Sermon: Lent I, February 21 2021 – Mark 1: 9-15

Jesus, age thirty-ish, had a new future opened to him.  Baptized by his cousin John, a heavenly voice named and claimed Jesus, and he knew that his life was going to be radically different from then on.   What exactly was this going to look like?  He did not know, but he and God both knew that he needed to find out.  According to the gospel of Mark, the Holy Spirit either led him or propelled him into the barren wilderness of Judea, where a gruelling time of testing pushed him to his limits.

Watch at  PDF at Sermon_21Feb2021

At these key moments in life, when we know that we are being called to something new, how do we know which way to go?  Where does our wisdom and guidance come from?

Forty one years ago, about this time of year, I was a second-year Pharmacy student at the University of Alberta.  One night and only one night, at about 2:00 in the morning, I was half-awakened by nothing less than a divine encounter with a clear message: a call to minister to others.  But what did this mean?  Was I to change course toward ordained Ministry? Was I to stay the course, and commit my career as a Pharmacist to honour and serve others in the way I conducted myself?  No answer was forthcoming, other than an unspoken suggestion by the holy presence in the room that I was going to have to find this out for myself.

One year later, an unofficial summer internship in SW Saskatchewan was arranged for me: seven weeks of learning from an experienced, effective minister, then seven weeks to sink or swim when he headed to the cottage and the Sunday services and everything else were up to me.  Fortunately, I learned to swim pretty quickly, occasionally swallowing a mouthful of funky water and only once needing to be fished out of the pond and dragged to shore. I continued preaching as a layperson from then on until starting seminary three years later.

That’s not the only time that I have felt God’s guidance bumping me off the track I had been on and pushing me to consider something new, but it’s the one where the Divine presence was clearest and most easily identifiable.  An in that process, a somewhat-ambiguous statement was made about a new direction, but a time of testing was needed, when I could go deep with God would confirm what this was actually going to look and feel like.

I offer my story, as an entry point for you to consider your story. As you think about your life’s experience, where are the pivot points, where something new was on the horizon but needed to be tested?  What times in your life have involved stopping your headlong momentum, in order to discern what a healthy, hopeful future was actually going to look like?

In a way, I think that the world is at one of those key moments right now.  Virtually every nation, virtually every strata of society, has been impacted by this pandemic.  Not equally, by any stretch of the imagination, but everyone has been pushed to adapt and the time of adaptation will not be ending anytime soon.  This is a time when many will be deciding who we are as individuals, as communities, as societies, and for Churches, who we are as the body of Christ.

I know how eager people are to be able to get on with life, and as the hours of sunlight increase I suspect that impatience may grow.  But I also want to suggest that the season of Lent is particularly well-timed this year, as a time to consider what comes next in life’s journey, and to consider it not just with our minds but with the depth of our souls.  As we walk with Christ and his disciples through their ministry together, we will have more and more of Christ agenda revealed to us; and in order to give ourselves freely to his calling, we will need to let go of some unhelpful thoughts, assumptions, ways of being.  We know that change is coming, and to embrace that change, we can expect some testing.

Spiritual Director Susan Beaumont has written a book for Church leaders with the provocative title, How to Lead when you don’t know where you’re going.  (And no, this wasn’t written with the pandemic in mind – it’s recent, 2019, but not that recent!) Susan explores, at some length, how important it is to do the kind of going-into-the-wilderness work that Jesus did, when we know we are called to a new path but have no real map.  She calls us to be still, to let go, to open ourselves to new things unfolding. As you hear these words of hers, describing the necessity of stillness as we discern where the Holy Spirit would have us go, I invite you to think about your life, and our life, and to imagine Jesus in the Judean wilderness, releasing whatever assumptions he had about his life in order to embrace where God would have him go.

“Inner stillness” writes Susan Beaumont (p.79), “is associated with an environment of silence and solitude.  In silence, we create a quiet place to give our full attention to God.  In solitude, we withdraw from the busyness of our lives… we pull back and create space to give God access to our souls.

