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Lent: Breaking free from the Wilderness

Sermon Preached at St. Mark’s
Lent 1B – Mark 1:9-15

“Show us your ways, O LORD and teach us your paths. Lead us in your truth and teach us, for you are the God of our salvation.”[1] Amen.

After Jesus was baptized the Spirit drove him out to the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Both Matthew and Luke share some detail about the nature of the temptations Jesus faced but not Mark.  Mark’s account of that wilderness experience is very sparse: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”[2]  That’s it.  And, as I’ve said before, I really like the gospel of Mark for its lack of detail because it allows us to enter the story with our own details - in this case, details drawn from our own wilderness experiences.  Because while the specifics of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness are important to the story of salvation and our understanding of the nature of messiah-ship, I don’t think that they preclude us from  also seeing the point that as we experience the wilderness, so too has God experienced the wilderness.  God has been and is with us in that wilderness.
Now recently I heard a colleague say that those of us living in the Great Lakes Region of the United States – and perhaps this year, we might add those living in New England – that we don’t need a season of Lent – after all, we have Winter.  For many, a wilderness period in its own right one that can begin in early November and last until late March!  Isn’t that Lent enough?  You all know how much I love winter, so that comment made very little sense to me; but, I take the point.  In our lives, we experience a LOT of wilderness – relationships that end, careers that leave us feeling empty, violence in the world, and battles with mental and physical illnesses.  Our wilderness lists could go on and on.  We know what the wilderness looks like.  So, why would we want to spend 40 days of Lent focused on the wilderness, entering more deeply into the pain and suffering of that wilderness?  If our lives – our world – is already reminiscent of that wilderness, do we really need to be even more intentional about entering the wilderness during the season of Lent?  My answer:  No!
Jesus entered the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism before he began his ministry.  But the gospel reading for this first Sunday of Lent does not end there.  It ends with Jesus arriving in Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”[3]  Perhaps there is in this final verse of today’s gospel reading a different direction for our Lenten observance.  Perhaps our invitation to observe a Holy Lent doesn’t need to be about going deeper into the wilderness but could instead be about becoming more intentional about participating with God in breaking free from that wilderness, in joining God’s redemptive work, of proclaiming God’s good news in our church, in our neighborhoods, in our homes, our schools, and our workplaces.  Perhaps this Lent could be a time when we, like Jesus, emerge from the wilderness, intentionally focusing on our ministries. Could Lent be a time when we arrive in our own Galilee and proclaim the good news of God?  What would that look like?  What might it look like to intentionally break-free from the wilderness with God?  Within the community of St. Mark’s I think there are several fabulous options (and you will no doubt think of others):
Perhaps you are a parent who has lost your compass amidst the joys, challenges and responsibilities that parenting brings.  When is the last time you focused on self-care as a way to keep yourself – and, as a result – your family headed in a positive direction?  Beginning next Sunday morning and for four weeks, Beth Johnson and I will be facilitating a group for parents because taking care of ourselves is a way to participate in God’s redemptive work, to break free of the wilderness of exhaustion, imbalance, and built-up resentments. 
Or perhaps you could use some time constructing or reconstructing your relationships with others – friends, co-workers, a spouse or partner, a neighbor.  Beginning Tuesday, March 3 and continuing  for four weeks, Lisa Montgomery and Andrea Nowack will be facilitating a group foranyone who wants to learn or re-learn what it means to support, love, and communicate with others in healthy ways because being in relationship is another way to participate in God’s redemptive work and to break free of the wilderness of social isolation.
Or is God calling you to participate in proclaiming the good news by joining a Tuesday evening team in making sack lunches for our homeless neighbors or joining a Wednesday mid-day team in serving those lunches? There is a sign-up sheet in the parlor to get involved or you can speak with Jacqui Zeng or myself for more information.  God’s redemptive work involves feeding the hungry, breaking free from the wilderness that divides the haves from the have nots.
Might God be calling you to add your voice to the choir for the season of Lent – or, perhaps even longer?  Michael Hawn, Director of the Master of Sacred Music program at Perkins School of Theology, rightly reminds us that “music is more than a vehicle for personal expression. . .[m]usic making becomes a way of shaping prayer.”[4] Singing in the choir is a way to support and enliven St. Mark’s worship as we remember that whenever we gather for worship we are present with worshippers across “the church of all places and all times.” Music in worship today, for example, connects us peoples from the 4th century to the present day and spans the globe from China to Italy ,England, Scotland; from Libya to the United States. Singing as part of the choir then is a way to break-free of the wilderness that puts up boundaries between peoples and nations and to participate in God’s redemptive work through praying with and for the church and the world.
Volunteering in the Sunday School, participating with the outreach and social justice ministry team, spending time each day praying intentionally for members of the St. Mark’s community, praying for the wardens and vestry leaders of St. Mark’s, praying for your clergy leaders . . . all of these are ways to break free from the wilderness and proclaim the good news of God.  Beyond the walls of the church, what might it look like to intentionally break free from the wilderness, to intentionally focus on our neighborhoods, our homes, our schools, our workplaces as areas in the world in need of the good news of God?  What might God be calling you to do? What might God be calling us to do? When we pray the words of this morning’s psalm:

