Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent
Two Sundays ago as Shauna Budyk led us in the prayers of the people, I was really struck to hear her cite a line from a poem by W.H. Auden: “We would rather be ruined than changed.” It is from Auden’s 1947 book length poem The Age of Anxiety, in which he uses four characters in a wartime bar in New York City to give voice to questions of meaning and identity in a world in crisis. “We would rather be ruined than changed,” Auden has one of his characters say, and isn’t there a good deal of truth in that? Whether individually or as a society, it is so easy—so tempting—to not change, and to stay the familiar course even if it is slowly ruining us. Ask the recovering alcoholic how easy it was to just keep drinking, justifying it through all kinds of denial and pretense. Stop and ask yourself about the things that we as individuals and we as a society continue to tolerate or enact or embrace, knowing at some level that these things are not sustainable, not life-giving, not truth-telling.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
And then last week as I was reading Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward in preparation for one of our book breakfast group gatherings, there it was again, this time cited more fully:
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
Rohr uses these words as an epigraph to a chapter called “Stumbling over the stumbling stone,” in which he writes, “Sooner or later… some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.” While he says that he wishes he could say it wasn’t necessarily so, “Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources.” In Rohr’s view, “We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern.”
As Mark tells the story, right after Jesus was baptized and right after he had heard the voice from the heavens naming him as “my Son, the Beloved,” “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” That’s one of Mark’s favourite words, by the way; immediately. The pace of his story telling is clipped and urgent, his content plain and spare. Notice, too, that where both Matthew and Luke say that the Spirit “led” Jesus in to the wilderness, Mark says the Spirit drove him there. That’s a strong word; an urgent word. And unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark tells very little of what took place there in the desert. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it. For Mark that is apparently all that his audience needed to know.
Why do you suppose Mark has this sense that Jesus was driven into that forty-day sojourn in the wilderness? I believe it has something to do with Mark’s intuitive understanding that in order for Jesus to be and do that which was his calling, he had first to be pressed to the very edge of his own private resources, as Rohr puts it; “entirely out of the driver’s seat” for that time. His identity as the beloved Son of God is in a real sense forged there in the wilderness. It all culminates in the testing or temptation voiced by the Satan, but before that come long days of solitude and fasting, in a landscape that for all of its austere beauty is harsh and unforgiving. What does it mean to be beloved of God in such a place?
Another poet, this one much closer to home, imagines those questions in this way:
This is where I face you
in my hunger and my thirst
I don’t think any skin can protect me
with this land so anxious to hurt
That’s from Mike Koop’s “Desert Song,” which he recorded for his Music is Worthless album, and which he’s often sung here during Lent. “With this land so anxious to hurt,” Mike sings. “I don’t think any skin can protect me.” That so powerfully conveys vulnerability, doesn’t it? Out on the edge, away from all that is familiar and secure, hungry and alone. The song continues,
Am I ready for the worst?
Every trick from kiss to curse?
I hear how well you’ve rehearsed
this temptation; chapter and verse
Is it even possible in this weakened state for Jesus to stand up to a scripture-quoting adversary who is intent on selling him on an illusion and bringing his work to ruin even before it begins? “I am ready for your worst,” Mike sings as the song moves through its next verse, “every trick from kiss to curse… So leave me here with my thirst.”
It is a striking line, this “leave me here with my thirst,” because it points to the fact that in his solitude and his vulnerability Jesus has been cleared of any illusion that he can do it all on his own. The Father loves him, the Spirit has driven him to where he needs to be, and it is within those two realities that he comes to learn first-hand of the power of vulnerability and utter dependence; of the perfect weakness that will be his vocation right through to its bitter and then beautiful end.
I do want to be careful, though, to keep from sounding as if I’m suggesting that every time we hit our own places of feeling utterly in the wilderness that God is engineering things in a deterministic or even fatalistic way. It is not only a horror to suggest that God gave cancer to s child so that the parent can learn something about being out of the driver’s seat, it verges on blasphemy. No, to suggest that the Spirit has driven you into depression or into ill health or addiction or despair is simply not on. But can the Spirit of God meet us in those deserts, help us to learn and grow in those places? Yes. Does the Spirit of God sometimes push us hard against a wall when we’re caught in our own illusions, choosing ruin over change? Absolutely. Again, ask the recovering addict about how grace was at work in their being allowed to hit rock bottom, and hit it hard.
We’ve now entered the season of Lent, the church’s wilderness season in which we are pressed to look at our own fragility, wounds, and vulnerability. For some, that might be facilitated by taking on some spiritual practice or discipline for the season. Others will find that they don’t need to do that, as they’re already living a kind of wilderness already, such that the themes of the season already sound and feel very much familiar. Either way, remember that there are any number of wilderness seasons and sojourns in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures; the freed Hebrew slaves spend forty years in the Sinai desert, getting the remnants and illusions of Egypt cleared out of their system; David takes flight into the wilderness, hiding in the caves and forced to survive by his wits; Elijah flees to the mountains, where he will finally hear with clarity the “still, small voice”; the shepherd of Psalm 23 leads the sheep through the valley of the shadow of death. There is a way beyond these valleys and deserts and lonely mountain places, but the journey is always through them. That’s both good news—there are green pastures and cool waters on the other side—and sobering news—God might take some time in getting you there, letting the wilderness do its important work.
May the Spirit of God lead you—or find you, or maybe even drive you—to the place you most need to be in this season. And may you have the grace and the courage to be changed, and so saved from ruin.