“Even in these days…”
Matthew 4:1-11
By Don Ludwig, March 22, 2020

Christian Reading:  Matthew 4:1-11 

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.

For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”   Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

We’ve all had our wilderness moments. Times when we have felt very alone or when the landscape looked unfamiliar and the resources seemed distant and the pathway through seems unsure. Wilderness moments can come during desolate circumstances. Social distancing, the isolation we may begin to experience because of COVID-19, is a wilderness experience that we were unprepared for and was certainly unfathomable just a month ago.  I received a humorous email from Robin Burnham this past week that humorously depicts the reality of our times:  “Our cleaning lady just called and told us she will be working from home and will send us instructions on what to do”.

Being social creatures, it is difficult to be isolated from others.  Isolation can occur physically, but it can also occur emotionally and spiritually.  Wilderness with job uncertainty.  Wilderness because of war and the trauma it causes long afterward.  Wilderness from family separation.  Wilderness with loneliness.  Wilderness with housing insecurity.  Wilderness because of addiction.

Being in the wilderness can be an experience of powerlessness. Likely, each of us has had our wilderness times—short or extended— when the landscape looked unfamiliar and the resources seemed distant and the pathway through was unsure. We’ve been in desolate circumstances. And now we find ourselves here again, collectively facing the largest global crisis since the great depression.

Entering the Wilderness
As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, “the wilderness comes in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.  No food.  No earthly power.  No special protection, just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”

None of us choose to enter the wilderness.  I assume that Jesus didn’t choose to go there either. But I challenge you to look back at your life and think about the times in your life when the lessons you have learned well, the insights that have led you to change your course or to root yourself more deeply in trust, and I am willing to bet they most likely occurred in some kind of wilderness experience.

In other words, the wilderness can be the place where memory is stirred.  Where priorities are examined and trust is evaluated. In our Bible lesson, Jesus draws on the stories that fed him as a child, the stories of the struggles and visions of his people.  In doing so, he is able to navigate the isolation he experienced by being alone in the wilderness for 40 days.  Even in his days – of being tempted and tormented by Satan—whether historically or allegorically—Jesus was able to use the past to be resilient in the present.

Strength that knows no Despair
In these wilderness days, I have been reflecting on my life and ministry and calling from a whole new perspective—glancing backward more than usual.

I’ve been thinking of my mother.  My mother only stood 5 feet tall, slender with shoulder-length brown hair always neatly groomed.  She was a feisty German who could both yodel and play the spoons.  And she married an abusive alcoholic.  I never really knew where she got her inner strength.  She lived a life of adversity and abuse and influx, yet she was constantly grounded in the unshakeable affirmation of her worth, her love for her five children and her purpose in life.  Even though the forces around her beat her down at every turn, she somehow was able to survive with a confidence that communicated to us that everything would be okay–for her and for the family.  Looking back at it, my mother was the sole reason that I came to know resilience and a belief in myself despite the actions or words of others.  She has been my strongest source of inspiration.

Many of the author Tony Morrison’s novels and songs speak to the resiliency during wilderness experiences.  And to the strength and resolve of her African-American characters. Morrison speaks to the response of African-American communities to the persistent violence of the time: “What was taken by outsiders to be slackness was in a fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones.  The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine, and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair.”

“They knew anger well, but not despair – despair was beneath them”.  Toni Morrison could have been describing my mother. I will never know all that it cost my mom to be strong in the midst of so much turmoil – at the end, I guess, it cost her health and life.  But I do know that she lived as if despair was never on the table and that anything less than strength was beneath her.

We Rise
There is a persuasive story in our culture that tells us that we can’t trust one another: we can’t trust anyone but ourselves and our inner circle.  That, my friends, is simply not true.  It has no grounding in reality.  The reality is there are many more good people in the world than we know. And we come to understand this best when we are in the wilderness. Look around.  Listen to a different story. While our news today has fearful updates of the virus spread, it is also full of the outpouring of acts of compassionate humanity.  Neighbors reaching out to check in on strangers.  College students volunteering.  Children making signs of good cheer and hanging them up on trees.  Donations to food banks, charities and schools is on the rise. When we remember the goodness within ourselves we can begin again to look for it in our neighbor – and that is when we become the beloved community.

It is Maya Angelou’s famous poem, “I Rise” that speaks to the resiliency of the human spirit to rise up during adversity.  Her words defy any story that might tell us we are weak or less than human. 

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

So, welcome to the wilderness – a world of unknowns and isolation – but despair is beneath us. We are a part of the beloved community that is Southminster.  And our wilderness is not without hope, resilience, opportunities to extend compassion, and the promise of daybreak.  We rise!

Being the Beloved Community
Pam Brown, one of our trustees, came into my office this last week at just the right time to offer me some readings and a prayer. Of course, we kept our 6 feet distancing rule.  But what a blessing it was for me to be the recipient of a prayer for our world, our church, and our community.

One of the readings Pam shared with me was on the concept of social distancing from an email written by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles.  It occurred to me that this is what it means to be beloved.  Even though we are physically separated, we can find ways to reach out and let others know that they are not forgotten and forsaken.

Rabbi Kanefsky writes, “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place.  Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.  Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of helps to others.”

Even in these Days…
I will never know whether my mother’s strength was a burden or a source of joy in her life.
I will never know.  But perhaps, if I remember her life, I can match her steps.

Perhaps we can match the steps of those on whose shoulders we stand, those who prepared the way, those who made a way out of no way…those who traveled the wilderness before.

Even in these days…my friends, we can find not only hope but deep satisfaction when we draw one another closer in ways than ever before.