Have you ever been led to wild place by the Spirit of God? If so, where did God’s Spirit
take you? What happened there? How were you tested?
On this, the first Sunday in Lent, we’ve heard two Bible stories that are not new to us.
Adam, Eve and a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Jesus, the Spirit and the devil in the
wilderness. There’s enough in either one of those stories for a lifetime of sermons.
But we don’t have a lifetime today. We only have a few minutes to consider what God
might be saying to us, on this particular Sunday, in this first week of Lent. I want to tell you
today what I think God has been saying to me through these stories. In a few moments, I’ll
share some of my own story. My story reminds me how human I am, and how much I need God
in my life. But first, I want to talk about the story of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel story is about the Spirit of God leading Jesus into the wilderness. There
are three versions of this story. In Matthew’s version, the one we just heard, “Jesus was led up
by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1).
Mark and Luke say similar things in their accounts. Luke is more subtle about the
Spirit’s work. “Jesus…was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (4:1). The Spirit in Mark is more
direct: “The Spirit immediately drove him out, into the wilderness” (1:12).
Whether the Spirit was simply with Jesus or led Jesus into the wilderness or drove Jesus
out into it, one thing is clear: This was a test. After he had come down from a mountaintop
experience - where God said “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew
3:17) - Jesus was being tested. Just like we get tested.
I’m not talking about getting tested to see if we are sick with something. I’m talking
about what happened to Jesus and what also happens to us. In addition to “tempted,” “tested”
is a word also used to describe what happens in the wilderness. Actually, the Greek word for
“test” and “temptation” are the same. The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for the biggest
test of his life, but it’s the devil who tempts him.
Should Jesus have gone? Does the presence of temptations and testing mean he was on
the wrong path, in the wrong place? No. It simply means he had work to do, just like me and
you. It was hard work he did in that wild place, and, as a human being, I’m guessing he did not
want to do it. Jesus just had to do it, that hard work, and be tested.
I ask again: Have you ever been led to a wild place by the Spirit of God? If so, where
did God’s Spirit take you? What happened there? How were you tested?
So, here’s my story. It’s about trying to follow Jesus. It’s about being taken into the wild,
led up by the Spirit, to be tested. It’s about the hard, holy work I believe I’ve been given to do.
It’s a story about my biggest, lifelong test as a Jesus-follower.
My lifelong test began in college. Having done well in high school, I received a full
college scholarship and left Memphis in 1966 for Providence, Rhode Island. When I chose
Brown University I gave in to a fantasy that still exists today: Way up there, in that Garden of
Eden they call New England, I could avoid all the racism I experienced here.
I now know I was simply running away from my own racist thoughts, feelings and
behaviors. At the time, I had no clue that I was also being led somewhere wild by the Spirit of
God. God’s Spirit had led me into a place of both delight and disillusionment.
In my sophomore year, I had fun! I joined a men’s singing group. I became their music
director, and I ended up majoring in ethnomusicology. I also failed several tests and a few
courses, nearly flunking out, at a time when the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” became
popular. However, my really big test didn’t come for another forty years.
In 2008 I left a comfortable job as associate rector for pastoral care at Church of the
Holy Communion. I left to go to what turned out to be a wild place. I became rector of a church
near some Civil War battle sites. The name of that church: All Saints’. Soon after I arrived
there, Eugene Sutton became the first African American Episcopal bishop of Maryland. Not
surprisingly, it’s a diocese whose founding bishop owned slaves.
There, in my early 60s, I resumed my higher education, but now, that education was
about race. I began to learn from my Christian sisters and brothers of color about my own
racism, including my implicit biases, my micro-aggressions, and my white privilege. My biggest
conversion moment was when Bishop Sutton invited members of the DeWolf family to speak at
our diocesan convention. The DeWolfs are descendants of our country’s largest slave trading
family. Their ancestral home is in Rhode Island, just a few miles from the garden-of-Eden-like
university I ran away to, from racist Memphis.
Racism, the Episcopal Church first said thirty years ago, is this country’s original sin.
The temptation to believe we don’t have a racist bone in our bodies is, I have come to believe,
the work of the devil. The test, I believe, is how God’s Spirit leads and drives us into wild places
of learning and awareness, places we ourselves would never choose.
Learning about and examining my privilege as someone who identifies as white is not the
only time of trial and testing into which the Spirit of God has led me. I have also come to believe
that, if the original sin of this country is racism, the original sin of humanity is sexism. As a
White Man, no matter how challenged I may feel at any time, I am still, in comparison with the
vast majority of the world, PP: Privilege Personified.
So, that’s the story of how God works through the scriptures of my life. Your lives, too, I
believe. Once, I was lost - and I still get lost, from time to time - but through that amazing grace
we sang about today, God keeps loving me, saving me and finding me. God keeps healing my
spiritual blindness and helping me see things, some of them for the first time. God keeps
teaching me not to fear. God keeps teaching me how to believe. And God keeps testing me, over
and over and over again. For all this and more, I give thanks to God in Christ Jesus, who walks
with me every step of my life’s wild way.
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
Priest in Charge
All Saints’ Episcopal Church