1 Lent, March 5, 2017
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The season of Lent is often called a wilderness because of today’s gospel passage from Matthew. If you’ve ever been to Israel, and seen the desert outside of Jerusalem, you know what an awesome sight it is. There are stretches upon stretches of sand, with perhaps a desolate road here and there. Like Jesus, and maybe like you, I’ve had many wilderness experiences. While they were all different, the one constant thing, the one thing that I could always count on, was that the wilderness was a time of temptation. Whether it was the devil herself or a crafty serpent, the voice of temptation was always speaking to me. And I always listened.
The gospel of Matthew says that while Jesus was in the wilderness, he fasted for forty days and forty nights. Naturally, he was famished, which I imagine made him pretty weak, and also very vulnerable. I’m sure he heard voices in his head as well; for we all have them, especially when we’re alone, hungry or thirsty, and there is silence. At times like these, the volume of these voices in our heads is turned up high. Or at least they are in my head. And our temptations will surely test us.
Yes, Jesus was tempted and yes, Jesus was tested. Just like us. And yes, Jesus listened to many voices, just like us.
My most recent wilderness experience was when Paul and I moved to Cambridge. I willingly made the choice to leave parish ministry and explore a broader and more diverse mission field. I never imagined that this decision would be as difficult as it was. Listening to the voices of others, I wondered if I had been listening to the Devil or to the Spirit. Often second-guessing myself, I questioned my decision continually. Was I a fool or a fool for Christ? Was this desolate road leading to a new garden or just to my spiritual wilderness and physical death?
During my wilderness time, it seemed to me that everyone around me had support structures, a purpose to their lives, and loving relationships. Every day, while family, friends, and strangers went off to their gardens, I entered into my own wilderness. Often aimlessly, I walked the city streets just to kill time. Food was a comfort. I showed up everywhere and for everything hoping to feel connected and to hear a voice that would lead me into something new and something good. The voices in my head were crafty like the serpent. They were devilish. And they were persistent. I felt useless, unloved, and alone; and so I prayed a lot.
Now, to be sure, I have many, many privileges, and nothing to complain about. I have been blessed beyond measure; and while my wilderness experience is nothing compared to people who live on the streets, it felt like a wilderness to me. Yes, I had physical blessings; and yet my emotional and mental life was in the desert. I had to constantly remind myself how blessed I am, even for the gift of one more breath. I made gratitude lists daily, often thanking God for the gift of each new day. My city walks became prayer walks. When family was absent, my friends stepped in. When my friends were absent, my community of faith was near. And when no one else was around, I found God. My loneliness forced me not only to reach out to others but also to find time alone with God, as a source of strength.
Before Jep left, he gave me a book called Becoming Human by Jean Vanier. In it, the author claims that every human being faces loneliness, which is a taste of death. Our (quote) “sense of loneliness can be covered up by the things that we do, so we’re seen by others as valuable, that make us feel good about ourselves, and give us a sense of being alive.” (end quote) He claims that at the core of our humanity, at the core of each and every one of us, is this fundamental loneliness and a fear of rejection. We all have a deep-seated desire to be included and to belong, to know that we are all equally and uniquely made in the image of God.
I was a Latin major in college for two years before I decided to switch to English. “Obedire” is the Latin word that means to listen. When we are obedient, it means we are listening. But to whom do we listen? And for what are we listening? Is it garbage in and garbage out? Is this the voice of the Spirit or the temptation of the devil? Is this crafty serpent talk, or the wisdom of God? Is this a voice that reminds us of our belovedness and our belonging? Or is it one that rejects us, leaving us feeling alone and lost in the wilderness? And how do we know when we’re right or wrong? When it’s us or them?
