"Ah, Wilderness" by Rev. Dr. D.H. Clark
I would like to point out that my first sermon was Christmas Eve, following the likes of Kyndall Rothaus, Welton Gaddy, Jason Smith, Darrell Cluck, and Mark Windham. This time up, it’s Elijah Zehyoue, Sheila Sholes-Ross, and Scott Stearman. I am justly proud and grateful for the long line of brilliant pulpiteers who have graced this place over the years, but I am here today, in this increasingly sacred pulpit, for the second time, and am justly daunted. Nonetheless, thank you for the opportunity. May we pray.
God, please help me to form words and spark ideas that will add a layer of vibrancy to this congregation and be worthy of this place and pleasing in your sight, O God my strength and lover of my soul. Amen.
The title of my sermon is borrowed…er, taken…OK, stolen from Eugene O’Neill’s 1933 play by the same name, his only well-known comedy and, as far as we know, his only play that has a happy ending. It seems that the ever-depressed Eugene, at a rare moment of optimism, likewise stole his title from a translation of a passage from Rubáiyát by Omar Kayyám, which familiarly reads:
“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh Wilderness were Paradise Enough.
O’neill changed the Oh to an Ah to connote the possibility that wilderness may be something other than paradise.
In the play, Richard, a teenager, makes some bad choices, thrusting himself into the wilderness that so often is the difficult part of coming of age. Redemption comes through love and concern of family.
O’neill’s later, more tragic, and autobiographical Long Days Journey into Night, gives us a picture of his own dysfunctional family's life, a dismal wilderness with a tragic conclusion resulting from yielding to temptations of instant fame, greed, escape from reality through alcohol and drugs, and love of self at the expense everyone else. Two wildernesses, each with different choices, each with very different places to which one may emerge. Wilderness is often used in writing as a metaphor for life’s journey. A good story plot line almost requires there be wilderness.
There are many biblical stories of wilderness experiences.
The prophet Elijah, in the midst of a devastating drought in Israel, delivered the word of God to his people then ruled by the evil king Ahab, who was less than pleased. Because of Ahab’s threats, God helped Elijah escape to a hiding place by the Brook Cherith, which eventually dried up. He did have an Uber Eats of sorts in the form of ravens who kept him from starving. He did escape execution by Ahab, but his time there was not altogether pleasant. Elijah remained faithful. He was led by God to this wilderness. It was there he was able to recoup and regroup.
He emerged strengthened and rejuvenated, to defeat the pagan prophets of Baal and Asherah at Mount Carmel, using only the power of prayer and faith.
Elijah had a second wilderness experience, this time by his own choice. He fled, letting his fear of Jezebel overcome his faith and resolve. He dismissed his servants and hid out in a cave on Mount Sinai. God found him there and spoke to him, not through earthquake, wind, nor fire, but in a still small voice, “What are you doing here?” God then led him, equipped with a plan to turn the people of Israel away from their pagan path and back to God.
In both accounts, one led by the spirit, another by his on human weakness, Elijah found God, or God found Elijah. Actually, God was always there, not in some dramatic burst of cinematic drama, but in a still, small voice, Perhaps a better translation would be “in the silence.” Elijah never left his wilderness the same way he entered it. He never left it unchanged.
The centerpiece of the story of the exile of the children of Israel to Egypt and their ultimate return to the promised land is wilderness. During this 40 years of discernment over who they were and who they would be in their homeland, God was with them, feeding and protecting them. They grew restless and rebelled, but God’s word ultimately won them over and they emerged transformed and reformed into a nation with God’s law at its center.
Today’s Gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness always begins the contemplative season of Lent. We can speculate that perhaps Jesus needed a buffer before starting his ministry after his preparatory days working as a carpenter alongside his father, studying in the synagogue, and ultimately, his pretty spectacular rite of baptism. I suspect his previous 30 years had well prepared him for his ministry, but given the turmoil of the day, it still must have felt daunting.
Perhaps the Spirit which led him to the wilderness knew it would be a place and time for spiritual centering, communing with God, formulating a ministry plan, and coming to grips with who he was and what his destiny would be. Did he have any foreknowledge of the 3 temptations? I somehow doubt that they caught him by surprise. Jesus was a grown man and had seen many things in life. He had likely observed folks choosing the easy path in tough times, of giving in to temptation, and those who took the road less traveled with all its difficulty in following the way of God’s word. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly understood that he had to walk his own path and make his own decisions regarding which way he would go.
One would hardly consider the barren landscape of the wildernesses in which he found himself as inviting and friendly. He must have known he could possibly face starvation and other dangers which he did. Still, he went, at the behest of the Holy Spirit, as if it were a fully necessary part of his ministry. So here he was, a newly ordained itinerate preacher being led by God’s spirit into an unknown place, fraught with many dangers, toils, and snares. Sound familiar?
