Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Spirit Immediately Drove Jesus into...Westworld?

Mark 1:9-13, Romans 8:18-27   

Christopher and I recently watched the first season of Westworld—the science fiction western thriller novel written by Michael Crichton and made into a TV show for HBO. Christopher first watched the show when it was released in the spring and he re-watched it while I was in Zambia. Christopher loves Westworld. It is a complicated, deeply layered and intricate story with big, big questions about life. What does it mean to be the creator? What authority and control does the creator has over the so-called that has been created? How do the emotions of love, pain, hate and joy drive us? And does the motivation and life purpose of one supersede the motivation and life purpose of another? As I watched this show for the first time and he for the third time, Christopher would pause it every occasionally—particularly after a revelatory moment that just took place—and he walk me through how his understanding of what just happened evolved over his multiple viewings and point out whatever he newly noticed this third time around.

Watching a movie or TV show or reading a book again and again allows us to catch subtleties that we might have missed before. We experience the story from a slightly different point of view due to recent occurrences in our lives—such the death or birth of a loved one, the loss or gaining of a job, or the end or beginning of a significant relationship. These events in our lives shift our focus and we see the world through a different set of lenses. A shift such as this is what the Church asks of God’s people during its different seasons. Advent is time to consider the arrival of the baby who was sent to heal the world. Lent is the time to reflect on the ministry of that baby who became an adult and challenged the systematic evils of empire—so much so that he was executed. And the Season of Easter is time for us to celebrate and experience the power of resurrection in our lives. And during this current season, the Season of Creation, the Church encourages people of faith to re-read a book they should already know fairly well. Many churches have a schedule for reading the holy scriptures over time and when they come to the end, they begin reading them again. As we move through the Season of Creation, we are encouraged to read the scriptures with an understanding that God created and loves ALL of creation—not just humanity. And in the giving of creation for us to keep and to till, God wished for the health of each and every aspect of God’s great creation. We are reminded in this Creation Time that the planet’s along with its plants and animals well-being are interconnected with the well-being of humanity. Last week we re-visited the creation story of how the first humans were formed from the very soil that fed and nourished the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden. It is from the earth we were created and it is to the earth that we will all return. In the words of Yanomami Shaman Davi Kopenawa, “The environment is not separate from ourselves. We are inside it and it is inside us.”

This Sunday is Wilderness Sunday. We often associate wilderness with realms that are unfamiliar, inhospitable or threating to us. Merriam-Webster defines wilderness as a region that is uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings—an empty or pathless area. Of course, empty in this context means empty of humanity because we know that wilderness, in any area of the world, has plenty of life whether or not it’s readily apparent. What is wilderness to humanity is home to many other aspects of God’s creation. The value to our world of wilderness is really just beginning to be understood. The prevailing thought used to be that the demise and extinction of one type of creature or plant did not, could not really affect humanity. But we have discovered the hard way, over time, that when the natural order of life on this planet is disrupted, there are consequences. When the wolves were hunted out of Yellowstone National Park to protect the non-predator animals living there, the conditions of the Park began to change drastically. The elk herds were no longer being culled by their natural predator and so they began to flourish, which in turn affected the plant life as the elk were numerous and needed much more to eat. Which then led to park rangers killing elk. Once the powers that be realized that mother nature had it all figured out in the first place, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. The Park has since seen a remarkable and exciting shift in various animal and plant populations as a result. I am reminded of a quote that I have seen recently from Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher from the 16th Century, “Let us permit nature to have her way. She understands her business better than we do.”

Humanity has long tried to conquer the wild—to live in places that seem to be most unwelcoming to a people that have no fur to keep us warm or natural protection from the heat of the sun. As much as I always feel cold between September and June, I do not understand why people think they can live in Arizona—particularly in the summer months. When we drove through what seemed to be a barren part of Arizona a few summers ago, I figured we might as well have been at the ends of the earth. I fretted the entire drive that our vehicle would break down along the desert highway and we would all perish because of the heat. But, with no great surprise, it is in the very distance from the security of town and neighbour, in which we also find beauty and peace. It is said that “The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.” The wilderness is a haven from the pressures of our fast-paced society. It provides us places where we can seek relief from the noise, haste and crowds that too often confine us. Wilderness areas can truly be places where we can hear the small still voice of God, speaking quietly to our hearts. Where we can look upwards and see the incredibleness of the Milky Way in all of its grandeur and where we can imagine the God who created those heavens of the sky along with the Creation of the earth.