“Show us your ways, O LORD and teach us your paths. Lead us in your truth and teach us, for you are the God of our salvation.”

When we pray these words, can we leave room for God’s response, for God’s invitation to us to break free and participate in God’s redeeming work? When we make room for God’s response, what might we hear and what might we be moved to do?

[1] Psalm 25:3-4a.
[2] Mark 1:13.
[3] Mark 1:14-15.
[4] C. Michael Hawn, Gather Into One: Praying and Singing Globally,  (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 254.


Invited to Take Risks

State of the Parish Address

Rather than looking back at the year behind us, I would like to use this year’s State of the Parish Address to look to the year ahead.  When, during the Annual Meeting, you receive copies of the Annual Report, you’ll have a chance to read from your wardens, from staff members, and from other leaders of St. Mark’s about things that have taken place – fabulous things that have taken place – at St. Mark’s in 2014.  There is much to celebrate and remember in our past year.  In fact, there is much to celebrate in our past 150 years.  But today, I would like to take an opportunity to look forward; to explore with you what lies ahead.
Earlier this month, I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour.  Host Guy Raz was interviewing Edith Widder who, in 2005, founded the Ocean Research & Conservation Association and a year later was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant”.  Dr. Widder is a marine biologist who specializes in bioluminescence and was describing her experience of being the first person to photograph the elusive giant squid. When the host asked Dr. Widder why she chooses to explore - what keeps her motivated - Dr. Widder replied:
“Exploring is an innate part of being human. We're all explorers when we're born. Unfortunately, it seems to get drummed out of many of us as we get older, but it's there, I think, in all of us. And for me that moment of discovery is just so thrilling, on any level, that I think anybody that's experienced it is pretty quickly addicted to it.”[1]
I gave that some thought – “exploring is an innate part of being human”; we are born that way – created as explorers. That seems right.  We learn by exploring, by taking risks. Some of our earliest explorations don’t turn out so well – the toddler who sticks a slightly damp finger into an electrical outlet.  Not a great experience – but, a learning opportunity to be sure!  But, on the other hand, our earliest efforts at exploration lead to our first scooting, then crawling and then walking.  Without such exploration our development stops.  Each venture, each risk taken, an opportunity to explore, to learn and to grow.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus calls out to Simon and Andrew, “Follow Me.”  He calls out to James and John, “Follow Me.”  And, he calls out to each of us – and to the Church – “Follow me.” This is a calling, an invitation to explore, to take a risk with life; to do something completely new and potentially dangerous.  It is no mistake that today’s reading begins with the announcement that John the Baptist has been imprisoned for his preaching about Jesus; indeed, following Jesus can be very risky.  Elsewhere in Scripture – in Matthew’s Gospel – Jesus says, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3).  What if part of that invitation is daring to reclaim that innate part of us – the child-like explorer within? 
Jesus calls out, “Follow me” – take a risk with your life.  He doesn’t promise there will be no pain. Again, remember John the Baptist.  But he does promise a life of fulfillment as we come and take part in the work that God is graciously doing in the world around us.
In 2015, St. Mark’s wardens, vestry and clergy have decided to embrace a period of intentional exploration and risk-taking.  We have done this by expanding our budget so that the Community Engagement Coordinator position, currently held by Jacqui Zeng, can be extended for another year.   We feel confident that the work that is being done through this role is faithful work - work that is resulting in a greater presence for St. Mark’s in our community as more and more outside organizations utilize our facilities during the week.  On Tuesdays, InterPlay classes are offered in Cunningham Hall. On any given Wednesday night, you will find not only Music Night taking place in the choir room but Evanston English Country Dancers in Cunningham Hall, and a Creative Writing Group sharing our space in the library.  Adding to this important weekday building use in 2015, will be a Wednesday sack lunch program to feed some of our homeless neighbors.  Being done in partnership with St. Matthew’s, this program will be overseen by our Community Engagement Coordinator. And this will be possible because we are willing to take a risk with our budget, because we are able to step out in faith.
