No Way Out But Through

by the Rev. Sarah Buteux

Mark 1:4-13, Baptism of Jesus, Year B

 

“If you’re going through Hell, keep going”

– Winston Churchill 

 

I’ve been looking at Airbnb’s recently.  Airbnb’s and real estate ads on Zillow. 

Not because I have any serious plans to travel or relocate, though after the events of Wednesday I may expand my search to Canada. Just kidding. It’s ok. I’m not going anywhere. Because I can’t!

I’ve simply been imagining alternate lives outside of this one: lives where I walk on different paths, read by different fires, maybe go out to eat at an actual restaurant. 

I love my life and the walls I call home, but I’m feeling tired of them all the same. I’m an introvert and a homebody by nature, but something in even me could use a change of scenery about now. You know, like a date night, a new adventure, a reason to brush my hair. Winter always makes me a little stir crazy, but this winter, especially so. 

Just knowing I can’t go anywhere makes me want to go somewhere all that much more. And I’m watching that feeling closely. I’m having feelings about that feeling – if you know what I mean – because that feeling of wanting to escape, wanting out, wanting to change what I know I cannot, is a dangerous feeling. It’s actually the opposite of the serenity prayer. 

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

It’s the sort of feeling that leads to unhealthy forms of escapism: too much wine in the evening, too many hours watching TV, too many clicks on Amazon, and – God forbid – that worst of all sins – at least if you’re descended from good hard working New England Protestants like me – lethargy …or dare I even say it… sloth. 

Honestly there are days when I just want to go back to bed and stay there till this whole pandemic is over and our country has healed. But I can’t go back to bed because the truth is… I still haven’t gotten out of it. Why bother if there’s no place to go? 

A friend of mine, on her doctor’s orders, recently bought a new pair of shoes to wear inside her house because walking around all day in slippers was wearing down her arches. For me, I think it’s wearing down my soul. 

Seriously, some part of you starts to feel like an invalid if you spend all day everyday padding around your house in your pajamas, eating soup out of a can and watching movies on your laptop while you wait for things to get better. 

And think about that word for a minute – invalid (IN vuhlid) – someone who is ill, weak, and cannot take care of themselves. Invalid has a heteronym, invalid (in VALL id) meaning false, null, void… meaningless. 

Life, with no place to go, nothing to do, and no one to see, can start to feel meaningless. A sense of meaninglessness leads to feelings of anxiety, helplessness and grief – all of which are painful – so naturally we look for a way out, a way around, a way to avoid or numb the pain.  

Bingeing, purging, obsessing, cheating, lying, gambling, cynicism with a side of Ben&Jerrys, a full bodied wine with notes of cherry and undertones of despair: there are any number of poisons from which to choose. 

But here’s the thing: none of them are ever strong enough to fill the void that lives inside of you. None of them are ever powerful enough to kill the grief. All they can ever do is delay it for awhile, usually while killing you in the process.

So I am here to tell you this morning that there is no airbnb out there that can make this feeling go away. I know because I checked.  And even if there was you’re not allowed to go there anyway.  There is no way around this winter of our discontent. The cold, hard truth of the matter is that the only way out of all this … is through. 

And maybe, maybe that’s not all bad. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s actually the point –  you know? – the meaning of, like, life, the universe and everything. 

I mean if the point of life was to avoid pain and just be happy, I think Jesus would have come to show us how to do that. But, no. If Jesus shows us anything, it’s not how to avoid suffering, but rather, how to suffer well. 

It’s both a remarkable and uncomfortable thing to contemplate: the suffering of Jesus… dare I say…the suffering of God.  But the truth is, when God’s people cried out for a savior, for someone – to paraphrase Isaiah –  who would rip open the heavens, come down, and right all that is wrong with the world, God could have answered their cry by coming among us in any number of ways. 

The Spirit could have come down in all her power and glory.  She could have shock and awed us into holy submission once and for all without putting so much as a hair out of place. Pulled a deus ex machine for the ages by casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly in one fell swoop. 

Alternately, if becoming human was the only way, God could have been born into the house of Herod or even to the emperor of Rome. From a place of relative security, the Incarnation could have entrusted the gospel to people of power and influence with the hope that it would trickle down to the masses in its own good time. 

It would not have been a perfect life – because there is no such thing – but chances are, it would have been a much safer and more comfortable one. And yet, that’s not what happened. 

Instead, God came among us as a poor, displaced baby of dubious birth. Jesus spent his first two years as a refugee. He grew up among us with no beauty or majesty that we would be attracted to him, no privilege or advantage such that we would want to be like him. He lived out his life under occupation, oppressed and terrorized by the petty and powerful. Like his father before him, Jesus was a low wage worker who scraped by for nothing more than daily bread. 

All of which is to say that when God came among us, the Divine did not bypass the hardships of life in any way, shape, or form, but chose instead to lean fully into the challenge of what it is to be human. 

