Lessons in the Wilderness

Episode 25 – March 10, 2019

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Referenced Articles & Websites

Things I think about when I’m doing something else… by The Rev. Norm Seli
A Sanctified Art

Featured Musicians

Good Harvest  “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell



Sam Larkin – “Murmurings”


Reading No. 1

Luke 4:1-13  Jesus in the Wilderness
Read by Alison Brooks-Starks of Emberwood in Edmonton, Alberta


Reading No. 2

The Agony & Ecstasy by Rumi


The reflection is an adaptation of a sermon offered to the congregation of York Pines United Church on March 10, 2019

That was Alison Brooks-Starks reading the Gospel of Luke from Edmonton Alberta.  

So, It seems everybody and their dog in Canada is talking about the SNC Lavelin affair right now.  And if you’re listening from somewhere that isn’t Canada…you are probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about.  So, for the benefit of those who aren’t sure what the SNC Lavelin issue is, here is the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the story:

SNC Lavalin is a large, Quebec based engineering company.  They are facing charges of fraud and corruption for allegedly paying nearly $48-million to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to influence government decisions under the Moammar Gadhafi regime. The RCMP also charged the Montreal-based company, its construction division and a subsidiary with fraud and corruption for allegedly defrauding Libyan organizations of about $130-million.  The company asked for what is called a “deferred prosecution agreement” in order to avoid criminal proceedings. This would have required them to admit wrongdoing, give up any financial benefit received, pay a penalty and cooperate with authorities. However, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada decided that SNC Lavalin did not meet the requirements for a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, which meant that criminal prosecution could proceed.  

Jody Wilson-Raybould, former Attorney General, has testified she was pressured by the Prime Minister’s Office to step in and convince the Prosecution Service to change its decision, or override it entirely.  She testified that in a meeting with the Prime Minister, that he suggested with an election coming up and many seats in Quebec – where he is a Member of Parliament – it would be prudent not to jeopardize 9000 jobs by not seeking the Deferred Prosecution Agreement.  Wilson-Raybould says she felt pressured. The Prime Minister says she was not, or at least if she WAS pressured, then he didn’t know. As a side note, the Reverend Norm Seli, has written a great piece about why the Prime Minister should have known she felt pressure, and about how the Prime Minister invited people into Government who do not belong to the Old Boys Network with the promise that they would help to change it – but they didn’t think to take into account that that would mean the Cabinet and Prime Minister’s Office would also have to change the way they governed. I’ll be placing a link to his article in our show notes.   

But what’s hard to deny is that there were some deep power plays going on here.  The Prime Minister doesn’t deny he mentioned he was a Quebec MP in his September 17th meeting with Wilson-Raybould.  The Prime Minister’s Office doesn’t deny suggesting the Attorney General re-examine her decision. With an election less than a year away, holding on to power seemed to be more important than what was right…

Now, I bring up the SNC Lavalin issue delicately, and I promise…I promise I’ll get to the tie in.  

But right now, Jesus is in the Wilderness.  

In this story, we find ourselves placed immediately after Jesus’s baptism.  Jesus is led to the Wilderness by the Holy Spirit. It’s important to note – he is not dropped there.  He is not abandoned there. He is present with, and already filled by, the Spirit. There is a literary comparison Luke is making to the Israelites 40 years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt.  In fact, in response to the devil’s suggestions, Jesus quotes from his people’s sacred texts, from a passage in Deuteronomy which congregations following the Revised Common Lectionary would have also heard this morning.   It’s almost like Jesus is saying, “C’mon dude – we’ve been through this before.” And in fact, this is what Luke is trying to say…it’s one big wink, breaking the fourth wall, to an early Christian Community struggling within the constraints of Empire.  

At first, the devil reminds Jesus he is hungry.  So very hungry. Why doesn’t he just make himself a sandwich?  Jesus could do it. A nice peanut butter and jelly with a glass of milk to wash it down.  And if you think about it, by extension, if Jesus can make himself a sandwich, he could make all kinds of sandwiches to feed the multitudes of Israel’s hungry.  Just…fix the problem with a wave of his hand.

And yet, Jesus quotes from within his tradition, “Man does not eat by bread alone.”  And you know what’s so infuriating? He’s right. Of course, he’s right. If suddenly we woke up one day and were able to magic our governments and institutions to instantly provide food to every hungry person in the world, would it address the deep, systemic issues that allow poverty to fester, or would it merely be masking those problems, making them easier to ignore?  It’s so tempting to take the easy way…a way where we can be distracted from what is deep, what is real, what is required of us.

