Palm Sunday: Jesus’ Journey into the Wilderness

Good morning, my name is Lydia. I’m one of the pastors here and it’s my honor to share the Word with you today. Let me read for us the Scripture text, pray, and get us started. The reading today comes from John 12:12-13 and John 19: 1-6 and 14-16.

John 12:12-13

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,


“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the king of Israel!”

John 19: 1-6, 14-16

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.

4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”

14b“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.


Let’s pray

Loving God, Our crucified Lord, We pray that we may have the eyes to see and the ears to hear your Word this morning. Spirit of God descend here now. And would you reveal yourself to us, your deep sacrificial love for us, that we may see and experience your comfort and compassion in our lives today, we pray, in Jesus Name Amen.

So, I was driving around Oakland, CA one day. I stopped to get some gas, and while I was filling up, this beautiful car pulls up, a fixed up low rider, shiny with the pastel purple coat of paint, rims and all, and the license plate read, “The Reverend”. The driver comes out of the car, dressed real nice, sharp sunday best, and I said, “Nice ride Reverend!” I had just gotten ordained so I’m like, yeah, pastors, so I walked over and said, “So you’re a pastor?” And he said, “Yup” and named the church nearby. And I said, “I’m a pastor too. Man, I wish my church was cool with me having a nice car like that. Korean churches especially, (I knew this because I was raised as a pastor’s kid in Korean immigrant churches), they love to see a pastor suffer for the Lord. I feel like black churches have some respect for their pastor, you know?” And he laughed and said, “Oh you know folks, they will glorify you, and then, they will crucify you. Like they did to our Lord.” They’ll glorify you and they’ll crucify you. That is what folks do. The human mob mentality. And this is the case yes, for Jesus and his time on this earth.

We’ve been journeying through the season of Lent with the theme of Wild Places, wilderness places of doubt, exile, and uncertain in between spaces. Places where God might surprisingly show up and meet us in the wilderness. We’re reaching the last few weeks of the season, today being Palm Sunday with Jesus’ Triumphant Entry to Jerusalem, and it takes us to the rest of the Holy Week to Good Friday, to the Crucifixion and to Easter Resurrection. So these last few days, there’s a lots packed in here. And today, Palm Sunday starts out with Hosanna! And Glory! But it is the beginning of the end. Jesus’ last few stretches, as he journeys into his own wilderness, where he begins to pray to God to take this cup away from him if possible, a place where he cries out to God, Why have you foresaken me, from a place of skulls called Golgotha. Palm Sunday begins with glory glory, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and it ends with the crowd calling out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Jesus too faced the Wild Place. Why? If he’s God, why does he make his way toward that wildest place of all, death?

I went to hang out with the wonderful Youth Group of our church a few weeks ago. To prepare I spoke with Tory the lovely youth director and she gave me a few things that the kids have asked about in the past that maybe I could speak to. So, I’m like sure, I’m game, what they got? And she says, “If God is good and almighty, why is there suffering in the world?” Oh cool, let’s just get right to the hardest question to wrestle with and bang that out on my one time visit with the kids. And when I sat with them, they, did you know that we have teens in our church that are quite amazing? They are smart and KIND, and keen, and curious, and critical thinkers. Because that questions is the correct response to this God we get to know through Christianity. God is good. Okay, then, Why is there suffering. In fact, why did Jesus allowed himself to experience suffering himself and be crucified. I told them, that is a very good question! Let’s break down the question, first of all, the adjective we’ve attached to God, good and almighty, is getting at a descriptor of God and also not fully. Because yes, God is good, and God is almighty, but also, how we define these words can’t capture the truth at all times. For example, when Jesus died on the cross, was that an almighty thing, or an omnipotent thing? It might be seen as a weak thing. So, like, is God weak?

We talked about how any names, or metaphor, symbols for God is that and much more than that. I asked them what are some names or metaphors for God. They called out, Father, Lord, Shepherd. I said, so God is like a Shepherd, caring, nurturing, taking care of us and feeding us. But God is not totally like a Shepherd and we’re not literally sheep. They were like bahhh baaaah and giggled. They thought that was funny. Cuties. They seem to have got what I was trying to say, that talking about God is bigger than what we might say about God with metaphors or adjectives. And I ended with, the BEST metaphor that I love, that is the most all-encompassing descriptor is that God is love. Love is big enough to hold all that is God.

I share this with you because I’m going to offer us some metaphors of God that might explain who God is today, but I want us to remember that God is like that, and also not that, far more than that. When we talk about God, we’re trying to get at it with adjectives, names and words, but words fail and God is so much more complex. And to you as well I say, consider each metaphor with the lense that ultimately God is Love. I’ll give a personally meaningful one, a light hearted one, and a metaphor not from my own tradition but from the African American experience.

Wild places are places of suffering, agony, and pain often. And what is God’s response to the suffering of human kind? Chocolate. No I’m kidding, it’s not chocolate, the answer the one that Sunday School champs know best, is Jesus. God’s response to human suffering is to suffer the human destiny of death himself through Jesus. In Jesus, God decided to leave the divine realm and enter into the realities of our suffering. Jesus’ journey into the wild was to become co-sufferers with us.

To suffer with, next to, someone is a one of the most intimate things you can do. I experienced a stranger leaning into my suffering and accompanying me in such a sacrificial way during my delivery. Nurses. I have so much respect for nurses. Any of you nurses out there? So much props to you. I gave birth to my little girl Sophia 5 months ago and I was so impressed and grateful for the nurses that took care of me. One moment, just as I was starting to feel contractions, I was getting ready to get the epidural, and you have to get in this weird position for them to stick like a wire looking thing into your spine, and the nurse said, “lean on me, I’ll hold you.” and they got me at the edge of the hospital bed and she embraced me as I put all my aching weight on her. I was in pain and afraid of what was happening, and she held my body saying, “breathe, you’re doing great, just a little bit longer, almost done.” They checked in on me at every discomfort I had, and changed the buckets that were filled with my, um, output. The co-suffering God is like a nurse during labor, a midwife to a mother in delivery. One who’ll stay in the room while you scream. One holds your hand and roots for you.

To stoop and become one of us reveals devotion and care. Have you heard of a show called Undercover Boss? Oh it’s great, super cheezy but kind of entertaining, seeing a CEO or the President of a large company, go out to the field. They pose as a regular new employee, get trained, and see what it’s like actually working the franchise site. There’s one where the CEO of Domino’s Pizza gives up his lamborghini for the day to shadow the delivery expert. It’s great seeing these guys in suits gear up in the store uniforms and hat, working the kitchen and the cashier. And then there’s always that scene at the end, when they unveil the cover of the CEO to the employees. People are usually a mix of shocked, embarrassed, and impressed that the CEO would do such thing as working alongside them in the store. And the CEO, having experienced and seen the work on the ground, is touched by the stories of the workers lives, their dedication to pay for college or support their disabled dad. With the newfound empathy and compassion, the Domino’s CEO offers the delivery expert, an immigrant from India who gave up his job as an engineer to move here for his kids, an opportunity to submit his special recipe to make it to the Domino’s menu and a check for $1500. He gives him box tickets to a local game and The delivery expert is beyond himself and cries at the offer, thanking him profusely. It’s an heartfelt show because it crosses boundaries and the experience breaks open both the bosses and the employees to a sense of camaraderie and unity. Hey, a CEO leaving his office to work the pizza line is very much a journey into the wilderness, they always capture the boss getting overwhelmed with the backed up orders, making mistakes and sweating bullets by the ovens. God is like the Undercover Boss, who becomes one of us, taking on the humanity uniform, working the line, feeling the pressure of life on this earth.

