February 20, 2019
The Rev. Dr. D. Elizabeth Mauro’s Sermon, February 3, 2019
Dr. D. Elizabeth “Betsey” Mauro, is the Executive Director of Women’s Support Services in Sharon, CT. Betsey joined WSS in January, 2016, after a career in ministry and higher education, which also included work with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
TRIP TO THE WILDERNESS
THE REVEREND DR. D. ELIZABETH MAURO
Salisbury Congregational Church
February 03, 2019
The region south of the Galilee in Israel is a harsh place. It is hard rock and weathered sand. The vegetation is low and scrubby as if it can barely get a hold in the shifting dirt. Cradled at the lowest point, in the deepest part of a volcanically formed great-rift valley and 1300 feet below sea level, is the Dead Sea. It receives the waters of the Jordan River at its northern most boundary and stretches 53 miles southward. It has no outlet, but the heat and aridity of the region cause evaporation of the water and keep the water level constant. It is a “Dead Sea” because it is filled with the salts of magnesium, sodium, calcium and potassium, making it five times saltier than the ocean. Nothing can live in it.
The region is sparsely populated, although a number of caves have served as dwelling and storage places over the centuries. Some shepherds tend their flocks there but there is little to eat except twiggy browse.
Have any of you been there? If so, then you know what a harsh place it is.
It is to this place, just above where the waters of the Jordan River enter into the dense and stinging waters of the Dead Sea that Jesus comes to be baptized by John. Although the Jordan River runs fresh right through the Galilee, Jesus leaves the Galilee with its comparative greenery and travels 60 miles southward into the harsh desert for this rite of passage. In Matthew’s version of this story, John protests saying to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?” Jesus insists that John’s baptism of Jesus will fulfill righteousness – righteousness meaning doing the revealed will of God. John consents.
When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came out of the water, Matthew tells us, “suddenly, the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
We don’t know if other people besides Jesus and John were present for the baptism. John certainly had followers but there is no mention of them in this retelling of the story. We also don’t know if anyone but Jesus experienced the heavens opening and the Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on Jesus. The scriptures refer only to Jesus in this matter. And although the pronouncement could be addressed to an audience, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, this same story in Mark quotes the voice as saying directly to Jesus “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But the Gospel of John specifically records John the Baptist hearing it, too. Our scriptures don’t agree on these points.
But if no one else experiences the ecstatic experience occasioned by the baptism of Jesus, at the very least, we do. We are the witnesses to this event, the event that begins his public ministry.
Looking on, we might well ask, “why the wilderness? Why come to the harshest place in Palestine?” Jesus could have waded into the waters of the Jordan at a much gentler, kinder place. He could have been baptized and been home in time for supper. But he packed his bag and trod in the dust through wild and marauding territory to the place God wanted him to be.
The wilderness is a powerful place. It is untamable. And when we are in it, our illusions of being in control vanish. We are more aware of what we don’t know than what we do. Vulnerability is closer to us than confidence. I know this first hand. When I was but 22 years old, I went to work on the oil rigs as a “mudlogger.” A mudlogger is a geologist who lives on the drill site as a petroleum company explores for oil and natural gas. I would monitor equipment and collect drill chips and record what kind of rock we were drilling through.
I did not work on off-shore rigs. It was the early 1980’s and my company wouldn’t send women off shore. So I worked in Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota and Utah, often 40 miles from the nearest town. Nothing but sage brush, antelope, rattlesnakes and sage hen. If I walked far enough away from the oil rig so that I couldn’t hear it any more, there was no civilized sound to be heard…the loneliness of the desert was immense. The wilderness is a powerful place. It is untamable. And when we are in it, we are stripped of our illusions of being in control. We are more aware of what we don’t know than what we do. Vulnerability is closer to us than confidence.
It is probably no coincidence, then, that the wilderness has also been an intensely spiritual place. It is where Moses encountered the bush that burned but was not consumed. It is where the Israelites received the commandments from God that created them as a people of the Covenant. It is where Elisha heard the whispering voice of God after the wind, earthquake and fire. It is where Jesus was tempted by the Devil and was ministered to by angels. The wilderness is an intensely spiritual place. I know this. It is where I heard God’s voice. One day, while working on a rig in Colorado, I went wandering into the desert feeling profoundly sorry for myself. As I said, it was the early 1980’s and I was experiencing a lot of harassment on the job. I was 2000 miles from home, and I felt a little scared and profoundly alone. As I plunked myself down on a boulder and buried my face in my hands, I moaned “why is all this happening? How can I bear it?” And in that moment of despair, I heard God say, “Betsey, I didn’t promise you an easy life. I promised you strength.” It was clear as a bell.
