Sacred Soil


Staring Down Cougars
February 22, 2015, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Mark 1: 9-15

One of my favorite places to go hiking is a trail along the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. It’s called Eagle Creek. It’s one of these trails that leads deep into the small gorges on the south side of the river, walking along and through deep trenches filled with rushing water. The walls of these gorges covered in every shade of green. There were places along the trail where the waterfalls continually misted the narrow path – creating a fine layer of mud. In those particular places, I appreciated the modern convenience of rope riveted into the side of the canyon.

The place was wild—in many senses of the word. The water uncontained, the trails often merely suggestions, the vistas bound by nothing but the faint hint of mountains to the north, and Mount Hood to the south.

This is the sort of wilderness I prefer. The kind where I can feel at one with nature, but not threatened by it. There’s a bit of risk. I don’t want to fall into the cold water—but a steady hand on the rope will mitigate that problem. The thing that’s not there: any significant population of cougar. Squirrels, deer, birds. Yes. But you have to hike a pretty far distance to enter into mountain lion territory. I was never in that kind of shape.

I prefer my wilderness contained like this. I just can’t get over the fear of having another creature hunt me. Not into it.

Jesus, however, was apparently fine with that. In Mark’s version of the time in the wilderness, he was with the wild beasts. Tempted by Satan. Just after he had been baptized, the passage tells us that the Spirit drove him out, and he hung out in the wilderness for 40 days.

That’s a long time to hang out with wild animals. A very long time.

During the season of Lent, we set aside 40 days as a time to grow closer in our relationship with God. It is a time to remind ourselves how much we depend on God. It is a quieter time that opens us up to know God better, to trust God more. To live into our call as disciples of Christ.

But the thing is, that for many of us, that kind of quiet, that kind of reflection, feels dangerous. Vulnerable. Uncontained. There are too many wild animals lurking. For some this kind of space feels like an invitation to stare down a cougar, or to shake hands with a grizzly bear.

So we put parameters on it. Narrow it in. Make sure we don’t go too deep, so as to avoid getting to that country where the animals roam.

It looks different for each of us though.

  • There are some of us like to get a little wild—throw off the boundaries of expectations. Indeed, the wild places may feel more familiar, more like home. It is the boundaries of rules and obligations that feel terrifying and stifling—these things feel like the true wilderness.
  • For others of us, predictability is so important. Knowing what’s next, having the plan. Wilderness is that place where the unexpected happens—where the path bends and curves and there is not even the illusion of control.

But, regardless of our relationship to wild spaces, I believe it is so often the wild beasts within ourselves and each other that we tend to avoid. The places of sadness. Hopelessness. Grief. Impossibility.  The places where we cannot understand the other—where empathy is absent. The places where we do not understand ourselves.

I think these are often our wild beasts. And these are the beasts we get to spend these next 40 days getting to know. This is our time when the spirit drives us to go and stare down that which terrifies us most.

Maybe that wild animal is your relationship with one you love dearly—that nevertheless drives you nuts. Or perhaps it is an addiction that has been controlling you. Maybe it is the realization that life hasn’t gone as you’d planned. Or, it perhaps worry about health, livelihood.

This is our time to enter deep into that wild—and get to know those beasts. And maybe, just maybe, befriend them.

These 40 days are an invitation to do that—not so as to beat yourself up. Nor is a time to kill those beasts. We enter into this time, because following the example of Jesus, we know that this time apart is a time of preparation. It is a time of deepening relationship with God, re-acknowledging our utter dependence on God for everything. Absolutely everything.

In our Old Testament text today, we were reminded of another 40 days—40 days of water covering the face of the earth. And in the face of that time of wild water, God promises not to destroy. God creates this promise with the creatures God loves, and declares that we will have to work out our differences in a different way. No longer by drowning, now by relationship. A relationship that God so desperately longs for with each one of us.

And the reminder of this promise—a simple rainbow. Light breaking apart across the water, filtering into the beautiful colors of creation. They are ordered, not wild, curving across the earth. Reaching beyond our capacity to see.

This is God’s immeasurable-transforming love, reaching out to us in the wilderness of each of our lives.

Now just one last word about this wilderness—Remember, the Spirit did not send Jesus there to stay. No. Rather the Spirit sent Jesus there to prepare him. To prepare him to go out and tell the good news. To let people know that the kingdom of God has come near, as near as the rainbow touching the earth.

And this is our call too. We gather in these 40 days not to stare at our navels and feel guilty about ourselves. No. We gather in these 40 days to prepare—to prepare to go out in the world to share the love of God. To share the promise. To seek God in every place, within these walls and beyond them.

Amen.