Through Jesus, God decided to move into the human experience. Life that is both filled with joys and delights, but also with toil and wanderings, of pain and suffering. God is not afraid of the human condition and moves towards the wild places that we experience. These wild places we face, of work and vocation, the daily grind, of trying to make ends meet and survive, of trying to get through tough times and life pressures. There was a song from a few decades ago, by Joan Osborne, What if God is one of us? Just a slob like one of us, Just a stranger on a bus. If God has a name, his name might be John, who works at Dominos by day and cleans office buildings by night. If God was one of us, she’s be overworked nurse working crazy hours sustaining her two kids as a single mom. If God was one of us, they’d be the one moving about with trauma in their bodies trying to get through an interview without having an anxiety attack. If God was one of us, he’d be the wrongly accused, misunderstood, praise by some but rejected and imprisoned and punished for no good reason, that is what Jesus faced on this earth.

When we talk about who God is, and how we come to know God, there’s a helpful methodology that can inform our theology. Attributed to John Wesley, known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral,  it says that we know God through 4 sources, Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. And that all four of these contribute to our understanding and formation of our thinking and knowing about God. Maybe one or more of these have been a part of your knowledge of God. Scripture, include stories of God interacting with God’s people, from which we can read and learn about God’s character and their relationships with God. Reason, allows us to use logic, science, to draw conclusions about our understanding of God. Tradition includes all those who have come before us and their experiences, through which we gain a wider scope of God with many cultures and times throughout history. And experience, personal and individual experience shape many of our faiths, for this is a way to know through one’s own life.

The last metaphor I will share comes from the African American faith and church tradition and through the specific experience of blacks people in America. It’s not my own tradition but it has profoundly impacted and unveiled actually my own experiences and understanding of God. So, let me share, with your grace and mercy, as I attempt talk about an experience that is not my own, of a very tragic history in America. It’s a powerful metaphor and raw in its imagery, so just a heads up of a possible trigger warning. It comes from the notable black Liberation theologian named, James Cone, who keys in in the understanding of Jesus through the lived, visceral, embodied experience of African Americans, in a book title, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Yes, he says to understand the cross, the crucifixion of Jesus, its purpose and meaning, that there is a more modern form of parallel tool of public humiliation and punishment, often used to send a message to the whole society, a display of power, one that is so similar in their form execution, that you can’t help but make the connection to the history of lynching of blacks in America. Because that is what the cross was back then, a lynching tree.

Here’s what he says,

“During my childhood, I heard a lot about the cross at Macedonia A.M.E Church, where faith in Jesus was defined and celebrated. We sang about “Calvary,” and asked, “Were you there?”, “down at the cross,” “when they crucified my Lord.” “Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death. There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built.

In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.”

Many hymns and spirituals spoke to this:

Poor little Jesus boy, made him be born in a manger.

World treated him so mean,

treats me mean too…


Dey whippped Him up an’dey whipped Him down,

Dey whipped dat man all ovah town.


Look-a how how they done muh Lawd.


I was there when they nailed him to the cross,

Oh! How it makes me sadder, sadder,

When I think how they nailed him to the cross.


I was there when they took him down…

Oh! How it makes my spirit tremble,

When I recalls how they took him down.

For black churches, and the African American experience, no wonder the message of the gospel pierced straight through their very lives that the Good News was desperately longed for, Christ’s saving power, clung to, suffering felt in their bones, in their voices, in their shoulders, and hope that better have been true if this is the life they faced, there better have been a greater hope than anything they knew. They identified with Jesus, because Jesus identified with them. Whipped, flogged, slapped in the face, crucified, hung.

The book is rich, because the experience is horrendous, and the metaphor is powerful. Cone goes on to the depth of the tragic history of lynching, what spectacle it was, what it did to the mental emotional state of the blacks, how music and art spoke to realities too dark to put into words. And how real the cross was to them. How it spoke to their wild place they faced. I read it with anxiety and sadness in my heart, praying with grief and lament. It’s a provocative metaphor, because that is what the gospel is, provocative. How so? I don’t know, sometimes, you can’t explain except to just experience it and know it deep in your bones.

Jesus delved deep into the human condition. Deep. To the wildest places. To the most vulnerable places. To the most tragic moments. In our most horrible unimaginable places of pain and suffering, God placed Godself in it, God is our co-suffering God. A crucified God. A wild and crazy reckless God that jumps in right into the middle of our greatest agony. That is the kind of God this Jesus reveals today. That is the God we worship. Hosanna Hosanna in the highest. Which is very peculiar phrase of praise and joyful exclamation because it means, save us. A cry of help. A cry. Help! Help! How could such word be joyful? I don’t know.

And I’m going to end my sermon with an I don’t know. Because that’s where this Lenten season leaves us today and rest of this week. And I don’t want to skip ahead. But Easter is coming, and I don’t know sometimes how all this makes sense. But for now, Let us linger here. A world where we cry out, help, Jesus, help. Hosanna, Hosanna. Save us! Save us! Believing, or trying to believe, that God hears it and moves towards those who cry out in their wildest places.

Let us try staying there this week. Before the Easter bunnies and chocolates comes out. That’s my invitation to you this week, try staying in the wild a little longer. Try moving towards other’s wilderness.

Try the role of co-suffering with someone. When the opportunity arises. If someone is sharing their deep pain with you. Try not interjecting, advising, or even fixing, but just being with. Just feel the discomfort of their pain. Hold that sacred space of their wilderness with your presence.

A Spiritual Discipline Practice:  Adapted From This Week’s Bible Guide (available through print outs in the Lobby and Podcast online)

Consider for a moment a great fear of yours [Or consider for a moment a great fear of someone else, imagine what they might face in their lives and experiences that you may not] – a failure, a loss, or trouble you might face, perhaps even your own death. Ask Jesus to assure you that Jesus will be with you should you face this fear. Ask Jesus: how will you be with me in compassion and strength? After a few moments of imaginative prayer, welcoming Jesus’ presence with you, close by praying this short excerpt from the ancient prayer, The Breastplate of Saint Patrick:

Let me close us with that prayer

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,

Through the strength of Christ’s healing with his laughter,

Through the strength of Christ’s teaching with his feasting,

Through the strength of Christ’s crucifixion with his burial,

Through the strength of Christ’s resurrection with his ascension,

Through the strength of Christ’s descent for the judgment of doom.  


Accepting Doubt as a Companion, if not a Friend

So we’re half way through our celebration of Lent this year. Lent is again the 40 days before Easter in which churches have traditionally devoted time and energy to the forming of our inner lives and our connection and devotion to Jesus. This has included breaking rhythm and letting go in different ways – fasting from food or practicing more generosity. And it’s included different types of spiritual formation experiences. For your personal use, we’ve got a guide you can use five days a week – those are out on a table in the dome behind you and online. And then together we can look forward to next Sunday as we skip the sermon and share what one of our participatory liturgies – music and storytelling with the chance to react and interact as we sit in small groups with others. I hope you’ll join us next week for that.

Today, though, as part of this year’s Wild Places theme, I want to talk about doubt. We’ll have 3 different Petes speak to us – kind of a fun coincidence there – but we’ll start with one of the Bible’s ancient poems of prayer in the Psalms. Let me read the start of Psalm 77 for us.

Psalm 77 (CEB)

I cry out loud to God—

   out loud to God so that he can hear me!

2 During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord.

   At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb;

       my whole being refuses to be comforted.

3 I remember God and I moan.

   I complain, and my spirit grows tired. Selah

4 You’ve kept my eyelids from closing.

   I’m so upset I can’t even speak.

5 I think about days long past;

   I remember years that seem an eternity in the past.

6 I meditate with my heart at night;

   I complain, and my spirit keeps searching:

7 “Will my Lord reject me forever?

   Will he never be pleased again?

8 Has his faithful love come to a complete end?

   Is his promise over for future generations?

