A couple of weeks ago, we began our Lenten journey into the wilderness.
On the Way, we learned that the wilderness has something to teach us. We heard the story of Emily who journeyed to sobriety, and took the fifth step of Alcoholics Anonymous, confessing to God, herself, and another human being the nature of her wrongs. We witnessed how her courage empowered her to look the world in the eye, feel delight, and move from having spiritual beliefs to having a spiritual experience.
While we journeyed, we also discovered that no matter how far we wander, even in the moments when we hard-hearted and lost, Jesus is like a mama hen who spreads her wings out and calls us back home to her warm mama-hen embrace.
In sum, we have learned the value of the wilderness journey and that, no matter where we travel, hike or bushwhack, Jesus helps us navigate home.
Today, we come to another part of the wilderness trek and that is the question:
What are we going to bring on our back country expedition this Lent?
I ask because, what we carry, what we pile into our packs and carry on our backs for forty days matters. If we pack our bags too heavy, our steps get slow and sluggish, our body curves in on itself and every movement becomes a struggle.
The clutter we carry in our backpacks has a direct effect on the quality of our lives. I speak from personal experience. The lesson of packing light is one that I have had to learn the hard way.
One of my early backpacking adventures happened when I began dating my now-partner Matthew. It was early in our relationship but we still thought it would be a good idea to backpack into the Adirondack wilderness, stay overnight and climb the tallest mountain in NY.
After filling our packs to the brim, we hiked into the forest; our steps, slow. We had toward the peak.
Several blisters later, as the daylight began to fade, we realized that we would not be able to make it to the top. We had to turn around.
We had packed our bags too full.
One more year, we thought. Next time, we hoped, our efforts would be fruitful.
You would think that, after experiencing failure, I would learn to clear the clutter from backpack and only carry the essentials of life.
Sometimes, though, it takes a while to learn the lessons that life has to teach us.
This past fall, as I prepared to hike in the Alps, I packed into my hiking backpack everything that I could think of: trail mix, journal, books, tent, camera and multiple pairs of shoes.
When I finally began the journey, hiking up to the Alpine passes with a thirty-pound backpack, struggling to take each step, I thought: “Why is my backpack so heavy???”
As I reached the mountain hut that first night, I knew I had to jettison all that was not essential. Trail mix bags were tossed out; books were mailed home; I took my journal and ripped out the pages that I didn’t need.
One more year, I thought to myself.
Next time I would know to travel light.
Clear the chaos and the clutter.
That is the Way to journey through the wilderness.
This is the wisdom that Jesus is sharing with the community in the passage today. People come to him report that Pilate, the Roman governor of part of Judea, had killed some people from Galilee.
“Why did this happen?” They wonder.
Jesus goes on to remind them of the fragility of life. Jesus reminds them that evil does exist in our world and that it lures individuals and empires to dominate, alienate and judge.
Perhaps, Jesus suggests to us, part of what we need to jettison from our pack is this idea that bad things happen for a reason or that people deserve the pain that they endure. This, Jesus states, could not be further from the truth. No one deserves to suffer. No one deserves to experience pain. Not our enemy. Not our friend. Not the stranger we see in the grocery store. Even almost dead fig trees that have no fruit, even that type of tree, Jesus would rather tend, fertilize and care for than cut down.
Clear the chaos and the clutter, Jesus is saying to us, and you will discover that what you are left with is: grace.
We have one more year.
To heal. To travel lightly.
To discover forgiveness, for ourselves and for others.
To discover that there is grace, even in places of suffering, even for we who bear no fruit at all, we who pack too heavy, we who cannot make it up the mountain and have blisters on our feet. There is grace.
Clear the chaos and the clutter; clear our eyes that we may see.
When I first heard the story of the fig tree, I was struck by the words of the vineyard owner: “For three years now I’ve come out in search of fruit on this fig tree and have found none. Cut it down. Why should it clutter up the ground?”
