Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sermon: "Pushed Into the Wild"

Mark 1:9-15 - (The Message)

At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him.
After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee preaching the Message of God: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Good News!

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 18, 2018 – First Sunday in Lent
Mark 1:9-15

“Pushed Into the Wild”

It can be a very disconcerting feeling to be pushed out into the wild.

There are no shortage of books out there that detail what it’s like to be surrounded by wilderness with little hope of finding a way out.
Tales of people losing their way on darkened trails, getting caught by unexpected storms, falling off cliffs and breaking bones, climbing mountains and succumbing to altitude sickness, being bitten by poisonous snakes, or having their limbs pinned by falling boulders or trees.
With all that can go wrong in the wilderness it’s a miracle that any of us makes it out alive.

Not many of us have had the experience of being dropped in the middle of the wilderness with just the clothes on our back and the shoes on our feet.
(Unless you happen to be an Army Ranger or an Eagle Scout.)
But living in the beautiful state of NH, there are many of us who know what it’s like to be in the midst of wilderness - and experience moments of panic, when we get turned around or lose the trail, or injure ourselves in some way, or encounter some other obstacle that lengthens our journey or raises our concern for our safety.

On of my favorite wilderness tales comes from a book written by Scottish author, Robert MacFarlane. The book is called “The Old Ways” and its full of poetic accounts of MacFarlane’s walking journeys - following the ancient footpaths that wind their way through England, Scotland, and Wales.

In one chapter, MacFarlane describes a walk he took with four of his companions following an old drove road into the Grey Corries, a mountain range in the west Highlands of Scotland.
The “drove roads” are the ancient trails worn into earth and rock alike by thousands of years of shepherds and farmers moving their livestock between summer and winter grazing grounds.

On this particular journey in the mountainous highlands, the path was obscured by layers of snow and ice.
But much to his delight, MacFarlane found a trail of footprints to follow into the wild.
Well, they weren’t footprints as much as “foot plinths” as MacFarlane calls them. A phenomenon that happens when loosely packed snow is trod upon and then freezes.
As the loose snow surrounding the frozen prints blows away it leaves a raised set of footprints, pushing upward from the ground and defying gravity.

MacFarlane and his four companions followed these relief footsteps for miles before the steps began to lead down a steepening slope.
In hindsight, MacFarlane says he shouldn’t have continued to follow the prints, but when you’re in uncertain territory it’s human nature to follow the precedent set by others who came before you.

He led his companions down the slope until the prints wound their way across a 10-foot chute of hard packed ice that skirted a 70-foot drop to rocks below.
Again MacFarlane writes, “I shouldn’t have continued to follow the prints, but I did.”
And the others followed along behind him.

After sliding and skidding their way down the ice chute, the footprints led the group to a narrow ledge with a sheer drop to the valley below.
Again MacFarlane writes, “I shouldn’t have continued to follow the prints, but I did.”
At this point, they were committed. Surely the person who made the tracks would lead them to safer ground.

Hugging the side of the cliff and inching along the ledge the journeyers eventually came to a point where the ledge disappeared all together and before them was an impossibly steep and rocky slope that led almost straight down.
And defying all logic, the footprints led straight down as well. 

At this point MacFarlane writes, “I felt sick. We clung to that terrace in horror not wanting to go on or retreat. Then at last I decided that death looked more likely ahead than behind, so step by step, we climbed our way back up out of trouble, following our own footprints to the summit of the ridge where it had all began.”

As with many of these tales of harrowing journeys in the wilderness, everything turns out okay in the end.
Most of these stories came to be written because the person who was lost in the wilderness did manage to make it out alive, despite the colossal odds against them.
We’re drawn to these stories because they serve as evidence of the resilience and fortitude of the human spirit, and stand as metaphors for the human experience.

We don’t have to go on a wilderness trek to feel as if we’ve been pushed out into the wild.

Any journey we undertake can make us feel as if we’re sailing into uncharted waters or pushing ourselves way outside our comfort zone.
It could be a physical journey to a foreign country where we don’t speak the language or understand the customs,
a learning opportunity that exposes us to a different cultural perspective or a different way of thinking,
or a spiritual pilgrimage that takes us deeper into our own heart and soul, and into a deeper relationship with God.

If we’re looking for a tale of finding a way in and out of the wilderness,
we need look no further than the Gospel of Mark and the handful of sentences he devoted to Jesus’ journey after his baptism:

“At once, the Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild.
For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested.
Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him.”

Just as with any wilderness journey, Jesus’ story has seemingly impossible obstacles he must overcome, unknown dangers that lurk in the shadows, and agents of comfort that help him through the times when he feels like giving up.

It’s the “feeling like giving up part” that makes this gospel story so relatable to us mere mortal human beings.