9 Has God forgotten how to be gracious?

   Has he angrily stopped up his compassion?” Selah

It’s interesting to experience doubt as a pastor. Teddy Hickman-Maynard talked about this last week, as he shared how troubling it was to be raised in a religious home, so full of confident faith, only to have that unravel on him as a young adult. He described his torment as he threw his Bible across the room in frustration, full of doubt, even as he continued to try to fake it as a preacher and a pastor – to teach and preach what he no longer believed.

I read a survey once that talked about the experiences pastors have on Sundays, and how many of us feel we have to fake it before the church. It was a lot of us.

Now for reasons I think I’ll get to, this has not been my experience as your pastor. But I can see how it happens. Life is long, we all suffer, but some pastors get the vibe that churches want a leader whose life is untroubled and victorious, blessed by God, they might say. If that’s the case, the pastor fakes it through personal pain and trouble. And then even more pastors feel their churches want a teacher and a spiritual model who is without error or doubt, who has certain confidence in all God’s truth and goodness. That’s a high bar, and if you think that’s what is expected of you in your job, or in your identity, than of course you’re going to need to fake it.

Because we all doubt.

I’ve had all kinds of doubts. I won’t catalog them all for you, but I have noticed they are stirred up unpredictably. I’ve faced the death of some very dear people in my life and had deep confidence in God’s care for their spirit, and in their coming life in the age to come. But there have been times when someone not close to me has died, and I won’t be able to shake the question of whether death might not be the end of everything for us.

Grace and I have had horrible fears about our children and have been sure that God is with us in our parenting and that God is good and sweet to our kids in every way. And then we’ve seen a child face a relatively more minor point of suffering and have wondered if God is really good and present at all.

We don’t always know why or when we doubt, but we do.

It’s normal to have doubts about who and what we hope God to be, or to have doubts about things we have believed or hoped to be true. We feel, we think, we learn, our brains are meant to be active and to wonder. And so they doubt.

And if we ever wondered whether this was or wasn’t OK with God, well we see it right in the pages of scripture, like in the opening to this psalm, where the writer is just airing it out.

God doesn’t listen to me. God doesn’t love me. Even thinking about who or what this silent, absent God must be simply exhausts me. That faith that God would be good, compassionate, promise-keeping – maybe that is a faith of my past.

This person is airing it out, saying it to God, and then writing it down, passing on to others to copy, writing music for these words, saying them repeatedly amongst others. So much attention to these doubts that they make it into the Bible’s book of great prayers.

There’s even the untranslated word selah at the end of some of the lines. The Bible, and church traditions, have kept a few untranslated Hebrew words around. There’s Hallelujah – which means: you, praise God. There’s Amen – which means something like “so be it” or “yes.” And then there’s this lesser known selah, which – well, we don’t really know what it means, but it’s a pause, and there’s a good chance that it’s a cue to musicians for some kind of interlude. Which I like here, because it’s like the psalmist gets to doubt and moan and then stop for a while to play some sad, sad songs, just like we would.

Sad songs for sad times, prayers of doubt for the doubting mind; doubt doesn’t need to hidden or tucked away as if it’s something to be ashamed or afraid of. Doubt needs light, it needs to be seen and expressed.

The only reason we’d think otherwise is if we practiced a fear-based faith, as if doubt made God angry or something. The most common fear-based faith in most religion is a form of fundamentalism, which just means – a professor of mine once taught – that you have no room for doubt or error. That’s fundamentalism in any faith, to have no room for doubt or error. To need to always be right and certain.

Which isn’t faith or anything else helpful, it’s actually a sin.

Here’s where the first Pete comes in. A Bible scholar whose work I appreciate is named Pete Enns, and one of his books is called The Sin of Certainty. And he says a lot of things in that book, but one thing is that to need to always have certain confidence in our beliefs about God is not to trust God more but less. Life’s hard and confusing. We learn new things and have so many new experiences, that of course we’re going to change our minds about some things we thought we knew and we’re going to doubt other things we hope are true.

To never change our mind, to need to be certain about all truth isn’t faith – it’s fear of error or doubt. To never change our mind, to need to be certain that everything we were taught about God or about life is true, is to box God into a form that one person or tradition once taught us, as if we could ever confidently know everything there is to know about something or someone as big as God.

Actual faith isn’t confidence about God, it’s trust in God, trust with God, even in the midst of all our doubt and error. To trust God, to have faith, is to know, sure, we can’t have total certainty about anything we think. Sure, we’ll be wrong about some things and doubt others, and yet we can continue to hope and trust that God is present and good, beyond and within all that we don’t know for sure.

Faith isn’t the opposite of doubt; faith includes doubt.

So I start today’s talk saying that doubt is OK, and doubt needs light, not fear.

Secondly, doubt calls for memory. Let me finish reading the psalm, as the writer starts to remember some things.

10 It’s my misfortune, I thought,

   that the strong hand of the Most High is different now.

11 But I will remember the Lord’s deeds;

   yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past.

12 I will meditate on all your works;

   I will ponder your deeds.

13 God, your way is holiness!

   Who is as great a god as you, God?

14 You are the God who works wonders;

   you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples.

15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people;

   redeemed the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah

16 The waters saw you, God—

   the waters saw you and reeled!

       Even the deep depths shook!

17 The clouds poured water,

   the skies cracked thunder;

       your arrows were flying all around!

18 The crash of your thunder was in the swirling storm;

   lightning lit up the whole world;

       the earth shook and quaked.

19 Your way went straight through the sea;

   your pathways went right through the mighty waters.

       But your footprints left no trace!

20 You led your people like sheep

   under the care of Moses and Aaron.

The wild places of doubt and trouble call for sad songs, but they also call for old songs. Our doubts need light, but they also remind us we need roots, we need memory.

When the psalmist is going through the hardest season of life, and is full of doubt about everything, that seems a great time to remember the oldest and best story of God that they know. For the psalmist, this is the story of the exodus – the founding rescue story of Israel, retold here in poetry.

Remember that time when God helped our ancestors? Remember that time when the seas fled from our feet, when the waters pulled back at God’s voice? Remember that time when the impossible was made possible, when God helped us, when God freed us, when the skies lit up in wonder? Remember?

What anchors us, what keeps us rooted, when we doubt?

I used to think psalms like this were magical thinking, remembering the greatest God-story we’ve ever heard from the past and imagining that exact thing would surely happen again tomorrow.

The thing is, the psalmist knows that isn’t true. The psalmist thinks about how God’s ways seem different today than they were yesterday, and in one sense that is true. The miracle of the exodus happened just once, and for the psalmist it was hundreds of years in the distant past. By the time this psalm was published, if not written, Israel was scattered again, its kings deposed, its temple destroyed, its dreams deferred. Even when they gathered again in Jerusalem, when they re-achieved a form of freedom and flourishing, Israel’s temple and collective hopes would again be destroyed by the Roman empire.

God was not showing up for them with another exodus every day, not even every century.

And yet, this was still their story, and this was still their God. No one could take that away from them. I love that this psalm – in the middle of this memory – says God is holy. It reminds us that God’s holiness isn’t primarily about abstract moral perfection, it’s about loving faithfulness. What makes God different, what makes God perfect, isn’t abstract at all, it’s that God is ever-present, never-stopping love.

The exodus was one story of that love – who knows what form it will take next?

What God-stories anchors us? What stories of God keep us rooted when we doubt?

We’ve learned that it’s really important for kids to know where they come from. It’s a powerful thing for parents to tell our kids their origin stories. This is what it was like on the day you were born. Here’s what you were like as a baby. These are the stories of your birth, the stories of your childhood, the stories of your roots. Let me tell you, child, where you came from.

Kids are anchored and grounded by these stories. They remind them they are known and loved and matter. They keep them grounded when so much about their identity and future is unknown and insecure.

