“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” This is one of the key phrases that storytellers use in the Godly Play program. It is an introductory line to the many stories of the people of God who find themselves in the wilderness…Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, and Jesus all go out into the wilderness. What isn’t taught in Godly Play, or the Bible for that matter, is what to pack. According to one website that promotes “wilderness adventures” their packing list goes on for several pages and includes everything from a tent and sleeping bag to three pairs of shoes (camp shoes, lightweight boots, waterproof boots), an axe, a saw and a shovel. While I’m sure that the leaders of these “wilderness adventures” are experts at what they’re doing, I can’t imagine having to take so much gear on my back. It’s really enough for a caravan.
When Jesus emerges from the Jordan and hears God’s voice say “You are my beloved Son” he doesn’t go home to pack. Instead, according to Mark, Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness.
“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.”
Now we can read the wilderness as a physical place. Dry, hot, limited water, no shade trees. A desert landscape. Endless. And according to Mark, it is in the wilderness that Jesus is tempted by Satan and surrounded by wild beasts. How would we respond to temptation and the confrontation of wild beasts? Would we understand the wilderness as a place of adventure or rest and renewal? Probably not.
We can also read the wilderness as a spiritual place. Isolated, quiet, still. While it wouldn’t have a landscape per se, spiritual wilderness can feel lonely and lead to a sense of abandonment. It can feel endless. St. John of the Cross is best known for his writing on the “Dark night of the soul” which is about his spiritual dryness or wilderness wandering.
“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.”
So what happens in the wilderness that makes it so dangerous? It is in the wilderness that all of our insecurities and anxieties come to the forefront. It is in the wilderness that we are confronted with doubt and fear. It is in the wilderness that we let go of human desires. It is in the wilderness that we are tempted and confronted.
If this is what the wilderness is all about, then of course, we would choose not to go there. But for Jesus, there is no choice…he is driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness. And this always makes me question why?
Jesus is called God’s “beloved Son” and then is driven out by the Spirit. It serves as a model of discipleship. We too are God’s beloved children, and when the Spirit comes, we are changed and pushed out into the world. Being a disciple isn’t about being safe and comfortable, it’s about being pushed into the world—the wilderness if you will—to face the challenges of life, while at the same time, doing our part in bringing about the Kingdom of God. For Jesus, he has to go into the wilderness in order to return to the ‘civilized’ world to do his ministry.
The season of Lent is about our wilderness journey. It too is 40 days. During this journey we will have to make decisions, face temptations, and from time to time, we’ll encounter wild beasts. But we won’t be alone. Like Jesus, we will be surrounded by all the company of heaven. And hopefully, when we return from the wilderness, we will be ready to go back into the world to do our ministry, knowing that we are God’s beloved.
Yes, the wilderness is a dangerous place. But I hope you’ll go there.
No one likes change. We don’t like to be in a state of discomfort or unknowing. Sometimes in the church (and in our lives) complacency is easier than change. And when we become too comfortable in our complacency, then any kind of change seems dramatic and scary. But change is necessary and important to not only personal, but institutional growth. Think of a child perhaps. While as infants we coddle and make silly noises, we know that it won’t be like this forever. The child will grow up, they will learn to tie their own shoes, ride a bike, drive a car, experience romantic love, leave the home, and start their own adult life. There is change in this process…some of it welcome and some of it not. But if the parents of the child try to stop this change, they ultimately stop the growth and maturation process. And no one wants that. So why is it that when we talk about change in our churches or in our social institutions we all get nervous and filled with anxiety? Is it because we don’t know how to express our grief over what we might lose as a result of change? Is it because we might somehow destroy or defame our “traditions”? Is it because change is ambiguous and sometimes uncomfortable? I don’t know.
The story from 2 Kings for this Sunday is a story about change. Elijah, the well known prophetic leader is about to be taken up to heaven (as the scripture tells us), and he keeps trying to get Elisha to separate from him. But Elisha won’t go away. He is persistent in staying with his mentor. Their travel s together, and Elisha’s request that he receive a spiritual blessing from Elijah, illustrates some of Elisha’s anxiety. There seems to be some ambiguity about who will take over the prophetic leadership role after Elijah. And it is also a time between ruling kings. So this ambiguity creates a sense of loss and vulnerability. One era is ending and another is beginning. But this idea of “era”, of time, is a human construction. If we believe that God is active in the world, then God is not bound by time, calendars or eras. But it’s that ambiguity, that waiting on God’s time that can make us nervous.
