Thursday, February 26, 2009

Outward Bound

Here's last night's homily. It was very well received (by the sixteen people who showed up for the Ash Wednesday evening service: oy!). Two people asked for copies, and afterwards I had a good conversation with two of our priests and one of our deacons about eldercare issues.

I hadn't preached since September. It was nice to be back in the pulpit!


We embark tonight upon Lent, the most solemn season of the church year: the forty days leading to Jesus’ death and resurrection. These forty days resonate with the forty days Jesus wandered in the wilderness after being led there by the Spirit. They also echo the forty years the Isrealites wandered in the wilderness after being led there by Moses, who would take them to the Promised Land. We, too, are heading toward a Promised Land, but however many times we have made the journey, the path remains no less strange and steep, strewn with rocks.

Many Christians think of Lent as a time of rules and strictures, an oppressive time. Eat this. Don’t eat that. Give up what you love. Embrace what you dislike. To show how much you love Jesus, make yourself really uncomfortable. Carry a cross, and make sure it’s a heavy one.

There’s another way of thinking of this, though, and I was reminded of it recently while reading My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, the Jewish physician Sherry has quoted in several of her own homilies. Remen’s grandfather was a rabbi, and when she was very young, he explained the Passover story to her. She didn’t understand why the Isrealites were reluctant to leave their slavery in Egypt. Her grandfather told her, “the choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom. It is always between slavery and the unknown” (372). Freedom means embracing the unfamiliar, learning new skills and customs, being unsure.

This principle was vividly illustrated by the ER patient I visited, a former inmate who told me how difficult it was to readjust to life outside prison. “Inside,” he said, “you don’t have to make choices. Outside, it’s nothing but choices. I’d go to the store to get cheese, and there’d be an entire wall of cheese, and I’d just stand there, paralyzed. There was too much cheese.”

Of course, too many people in the world don’t have any cheese. This patient’s predicament would sound luxurious to them, and may sound luxurious to those of us planning to give up cheese –- or chocolate, or alcohol, or Sudoku –- for Lent. But the purpose of our Lenten disciplines isn’t to make us suffer: it’s to free us from old habits so we can see the world afresh, so we can gain new perspectives and make more conscious choices about how to serve God by caring for our neighbors and ourselves.

Sometimes we see those perspectives most clearly when we are least prepared for them. One afternoon last year, I went on my standard walk around our neighborhood. Gary and I live in an area that was mostly wild land when we moved here ten years ago, but is now covered with new houses. Between the developments there are still strips of wild land, rock and sage and grasses. Depending on the time of year, I may see rabbits, lizards, or snakes. One summer, I saw a rattlesnake not fifty feet from the nearest house, basking on the paved walkway. In the snow, I’ve seen what might have been coyote tracks, although I’ve never seen an actual coyote.

Whatever wildlife I meet, this is familiar territory for me, and it usually feels very safe. But on this particular day, I set out later than usual. As I turned around to come back home, dusk began falling. The dark settled in more quickly than I expected. The familiar shapes of fences and rocks along the path became transformed by shadow into objects I’d never seen before. Not too far away, a little higher in the hills than where I was walking, coyotes began yipping, and the neighborhood dogs answered with long, eerie howls. My response was completely a matter of mammalian biology: as trite as it sounds, the hair rose on the back of my neck, and I felt a sliding sensation down my spine. I hurried home much more quickly than usual.

That walk made me remember how wild the world we live in really is, and how quickly we can find ourselves in strange, often frightening territory, even though we seem to be in a place we’ve visited many times before. Dusk can fall on our lives in any number of ways: after the diagnosis of a serious illness, after a death, in the aftermath of natural disaster. We’re in the same geographical place we’ve always been, but everything’s different. We no longer recognize everyday landmarks, and we’re newly aware of lurking dangers. There are predators howling in the darkness. They’ve always been there, but we’ve never had to think about them before.

The walk was a spiritual experience, a wilderness encounter. It shook me out of my complacency and once more showed me the grandeur and mystery of God’s creation. For weeks afterward, I thought about the haunting call-and-response of the coyotes and their domesticated cousins. Sometimes at dusk, as NPR broadcasts and cats crying for dinner filled the house, I reminded myself of the canine chorus. I knew I could hear it if I were brave enough to venture outside. But I chose to stay indoors, in familiar comfort. I maintained my safe routine.

I wasn’t allowed that comfort for long. Lent came very early, in October, when my elderly father moved here from Philadelphia, where my mother and sister still live. As many of you know, my father’s arrival marked the beginning of a wilderness journey we still haven’t completed. He went from the airport almost directly to the hospital, and spent the next two months in four hospitals and two nursing homes in Reno, San Francisco and Palo Alto. My mother had her own string of hospitalizations, and is now in a nursing home. Gary’s father died very suddenly, necessitating an emergency trip back East over Christmas. My father’s live-in companion and best friend of twenty years decided to move back to Chicago, and Gary and I found ourselves moving Dad into assisted living on four days’ notice.

The past five months really have felt like a wilderness, a thorny maze of worry, grief, and frustration, all in the shadow of increasing darkness. I’ve had to give up old habits: relaxing vacations out of town, the illusion that I’m in control of my own schedule, putting off tasks in the serene belief that I’ll be able to do them at the last minute without unexpected interruptions. I’ve had to learn unwanted new skills: how to deal with patient representatives, home-health companies, insurance issues. I know entirely too much about oxygen tanks, wheelchairs, and advance directives. I’m exhausted. Gary’s exhausted. Our bank accounts are exhausted.

If this is freedom, I’m not sure I want it. I want my old, comfortable life back. But this ordeal has also been a spiritual experience, a wilderness encounter. It has shaken me out of my complacency and once more showed me the grandeur and mystery of God’s creation. I’ve marveled at the loyalty of friends, the skill of medical caregivers, the generosity of strangers. For the first time, I understand why Jesus tells us that his yoke is light: caring for my father is certainly one of my crosses, and not one I always handle well, but I’d never put it aside. It’s a privilege. I’m grateful to do it.

And these months have, of course, forced me to confront mortality: to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. As I walk towards Jesus’ death, I am also walking towards my parents’ and my own, towards my personal Good Fridays. The journey would be unbearable if I didn’t know that Easter is waiting, too.

Until then, I travel in the wilderness, as all of us must at some point in our lives. Lent is training for that expedition, God’s own Outward Bound program, repeated every church year to keep us in condition for the journey. Giving up the comforts of home and hearth, learning to carry only what we truly need, we set out into new terrain. And there we find life, and love, and the Good Shepherd who will protect us from the howling dark.



  1. Wonderful. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous6:55 AM

    What a beautiful sermon, Susan - and all the more impressive that you can still preach so powerfully and so compassionately when you have so much else going on as well. You have given me entirely new ways to think about the 23rd psalm, and I thank you for it,



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