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"The World is a Wilderness" by Rev. Mark Windham

I’m going to use the pulpit as a confessional to you this morning. I struggled with this sermon. A lot. I was determined to stick with the Narrative Lectionary so there wouldn’t be a gap in what Jillian’s been doing with us since she arrived as our Senior Pastor last year. But – to be honest – the passages weren’t really speaking to me; they weren’t hitting home with me.

I kept sitting down at my computer to work on this sermon and always became easily distracted by something else. A task with work, something I needed to purchase right then on Amazon, a Facebook post or Instagram video that just couldn’t wait to be seen and liked.

Renee sent me the order of worship to review on Thursday morning. It always throws me off to see my name in print as “Reverend Mark Windham”. The very sound of it makes me feel like a fake and inadequate for the task. So, I obsessed over that for several hours. I almost emailed her to ask her to just drop the “Reverend” from in front of my name. Granted, I was ordained as a minister by the Southern Baptist church I grew up in back in 2002 while I was attending seminary. Sure, I briefly pastored a small church on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain while I was in seminary. I’ve baptized and offered communion. I’ve had the incredible pleasure of officiating weddings for family, friends, and acquaintances. However, I didn’t finish seminary; but that’s a story I’ve shared from this pulpit before, and I don’t want it to be the focus of what we’re talking about today. I work in the healthcare administration field. When I see the word Reverend in front of my name, I think of the things about me that are not what most people would consider “preacherly”. Most of you have never witnessed this, but I can have a quick temper. I can be hard-headed, demanding, and I cuss a lot. So – needless to say – I’ve been in the wilderness. That’s what I decided to title today’s sermon: “The World is a Wilderness”. It’s not listed in your order of worship because that title didn’t come to fruition until about 9:30 yesterday morning!

While wandering in the wilderness, I kept pondering the subject matter of the Scripture passages. So, first let’s talk a little bit about the passage from Psalm 91. “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall fall before you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Here’s where I’m going to place a disclaimer – a footnote if you will – on this sermon. I’m by no means a theologian; even when I was in seminary, I wasn’t working on my Master’s in Divinity – I was working on a Master’s in Psychology and Counseling. I’m very much a pragmatist. I believe in dreaming big, but I also believe in being realistic. This goes for me with real-world applications and spiritual insights.

While I say I’m by no means a theologian, that doesn’t mean I don’t have theological views. And my views have changed significantly in the nearly 12 years I’ve been attending Northminster. I came from a background that hammered the Bible into my psyche as the inerrant, infallible word of God. I also came from a background that preaches if you’re not getting the answers to your prayers, then you’re either not praying hard enough or your faith in God isn’t strong enough. I believe I’m confident enough to say in this forum, among this group of people, that’s not the case.

We all have to face struggles; we all have to contend with the nasty parts of life – illness; financial struggles; emotional hardships; oppression and/or exclusion because of who we are, what we stand for, or who we love. Do we love God? Do we seek refuge in God? But do we see angels flurrying around us to form a force field of protection around us? I don’t. But what I do see is a family of faith who can offer support in times of hardship, trouble, and despair. I believe God puts those people in our lives. I also believe we have a responsibility as members of a family of faith to care for each other, to show concern for each other, and to lift each other up – particularly in times of adversity. I believe we’re all supposed to be the hands and feet of the God we love and worship.

I’ve become increasingly disenchanted over the name-it-and-claim it theology we see in other areas of Christian faith. I’ve become increasingly concerned over the harmful psychological and emotional impact it has on people who adopt that mindset and only feel inadequate because they’re not getting the answers to their prayers and are made to feel that it’s their fault because they’re not praying hard enough or their faith isn’t rooted deeply enough.

Now let’s take a look at the story of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew chapter 4. Jesus had been in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days and nights. To paraphrase the end of verse 2, at the end of the 40 days, he was tired and he was hungry.

