Rev. Sarah Buteux
Preached on February 21, 2020, Lent 1 Year B , Mark 1:9-15
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. – Mark 1:12-13
A week and a half into lockdown, way, way back in March of 2020, I asked Heather to open our worship by singing:
Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.
(You know the words)
He had to walk it by himself,
O nobody else could walk it for him,
he had to walk it by himself.
We must walk this lonesome valley;
We have to walk it by ourselves…
You must go and stand your trial,
you must stand it by yourself
Oh, nobody else can stand it for you;
You have to stand it by yourself.
We were already 4 weeks into Lent, but the metaphor of the wilderness we play with at this time of year had suddenly become all too real. It felt like we had all been cast into the lonesome valley, right along with Jesus, and we had no idea what to do.
We didn’t know how to do church or school or work or life under all the new restrictions. Back then we didn’t know exactly how the virus spread, how long the pandemic would last, how much food to buy, or, for that matter, how much toilet paper. You know who you are.
“God,” I prayed, all those many months ago:
“it feels like we are very much on our own out here in this valley.
It is as if this virus has cast us all into the wilderness.
As we make such an effort to stand apart
it can feel more and more like we are standing alone.”
It was a rough start. A rude awakening. All of a sudden we weren’t playing at being like Jesus anymore, altering our behavior for the sake of our spiritual growth. No, all of a sudden we were like Jesus, cut off from life as we had known it, forced to weather the trials and temptations of a new and unfamiliar landscape.
We felt frayed and frightened, unprepared and overwhelmed. And yet there was hope. Lent came late last year, so even as we lamented our lock down we rejoiced in the coming of Spring. You could already feel the days getting longer and warmer. We knew Easter was on the way. The president even talked about having everything open by then. -Sigh-
But it was not to be.
I remember how hard it was to make the decision to celebrate Easter on-line. It was actually our first pre-recorded service. I knew it would be the first of many, but even I didn’t think we’d be at it for this long. I thought we’d be together, at least in some form, by now. I thought my children would be back in school.
I never imagined I’d go this long without seeing my parents, having friends over for dinner, or being able to sing, break bread, and simply be with all of you.
So in many ways it feels like this pandemic that reached us in the midst of last year’s Lent has kept us in a perpetual state of Lent for the last 11 months. We’ve been in the spiritual wilderness of social isolation for almost a year now.
The dangers and temptations of this time have been real and terrifying. The danger of Covid. The ever-present weight of loss and grief. Many of us have been faced with temptations galore, but for those of us who are white, none more so then the temptation to deny our complicity in a culture founded on white supremacy. We have seen the devastating impact of income inequality and limited access to health care.
We have been tempted to hate our enemies and curse those who persecute us. Tempted by cynicism and despair. We haven’t had to wrestle with lions or snakes, per se, but it certainly feels like we have grappled with wild beasts: with violence and insurrection, lies and division, racism, fear, and the ever present threat of a virus that seems to lurk around every corner.
It’s been rough out here in the wilderness. We have all been tried, tested, and found wanting. Thankfully, there have been angels out here in this lonesome valley too – all the people who have reached out to tend us as surely as angels tended to Jesus. There have been zoom groups and cards, phone calls and back yard visits, protests and rallies, virtual tip jars and stunning acts of generosity. Wise ones like Brene Brown and John Pavlowitz, Emmanuel Acho and Amanda Gorman, Isabella Wilkerson and Glennon Doyle, Ibram X. Kendi and Heather Cox Richardson, William Barber and Valerie Kaur, so many wise ones who have tended to our hearts, our souls, and our minds.
We have not been without help and for all our efforts to social distance, we have not survived this long alone. We’ve experienced the care, concern, and compassion that is borne out of shared suffering.
The strange truth is that it’s actually been quite crowded out here in the lonesome valley, one of the strange consequences of a global pandemic. Everyone has struggled these many months. It may be different for everyone but I don’t think it’s been easy on anyone.
