September 2023

Sermon: Desert Dwellers… Heat and All

When we venture into the desert there are no guarantees other than we will emerge as changed people who cannot go back to their former selves.

In my early years in Arizona, I was the photographer for one of the first xeriscape landscaping companies in Arizona.  The concept of xeriscape is to use native plants in order to save water, and one of their major philosophical goals is to remove lawn grass from dwellings that reside in the desert.  Xeriscape has a strong sense of stewardship of the land. My landscape architect friend would pick me up at dawn, and we would take off in his open-air Jeep to visit sites he had designed and installed.  Many of these homes were in the area of our church.  As we rode along, he would educate me about the plants and the eco system of the desert.  He would espouse a philosophy that our habitats should not be based on European or Colonial architecture, but on shapes, colors and objects that reflect and are congruent with the desert environment.  When we reached a site, I would get out of the Jeep and photograph the surroundings.  As I looked through my lens, I gained an even greater love for the desert…heat and all.  Sometimes it was so hot that we would jump in the closest available pool with all our clothes on before resuming our journey in the open-air Jeep.  My photographs reflected extraordinary artistry, and my friend won almost every architectural award in the Southwest. On a more important note, he shared with me a love, respect, and appreciation of the desert that has remained within my soul for over forty years.  He instilled in me a sacred regard for our surroundings and a thoughtful awareness of stewardship of our particular and unique land.  

Before I moved to Phoenix, I lived on a lush green island in British Columbia.  Every day I was enveloped with the expanse of the ocean, the hugeness of the evergreens, and the lushness of acre upon acre of flowered grass.  One of the characteristics of Vancouver Island is moderation.  The Japanese current lends a moderate climate, and even the perpetual rain gives forth to sunny afternoons. The British culture is one of propriety, and gardening is the number one hobby on the island, presenting a story book picture of moderate life.  When I informed my friends on the island that I was moving to the Southwest, Phoenix in particular, they were astounded, and more than one of them commented that I had sentenced myself to living in the wilderness where I would die of heat stroke.

Part of my love for the Southwest stems from the fact that it is not moderate.  We experience extreme heat, and we are a community of largely up-rooted and re-settled pioneer types.  We have developed our own customs and our own way of doing things.  We don’t care what they did in Minnesota twenty years ago.  The desert is not stark to me, but a place of mystical wonder where we are reminded that God does things in God’s own way and in God’s own time.  The desert announces to us that she will not be conquered, rather she presents us with the invitation of a peaceful coexistence.  The desert stands bold as God’s creation, not ours, and reminds us in many ways that we are guests in her midst.

A primary reason I love the desert is that I feel close to Jesus in her midst.  We live in a similar climate and similar geographical circumstance to that which Jesus experienced.    Jesus went to the desert to spend forty days and forty nights.  During this time, he further experienced the human condition because he was tempted, made aware of his power, and dared to prove himself.  This very humanity of Jesus, the human, the living breathing being, the embodiment makes me feel very close to God.

Jesus was an extraordinary person.  He had power at his finger tips, and yet he chose to be gentle.  He could have performed any self-aggrandizing miracle, and yet all of his miracles were in service to others.  He lived for us, and there is much to learn from his life.

What do you suppose was going on in the mind and heart of Jesus when he went into the wilderness?  I imagine he was weary, bone tired from his travels and his interactions with people.  He was probably sick and tired and fed up with the pettiness and constant bickering of people, of their sense of self importance, of their need to control and feel important.  His feet ached, he was dirty, and he was exhausted.  He yearned for rest.  He needed to think, to pray, to renew his contact with God.  Instead of finding rest, he found challenge.  Although exhausted, he met this challenge, responded firmly, articulating the message of God’s desire for his life.

There is strong evidence that Jesus was highly stressed when he retreated into the desert.  Jesus knew that he would soon face arrest, torture, and execution.  We can’t help but think that these factors weighed on Jesus.  Like many people who feel stressed, Jesus retreated to a quiet place to seek spiritual support and to engage in prayer.  Jesus’ world was stressed.  Our world is stressed.  He needed a place of quiet.  We try to provide a place of silence before our church service each Sunday.  Places of silence are few and far between in our frenzied world.

Steadily, consistently Jesus teaches us.  At times we are all weary, but we are called upon to do God’s bidding in the world.  The story of the wilderness applies to the Christian community today, particularly when we ask ourselves to reflect upon our responsibility.

