The Resonance & Otherness of Wild: Sermon/Rant

The theme of this service, the “Resonance and Otherness of Wild” comes from a story written by Cheryl Lawrie.  It’s about a road trip to Alice Springs in Central Austraila where as one travels north the dust gets redder and redder the coffee shops or ‘stops’ at least, become lesser and lesser.

It’s tempting to think that we were in the middle of nowhere, but more truthfully we were on the edge of nowhere. It’s the vast space to the left and right of the road that is the nowhere: thousands of kilometres of wilderness with barely a tree or a bush or even a track. Australian folklore is full of stories of people who took a turn from the road without knowing what they were doing and have never been found. It is only by miracle that sometimes someone is.

My friend was going home. With every signpost that indicated we were getting closer to Alice Springs, her smile would broaden. We took ‘welcome home’ photos at the Northern Territory) border. She couldn’t wait to feel the soil beneath her feet again, the burning heat of the centre’s sun. This was her place, these were her people. This was her life.

I, on the other hand, felt an unexpected sense of alienation. It is remarkable country, made even more beautiful by its ancient story, but I don’t find my own within it. Its beauty for me is in its otherness, not its resonance.

Somewhere after the border, though, I had an almost irrepressible urge to turn left; to leave the road and take a faint track into the immense emptiness that lay on the side of it. The urge was so strong that had I been on my own, I don’t doubt I would have done it.

If that sounds romantic and cliched, it was actually anything but. I knew that if I took the turn I’d not come back. If I turned left I’d lose myself in this wilderness, and, more frighteningly, I would want to stay lost. There’s no happy ending to this kind of lost, though. I had no sense that I would find myself to be one with this place and, as the cliche goes, know myself for the first time. This would be lost-ness of the most terrible kind, where you no longer know the edge of your skin, where you are subsumed by your surroundings. You no longer know who you are. You become nothing to the world’s everything.

I knew without any doubt that if I turned down the track into the wilderness – if I made this my lent – when the 40 days were over, I would not know to return. My survival would not be of my own making, and it most definitely would not be assured.

We throw around poetry of wilderness and deserts with the blithe carelessness that comes from not knowing how desperate and desolate these places are. We speak of having faith in terms of believing that God will provide the food or water or shelter from the heat. I’m not sure I know anymore what faith really is, but I know it’s much, much more vast than that, and even more important. It’s something to do with lost-ness, survival, and holding on to the edge of my own skin.

It’s a beautiful story that connects the ideas of faith and the wild and the elements about both that attract and threaten us.

Wendell Berry, the farmer theologian from Kentucky, (and would that more theologians were farmers,) says that what our culture needs within itself is a

“ceremonious generosity toward the wilderness of natural force and instinct.”

“The farm must “yield a place” to the forest, not as a wood lot, or even as a necessary agricultural principle, but as a sacred grove – a place for people to go, free of work and presumption, to let themselves alone.”

There is a tension in life suggests Berry between domestic order;  the safety and security we create for ourselves in our human settlements in the face of the destructive force of nature, and I would suggest in our churches against the wild power of sin.  Berry suggests this

“domestic order is threatened by the margin of wilderness that surrounds it.  Marriage may be destroyed by instinctive sexuality…and the forest is always waiting to overrun the fields.  These are real possibilities.  They must be considered, respected, even feared…

And yet I think that no culture that hopes to endure can afford to destroy them or to set up absolute safeguards against them.  Invariably the failure of organized religions, by which they cut themselves off from mystery and therefore from sanctity, lies in the attempt to impose an absolute division between faith and doubt, to make belief perform as knowledge.

When they forbid their prophets to go into the wilderness they lose the possibility of renewal

The natural forces that so threaten us are the same forces that preserve and renew us.

Today we have heard read the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptations that immediately proceed from his Baptism at the outset of his ministry.  The power and the invitation to transformation of the primal imagery in these stories, of earth and water and fire and heaven and earth and spirits and beasts is often lost on us urban Westerners. So today we have brought some of these primal elements into the temple as a way of ‘yielding a place’ as Berry would describe it.

