For the First Sunday of Lent, here is a sermon that explores how we navigate our wilderness experiences. May these forty of days of self-examination and reflection be a blessing.
One of the most unexpected decisions I have ever heard from another person came on Ash Wednesday twelve years ago.
My 43 year old brother, Dave, had been struggling for nine years with Huntington’s Disease, a progressive neuro-musclar disorder that is like Alzheimer’s and MS put together.
Ever since he had been diagnosed, Dave always said that he did not want to even see anyone else with Huntington’s. He didn’t want to go to support groups, conferences or any event where he might possibly see someone else with the disease. We had already witnessed this disease ravage our mother’s mind and body. Seeing that was frightening enough.
However, about a year after his diagnosis he was in such a bad place that he asked me if I would leave my position at Wellesley College and return home to Schenectady so that he could live with me and my young son. It was a reflection of how desperately he needed my support that at that time he agreed that when he was no longer safe to be alone at home, he would move into a residence for people with Huntington’s an hour and fifteen minutes away. There not only would he see others with this terrifying disease, but he would be living with about forty people in its late stage. Forty people facing a certain death from Huntington’s Disease.
On that Ash Wednesday twelve years ago, Dave shocked me by saying that he realized the time had come for him to move. For him to voluntarily admit this was just astounding. It was also necessary. He could tell that his loss of muscle strength was creating frequent falls and episodes of choking. He knew he had reached the point that he was no longer safe in our home.
Three and a half months later, Dave moved to the Laurel Lake Center for Health and Rehabilitation – for what he could have only anticipated as the most intense wilderness experience of his life.
Most of us feel deeply uncomfortable in wilderness experiences – those overwhelming times when we feel vulnerable and perhaps even afraid. Wilderness experiences are also a part of most of our lives – like those times we are dealing with terminal illness or the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship, or the death of a way of life that comes with a job loss, retirement, move, illness or other significant change.
Few of us are likely to choose experiences that we can anticipate will deeply test or torment us. I think of two young men I know who are facing overseas deployments, as well as people fleeing violence and hunger in refugee camps, and those who are dealing with the coronavirus and other frightening illnesses. When given a choice, how many of us would choose these wilderness experiences?
In today’s Gospel reading we are told that it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness. Mind you, Jesus had just been baptized and affirmed as “the beloved.” He has just had the experience of feeling so deeply connected to God when he is thrust into an experience that leaves him feeling not only famished, but tested by the devil, one who wants him to abandon his relationship with God for a relationship with him.
Though offered an easy way out of the wilderness by Satan, Jesus reasserts again and again that he trusts God, that he believes God will be there for him; that in serving God, his needs will be met.
As Lent begins, we have an opportunity to consider if we really believe that if we make primary our intention to serve God that our needs will be met -whether we are in the wilderness or not. Do we trust that when we find ourselves in the wilderness – in distress, in grief, in hunger, in vulnerability- that our God will send us the help we need? Do we believe that if we choose to serve God, if we assert our confidence in God’s promises even when things look bad for us, that we will not only find a way through our struggles, but that we will learn and grow through them?
My brother, Dave, lived for six years at the Laurel Lake Center. Initially, it was a wilderness experience for him. For the first two weeks, every call and visit we had concluded with him telling me that he wanted to leave and go home. And then something happened that neither he nor I could have ever foreseen. My once star athlete brother realized that though Huntington’s Disease had stripped him of many of his former capabilities – he could no longer depend on his memory or button a shirt or even tie his shoes – there was still much he could do. He could take wheelchair bound residents to dinner. He could assist staff in putting bibs on those who could not use their hands at all. He could express his gratitude for all of the help he was receiving.
Though as he expected, it pained him to see other people struggling with Huntington’s, over time he came to see less of their illness; less of what was wrong with them and more of what they and he could still do. Like horseback riding at a nearby equestrian farm. Like enjoying a ride through the Berkshires. Like seeing the Red Sox play at Fenway. And even holding hands with another person.
Grace was present in the wilderness. Dave came to see that his life had purpose, joy, and love. Loving others in the midst of his wilderness experience, he discovered love returned to him many times over by a company of angels – nurses, a massage therapist, an occupational therapist, personal care assistants, an activity director, volunteers, friends, family and other residents. Most importantly, by choosing again and again and again to love, my brother did not allow the wilderness of Huntington’s Disease to define him.
How we view and approach our wilderness experiences can make all the difference. Rather than seeing them as a place of punishment or isolation, scripture invites us to see the wilderness as a place of learning more about the mercy of God. This Lent, how can you grow to more fully trust God’s presence when you or a loved one are in the wilderness? How can you consciously choose love and trust at those moments when you feel tempted to choose less?
May we take to heart the lessons of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. When we face our greatest challenges, may we not only trust that we are beloved but may we be a loving presence for others. Amen.