Even if you have never had that clear an epiphany, heard the word of God without any doubt it was God’s voice, I’m sure each and every one of you has spent some time in the wilderness. I don’t mean the physical wilderness, although some of you probably have. I mean the emotional and spiritual wilderness that all of us travel through from time to time. We find ourselves disoriented, out of sorts, and stripped of our illusions of being in control. We are more aware of what we don’t know than what we do. Vulnerability is closer to us than confidence. Sometimes we are thrown into the wilderness by a divorce we didn’t want, the death of someone we loved dearly, the loss of job or friends, the heart that has turned narrow and bitter. Other times, we wander into the wilderness by our own doing and get lost there…the drinking we can’t seem to stop, the temper we can’t seem to keep in check, the loneliness we’ve created for ourselves by closing ourselves off to others. If you haven’t been there yet, then some day you will. The wilderness is part of the world we live in and the lives we live.
Sometimes, entire churches find themselves in the wilderness. In fact, today, many do. Declining attendance, aging populations, financial struggles are but a few of the challenges in many churches today. I don’t need to tell you that the megachurches we hear so much about seem to be money and people magnets while those of us with a historical legacy seem shunted to the side….we’re told we’re not glitzy enough, that we’re too small or too poor to survive, that we’re too set in our ways and out of touch with culture, too slow to identify and respond to the human needs around us. We’re no longer called hypocrites. We’re called dinosaurs, museums, relics. We’re no longer what we were. Churches, like people, change over time. We are subject to changing demographics, emerging technologies and the pressures of culture. And the winds of change have been as relentless here as in the harsh Judean wilderness.
You are in your own kind of wilderness, in transition between one minister and the next person you will call, either as an interim or settled pastor.
Now, more than ever, we need to hear the voice of God to guide us into new purposes and new ways of being. It is when we are in the wilderness that God has something particular to say to us, if we are willing to listen…something that will bring us insight and vision, wisdom and strength, healing and hope. We are more apt to seek God from a place of vulnerability than a place of confidence. We are more likely to listen for God when we are displaced from our comfort and lost in unfamiliar territory.
There is a reason Jesus’ favorite place to pray was in the wilderness. It is there we are better able to filter out the demands of the world and seek God’s will for us. The best questions we can prayerfully ask in the wilderness are ones that opens up a dialogue with God; ones that invite his guidance. “What is it you would have me do, Lord? Show me your way. Teach me how to be in this world. What is it you would have me do?” “Lord, what would you like your church to do and be?” “If we cannot be what we were, what is it you would have us be and do?” These are questions that get asked when we are in the wilderness.
And here is the good news: in the wilderness, God always, always, always, has something to say to us about ourselves, about our church, about His love, about His purposes for us. In the wilderness, God always has something to say, something that will bring us insight and vision, wisdom and strength, healing and hope. When we seek God, the journey toward fulfillment and healing and hope begins. With renewed trust in God to be with us and lead us, we find we can embrace changes rather than fear them. The wilderness is a powerful place.
In the wilderness of the Dead Sea, there are some surprises. There are pockets of fresh water here and there, lush oases tucked up against cliffs and around caves. There are fish in the brackish waters if not in the lethal Dead Sea itself. The minerals compounded in the region are harvested and commercially marketed. The escarpments and plateaus command sweeping views of Israel, Jordan and Syria. Even the oily surface of the Dead Sea itself takes on a deep and beautiful blue color in the rising or setting sun.
Because the harshness of the area is so obviously striking, we miss the other things about the wilderness that, upon closer inspection, give life. If Jesus went to the wilderness to embark on his ministry, it is no wonder. In a primordial way, out of nothing, life emerges. God showed us that his Spirit broods over all the earth to bring forth life. After all, it was in the wilderness by baptism that Jesus claimed his call which gave to us the promise of life everlasting.
When our life lands us in the wilderness, there is also a holy opportunity there to discover new trust in God. It is there that we can more keenly hear God calling to us…guiding us by his voice, his purposes, his hope, and into new life. And if we are open to this holy opportunity, if we have the courage to ask God to take us where we need to be and then follow, not only will we find the fulfillment was so long for but we may even hear God’s voice saying to us, “With you, I am well pleased.” AMEN