Preached by Rev. Jack Averill, March 20, 2016
The common thread running through worship on these Sundays in Lent has been “Through the Wilderness.” Each Sunday, the children have lengthened our pathway through the desert. I’ve spent time in the desert. I’ve come through the wilderness. I didn’t like it. I don’t want to go back.
Some of you have tales to tell about driving through a desert when your air conditioning started to fail or the time you watched the gas gauge dropping down and down while someone in the vehicle—perhaps you—asked accusingly, “Why didn’t you fill the tank before we started?”
I’ve spent time in a desert, my personal wilderness. I didn’t like it. I don’t want ever to return—but, considering the nature of human experience, it’s likely that I will.
I grew up in the Midwest. The desert was nothing I’d ever seen. For me, wilderness meant forest, heavily wooded—trees dwarfing me as they reached endlessly above, blocking the light. That’s my mental picture of a wilderness experience—no clearings, no trails, no apparent way out.
Rarely in our lives, perhaps never, can we step from an ending directly into a new beginning. Endings first cast us into a kind of wilderness. The greater the impact of the ending, the longer we’ll need for finding a way through the wilderness, a path back to life, life that will be different from before.
Even endings we choose—transferring from one school to another, quitting our job in order to begin a better job, freeing ourselves of a toxic relationship in order to order to step out of darkness into light—even endings we anticipate may throw us first into uncertainty, confusion. The hour-to-hour predictability that structured our day is disrupted. Part of our identity has come to an end. The familiar markers that told us what was expected of us are missing. Yet, eventually, we reorient ourselves and step out into that new beginning.
Major endings turn our lives upside down. Serious illness that threatens us, an avalanche of anxiety that descends on us without explanation, the death of someone who was life itself for us: these plunge us into endings with no new beginnings in sight. There we are: hemmed in by dense forest wilderness without sunlight or trails to follow or wandering in an expanse of desert sand, directionless. We’re there because something that defined us has ended. A reality that shaped who we were, that gave direction and content for living each day, is gone. We feel lost, deserted, profoundly alone. What was has ended. What will be has not taken shape. We are in the wilderness of the in-between. I’ve been there.
Palm Sunday takes us into Holy Week, days filled with remembering Jesus: his entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, his cleansing of the temple on Monday, and his entire day of teaching in the temple on Tuesday; on Wednesday his anointing by an unnamed woman, after which Judas arranged to betray him; Thursday the Passover meal in the upper room—his last supper with the disciples, then his arrest late Thursday night, leading to a hastily called hearing before the Jewish high court; very early Friday his trial before Pilate and his sentencing, his crucifixion at nine that morning, his death at three in the afternoon, and the burial just before sundown.
Recall one other scene. It seems almost inconsequential—late Tuesday afternoon after his full and exhausting day of teaching in the Temple. Controversy and conflict had for hours washed over Jesus as his enemies again and again attempted to trap him into making statements they could use against him. At last, the people intent on bringing about his death departed, the crowds who had listened to his teaching dispersed, and Jesus found welcome moments of solitary quietness. He sat on a bench in the temple courtyard—resting, gathering himself, thinking about what lay ahead of him in the next hours and days.
Observing people in their coming and going, his gaze focused on a woman. What she was doing moved him deeply. The Gospel of Mark tells us about it:
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. (Mark 12:41-42)
This is what we are told about her, that she was a poor widow who gave an offering. Yet we also know, at this time and place, that her parents had arranged her engagement when she was still a child, agreeing with the parents of a somewhat older boy that in years to come their two children would be joined in marriage. As the marriageable age drew near—18 to 20 for the boy, as young as 14 for her—their parents established the terms for their one-year betrothal. They did not live together, but they called each other husband or wife, and their betrothal could be broken only by divorce or death.
