YOU are a part (but only a part) of the sacred whole...

NOTE:  Worship notes for this Sunday, Wilderness Sabbath, in the
season of creation cycle. The key text is Romans 8.


The broad theme for our prayerful consideration today is wilderness – what does the wilderness show us of the Lord, what can we discern of God’s power and grace in the wilderness, how do we come to trust that the One who is Holy is not merely symbolized by the enormity of the wilderness but actually lives within in it, too – this is the challenge.  Fortunately we’ve been given some excellent biblical texts to wrestle with:

The ancient Hebrew prophet Joel grasped that when people live in an unbalanced, selfish and bottom-line way, the earth itself suffered:  … the seed shrivels in the ground, the granaries are ruined and empty, the animals groan, the cattle flee and our flocks of sheep roam the land in a daze. The Psalmist, most likely Israel’s David, wrote of a time that the earth reeled and rocked, the mountains trembled and the heavens roared. And St. Paul reminds us that there are times when all of creation groans – humans and animals, land and water and air – aching to be set free from bondage.

Now, as a Bible geek, I LOVE playing with these texts: the nuances of their poetry call me deeper; the quest to unlock spiritual mysteries awakens both heart and mind.  But not everyone has the time or inclination to be playful with the Scriptures.  In fact, as a number of you have told me over the years, because life is so full and demanding, mostly you want something helpful and useful to come from whatever I share on Sunday morning. How do journalists put it: news you can use? So I’ve been thinking hard about how to talk with you about the blessings of today’s wilderness theme: 

+  How and why do they matter to people struggling to keep up with all their bills in a responsible way?  Or people juggling a few jobs just to keep their heads above water?  Or those caring for children – or aging adults – in addition to work and love and the demands of being a faithful citizen?

+  How does any of this matter beyond an abstract fascination with spiritual words and my introverted, intellectual meditations?

Here’s my hunch – there are at least two ways all of this matters – one is cosmic or macro and the other is intimate and personal. To know the Lord of the wilderness is to experience a love and power that is so vast and grand that most of our puny indiscretions and sins shrivel up and become irrelevant – they even look absurd – in contrast or comparison. It is to confess and celebrate the enormity of God’s greatness and grace in a way that puts our fears and shame into perspective.

+  Let me ask you: have you ever spent any time in a place of wilderness? It could be the Grand Canyon – or parts of the great American desert in the Southwest – or in the forests and mountains of Montana and the Dakotas

+  Where have you encountered and experienced something of the wilderness – and what did it feel like to you?

One of the spiritual mentors I often use as a guide is Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Contemplation and Action in New Mexico.  His writing and reflections are a touchstone for me when I am trying to discern why something biblical matters. Not long ago he wrote this and it speaks to the God of the wilderness to me – let’s see what it says to you.

YOU are about LIFE.  Before a unifying or transformative encounter with God or
creation, almost all people substitute the part for the whole and take their little part far too seriously—both in its greatness and in its badness. But after any true God experience, you know that you are a part of a much bigger whole. That is you know that life is not about you; you are about life. You are part of a universal and even eternal pattern. Life is living itself in you.

+  Are you still with me?  Do you hear what he’s trying to say:  that when we have been touched and embraced and encountered by the enormity of God’s love, our part in the totality is given perspective?

+  We grasp that too often we treat both our sins and our celebrations as too important?  I’ll ask you for your reactions in just a moment, but let me finish this quote.

(Such an awareness of God’s vast love and power) is an earthquake in the brain, a hurricane in the heart, a Copernican revolution of the mind, and a monumental shift in consciousness. Frankly, most do not seem interested.
Understanding that your life is not about you is the connection point with everything else. It lowers the mountains and fills in the valleys that we have created, as we gradually recognize that the myriad forms of life in the universe, including ourselves, are operative parts of the One Life that most of us call God.

And here’s the part that blows my mind and cuts to the chase about WHY and HOW this matters.

After such a discovery, I am grateful to be a part—but only a part! I do not have to figure it all out, straighten it all out or even do it perfectly by myself. I do not have to be God. It is an enormous weight off my back. All I have to do is participate! My holiness is first of all and really only God’s, and that’s why it is certain and secure —and always holy. It is my participation, my mutual indwelling, but never my achievement or performance…. True spirituality is not taught; it is caught once our sails have been unfurled to the Spirit. Henceforth, our very motivation and momentum for the journey toward holiness and wholeness is just immense gratitude—for already having it!

+  Did you get what Rohr was saying?  Can somebody summarize all of that in your own words…?

+  And what do you think about this insight – that the enormity of God’s love and power not only reminds us of our small place within it (freeing us from fretting so much about our sins and accomplishments) – but also shows us how we are connected to something so much bigger than us that all we have to do is respond in gratitude?

