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Sermon: Lonesome Valleys

Scripture: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13
February 17, 2013; Rev. Ann G. Abernethy

We begin with a bit of humor: Mother Teresa dies and goes to heaven. God greets her at the Pearly Gates and says, "Are you hungry, Mother Teresa?" "I could eat," she replies. So God opens up a can of tuna fish and reaches for a loaf of rye bread. While she is eating this humble meal, Mother Teresa looks down into hell and sees its inhabitants devouring steak and pheasant, pastries and wine. Curious, but trusting, Mother Teresa keeps quiet.

The next day God again invites Mother Teresa to join him for a meal. Once more it is tuna and rye bread. Again Mother Teresa looks down on the people in hell. They are enjoying caviar, champagne, lamb, truffles, and chocolates. Still, she says nothing.

The following mealtime arrives and God again opens a can of tuna fish. Finally Mother Teresa can contain herself no longer. Meekly, she says, "God, I am so grateful to be with you in heaven and so happy to be rewarded for my obedient life of service. But here in heaven all I get is tuna and rye bread, whereas in the other place they are eating like kings and queens. I don't understand." God lets out a big sigh and says, "Let's be honest, Mother, for two people does it pay to cook?"

It might be something like, "for two people does it pay to cook?" that God says to Jesus as he fasts for forty days in the wilderness. The wilderness is, in essence, a time for Jesus to figure out what it means to rely on God. The spiritual significance of wilderness is addressed in two questions Jesus must answer. The first question is: What does it means to shed our earthly attachments so as to focus on eternal life? And the second is: What does it mean to let go of human power and creature-comforts so as to create a life dependent on God—on God's companionship, guidance, and vision? Set apart in his baptism, the wilderness provides Jesus time for orienting himself to a God-centered life—and for living with the loneliness that life will require—the loneliness, if you will, of tuna and rye everyday with God.

As Lent begins with wilderness for Jesus, so, like it or not, it begins with a recognition of our own wilderness, too. Thus it has always been for Christians—this season that begins with the confession of our own humanity and the ashes of our mortality. We are of earth. God is God. We are human. God is God. Lent takes us to the wilderness of our fragile humanity, just as that is where it took Jesus. He could have bowed to the temptation to embrace his divinity by foregoing his humanity. But he did not. Jesus lived among us as one fully human, subject to the human vicissitudes, loneliness, and sorrows that beset us all.

As the first Sunday of Lent tells us the wilderness story of Jesus, so you and I have wilderness stories to tell—times in our life that have been like a barren desert for forty days—more or less. Perhaps you are living in such a time now—your days, uncertain and challenging and full of questions. Perhaps the wilderness came for you during military service—or in recovering from some deep woundedness, physical or emotional—and you're still at work figuring that all out. Perhaps there is a time of hospitalization or depression front and center for you—or the hardship of living with pain or addiction. Perhaps your wilderness has to do with the loss of a loved one—Valentine's Day inevitably exacerbates that—or maybe there's a family dynamic that seems impossible to move beyond. To be human is have desert times. And I can only believe that all of us have wilderness stories to share. And sharing them can be important, just as Jesus chose to share his wilderness story with those who knew him. For, if he was alone in the wilderness, it was he who decided to share the story of that time.

Recently I have been visiting a prisoner at the Middleton House of Corrections—a man I baptized when he was twelve and I was pastor of First Church in Wenham. His family fled the Congo during the slaughter between the Hutus and Tutsis, his father, hunted, as the latter. It happened that some members of our church were helping refugees in Lynn learn to speak English. One of them was pregnant. So the church gathered baby gifts and the volunteers created a baby shower. One Sunday morning, after the baby was born, the whole family came to church to thank the congregation, lifting their baby high so the congregation could see him. Amazingly, that family stayed and immersed themselves in the church's life and worship. So I was graced to baptize the family's four children, three born in the Congo and one here. Now the eldest son is in Middleton, a heart- break for him and his family and for me. Visiting him, I speak to him of Jesus in the wilderness and how prison is a wilderness time in his life—a time for learning, for setting a new course, for facing into himself more fully, for relying on God, and for feeling the companionship of Jesus, who knew his own wilderness.