When the betrothal year ended, and the two families had negotiated the marriage contract, the wedding feast got under way, starting with a torch-lit procession that meandered through the village, bringing the bride, her friends and family to the bridegroom’s home where his close friends and family were waiting. This week-long celebration was not elaborate—poverty defined most families—but people recognized it as the highest pinnacle of celebration and joy that a bridegroom and bride would ever know.
The widow whom Jesus saw in the temple late Tuesday afternoon was now at a quite different place in her life. Was she elderly, do you think—not what we consider “elderly,” but in her 50s or early 60s? Yet, married at 14 or so, she could have been widowed before she was 20. A woman then and there, without a husband for protection and status, was particularly vulnerable to economic and social deprivation. The death of her husband had cast her into her own wilderness experience. We don’t know how recently, but she had spent time in that desert.
I’ve had to deal with my own wilderness experience—more than once, for different lengths of time, never quite the same desert as before. Human experience brings us all sorts of endings, most of them arriving without warning and leaving us uncertain about where to find the next beginning. Small endings may put us into a fog of short-term uncertainty. For days, possibly weeks, we reassess our situation, make adjustments and find our way. It’s the major, largely unanticipated endings that hurl us deep into the wilderness. What we took for granted about the structure of each day is now uncertain. The person we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do with ourselves have for the most part disappeared.
We experience loss. Loss entails grief. Grief may occasion anger, depression, and a stepping away from life. We didn’t ask for the wilderness, but there we are—big time. The familiar pathways to God may now seem to lead nowhere. The faith that was the foundation and structure for our lives falters. God has gone away. That’s not true, of course. God is never closer to us than in our personal wilderness, but we’ve lost confidence that God even cares. We’ve worn out the effectiveness of prayers we used to scatter throughout the day. Concern for other people, affection, helpfulness—all these dwindle: we can find nothing about ourselves that is worth offering to anyone else. The wilderness is a depressing place, isn’t it?
God does not intend for us to take up residence in that desert, nor does God want us to escape from it. The wilderness occurs because of loss. Loss entails grief. Grief causes pain. Hiding from pain doesn’t work. Masking pain is foolish. We have to turn, with God’s help, not away but toward our pain. Grief is the start of healing if we face the pain of loss and stare it down by praying our way through it, however long it takes.
My prayers from the wilderness tend to start, “O God, help me…”: get out of here, recover, make the right decision, find my way—whatever. But after a while, my prayers are just three words, “O God, help.” I don’t know what to say next. God knows.
Months may pass—long, long months—before we’re aware that light has begun to shine. We have redefined ourselves and our relationships. We’ve sharpened the perception of our life’s purpose. We’ve revised our faith. Our reaching out to God is wiser, more mature. We step out into the new beginning.
The woman in the temple courtyard that afternoon was not aware of Jesus, but she held his attention. Like any widow, she wore her loss—black veil, black head covering, and black robe—perhaps carefully patched: a widow struggling with meager means. She was no stranger to the wilderness, but she was there no longer. Selfless giving does not occur when we’re in the desert, focused on self and survival.
Jesus sat on a bench—resting, gathering himself, thinking about the ordeal that lay ahead of him. Men and women were depositing coins in the treasury, wooden chests attached low to the wall, each with a metal tube through which the coins fell. The abundant, heavy coins of the well-to-do clanged against the metal tubes. Who could even hear the tinny, tiny sound of two copper coins, worth not quite a penny? I think Jesus heard. I know Jesus saw.
“This poor widow,” he said, “has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44)
Even the most sacrificially generous people we know who, for love of God, give all that their right hand contains, hold other resources in their left hand to sustain their lives. When this woman emptied her right hand of its two thin coins, her left hand was empty. Because of her poverty, she could well have regarded herself as one who should receive. Nonetheless, she gave—“everything she had,” he said, “all she had to live on.” He was deeply moved, about to give everything he had, even his own life.
He is God’s gift to us: “God loved the world so much that God gave his only Son…,” you know the scripture (John 3:16). Jesus is God’s gift to us—a gift who promises, whatever may happen to us, more life than before, even life that has no ending.