It seems to me that one of the blessings of wilderness – as reality and as part of the biblical story – is to give us God’s perspective on our lives.  It shows us that we are a part – a beautiful, loving but nevertheless small part – of the whole.  That is part of the reason why the gospel tells us that the Spirit of God drove Jesus out into the wilderness:  did you notice that choice of words? It wasn’t a studied choice or a deliberate action: the Holy Spirit drove him out into the wilderness where he fasted and wrestled with his demons for 40 days and 40 nights.  There are two really wonderful truths being shared with us in poetic and narrative form here: 

+  The first is a vision of harmony between heaven and humanity, creation and all that is a part of it, during the baptism of Jesus. When he comes up out of the Jordan we have an image of integrity in creation:  the sky opens up, the heavens announce Christ as the beloved, the Spirit is present, the waters and air and even our flesh participate in an act of gratitude.

+  And the second points to something that is essential for every one of us – a vision quest – a spiritual encounter with the vastness of God’s love so that we grasp and own our part in the enormity of grace.  Jesus is driven out into the wilderness so that he too can see where he fits in the plan.

In this Jesus is a symbol for you and me – we need to know, as Fr. Rohr wrote, that we are not the center of the universe. Before a transformative encounter with God or creation, almost all people substitute the part for the whole and take their little part far too seriously—both in its greatness and in its badness.

But afterwards… well what does the gospel tell us?  Jesus found his place in the wilderness even as he wrestled with demons and let the angels and animals minister to him. That’s the first macro reason why Wilderness Sunday matters – and here’s the news you can use summary – something I shared with you from Frederick Buechner earlier in the Spring:

Don't Worry, Trust God. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter.

+  Are you with me?

+  Before I continue let me stop and ask what you what you think about this – does any of it hold any beauty or power or meaning for you – and questions?

Ok, now here’s the other reason I think this maters – the small, micro and personal reason this matters:  listening the groaning of creation – the weeping of the four-legged ones, the agony of the birds of the air and the fish of the sea to say nothing of the cries of our trees and land – invites us to hear the tears all around us and to respond with tenderness.  We aren’t being asked to solve every problem.  We aren’t being scolded for not doing something huge or changing the course of history. Listening more carefully and responding with tenderness helps us live more fully our heart.  It strengthens compassion and encourages living in harmony rather than discord. And here’s what I mean:

Loving and caring for my strange and often skittish dog Lucie does not change the world in any obvious way – but it changes me.

·   Since she has come into our life I have become a little more patient, a little more aware of how my life affects hers, a little more conscious of how my tenderness might ease a little of her suffering.

·   In a way, Lucie has been a spiritual guide for me, showing me how to become more tender and that has a number of consequences – not the least of which involves the couple hundred people I meet and talk with every week. They, too have wounds and pain, they too are riddled with anxieties and blessings, hopes and fears. 

·   And truth be told I’m not always aware – or sensitive of the needs of others – I can miss the clues in profound and sad way.  And not because I want to, but because I’m too wrapped up in my own agenda and my own hopes and fears.  But my four legged spiritual director, Lucie, shows me what a dead end that can be – how I lose out by not sharing tenderness – and how others do, too.
 
It is a small thing, right? But I’ve learned over the two years she has been in our home that the more I pay attention, the better I am at living into the values I most value and respect.  Listening to creation groaning evokes the best in us – right where we live – so that we can share our best with those who need us. I just read a tragic story from Japan. Maybe you know about this, too.  There are coves along the coast of Japan:

… where one can hear the penetrating screams from dolphins being murdered. It seems that fishermen pound the water with metal poles to confuse these sound-sensitive creatures – the dolphins – and in their confusion they are herded into covers where they are then slaughtered and sold in tins at the supermarket. The dolphins know what is happening to them, they know they are being murdered. Like humans they are self-aware and groan in anticipation. After spikes are driven into their heads, they are held under water until the blood pours out. They take five minutes to die and all the they are bleeding out their companions are crying in sympathy as the sea runs red with blood. (The Advertiser, Oct. 31, 2003, p. 3)

·   The apostle Paul tells us that as the whole creation groans, the Spirit of God groans, too for the Lord shares our pain – the pain of all of creation – a pain that is raised up as sighs too deep for human words.

·   And as we ache, as creation groans, the Spirit intercedes for us – comes to us with a presence of grace – that is also deeper than human words.

Theologians and those far smarter than I have said this is akin to Christ crying
out on the Cross:  Jesus felt all the agony of human suffering on the Cross – a sign and symbol to us that God feels our pain – and here we’re told the Holy Spirit joins us with sighs too deep for human words in the midst of creation groaning. 

+  Knowing that God is with me in my fears and pain doesn’t take away the agony; knowing that the Spirit is with all of creation in our groaning doesn’t make it any less horrible or ugly.

+  And yet knowing God’s presence is with me allows me to continue even in the most broken experiences of life.  And more than continue, says St. Paul in Romans 5, knowing that God is with me in my pain I can trust that my suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and this hope does not disappoint because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

There is a big picture that empowers us NOT to worry but to trust – there is a little picture that invites us to listen more loudly and live more tenderly – and there is a cosmic picture that assures us that God is with us even in our worst agony and fear.  And I don’t know if there is any BETTER news we can use, beloved, so let those who have ears to hear, hear the good news for today.

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