Our first element is the River Jordan.  When Jesus went to be baptised in the waters of the Jordan the Spirit of God came upon him.  He submitted himself to the radical prophet John. The Camel hair shirt wearing, new Elijah re-appeared in that place calling for repentance.  He was a prophet less interested in managaing the domestic, privatized ‘sins’ management we sometimes get good at temples but was a wild man who was who took on the predatory lethal powers of sin at large in the world head to head.

Together John and Jesus immersed themselves in that wild space and into the particular revolutionary history of a visionary people.

And so the faith of biblical people begins with a wilderness encounter.  It is an acknowledgement of the power of God that comes to us from outside of civilization.

Baptism is a powerful transformational ritual, and, as nice as our baptistries can be, I still prefer when them to take place in some wild river or lake.  It is a personal and political statement in a social context calling upon the wild Holy Spirit in the undomesticated spaces of wilderness in the struggle against Empire.

This struggle is storied in Joshua 4. When the Hebrew’s, after 40 years in the wilderness miraculously cross the boundary of the Jordan they place 12 stones in the Jordan.  This is most the most ancient form of religious symbolism, piling stones upon one another. A Celtic style cairn if you would.  This was a statement by a ragged, feral Israel that this ground was going to be liberated by a new way of life.  In a land dominated by Imperial Egypt it was the proclamation of a tribal confederacy, a non-hierarchical society of mutual aid. A better way.  (Irony in light of the theme of today’s confession.)

I wonder if Jesus when he is under the water at his baptism is looking for these stones.  Today in our River Jordan you are invited to take a river stone with you and place it somewhere in your life this week where it is most needed. A sign of your commitment to a better way.

As a Baptist I like connecting the image of baptism with Eucharist and among our network of communities in Melbourne we use water as our common cup and I invite you to take a glass from our ‘river’ and do so today.  We have chosen to use water because half the people who come to our gathering struggle with alcohol and the other half struggle with watered down grape juice.  We choose it because of its scarcity in our dry and waterless land.  When your city is on water restrictions it’s a substance that becomes sacred to all. It makes up 70% of each of us.  We remember the water that flowed with blood from Jesus side at his death and his promise to be Living Water for which we would thirst no more.

At his last meal he took what they were drinking and said “Take this cup, it represents my life blood poured out for you and for the forgiveness of many. Do this as often as you will and remember me.”

Jesus, like Israel receives a name in the wilderness. The heavens are torn open and he is called “My child.” I don’t know what the process and experience of your baptism or initiation into Christianity was but baptism, this dying and rising in Christ, can give us a powerful sense of IDENTITY.   However is does not begin and end there. The Spirits leading is not to triumph but to further testing.

Yes this is an inward journey.  We could offer many good psychological readings of the three types of temptation of addiction and personal struggles that we each face in our lives.  As I have suggested with the stones it has both personal and political ramifications. Each time Jesus uses the words of the ancient stories, of his peoples wilderness struggles in the wilderness against his tempter.

What is wilderness if not the origin place of a people, a nation, of Israel.  With this in mind I want to connect the temptations of Jesus with this beautiful and powerful image of indigenous, fossilized footprints in the Australian outback of Lake Mungo.

It reminds me of the Australian indigenous spiritual tradition of walkabout.  A right of passage in traditional cultures.  When you leave the tribe to learn the disciplines of survival. Where one learn’s one’s vocation. What is the dreamtime but a travelling in the spirit back to the ancestors, a regaining of paths, of the spiritual source and songs of ones people but also to find out where one’s people went wrong.  The baggage of history that we carry in our bones.

Being a Christian is not simply about inheriting a new identity and connection to an ancient heritage.  It’s the living Spirit of Christ that leads us into a testing of that identity. That is what it means to be spriitualy alive, and it’s a wild and risky ride.  It’s about the word made flesh in the here and now.  Where am I in the historical moment, what sources can save us and what do I need to do the deal with roots causes of our problems.

The stories of Eureopean settlement of our lands and of ANZAC are the wilderness stories of the pioneers.  They contain much source for our common spirit as well as the roots of our deepest problems.

I invite you to identify with this today by taking the bread.  As you eat, remember the Body of Christ broken for you and all creation.  Remember his wilderness temptations as a retracting of the footsteps of ancestors.  Of both the spiritual source but also the wrong turnings of his people.