In 2015, we have dared to expand our budget to include funds for a seminarian from  Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary here in Evanston.  St. Mark’s has been a seminary field site in the past and it is exciting to become one again.  Welcoming a seminarian, appreciating their individual gifts for ministry and celebrating their growth as partners with us in ministry are rich opportunities for St. Mark’s.  This will be possible because we are willing to take a risk with our budget, able to step out in faith.
In 2015, St. Mark’s has dared to expand our budget to enrich our music ministries. In 2014, we already expanded the Associate for Music Ministries position from 15 hours to 20 hours per week.  But, at that time, we provided no additional funds for program expansion.  Despite the lack of additional funds, David Plank has launched a weekly music night that provides opportunity for children and adults to learn more about music, to practice singing together, and to gather as community.  In order for this to continue and grow, the budget needed to grow.  And so we took a risk with our budget and stepped out in faith.
In 2015, your leadership – wardens, vestry, and clergy – have dared to take a risk with the budget; but, in response, we are also taking a bold step with our giving because we believe the risks we are taking – these explorations – are good and faithful responses to Jesus’ call to “follow me.”  Despite our increased giving, you will see a gap between income and expenses in the budget that the vestry has passed. Yes, we dared to pass a budget that is not balanced.  You might look at this gap as a deficit with no concrete plan for closing the gap.  But I choose to see it as our opportunity for faithful response – a faith line in the budget.  And, in faith, I and the rest of St. Mark’s leadership have increased our pledges by an average of 20% in 2015 and we invite you to increase your pledge as well or, if you’ve never pledged before, to take a step out in faith and complete a pledge card for the first time.  Why?  Because we have faith in God’s call to us to be a people who take risks. We have faith in God’s call to us to be like Simon and Andrew who immediately left their nets and followed Jesus, to be like James and John who left their father and their boat to follow Jesus.  We have faith in God’s invitation to us to set aside security, self-interest and approval as our primary values and instead to enter a life that places our value in faithful living with its inherent call to risk, insecurity, and self-denial; to place value on God’s promise rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ.
We have faith that this is what it means to be followers of the way of Jesus, a people who not only talk the talk but walk the walk.  Might there be setbacks? Absolutely.  What child has ever learned to walk who hasn’t fallen down once or twice along the way? But what child has ever learned to walk who didn’t first muster up the courage to try – to take that first step of faith.
 “Follow me” – two of the most challenging and life affirming words that Jesus speaks in the Gospels.  And with these words Jesus began calling the first disciples into community and continues with those same two words to call us into that beloved community today.   A community that is invited to boldly explore what it means to be a part of God’s work in the world, a community that is invited to take risks, to explore, to discover the power of God working in and among us.   That is what we will be about in 2015 at St. Mark’s.  That is what I invite you to be about in 2015 at St. Mark’s.

[1] Edith Widder, interview by Guy Raz, “In Search Of,” NPR TED Radio Hour, January 9, 2015. Transcript available online.


Make Us A House

Advent 4B 

As Christmas approaches, talk around living rooms and around dinner tables often revolve around traditions.   When does your family open gifts? Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?  Which church service do you attend? The one with the pageant, the one with candle light, or the one on Christmas morning?  Do you hang stockings for Santa to fill?  What is the traditional Christmas feast at your house?  Ham? Stewed Oxtail? Curried Goat?  Something else? 