In the Gospel (Mark 9:2-9), Jesus takes Peter, James & John up to the mountain top. And there in that moment Jesus is transformed and is joined by Elijah and Moses. While Peter thinks that it’s appropriate to build tents for the three, what we realize is that he’s trying to make this experience last. Tents would confine the Law, the Prophets, and the Fulfillment in such a way as to make them subject to time and place. Again, human constructions. Instead, God breaks in and says “listen to him”. Up to this point in Mark, Jesus has been trying to tell the disciples about his death and resurrection, and they may have heard him, but they haven’t been listening. Jesus’ death and resurrection means change. And change implies that there will be loss, fear, ambiguity and vulnerability.
But see, we know the “end” of the story and the disciples don’t. We have the ability to say, “well of course Jesus had to die and be resurrected…it was how the Kingdom was going to happen…it was a necessary change”. But we’re not in the shoes of the original disciples. They didn’t understand how the death and resurrection of Jesus would change the world. They didn’t understand how it would empower them for ministry, to become the prophetic leaders, to heal, preach and teach. They didn’t understand how necessary change was.
And sometimes we don’t either. The church needs change in order to continue in the role of prophet, preacher, teacher and healer. For those of you who were part of the church before the ordination of women in 1978, maybe you didn’t think there was anything wrong with all male clergy. But I stand here today, because others before me were willing to risk the change of allowing women at the altar as representation of the full body of Christ. Even in our more recent history with the consecration of Gene Robinson, there were those who were resistant to change and those willing to take a risk. Bishop Robinson’s election and consecration have since allowed the door to be open and the conversation begun about our gay brothers and sisters. These changes have not been easy by any means, but they have allowed us to grow in our ministry.
I mentioned time earlier… how the Elijah and Transfiguration stories disrupt our constructions of time. We’ve all heard the clichés about our time vs. God’s time. But there is some truth to the cliché. The Holy is not bound by time or place. It is in-between. In my mind’s eye I imagine that when Elisha was Elijah being carried away by the fiery horse and chariot, or the disciples saw Jesus become dazzling white, that it was almost as if time had stopped. The veil between heaven and earth was dropped for a moment. God’s time was happening. And God’s time is ambiguous, not fixed. God’s time challenges us to change, inspires us to grow, and moves us in our ministry.
So what do Elisha and the disciples do after these incredible moments? They engage in their ministries. They don’t stand around looking up to heaven, or hang out on top the mountain. They continue on. Where exactly their journey takes them is unknown at the moment. They have been changed.
And what are we to do when we’ve experienced God’s revelation and been challenged to make changes? We do our ministry. We continue our journeys into unknown places, not always having the answers. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We engage and embrace the change.
This week we've watched as Prop 8 in California has been ruled unconstitutional, and the state of Washington has legalized gay marriage. Human rights activists, allys, friends and families have all rejoiced in the recognition that mutual love and joy between two persons, regardless of sexual orientation, is starting to be understood as "ok". And as I watched the morning news today (Thursday) and saw a UCC minister in clericals talk about the march of solidarity from Vancouver, WA to Olympia, WA, I was deeply moved with joy. Finally, "the church" was showing support for our LGBT brothers and sisters, instead of playing the role of the oppressor. Hopefully, Oregon, and the Episcopal Church at large, will take note of these happenings, and realize we can no longer condone making lepers of people in our communities.
And these happenings bring me to this Sunday's gospel text (Mark 1:40-45). In this gospel, we encounter another healing, this time of a leper. As most of us know, lepers were regarded not only as physically unclean, but also ritually unclean. The laws found in Leviticus prohibited lepers from participating in worship, family meals, and other social encounters. By virtue of their disease, they were exiled from the community and forced to live "in the deserted places", which were also considered rather dangerous. It is here, in the wilderness, that Jesus encounters this leper.
Like the others who have been healed by Jesus, we know virtually nothing about this man. We don't know what his life was like before being ostracized. We don't know anything about the family he might have been separated from. We just don't know, and for all we do know, Jesus didn't either. But seeing this man having been separated from his community, moved Jesus with pity. The Greek word that the writer of Mark used for pity is "splanchnizomai", and what it really implies is a "profoundly intense emotional response that viscerally propels one feeling compassion into action on behalf of others" (Brian Blount & Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices). In other words, Jesus doesn't just feel bad for the leper, he feels compelled to do something about this man's situation. And so he touches him.
Like the touch he gave to Simon's mother-in-law, Jesus touching the leper is going against social norms and religious law. Once again, he is making the statement that the healing power of the Kingdom of God is available to everyone. Jesus is not waving his hands and yelling (as many faith healers in the media are portrayed to do), he just simply touches the leper. His personal presence and touch are acts of both mercy and liberation. Then he tells the leper to show himself to the priest and then tell no one what has happened. This raises lots of questions for us. Why does the man need to show himself to the priest? Why shouldn't he tell others what has happened? What is Jesus up to?