There is little moderation in what we are asked to do.  We are commanded to love with stamina, strength, rigorous honesty steadfastness, and obedience to the will of God.

There are no devils in our world, but I would suggest that we are tempted.  Our devils are not like the figure Jesus confronts in the wilderness, rather our devils are often self created out of self centeredness.  Instead of serving others, we promote ourselves.  We live smugly in the false safety of materialism and possessions, doing what we have always done until Jesus enters the scene, over-turning the tables of the money changers, challenging our worship of money, image, and prestige.  Our comfort in the status quo is demolished, and we find that we have taken too much for granted.  

Self pity is perhaps one of the most deadly devils we face in human life.  It is a killer.  When we are confronted with challenge, sorrow, or hardship, the comfortable way out is to feel sorry for ourselves or to blame someone else.  Poor, poor, pitiful me becomes our deadly chant.  We find comfort dwelling in our own sorrow, our own sense of persecution, and we drown in self pity.  We chant a long list of people, places and circumstances that have done us wrong, and we invite you to listen to our song entitled “Oh, ain’t it awful?”  We become a living breathing somebody done somebody wrong song.  Self pity not only stops us in our own tracks, but alienates us from those around us.  Self pity is a deadly disease, and the only cure for it is faith.

A devil of comfort is not taking risks.  It can be more comfortable to stay where we are, rather than venturing into the abyss of the unknown.  We have all kinds of reasons for not taking risks.  We ask ourselves what if I fail?  We’re not sure of ourselves.  Perfection can  play a part.  Perhaps we are driven by a scarcity mentality or an attachment to money and things.  The fact of the matter is that no matter what we do some people will not approve.  Some people will criticize.  There will be gossip.  However, the failure to take risks is the failure to be fully alive, the failure to be fully creative, the failure to experience the exhilaration of life, and the strength of faith.

Another devil of comfort is to dwell in the past….to live in the good old days.  My father used to say that “the only thing about the good old days is that we weren’t good and we weren’t old.”  How many times do we hear people say how they did it in their old church or how they were hurt as a child.  It’s tempting to blame our present conditions on the past, and there are many scapegoats:  our parents, society, the Depression, our up-bringing, other people.  This allows us to avoid confronting ourselves.  The saints of our world are the sinners who kept going, who dared accept the challenges and realities of the present.

What do you suppose were the results of Jesus’ time in the desert, and what do you want to be our goals as people of the desert?  If we are willing to confront the devils of self pity, lack of risk taking and living in the past, we will emerge to put our whole selves in to a concept of Christian love.  After we have afflicted the comfortable, we will be ready to bring comfort to the afflicted.  We will be able to see beyond ourselves, to widen our perspectives, and to see a world full of tremendous possibility and full of challenge.

We have lived through a time that could be compared to Jesus time in the desert.  As The COVID pandemic forced us into isolation and hopefully into a time of contemplation.  Some of the changes COVID created can be viewed as positive.  For example, it provided a time to realign our priorities and to think about a work/life balance.  While some of us remained safe, others were experiencing profound grief, pain and anguish as they experienced the loss of loved ones, friends and coworkers. Thousands of people perished in isolation with nobody at their sides.  Caregivers risked their own lives to tend to those who were suffering while others thought only of themselves and their own families.  Crises will always drive some to faith and others to skepticism.  How do we want to emerge from this desert?

When we venture into the desert there are no guarantees other than we will emerge as changed people who cannot go back to their former selves.  Like Jesus, we will emerge with a new sense of our relationship with God, a different perspective on our future, hopefully courage to carry out our callings.  But above all, we will be changed.  Listen to this blessing:

Blessed are you, dear one,
When the world around you has changed.
Everything is different now:
Your body, your age, your relationships,
Your job, your faith,
The things that once brought you joy.
The people you loved and trusted
And relied on.
The way you exist in the world.

Things have changed.  And it would be silly to imagine
you haven’t been altered along with them.
You are not who you once were.

Bless the old self,
They did such a great job with what they knew,
They made you who you were
all the mistakes and heartbreak
And naivety and courage.

And blessed are you who you are now.
You who aren’t pretending things are the same,
You who continue to grow and stretch
And show up to your life as it really is—
Wholehearted, vulnerable,
Maybe a tiny bit afraid.
Blessed are you the changed.

-Kate Bowler


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