We all need old stories, stories of roots, stories from the Bible, stories from history, stories from our own lives that remind us that God is present and good to us all, even when that’s hard to see.

Most of us doubt more when we learn new things that threaten our old understandings of God and truth, or when we experience new things that threaten our view of how we’ve thought God and life work.

And given that we live in times when we are learning and experiencing so much that is new, that means we’re going to doubt more than our ancestors did. Let me tell you a story about this for me, and about how light and memory helped.

I’d been taught in my early years of Christian spiritual formation that part of the benefit of faith in Jesus was a present-day relationship with God, with the Spirit and teaching of Jesus present to comfort and guide. And I’d been taught that part of the benefit too was an assurance of life forever with God beyond the grave. I still think this, I still hope this. But I’d also been taught that the only reason I could have assurance of this was that I’d confessed with mouth, as I believed in my heart, that Jesus was in charge of my life, and that Jesus was the one true path to God. And I’d said that publicly in my baptism as well.

Well, like many of you, I’ve come to know over the years some delightful human beings – deep and good and surely loved by God – who knew nothing about Jesus or, for various reasons, didn’t think they wanted anything to do with Jesus, or at least with Christian faith. Sometimes they’ve had pretty good reasons for that too. I’ve seen a few of these delightful human beings die, and thought – surely God wouldn’t love and preserve me, and consign them to the eternal trash can, just because my exposure to Jesus was more thorough or positive than theirs. That didn’t make sense to me.

And then, when I visited Delhi, India for the first time, I’d never been a city that large or that crowded. Tens of millions of people, and sometimes it seemed like they were all in the same traffic jam. I remember looking at this sea of people, this massive crush of humanity, and asking: do these people matter to God? Could God not be with them in some form? What eternal destiny is theirs? And the simple faith assertions I’d been taught before just wouldn’t hold.

The billions of people that had never heard of Jesus, the billions that never said or thought these God-approved statements about Jesus…. it had been implied in my faith that they had no access to God in this life and no hope, or at least no assurance, for life beyond the grave.

Now here I am in Delhi, looking at all these people, and to doubt that aspect of my faith seemed like the only reasonable and loving thing to do.
All these people? Just because they lost a genetic lottery and weren’t born into families or communities that were into Jesus – they get no God, and just some kind of annihilation or hell after death? No chance at the life I got a chance at? That seemed random and unfair, it seemed unworthy of the big and kind God I’d come to love. So I doubted the beliefs I’d been taught. My mind was troubled.

Memory here served me, though. Because I remembered that even Christians haven’t always thought this way about God and the afterlife. I remembered children’s books I’d heard about when I was young, that I’d read in full in my early years of young adult faith, The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis.  I remembered a scene toward the end of the last book, when a good and valiant man from a far away country dies in battle and confronts Aslan, the story’s Jesus figure, after his death. He doesn’t know this Aslan, but his heart and mind are inclined to love and worship him. And Aslan welcomes him into his company and into eternal life because even though he didn’t know Aslan’s name, he trusted God best as he knew God to be, and that had put his soul into a condition to trust and love God beyond the grave as well. To be drawn to light and love.

In this story, C.S. Lewis was alluding to an old and deep Christian tradition that the life and death and life again of Jesus was for all humanity, those that new Jesus by name and those that didn’t. In this understanding, Jesus’ New Covenant was for the whole earth’s participation, not just the people who had the luck to be born into places where they’d hear the name of Jesus.

I’ve remembered this as I looked at the masses of Delhi year after year, and it’s made my initial doubts in Jesus a constructive force, deepening and widening my faith, putting me in touch with beautiful and ancient hopes about the universal reach of Jesus, and giving me more faith and hope and love in the world. These experienced don’t give me doubt any more, because here doubt has been my teacher, nudging me toward God and toward a deeper and broader faith.

As I’ve asked others about their experiences of doubt, I’ve heard many stories like this, how doubting something we thought was true about God or life led to an openness to discover something else that’s truer. For me, my doubt was part of a process that taught me more helpful, more beautiful, more faithful hopes around heaven, hell, people, God, and eternity.

Doubt, with light and memory, can be a safe companion, even a teacher. It’s OK.

This was going to be my whole sermon, an upbeat talk on doubt with stories like this, how if we welcome doubt as a companion, not an enemy, it can even help us. I was even ready to call doubt our friend.  

But then I paused, because a few of you have told me that seasons of doubt have been hard and miserable and full of pain. And I remembered there was something else to say.

For me, doubt hasn’t been rare, but it hasn’t been the most troubling thing. The God I’ve come to know in Jesus has always seemed sweet and good, unexpected for sure, but never harsh or random or mean. So it’s always seemed OK to me to admit that in the end, I’m not all that certain about much. And I can wonder about all kinds of things, and change my mind when I need to. That’s been part of why I haven’t had to fake it as your pastor, that and the fact that in this church we don’t expect our pastors or anyone else to be perfect, or people we always have to agree with.

But again, as I asked some different friends about their experiences with doubt, I heard that for many, doubt can be a painful, mind and heart-wrenching experience. For some, that is because people have been taught a lot about hell, or have been taught that God is fearsome, if not outright random and mean.

But part of it too is there are people, including people in this room right now who have had doubts born of heart-wrenching, gut-busting pain that calls all their hopes and faith into question and makes them wonder – God, are you real? And God if you are, how can you possibly be good?  

I have some talks about God’s love and God’s power, and how I bet those work that I’ll have to give some day, but very much don’t have time for today. But for now, I want to honor these experiences of pain coupled with disappointment. The kind of doubt pain can bring can leave us unfulfilled, empty, and longing for more.

And that’s an awful feeling, but even that – the unfulfilled, empty, longing pangs of doubt may – hard as this is to say – they may be part of a good thing.

Let me be clear about this. I’m not saying our sadnesses or our losses are good. The deep pains we or our loved ones experience are just that – they are pains that hurt. But the ache that grows in us afterwards, the longing, that may be a redemptive gift. Sometimes pain and disappointment put us in touch with the vulnerability of our human experience and put us in touch with the ache for love and the ache for God that is what it means to be alive and to touch God in this life.

Pete Rollins – he’s our second Pete today – helps us think about this. He’s a philosopher and theologian and talks about all the many ways we try to eliminate our vulnerabilities and longings and needs. Because to be incomplete – to not have all the love and satisfaction we need – is to ache and to be empty.

Which from one angle is kind of lousy – who wouldn’t want to be happy and satisfied, certain and fulfilled, all the days of our lives? And yet, those things are impossible for humans. We’re vulnerable. We die. And so to to foster addictions or scapegoats or distractions or even religious systems that try to make us undoubting, always fulfilled, unlonging, certain people is to lie to ourselves and to live without God, who we can only know and find and love in our vulnerability.

When I’m afraid of death, and fear that afterwards there is nothing, it does me no good to repress or hide that fear because it’s still there beneath the surface, doing its thing. For me to be alive is going to include some fear and doubt around death. That’s the deal. And that fear and doubt need light. It also does me no good to use my memory of scripture, or my memories of certain, hopeful times to try to kill my doubts or fear, as if any of us could ever be all strong and all certain and all set in the face of suffering and crisis.

Instead, I can bring my doubt to God and let it become longing. I hear that in the final verse of the psalm, that reads “You led your people like sheep.” You were good to me, God, and I want that again. I want you close. I want you good. I want you guiding us.

In my doubt made longing, I can say to God, as I have: sometimes I’m terrified of death. Or my kid went through such and such, and God, you don’t seem good to them right now. I want you in this, God. And God doesn’t do something to take away all the ache, not usually, but the longing does give me somewhere to bring the ache, and usually there’s a sense that God is there listening, seeing the ache, hearing the ache, and loving me.  