But what that means, especially by now, is that everyone is tired. Everyone is grief-stricken. Or, as one wise person put it, “everyone needs more right now than any one person can give.” You can’t turn for help to anyone who isn’t already burdened.
So as we come limping into this season of Lent, a season it feels like we never really left, I can’t help but wonder what we might have left to learn or experience as we linger out here in the wilderness.
“This year, for Lent, I’m giving up,” (period) says Jennifer Finney Boylan. And I get it. I don’t really feel the need to push myself or deny myself anything this time around. I am so done. My emotional goose is cooked. Honestly, at this point I just want to make it through this; and you know what? I’m pretty sure Jesus was would be cool with that.
Mark’s account is so short, it’s hard to know how much to read into this story. All he tells us is that “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness…(where) for forty days, (he was) tempted by Satan…he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it.
All we really know is that Jesus went out to the wilderness, it was long, it was hard, angels helped, and he endured.
So maybe the message for us, at least this year, is that enduring may be enough. Perhaps here in these words, we can find the permission we need to simply accept the challenge of our present reality for what it is – hard – and stop trying to maximize it or utilize it or make something feel better that just plain hurts. Jesus took the time the wilderness demanded and he gives us permission in the midst of our feel good, for every problem there is a solution, immediate gratification culture, to do the same.
I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but if it feels like it’s all too hard for you right now, please know that it’s not because there is something wrong with you, something you’ve failed to understand or do right. Nor is there is anything out there that you can earn or buy that will make this go any faster then it is going to go.
Hunkering down for 40 days and nights out there in the wilderness, Jesus shows us that there are some things in life that can’t be rushed. Healing, wholeness, peace, purpose: these things come in their own time, in their own way. Maybe our practice for this Lent is simply to hang on until they do.
Because there are no quick fixes when it comes to the big evils that plague our world. This pandemic, institutionalized racism, a culture of extreme polarization: these are complex problems that will take time to address.
Nor are there any quick fixes when it comes to the personal evils we are grappling with: broken hearts and missed opportunities, all the grief, the damage, the addiction, the loss… There will be so much to repair on the other side of this.
But before we can fix any of it, we first need to make it through, and right now, maybe that is challenge enough.
Something tells me that the primary reason the Spirit sent Jesus out into the wilderness was to give him the opportunity to acknowledge his very real human limitations. He came to heal the world, and believe me when I say the need was as urgent back then as it is now, but he began with an experience that impressed upon him that as a human being, there was only so much he could do.
We begin every Lent with that same acknowledgement. On Ash Wednesday we acknowledge our own mortality, that our life is finite. Like Jesus, we confront the mystery of living as immortal souls in mortal bodies.
As we mark one another with the sign of the cross, we confront the depths of our sinfulness and the even greater depths of God’s grace, the reality that we are imperfect people accepted unconditionally by a perfectly loving God.
We confess that we all have limits that are very real, limits we need to respect and tend to if we are to keep growing into the people God created us to be. And as we make peace with our limits -our physical and moral frailties – we learn that our power and our purpose is not necessarily grounded in our ability to overcome them, but to grow in grace and compassion for ourselves and others in light of them.
I am constantly amazed by the grace Jesus shows to the people around him in his ministry, but none more so then the weak ones, the sinners, the ner’ do wells, the ones on the outside and the underside, the sick, the shunned, and the under appreciated, the cast off and misunderstood, all the people who stand in need because they don’t have what it takes…whatever that is, every last person standing on the edge of giving up or giving in.
You know, there is a saying: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind, because everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about”
Thanks to his time in the wilderness, I think Jesus understood that, and because he understood that he was kind. He had been to the lonesome valley and he never forgot what that was like, what it took out of him, how it hurt, and how he found his way forward with nothing but the grace of God. He internalized that grace and then extended it to others.
If nothing else, I pray that we will too. Grace for ourselves and grace for one another. Kindness in all things. I can think of no better practice as we make our way through this wilderness we call Lent, in this time of Covid. No better practice at all. Amen.