Sermon transcript for February 26, 2012
Forty Days in the Wilderness
Mark 1: 9-15
Belmont UMC—February 26, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
(Today’s sermon was inspired by the text, a quote from Frederick Buechner, and the second chapter of Bishop Rueben Job’s book, Three Simple Questions, “Who am I?”)
We begin our Lenten journey with another quick paced passage from Mark’s Gospel. In just 8 verses we have 3 rapid scenarios. Jesus appears at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (CEB) Then Jesus is driven out into the wilderness for 40 days where he is tempted by Satan. Mark does not mention fasting or details of the temptation but he adds that there were wild beasts in the wilderness. In the third scenario John the Baptist has been arrested and Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee preaching the good news. Mark’s storytelling leaves us breathless.
Jesus is baptized and hears a voice that affirms him as the beloved child of God. Frederick Buechner writes that “Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.” (Listening to Your life, p. 56)
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is time to come to terms with his identity. That’s a common theme through wilderness experiences. Moses leaves Egypt and finds a new life out in Midian but he cannot leave the truth about himself in Egypt. He is a Hebrew who has been raised as an Egyptian and before fleeing Egypt he came to understand the suffering of his people. In the wilderness of Midian, he comes face to face with God, and face to face with his own identity in a burning bush.
Elijah, the prophet, traveled 40 days and nights to the mountain of God, alone and weary and hungry, he stood out on the edge of the mountain and in the silence he heard God speak, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The question has in it the idea of purpose and meaning, “Why are you here, Elijah?” “What is your purpose here, Elijah?”
And of course, there is Simba in “The Lion King,” who is in a far country when he sees his father’s face in his reflection in a pool of water and remembers who he is and what he must do.
We join Jesus for forty days in the wilderness to hear God ask, “Who are you and what are you going to do with your life?” We need to spend some time with God coming to terms with our own identity.
I remember being in a Bible study right after coming out of seminary. The church was made up of older folks who had been settled into the community for a long time. There were also lots of new young professionals who had moved to the area and joined the church. It was a lively place where many good things were happening but sometimes there were obvious generational differences between the two groups. One night a young man spoke during the discussion and he said something like this, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to find out who I am. I need to explore that a bit more than I’ve allowed myself to in the past.” Several younger folks nodded in agreement. But an older woman took on a perplexed look and she said, “Well, I don’t understand that at all. I know who I am. I am (and she gave her name). That’s who I’ve been for the last 75 years and I’ll die being who I am.” The young man tried to explain the psychological nuance of self-discovery but she wasn’t buying it. I found the whole thing amusing.
I can’t imagine my practical, farmer Grandfather ever lying awake at 3 AM and asking himself, “Who am I, anyway?” He might have been awake at 3 AM so he could get to the barn to milk the cows, but I doubt he found much time for self-reflection. Self-reflection may be a luxury of a more modern age.
But when I was in my junior year of high school my Grandfather started to have mini-strokes and my Dad was worried about him. Our house didn’t have much extra room but it was obvious that Dad wanted him to move in with us. I offered, “I have a big room and Granddad can room with me.” I loved my Grandfather and I enjoyed being in his presence. So he moved in and we shared the big room and bath in the basement of the house. We would sit on his big sofa and watch TV together in the evenings.
On weekends I would get ready to go out to spend time with friends or go on a date and Granddad would ask me, “Where are you going?” I would respond with something meaningless like, “Just out.” He would often fish around in his billfold for a ten dollar bill to give me and he would always say, “Remember who you are when you are out of this house.” I never asked him what he meant by that but I always assumed he meant, “Remember that your last name is Edwards and that means something.” For my Granddad it meant things like integrity and trustworthiness. He didn’t want me to do anything to dishonor that identity. He knew who he was.
Forty days in the wilderness Jesus was exploring what the voice from heaven meant, “You are my child, whom I dearly love, in you I find happiness.”
There is an interesting statement in the Gospel of John in the story of the Passover Supper when Jesus gets up from the table and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. John writes, “Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was going back to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.” (John 13:3-5, CEB)
“Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was going back to God.” It’s a parenthetical phrase that we usually miss but it means that Jesus knew who he was and what God had given him to do; he knew where he came from and where he was going. This is what it meant for him to be Jesus, the beloved child of God.
Lent gives us forty days to ask ourselves who we are. Lent gives us 40 days to consider what it means for us to live as the beloved children of God.
I’ve known people who have struggled with that question. Some have struggled under the weight of personal histories where they have been abused or belittled. In the wilderness of Lent they come face to face with the wild beast of low self-esteem and they struggle to believe that God or anyone could love them.
In the wilderness we will be tempted and our greatest temptation will be to ignore the voice of God that we heard at our baptism, the voice that reminds us that we are God’s beloved children. We will be tempted by our own wounded sense of self, or by our ambition to be something we think is better and grander, or by our inclination toward selfish gain, or those tendencies to exclude God and others from our circle of influence.
Frederick Buechner writes that during Lent you begin “to hear something not only of who you but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.” (Listening to Your Life, pp. 56-57)
In the wilderness of Lent, among the wild beasts of self-reflection, we will hear God’s call to serve. We must come to terms with our identity as the beloved children of God before we can be truly human and whole. We must come to terms with this identity as beloved children of God before we can hear God’s call go out to Galilee to share God’s good news, or wrap the towel of servanthood around our waist and begin to wash some dirty feet.