Which is where we’ll end, with love. Because our doubts – with light and memory and longing – don’t take us to the end of doubt but to being loved in our doubt. And love is after all the nature and being and essence of God, and the center of all that is good and true.

There was a famous doubter among Jesus’ disciples, doubting Thomas we call him, the one who didn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead until he touched Jesus’ scarred wounds. But Peter – our third Pete – he doubted too. He doubted he’d be OK if he remained a loyal friend to Jesus, so he denied knowing him. He doubted his female associates’ reports that Jesus had risen, and he hid with the brothers in tiny room behind a locked door. And then even after he saw the risen Jesus, he was so ashamed of himself that he doubted God could ever work something good again in his life – until Jesus came to him on a beach and this happened three times:

John 21:15 (CEB)

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

Not: are you certain, Peter? Are you confident? Will you never doubt? We think certain confidence is what will make us strong, but it won’t. It will fail us, and only mask our fears and weaknesses and insecurities. There’s nothing wrong with confidence when it’s ours to have, but the highest command and call of Jesus isn’t to be confident or certain, it is to love. And lonely, overconfident, undoubting certainty doesn’t feed love, it chokes it out.

So Jesus asks Peter: do you love me? And when Peter says yes, Jesus tells him to express that love in how he loves people Jesus loves. Feed my lambs. Take care of the people I love.

And Peter did just that. When he got to write his own book (if write I Peter he did), he begins and ends with Jesus and love. He begins:

I Peter 1:8,5:14 (CEB)

8 Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words.

And he ends:

14 Greet each other with the kiss of love. Peace to you all who are in Christ.

My friends, even though you’ve never seen Jesus, you’ve never seen God, you can trust God to be good. Even though you doubt and fear and wonder, somewhere in your mind and heart and memory, you love all that you hope Jesus is and will be. That love is enough. Keep it alive. Share the love.

And know God’s peace, even in your doubts.

I close with two invitations here:

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

In times of enormous change, expect great stress and uncertainty. Lean into light, memory, longing, and love as you are able.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Speak or write your mini-psalm: your personal expression of doubt or anger. Then sit in silence and see if you sense anything from God.

Who Will Remain in the Camp

24 So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.

26 However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. 27 A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

28 Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”

29 But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” 30 Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Numbers 11:24-30

Finding God in the Wilderness

Exodus 2:15 – 3:4

15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well16 Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.

18 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”

19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

20 “And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.”

21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. 22 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom,[c] saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.”

23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

3Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

We’re talking about Wild Places, in this season of Lent. Places of wilderness, that might be an inbetween place, a lost space, uncertain, null, negative space, or even of discomfort or pain. But also Wild Places are places of discovery, of new space, surprised by what’s found in the barren. Most of this season we’re engaging in how we end up in wild places that we might not choose, anxiety, doubt, exile, or suffering. But before we go there, there are some wild places that we might choose to go to. Some wilderness that we may be surprised to lean into. A place that we might not have thought we wanted or needed, but jump into the depths of the wild.

Because maybe, for some of us, things might’ve been green pasture for the most part. For many of us, our upbringing, our time in place and culture, has pretty sheltered us from the rugged wilderness. For a lot of us, here, in United States, in this day and age, in this area, we’ve had the privilege of being safe and protected, and maybe haven’t really experienced a wilderness of sorts. I’m not saying that there has been difficulties, or struggles. We all have each our own. But the reality is that for all of us, it is sometimes easy to be left to our own communities and cocoons that keeps us blind to some wild places others may experience. If we’re not intentional about moving towards the edges of those known comforts, we just might miss out on the whole of human experience that is vast, deep, and wide.


Here’s one way to put it causally. This may be why people of privilege love to travel. #wanderlust and backpacking and just getting lost in a new city. As someone who’s moved around alot and uprooted every few years that sounds horrible and stressful to me. But for some folks, maybe born and raised in one place, going outside of their comfort zones gives them a new perspective and new light into the world that you just can’t experience when you stay. Like the movie Lost in Translation, [SLIDE]  so artsy and beautiful, two Americans lost in Japan, trying to find themselves and meaning. Because yes, being lost in a strange land is discombobulating and kind of beautiful. Or like Burning Man, [SLIDE] an event that people go out to the middle of the desert to learn the ”virtue of surviving in the desolate surreal trackless plain of the Black Rock Desert”. It’s extremely dusty, and very hot, and over 70,000 people pay $3-400 ticket to do this every year. And folks who do these, Burners you call em, are like cultic about it, it gives them meaning and life. It’s holy to them. There’s a longing there, a curiosity to experience deeply. The things is, for a lot of folks, traveling or camping is a luxury that you can’t afford and wilderness you don’t need. You’re just trying to make it here, you don’t need to go out somewhere to see if you can survive out there.


Moses, was the Prince of Egypt. The origin story of Moses goes, in Exodus 1, that the king of Egypt didn’t like the Hebrews and tried to kill all baby boys. Moses, was miraculously rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter and ends up growing up in the palace. One day he notices an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, his own people, and so he jumps in, and actually ends up killing the Egyptian. And what’s interesting in the story is that, the Hebrews aren’t necessarily thankful for this young privileged Prince, all of sudden getting woke to his own conscience in the cruelty of the hebrew slaves, deciding to take matters into his own hands and thinks he can solve the problem. It probably caused more problems for the slave actually, to have a murder of an Egyptian in the news. It says verse 13, just a few verses before today’s text, “the next day he went out and saw two hebrews fighting, and he asked the one in the wrong, “why are you hitting your fellow hebrew” The man said, “who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” AND THEN, Moses realizes what he did, and decides to flee to Midian. Probably in confusion, probably in misunderstanding of the situation and what he did. Maybe ashamed of how he reacted and angry with the system of oppression he sees but doesn’t know yet what to do. So he goes. He goes away to Midian.  For a long time.


Verse 15 says that, he “went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.” Which, I don’t know if that’s just a weird wording from translation but sounds kind of funny, that he went to live there, where he sat by a well. Maybe that’s what he did, every day, he just went and hung out at the well, without much to do, without much purpose. And when he saw these women, who were trying to draw some water, were getting harassed by the shepherd. Moses of course, decides to jump in again, and rescues the ladies. Sounds like he has a bit of a savior complex but okay, hey at least he puts himself out there. This time, he doesn’t kill the other guy and runs away, he stays and waters their flock.


When the daughters’ father asks what happened, they answer, “An Egyptian rescued us.” Moses is called an Egyptian. “He even drew water for us and watered the flock.” And Reuel’s like, who is this guy? “And where is he? Why did you leave him?” Cause something’s going on here. First of all, why would an Egyptian get involved and second of all, what is he doing around here anyways? He’s probably lost or something. Go find him. And I don’t know if Reuel was actually grateful but his response is to invite him to come and “have something to eat”. I love that. Rescuing his daughters is great but let me see and get to know this guy. Let’s sit down and eat together. And so Moses agrees, to

accept the generosity of him, goes into their house, sits down at their table, and eat their food, and stays there, immersing himself into the fold of their lives.