As he grew increasingly tired and hungry, the devil offered a menu of tempting options—unlimited food, infinite wealth and power, and a way to test God’s promise to protect him from harm, if he took a literal leap of faith. With each offer, tempting though some may have sounded, Jesus drew upon God’s word for his response: “We do not live by bread alone,” “Worship and serve only the Lord your God,” and “Do not put God to the test.”
Enough said. Go away devil! The narrative unfolds to tell us that Jesus’ ministry would involve many crosses--rejection, persecution, public scorn, and even political execution. But Jesus stood firm through it all, in faith and in God’s word. That very faith would inspire a new creation of love and justice.
Is a wilderness experience necessary for each of us at different times in our lives? What does the wilderness offer us? Why does it sometimes beckon and invite us to come in with its irresistible siren song of utopian peace and serenity? Was Omar Kayyám being overly optimistic or simplistic to think that wilderness could be an open meadow, a shade tree, a book of poetry, a hunk of bread, a box of wine and one’s singing soul mate? Is wilderness paradise? Is it an escape from harsh reality? Are these enticing elements, in fact, the temptations calling after us?
Two years ago, while trying to navigate of the choppy waters of deep political divide, the rise of white nationalism, and western style democracy on the verge of collapse, we were all, collectively, and quite suddenly, thrust into the wilds of a relentless pandemic that has taken so much from us and out of us that we feel, exhausted and starving, looking for God in all of it. I do not believe we were led there by the Holy Spirit or even our own choice. It was a quirky fact of the laws of biology that constituted this awful time. We pray that we soon emerge. Have we used this time to soul search and to learn, to seek God’s guidance? Well, before 2020, I dare say that the average non-scientist knew little about the biology and behavior of viruses. Today most grade school children could draw a fairly accurate picture of Corona.
We have learned about the workings of the CDC, how vaccines are developed, how to measure oxygen levels, and what certain organisms can do to our bodies, as well as how to take measures to avoid exposure. We have, sadly, encountered temptation to take the easy way out—to deny the gravity of the disease, to looking for quick cures, to believe unqualified internet media hacks and so-called journalists over trained and trusted scientists, all of this with disastrous results. When those of us who survive do emerge, what kind of people will we be? Will we be better or worse? Will the outcome be “Ah Wilderness,” or “Long Days Journey into Night?”
The pandemic sent most churches into diaspora. For some, outright hibernation. With God’s help and the hard work of a technically proficient pastoral team, we at Northminster were able to maintain a good level of our vitality. Last summer the challenge of that wilderness was compounded as we found ourselves searching for a new pastor in a time that makes that work extremely difficult. Now, the specter of war looms over us, needlessly destroying lives, properties, and sovereign nations, but also seems to be escalating and further fueling the flames of political division and power grabbing. A sort of eerie Venn diagram of wildernesses with us in the common part of that diagram.
In the case of Russia’s egregious aggression toward its neighbor and kindred people, God’s word is clear. “Come, let us reason together.” The aggressor has chosen to look to the devil’s temptation. Here is the world for the taking, just use the power you have. “Don’t spend any time fretting over the blood and destruction you leave in your path.”
May God help those who lead in the quest to stop this insanity. God help those who are being trampled under the feet of those walking this road. God help the rest of us to find ways toward unity of purpose and just peace. God’s word is clear for us. “Care for the wounded, welcome the stranger and the refugee, feed the hungry, pray, and work for peace and a just end to conflict.”
So here we are, a pandemic, a people at war, and a church in an interregnum. Dark times. We need the word of the Lord.
This season of Lent is a time for self-reflection and discernment, a time to look to the word of God for help. Like our ever-present wilderness, it can be a difficult time, this 40 plus days before the light of Easter resurrection. However, we must ask ourselves, “Does Easter mean as much without the journey through this season? Can we grasp the reality of God’s grace and constant companionship without this part of the story?”
This discernment means asking ourselves who are we and what do we expect to be on the other side of this wilderness of a pastor search? What is the other side? God will walk this journey with us, rest assured, but the difficulties will be and are there. Just ask our incredibly dedicated committee. Ask them what it is like trying to find and attract gifted pastors in a time when so many of them have left the ministry, for many reasons, but, mainly, the effects of the pandemic. Ask them what it is like to have promising candidates who are excited about our church and its possibilities but decide to withdraw because of the perceived impact of moving their families to Monroe, Louisiana.
People, pray for them and support them in their work. Let us all keep faith that there is someone whom God is calling for us, and that when that time comes, we will emerge from this wilderness into a new era.
But remember, when we do walk out into the light, we must not leave the Holy Spirit standing at its threshold. Rather we must continue to rely on the it’s guidance to help us be the church that we began the journey to be—a prophetic fellowship of faith who seeks to make a difference in the world, who is not satisfied with the status quo, who is not afraid to be uncomfortable. With God’s grace our pastor will shepherd us in this work, but it is we who have to DO this work.
