Into the Wilderness

Jeffrey Sartain July 16, 2017

Scriptures Isaiah 35:1–10, Mark 1:9–13

Teachers of writing say that you write about what you know—out of your own experience of life. That was tough advice for me to follow this week, because the readings from Isaiah and from Mark both take us to the desert, and any experience of the desert I’ve had is strictly secondhand. I’ve not spent a single moment in the Gobi or Sahara. I’ve never even been to New Mexico or Arizona.

So I decided to contextualize these passages and preach about something I know firsthand. Today, instead of a sermon about deserts, you will get instead a sermon about swamps.

From what I can tell when Isaiah invites us to the desert, he could just as easily invite us out to Dentaybow Township, just south of the Canadian border, right in the center of the northern border of Minnesota near my hometown. It is in an expansive spruce and tamarack bog, There was once a town there—hard to believe it, but it’s true. It is hard to envision any commerce in the middle of what looks like the epicenter of all mosquito breeding, but, in its heyday, Dentaybow had a post office, a few logging camps and a notorious establishment—a bar. In the middle of nowhere, out of the eye of the authorities, separated from proper society stood the Dew Drop Inn. I’ve always pictured it as something like a saloon from an old-time Western crossed with a yurt.

The living was hard for the men in the logging camps, the drinking was harder and the fights that happened were sometimes lethal. When I was a kid, there were some old-timers who would say that among the ancient whiskey bottles and the occasional rusty saw blades, down in the muck of the swampy depths, you would find human bones, remains of bachelor immigrants who left their homes in Norway and Sweden with heads full of dreams and who fell from a blow to the head, or a gunshot wound or maybe just passed out in the bitter cold, and disappeared into the forest behind the Dew Drop Inn never to be heard from again.

I had a great-uncle I never met, but whom I know from family legend, Uncle John Boe. He made a living selling Watkins products and lived in a shack out in that Dentaybow swamp, a dwelling he shared with a flock of chickens. That’s the kind of thing you expect in the swamp, and that’s what I’m talking about today: a world apart from our world that is something like it but vastly different. Think of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness wearing animal skins and eating locusts and wild honey, and then think of my Uncle John Boe with chickens in his house, and you are right on track.

This is what I’m talking about when I say I know about the swamp: an entire world not far away, just on the margins of proper society. Close enough that you could drive by it on a Sunday afternoon, but as different as different can be from life as you know it, just on the edge, but across the dividing line.

Now, I know there is a naturalist or environmentalist here today who is going to tell me that the swamp is gorgeous, wonderful and peaceful. That’s fine, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about my swamp, how it is to me, and that’s the point.

As a kid, I hated the swamp and I was afraid of it, which is unfortunate if you live so close to it; you should get acquainted, right? But, of course, so often that is not what we do. We define the boundaries of our lives by those things, places, people, events, ideas that we fear and that are too close for comfort. We take all the scary stories we’ve heard and underline them until anything sacred or beautiful disappears from our minds. We wall off the wilderness, and isolate ourselves into comfort zones that might be comfortable, but they are also restrictive. These comfort zones protect us, but if we never leave them, they keep us from having the abundant and expansive life God wants for us.

Dr. Jacob Stratman, professor at John Brown University, writes about the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and how the swamps in her stories function very much like the way the desert functions in the Bible. Stratman writes, “It is [a place] outside the center, therefore, completely neglected and even feared by members of the . . . community.” Then he says, “Essentially, the swamp resists any influence from civilization and [that is why it] becomes very fertile ground for subversive or alternative ideologies.”[1] He writes again: “The swamp becomes fertile ground for subversive or alternative ideologies.” And that should interest us as Christians because Jesus was all about subversive and alternative ideologies.

So, our swamp, whatever it is, our swamp can be our teacher. Just like the desert was the place Jesus went to encounter God—that place where he confronted demons, but where we are also told the angels ministered to him. The swamp can open our lives. The swamp is where God led Abraham. It was Moses’ Sinai. It is Jonah’s Nineveh. It is the Pharisees’ Samaria. In the first reading, it is the desert where Isaiah invites us to find our healing. It is that place just beyond the edge of our comfort zone, where the rules are different, where our lives can be unsettled, and where we can learn to see the world in a new way that opens our souls and connects us to God.

