After last week’s message, I felt a lighter sermon might be appreciated. So let’s talk about cheese. After all, most preachers think their sermons are pretty Gouda. But me, I worry most of my sermons are just cheesy—and sometimes I lament they are a cross between Swiss and limburger—full of holes and stink.
You know, I thought these cheesy sermon jokes would be a “brie-sss”. Guess you could say, “This was ‘nacho’ day Rev.”
Roquefort cheese is a sheep-milk blue cheese from the south of France, but what you may not know is that not just any sheep-milk blue cheese can be legally labeled Roquefort. To qualify for that name, the cheese must be made entirely from the milk of the Lacaune breed of sheep and matured in the natural caves near the town of Roquefort in the Aveyron region of France, where it is colonized by the fungus Penicillium roqueforti that grows in these caves. And who says so? The European Union.
The EU has designations that enable products to be placed on its “protected food-name register” if goods like cheese, wine, chocolate, honey and others meet certain standards. To get a product protected in such a way, it must be produced, processed or prepared in the geographical location the producer wants to associate it with, and the product’s reputation must be the result of characteristics or qualities of that geographical location—like fungus filled caves.
Roquefort cheese has a Protected Geographical Indication because it meets such requirements, and thus no blue cheese produced outside of the Aveyron region of France can legally be labeled Roquefort. It seems then that the familiar refrain in real estate is true for other things too—cheese among them…Location-Location-Location.
This makes me wonder…if a location in which a food or drink is produced can influence its taste and its desire to be enjoyed, might location have a bearing on our spiritual life? Can our spiritual life be influenced, desired, and enjoyed depending on location?
Some would say yes—having had mountain top experiences in unique and special, holy, and sacred places. Jesus, however, would tell us there is a different and much better location.
Today’s scripture tells us that immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness where he fasted, prayed, was tempted by Satan, and ministered to by angels. Three of the four gospels tell of Jesus being in the wilderness for 40 days, with Matthew and Luke giving more detail. Mark, however, just tells us that it happened and gives us a sense of its significance to Jesus’ life and work.
The focus of three Gospels on Jesus’ time in the wilderness suggests that that wilderness location was a crucible that shaped his subsequent ministry.
Yet even though the wilderness was a significant factor, we would be limiting the power and presence of God if we took the term “wilderness” too literally.
After all… God is everywhere. All the time. Ready to meet us.
We are here on the second Sunday in Lent, and it’s not hard to say that spiritually speaking, there are blessings of the Spirit that we might gain from some form of retreat, some change of location, if only for a few hours.
And while the change of location can certainly be the wilderness or a mountain top experience, Jesus shows us that we can step into a deeper presence with the Divine no matter our location.
Pastor Alan Dicken of Carthage Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Cincinnati, and leader of the 2018 Ohio Delegation to Chile writes of the group’s January trip to the Shalom Center—or Camp Christian South America as I like to call it.
Dicken shares, saying, “High up in the Andes Mountains, a group of us huddled together. In the center of our huddle was a tall wooden pole with several languages posted on all sides. We stretched out our arms to be able to grasp either the peace pole or one another. The trees also reached out to link arms as they had done for hundreds of years. Their generous stretching across the small clearing provided us with much needed shade from the hot Chilean sun.
We were going to pray together. First in Spanish, then in English. We offered our prayers to the same God. The God who watched over those very mountains as they formed. The God who watched over each one of us in our small party as we came from all over the United States and across Chile to be united in that moment.”
Rev. Dicken concludes his lengthier accounting of this experience saying, “In all that occurred during the 2018 Ohio delegation to Chile – in the challenges of a cross-cultural experience, in the difficulties of the language barrier, in the joys of finding ways to communicate, in the beauty of finding Christ’s love in a strange new location, in the experiences that we will never forget as long as we live – we all were blessed.”
I have been to the spot Rev. Dicken writes about. In the Andes Mountains of South America it is literally and spiritually a mountain top experience. Several folks from our church family have been there too. It is a holy and sacred place.
And many of you have had experiences similar to this when you went on a church mission trip that took you into an unfamiliar setting and culture. Many of us have had such experiences at our own Camp Christian. The same thing can happen even during a vacation that takes you away from your routine.
Many people return from such experiences with a renewed viewpoint and a heightened spirituality. But it need not be an extended jaunt to a faraway location. Time in a beautiful cathedral or a trip to a lake, river, or a park can have a positive effect, especially if we allow it to be somewhere we can pray, reflect, plan, get energized, catch a vision, or simply be open to God.
If we think we have to go far, far away to have such an experienced, then we are making excuses.
The peace pole the Delegations and Chileans gather around at the Shalom Center in the Andes Mountains of South America is just like the one we have in front of our church.
God is everywhere. All the time. Ready to meet us.
As we read in the Gospels about Jesus’ ministry we will find that while he never took another 40-day retreat, Jesus frequently withdrew from the crowds and the disciples to pray.
Matthew and John both tell us that after teaching a crowd all day and then performing the miracle of feeding the 5,000, Jesus dismissed the crowds and “went up the mountain by himself to pray.”
Mark reports that Jesus had spent a day preaching and healing people. The next morning, “while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
Luke tells us that in preparation for choosing the twelve men who would become the apostles, Jesus, “…went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.”
Luke also tells about a time when, after Jesus healed a man of his leprosy, word of Jesus’ ability spread like wildfire and crowds came to be healed. In the face of such a crush, Luke says, Jesus frequently withdrew to deserted places to pray.
With regularity and intentionality, Jesus gave us the example that shows how important it is to withdraw from the world around us, and take time to be with God.
Location was not the imperative. Because God is everywhere. All the time. Ready to meet us.
A woman who had a long commute, knew this about God. She realized one day that her fifty minute drive to work, and fifty minute drive home, seemed mostly as wasted time. Then one day, while fretting about how haphazard she’d been about allotting time to pray, it occurred to her that she had such time in the car, and so she began using it.
Obviously, she didn’t shut her eyes or try to read the Bible, but she did turn off the radio and tried to lay out before God the things that were on her heart—her children, husband, and family. Those who were far away. Those who were weak. Those in leadership. Issues and needs that weighed heavy in her soul. The drivers around her—especially those who were less cautious than most. And finally, herself.
She didn’t spend all her time in the car praying and talking to God, but she said she found an enrichment of her spiritual life unlike ever before. Right there, in her car, to and from work. After all… God is everywhere. All the time. Ready to meet us.
Jesus’ practice of wilderness retreat can help us think about the deserted places in our lives.
For most of us, “wilderness locations” do not refer so much to physical locations as to parts of our lives to which we forget to invite God—or even work to keep God out of.
Further, “wilderness locations” can refer to times during which we suddenly feel alone because of temptations or rage or discouragement or doubt or some other inward experience.
Those are times to pray, and those are locations where we are to pray—so that we can let the Divine in where we, like Jesus, can have our wilderness needs tended to.
Even the briefest calls to God can change the complexion of our lives in ways that bring us more in line with God and God’s will.
So in this Lenten season of wilderness wandering, may we know that like real-estate and cheese—geographical indications do factor in—location, location, location, is at play.
But the location to find God is not on a faraway mountain. It’s not in the desert. God wants to be found and experienced right inside our very hearts.
So may we know that God is everywhere, all the time, ready to meet us. Yes, on mountains and in nature. But God is in our cars, in our homes, right next to us. Ready and waiting to be invited into the only location that matters most…our hearts. Amen.