Let me be clear, wilderness times do not have to be interpreted negatively. The desert can be a honing ground for our relating to our deepest self and to God. One of the things I have found essential in my life is to get away to a place where I can be in silence with God, fully appreciating the gift of a day, the gift of God's love and word, the gift of nature—and of life. In this we leave behind the distractions that impede our ability to do so in the tumble of day-to-day life. I wonder whether the wilderness for Jesus was something like a Native American spirit-quest or like a week of silent retreat where we are with just God alone? It seems to me that in the Christian life we need times where the primary relationship is ours with God, times when we strip ourselves of human relationships so as to be fully immersed in the divine-human relationship. I think that's important, in part, because life will, inevitably, lead us to times when we have to cope with our aloneness. We will either flee from that—or learn how to do it.

I have a granddaughter who went off to college this fall. In doing so she entered a wilderness, an aloneness she had never previously known. It was the aloneness of being cut off from the communities she knew—the people who loved her—her family, her friends, her church. She was set adrift in an environment where everything was new. She was, in some ways, terrified of her aloneness, though she put up a good front—and to her credit, she put herself out there, getting acquainted with fellow students—and going to counseling to help her manage this great hump of homesickness. I knew she had taken a giant step forward when I heard her say, "I am learning to be alone—and have even come to like it."

Edgar N. Jackson, renowned spiritual psychologist, has written extensively on the topic of human loneliness. In his book, Understanding Loneliness, he sees loneliness in several forms. He names them this way:

First, there is what he calls developmental loneliness. This aspect of loneliness arises in humans by virtue of shortcomings in our early development. When, as children, we experience fear, distrust, or abandonment, we protect ourselves by withdrawing from social relationships so as to screen ourselves from further injury or pain. Most of us, I suspect, have experienced some developmental loneliness, though the degrees of it will vary according to our early experience. As a very young child I remember being terrified my parents would die and leave me alone. That fear made me withdrawn and reluctant to leave my mother's side. I overcame that, thankfully. Just so, we all learn to overcome developmental loneliness as we mature and understand more of our early insecurities and defense mechanisms.

The second form of loneliness is that which emerges from particular circumstances. These circumstances can be death or moving to a new community or becoming separated from familiar ways of life. It is this circumstantial loneliness that my granddaughter experienced this fall as a college freshman. It is the loneliness of being widowed or losing a best friend or moving to a new community. There is an inevitable loneliness in leaving behind the familiar and in feeling like an outsider. Usually, with time, changes in circumstance bring about changes in this loneliness. We adapt. We form new relationships. What was foreign becomes familiar. What appeared, at first, unmanageable we learn to manage.

The third form of loneliness is what Dr. Jackson calls existential loneliness. This form of loneliness is rooted in the very nature of our human existence and in the limited forms of communication available to us. At some existential level, we are aware that we stand alone in this world. No other human being can perfectly understand us. No other human being can fully take away our loneliness. Our existential loneliness can only be addressed by our turning toward ultimate reality and embracing a belief that gives us an undergirding trust that can sustain our lives. This ultimate reality we call God. This undergirding trust we call faith. One of the wisest things I ever heard when counseling a young couple before baptizing their baby was when the mother said, "I want my child to have a relationship to God because I know I will not be able to be with him in every circumstance. There will be times when all he has is God." It is our relationship to God that addresses our existential aloneness.

The wilderness is a time for Jesus to learn to rely fully on his relationship with God—a time to look deep within himself and to embrace his humanity, experiencing its existential loneliness and trusting that God will undergird his life henceforth.

Each time Jesus withdrew for prayer, whether up to a mountain or to a night-silent garden, he re-engaged his wilderness closeness to God. He re-affirmed his trust in his Abba—and that trust, that relationship, can be as fully expressed in "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" as in "Into your hands I commit my spirit."

There is a spiritual with which I suspect you are familiar. It goes:

Jesus walked this lonesome valley. He had to walk it by himself.
Nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself.

Another verse goes:

We must walk that lonesome valley. We have to walk it by ourselves.
Nobody else can walk it for us. We have to walk it by ourselves.

Lent begins. Lent begins in the wilderness—and wilderness can be, among other things, an expression of our aloneness. Lent beckons us to enter once again into a deeply personal, deeply authentic relationship with God. It invites us to learn ever more fully how to trust and rely on God. This is the nature of faith—that it can sustain us in what we know already of life, while it prepares for what we cannot yet know.

And God? God is always in the wilderness with us. Always! Sometimes we know it; sometimes we don't. But God is there, nonetheless.

And even if it's just tuna fish and rye bread it will be enough, because with God as our companion we have the possibility of enduring anything, everything!


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