“Silence and solitude,” she continues, “make way for stillness, but they don’t ensure a state of stillness.  We can be outwardly silent and still and still be haunted by our own inner chatter. We can be outwardly alone and yet accompanied by a gaggle of competing inner voices.”

This is so important to realize and to address.  For much of this past year, staying away from one another has been mandated – and many people have had wayyy more solitude than they would have chosen to have.  But just having that time and space for assessment and the setting of new directions, doesn’t mean that we’ve actually gone to that place of contemplation.  Solitary time to seek God is one thing; being isolated with nothing but my thoughts and my worries is something else altogether.

In addition to cultivating practices of stillness and contemplation, Susan Beaumont advocates the use (p.37) of three spiritual shifts that invite holy presence into our lives and into our decisions:  moving from knowing to unknowing’ from advocating to attending, from striving to surrender.  And again, as you hear these words, I invite you to envision Jesus in the wilderness… and imagine how these transitions might apply to your life, or to the life of this congregation as we imagine a shared pathway into the future, with the people of Rundle and Ralph Connor together.  Those of you in Jasper, imagine the next stage of your journey as a community of faith, once Rev. Nancy retires.  Those of you from elsewhere, I invite you to listen for intersections between this wisdom, and your path.

On the topic of KNOWING TO UNKNOWING, Susan suggests (p.37) that we “slow down our thinking, observe our judgments, and recognize our own compulsions and ego-centric concerns… [and] examine the assumptions that shape our conclusions.”  For those who may find the word “unknowing” to be a bit off-putting, she writes (p.38):  “Unknowing is not the same as ignorance. To adopt an unknowing stance, I do not need to abandon knowledge.   I continue to learn many factual things…however, I have learned to view my own knowledge with suspicion.  I am learning when to set it aside in service to being led into the unknown.  If I am overly reliant on all that I know, I am not open to Presence and the mystery of my faith, the need for awe, the beauty in wisdom.”  <repeat final sentence>

On the topic of ADVOCATING TO ATTENDING (p.41), she writes, “Advocacy assumes certainty about direction and clarity about outcomes.  By contrast, an attending stance invites me to love God and others in the situation directly in front of me.  I avoid adopting an opinion, cause, principle, or targeted outcome. I embrace the fullness of the present moment for all that it might teach me. I open all my senses to experience the situation before me through the divine consciousness that dwells within it and within me.” <repeat final sentence>

On the topic of STRIVING TO SURRENDER (p.43), Susan offers this: “The striving self likes to power through barriers and get things resolved…. [but] to surrender is to yield, to submit to the powerful reality of what is, to take a long, loving look at what is real, to welcome the situation in front of you.  Surrender means accepting the past for what it was, embracing the present reality, yielding to the mystery of the future and the mystery of God in that future.” <repeat final sentence>

At times, I have viewed this first Sunday in Lent in a way that makes it a unique thing that Jesus-and-only-Jesus did – forty days of fasting, wild animals, and direct encounters with the Tempter.   Or I can let this entry point into Lent become little more than a second chance to get at those New Year’s resolutions that didn’t get attended to earlier – watching less TV, laying off the chocolate, exercising more.  I hope, however, that Lent 2021 will be neither a distant event, nor trivially personal, for this season really does give great opportunity to go deep with God, as we walk with the rest of the disciples, the ministry of Jesus.  To reiterate what Susan Beaumont has written, this is a time when we can look at the very uncertain future ahead, as a congregation, as a community, as a society, as a planet, as a time that is exploratory and creative and deep rather than just baffling.  This is a time to ground our actions in contemplation… to truly listen with our hearts, to the hopes and intentions of God’s heart.   This time of learning and discovery, even amidst the long grind of separation, and the uncertainty, and the reality that some of life’s tests are hard, is a gift.  Even as our feet are uncertain of the footing underneath, may we embrace the fullness of that gift, this day, this season and always.  Amen.

Reference cited:

Beaumont, Susan.  How to lead when you don’t know where you’re going: Leading in a Liminal Season.  Lanham, BD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Other sources consulted:

Blunt, Beth.

DeMello, Anthony.

Otto, Andy.

© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church