Wilderness Sunday 9-17-17

I dreamed last night that I got lost and I woke up remembering my childhood hero, Davy Crockett. Yes, I had one of those coonskin hats and sang, “Davy Crocket, King of the Wild Frontier.” I remembered the story about Davy Crockett. Someone asked him if he’d ever been lost and he thought about it. “Nope” he said. “I’ve been a mite bewildered a few times…”

Bewildered – the word connects with wilderness. Our country loves wilderness. The myth of wilderness and draw of wilderness is part of the promise and dream of our founding. (Of course, there were already people living in that supposed wilderness, that we have exploited and that’s part of the story too.

My sermon this morning for Wilderness Sunday reflects on two types of relationship with wilderness – the first being the Joel-type relationship with the scary, destructive kind of plague of locust caused wilderness that warns humans to beware and to keep our distance. The second type of wilderness is the wilderness which Jesus enters in this passage from Matthew -the wilderness which is difficult, but still somehow a place of God’s redemptive power. In this passage the wilderness is called the desert, which is the same thing.

Matthew 3: 13-4:2 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jorden to be baptized by John. John tried to dissuade Jesus, saying, “I should be baptized by you, and yet you come to me!” But Jesus replied, “Leave it this way for now.  We must do this to completely fulfill God’s justice.”  So John reluctantly agreed. Immediately after Jesus had been baptized and was coming up out of the water, the sky suddenly opened up and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and hovering over him. With that, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Own, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests,.” Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the Devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry.

September 17, 2017

Season of Creation: Wilderness Sunday

At the end of my vacation two weeks ago, Cathy and I spent the weekend in Marion, Massachusetts. We were there to attend the wedding of my godson’s brother. It was a beautiful weekend and a beautiful wedding. We stayed at an airB&B near the beach. Saturday morning we took a walk out to see the beach. There was a sign at the edge of the parking lot which described an ongoing project between the beach and the large, indulgent houses at that edge of the town.

The sign said that the large marsh area in front of the sign was being allowed to return to a natural marsh in order to have a natural way to deal with storms and even with sewage. The land was becoming a barrier for storms and a recovery area for the land. It was becoming a wilderness, a redemptive, healing wilderness.


I have a personal story about the Joel kind of wilderness too. A personal connection to a tragedy makes it so much closer. As I have told you, the new tenant in my house, Ivy Defoe, is from the Dutch side of St. Maarten’s, the Caribbean Island that was absolutely destroyed by Hurricane Irma. As she comes and goes from her work at the University, I have heard her stories about her parents and her two sisters – mostly about the lack of news. I find myself trying to imagine what it would be like to spend 4 or 5 hours in a wooden house being blown from around you by 185 mile per hour winds. I literally can’t imagine. The wilderness that has been left behind, 80% of houses destroyed, is inconceivable.


Today we confess that we are detached from both of these kinds of wilderness – the one which God creates to be redemptive and healing, and the one which our inattention, greed and over consumption has made a full-out hazard to big parts of God’s creation. The warming of the waters in the Caribbean and the Gulf, and warmer air holding more water vapor, has led to these oversized hurricanes that scientist keep calling 1 in 500 or 1000 year storms.

(How can we call them 1 in 500 years when they are happening every few years? The flooding that happened in Houston is a 1 in 500 year flood. That doesn’t mean a similar flood won’t happen in a few years. The designation 1 in 500 year flood is used primarily for insurance purposes and indicates the possibility, the chances that particular areas will get flooded in one particular year. Usually, insurance companies require people within a 1 in 100 year flood plain to have flood insurance. But 1 in 500 year floods in Houston and Florida are happening more often because of warmer seas and warmer skies.)

The rain from Hurricane Harvey was the biggest recorded storm in the contiguous United States, but the resulting disastrous flooding was the product of rampant real estate speculation, political corruption, a warming environment, and a toxic blend of fossil fuel addiction and denial that the climate is indeed warming. When water absorbing natural terrain is replaced by cent and asphalt, water becomes ‘runoff.’ Rather than sinking into the ground like it does in that marsh area in Massachusetts or through the bricks that have replaced concrete sidewalks in my neighborhood, the water moves horizontally toward rivers, streams and the Gulf of Mexico. Losing wetlands around the airport in Philadelphia or near the shores in coastal cities make the resulting flooding much worse.


In the Bible, wilderness events are a somewhat common, if extraordinary occurrence. The Hebrew people following Moses wander in the desert wilderness for 40 years, until the whole generation of people whose mentality is stuck in Egyptian slavery die off and the people are ready to create a new life in a promised fertile land. Joel and other prophets invoke the image of a plague of locusts destroying the land, killing the promise of the temple as it is destroyed or threatened by foreign empires.

John the Baptist, the quintessential wilderness prophet who thought that locusts make a yummy dinner, calls people into the wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan River. Jesus, in our passage for this morning, is led into that desert wilderness by the Spirit of God after his baptism. In Mark, an earlier account, talks about the Spirit “driving” Jesus into the wilderness for a 40 day sojourn. The 40 days is clearly meant to recall the 40 years of the Hebrew people living in the wilderness.

Like the Hebrew people, Jesus uses this time in the wilderness to become renewed and energized for a new time. The wilderness is a place where he confronts his demons and faces the temptations of Satan. The challenge of the wilderness absorbs negative energy and allows for spiritual growth as Jesus takes on the mantle of his ministry.


God is present with us in the wilderness, whatever wilderness we face. Whatever desert deficits we are dealing with, divine life-giving energy is with us. We can face the truth about the ways in which our lifestyles are contributing to the warming of the air and the warming of the water. We can use those insights to encourage our society toward more renewable and sustainable sources of energy, an impetus toward returning land to its wilderness state.

You know how when you go past a woodland area on a hot day, you can feel the cool air? You can actually feel the difference in the temperature? Woods and wilderness help to stabilize the temperatures and make up for the concrete and asphalt wilderness that heats things up. Planting trees may feel like a drop in the bucket, but our trees and our gardens help to counter the paving of paradise.

St. Luke (through our lay leader Fred Vivino) has purchased two trees to plant on the front lawn of our church this month – one in honor of Betsy Monahan who gave a large bequest to the church in her will this year, and the other tree to recognize the 20 year anniversary of my ministry in Bryn Mawr. I’m encouraging the trustees to also consider purchasing solar panels to provide a renewable, sustainable source electricity for the next generation of ministry in this place.

The Bible shows us the ways wilderness areas are a blessing, even when they are sometimes scary or foreboding. Our holy texts encourage us to take care of the wild, as we do when we set aside areas for national parks and conservation areas. We need to make wilderness experience and renewable accessible to all God’s people, whether we live in rural, urban or suburban areas.

Responsive hymn  No. 2059      I Am Your Mother