Consider what footsteps guide you or have shaped your own view of what it is you need most?  Remember the manna of testing and provision in the wilderness. Of Jesus feeding of hungry masses and his promise to be the daily bread we most need.

When he was at table on the night he was betrayed he took break he gave thanks and breaking said. This is my body broken for you.  Take eat and remember.

From the IDENTITY of Baptism, to the TESTING of that Identity in the wild, Jesus moves to VOCATION of ministry.  I wonder if Jesus might have found any fossilized footprints in his sojourn in the wild.  I imagine Moses footprints there on the ground where he took off his shoes and walked upon Holy Ground at the site of the Burning Bush where he discovered his VOCATION to lead and liberate his captured people.

This morning you are invited to know your identity, to test what it is we need most, and then to light a candle from a burning bush as a symbol for the suffering of others in our world and a statement of your own VOCATION and calling to make a difference.

To experience something of the power of the God to call us even when we think we are inadequate and have nothing to give.  A power that can transform us nonviolently.  A power like at the scene of the burning bush that appears as a fire that does not consume or destroy, but gives enough light to make the next step.

Finally I remind you of our ‘other’ station, that of Hagar’s Well that we described in our confession earlier.

You may wish to start at this station as a preparation before receiving communion.  We have already acknowledged the wildness of her faith and heard the similar cry of Job in the song we listened to. In response to the devastation wreaked on Job’s life by powerful, wild, destructive forces, Job is blamed, he is told that it is his fault, told he is a shameful sinner, that his suffering is due to God, or the fate of the world or his own failures.  Like John the Baptist, like Hagar the success of Job is that he never just takes it.  His faith is as wild as the wilderness that he powerfully evokes in railing against God.

He concludes that in his anguish he speaks about things that are beyond his understanding being but dust and ashes.  It sounds similar to me in spirit to the words of our storyteller at the outset.

I know it’s much, much more vast than that, and even more important. It’s something to do with lost-ness, survival, and holding on to the edge of my own skin.

Is this true to your experience of spirituality?  Have you tested it?  Some of us have a strong sense of identity, but have never left the temple. Others of us know the pain of testing but have never known the strength and assurance of being called ‘my child’ in a positive way. Others of us are good workers, active in our vocation but have used that to avoid the deeper questions of what is wrong at the roots with ourselves and our world.  I believe we each need a spirit led walkabout that leads us through each stage of this journey and back again.

Today I have tried to capture a resonance of wilderness from our traditions as a positive thing from which we can experience a socially animating power from deep within ourselves and move then move positively into the places of pain of the world. But far be it from me to

…throw around poetry of wilderness and deserts with a blithe carelessness that doesn’t fear how desperate and desolate these places can be.

There is also the ‘otherness’ in that of which we speak today.  Perhaps the wild, predatory powers of sin and death in our world have devastated your life or faith leaving you angry and broken.  Can I encourage you like Hagar, to live into the imagery and story.

In a moment I will encourage people to respond by leaving the safety of the pew. It may be that you DON’T wish to come to the altar for this stuff.   Simply wash yourself at the back in the well of Hagar and mourn or if you have to walk out the door and flee this temple and to seek God in the struggle beyond the safety of the known road then GO!  But go, knowing that it is true to the story and experience of our people and at times it is vital and our prayers go with you.  The faith of biblical people begins with a wilderness encounter.

I finish with a quote from Wendell Berry.

An enduring agriculture…

(and whenever Wendell mentions the word farm, I know a clergyman who substitutes Parish or Church. He says the meaning holds every time.)

An enduring agriculture (parish, church) must never cease to consider and respect and preserve wildness.  The farm can exist only within the wilderness of mystery and natural force.  And if the farm is to last and remain in health, the wilderness must survive within the farm.  To learn to preserve the fertility of the farm, (the parish, the church)… we must study the wild (forest.)


Let us take 10 minutes or so in the context of worship to “study” and “yield a place” to the wild. Feel free to move around the space and engage the stations, in any order, or to remain seated to reflect.

With the usual acknowledgements to Ched, Wendell, Cheryl, Jarrod, Ted…etc etc…


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