Let us pray: May the written word through the spoken word draw us to the living Word. Amen.

Chasuble by Tawnya Denise Anderson

Lent is a wilderness carved out in space and time with prayer, self-sacrifice, fasting, meditation, self-examination and, the study of the scriptures. All of these are wilderness ways. Yet, there is more than one kind of wilderness. There are the wild places of earth and, the wild places of the human heart. There are Arctic landscapes, glacial and nearly impenetrable. There are windswept landscapes of prairie grass and sand scrubbed landscapes of seemingly endless dunes. There are rocky landscapes, parched and dry and others, slick and damp with the caress of mighty rivers carving them out of the earth. There is more than one kind of wilderness. There is the wilderness of the soul, an often lonely, aching place. There is the wilderness of the world, a place where words of love are everywhere yet people hunger for love because the imitations of love that perfuse our society leave us empty, aching, hungry.  

In Israel, in ancient times and contemporarily, there are desolate stretches of wilderness landscape and then, there is the Judean wilderness, ever pregnant with new life just waiting to burst forth. The Judean wilderness was always full of life for those who knew where to look and find a meal. The presence of locusts and honey indicated that there were flowering plants, some of which would be edible. The presence of honey also meant the presence of bees and other insects which meant the presence of small mammals and birds (and non-kosher reptiles), which means larger mammals and larger birds. But to the uninitiated, the Judean wilderness can look lifeless, dead at certain times of year but then, when the rains fall and the waters rise and the flowers bloom it becomes a garden oasis of life. A masterwork lovingly painted by a divine hand. A sign of love in the wilderness.

Lent is like the Judean wilderness, desolate, formidable, lacking the multihued colors that speak of life. But it is pregnant with new life, under the surface, around the corner. The color of Lent is a deep color, a somber color. That is until the fourth Sunday, Joy Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing with Jerusalem according to the readings of the old lectionaries, a Sunday that usually focuses on the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary. Then we often wear rose colored vestments as I did last weekend for the Feast of the Annunciation, signaling the change that is coming, that is being incubated before our very eyes.

In the midst of the Lenten season as we prepare to walk the way of Calvary, a way of suffering and death, we are also walking the way of new life in what I call Marytide. For we observe more than one liturgical season at a time. We celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation on 25 December, but the moment the word becomes flesh on our calendar — which does not necessarily correlate with the world beyond the pages of the calendar — that day is 25 March when we celebrate that Love has come into the wilderness of the world in a virgin’s womb. For the next nine months as we pass through Holy Week, Easter and Eastertide, Pentecost and the Season After Pentecost and, Advent we shall be walking with Mary in her miraculous pregnancy. A sign of love and wonder in the wicked wilderness of the world in which she lived under Roman occupation and in ours, under all of the same old human depravity – though not all of us are ground down by the terrorizing colonizing empires of this world, and for those of us who are, we are not all to the same degree. Mary’s miraculous pregnancy was the first blush and bloom of spring in a winter wilderness, it was a sanctuary of love in the wilderness. Indeed, she is often symbolized by roses and quite often, the thorns are bloody. 

This week’s readings are a full week into Marytide. (Actually that’s not quite true. We are a full week in but the readings are from last week. Nevertheless, I left it in when I realized halfway through the sermon writing process that I stayed in the fourth week of Lent rather than moving on to the fifth. I decided to trust that the Holy Spirit was mixed up in it somehow, if nothing else it provides you an opportunity to compare this Lectionary’s readings to those from the one you used last week.)

And so, we begin in a lush garden in our first reading, celebrating love in the wilderness. We are literarily transported to the kind of garden that blossoms all year round and is not the dependent upon the vicissitudes of spring, sun and rain. The garden is a joy to behold and it is full of love. The love of two people. Romantic love. Sexual love. The love of love and the joy of love. A wet, delicious, luscious love. The kind symbolized by eating a juicy sweet piece of fruit that runs down your chin and leaves your fingers sticky. By the way, not all the fruit in the garden is fruit.

There is a woman there who is well loved. She is so well loved that her beloved says, “there is no flaw in you.” Not that she perfectly corresponds to some artificial nearly unattainable standard of beauty. But that she is flawless just as she is. Not Beyoncé flawless. She is, “insert your own name,” flawless. She is flawless with her curves and her flat places and her wrinkles and freckles, her wiggles and jiggles, the gap in her teeth and thinning hair, greying hair, lost hair and even the bunion on her baby toe. May we all be loved so well. That is the will of God, a love so big, so delicious that you can’t keep it to yourself and it just explodes out of you in a torrent of poetry.  

There is one more thing about this woman who is so well loved. She knows herself and what it takes to love her and she makes sure her beloved does as well. She knows that while it is sometimes fun to explore and figure things out together thatt other times it takes a little more and, a good lover is one who doesn’t mind taking instruction.

In the psalm God is the Lover and we are the beloved. The psalm is a love song to the faithful God whose faithful love is everlasting. Before William Shakespeare asked “How Do I Love Thee?” and counted the ways, there was this psalm that testified to the love of God in action across the generations, eventually to be incorporated into the Passover Seder after the time of Jesus.