The importance of keeping the wilderness wild has been acknowledged by nations for hundreds of years. While in and around 400 BCE Plato stated he had nothing to learn from landscapes and trees it was as early as 250 BCE that King Ashoka of India created the first laws to protect nature and established wildlife reserves during his rule. Indigenous and aboriginal people from all corners of the earth live in close physical and spiritual connection with the land—they have been strong advocates for the whole of Creation. The first three National Parks in the world were opened later in the 19th Century. Yellowstone in 1982, Royal National Park near Sydney Australia in 1879 and Banff National Park in 1885. The arctic tundra, the Amazon rainforest, the Australian outback and the Sahara Desert are some of the most remote wilderness areas on Earth today. We would like to think that these areas have been untouched by humanity’s relentless progress but we know that the impact of God’s people is felt, even in the most remote places on earth. Smog, acid rain, ice shelves collapsing…clearcutting, nuclear testing sites. Why keep wilderness  :
  • To protect the ancestral lands and cultures of indigenous people
  • To preserve species of plants and animals that would otherwise become extinct due to human development
  • So that we can observe the night sky, star/planets, Milky Way
  • To provide humans with a way to reconnect with nature and escape the hectic rush of the modern world
  • Wilderness filters and cleans the air we breathe and the water we drink
  • Leave a legacy of untouched wild lands for future generations of all species to enjoy

Near Mount Sinai, Egypt, 2012
It is critical that we keep the wilderness as wild as possible. For the health of the world and for our own spiritual and emotional well-being. For personal growth and transformation. We are told in today’s scripture reading that upon his baptism, Jesus was immediately driven out to the wilderness. I’m sure each of us have imagery of what the wilderness might have entailed—I know that I think that it must have been dry, hot, shelter, water and food hard to come by—pretty much the Arizona desert all over again. I am thinking that Jesus might not have had to go very far because we told just before this reading that John the Baptizer was already far away from any close civilization. He was in the wilderness himself, searching for God away from Jerusalem, the Temple and the false security of the city. This testing of Jesus by sending him further into the wilderness is reminiscent of Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden out into the unknown land where they had to toil and labour like never before. And it is reminiscent of when the slaves of Egypt finally escaped but they did not enter directly into the Promised Land—first they wandered forty years through the desert. And, having visited the Sahara desert and having climbed Mount Sinai myself, let me tell you that it is very much an inhospitable place. In biblical tradition, God again and again calls God’s people to the wilderness to be formed and reformed.

Linn David Edward
In the spread of so-called civilization across the globe, the wilderness is no longer something scary for us to conquer. And yet, individually, we likely each have good reason to be nervous and to feel uncertain in different types of wilderness, such as I did in Arizona. What we know better ourselves in today’s world is that the wildernesses that we endure are not physical places for everyone. The TV show Westworld I spoke about earlier, is about people removing themselves from their civilized lives and entering into a live-action game that takes place, interestingly enough, in the old-time Wild West. Whether for fun or for a time of introspection, people choose to take themselves to a time and area that is hard, dirty, violent and difficult. The characters we meet are each struggling with some aspect of their life. Their true wilderness is internal. The pain, hurt and brokenness they feel cannot be escaped by simply taking themselves out to the desert of the Wild West. Their healing cannot simply be washed away—self-reflection, honesty about themselves and a willingness to they discover, is bound up in the lives of others—even if those others are not fully human.

Each of us experience moments of wilderness in our own lives. A medical diagnoses that forever alters how you will be in the world. A relationship severed beyond repair. Depression, anxiety. Hurt and pain. Bearing grudges and having grudges borne against you. Being in the wilderness—whether it is the real thing—deep into woods that are so large you’re not sure if you ever will find the edge, out on the northern tundra, in the middle of a desert—or if the wilderness is metaphorical—you are feeling locked in, locked out, abandoned, not worthy—being in the wilderness  reminds us that we are vulnerable, that our individualism will only get us so far. We need one another. We are to rely on one another. We need the plants and animals to sustain us. We need our fellow humans to encourage and love us. The stories of our God and of the one we call Christ remind us that the wilderness is not some scary place to be avoided at all cost. It is necessary for growth, for being reformed and renewed. Transformation is possible in the wild. Adam and Eve learned the skills to further humanity, despite a rough start in the world. The Hebrew people made it to the Promised Land having grown in their faith and trust in the one true God. Jesus understood that his ministry was to show that love, trust and compassion is stronger and will always win over hate, fear and power. The wilderness may not need us but we certainly need it.

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