Friday, February 26, 2010

Spring Cleaning for the Soul

A Sermon by Rev. Angela Yarber | First Sunday in Lent | February 21, 2010

Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

As you have heard and seen, our Lenten theme this year is “The Many Faces of Jesus.” For forty days and forty nights, we journey along side of Jesus into the wilderness to experience the myriad ways we can see Jesus’ face in our world: in our own reflection, in the eyes of our community, in the beauty of our aching planet, and in the faces of a fragile humanity. Here there is no limit to the multiplicity of Jesus’ faces: healer, friend, parent, lover, prophet, activist, peace-maker, teacher. I’m sure that it’s all of our hope that Pastor Greg is experiencing the healing face of Jesus as he seeks to recover from being so sick.

For the next thirty some odd days and nights, let us journey together throughout this wilderness land and challenge one another to see Jesus differently. Let’s revel in the familiar and the uncomfortable, the challenging and the soothing. Most importantly, let us not journey into the wilderness lightly, but with the intention of returning transformed, renewed, ready to bring about resurrection in our broken world. For such transformations are the stuff of wilderness journeys.

I’m sure that many of you know that this is not only the first Sunday of Lent, but it’s also the second weekend of the winter Olympics. While I haven’t heard of any Olympians fasting for forty days and forty nights or being tempting to turn stones into bread, I have heard many stories of journeys into the wilderness.

The American short track speed skater Apolo Ohno comes to mind. Some of you may be familiar with his story. He’s won seven Olympic medals and after these Olympics could become the most decorated winter Olympian in history. His wilderness journey occurred at age 15. Apolo was raised by his Japanese father, Yuki, who drove him to and from practices and races throughout Washington state and British Columbia. In 1998 he tried out for the Olympics and choked, finishing in dead last. His father was disappointed, not because his son lost and didn’t make the Olympic team, but because he did not remain true to who he was and what he was capable of doing; he gave up and didn’t try his best. So, on their way home from the trials, Yuki dropped off his 15 year old son at a secluded cabin in Washington state. He told him, “you are at the threshold and you have a decision to make. This can be your life and who you are or you can choose to let it go.” For eight days the teenager pondered his life in the wilderness. Will I be an Olympian? Is this what I’m made for? Or will I be an “ordinary” teenager. Seven medals later, Apolo has answered his father’s question and made an unequivocal decision. This is who I am and I will give everything in my being toward achieving this goal.

While we certainly can’t compare being the son of God to being the most decorated winter Olympian in history, I think the pressure, soul-searching, and wilderness journey of Apolo Ohno rings true as we stand on this first Sunday in our wilderness journey. Hard work, dedication, pressure, soul-searching are not for the faint of heart. We do not tread into this desert journey lightly, but with intentionality.

This intentionality and soul-searching was the precise purpose of the early church when creating the season of Lent. The concept of Lent cannot be found in our bibles, nor can any proscriptions for fasting or feasting or abstaining from particular foods—like meats, chocolate, junk food, soda, or anything else you’ve chosen to give up for Lent. All we have is the story of Jesus journeying into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. No food. No drink. A lot of pressure and soul-searching.

Jesus has a rich history of forty days of soul-searching upon which to base his wilderness journey. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness learning to trust the God. Elijah spent 40 days there before hearing the sound of sheer silence that was God’s voice on the same mountain where Moses spent 40 days listening to God give the law.

Given these stories of wilderness journeys, and especially Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the early church announced a season of Lent, from the old English word lenten, meaning "spring" -- not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime for the soul. Forty days of spring cleaning. Brushing away the cobwebs of bitterness. Sweeping out the dust of regret. Opening up the freshly cleaned windows to let in the fresh spring air of acceptance, hope, compassion, and love.

Lent isn’t a dark, brooding season in the church year. Rather, it’s a season of spring cleaning, wilderness journey, contemplation for the body and soul. It’s not about giving up chocolate or taking on a morning devotional. It’s bigger than Hershey’s bars and devotional books; Lent is less about giving up or taking on things that may seem trivial to others, but are a big deal to us. It’s about digging in and cleaning out. Lent isn’t about beating ourselves up or feeling unworthy and stained. It’s about polishing our hearts, reevaluating our souls, examining our motives so that we can walk out of the wilderness more loving, compassionate, and caring.

Lent is a time when we have the luxury of abiding in the messy, confusing, overwhelming wilderness of our inner beings. We don’t have to physically hike there; we don’t need a backpack. Rather, amidst the end of the winter Olympics, the start of spring, the every day-in-and-day-out of life, we can simultaneously journey inward and sweep out the cobwebs of our souls. In some ways, it might be easier to retreat for forty days. No distractions, or at least no cell phones, internet, work, or people to please. Just soul searching. But what kind of challenge would that be?

What are the challenges that tempt the spring cleaning of your soul? What questions pull at your heart this Lenten season? Jesus was faced with turning stones into bread. When you journey into the wilderness of your soul, will you ask yourself, “Is my job fulfilling my calling? Am I a good parent? Is this marriage working? Who am I now that I’ve retired? What does it mean for my parents to be ageing? Am I healthy physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

I know one thing that clutters up the spring cleaning of my soul this Lenten season. Many of you know that just before Lent began, I completed my dissertation. Of course I am very happy. But many scholars refer to the time after the dissertation as post-dissertation depression. It’s a wilderness time of asking, “So what? Who cares? What does this matter?” In my heart and mind, I continue to grapple with the vast disparity between what I’m doing, where I’ve come from, and who I want to be. What does it mean for me to finish a dissertation and PhD, to be less than one month away from being Rev. Dr. Ang when most of my family didn’t finish high school? What does it mean for me to have the luxury of contemplating esoteric theories about dance and women’s empowerment in world religions when many of the women I write about are never afforded the “luxury” of education, who are hungry and oppressed and would be quite satisfied if only Jesus would turn those stones into bread. What does this make me and what will I do with it?

My luxurious Lenten existential crisis forces me to contend with the fact that many of us choose to enter into the wilderness for soul searching and spring cleaning. It is our choice; it is our luxury. Like Jesus, we are led into the wilderness by the spirit and we have the hope of exiting the wilderness on the other side—the side of resurrection, famished, but resurrected nonetheless. And these luxuries are good for the soul, necessary for this Lenten season of spring cleaning and seeking the many faces of Jesus in our world.

But I cannot help but think about all those people who are not guided into the wilderness by choice or with the Spirit protectively holding their eager hands. Rather, so many are forced into the wilderness, often times for much longer than a mere forty days and forty nights. Forced into the wilderness of poverty, oppression, racism, homophobia, depression, addiction, trafficking. I cannot help but think of the weary souls that will journey to our sanctuary in the coming weeks for Winter Nights, living in the constant wilderness of homelessness.

Our Lenten season of soul searching is for not if it does not gird us forward to see the face of Jesus in the eyes of those myriad people groping in the wilderness for glimpses of hope, for a helping hand, for resurrected bodies. And merely seeing Jesus’ face is for not, if we do not do something about it.

So, perhaps this question should guide our Lenten journey of soul searching: what are we going to do about it? And perhaps the “it” is as ambiguous and open-ended as our Lenten theme is. You interpret what it means to see the many faces of Jesus. You interpret what the it is that you’re going to do something about. We commit to creating a world where all of humanity can look into the mirror filled with the confidence and vitality to see the face of Jesus staring back at them.

Journeys into the wilderness may not be easy, but we certainly don’t have to brave them alone.