The love letter that is the epistle calls us to love one another following the example of Jesus and the example of God in and through Jesus and, offers us a one-word rule of life: Love. I wouldn’t blame you if after all of those readings you were so sated with love that you needed to take a nap. But we haven’t even gotten to the gospel yet!

And so we turn to the gospel where love personified teaches us the way of love, it’s joys and its sorrows. Jesus teaches us that love comes at a cost, not that his love is for sale but that roses have thorns, so that loving the way he loves, loving the way God loves, comes at a bruising cost in this world that needs love so very much but is hostile to it so very often.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of love talk around. The word is sprinkled through our conversations like common salt. The word is written. It is sung. It is tattooed upon our hearts and upon our flesh. It is everywhere and attached to everything, human, animal, vegetable and, mineral. It would be reasonable to think that this world is full of love because we see and hear it everywhere. But not everyone who speaks love loves. Sometimes it seems as though every form of love has been corrupted or is parodied before our eyes.

For there are those who will say that they love you and then they will hurt you or humiliate you, and some will kill you. Too many women and more than a few men know about this kind of love. Too many of God’s beloved children whether child or adult, know only controlling, demeaning love from parents or partner. Beloved, that is not love. There are also those who hound and harass, confront and castigate and claim that it is love that commands them to tell you that you are going to hell if you do not believe or think or act as they do for they, and only those who agree with them, are destined for eternal life.

There are those who proclaim their love for children they will neither feed, clothe nor house compels them to strip you of your autonomy over your body. That is not love; that is certainly not love for children or the women they condemn to reproductive slavery. There are also those who advocate for hateful policies that hurt and harm the most vulnerable among us, children coming to terms with their identities, learning to live in and with their bodies in a different way than another child. It is not love the bullies a gay teen into suicide. It is not love that threatens to take a trans child from her mother or punish a doctor or nurse for providing healthcare. They call it love, but it is not love as God loves. It is hate. Hatred for anyone and anything they cannot control. Hatred for anything that suggests there is another way of love to which they are not privy. They do love after a fashion, they love power, control, domination and, hierarchy; these are beloved but they are not love. Most simply, if it’s not love, it’s not God. Yet love is promiscuously welcoming and beckons them and us into her holy embrace that we might be saved from ourselves and our deficient understandings of love.

We have all wandered far from the wide wild love of God and are so very lost in these wildernesses of our own making: the wilderness of sin and brokenness and separation and, those that are not of our making: the wilderness of grief and sorrow, the wilderness of pain, abandonment and, broken promises and broken hearts. Yet, every wilderness contains seeds of new life. No matter how stark and barren a wilderness looks, there is always life waiting to erupt under the surface. There is hope and healing in the wilderness. That healing is in the journey through the wilderness, not a mad scramble to exit its terrain, but the journey through.  

Not all who wander are lost; the way of life runs straight through the wilderness. No matter how it looks and no matter how it feels, we have never managed to wander far enough from God or her love that we are ever truly lost or ever ever alone. Because this world is more wilderness than garden even on the other side of Lent, God sent us love personified, love incarnate. A love that is as wide as the sea and as strong as the mountains and yet a love as fragile as a flower, a love that could be crushed and broken, uprooted and left to die. A love buried with seeds of sorrow that would blossom into a new life and the promise of yet more love.

The love of Jesus offers is a bottom up love. A love that is aligned with the margins. A love that is set against dominating power, authority and hierarchy. The love of Jesus stands with those the world loves to hate and the love of Jesus explodes into action the way poetry explodes from the heart and flowers explode into blossoms in every garden. The love of Jesus compels action for we cannot love neighbor and stranger and leave them at the mercy of a broken racist justice system, corrupt capitalist system that runs on nepotism and calls it meritocracy or, a sexist and misogynistic culture that demonizes black women, denies their accomplishments and then dismisses them as affirmative action candidates. The love of Jesus means we can allow neither the bodies of our children nor the borders of our nation to be used for political games. The love of Jesus welcomes all, the Haitian as well as the Ukrainian.  

The love Jesus offers is a liberating love, a redeeming love, a saving love, a healing love, a restoring love, a transforming love. It is a love that won’t sit still; a love that you cannot keep to yourself. Not a love that causes you to harass folk and argue with them and call it evangelism, but a love that respects other people and their beliefs and religious practices. A love that trusts the Holy Spirit to do her loving work in human hearts.

The love of Jesus is also a demanding love, an expensive love. It is freely offered yet it costs something. The love of Jesus requires you to set aside your privileges in this world and when you cannot, to use them for good, for the betterment of someone else. Don’t just add another place at the table. Throw out the table. Don’t just invite folk in, divest yourselves of the claims of ownership, entitlement and mastery. Jesus is the love of God in the flesh and in our hearts. The world will know that we are his and God’s by how we love. Love one another. Love like God loves, with grace, mercy and forgiveness.

Love like Jesus loves. The love of Jesus is salacious, scandalous and shocking, and, the love of Jesus is promiscuous, turning no one down. Love like Jesus loves. Amen.