February 21, 2021

Off to the Wilderness

by Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson  

Lent 1 – February 21, 2021 Mark 1:9-15  

Early in the new year Rev. Dr. Paul Hutchison of Eglinton St. George’s United Church approached our North Toronto cluster of churches with a proposal for Lent: he was going to talk about the presence and persistence of racism in our city and country in light of the United Church of Canada’s declared commitment to become an anti-racist denomination.  Did we want to join him?  I didn’t say “yes” right away.  I brought the question to our worship team and we talked about it.  Did we really think it was a good idea to talk about racism when people are already struggling with a pandemic?  We worried that talking about a challenging and emotional issue would encourage those already on the fence about joining these online services decide to stay away for the whole season. 

When I’ve talked about racism in my sermons I hear from people that they don’t want to talk about this issue at church; others tell me they hear about issues of race and equity all the time on the news and they’re looking for a break when they come to church, for comfort, for a boost.  But the season of Lent is about deliberately going to a challenging place and allowing the challenge to change to us.            

Lent begins with the story of Jesus being sent into the wilderness – Jesus is sent to a challenging place.  You could see Jesus’ baptism as formalizing his relationship with God.  Jesus’ spiritual tradition was Judaism and Jewish practice is compelled by the concept of covenant – a word that means “promise.”  God promises to love and care for the people of Israel and in return, the people promise to love God by following God’s commandments.  You could see Jesus’ baptism as the equivalent of signing the covenant contract with God.  At the time, baptism was a ritual that symbolized literally and figuratively one’s commitment to being “all in,” when it comes to a covenant relationship with God.  But here’s what’s interesting: affirming his commitment to a covenant relationship with God doesn’t set Jesus up for a life of being comfortable.  Instead, the Spirit sends him to the wilderness, where (over a span of 40 days and 40 nights) Jesus wrestles with what it means to faithful.  The Spirit sends him to the wilderness – a challenging place – where he tries to work out what kind of life God is calling him to live, now that he’s formalized this covenant relationship, and what kind of person God is calling him to be.

The story goes that while Jesus is in the wilderness he is tempted by “Satan,” a Hebrew word that means “adversary.”  Mark’s gospel doesn’t get into Jesus’ conflict with this adversary but Matthew and Luke give more details – do you remember how the story goes?  Jesus has to face his own ego.  As he came up out of the water at his baptism Jesus “saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk 1:10-11).  That’s a lot of power.  Jesus could wield a lot of influence.  “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” the adversary says, build yourself up, get what you want, when you want it, use your power to feed yourself.  The adversary takes him up to the top of a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour.  “All this I will give you,” the adversary says, “if you bow down and worship me” – if you worship your own ego.  Jesus’ spiritual work during his time in the wilderness was to acknowledge what was inside of him that was getting in the way of God’s Spirit.  Jesus had to notice what blocked the Spirit’s flow through him.  Jesus’ spiritual work in the wilderness was to remove everything in him that prevented God’s Spirit from moving through him to work in the world.

The Christian season of Lent is modeled after Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  Lent is also 40 days long (excluding Sundays); a symbolic number in our scriptures that simply means the amount of time necessary for change to happen.  During Lent the Spirit calls us to go to our own “wilderness” – our own challenging places – and to think about our own covenant relationship.  What in us is a barrier to the free-flowing of God’s Spirit?  Can we pinpoint the blockage, chip away at it, and watch the Spirit flow?  As we talked as a worship team, we came to the conclusion that joining this cluster initiative to talk about racism and being anti-racist was exactly the spiritual work to which the Spirit was calling us.  We know all of the statistics, how People of Colour have been more adversely affected by Covid-19, how racial bias continues to exist in our institutions – in education, in our legal system, in health care, in housing.  We  heard Black, Indigenous, and Asian peoples in Canada speak up when we witnessed the ongoing racial violence in the US, when many of us were saying that racism isn’t as prevalent here, or isn’t as destructive – we heard People of Colour in Canada say very clearly that racism is a very real part of their life experience.  It seemed to us that God Spirit wanted to send us to a challenging place this season, and to talk about how racism and white supremacy continue to thwart human life and thriving.  As a worship team, we decided this was, indeed, the wilderness to which the Spirit was sending us to work out what kind of lives God is calling us to live, and what kind of people God is calling us to be.

As I was thinking about how to get into the topic of race at Rosedale United Church, I thought one way into the subject could be our focal stained-glass window.  It turns out we can’t worship in our sanctuary without contemplating race: right there in our focal stained glass is a depiction Christ among different “nations.”  Our spiritual practice this season is simply to talk.  These worship services are designed to start a conversation which we’ll continue on at our online coffee hour and in our Lenten book study group and in our movie suggestions.  This year we’ve decided to name racism and white supremacy as a block to God’s Spirit and to talk through explicit and courageous conversation about what it means for us to be anti-racist church.  Each week I’ve invited special guests to engage in conversation with me.  When Jesus was in the wilderness he faced what was challenging and scary to him head on, and in doing so he was changed.  His courage in the wilderness moved him through to new conviction and hope.  So off we go, to a challenging place! 

In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo defines white supremacy as “the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption.”  The Christian Church has not been immune to this ideology and, indeed, has often perpetuated it.  For example, there’s a famous love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures called the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon.  In the oldest translation of this poem the female protagonist is described as “black and beautiful.”  But in later versions of this passage the description is changed.  In the King James Version of the Bible – the first English translation of the Scriptures – the woman is described as “black but beautiful.”  That changes things.  The King James Version of the Bible was written in the early 1600s.  The official date of the arrival of enslaved people in the colony of Virginia dates to 1619.  Even in our own sanctuary we can see white skin tone idealized.  None of the representations of Biblical characters in our stained-glass are represented as People of Colour.  What message does this proclaim?  How do People of Colour feel when they walk into our sanctuary?  How do our symbols and images influence our conception of God and Christ?  The Spirit has led us to this wilderness place where, like Jesus, we are faced with tough questions, challenging questions.  As people of faith, in a covenant relationship with God, who are we called to be?  What are we called to do?  What blocks the free-flowing of the Spirit in our church community?  How are we celebrating all people as made in God’s image?  How are we communicating God’s welcome and God’s love? 

The conversation begins…