The Sermon: February 18th, 2024
We Begin our Rainbow Journey
Over the many centuries of Biblical history, there has been lots written and discussed about the wilderness. In some writings of the Bible and periods of history, the wilderness is portrayed as a negative place where all kinds of bad things might happen. And in other places and moments in time, the wilderness is a positive place where encounters with the divine occur.
I would say that lately, many theologians and commentators on the current state of the Church talk about the wilderness in generally negative terms; bad things happen there, or at the very least, we are lost in the wilderness and can’t find our way out—presumably the “way out” is to civilization where there is, again supposedly, sanity and hope.
And yet, at the same time as Church commentators and theologians imply the negative aspects of wilderness, poets and some other modern observers, including myself, talk about the beauty, the mystery and aliveness of the wilderness. Here, for example, are the first 2 stanzas of Robert Service’s The Call of the Wild that depict the awesome nature of wilderness. Now, this is going back some years, but…
Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there's nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God's sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.
Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
And learned to know the desert's little ways?
Have you camped upon the foothills, have you galloped o'er the ranges,
Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa? Do you know its moods and changes?
Then listen to the Wild -- it's calling you.
Sadly, I think there’s a certain urban-centric attitude in our theology and the wilderness then becomes an easy metaphor for living in uncertain times or is even a place to be feared. Some speak of the wilderness as a place of struggle and temptation, which it was for Jesus after his baptism and for the Jewish people after their escape from slavery in Egypt, but they turn this idea into something more negative than it actually is. Some think of the wilderness as a place of exile and even punishment, a place that lacks civilization or culture, a place that is bad. Think about how we refer to some areas of creation that are barren and dry and bleak; we call them the badlands.
While this idea of being in the wilderness has been around for a while, just after Covid started, many people in the Church began talking about being in the wilderness in earnest—you couldn’t be on any Zoom call or receive an email without someone commenting negatively about being in the wilderness. The implication of some of this theology was that we’d done something wrong and were being punished by being banned to the wilderness.
But the wilderness just is; it is what it is. Some of us tried to offer a different metaphor having spent time in the wilderness and found it beautiful, life-giving, and full of encounters with God. But, other than poets like Mary Oliver and many others, and people who speak about our relationship to the environment, it seems our voices aren’t heard in church conversations in some circles. At best, the Church has a conflicted attitude towards the wilderness.
Here's an example of our conflicted attitude. When I attended the General Council in Thunder Bay, Ontario, back in 2006, there were always morning announcements. A couple of days into our meeting, an announcement of caution was made. Nothing to do with conflict at the meeting or any other problems with the agenda; it was about the wilderness. Lakehead University is at the north end of the small city at the western end of Lake Superior and not far from the woods. A mother bear and 2 cubs had come onto campus. The person doing the announcements expressed fear and concern that someone might get attacked by the bears; the person expressed personal fear. Later that morning, the Right Rev. Stan MacKay spoke on a point of order; Stan was the first indigenous Moderator elected in the United Church and had been Moderator a few years before. He said something to the effect that we need to respect the bear family by traveling in groups of 3 or more and not react out of fear. After all, he said, we share this territory with the bear and many other animals, and this is God’s creation.
It was 2 different views of the wilderness, one positive and respectful and the other fear-filled and worried. The fear-filled and worried perspective about the wilderness seems to have captured the imagination of Church leaders in recent years, but I believe it is misguided.
I say give me the wilderness anytime!
Think about what Lent represents. In the northern hemisphere, Lent coincides with lengthening days and the beginning of Spring. This season of the Church year is deeply entwined with nature around us. Debbie Blue, a present-day blogger and commentator about the Church, and someone who views the wilderness positively, reminded us that even the way the date of Easter is determined speaks of the rhythms of nature and the wonder of wilderness; here’s how we determined Easter—the Sunday after the 1st full moon after the Spring Equinox. That smacks of our relationship to wilderness and nature, that wilderness and nature undergird who we are in so many fundamental ways.
Debbie Blue talked about living in Minnesota and how slowly spring comes. Lent is the slow uncovering of Spring and the unfolding of new life, in some cases the explosion of colour and new life towards the end of Lent.
Debbie also offered the view that we are living in a prolonged Lent these days. Extremely conservative leaders dominate the world stage at this moment in history; there is huge push back against gender affirming care, against 2 Spirit LGBTQ plus folk. I learned recently that there is a group within one of the denominations that is our kin in Canada that is taking over small congregations in urban areas and undoing all the progressive changes that those congregations have made. Valerie Kaur outlines the gathering white supremacist momentum in the world in her work on Revolutionary Love. And when we observe the weather this winter and over the past many years, we know that we live in challenging times… we live in Lent.
But Debbie Blue also reminded us that while we might be living in a prolonged Lent, there are signs of Easter all about us and the wonder of wilderness breaking through. Intentional communities of love and justice are springing up. People are investing in community gardens, in working together to overcome racism and to change systems that discriminate. People are calling for an end to war in record numbers, not just with respect to Palestine and Israel, or the Ukraine, but also in the many countries elsewhere in the world, especially Africa, who get little attention. There are many projects to help with climate catastrophe and to regreen some areas of our globe. These are signs of spring and Easter even in this time of Lent.
And the number 40 is associated with the positive nature of the wilderness. Noah on the ark for 40 days and nights; Noah lived this whole time with all the beasts and learned a great deal—an onboard wilderness. 40 years in the wilderness for the Israelite people to define themselves ethically and spiritually, taking lessons from being in the wilderness. Jesus in the wilderness 40 days. Jesus spent time with the animals in that wilderness sojourn. There are even some mystical writings and art that depict Jesus being ministered to by the animals.
And here's what Debbie Blue wrote, “’Ask the beasts,’” says Job, “’and they will teach you.’” Jesus says, “’Consider the birds.’” Perhaps animals are purveyors of some sort of wisdom not readily accessed by humans. Maybe observing them could unlock some window we normally keep shuttered. Surely there is something we can learn from the birds and the beasts—something about our humanity and inhumanity, about what it is to be a living creature.”
The season of Lent is upon us and I would say, go and spend some time in nature and wilderness if you can. Feel the vibrancy of what you experience there, and let that vibrancy lead you into a deeper understanding of who we are as God’s beloved. Doing so will lead you to greater knowledge of yourself, but also greater understanding of the gift of life God has given us all, and the preciousness of life.
And the rainbow? It’s our wilderness marker that we aren’t alone. It’s the sign in the sky that helps us find our way. It’s the assurance that we are valued and accepted for who we are, and that wherever we are, in the wilderness or in the city, “we are not alone, we live in God’s world.” Let the rainbow guide us into Spring and Easter and new life.
 See her article at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-03/involuntary-fast?code=7B8uZUJWkm55fVavmvfT&utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=f56555fc50-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_SCP_2024-02-12&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_-31c915c0b7-%5BLIST_EMAIL_ID%5D.
The world needs a million plus hugs every hour of every day. This world that is broken and troubled and struggling is a world that needs us to speak and do what we can as we can, including those seemingly small gestures. Those hugs! If we think about all the loving words and all the loving acts blended together is it not going to be bigger than what we can know? Perhaps the size and the effect are known only to God.
We are the ones called to live the Way, the Truth, the Life. As scripture tells us we are saints. We are among those called to live love. As scripture points out we are sinners. We are among those who are forgiven and sent out to forgive and to love. For the living of these days we are disciples. We are the disciples of the One who goes ahead and comes back to get us to take us exactly where we need to be.