This post is based on a sermon preached at an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service on March 5, 2014 at Hope Lutheran Church, Cincinnati.
Last week, I watched the movie Gravity. In the film, Dr. Ryan Stone is on a space mission with about four other astronauts. A satellite orbiting earth has been blown up, and now the remaining pieces are flying at high speeds towards their ship. As the initial fragments propel towards them, it permanently damages the ship and leaves three of the astronauts dead. One other astronaut is alive, and he is able to catch up with her and tether himself to her. Eventually, however, he knows that the two of them will die if they continue to be tethered. So he releases himself from her, and she remains on her own in space.
Dr. Stone can’t reach by radio Houston, so there’s no communication to or from earth. The emergency pods in the International Space Station are damaged, so she can’t use them to return to home. There are other possibilities to return to earth, but, again, Dr. Stone is working completely alone with damaged equipment.
Dr. Stone is in the wilderness. It may seem different than a wilderness than any of us have experienced. On top of this, Dr. Stone has lost everyone she had started the journey with because of the hurling fragments of satellite. She is completely isolated from any other living thing, any of life’s comforts and the protection of technology.
This level of isolation reminds me of the wilderness that Jesus could have endured for days and nights on end. The story goes that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus had no supplies, had no friends in the midst of this journey and fasted from basic needs. Like Dr. Stone, he is in the middle of no where, feeling distracted by tests and disruptions.
Like Jesus and like Dr. Stone, is no doubt in my mind that each of us are going to journey through wildernesses at various points of our lives. Sometimes it will be a wilderness of grief or a wilderness of physical illness. Other times, it will be one that might be from mental illness like depression or anxiety, and we don’t think anyone else can relate. As our journey in pain continues, we may isolate ourselves more and more and inflict wilderness on ourselves.
There are some of us who enjoy extended times alone. But imagine having no source of neighbor as we go through some of life’s roughest moments. There is no one to talk us down from our anxiety, no one to physically be present and no one to even give us insight on how to make the wilderness more tolerable.
Unlike Dr. Stone and unlike Jesus, unlike what we’ve even experienced in the past, when we endure a wilderness, we don’t have to go through it alone. We have our neighbors. And if we keep our eyes open, we may see that God is also present.
This is the joy of the love of neighbor: knowing that we can journey through the good times and rough times together. We are not alone in a desert. We are not alone in space. We are here in the midst of community, part of the body of Christ and part of a covenantal body. We have others pointing to the presence of God in our midst.
Granted sometimes people pull away from us when we’re in a wilderness. Or we pull away from others. Sometimes we feel no one can understand our pain. And even when we are in the depths of the wilderness, it’s hard to see that God is forever present with us.
I remember that at one point in the movie, Dr. Stone says out loud “I don’t know how to pray.” The fear of not knowing how to pray could keep us from reaching out to God. But God doesn’t care what we say or even how we say it, and it doesn’t have to be the most beautifully crafted prayer. It just needs to be a conversation, because God is already fully present and is trying to let this Divine presence be known to us.
Furthermore, there’s a good possibility that many of us aren’t in the wilderness. So what if we’re the ones who don’t feel isolated by life’s trials but God is calling us to attend to someone who is? In our call to love our neighbor as ourselves, were asked to serve our neighbors with an open heart, mind and soul and to exit our comfort zones. Maybe we don’t know what to say to them. Maybe we want to place ourselves far away from them because we can’t understand their pain. Staying far away from someone in distress is easy. But that’s not part of our call in being a neighbor.
Being a neighbor means placing ourselves in discomfort. It means speaking to someone we’ve never spoken to before. It means listening even though we may want to talk, talk, talk and give advice. It means not running away from our calls from God. It means keeping ourselves in community, even when we completely do not agree with their beliefs or their life. And it means entering the wilderness with someone else.
This why some of our churches of different denominations are gathering together during this Lent and focusing on what it means to be a neighbor. It’s to connect with others at different spaces in their lives as we reflect together during this sacred journey of Lent. It’s realizing that we have neighbors close to us, and that God is also our neighbor when we are in a desolate space.
In the next few weeks, we’ll reflect on what it means to be neighbor in different situations. We’ll think about our time as literal neighbors – with those down the street or next door. We’ll look at our virtual neighbors, how we act online as we comment on posts or pray with others in social media. We’ll consider what it means to be coworker, classmate, or caregiver as neighbor. We’ll reflect on being neighbors with other churches or people who may believe differently than we do. And we’ll place ourselves as neighbors with God’s other children across this beautiful world.
And maybe we’ll see how God is asking us to bring our literal, virtual, coworker, classmate, ecumenical and worldwide neighbor out of the wilderness or sit with them as they endure tragedy.
This Lent, let us find ways to help someone else through their wilderness. Let us celebrate with others when it’s time to celebrate. Let us cry with others when it’s time to mourn. But know that we’re never alone. No matter what our beliefs, which church we attend or where we live… if we’re in space, in a desert or in our homes… we are neighbors on this journey through the wilderness and beyond. Amen.