The devil brings Jesus to the tallest point of the temple and tells Jesus to jump.  The angels will save you! I hate to say it, but I can totally see older versions of my kids right there with the devil, egging Jesus on.  Perhaps with my three younger brothers. “C’mon man, it will be totally awesome!!”

Because, we love to see people rise to the top, right?  But we also love to watch those who have risen to that great height crash and burn.  Reality TV and 24-hour news stations have turned this into a spectator sport. Wolf Blitzer needs those drama llamas to fill his on-air time slot.  It’s so tempting to buy into this culture of celebrity – to participate in the schadenfreude that distracts us from that which needs attention in our own lives.

The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world.  All earthly power could be his.

“To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

For me, this is the crux of the whole exchange.  This devil…he is not a red guy with a pitchfork and pointy horns.  He is the personification of all that separates us from God. The personification of the world’s understanding of power and authority and status.   That is why this authority has been handed over to the devil.  It is not true authority.  It is handed over – not taken, not stolen – because it is not of God’s in the first place.  This is not God’s authority.

However, we live in this world.  A world where we are judged and ranked and categorized by who we know, how much money we have, where we work.  Stress and sleep deprivation have become badges of honour and not understood as the health and spiritual epidemics they are.  There are some very interesting academic studies which have been released about busyness – the culture of busyness – actually being a form of violence.  In this story, the wilderness is more of a spiritual place, than a geographical place. This is our wilderness, and we measure ourselves against that which the devil in this story values.  Where we, will never, ever be enough. And it is tempting…so tempting…to buy into this notion of worldly status as a distraction from all those things which break our hearts open.

Cultivating and Letting Go.  This was a Lenten theme suggested by an all-female, American ministerial collective called, “A Sanctified Art”.  What aspects of our lives are worth cultivating this season? What struggles in our lives should we aim to let go?  Over the next six weeks of the Lenten season, the Living Presence Podcast will be looking to scripture, exploring what we might think about cultivating and letting go.   As I was sitting with this week’s devotional and scripture passages, I realized I would like to let go of temptation. And I don’t mean temptation to eat a second piece of chocolate cake, or the temptation to turn the music louder so I can’t hear my kids fighting in the next room.  The temptation I would like to let go of is the temptation to acquiesce or buy into society’s understanding of what is valuable. The temptation to take on the world’s values, which inevitably lead me to believe that I am broken…that I am not good enough. The temptation to look for the quick fix.  To measure myself against the rise and fall of others. Those markers are unstable and ever-changing…and they are a distraction.

Distraction….so there’s another thing I’d like to let go of.  Distraction from that which is important…truly important. Not by the standards of the world, but the standards of The Spirit. Distraction from sitting with the knowledge that we are human beings, not human doings.  We are not perfect, but we are beloved. And I think sitting with the knowledge of that can break us open. Breaking open can be terrifying. However, we come from a tradition where we acknowledge that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. And so it goes…

As I was writing this reflection, I was thinking of the song Woodstock by Joni Mitchell…

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

Letting go of temptation.  Letting go of distraction. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.  But gardens are for growing…so what would I like to grow? What would I like to cultivate?  

I think I would like to cultivate integrity.  Doing the right thing, even when nobody’s watching, even when the world doesn’t understand.  Integrity…listening to that voice in our heart that asks, “is this the right thing? Am I using my power to influence for good, or simply to maintain and expand it?”   Integrity…integrating and embodying that we are loved and beloved. We are stardust. We are golden.

And this integrity can be fertilizer for the other thing I wish to cultivate…resistance.  Resistance from temptation and distraction when it runs completely counter to everything we’ve learned about what is valuable in this world.  Because God doesn’t assess what is valuable in the way the world does. Resistance…naming, out loud, to others our values. Our sacredness. The futility of chasing what the great tempter offers us. Because those worldly offers are unstable, ever-changing…and are never fully attainable anyway. The authority the devil offers was handed to them because it wasn’t God’s to begin with…it’s not true authority.   And as Jesus points back to his people’s sacred texts, we can once again…and I think I am going to say this every week…go back to Mary’s song. The tables are continuing to turn, because God’s power doesn’t look like earthly power. God’s power is love, and God’s love always, always wins.

It is no surprise to me that those in positions of political leadership in our country have allegedly abused their authority and influence.  I would say this no matter which party was currently forming government. It is simply what often happens when earthly authority is valued at the expense of integrity.  I look forward to moving through this Lenten season with you. Letting go of Temptation and Distraction. Cultivating. Integrity and Resistance.

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden…


The Living Presence Ministry is a community ministry of the United Church of Canada

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