Even in the midst of civilization it can feel like we’re lost in the wilderness when we feel the weight of the world’s inequalities, instabilities, and perceived insanities hemming us in.

There aren’t many of us who aren’t feeling overwhelmed by the insidious string of human failings and atrocities that fill our 24/7 news cycles.

And while statistically our world is much less violent and oppressive than it once was - our constant exposure to bad news can’t help but make us think otherwise.
One can only imagine what our news reports would have looked like if cell phone cameras and social media had existed during the Crusades, or the Civil War, or when Hitler was exterminating 11-million people in his death camps.

On the contrary, the argument could be made that the world has fewer of these atrocities because the world is watching – and because visibility raises awareness and sparks outrage that leads to action that leads to change.

Swiss Theologian, Karl Barth, was forced to resign from his University professorship in 1935, after refusing to swear an oath to Hitler.
His was a voice in the wilderness as he attempted to organize other Christians to stand against Hitler and reject the influence of Nazism.
Not surprisingly, there weren’t many who pledged to join him.
When we humans find ourselves in the wilderness – forced outside our comfort zones – it’s not uncommon for us to become paralyzed by fear,
or numbed to the point of inaction, or overcome with the urge to look the other way and deny that we’re lost in the first place. 
Barth famously wrote that as Christians we must practice our faith with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other – because our faith compels us to act and respond to the issues of our world, just as Jesus did.

Some of you may have seen Friday’s edition of the Boston Globe.
Where for the first time ever, the editors devoted the front page to an incident that hasn’t happened yet.
Written by columnist Nestor Ramos, the headline reads:
“We Know What Will Happen Next”


It’s not a commentary as much as it is a narrative of a script with which we’ve all become too familiar.

Ramos writes:


He will be a man, or maybe still a boy.
He will have a semiautomatic rifle and several high-capacity magazines filled with ammunition.
He will walk into a school, or a concert, or a church.
And he will open fire into a crowd of innocents.

Televisions will play the videos recorded amid the carnage, the sound somehow worse than the images
We will hear about the heroes: Teachers who barricaded their classrooms or threw themselves between their students and the gunfire.
And we will hear about him: He was strange and troubled; he’d shown signs of mental illness; he lost his job; he beat his wife.

A chorus will rise to ask why anybody should own such a weapon, much less someone so obviously troubled; another chorus will accuse the first of politicizing tragedy.
Some will point to the Second Amendment, and blame a lack of treatment for the mentally ill.
Politicians will emerge. Some will plead for new laws.
More will ask only for thoughts and prayers. Some will not mention guns at all.

Any promises made will be broken.
Beyond the shattered orbit of the school or church or concert hall that became a shooting gallery, the whole thing will recede too soon into memory.

And then it will all happen again.
Whoever he is, he will follow the script.
So will we.

There are only three things we don’t know about the next time:

The problem with being in the wilderness is that often we can’t see the forest for the trees.
Every tree, every rock, every river, becomes an obstacle to overcome.
We can’t see a way out because we’re so focused on what is holding us in place.

We try to look for patterns in the trees,
or expend energy trying to move boulders out of our way,
or continuously walk in circles in an attempt to avoid crossing the raging river.
Because no one wants to risk wading into a current that will surely knock us off our feet and potentially cause us pain.

So instead we follow the script and continue to walk the same well-worn path.

But as Robert MacFarlane learned on his journey into the Scottish Highlands, following the footsteps of those who came before us isn’t always the safe or wise thing to do.
Sometimes the wise thing to do is to retrace your steps to where you began,
and start anew down a different path.

Jesus walked into the wilderness because he knew that God was calling him down a much different path than those who came before.

He spent 40 days contemplating the things that tempted him 
- the objects and desires that brought with them the promise of security, and power, and pleasure, and adulation.

And he worked on setting all of those desires aside – so he would instead be led and fed only by love, compassion, and grace.

When we learn to do the same.
And stop being led by OUR desires for security, power, pleasure, and adulation.
And instead approach every person - and every problem - with our eye on what is the most loving, most compassionate, and most graceful way to respond….

We’ll find that all the trees and rocks and rivers that obscure our view will disappear, and the way out of the wilderness will become clear.

We are not Jesus.
We are mere mortals.

And our time in the wilderness, whether during Lent, or during our lifetime, is not going to result in miraculous changes to our world.

But if we can enact even small changes in ourselves.
And start down a path that will lead to even one less child of God being killed at the hands of another,
And one less child of God being tempted to pull a trigger, out of anger, pain, or desperation,
Then we will have changed the world for the better.

The Good News is that God is moving in our world, and longs to create us anew.

And that same Spirit that pushes us into the wild,
will lead us out, once again.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.