Times of transition, like the one here at our Cathedral, are similar to the time when Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. It’s easy at times like these to lose our bearings. I imagine Jesus here today, among us, on the pinnacle of this temple, up there with the nautilus, and being invited by the devil to throw himself down. I imagine Jesus on this very high mountain, on this Beacon Hill of a city, and the devil showing Jesus all the kingdoms of this world: the State House, our Diocesan House, and Newbury street. Such splendor and honor and glory is his to have, if he would just fall down and worship the earthly powers of this world.
Temptations abound in this place and at this time. We are hungry people at our Cathedral Church of St. Paul. We gather often to meet and greet and eat. And yet food will not satisfy that deepest need in all of us. A need to be accepted, just as we are. A need to be loved, just as we are. A need to belong to God, and to a community of faith, and know that each and every one of us is a unique and special creation in this world. Everyone! No matter our life circumstances! No matter our privileges!
In the wilderness, Life, as we know it, loses its familiar structure, trusted people, and support systems. Without them, we can easily forget that we are the beloved children of God, that we are fundamentally good, even when we do nothing. In the busyness and distractions of the voices in our heads, we can forget that our purpose is to love God with all our heart, soul, body, mind, and strength. We can forget to love ourselves the way God loves us, and to extend that love to others. But all others. Not just the “people we know and love” others. Not just the “people who are like us and agree with us” others. All others! Even that crafty serpent; even that devilish enemy!
During my wilderness wanderings, I realized that my busyness had distracted me from seeing my own nakedness, my own vulnerability, and my own weakness. I forgot that I am both powerless and precious, just as I am, even when I don’t belong to any one group, even when I don’t have a special title like “acting dean.”
In the book Becoming Human, in a chapter entitled “Forgiveness”, I learned that the Greek word “asphesis” means “to liberate” or to “release from bondage.” Wilderness times are times not only of temptation and testing but also times of strengthening and liberation. Perhaps that’s why the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, knowing that he would be strengthened and liberated, because he fundamentally trusted God for everything, even death, even life after death. Perhaps Jesus knew that God is the only one who can truly set us free.
Jesus chose to feast on God’s Word, even when he was physically famished. He chose not to dare God to rescue him for dramatic show. He knew that the power of God comes not from human beings that dazzle, or from food that comforts us only for a moment, but with spiritual things that glitter even in the darkness. Jesus knew to listen to the voice of God. He knew that the Spirit would guide him along right pathways, even if it was on a desolate road in the desert, or through the valley of the shadow of death.
Wilderness times, when we launch off into the desert on our own, or lose our way on the city streets, are times when we face our own death. Like Adam and Eve, we can remember that one day we too shall surely die; we remember that we too are dust and to dust we shall return. Like Adam and Eve, we’re given choices. We can listen to God, or to the crafty serpent. We can be guided by the Spirit or by the devil. We can learn to distinguish the difference between feeling lonely and being alone with God. We can learn the importance of belonging to a loving faith community.
Certainly, we will always face temptations and we will always be tested. People will challenge us, claim another truth, and lead us down dark alley ways. Every day we will face personal choices. Who is speaking to me? And what are they saying? Shall I stand firm in my faith, or slide back into the darkness? Is this the voice of God, or is it someone or something else?
I have come to believe in God, who says to me and you “You are my beloved children, in whom I am well pleased.” I have come to believe in “listening to what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” I have come to believe that death is not our final end, even if our journey to it is long and painful and difficult. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, we have been given a free gift by God in the person of Jesus, who though tempted like us, did not sin.
How then shall we listen to what the Spirit is saying to us today? How shall we be faithful followers of Jesus at this time in our Cathedral? Jesus said, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” What if we put down our forks and picked up the Bible? What if we silenced those negative voices in our head, and replaced them with a loving thought from God. What if we stopped doing anything, just for 5 minutes every morning, and five minutes every night, and just listened to the voice of God in silence?
Like Viola Davis, in the movie The Help, perhaps, we can ask God for help, and then hear that voice of God, saying to us repeatedly, “You is smart. You is beautiful. You is loved.” Amen.