And the rest of the story sounds pretty mundane. Almost too normal for a big name like Moses, who later comes to be the leader who frees the the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. He gets married, she gets pregnant, they have a baby– you know, just life, and a long time passed like that, enough for the king of Egypt to have passed. Moses, mostly spent his days tending his father in law’s flocks. (A side note: a quick textual criticism Bible study, look at the text, in verse 18, he’s first referred to as Reuel, and then later in chapter 3 verse 1, he’s named Jethro. And in other part of the Bible in a book called Numbers he’s mentioned as  Raguel, which pronunciation could be similar to Reuel, but Jethro is a whole another name, so it’s “generally accepted” that Moses’ father in law must’ve went by like 7 different names, apparently. Just a WINDOW into the fact that some stories in the Bible are FAR from our culture and written in different times throughout history. There are discrepancies of who’s who. There’s linguistics at play, Hebrew and Arabic, not to mention later translations of Latin and Greek that could be contributing to the confusion. I just point that out because it doesn’t make the stories FALSE because the details are mixed up, but hey reality is there are mixed up details in the Bible and things ARE lost in translation and I personally think it’s important to note them now, honoring its complexity of the story. You’re sophisticated enough to hold it, so that we don’t have to throw out the whole story of Moses later when we realize that we’re not even sure on the name of his father in law.) Sorry, detour, as you’ll see, detours can be gifts. Moving on.


Verse 3 says, “he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness.” There, something caught his attention. He saw a bush. And it seemed to have been on fire. On fire, but it did not burn up. it was a strange, mysterious sight and he was drawn into it. He didn’t understand it but He was captured by it. In awe of it. So he moved toward it.


I have a friend who was working at an elite interior design firm at the time. She was successful and establishing a great career. She’s actually designed and decorated a literal palace of prince of a country I can’t remember the name of.  By any standards she should have been happy, set financially and on track to the top But at some point, she felt this longing to turn her head from the ladder she was climbing. And one day she decided to quit her job and go on a Eat, Pray, Love trip. Which is a popular book from some years ago about an american woman traveling to India and finding herself. And yes, it was yoga, she teaches yoga now. It’s a little silly, but not, because people find things, holy things, wholeness, meaning, God in these places, that at first seem like a distraction or a waste of time. For my friend, it’s when she left a high paying job to roam the world freely that she discovered and deepened her spirituality. It’s often when we’re taken out of our usual context and placed in a whole new environment, a retreat, that we find the space to hear something fresh. Sometimes it’s hard to really see, hear, or listen to the divine voice in the busyness of our usual days.


For some of us, the season of wilderness comes to us uninvited and catches us by surprise. But for some of us, sometimes life just seems to go on without much disruption and for those of us with lives that’s seem pretty normal and plain, we find ourselves seeking, choosing, and being drawn to places of wilderness that we might experience a kind of breakthrough, a fresh light, out of the shallow, into the deep.


Have you ever been pulled by something that caught your attention? Or distracted you from your normal flock tending life. Or a sight of something that demanded your deeper awareness. Made you turn your head. Examine it more. Someone emailed me a quote that they liked this week and they described it as, “this line arrested me with how true it feels”. Has a thing ever arrested you, your mind, your time, your energy?


A detour into the wilderness can teach us. Like all the negative space in a good photograph. An open wild space to experience. It might not look so productive sometimes. Like Moses, just sitting by a well. Moses gives up his palace and becomes a foreigner in a foreign land. He’s not in control, but moves with this family’s culture, tending flocks in the wild. And there, he is faced with the holy tree. There he is captivated by a thing he doesn’t understand. There, he is transformed. He’s there and challenged.


A few years back I was a part of a County Jail Ministry, where we went to county jail and did a worship services there every week. I initially signed up for it because I wanted to help. I wanted to bring church to those who are incarcerated and can’t attend a church on Sunday. And we did do that, share a message, a few songs, prayed together. But the thing that I experienced more when I stepped into that space was, helplessness. I couldn’t do much. Many of them were mothers separated from their children. They were waiting on court dates, not sure of where they would end up next, staying in jail or go back out into the same environment that got them there in the first place.


I wanted to fix the system that put addicts into prisons. I wished that I was a lawyer, or wished that I could find them a good lawyer, or try to make any of the situation better somehow. The thing that happened mainly, wasn’t addressing those issues, which weren’t my place to solve anyway, but that I realized that I wanted to make things better so I didn’t have to feel the discomfort of sitting with unsolvable problems. I learned that it was frustrating, mind boggling how long these court dates took, infuriating how this woman got mixed up with a person that coerced them to steal. I got a little glimpse of what it feels like to truly be out of control, caught up in a system as they say, hitting a dead end and not having the resources. I felt and learned empathy. Not just sympathy. And faith. It was uncomfortable leaving county jail and going back to my warm comfortable bed. They lingered in my thoughts. It brought me down. I prayed hard for them, and grieved many things. And It brought me to enter into someone else’s story, without exercising the power to rescue them. I was simply called there, not even to be there for them, but for me to feel and experience and journey alongside those who were imprisoned. Here I am.


Their lives are on fire, but they were not burning up. Why. how. They were, “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) I wasn’t bringing Jesus to them but they were showing Jesus to me through their lives. They sang with me and cried with me. I couldn’t do anything but feel, discomfort, the discomfort that I had the luxury of avoiding if I really wanted to. At first I did it because you’re supposed to sit with the oppressed right? As a Christian, do community service, do charity, serve. Check. But that wasn’t the point at all. It gave me the space to really look at the systemic suffering in this world. It allowed me the real privilege to see their lives of resilience and strength. I heard a quote earlier this week from a man from Ecuador, quoting Father Gregory Boyle who started a ministry called Homeboy that worked with gangs in Los Angeles, [SLIDE]  “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” I got a chance to just witness, what they had to carry, without trying to suggest how they should carry it.


Moses gave up being a prince of Egypt and became a foreigner. Jesus gave up “his divine privileges, he took the humble position of a slave and was born a human being, when he appear in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” According to Philippians 2:7-8. It’s peculiar to me that sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that following Jesus will just make our lives better, our marriages more successful, ourselves happier, to be more good kind people. Actually, I”m sorry, but following Jesus is a bit more deeper/darker than that. I’m not really make it look too appealing as the preacher of christianity am I, but the truth is, following Jesus ist is moving towards the cross, the suffering. And there is hope and resurrection that meets us on the other side. God calls us to the mountain tops but also to the wilderness. Before Moses split the sea, he lived in Midian for a long time not doing much. And after he split the sea, him and his people were lost again in the desert wilderness for 40 years. But God was with them, daily on the journey. The promise isn’t that life is gonna be awesome, but, that it might be a wild ride and I will be with you.. No matter where you go…..


Make no mistake though, the journey we’re invited to isn’t so that we can be the Moses or Jesus of the story, acting as if we’re the liberators or saviors. The only resemblance is that God calls us out into the wilderness, Moses, out to the burning tree, Jesus, to be hung on a tree, we just might find ourselves on the far side of the wilderness. And meet God there.


Where are you now? Is there a wilderness place God is calling you into, toward, to notice and pay attention to? A place where you have no power to judge or rescue, but to just have to stay and say here I am. Or maybe for some of you, you’re already in the wilderness and you don’t need to go choose it, it has chosen you. Maybe my message today wasn’t for you, for you already know the wilderness too well. For those of you who are there, God says, I am with you. At the far side of the wilderness, whether we choose to go there like Moses, or taken there like the Hebrew slaves, God seeks to meet us there and call us by name. Moses, Moses. Sarah, Sarah. John, John. Lydia, Lydia. May we have the humility to go there, take off our sandals and say here I am.


We invite you to consider the wild places in this season of Lent. Some invitations for you in the program, jotted down for you.


Invitation to life flourishing

Move into and embrace a season of wilderness. Dwell and stay there, though nothing may happen for a long time. Perhaps, on the far side of the wilderness, you might experience God there.


And a way to

Spiritual Practice: this, to create a space where you might ponder upon some of these things. Maybe try meditating with a tree. [SLIDE]

Maybe it’s a tree in water, and you might wonder why it has not been swallowed up by water. How it stands. I’ll close by reading

A poem to invite you into this practice.



by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.


The Opportunity in Every Problem

Unfortunately due to a technology malfunction, we aren’t able to post audio of this week’s sermon. The below are the preacher’s prepared remarks (not an exact transcript).