I wondered if that tree was the only unproductive fig tree in the owner’s yard, or if the owner had a whole vineyard littered with trees taking up space, struggling to survive. Sometimes we have a habit of collecting trees until we have nowhere left to plant new seedlings.
Maybe just like a backpacker on a hike, we as vineyard workers also need to sort through our vineyard and determine which trees bring us life, joy and fruit and which ones clutter up the yard, blocking the sunlight for the new seedling.
Maybe we need to take a peek at the trees in our vineyard that are struggling and determine how we might prune the branches that weigh the tree down, so that, in their place, vibrant and fig-filled branches might spring up.
Clear the chaos and the clutter.
Maybe this is what Jesus is getting at when he tells us to repent. In Greek, the word repent means “going into the larger mind.” Repenting is about putting on a new mindset.
Perhaps part of that mindset means letting go and leaving behind the non-essentials to discover what truly matters.
Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus visits Martha and Mary and, upon Jesus’ arrival, Martha is running around the house, flying through her to-do list, trying to make sure everything is cleaned and properly prepared for Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, sits down and listens to Jesus attentively. When Martha complains about Mary’s lack of action, Jesus says, “You’re anxious and upset about so many things, but only a few things are necessary, really only one.”
Jesus invites Martha to put on a new mindset, to clear the chaos and the clutter, to jettison her notions of perfection, busyness and getting it right.
Instead, Jesus invites Martha to pause and experience the truth at the center of life: God who pours forth grace abundantly. Even when we forget to pay attention.
Jesus’ invitation invites us to ponder:
What are we bringing on our wilderness journey this Lent?
What are we leaving behind?
As you reflect on that question, I invite you to write your responses on the piece of paper in the bulletin. When you are done, bring it up and place it in the pitcher. Stir it and the paper will dissolve. This symbolizes our act of repentance.
[People wrote on spy paper what they would like to leave behind to live more compassionately, justly and gracefully. Then they walked up to the communion table, put the paper in a clear pitcher of water, stirred it, and watched it dissolve.]
When I reflect on learning to travel light in the wilderness, I can’t help but think of the story of Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl grew up in the mid-west, her parents divorced shortly after her birth and her mother was the love of her life. When her mother dies while Cheryl is in her early twenties, Cheryl is devastated. She wonders – how will she find a way forward?
She tries drugs; she tries various encounters with men; still the weight is too much. So she sells most of what she owns and decides to hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, a trail that goes from Mexico to Canada.
A novice to backpacking, she fills her pack – later nicknamed Monster for its largess – so heavy that she literally topples over the first time she tries to put it on. At the first hut on the trail, she begin to get rid of things.
As she travels, Cheryl also begins to cast aside the idea that temporary fixes can satisfy her. She discovers that what she really longs for, is a place where she can feel loved and embraced, a place where she can put the pieces of her life back together again, a place where she can understand the pulsating promise her life holds, even at this moment of tremendous grief.
Clear the chaos and the clutter. Clear our eyes that we may see all the things that really matter.
Be at peace and simply be.
One day on the trail, after hiking for weeks, Cheryl sits in her chair looking out across the land as the sun set. She describes the light as “melting into a thousand shades of yellow, pink, orange and purple.” Suddenly, as she watches the sun go down, something wells up inside of her like a river, and she begins to laughs. Then, taking a deep breath, she begins to cry. She isn’t crying because she is happy; she isn’t crying because she is sad. She is crying because she is full. She cries for the fifty hard days on the trail and for the 9,760 days that came before. She feels at once fierce and humbled and gathered up inside, like at last she is safe in this world. She has cleared the chaos and the clutter, and at last she can see: the love and beauty of her Creator.
One more year. We have one more year.
To heal. To travel lightly. To stand up straight. To throw out the non-essentials.
To discover the fullness of God’s love at the heart of each moment, waiting to embrace us, fertilize us, tend us, until we too are ready to bear fruit, the fruit of joy, of peace, and of life made new.