Wilderness, a place of encounter

Wilderness, a place of encounter

This is the sermon the Rev. Karen Calafat, St. Luke’s in the Meadow, Fort Worth, preached at the diocesan worship service on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, the Third Sunday of the Creation Series, on September 20, 2020.


Creation 3:3 – Wilderness
September 20, 2020

Today is Wilderness Sunday.  I drew the lucky straw in getting to preach on Wilderness for our Creation Series where we set aside the four Sundays in September to examine various aspects of the natural world – to see what we might discover about the created and our Creator.

I want to extend a special thank you to those who responded to my official Facebook Sermon Research for sharing your thoughts on “Wilderness”.

Responses shared about “wilderness” included ‘the current state of affairs in our country’ regarding the Pandemic, Politics and Protests – ‘places of discomfort, alienation and disorientation,’ places of ‘great quietness and solitude,’ places where ‘beauty is overwhelming and the Holy seems nearer.’  For some, wilderness is a place of feeling ‘lost and overwhelmed,’ while for others it is a ‘place of discovery’ — a place where God speaks (or perhaps a place where we get quiet enough to hear the Holy).  One replied, wilderness is “a place of encounter with what matters.”

Those of us who have been around church for a while are familiar with the Bible stories that take place in the wilderness, over 300 references according to one source:  the Exodus reading we heard today where the Israelites moan and groan and gripe their way through 40 years in the wilderness after being delivered from slavery to the Egyptians.  Then the prophet Elijah flees to the wilderness in response to the death threat issued by Jezebel after his struggle with the false prophets of Baal.  And of course, the familiar story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness where he spent 40 days practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting before becoming famished and having his faithfulness to God tested.

These biblical episodes in the wilderness involve encounters with God – ‘encounters with what matters most.’

That is ultimately what Jesus’ time in the wilderness was – an encounter with what matters – a time spent embracing his God-given commission.  Jesus is God with flesh on – to show us a new creation, a new way of being.  Jesus goes into the wilderness, away from the political powers of the day, and is anointed and empowered by God to be faithful to God and to embody God’s love for the people – to show the people how to be just and merciful, how to love one another.

In his wilderness experience, Jesus’ commission from God was solidified.  His ministry was made clear.  He realized the task that he was to fulfill.  Jesus kept his focus on God during the wilderness experience and came through it changed and empowered.

I wonder if what makes the wilderness exciting for some and frightening for others is the encounter with God.  It is both exciting and frightening when we encounter God, when we brush up against the Holy.  Wilderness experiences may cause us to feel vulnerable, small, out of control.  But they may also cause us to feel renewed, inspired, centered and motivated. Wilderness experiences change us.

That is one of the reasons I love hiking in the National Parks, in the National Wilderness Areas.  It is recreation, no doubt, but more importantly, it is a place of spiritual renewal and inspiration.  I find worship in the Cathedral of the Great Outdoors the best way to reconnect with the Creator – to truly get away from distractions and get quiet enough to hear the Holy.

On my most recent hike in Mesa Verde National Park and seeing the ruins left by the Indigenous Pueblo people, I was reminded of our connection with our ancestors.  The words of those Pueblo people might offer us instruction on how we might become good ancestors for those who will live after us.  Many of their words fly in the face of our staunch individualism as Americans, which is showing its downside at the moment.

A Zia Pueblo said, “Pueblo people live as community. Pueblo people are about us and we, not about me, I or myself.”

A Laguna Pueblo said, “We respect nature.  We respect the cosmos.  We respect the animals, the trees, the flowers.  We respect our resources – everything that we count on to sustain our lives….”

I hope we can be inspired by the Pueblo people to work toward being good ancestors – to treasure and enjoy the few wilderness areas left for our enjoyment and do all we can to preserve them for those who will live after us.

I hope we will shift our focus to “we and us,” not “me and my” as we fight against the current wilderness of disease – doing all WE can together to protect each other from illness and infection.

I hope you stand up for justice and mercy for all in the wilderness of racism that is destroying our nation.

And I hope you find comfort and hope in the wilderness experiences of our biblical ancestors – recognizing wilderness as a ‘place of encounter with what matters’ – a place of change and empowerment, a place where God meets us and does not leave us.