Our churches too are filled with such nostalgic conversations about tradition.  “We will dim the lights and sing Silent Night in the candlelight, won’t we?”  “We will have poinsettias again this year, won’t we?”  “The pageant will be the traditional story, won’t it? – with the angels, the shepherds and the wisemen?”  “We will have a carol sing this year, won’t we?”  These are just some of the questions that I have heard at and around St. Mark’s as Christmas draws near.  And, the answers for those who just can’t wait – yes, yes, yes, and yes! 
In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, King David announces to the prophet Nathan his desire to build a house – a temple – for the Lord.  It seems wrong to David that he should live in a great house built of cedar and that God should still dwell within a tent.[1]  During the night, however, Nathan receives word from God saying that this is not what the Lord desires.  In fact, God tells Nathan, never have I asked for a house of cedar; moreover, God continues, “I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place . . . the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”[2]
So what do the Israelites do? They build a house of cedar – a temple – for God.[3] A temple so elaborate, in fact, that it takes 7 ½ years to complete.  To be sure the building of the temple doesn’t take place until the reign of King Solomon some 10 to 20 years after King David’s reign ends; but, there is no indication that God has, in this interim period, changed God’s opinion on the matter.  Moreover, this is not the first time in the history of the Israelite people that the people ask God for something, God says “no” and the people do it anyhow. In fact, that’s how Israel got their first King!  But we’ll save that story for another time.
In the building of the temple a deep and rich tradition around ritual worship begins.  Chapter upon chapter of Scripture focus on the right way to worship God: who can approach the throne of God in the temple, who can serve as temple priests, what the priests should wear, what sacrifices are appropriate for various occasions and circumstances, and so on. This tradition of “how to” worship God is one that carries into our present day whenever congregations engage in conversation – or sadly sometimes debates - about how we should worship, the “right” way to worship, or, as it is frequently heard in churches, “the way we’ve always done it.”  And there are two times of year when these conversations reach a climactic pitch: Easter and, you guessed it, Christmas!
Psychologist Michele Brennan suggests that the reason holiday traditions become so important is that they help build
“a strong bond between family and our community. They give us a sense of belonging and a way to express what is important to us. They connect us to our history and help us celebrate generations of family. . . . They keep the memories of the past alive and help us share them with newer generations.”[4] 
And so, when someone decides to try something new or different, it can feel as though a part of our identity is being stripped away.  Rationally, we know that is not the case:  my family is still my beloved family even if this one Christmas we eat dolmades instead of ham and my church community is still my beloved church community even if this year my favorite Christmas hymn doesn’t get sung.  But on an emotional level, such small things can really move us.  And so, the way we do things becomes a habit, becomes an expectation, becomes a tradition.
And, I LOVE tradition.  When our Confirm not Conform students gather for class, our session begins with a series of statements and an invitation for students and leaders to stand on a line in the room. One end of the line represents “Strongly Agree,” the other end represents “Strongly Disagree.”  Last Sunday night, one of the statements was, “I like things to stay pretty much the same.”  When I moved to toward the “Strongly Agree” side of the line, I heard one of the students exclaim, “Pastor Debra! That’s really bad!”  Now I can only assume that the reaction had to do with the fact that I am constantly encouraging all of us to accept change as a normal part of how we do things – in fact, I would love for us to make a tradition of change!  But here’s another fact: I too find change incredibly challenging.  I, like most people, when it comes to traditions – especially around the BIG holidays – I like things “the way they’ve always been.”  But I also know that when I give in to that desire, I run the risk of closing myself off from God’s invitation to new life.
King David wants to build a temple for God.  And God says “No!”  God tells King David, through the prophet Nathan, that it is God who wants to make us a house.  God wants to set the parameters for our life with God.  God does not want to be boxed in – by a temple, by our church walls, by the way we’ve always done things.  God wants to make us a house, God wants to dwell in us and reshape and reform us again and again.  Can we make room in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls for that sort of transformation – room to receive God’s gift - even amidst the candlelight, the poinsettias, the pageant, and the carols?

[4] Michele L. Brennan, “WhyHoliday Traditions Might Be More Important Than You Think,”  Living a Balanced Life published by PsychCentral and accessed on December 17, 2014.

In the News . . .