That’s part of why he went out to be baptized, right along with everyone else. We often talk about baptism as something we do in imitation of Jesus, but what we see in the gospels is a God who came to imitate us, to live as we live and feel as we feel, to rise and fall, suffer and find joy, in all the ways that we do.

In our story for today, when Jesus wanders out to the banks of the river Jordan to be baptized, notice that even and in spite of John’s promise “that one who is more powerful than I is coming…(and) I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals…”, that Jesus doesn’t appear and ask for special treatment. 

He doesn’t cut to the front of the line or jump up on a rock and say: “The messiah has arrived! Now bow down before me.” Not at all.  Jesus simply queue’s up with every other Tom, Dick, and Hezekiah to wait his turn like everyone else. 

And when that turn finally comes and the heavens do open – just as Isaiah hoped they would – when they are torn apart and the spirit descends like a dove to whisper into his ear that he is her beloved son with whom she is well pleased, notice that the Spirit doesn’t then wrap Jesus up in a big fluffy towel and take him out to brunch to celebrate his rite of passage. 

No. What does she do? The same Spirit that names and claims Jesus as beloved, immediately drives him even deeper into the wilderness where he will hunger and thirst, fast and pray. She ushers him into a time of trial and temptation where he will learn first hand what it is to be cold and alone, vulnerable and cut off, bored and lonely, with nothing to do, no place to go, no one to see. 

It would seem that God’s answer to the suffering of the world is to come and suffer too.  Which, I must say, at first glance, seems like a terrible plan! Were it not for the fact that the greatest sages, mystics, and leaders of all major religions also advocate for this approach, I would be happy to discount it. But I’m afraid that they do. 

They all have different names for such experiences, but the wisest ones among us all speak of the refining power of the wilderness or the fire. They all attest to how their faith was strengthened, paradoxically, during time of intense doubt and unknowing. 

All the best saints witness to the importance of emptiness, isolation, and suffering, what St. John of the Cross called, “the dark night of the soul.” So I have to believe that even in the midst of this pandemic and the political and civil unrest that is tearing us apart, there is something useful for us to find.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, lays it out for us in no uncertain terms. She says, “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves 

over and over 

to annihilation, 

can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

I know that sounds horrible, because it is horrible, and yet that’s what Jesus did. For 30 days and 30 nights – which is Bible speak for a long time or as long as it takes, he exposed himself to the wilderness.  He faced the pain and the emptiness we all fear. He leaned into the discomfort. He allowed himself to suffer, and in so doing he found himself in the process. 

It would seem that God’s answer to the suffering of the world was not to destroy it, eradicate it, or show us how to avoid it, but rather to show us how best to use it to become people of compassion; people like Jesus. 

And if there was ever a time to learn from his example, that time is now, because friends, we are all suffering in this moment. Our hearts are breaking for so many reasons and in so many ways, but we need not suffer in vain.

When his time of trial ended, Jesus returned to the world with a heart attuned to the needs of those who needed him most, those whom life had left out in the cold: the hungry and thirsty, the hopeless and helpless, anyone who felt empty, abandoned, aggrieved, or alone. And although it will be hard, if he did it, then we can too.

I know it goes against our instinct for self-preservation.  I know there is a tendency in all of us to hold our breath, steel ourselves from the pain, withdraw before we get hurt, fight, flee, numb, deny… but sometimes when you give yourself over to it, when you choose instead to stand strong and face the challenge before you, that’s when you break through. 

You stop resisting and start breathing.  You push through the pain of child birth. You show up at the meeting. You go ahead with the treatment or the counseling or the surgery that will hurt at first, yes – hurt like hell itself – but will eventually leave you stronger and more able. 

You toss out the distractions, buckle down, and finish the dissertation, the book, the project. You stage the intervention, have the tough conversation, speak the hard truth that needs to be said. You take a good hard look at the line between pleasure and vice and learn to say “no” to the things that are hurting you, and “yes” to the things that will bring you safely to the other side. 

But perhaps most importantly, you let the suffering change you. You realize that maybe the point is not to avoid the hurt but to plunge in the way Jesus plunged into the Jordan.  

You let the pain of this life break your heart, because a broken heart is an open heart.  Because a broken heart is a heart that knows exactly how to help and hold and heal the brokenness in others because you yourself have faced the pain and survived. 

“A dark night,” says Thomas Moore, “may appear, paradoxically, as a way to return to living.” 

This dark time in our nation’s history may yet illuminate who we can be. 

This pandemic that has taken so many lives, will hopefully leave us with the will to take better care of those who remain, ourselves included. 

Because ultimately that is what all this is about. That’s the point. The meaning of life, the universe and everything. Not avoiding but living: living hard and living well that we might learn what it means to live for the sake of one another. 

Amen