Worship | Lent 1 | Turn/Return | March 6

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Reflections Manuscripts

First speaker: Joel Miller

Last summer I found myself reading books about people in the wilderness.  This wasn’t my intention.  I had gathered books for the Sabbatical project about adulthood transitions and how we undergo these through reflection and rituals.  And lo and behold, pretty much all the books were making references to wilderness.  From Malidoma Some recounting the initiation rites out away from village life of his native West African Dagara culture, to Bill Plotkin’s collection of stories of people’s transformative experiences in the Colorado wilderness where he leads nature-based soul-initiation programs.

Our Lent theme this year is Turn/Return, the literal meaning of the Hebrew word shuv, sometimes translated as repent.  In many ways, the season of Lent is always a return to wilderness.  Calling us back to this undomesticated place.  The unsettled wildness informs our lives in ways our carefully built environments can’t.  The wilderness holds surprise, encounters you can’t plan for on your google calendar.  It is inhabited with soul, embodied in plant, creature, and stone.  It is in one sense hostile to human life, and in another sense holds the mysteries of what makes us most deeply human.  

Lent begins, even more specifically, with a return to this particular story of Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke each have their own version, and the three year lectionary cycle gives them each a turn on the first Sunday of Lent.

Jesus is on the cusp of beginning the part of his life that will have the most lasting impact.  He is, as we might say, waking up to his powers.  He has been fasting for 40 days.  His body is now weak.  His defenses are lowered.  It is in this condition that he encounters three temptations lurking somewhere within him.  Without the chatter of day to day life, or the satisfaction of a full belly to block them out, they rise to the front of his consciousness, voiced through this character called the devil. 

Commentators are generally agreed that these temptations are about power.  How will Jesus use the great power growing within him as he relates with the world? 

This interpretation makes sense for the second and third temptations. 

The devil shows him, in an instant, all the kingdoms of the world.  Like a rapid ride up the elevator to the top floor of the world’s highest skyscraper, waving his hand over everything below…All this could be yours. 

It’s tempting.  Maybe even possible.  But the kind of power Jesus will exercise, Divine power, doesn’t work this way.  Doesn’t subjugate or dominate.

The devil takes him to Jerusalem, the holy city, to the pinnacle of the temple, this highly visible public location.  Throw yourself down.  You are invincible, nothing can hurt you, you won’t even stub your toe.  But Jesus knows he is a human being, susceptible to the same injuries and sickness and loneliness and even suffering and death as other human beings. 

Jesus rejects both of these misuses of power.  Rejects them in the wilderness and thereby is empowered to reject them throughout his ministry once he leaves the wilderness.

What I’ve never been quite satisfied with is the explanations for the first temptation.  Turn this stone into bread.  Sure, it has to do with a form of power.  And sure there’s that story in John’s gospel when Jesus feeds the hungry masses and they try to make him king right there on the spot.  Maybe here Jesus is rejecting being a bread Messiah.  As if a full belly is all it means to be a full human. 

This past summer, through readings and my own wilderness time, I had another thought about this initial temptation that’s actually much simpler. 

One of the patterns of these wilderness stories is that of patience.  Going into the wilderness to seek spiritual guidance, not much at all happening, coming to the verge of calling it quits, when something finally shifts and a new sense of peace or insight or guidance is received.  I’m thinking of a story Malidoma Some tells of him and other youth being instructed to sit in front of a tree and look at it until it gives them their next instructions.  All the other youth were long gone and Malidoma was about to fake his revelation right before something actually happened between him and the tree.  I’m thinking also of Bill Plotkin’s encounter with a large weathered rock that was silent for a very long time before Plotkin started to see and hear things that had a profound impact on the next stage of his journey.

So what if this first temptation of Jesus, the one about turning stones into bread, was just a temptation to stop listening to the wilderness even though it hadn’t told him anything yet?  If he eats the bread, the fast is over.  But he recognizes that he, and everyone, does not live on bread alone, but a more substantive kind of bread that fills the whole person and not just the stomach.  He holds on to the wilderness task, and thus is prepared for the work ahead through the following two temptations in ways he wouldn’t have been had he cut it short.

This year our return to Lent coincides with a return to the possibility of worshiping together in person and, more broadly, a return to bodily togetherness perhaps someday very soon even unmediated by masks.  I remember well the pandemic beginning during Lent two years ago and our joke that we were giving up church for Lent…with the thought that we would surely return soon.  If you’re like me, right now feels like a joyous emergence from a two-year wilderness.  And even though there is plenty of unpredictability in what’s ahead, there is cause for cautious optimism, because why not?  Why not be hopeful right now?

If you have given up too much these last two years, this might not be a Lent to give up anything.  It might be a time to turn toward joy and togetherness and return to some things you have dearly missed. 

But…what if, like Jesus in the wilderness,  we resist letting this space that has been opened within us close too quickly.  What if we resist filling our calendar or our mind or our daily routine with the same things that filled it before?  What if, even if we party like it’s February 2019, we linger in the wilderness.  The trees and rocks have more to say to us.  That holy wide open space might not want to be filled with the same bread as before.  There may be temptations and sacred conversations we still must undergo before we know how to use this profound and beautiful power of time and togetherness.

Second Speaker: Sarah Werner

Spiraling Towards the Holy

The words turn/return, or shuv in Hebrew, could be the mantra of my life. Always turning and retuning, what feels like going in circles is actually a spiral, arcing out and back like a planet orbiting a star, but getting closer, bit by bit. When I was twelve years old, I took a blank legal pad from my mom’s office and started writing stories and drawing maps, creating an imaginary world in those pages. I stopped writing stories, about 30 legal pads later, when I got to college because I thought it was time to become a responsible adult. Tomorrow I turn 39, and for the past two years in my free time I have nothing but write, creating stories and imaginary worlds, hundreds of thousands of words. I have never felt more alive and happy, turning and returning.