As God’s church, it is not only our honor but our sacred duty to care for and nurture each other. This charge includes, it must include, our care and nurturing love for our pastor. How do we do that? We have recently spent a lot of time and energy discerning what we want and expect from a pastor and what we can and will do to provide the time and resources for her or him to do this work, be an integral part of us and make a life for him or her and family in this place. A large part of our commitment to this servant of God, is to love, care for, and nurture him or her. This means so many things. It means praying for her or his ministry and life, understanding that each of us is human, including our pastor. There will be judgmental mistakes. There will be times when we might not agree with what is said in a sermon or written in our newsletter.
There will be occasions when we may think that not enough time is spent in the office or that the pastor has not lived up to what we consider to be the standard of pastoral care. Our response to such… almost inevitable …times as these must be, MUST BE, love, respect, and honest and open non-judgmental discussion directly with the pastor, not with a third party or a small group done in anonymity. Such actions lead to misunderstandings which become divisive. The loving way to approach such issues is to be bold and to prayerfully say directly to the person with whom we disagree, “Can we talk?”
We must always seek to understand, not condemn. This is how conflict should be handled in our families, among friends who disagree, and, quite frankly, on the world stage as well. Be it so with our pastor.
Friends, this is a crucial time in the life of our church. We are and have been for a long time in a wilderness of many dimensions and layers. Now, more than ever, we need the commitment of all our members. “Commitment to what?” You may ask. Be present, be responsive, be willing to lead in worship, be willing to help in Sunday School, look into how things get done here and become a part of it, take the time to come to business meetings, if you are on a commission, the main backbone of our work, be active, make sure your commission is doing what it is charged to do and meeting and planning regularly. If you are not on a commission, get on one.
But most of all love your church, love and respect your brothers and sisters, settle your differences in peaceful, non-judgmental, loving and open ways, and, fellow sojourners on this amazing quest we call Northminster Church, be bold, be courageous, don’t settle for the temptation of the status quo, don’t mistake a lack of conflict and confrontation with evil forces such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of human oppression as peace. Without justice, there is, there can be no peace.
Now it the time, relying on God’s word, to shun the temptation of just sitting back and hoping someone else will do this important…no vital…work, or, even worse, to hide behind the ever present and always untrue excuse, “I don’t have the skills or capability of doing that.” Who would have thought our people would be able to broadcast high quality video streaming of our services to the world. The technical challenges alone are enough to stop us from even thinking about it. But Hannah and her team, Mara and Samuel, were willing to commit hours, days, and weeks to watching YouTube how-to videos, reading undecipherable user manuals, and sweating over bewildering equipment to achieve just that. Thank you, video team. This is such an important part of our outreach.
So now…now it the time to say to the devils of complacency and reticence, “God’s word is stronger that your temptations. Hear the word of the Lord!”
“I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’”
Hear the word of the Lord!
“Let us consider together how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.”
Hear the word of the Lord!
“Bring all your tithe (that means time and talents as well as monetary gifts) into the storehouse, that there may be food for all in my house…”
Hear the word of the Lord!
“For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.
We are one body in Christ, and individually member one of another.”
Hear the word of the Lord!
Friends, that word…this word, is all you need. Hear it. Shout it, and the devils of temptation will step aside and allow safe passage out of this wilderness and into the promised land of authentic, prophetic, all-inclusive, loving Christianity.
Ah Wilderness can be said with many different inflections and meanings. Let us say it together with confidence, “Ah Wilderness,” the confidence that comes with listening to the word of God and putting it into action. The confidence that we can and will withstand, we will grow, we will learn, and we will emerge into the promised land stronger and with greater resolve to do the work of justice, merciful love, and walking together humbly with God.
In the spirit of the season of Lent and in light of the gravity to the state of the world, may we observe a time of silent reflection and intercession.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, God who has brought us safe thus far on the way, we need to hear your voice in the silence. There is enough earthquake, wind and fire to go around. We need to hear your voice clearly rising above the silence of laid-down weapons, above the silence of no breaking stories of new attacks, above the silence of no more refugees’ cries of anguish, above the silence of no reports of discrimination against refugees at the border because of the color of their skin.
God we need to be the children you intend us to be—loving, generous, selfless, compassionate, bold, and courageous.
Grant us this courage and, by all means, wisdom, for the living of these days.
We pray for the state of the world, for our nation, for our city, and for our church. This prayer is not just for the absence of conflict, it is for the raining down of justice for all like a mighty waters and righteousness and ever-flowing stream. Let us not be satisfied until everyone has the right to freedom from oppression, from unjust and unfair incarceration and treatment by those in seats of power, and tyrants can no longer threaten to annihilate the world by the push of a button.
God ,we need you now as does Bill, Susan, Lola, Debbi, Rodney, Montserrat, the family of Sybil, all those in our hearts we have not named, and all the people living in and evacuated from Ukraine as well as those around the world who are their loved ones and friends. Brittany needs you as does her family and fans.
Say something, God. Speak your word to us. Speak your word to the world. Give us voices to speak your word to all.