Our theme for this Lent is “Our Time in the Wilderness.” I’ve always thought of time in the wilderness as a time of learning, but I decided to title this sermon “A Time of Formation." Normally I steer clear of church talk, but formation carries a more comprehensive meaning than learning does.
As the church uses the word, formation includes acquiring learning, but also includes acquiring experience as an element of that learning. In other words, it’s not just about book learning, but it’s about learning and practicing a set of life skills. It’s also about learning to do these things together, thereby forming a community.
When we look at the Exodus experience of the Hebrews, it’s quite easy to see why such formation is needed. They have lived for generations as slaves within the empire of Egypt. They are going to the long-promised land of milk and honey, without a king, and without any experience of self-rule. While in Egypt their numbers have grown beyond that of a wandering tribe. They have only Moses for a leader.
The first lesson they have to learn is to let go of the past and to rely on God. The first reading tonight from Exodus takes place just as they are leaving home and before they have even crossed the Red Sea. Already the whining begins: “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt. It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
As you all know, this sort of looking back goes on over and over in Exodus. It’s hard to let go of the past. We prefer the demons we know to the ones that we don’t know – better to be slaves than risk dying. They complain about lack of food and water, surely important things, but they also complain about not having onions!
God responds by giving them manna every morning and quails every evening. But when Moses goes up on the mountain and is gone for 40 days, they make a golden calf to worship! It becomes clear, why God keeps them in the wilderness for 40 years – that is the time it takes for the generation who still remember Egypt to pass away. Then they can look ahead and embrace the future.
Meanwhile God provides not only bodily sustenance but also the 10 Commandments. I heard a lecture by the O.T. scholar, Walter Brueggeman, in which he said that essentially the 10 commandments are about creating a better neighborhood. They provide the guidelines for the Hebrews’ life in the new land as free people. The rules they lived under as slaves must go.
But as we know, change is not easy and forming new ways of living takes time and practice. The second great lesson learned during the time in the wilderness was that leadership must be shared. Jethro kept Moses from tearing out his hair in frustration by suggesting that he raise up a number of leaders to take on some of his work.
In the reading from Luke, we see Jesus doing the same thing. He not only called disciples, he trained them and sent them out to practice, so that they could carry on his work. John the Baptist had not done this, so when he died, his movement died. Jesus did not make that mistake. He did all he could to prepare his followers for his own departure and to prepare them to take over.
It seems to me that this is a key ingredient to living life in the kingdom. Sharing leadership is the only way to prevent one person or one group from taking over and restoring the hierarchy – which of course ultimately happened in Israel too. But I think that this lesson about shared leadership is also about shared living, about life lived in community, which is what we try to model in our churches. We are meant to share our learning with each other as well as our joys and sorrows.
The wilderness, as the Hebrews experienced it, was very real. They suffered hunger and thirst and endless wandering. But the wilderness is also an oft-used metaphor. It represents a time of crisis: going to work one day to discover you’re being laid off; losing your home and belongings to fire, flood, or mud slide; awakening to a phone call that a person you love has died.
Life-changing events such as these demand of us the same tasks as those demanded of the Israelites. We must let the old life go because yearning for what is gone and bitterness about it are dead ends. We must accept and eventually embrace the new reality. We have to trust God to lead us out of this mess, even though we can’t see a way out ourselves. And we need to share this time of trouble with our community just as we will share our joy when it is over. And perhaps we can take what we have learned in this wilderness experience, and pass it on to others.
Years ago when I lived in Minneapolis I met a woman I’ll call Margaret, who was a paraplegic. She came to church every Sunday, driving a modified van that allowed her to drive with hands only and with a lift to get her in and out while still in her wheel chair.
Margaret was unfailingly rather cheerful, had a great sense of humor, never complained in my hearing about her condition, nor ever talked about her past. When I finally heard part of her story I was shocked. She was in a terrible car accident when her two children were young. As a result, she was paralyzed from the waist down. By the time she got out of the hospital, her husband had not only divorced her, he had sold all her belongings, even her clothes!
How does a person even get past anything so awful? I never asked what had happened with her children, because I knew I couldn’t bear to hear it.
During this time I was doing some volunteer work for Wilderness Inquiry, a non-profit that takes mixed groups of able-bodied and disabled people into the wilderness. I also had taken some of their trips. One day I asked Margaret if she had ever heard of them.
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “I took a trip with them into the boundary waters.”
“And how was that experience for you?” I asked.
“Lynn, it was absolutely life-changing. I realized that if I could drag myself over a portage using only my hands and arms, I could do whatever I wanted to do in a big city.”
Margaret had experienced wilderness in both the metaphoric and the literal ways and found new ways to cope with life. I think this accounted for the authenticity of her outlook. In my own life I have gone to the literal wilderness for much the same sort of help. That experience has a way of changing our perspective.
The Lenten season gives us a chance each year to practice these Wilderness lessons, to embody them in ways that prepare us for the wilderness times that sooner or later will come to us.
The purpose of Lenten discipline is to mimic a wilderness experience, where, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “you lose your appetite for what cannot save you. . .” The Hebrews lost their appetite for onions and found they could live on manna and quail.
The same thing can happen when we give up things we have come to rely on, but that cannot save us. Have you considered giving up your cell phone – your video games, your comfort food? Think about it. Whatever you use as anesthetic, to soothe hurt feelings, or to block out what ails you, is something to consider giving up. To give up for Lent any form of anesthetic we use, whether pills or perpetual busyness or gossip or whatever, is to give ourselves a chance to return to a more authentic life, the life of abundance God wishes for us.
I think most of us “get” this aspect of Lent, but the sharing part is trickier. Partly because it requires us to be authentic with our community and it requires us to admit we’re not in control and to give up our attempt to control our own life or that of others. But I suspect that sharing of leadership, joy, and sorrow within the community is very important, because it mirrors our relationship with God and our community’s relationship with God.
The full quote from Barbara Brown Taylor is this:* “The wilderness is where you lose your appetite for things that cannot save you, but also where you learn to trust the Spirit that led you there to lead you out again ready to worship the Lord your God and serve no other all the days of your life.”
I’m afraid the implication is this: to find, to create, and or to live into the Kingdom of God, we have to go through the wilderness. Just remember that we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, we shouldn’t do it alone. We must all go together! And it’s even better if we all go singing.** AMEN
* “The Wilderness Exam,” Day1.org
** Thanks to Bishop Steve Charleston, from sermon at Diocesan Convention