In the past 18 months I have somewhat miraculously found myself returning to greater mobility. In October of 2020 I was briefly paralyzed from the waist down because of a spinal cord compression injury. As I healed, changed my diet, and did daily physical therapy, I found myself getting better, stronger than I was to start with. I was returning to my body, returning to strength, after three years using a wheelchair fulltime. Every day when I wake up, I return to my body. I am grateful beyond words for the muscles in my feet and ankles that hold me up and ground me to this earth. Turning and returning.

For 20 years, on and off, I have had a regular meditation practice. 20 minutes a day, sitting in silence, letting my mind return to itself, over and over. I have been reading a lot of neuroscience lately about how meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. Always turning and returning to the present moment strengthens those pathways of being present even in difficult situations. And the world is chock full of difficult situations big and small—from getting cut off in traffic to a land war in Europe. Inflation, infection, there is always something to be anxious about. But for 20 minutes each day, I turn, return, to the refuge of the present moment.

These are all very personal examples of turning and returning. I’m sure you have them too, as you spiral towards your own center, always becoming more deeply who you are. Sometimes constant motion is disorienting, but life is always on the move. The text for this morning is about Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness and the temptation offered by power. My temptation in all of this turning and returning is to think that I have done any of these things because of my own personal will, or that because I did, others should follow me in the same way. But it doesn’t work that way. Life flows through me, the energy of the universe propels us onward. It is nothing but a gift and the energy of interconnection. We are all bound up in webs of others. It is never really me, but life and my ancestors moving through me.

When we turn and return, arcing towards the Holy, life flows through us. The temptation of power is always to tame and control and subdue, and we tell ourselves it’s necessary for all the right reasons. But true life is always wild and chaotic, changing us in unplanned ways, like a rushing river or an earthquake. Creativity, healing, becoming awake can never be programmed. They involve an opening of the heart, a willingness for something new and untamed to grow, an unpredictable miracle of life as we continue to turn, return, always arcing ever closer to the center, towards the Holy.

Third Speaker: Katie Graber

Perhaps in the past the term “repent” carried more of the connotations of turning and returning that the original Hebrew had, but when I was growing up it always seemed like something you do once and then it’s done. However, most of the resolutions we make to be better people are not just one decision. Being a better teacher, a better friend, a better parent, taking better care of our health – all of those are actually a series of a thousand small choices rather than one-and-done. We have to continually turn toward our good intentions and return to good decisions.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – our entire lives and the world we live in are a great series of turning and returning. We sleep and wake, we watch the seasons change, and we have to continually shift our lives to fit these modulations. I imagine I’m not the only one who is starting to feel more energy and desire to go out and do things with the longer and warmer days – my resolutions to be more productive and more active change with the seasons.

Many of us also feel more connected to the earth in spring and summer, with more active care for the soil and plants. In the 12th century, a nun by the name of Hildegard of Bingen wrote a song that compared Christian love to the earth bursting forth with life in the springtime. It begins “O viridissima virga” – “O greenest branch” or “O branch of freshest green” – and throughout the cycle she spins out symbolism of mother earth, mother Mary, and abundance. It’s a lovely way to think about our work of being Love in the world – maybe it doesn’t always flower easily, but it’s always sleeping under the surface.

The next song we will sing is inspired by this phrase. #788 in VT, The Garden Needs Our Tending Now ends each verse with “terra viridissima” – greenest earth, earth of freshest green. We can read the text’s call to tend the garden literally as creation care, or more metaphorically as the many other areas of our lives that need tending. Tending is a good word for turning and returning – we don’t think of tending a garden as a one-time event, but something we do over and over.

You might also recognize the tune for this song. It appeared in HWB with the text ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, a Christmas song that used Indigenous imagery (‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled, the Mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead). That text does not appear in VT, which was one of many decisions that felt impossible, with no right answer. There are many Indigenous people who love that song and have translated it into their languages. They appreciate the history of a Jesuit priest who learned from his Indigenous neighbors and incorporated images from their culture into the Christmas story. On the other hand, there are many Indigenous people who say the song has caused harm by misrepresenting Indigenous cultures, superimposing several different nations’ words and stories into one without making proper distinctions in meanings.

Clearly, we could not make everyone happy. We heard from one Indigenous consultant in particular who urged that if we remove the song, we need to find a way to keep talking about it. She compared it to working through trauma, which cannot be done if it’s swept under the rug. Our symbols matter, our words and music have history and layers of meaning.

This tune has not only been associated with ‘Twas in the moon throughout its history. It was a French carol before the Jesuit priest wrote the North American text, and we thought maybe it can continue its life in Mennonite congregations with a new text. We found this text, “The Garden Needs our Tending Now” that fit the meter and fit the resonance of repairing relationships between people, land, and creation. Creation care and anti-racism are both commitments that involve a lot of turning and returning – big and small decisions, retraining our habits of thought and action.

And one final detail that I love about this song is that in the second verse, the word “wilderness” is used with a positive connotation. “Wilderness” in the scripture today, and in general, is typically depicted with negative connotations. There are eight instances in Voices Together songs, and this is the only positive reference. A typical example from the other seven is #309 Fill Us With Your Feast. The refrain says: “Find us empty and wandering: we, the lost and the least. Find us in the wilderness then fill us with your feast.” By contrast, The Garden Needs Our Tending Now says, “Creation groans, its creatures yearn for wilderness and peace returned: (and then it moves to the refrain) Earth shall be green and new, Eden restored. Terra viridissima.”