Well, today churches all around the world celebrate their first Sunday in a 40-day season that we call Lent, which is an old English word for Spring. Right now beneath all the snow outside, under the ground, there is all this activity – roots getting nourished, pushing down deep, that in just a few weeks will lead to buds and flowers and leaves and all the other signs of spring. And Lent, the 40 days before Easter, is one of the opportunities in the rhythm of a church’s year to go deep and prepare for growth as well.

Last week I talked about Lent through the metaphor of pilgrimage – when you take a trip somewhere to learn something about yourself, maybe even to meet with God, or encounter the sacred or divine, however you understand that. But I said the other thing that often happens on pilgrimage is that we learn something not just about where we’re going, but about where we’re coming from too. We notice how our lives aren’t working, we learn how it is we’re perishing.

And so the most traditional of churches began Lent this past Wednesday—some of us did here as well—by having ashes smudged on our forehead, and being reminded that we are dying. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, our bodies are literally perishing.

And yet even with the symbolism of ashes, we’re reminded of the possibilities of our perishing lives still. Ash is really fertile soil—you can look today at the verdant areas all around Mt. St. Helen as a picture of that. And so as go deep for Lent, we’re reminded that even as we notice how we’re perishing, we’re seeking hope, healing, beauty, truth, and love, as we do the inner work with God to grow all that beautiful life.

Into the Wilderness

I want to introduce our theme for the next 6 weeks of Lent, which we’ve called The Wild Places.

Our work with The Wild Places makes me thing of my old friends Rich and Carolyn Farrell, who used to be leaders in this community before they moved to California. They were hospitable and generous, and Carolyn was a great Board member with us for years. But it’s Rich in particular I think of. Rich is so sunny, so upbeat, that he can quote cheesy corporate slogans unironically, which I appreciate about him.

One of those slogans I heard Rich say is that There are no problems, there are only opportunities. He had picked this up from, I don’t know, Walmart or something. It’s another take on the old quotation that has been attributed both to Ben Franklin and John Adams, that “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”

Which on the one hand is just not true, right? Some crises, some problems, are just bad news. Like say Mt. St. Helens’ volcanic eruption when I was a kid – if you were a deer grazing on the slopes of that volcano, that eruption was not an opportunity in disguise. It was your end.

And yet, go big picture enough, and even that massive geological disturbance may be part of a long cycle of life and health – all that verdancy growing out of the ashes.

What I do know is that people that live this way – that live like every problem is an opportunity – they do much better than those of us who don’t. They are happier, more optimistic, more resilient. I mean my friend Rich – in the years he lived in Boston, his life, specifically his business was a wild ride of high highs and low lows. He was a tech entrepreneur both in the giddy dot com boom days of the late 90s and in some of the bubble busting times that followed. And he’s human, so his own personal life has had its ups and downs too.

But this is a man whose optimism and joy and cheerful resilience are a light to us all. Always looking for the opportunity, even in every problem.

So this Lent, we’re inviting our whole community to lean in to a process that isn’t necessarily designed to make us all sunny optimists, but that we do hope will grow resilience and hope in each of us. We’re going to look at some of the wild places of life – out of control times, overwhelming times, anxiety, doubt, even times of suffering or bewilderment or crisis. And I think we will see that these can be amazing places for learning, discovery, encounter, and transformation. We’ll even see that these wild places are often times that God works through to launch us into impossibly hopeful next chapters in our lives.

We’ll be grounded in stories from the wilderness and exile narratives of scripture, along with elements of those in the life of Jesus. Times and places in the Bible’s narrative, where anxiety and doubt, conflict and chaos, became the fertile ground for discovery, encounter, and hope.

Let’s get started with a story from the wilderness wanderings of ancient Israel. It goes like this:

Exodus 17:1-7 (CEB)

17 The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”

3 But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”

4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”

5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. 6 I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

What a wild scene, huh?

Stress, anger, tempers, secret springs of water pouring out of a rock. Even the setting is wild. We’re just days removed from the great triumph at the start of the story of Israel. Enslaved to the powerful Egyptians for generations, God has made a way for them, and they are now free! That’s why this whole book is called Exodus – named for the people’s exit – their freedom, their deliverance from a soul-crushing, back-breaking life of slavery.

But the problem is that to leave slavery, they have to travel through the wilderness. This desert wilderness is called Sin, not after bad behavior, but named after the Semitic Moon god called Sin. So they’re free, but they’re out in the wilderness, they’re hangry – and what’s the word for thirsty and angry – thangry? Anyway, they’re in trouble. You need water in the wilderness, especially when there are a lot of you.

And perhaps at night, they look up at the big moon overhead, in this place where there isn’t much else, so it’s named after the supposedly wise and powerful god of the moon, and they wonder about their God, the God of Israel, that they thought was going to care for them when they were free. And they’re like, Moses, our leader – where have you taken us? Help us find water!

Wilderness in the Biblical imagination is always like this. We might think of wilderness as where we go to unwind, or take a hike, or relax. But ancient peoples didn’t have North Face jackets and Cliff Bars and water bottles, and they hadn’t killed off most of the animals of prey either. And so for ancient peoples, ancient Israel included, wilderness was terrifying. Wilderness – deserts, forests, the whole of the seas was where you were small and alone and out of control. Wilderness was chaos and threat. Wilderness was where you got hungry and thirsty and then you died.

Sometimes I still feel a bit of this when I go to the Wilderness. My most common taste of Wilderness over the last several years has been in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, because I’ve hiked a lot with my kids there. In fact, my daughter and I have hiked just about every single high peak in the Whites.

And the White Mountains aren’t that far away from the city, and the mountain heights don’t sound very impressive, but there are signs here and there on the trails when you reach treeline that say stuff like: Careful, you might die here. Because every year, in every season, people die in the Whites. They’re remote, the weather is crazy and unpredictable, and they can be dangerous.

So when I’m in the White Mountains, particularly when I’m there with my kids, whose lives and safety I’m responsible for, two things happen for me pretty much every time. One, I breathe a little easier. I unwind. I feel both properly small again and somehow at home in myself and on the earth in a different way. It’s good to be there.

But at the same time, I now and then get just a little terrified. I worry, did I pack enough food? Did I bring enough water? I roll my ankle a little on a rock and think: what happens if I sprain my ankle or break a bone? I’m miles from a road, and many miles more from a hospital.

I remember this one hike years ago I took all my kids on, up Mt. Cannon. And we took the long and scenic way down, and there was a moment when we had to descend over these steep ravines by crawling backwards on wooden ladders, and I send the big kid – my 8-year old daughter on by herself, and I try to position myself between my 4 and 5-year old sons, climbing backwards on a wooden ladder, over a wilderness ravine, clutching them, just praying nobody falls off this thing.

We made it down—here I am—but the wilderness can still be terrifying.

That’s what strikes me about this story we read. All the anxiety in it. The people are so afraid of their isolation and their thirst. And they’re afraid too that they’ve made a wrong move – that they’re gonna regret the choices they made in life and not be able to walk them back. Can we not relate to that?

And then Moses, man he is reactive in his anxiety!

The people are reasonably like: Moses, what’s up with this place you brought us? There’s no water! And Moses is like: Shut up already, and stop testing God!

Moses is really escalating things, isn’t he? And when the people give voice to their regret, Moses freaks out in his prayers, paranoid that they’re going to stone him. Which maybe was true, but seems more likely to me that he’s overreacting in his stress, without being emotionally healthy enough to even notice.

All the anxiety of this scene, that Moses actually names the place it happened Testing and Argument. Massah and Meribah – testing and argument. This is our memory of our wild places – places of anxiety, of testing, of tension, turmoil, and argument.

