Wilderness

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner

Last summer, I ran away from home.  Just a little bit.  I decided to walk the length of Vermont on something called the Long Trail.  It is the country’s oldest long-distance hiking trail.  I walked alone.   For three weeks, I carried a tent and a sleeping bag and I ate a lot of dried food.  I climbed up ladders and I crawled over boulders and I squelched my boots in mud.  I counted the birds I heard singing each morning and grew weary by mid day when they fell quiet.  I looked out at the moon as I feel asleep at night.  I was fascinated; I was uneasy; I was bored; I was exhilarated.   I just wanted it to be over.  I never wanted it to end.

I’m not sure of whether I was trying to find myself or leave myself behind; the reality, in the end, was that I did both.  I discovered, like so many others who have gone into the wilderness, that I was not only leaving home.  I was also coming home.

Here on this first Sunday of Lent, we find ourselves in the wilderness.  It is an ambiguous place. It is the place of testing, and it is also the place of proving.  It is the challenge from God, and it is the gift from God.  Our lectionary gives us not one but two stories of identity in the wilderness.  Together these stories ask us  important and complicated questions about who we have been, and who we might be becoming.

The first story comes from Genesis.  We find Adam and Eve, there in Eden, fundamentally and deeply at home.  The first identity of human beings is that they are insiders, people at who belong to a place—God took the man and put him in the garden.  And then, through this series of events with the serpent, they lose track of who they are.

What seems so important to me is not so much how the fall happens—because to some extent the power of sin is a mystery, isn’t it?—but what seems important the consequences that Genesis describes.  “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”

If you know the story, you know what happens next—Adam and Eve first hide from God, and then eventually are sent out from God’s presence, into the land east of Eden.  But this first moment tells it all.  We see people who no longer feel at home in their home.  They literally don’t feel comfortable in their own skin any more.  By the time they are sent out of the garden, the punishment is almost a technicality, because they have already been banished.  They have become outsiders in the place that was supposed to be their refuge.  They are, literally, bewildered by what has happened to them.

Is the wilderness in fact our punishment?

Our second story is Matthew’s version of the temptation, the conclusion of Jesus’ forty days.  And it is, in many respects, the reverse of Adam and Eve’s story.  Because Adam and Eve took their home and became strangers—but Jesus goes to the place of strangeness and claims his identity there.

Jesus is there in the wilderness and, much like Adam and Eve, he faces this inexplicable moment of temptation.  But where they moved further from the truth of their belonging—where they chose to believe themselves inadequate, unprepared, insufficient without that fruit—Jesus instead trusts the sufficiency of God.  Repeatedly, the devil suggests to Jesus that he is at odds with his environment, that the world around him is a hostile place.  It is a place where there is hunger, a place where there is danger, a place where there is powerlessness.   But Jesus will not believe it. And so he finds himself, in this externally barren place, powerfully trusting in God.  And deeply at home with God.

Is the wilderness, perhaps, our salvation?

If you looked at the Lenten brochure you’ll know that promised this Lent to that I would preach a sermon series, and I said would call it The Outsiders, because I think that this is what the gospels have to talk to us about in the coming weeks—about outsiders and insiders, about exclusion and belonging.  And I think that theme begins here, not at the  broad level of community but at the level of the individual soul and its relationship to God.   To what extent have we become outsiders to the lives God has graciously given us?  To what extent do we need to step outside those lives to see them clearly?  To what extent do we need to become strangers in our ordinary world in order to make ourselves at home with God?

We each stand at the beginning of a long trail.  This time of Lent is the time to find ourselves by leaving ourselves behind.  The journey of these forty days would, literally and metaphorically, dis-orient us, if we let it.  It would take us to a place of vulnerability, a place where we let go of our baggage and the frail protections we sew together, a place where we give up power and confidence and security, a place where cannot assume ourselves to be safe. And then this time would show us a new understanding of what it means to trust, and a new understanding of who we are and where we really belong.

Sermons usually tell you what to do, but I don’t want to do that this morning.  Instead, I want ask you the same questions that I think scripture is asking you.   What does home mean to you?  When have you trusted it?  When have you needed to leave?  What is made possible by separation?  What can you risk?  What can you trust?  What does God need you to discover about yourself?  What does God need you to discover about God?

We began our liturgy this morning with the exhortation, the historic invitation to search one’s conscience before the eucharist, to “examine your lives and conduct.” It is similar to the exhortation of Ash Wednesday, with its plea for “the observance of a Holy Lent” beginning with self-examination.   I hope you leave this morning with the unfinished business that they suggest. I think that’s what this moment asks of each of us.

Who have you been?  Where does God need you to go?  And what wild journey might you need in the weeks ahead to get there?