By showing himself to the priest, the man is proving that he can return to the community. But he's also testifying to the power of the Kingdom. As for not telling anyone, scholars argue back and forth on this one. But in the end, they all agree that by disobeying Jesus' direction, the man becomes a disciple and evangelist--he tells the good news of healing and liberation.
Having touched the man, Jesus has also made himself unclean. He cannot return to the towns and villages to continue his mission. His compassionate action, his action of solidarity, has placed him in a position of being exiled. Yet this does not keep people from coming to him. Through his action, and the spreading of the good news by the man, the barrier between clean and unclean, unacceptable and acceptable has been broken down. This is what I mean by the Kingdom being one of liberation...there are no insiders and outsiders.
So who are the lepers today in our context? Perhaps they are the diseased and disfigured, the immigrant, the very poor, the disabled, or the social misfit. Perhaps at one time or another, some of us have been the leper in our families or social circles. And it is here, among the lepers that we find Jesus. Jesus doesn't hide in church buildings or in holy places. Jesus is out there with the people, living among the hopeless and disenfranchised. And as disciples, we, like the leper of the gospel, are to go out and tell the good news, break down barriers, and connect people's need with God's liberation and healing.
How do we do this? We volunteer. We serve. We listen, advocate, and walk in solidarity. We offer our presence to another.
After spending a weekend examining roles and identities of women, and reflecting on the repercussions of oppression, when I turn to the Biblical text, I have to admit I'm once again looking at it with new eyes. Even though I have had an awareness of how the oppression of women and other "outsiders" has affected my interpretation and understanding of the Bible, to have such an intense experience has, without a doubt, shaped how I'm reading and interpreting this Sunday's lectionary texts. Prior to the weekend workshop, I was planning to preach on demons (partly because I felt "cheated" from the Sunday before). But now, I'm so attracted to the story of Simon's mother-in-law, that I feel I need to give voice to that element of the gospel.
In the reading for Sunday (Mark 1:29-39), Jesus is busy! He's operating on a schedule that has him here, there and everywhere. The gospel text picks up (probably) in the afternoon of the Sabbath...as soon as they left the synagogue. And where do Jesus and his disciples go? To Simon's house. There Jesus encounters the mother-in-law. We don't know very much about her, except that she is ill with a fever. We don't know how old she is, what her personality is like or even how strong her faith might (or might not) be. She doesn't ask or beg or plead for healing. Jesus simply extends his hand to the woman and lifts her up. In this simple action a lot is going on. So let's spend some time with this action.
Jesus extends his hand and touches the woman. Typical Jesus...going against all the society "norms". He touches a woman that he isn't connected with through marriage or family. In Biblical times, women were only supposed to be touched by their families; not strangers. So right there, Jesus is breaking down not only cultural norms, but for future readers and hears of this text, Jesus is pointing out that God's healing love isn't just for the dominant culture or those on the "inside"...it's for everyone.
After he takes her hand, Jesus raises the woman up. The Greek word used for this action is "egeire" meaning "to get up, to raise up". It is the same word that the writer of Mark will use for resurrection. Now think about that for a minute! Jesus raises up the woman. He resurrects her. Her healing means new life.
So what does she do with this healing? The text tells us that once the fever leaves her, she serves those in the house. Some feminist scholars read this as a statement of oppression...that she's healed so she can do "women's work". And while I do not dismiss that response, I think we have to look deeper at the text. It doesn't say she goes about cleaning, mopping, baking bread, or taking care of children. It simply says she serves them. The word here is "diakonia" which we have come to understand as "deacon". And a deacon is a servant minister. Perhaps she does bake bread and prepare a meal for Jesus and the disciples. Hospitality was the normative, and she's doing this ministry as a deacon...someone who has received new life and is therefore extending her hand in service. Perhaps we should reclaim this mother-in-law as a model for our own discipleship.
The fact that this healing takes place in a home is also significant and worth noting. It is in the everyday places and events that sacredness exists. We don't simply come to church on Sundays for our weekly shot of the holy...we come to be nourished, healed and lifted up, so that we can be open to the sacredness that is all around us. When Simon later suggests to Jesus that he return to the house to continue healing those who have come, Jesus says that it's time to move on. Jesus understood that his teaching and healing wasn't about being stagnate and staying in one place, but rather, spreading the message...missionary work.
But he didn't leave the people without any hope. Through his teaching and healing, he had not only shared the good news, but had empowered those around him to share it with others. Who knows, maybe he paraphrased the psalm from this morning "God gathers up the outcasts, heals the broken hearted, lifts up the downtrodden and takes care of us all". And the mother-in-law was still there. She could share her story of healing and wholeness as a way of healing those around her. She could be a servant minister, a deacon, to them by proclaiming the good news. This is what we are called to do too. As disciples, men and women, young and old, we are called to be servants to each other, to share our stories of healing and love, and to raise each other up.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.