A Way in the Wilderness – Caroline Dean (2/17/2013)

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan (where he was baptized) and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days and when they were over, he was famished.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord, your God, and serve God only.'”

Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “God will command angels concerning you, to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. Matthew 4:11 – “Then the devil left him and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

Let us pray: Dear God, in our vulnerable suffering, in the wilderness times grant us your angels and grant us a true appetite for you. Amen.

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So if I am really honest at first glance the Devil's proposals seem reasonable. First we have food. I mean come on really, if Jesus was able to change a stone into bread to avoid starving to death I would be okay with it! Why risk Jesus starving and ending the whole gig right then and there – we wouldn't even be standing here today.

And the second temptation was for Jesus to harness power & glory to command all the kingdoms of the earth. And that makes some sense to me, think about how much good Jesus could have done if he could have had that kind of power! If anyone could have handled it well – it would have been Jesus, right? It certainly would have gotten attention for his vision pretty quickly and this was the kind of Messiah everyone was looking for anyway = one who rides off into the sunset on a chariot with armies at his beck and call.

And lastly the devil offers him protection from physical pain. If you think about it Jesus was living in the wilderness for 40 days and so inevitably he was exposed to harsh elements of nature – think windstorms, extreme heat/cold, rain, thunder/lightning, creepy creatures, howling animals, the works! And so this temptation would certainly resonate with me – no more fearing creatures in the night or bearing extreme cold or heat. Think about what an awesome and fearless leader Jesus could be if he felt no pain. He could have literally ruled the world forever – completely invincible – here I imagine some sort of Jesus & Zeus like God with all power and all glory and invincibility.

But there is one other reason that these proposals from the “devil” seem so reasonable. They seem reasonable because they are so familiar - because we orient our own lives around these things! Think about it – food, sleep, physical needs are the foundation of wellness and wholeness. We spend a lot of energy around basic needs –and we take them for granted, hot meals, showers, and physical comforts. And these things are obviously necessary but we have taken what we think we “need” to the extreme. We cushion our lives with material, comforts and addictions. And we have withdrawal when the power goes or when our phone falls in the toilet.

And our culture is absolutely oriented around power, fame & glory. Climbing the ladder of success is normal – everyone does it – it's assumed. Some people do with a nastier ethic than others but the ladder itself is never questioned. What does life look like if we toss the ladder of social and professional success out the window? Can you imagine it?

And lastly Jesus is tempted to avoid physical pain to have some sort of divine protection from suffering. And if we take a long hard look in the mirror we spend so much money, time and energy and worry around avoiding pain and suffering – for ourselves and our kids and our loved ones – who is going to sign up their kids for unnecessary suffering when you love them!? So we pile on the instant hand sanitizer, invest in a really good security system, and hover around our kids to make sure they don't get hurt. And this hovering is also an anti-spiritual practice that we incorporate in our own lives. We ask ourselves, “how can we dance around this confrontation to avoid hurt feelings, how can I control and manipulate my surroundings to avoid physical and emotional pain.” It's natural – it's primal! We take note of what hurts us and we run like hell when that situation presents itself again.

So here's the thing, what's so wrong with a little food, and power, and self-preservation? If you are bearing the elements of a cold stark wilderness you are going to need some of these tools – right? Obviously Jesus opts out of this survival plan, but why? What would have been the big deal if Jesus ate a little bread, conjured up some powerful miracle to show off, and gave himself a little break from physical pain?

Here's the problem with our addictions to what we think we need. We think, we westerners, we upper middle class, we new jerseyites, we humans, - we think that food, power & protection are vehicles of salvation. That we can get by in the wilderness, actually in good times and in bad, that we can get by in life with this formula, good food, a little power, and insurance to protect us from the suffering edges of life.

When the reality is that there is no formula to avoid the desert times. There is no insurance plan to get us out of that one. Sooner or later life takes us there. So we might as well get comfortable with the idea.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent & this is what Lent is about – practicing little deaths so that when the big one comes we can die well. Practicing letting go, so that when things that we love are stripped from us we still have a reference point for faith and hope and love. Lent is the spiritual practice of losing control and being vulnerable to the life's elements. Lent helps us to accept what is before us instead of grasping at what we think we need to get by. Lent is God saying to us – I will be with you in the fire and the rain and in the desert – but that thing – that thing that you worship, that you think protects you, that person, the job, the status symbol – that will not always be with you. And so Lent the practice of relying on God alone.

So just like the wedding of Cana can be a metaphor for trusting that there is enough, and that indeed we are enough… Lent, the story of Jesus in the wilderness at the end of his rope, that story can be about trusting and really really living, like God is enough.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in one of her Lenten sermons writes about a “wilderness exam.” She writes:

"It would be a mistake for me to try to describe your wilderness exam. Only you can do that, because only you know what devils have your number, and what kinds of bribes they use... All I know for sure is that a voluntary trip to the desert this Lent is a great way to practice getting free of those devils …-not only because it is where you lose your appetite for things that cannot save you, but also because it is 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 love this idea. I love it because we are all suffering from something. We are famished spiritually, emotionally, some in the world are literally starving in their spaces of suffering. And there are so many bad diets to fill up that emptiness. We consume stuff to fill it up, we climb the ladder and pretend that we are safe, avoiding pain and suffering such that one day we wake up and we have lost our appetite for real life.

So here's the lesson of lent – it's learning what kind of appetites to pay attention to and cultivate. We are trained to pay attention to our need for new gadgets and fashion trends. We are really good at attending success and our position on the ladder of life. We whet appetite for money, which we disguise as some sort of noble effort towards financial security and protection of our children. These temptations in themselves aren't entirely bad – it is when we make them our entirety that they become bad. And here's the truth – we have. They have become the litmus tests for happiness and wholeness and that is a lie.

And in all of these ventures we lose sight of the things that really feed us. The things that really sustain us. And lent is about rediscovering that it takes more than bread to really live. It takes more than success, and money, and power, and cushy comfy suburban life to REALLY live.

This lent, how could you tap into your appetite for beauty, and truth and goodness? How can you whet your appetite for God? How can you re-discover your need for connection with the divine with the human with your own self? How can you take up a practice that REALLY feeds you spiritually, emotionally & physically?

And one of the most beautiful thing about Lenten seasons is that when we stumble onto our wilderness, we are surprised to find ourselves surviving without that thing that we thought that we needed to survive – even if it's something as simple as chocolate. We find that there are angels – spiritual provisions, internal stuff inside of ourselves, and external miracles that carry us. Just like the angels carried Jesus out of the desert, God is enough. Period. Let us trust this day that the spirit who guides us into the wilderness is able to lead us out again.

Let me leave you with this poem to guide your Lenten season from Jan Richardson's blog the Painted Prayer Book.

Desert Prayer

I am not asking you
to take this wilderness from me,
to remove this place of starkness
where I come to know
the wildness within me,
where I learn to call the names
of the ravenous beasts
that pace inside me,
to finger the brambles
that snake through my veins,
to taste the thirst
that tugs at my tongue.
But send me
tough angels,
sweet wine,
strong bread:
just enough.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.