Sermon transcript for February 22, 2012 (Ash Wednesday)
JOEL 2: 1-2, 12-17
FEBRUARY 22, 2012
BELMONT UMC, NASHVILLE
Gwen Purushotham, preaching
Prayer . . .
Ash Wednesday-- the beginning of Lent—the season of self-examination and repentance.
In the early church-- a time for preparing new converts for baptism on Easter Day; a time when persons who had separated from the community of faith were reconciled and restored to participation in the church through penitence and forgiveness.
Today, as then, Lent is observed with practices of fasting, meditation on Scripture, prayers, and self-denial. In more recent times many Christians observe Lent by “taking up” instead of “giving up”. All of these disciplines—for the purpose of returning to God from all of the places and ways we have wandered off.
Every year on Ash Wednesday we hear this urgent call from the Prophet Joel:
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain.
. . . Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord your God . . .
Rend your hearts . . . This is the phrase that caught my attention as I read the lectionary texts for Ash Wednesday.
“Rend your hearts.” As I made a space for that Word within myself I began to ponder repentance the act of broking open my heart.
Repentance is typically described as metanoia, as “turning around”— like making a U-turn (which by the way, is something for which I could be listed in the Guinness World Book of Records having been the first, if not the only person, to have made a U-Turn inside a two car garage in a standard shift Toyota Camry; but that’s a story for another time!).
But to rend, to break open one’s heart . . . What does this mean?
“Breaking open our hearts?” You ask. This sounds like more of a risk than most of us want to take. Surely our hearts have been broken-- by circumstances beyond our control; by some tragedy or broken relationship; by betrayal or violence. No one gets through life without a heart-break of some kind.
Our hearts are broken not only for ourselves but for people we know-- and sometimes for people we do not know. Whose heart was not broken for the parents of the 11 year-old boy who took his life because he was bullied for being gay? Whose heart does not break for those who lose loved ones to war or children to violence on the streets?
But in the prophet Joel the trumpets sound an alarm, and the people are called to rend their hearts intentionally, to break them wide open—not in order to inflict punishment upon themselves, not as an act of self-flagellation or self deprecation. No! But rather as a way of opening themselves to the love and forgiveness of God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The more I contemplated broken-open hearts, the more I came to see this as the way of opening ourselves to grace, the way we open ourselves to receive all that God wants to give us. It is about intimacy not isolation. It is about vulnerability not safety. This breaking open is the meaning of true repentance.
I think this is so because only when our hearts are broken open can we see the world with love. Only with hearts broken open can we see the world as God sees. Barbara Brown Taylor describes this way of seeing in this way:
. . . To learn to look with compassion on everything that is; to see past the terrifying demons outside to the bawling hearts within; to make the first move toward the other, however many times it takes to get close; to open your arms to what is instead of waiting until it is what it should be; to surrender the justice of your own cause for mercy; to surrender the priority of your safety for love—this is to land at God’s breast.” --Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 206
And I would add, in order to land at God’s breast we must break open our hearts.
I invite you in this Lenten season to hear the call to repentance as the call to rend your heart—to tear it wide open to the transforming love of God? What will that look like for you personally? I cannot say. But I encourage you to open your heart, to let down the barriers that prevent you from loving and being loved.
I wonder what it would mean for the church’s heart to be broken open. In particular, what would it mean for United Methodists to rend their hearts, to open them wide as an act of repentance?
These days I hear and read the phrase “Methodist ethos” quite often. I haven’t heard a definition of “Methodist ethos”, but I infer from the way in which the phrase is used that it has something to do with becoming serious about being UM—of reclaiming our distinctive marks; of fervently preaching and teaching United Methodist history and beliefs.
But the expression of this seriousness about claiming our identity as United Methodists, while well intended, sometimes seems to contradict who Wesley was and what Wesley preached. When we close in, close up, close down we are not true to our Wesleyan heritage. Wesley’s own faith was formed by several faith traditions—Puritan, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic Mystics, and the Moravians. Wesley never intended to begin a new denomination. He was an ecumenical spirit. He held the belief that God’s grace was available to all and able to work in the lives of all persons including persons of other faiths. It is quite clear that for Wesley God’s love was not limited or restricted. So to be true to Wesley, to promote “Methodist ethos” is not to defend or to draw smaller circles around our beliefs or our denomination, but to break open our hearts to the transforming love of God who is “over all and in all and through all.” --Eph. 4:6
I don’t know exactly what rending our hearts will look like individually or collectively, but what I can say with more certainty is that repentance will involve breaking open our hearts. Rending our hearts and not our garments is an act of radical trust in God’s mercy and grace.
In closing, I share this blessing for Ash Wednesday written by Jan Richardson:
Rend Your Heart
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
To receive this blessing,
all you have to do
is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
Your entire life
is here, inscribed whole
upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken
or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet
It could take you days
to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.
And so let this be
a season for wandering
for trusting the breaking
for tracing the tear
that will return you
to the One who waits
who works within
to make your heart
whole. –Jan Richardson
May we rend our hearts that God may make us whole.
Let us observe a holy Lent.