What’s Good News about the Wilderness?

What’s Good News about the Wilderness?

I was an employee of the Sierra Club and a member of the Green Mountain Club, was a hiker and backpacker, for years before I became an Anglican, or had any notion of being a spiritual director.  So I had already seen my share of wilderness… in the White Mountains, on Tremblant, in Gros Morne (Newfoundland), down the length of Vermont…on foot!… in the Canadian Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.  A lot of mostly soggy, mostly green wilderness.

Then, around the time I began to study at the Ignatian Centre, I decided to take a February break and visit Taos New Mexico. When I told the class my plan, one of our teachers, Cathie Macaulay, smiled beautifully and said, “Good. You’ll be able to tell us about the desert.”

When I arrived, I rented a car in Albuquerque and drove north, not on the interstate but up the old highway along the mountains. The landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Little round trees clustered on the hills. Orange and yellow soil. Huge sky with thin high clouds. When I reached Santa Fe, I went to the tourist office. The man at the counter asked how could he help me. He was not young. I said, “How much of New Mexico is desert?”  He looked at me and smiled. “All of it.”  “But I saw trees on the hills when I drove up that road,” I said. “Those little trees you saw were looking at Coronado when he and his men rode through there in 1541.”

In the desert, you notice things. In fact, you can’t miss them. Whatever’s going on tends to stand out.

So when Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,“ he is also inviting us to look at what happened after the first Passover, when the children of Israel had left the captivity of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and were on their way towards the Promised Land… a journey that took them 40 years.

What did happen? The people lost momentum. They wanted to go back to the rich food and comfortable life. They grumbled. Then snakes came and bit them and they died.  Moses asked God what to do, and God told him to make a bronze snake and set it up. When the people looked at it, they were healed.

This snake story has legs (so to speak). Today’s medical folk still use as a symbol of their art the Rod of Asclepius, a snake wrapped around a staff. And a bronze snake was kept in the temple in Jerusalem for 700 years, serving to remind people of this saving act, until King Hezekiah ordered it removed because people were worshipping it. In the book of Wisdom [16:7], the writer carefully expounds the Moses episode as a model of God’s loving grace: “For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Saviour of all.”

The early Church saw no distinction between saving the body and saving the soul.  When the elders visited the sick, their touch was understood to bring healing and connect the person to Christ through their membership in the Church, and this was a ministry of both laity and clergy.  In time, however, the Platonic split between body and spirit brought on a profound distrust of everything physical, and the body was viewed as an inferior function. This in turn spawned a distrust of the ministry of Christian healing, which, I am delighted to tell you, is beginning to be mended through ministries from the East, like Reiki, and from the West, like Healing Touch and Healing Pathway.

In ancient Israel, however, body and spirit were always understood to be a unity—and the lodging place of the spirit was not the head, but the heart.

Now, what’s going on in this story about the desert?  I think it works like this:  When something goes wrong, our first tendency on some level is often denial. And, as our friends working the [Twelve] Steps tell us, “De-NI-al ain’t just a river in Egypt.”  It’s all too tempting to look the other way. To blame someone, or concentrate on how bad we feel, or try like heck to change the subject. The last thing we want to do is to actually sit and look at “what’s biting us.”  And yet, looking at the snake is what we’re asked to do.

And this is easier to do—it’s easier for healing like this to happen—in the wilderness. There are fewer distractions.

The wilderness is precisely NOT where we live our usual lives.  It’s the transition zone, what’s called a limbic space, the great between.

Here, I invite you to expand the notion of what wilderness is.

In the wider sense, wilderness can be ANY place that strips habit away and invites real awareness. Notice that Jesus was sent into the desert the moment he was baptized, after all—so that he could find out who he really was—his identity. And that’s what wilderness does for us.

The waiting room in an airport or a doctor’s office can be a desert for you. So can the cafeteria in the municipal courthouse, a massage table in a clinic, or the room in a hospital or hotel, a retreat house, a chapel or other place we don’t usually worship. Failure or disaster, when we come to the end of our strength and have used up all our good ideas, is that kind of place. Time can be a desert, too.  Twenty minutes of silent meditation. Or forty days of Lent.

We are halfway through our desert trek, this Lent. We mark it together here on this Sunday, named Laetare (Rejoice), with a glimmer of rose in the vestments, traditionally the pink light of the sky before dawn (ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς).  Lent is supposed to be our own wilderness adventure, and as a sign of it, if we have chosen well, we have tried to let go of some specific thing that is keeping us from life at its most authentic … whether that is what we eat or drink, or how we work or play, or how we hide from prayer, or how we impact the planet.

Like us, at this point, the Israelites who had crossed the Red Sea were on their way… and they hadn’t gotten there yet.

Now… when you’re living in what Saint Paul would call the World, as anybody who has played Monopoly knows… when you draw the “get out of jail” card you simply get back on the board and keep doing pretty much the same stuff you did before.

This is only a parody of deliverance.  It’s not salvation at all, not even a reprieve.

What we are promised—and what our hearts yearn for—is very different. We long for new life. For healing in body, mind, and spirit …for ourselves, each other, creation. This is not something we can construct or control by our own power, no matter how devoted we are or how good we try to be.

But neither does this new life does arrive in spite of … or in contradiction to … what we are going through.  This journey in our wilderness of Lent this year is our participation in the mystery of opening up to grace.  We’ve come this far. It’s not time to grumble and fall back.

My dear friends, today’s Gospel invites us to look to Christ for our healing… and the word salus means both saving and health. When we participate in the life God offers us through him, we, too, permit ourselves to be lifted up.  This is the promise!

The Christlife—and what after all do we know of it… glorious, costly, mostly incomprehensible—is already within us, working its transformative power, if we allow it.

So let us go forward, sharing this blessing of health and salvation now. Let us join our gifts, our prayers, and all that we are, in celebration of Christ’s self-offering.

Thanks Be To God.

Sermon preached on Laetare (March 15, 2015)
Scripture for this day: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

Vivian Lewin

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