You know what’s cool to me, though? There is one character in this story who is not stressed out. And that character is God.

God isn’t worried about the water. God has no regret about choices that have been made. And when Moses brings his anxiety to God, God says: it’s OK. I’ll take care of you.

Go ahead, you’re a shepherd, you’re a leader. So be a leader, be a shepherd. Take a few folks, take that shepherd staff of yours, remember the times past when I was with you in your leadership. And go to that big rock you see in the distance, and I’ll be there on the rock. I’m with you.

And you hit that rock, and a spring of water you knew nothing  about will flow right out of it.

If God had had the opportunity to name this place, God wouldn’t have named it Testing and Argument; that’s incidental. God might have named it The Time of My Help. Or Chill Out, People. Or maybe God would just name this patch of wilderness Water, or something more poetic, like Reservoir.

I wonder if God isn’t always less stressed out than us. I wonder if to be God is not to see the reservoir of water in every dry place, if to be God is not to see the opportunity in every problem.

Best as I can tell, the God who loves me is empathetic, not glib, with my sufferings and anxieties. But God is also never trapped in a anxious, victimized mindset. God always sees possibility.

This is the opportunity in the wilderness, to encounter God and find that God always has more than enough. It’s to know that there can be water where we need it most.

The opportunity of all our problems – our doubts, our sufferings, our anxieties – may just be that there’s always something to learn and discover there. Because God is there, saying I’m standing on that rock, and I’ve got water for you.

God Names an Opportunity

One of my vivid wild places was a season in my 20s when I was most lost vocationally and economically. As an idealistic, young adult, I had put all of my eggs into one basket. I had invested myself in a career that I thought would be meaningful and high impact, but that turned out to be a dead end.

I wasn’t very good at it. It paid me poverty-level wages. I had made all kinds of sacrifices to do this work, but it gave me more anxiety than pleasure, and I needed to find something else to do. But while I had learned a number of skills, I had years of awkward, dead space on my resume now and needed to figure out how to reboot.

And what happened was that I was so anxious that I grasped at whatever was in front of me. I had an awkward interview at a business magazine trying to pretend I had marketing experience. That didn’t go well. Before dropping out, I had spent a year full-time in a graduate program without vision or joy. My version of Israel’s “Give us water to drink” was, “Give me a job.” And God, did I make those sacrifices only to die of failure?

Long story short, I found my way eventually, but the process was kind of miserable.

Now, I had another friend named Andrew in similar circumstances. He had actually been a colleague in another division of the same company I worked for. And the two of us and our wives worked together on a big project right as we were both wrapping up our time with this organization.

Like me, Andrew had made a lot of sacrifice for this work, maybe more than me. Andrew was a graduate of Yale University, after all, an Ivy League education, but like me, he’d spent his early 20s in a non-resume building, poverty wages job, and didn’t know what to do next.

Unlike me, though, Andrew somehow was able to take a breath and embrace this season of change and transition. He probably felt as much anxiety as I did, but he was able to embrace the opportunity of his wild place. In a season of no employment, no job prospects, and no clear way forward, he said: I’m going to take a full year for self-examination. And with his wife’s support, he found a part-time, low wage job that could just cover his share of the household expenses, which they worked hard to keep very low that year. And with the rest of his work time, he enrolled in a year-long personal and career exploration program run by our very own Scott and Louise Walker, through their organization Life/Work Direction.

And during that year, Andrew discovered his passion for peacemaking. Which led him to prepare for and then to attend law school and to launch a career in peacemaking and conflict resolution, one in which he’s been really successful.

I love that Andrew has been able to find paid work that is so aligned with his skills and passions. It’s a really happy ending story to his season of wilderness. To be clear, though, our next chapters after our wild places aren’t always so shiny.

Some of us never find employment that we love. Some of us hit problems in our wild places that persist for years or decades or even a lifetime. But for all of us, I wonder:

Maybe the places we name problem, God also names opportunity. Maybe the places we name testing and argument, God wants to name: slow down, take a breath, I can help you here. Maybe the places we name out of control, abandoned, chaos, God can rename for us Water.

In Andrew’s and my stories, and in the scriptures we’re looking at, I wonder if two things make the difference:

In wild places, we’re going to be anxious. That’s a given. There’s no way around it. But noticing that we’re anxious, owning that story, and remembering that God is not anxious might make all the difference. Like a child in the womb, or even a nursing child is attuned to its mother’s breath and heartbeat and hormones, we can believe, even try to listen, to God’s calm confidence and peace regarding our lives, and see if that can’t help us take a breath, and ask: God, what can I learn here? What is there to discover? How are you with me?

And secondly, I think we have a choice to hope that God isn’t only calm, non-anxious, but that God is good as well. God wants to give us the water we need. God wants to take care of us.

Attuning ourselves to God’s peace, and cultivating hope that God is good.

The biggest tool of our Lenten season is a daily reflection and conversation tool I’ve written that starts tomorrow. It’s available in paper and podcast form, and on our website and social media channels. And the opening passage is an old poem, Psalm 107, that begins like this:

Psalm 107:1-3 (CEB)

“Give thanks to the Lord because he is good,

       because his faithful love lasts forever!”

2 That’s what those who are redeemed by the Lord say,

   the ones God redeemed from the power of their enemies,

3     the ones God gathered from various countries,

   from east and west, north and south.

This poem is an old tool for attunement to God’s peace, and the cultivation of hope that God is good.

It starts by saying we can thank God today, because God is trustworthy and dependable and kind every day and in every circumstance, and that faithful love of God never changes or runs out. And then, you’ll read tomorrow, the Psalm walks through all kinds of wild places.

There are people who get lost in hard times or hard places. They’re called the people who wander into a desert. There are people who end up in prison – literal jails, or metaphorical too – like depression or other places that feel stuck or trapped. There are people who make really big mistakes they regret, and there are people who end up in these overwhelming circumstances, out at sea, in over their head. All the out of control, challenging spaces – all the wild places.

Every time, in the psalm, they cry out to God, and every time they encounter God there. Here’s how. They trust or feel God is with them, loving them, helping them – redeeming is the key word they experience. Bringing good out of what they called bad. Bringing connection and opportunity out of the problem. Showing God isn’t just non-anxious, not stressed out, but in every bit of crap life throws at us, and in every impossibly weird or hard situation we end up in, we are still loved there, and there is still in fact so much possibility there.

Attuning to God’s peace, cultivating hope that God is good, and hanging in long enough for God to show us just how.

My hope is that we’ll all take that journey and all find that to be true this Lent. That we’ll name some of the wild places we’re experiencing in this season of our lives. And that we’ll take the time to break the rhythm of some of the normal ways we handle our stress and chaos and take time to attune ourselves to God’s peace, to cultivate hope that God is good, and see how God can show up more how that is true.

Each day, our Bible guide ends with a different spiritual exercise, a different thing to practice, and they’re more of less the same each week, to give you time to sit with it. Here’s this week’s first practice. It’s an:

Honest Prayer and Request for Encounter, Discovery, and Rescue

It reads – This week, you are invited to name a place in your life where you are out of your element, beyond your resources, or out of control. Tell God about this. How is it you want to experience God’s faithful love with you? What do you hope to learn in this season? How is it that you would like God to rescue you?  

I hope that reflection is full of hopeful discovery for you. Along those lines, here’s this week’s:

Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Look for the opportunity in your biggest problem. If you can’t see it, ask God for help.

In your working life, in your financial life, in your relational life, what’s your biggest problem? Try looking for opportunity there. And if that seems bizarre or impossible, fair enough, but maybe ask God for help to see it. And then:

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Let’s start Lent together.

Let’s break rhythm and let go – through fasting and generosity.

Let’s push into the wild places together: Spend 15+ minutes each day with the Bible guide and once a week connecting with others about it.