Sunday, February 18, 2024
The First Sunday in Lent

Wilderness time is a good thing!

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450

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Last week we were with Peter, James, and John along with Jesus on a high mountain, apart, by themselves. Jesus and the disciples in a significant theophany hears God’s direct voice for a second time telling them, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him.” Today we are at that first great in-breaking, the baptism when the voice says to Jesus, “you are my son, the beloved with you I am well pleased.” We spent time just a few weeks ago at the start of Epiphany talking about baptism this week, as we enter Lent the focus is as it should be on the wilderness.

Mark does not give us very many details about these 40 days. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. This lack of details allows for some rich reflections as we can meditate on this passage and allow God to fill in the details. What I wish to reflect on today is the wilderness theme.

Wilderness time can be many things, physical, spiritual, or emotional. For thousands of years people have known that while the wilderness can be a frightening and threatening place it is also a place of opportunity. The wilderness is a place where we are formed, whether we want to be formed or not. Wilderness is also a place where many people thrive.

Many cultures around the world understand the importance, the necessity of wilderness experiences. Native Americans, especially the young men, would be given a name at birth, but it was not their name for life. When they came of age they would go into the wilderness to find their true name, their true self. They would be formed and marked for life by their experience. We have lost that concept in today’s world. Richard Rohr believes that we need to reclaim this willingness to enter into the wilderness to find who God calls us to be. Without this he believes we can never leave childhood and enter into the second half of life as he calls it. Lent is our annual opportunity to embrace the wilderness and allow it to help us see where God is calling us and who God is calling us to be.

Many people fear making this step. Many are afraid that if they really open up to God there will be a heavy price to pay. However, what they forget is that there is a price to pay if we do not open ourselves up to God and the Spirit. The reward of traveling through the wilderness is a deeper relationship with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. The reward is being able to move forward with the Spirit on the great journey upon which God has invited to embark.

When I was planning my sabbatical in 2017 I thought I knew exactly what I was going to do. I had a wilderness experience all planned. I was going to do the full Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, all 30 days of them. I contacted several retreat houses that offered the exercises, but several didn’t answer my emails including one in Wales that I was interested in since my younger son was already living in England by then. None of the places worked out and there are not that many that offer the program. Every attempt ended in a dead end.

Finally, a clergy colleague said to me, “Mark maybe you need a different wilderness. I did the Camino de Santiago for my sabbatical and it was transformative.” We then talked and as soon as I began to research this, everything for the sabbatical fell into place. I truly believe that like Jesus, the Spirit was driving me into this particular wilderness, this time of challenge, and I am so glad that I finally listened. This proved to be exactly what my soul needed but I needed to move forward in faith that I was on the right path. And that path ultimately brought me here to be with you at St. Paul’s.

We find ourselves in the church looking at a time of wilderness in our post-covid world. Many are asking about the relevance of the church in today’s world. This is why I am planning to Sunday night series that will begin this evening with dinner at 5:00 followed by discussion about what does it mean to be an Episcopalian in our country, our city right now.

I am inspired in part by a quote I have on my computer by Evelyn Underwood. She writes “The coming of the Kingdom is perpetual. Again and again, freshness, novelty, power from beyond the world break in by unexpected paths bringing unexpected change. Those who cling to tradition and fear all novelty in God’s relation to the world deny the creative activity of the Holy Sprit and forget that what is now tradition was once innovation; that the real Christian is always a revolutionary, belongs to a new race, and has been given a new name and a new song.”

The church and our culture are evolving. Phyllis Tickle several years ago spoke of a huge sorting of the church that happens every 500 years of so. What do we need to keep and what do we need to leave behind. What helps us move forward and what holds us back. That is some of what we will look at on Sunday night and I truly want to hear your thoughts, this program will not be a lecture.

Lent is a time when we can look at what we can do without. Now this does not mean depriving yourself, but looking at what is essential When I was preparing to walk the Camino my clergy friend said, “Don’t get a pack any bigger than 40 liters. Everything you truly need will fit in there. This is also about looking at your pack and deciding what in there is going to hold you back? There was a place in St. Jean where you could check-in and get your credentials to start that section. They had a scale there for people to weigh their packs. Many people were encouraged to re-examine all the stuff they had in their packs, pull out what they really didn’t need and ship it on ahead to the end of the Camino.

I have a video that suggests a fast where you give up something not that you like, but something that holds you back. Something that puts distance between God and you, which is our definition of sin! Consider the question the people with really heavy packs were asked about their backpacks.  What is in here that will hold you back? What is in there that weighs you down and slows you up rather than will make your journey successful..

Likewise in Lent what is there that you can fast from that will in turn give you something more, make your life and your relationship with God better and stronger.

This is not about giving up something so you lose weight or improve your health by exercising. Now there is nothing wrong with that and I encourage you to do that, but Lent is about our relationship with God. The video suggested giving up shame. I can think of many other things, being judgmental, greedy, anxious or any other number things like this, which all interfere with our relationship with God. This is a way to give up something for Lent that truly will make a difference in a sinful world. You cannot change others, you can only change yourself. Only you can be the first one to start to repair a relationship with God, another or creation.

This is also a fast where you can “put oil on your head and wash your face” and enter this fast moving forward in your spiritual life. I now close my first Sunday in Lent sermon each year with some thoughts on fasting and feasting by the Rev. Ann Fontaine. I read these on Wednesday, but I think they are worth a second reading. Listen to them, maybe take them home, post them on your mirror as a reminder each day of something to work on. Better yet, pick just one and try to live it for Lent.

Fast from judgment. Feast on compassion.

Fast from greed. Feast on sharing.

Fast from Scarcity. Feast on abundance.

Fasts from fear. Feast on peace.

Fast from lies. Feast on truth.

Fast from gossip. Feast on praise.

Fast from anxiety. Feast on patience.

Fast from evil. Feast on kindness.

Fast from apathy. Feast on engagement.

Fast from discontent. Feast on gratitude.

Fast from noise. Feast on silence.

Fast from discouragement. Feast on hope.

Fast from hatred. Feast on love.

If you embark on this exercise I believe you will have a fruitful and yes even joyous Lent.