Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Kate preached a terrific sermon on Ash Wednesday. What caught my attention was that we are made of stardust.
The imagery comes from the scientific fact that we are made from dust that goes back to the Big Bang, or maybe to the Garden of Eden if you prefer the picture of God forming us from the dust of the earth and blowing air into our lungs. But either way, the universe is made of one material, which means we are made of the same stuff as the stars. I love that idea. It is so cool to be connected like that. Yet, it stirs in me some resentment, as well. If I am so connected to all things, why do I feel like a lonely planet? If I am so integrated, how come it seems like I face so much of life alone?
Do you ever feel that way? And it makes sense, doesn’t it? What we experience is really only experienced by us, even if we experience it in the company of others. Nobody can have our perspective or context, even if they are standing right next to us. And this at the heart of my sermon today: if we are so intimately and fundamentally connected, why do we face so much of life alone?
That alone feeling came crashing in on me Friday morning.
When I say alone, I don’t mean being by myself. I mean being alone. There is a difference, isn’t there. Being by yourself means no one else is around. No one in this room, at this time, is by themselves. But someone in this room might be alone. We can be alone in the presence of others; we can be alone in a marriage; we can be alone at a party or in a family; and, we can be alone at church. Because to be alone means we are facing something that no one else can face but us. No one else can step in, adopt the context, understand, and make it better.
That is what it means to be alone. And when I am in a place of aloneness, I feel like I’m coming apart. It is a feeling of being utterly present in the moment, and simultaneously getting pulled just a bit beyond the parameters of my body. It is like being tugged just a bit outside the walls of myself. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it is a really real sensation.
I was trying to explain it to my wife on Friday. I said it was like being dematerialized into a pile of dust. She nodded because she understands, and said, “Oh, that’s what people call ‘falling apart.’” I said, “yes, very helpful.”
Now I didn’t come to this place of existential isolation all on my own, I was driven there by the context of my life, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here is the scenario: I am going on Sabbatical in a few weeks, and I am trying to get all of the plates up in the air and spinning now, so they will be spinning when I return in August. That is making me feel like I am on a raft alone, funneling toward a river canyon. Maybe you know how that feels—alone on the Yellowstone, screaming towards Yankee Jim Canyon, with folks on the river bank waving, but no one climbing in because they can’t.
Jesus knew this experience of aloneness. We see it in the Gospel today. He was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted, met wild beasts, and was waited upon my angels. In the wilderness Jesus experienced aloneness in his own unique way, on his own raft, if you will, and yet, the experiences he had are experiences we have in our aloneness as well. They are experiences of temptation and wild beasts and angels that come upon when we are vulnerable, like a pile of dust on the floor.
Our aloneness is always unique, but the experiences we have in our aloneness are universal. We need aloneness to understand freedom and choice, and we need the common experiences to bind our souls together, because we are both lonely planets and stardust. We are independent and we are inextricably bound to one another. The common experiences we encounter in our aloneness are the hooks that link our souls in the constellation with one another, in a way that assures us that even when we feel alone we are really never alone.
So let’s take a look at these common experiences now.
Let’s go to temptation. It comes to us as an invitation, as a partial truth. What temptation seeks to do is take something that is good and true, and make it the most important thing in our lives. Temptation can be pretty confusing. Temptation can take something beautiful and beloved and important, and distort it into an idol. And over time this idol becomes our obsession and the purpose of our life, and we miss the purpose of God.
This happens to everyone. It is what happened to me the other day. My temptation was to get all of the plates up and spinning before I leave on Sabbatical. The belief that this was my purpose, and that I could indeed make it happen, was both delusional and idolatrous. Temptation is different for everyone; it takes what we love and seeks to make it the most important thing in our lives.
My temptation can be Epiphany. Someone else’s may be their children. To another it is money, or security, or education, or fame, or the Seattle Seahawks. Our temptations are different, but the “Jesus following” response to temptation is universal: to put God first.
Now to put God first is not an intellectual idea, it is an action. It starts with determining our idols. If you don’t know what your idols are, you can get some clarity by looking at how you spend money and how you spend your time. Look at your calendar and your credit card statement. They will say a lot about what you believe to be important.
The response to temptation is putting God first, through the actions of prayer, worship, study, and stewardship. Putting God first means setting aside time for God and considering God in light of our possessions. This is old school. There is nothing new under the sun here. And yet, I had to reapply it to my own life last Friday, because I was alone, cast down the river by the temptation of my own idolatry.
So I determined to set my Friday fast toward slowing down, toward making more space for God, and toward seeking the blessing of God more than the impact of my actions. And it was very helpful. We are all faced with temptation alone, each in our own way. And the universal response is to put God first. It is how we are all invited to deal with temptation when we are alone.
Next Jesus meets the wild beasts, and so do we. They are the things that are dangerous in the world. They may be the elephant in the jungle, or the bear in the woods. They may be a bad guy, or a bully, or a terrorist. They may be a chronic illness, a natural disaster, or unjust laws. But whatever the wild beast is fight it! Never give up; never give in; never back down; you have nothing to lose!
Here is why. The outcome of the battle with the wild beast is certain, and you will be victorious! You win if you defeat it, because you will have a great story to tell. You win if you die in battle, because you will meet God face to face. You win if you land somewhere in the middle, because God is still there and God is still God. You never lose a battle with a wild beast, so have no fear and always fight, fight, fight. And what you will find in this battle is that God is with you, and God gives you courage, huge unstoppable courage, to fight the good fight, for the victory is guaranteed. Never back down from a wild beast, God is at your side.
When tempted, put God first.
When confronted by a wild beast, fight, fight, fight.
And as for angels, we let them care for us. Now I believe in actual angels, but today we are going to consider them as metaphor. Let’s think about angels as the kind strangers, the unexpected presence of a friend, or the random generosity of a stingy neighbor. Too often we ignore angels and rely on our own competence and wherewithal. In fact, our culture encourages us to be totally self-sufficient, and yet this self-sufficiency often leads to isolation.
To be cared for by angels requires being vulnerable. It requires being open, being spontaneous, and being available to interruption in a way that lets people in. I have encountered angels in far off countries when I was in terrible trouble, in grocery stores when I forgot my wallet, in dark garages when I felt unsafe, and outside Walgreens in the U-district. The angels we meet in our aloneness are particular to us, and yet universally sent to care for us.
So when we are alone and meet temptation, put God first.
When we are alone and meet wild beasts, fight, fight, fight.
And when we are alone and the angels appear, we let them care for us.
Our aloneness is always unique, but the experiences we have in our aloneness are universal. They are the threads that quilt together, the fabric of our common life. They are the universal experiences, the binding agents that remind us that we are not really alone, but planets designed from the dust of creation to dance in constellation together for the purposes of God.
Finally I’d like to say, next time you feel that aloneness—and you will—find someone to tell your story to, or more so, find someone whose story of aloneness you can listen to.