The Wilderness Gifts We Need
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
February 21, 2021 First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 25; Luke 4:1-14
Call to Worship: Welcome to the United Church of Strafford, Vermont, on this First Sunday in Lent.
Lent is closely related to Advent, but it is not nearly as well loved. The more we understand Lent’s purpose and are intentional about our journey through it, the more benefit and beauty we can find in it. Like Advent, Lent is a season for spiritual reflection and preparation, with a quality of lostness and darkness in which we seek transformation. Like Advent, Lent anticipates a rebirth and return into the light.
We can savor the full benefit and beauty of Lent if we intentionally seek the gifts and growth it offers.
Two wilderness journeys serve as helpful metaphors for Lent: the forty days Jesus spent being tempted and tried and the forty years Moses and the children of Israel wandered lost.
Lent also recalls Jesus in his last days journeying toward the cross and the light of Easter dawn. Lent is about our own journey—preparing ourselves to die to our small, self-concerned self and be resurrected as our true Spirit-filled self. Lent prepares us as the wilderness prepared Jesus to emerge full of the Spirit’s power for serving and changing the world.
This is crucial to understand. The world needs all the light that each of us can shine in dark times. Lent calls us to trust that no matter what situation we face, every moment the best thing we can possibly do is let go of everything else and turn first to the Spirit, and then think and act in that Spirit-focused mode of being. That is what the world most needs from us. Let us worship together, taking these first steps on our Lenten journey.…
[The sermon begins below.]
The Wilderness Gifts We Need
Children’s stories have shaped my understanding of life not only in my boyhood but as recently as last week, thanks to Joey and Danette’s brilliant Sunday-morning series. They shared a light-hearted book called Tacky as a way to explain how an epiphany can change our whole story.
Tacky is a penguin who lives up to his name. He covers his elegant tuxedo with a loud Hawaiian shirt, he walks wildly instead of in neat steps and he does messy canon-balls instead of sleek dives. Tacky’s siblings are named Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly, and Perfect, and they shun him in disgust.
Then one day some wolfish hunters attack and Tacky drives them off by being his tackiest self. The other penguins look at him differently after he saves them. They have an epiphany that changes the story that they tell themselves about their world. The new story frees them from judging one another. It allows their true selves to emerge and flourish in a climate of oneness and love.
The epiphany that I had listening to the story is that necessity is the mother of epiphany. Moments of crisis can open our hearts wide enough for the Holy Spirit to teach us how to become more spiritually mature and wise, which means, like the penguins, more loving and more one.
Gus Speth, Michael Nagler and others have pointed out that we rewrite the old story only when we recognize that it harms our well-being.
We are at such a moment in history now. The necessity to change could not be more urgent.
Necessity is the mother of epiphany, and the place where the Spirit drives us to find our new story is the wilderness. Wilderness is the liminal place between slavery and the Promised Land. Wilderness lies between the River Jordan where we leave our old life and the villages around the Sea of Galilee where we emerge full of the Spirit with a new story and new gifts to share.
The Spirit gave Moses and those wilderness travelers a new understanding of themselves as children of God, and a vision of how to live by new laws that defined the choice between the path of blessing or curse.
The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness where he learned through trials and temptations to trust in the way of God and the guidance and power of the Spirit. As Paul put it, “To set the mind on material things is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)
The wilderness struggle gave Jesus the wisdom that we must lose our old life, we must empty ourselves of our self to be filled with gifts of the Spirit to serve and save the world.
The Spirit will lead us through whatever wilderness of urgent necessity we face, individual or global, but we need to choose our steps carefully because wildernesses are by definition trackless. They are places of crisis that confront us with both danger and opportunity.
The necessity to find our way through struggles and challenges drives us to spiritual growth. We need to evolve as Jesus and the children of Israel did in order to help create the Promised Land of God’s realm on earth. The wilderness is a place of prayer, especially contemplative prayer where we let go of our thoughts and open to God.
Tacky and his fellow penguins went into their crisis divided and in danger of death, but thanks to the Spirit’s inspiration, they emerged into new oneness as a loving community that was more likely to survive.
Recently I met a retired single woman who shared her new story. She struggled in the isolating wilderness of the pandemic at first, but then was inspired to join an online group and learn how to meditate. It transformed not only her experience of the past year but her relationships with others. Her feeling of oneness with the group encouraged her to reach out more to family and friends. Peace and a quiet joy shone through her as she spoke. The gifts of the wilderness were rippling out from her heart.
The wilderness of necessity brings gifts out of our struggles, if we open to the Spirit’s guidance.
Let us enter the Lenten wilderness together and support one another in a season of seeking spiritual growth and transformation, and let us come back here each week and share the gifts that we have found along the way.
Let us pray in silence…
God, This Wilderness Seems Trackless
tune: Wachet Auf (PH#108) 126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52.4.8.8.
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.
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.
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.
copyright 2009 Thomas Cary Kinder