The story goes on to say that Satan tempted Jesus in three ways. These are being given to you in the Mark Windham summarized/common language version. First, he said: “Hey, if you’re the son of God, why don’t you just turn this pile of rocks into some rolls?” Then he took him to the top of the temple and said: “Hey, why don’t you jump off the top of this temple? It’s already been written in Psalm 91, verses 11 and 12, that God’s angels will hold you up, so won’t even so much as scratch your foot.” Then, third, he took him to a high mountain and said: “Hey, if you’ll just worship me, I’ll give you everything here you see!” So, Satan tempted Jesus with sustenance, with protection, and with power. Jesus didn’t give in to any of his temptations but clung to his faith in God. Then, in verse 11, almost like an afterthought, it says that the devil left him and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Again, like I mentioned earlier, and you may see things differently from me, which is fine. Every one of our faiths are our individual faiths; we don’t have to all see things the same way to be the hands and feet of our God for one another. I no longer have the type of faith that views our God as a vending machine, an ATM, or a provider of all the things I want. I no longer have the type of faith that believes that – just by earnestly praying – an outcome I desire is necessarily going to be achieved.

The type of faith I do have is that our God places people in our lives for support. He gives us a family of faith to be the hands and feet – those angels – who can help us make it through the difficult circumstances, who can celebrate with us in times of joy, and who can work together to build each other up and create a network of support. A group of people who can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Before we wrap things up for today, I want to speak in high support of something important to me. I realize some people feel – and they would be correct – that Northminster has always provided a welcoming and affirming space for all people to worship. We never formalized that commitment until our adoption of a welcoming and affirming statement in 2022. Until then, the feeling among some members was that we didn’t need to do anything “special” to formalize that commitment. Last Sunday, we had a brief meeting following morning worship regarding the Coordinating Council’s recommendation for our church to join AWAB, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. I understand there may be a bit of reluctance among some members of our congregation regarding the possibility of us joining this organization, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to share my perspective with you for consideration.

Northminster is not a “gay” church. However, on any given Sunday, 25% or more of our congregation are members of the LGBTQ+ community. If my husband David and I were not members of Northminster, I honestly don’t know if we would be part of any other family of faith in this region. No, Northminster is not a “gay” church, but Northminster has given me a space where I don’t have to hide who I am, what I am, or who I love in order to be an active member of the family of faith.

Most of you know that I’m the CEO of a community health center whose origins stemmed from the global HIV epidemic. We’ve evolved into an organization that provides comprehensive care for the community at large, seeing patients at all stages of the lifespan, in an affirming and inclusive environment. Are we a “gay” organization? No. However, like Northminster, around 25% of our patients and 25% of our staff are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Just like it was important for Northminster to develop and adopt a welcoming and affirming statement, our board and staff at the health center felt it was important to include affirming and inclusive language in our mission statement.

Why is this important? Because it lets otherwise marginalized groups of people know that they are respected, they are seen, they are valued, and they are loved. It lets people know they do have a place. In my opinion – and this is my opinion – I don’t speak for the Coordinating Council or any other person affiliated with Northminster, affiliating ourselves with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists is a means of standing alongside a group of people who often feel they aren’t worthy of love and letting them know we’re here to welcome them, love them, and take them in as family.

The words “welcoming and affirming” on a website and on social media mean something to a group of people who feel left out and are looking for a place to fit in. Affiliation with an organization like AWAB means something to someone who’s searching for a place to worship when they feel they don’t have anywhere to go. It’s not about changing our church’s identity – it’s about outreach and affirmation.

We’re fortunate in our congregation that we live in somewhat of a bubble to ourselves. We as a congregation know how to treat people with dignity and respect. We’ve been doing it since we’ve been in existence. But we have to remember the reality is that a lot of people external to Northminster don’t know that. That’s why I feel it’s important to align ourselves with organizations like AWAB. So, in closing, I’m asking Northminster as a congregation to be God’s hands and feet. There are people hurting. There are people in despair. There are people who are lonely. They may be praying for something and not knowing there’s something – someone – out there to lift them up. They’re wandering in the wilderness; let’s be the hands and feet of God to help them wander into the loving presence of God.

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