How does this look in our lives? You might not have a swamp close at hand, but maybe you do.

I love meeting with prospective members who plan to join Plymouth, and one thing I have learned from them is that for so many people the church is actually their swamp, their scary wilderness. Lessons of their past caused them to push church to the margins. They heard rejection. They witnessed hypocrisy or experienced spiritual violence. There were skeletons here, they feared. I know this is a story some of you can tell. You imagined church as a swampy expanse filled with narrow-minded people unable think for themselves. But the more you feared it, the more you realized it was time to make peace with it if you were going to heal. You tested the waters. You stood at the edges to see if you would meet the monsters you imagined. And you discovered that your world could be bigger than you realized, and, for many of you, the place that was once a swamp is now a home. The desert rejoiced and blossomed. Streams of healing began to flow. You might still on occasion hear a hymn that makes you feel that old fear once again and look for the door. One of us clergy unknowingly say something in a sermon that makes you want to run—but you stay, and you learn to explore a world where the boundaries are not defined by your fears.

Here is another example—appropriate for this day when we are celebrating Latin culture—our partnership with Immanuel Baptist Church in Ciego de Avila, Cuba. More than 70 members of our church have travelled to Cuba as part of this partnership. For some who have gone to Cuba, that was a double or triple wilderness experience.

First we crossed the barrier of Communism. Even those of us who consider ourselves quite enlightened have had to admit our anxiety when it was time for the scheduled meeting with the communist party leaders in what is called the House of Friendship. I’m not sure what we thought we would see. Something like you might find out behind the Dew Drop Inn maybe? What we found were warm, lovely people who think differently about society than we do, but who want the same things we want: safe streets, enough of the good things in life and the ability to seek our own happiness. In that wilderness, we learned about our own prejudice, and some of us learned how much we truly value our own basic societal structures.

We also ventured into a wilderness of culture and of race—we entered a different world view not only politically, but also a different standard of living. Some might call it poverty. Some might just say a simpler life. But in general things mean something much different to people there. The idea of carrying debt in order to have, say, a nicer house, is something they cannot imagine. The pastor of the church said to me, “I don’t understand debt; I would not want my job to mean that much to me.” So, it’s a different world view that was liberating to enter—and left us with new ways of being in our own lives.

Yet another wilderness in Cuba for us was the physicality of the Cuban way of life. That is a stark difference from the way we live in Minnesota—someone I know calls this the land of 10,000 repressions. Cuban people actually live in their bodies! Can you imagine? They don’t just visit their bodies from time to time and feel sort of embarrassed when they do, like so many of us. They are sensuous, embodied and even sexual people. Eduardo my friend always laughs. He says that our groups always look terrified for about three days before their joints start to loosen up enough for them to give him a decent hug. I think nearly all of us can say that our trips to Cuba have been to some degree a venture into the wilderness, and to one degree or another, these trips have changed our lives.

So, what other swamps do we avoid that limit our world? Boundaries of class or of race? Boundaries set by political ideologies or party affiliation?

Only you can know what wilderness is yours to explore. But I can give you this map to help you discover it: It is close by; it makes you feel afraid; and it holds the potential to open your world if you dare cross the border. That’s your swamp.

You encounter the edges of it in your day-to-day life—a grocery store you drive by that you’d never considered entering; a neighborhood that is for you a throughway, and making it a destination unnerves you; a person who because of their skin color, or hijab, or tattoos, or manner of speaking, or some other characteristic puts them on the other side of a boundary you don’t want to cross.

But we are called to go into the wilderness. You may walk by it on the way to your car when you leave church. You might drive by it on your way home. Maybe you read about it in the bulletin this morning—a book study on race, a night in the church with a homeless family, a gathering of people in recovery, the Justice Choir singalong or even the Oromo international soccer tournament for that matter.

Go into the wilderness. It is nearby. It makes you feel a little bit afraid, but go into the wilderness because it is in that wild place that God wants to meet you, and challenge you, and break open your soul.

Amen.

[1]Jacob Stratman, “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Preachers of the Swamp: Dred and the Jeremiad,” Christianity and Literature Vol. 57, No. 3 (Spring 2008): 383.