within the most dangerous wilderness, it can open our vision to the light that shines in the darkness, it can lead us through Lent and Good Friday to Easter dawn.

The Spirit is here, eager to comfort, guide and empower you in this anxious time.  The Spirit is here, ready to transform you so that you can transform the world around you.

The Spirit is here.

Where are you?

Let us pray in silence…

“The Choice” by Lauren Wright Pittman


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