Pentimento

Mark 1:9-15

On this first Sunday of Lent, you’ve noticed that the layout of the service is different than usual. Not only are we doing Morning Prayer as the main Sunday service, today we will pray the Great Litany, later in the service than usual.

Changes in organization can be jarring or welcomed, but they are also revealing. In today’s lesson from Mark, the order, the sequencing of the events matters. This is also true in other areas besides church.
One of the assignments I created for my Women’s studies class at The Blake School was to analyze the floorplan of an American home and determine in which era the house was built; the economic circumstances of the family who built it; and how the floor plan reflected the role of women at this time.
So if there were “backstairs” leading to the kitchen and if the nursery did not adjoin the master bedroom, the family was well-to-do and had at least one servant who cared for babies or young children at night and who would go down the backstairs directly and unobtrusively to the kitchen to prepare meals while the family slept. In a Victorian house, there may been a room called a “snuggery,” devoted to the hobbies of the man of the house (perhaps precursing the mancave?), while women had a “boudoir” adjoined to the upstairs bedroom where they could retreat when emotionally overwrought (in fact, the word boudoir in French means “to sulk.”)

Arrangement matters. Layout gives clues to broader meaning.
In today’s lesson from Mark, there are three separate and distinct parts: Jesus is baptized, Jesus goes to the wilderness, Jesus begins his ministry. Luke and Matthew each take four chapters before getting to these events, but Mark does it in eight verses of the first chapter and then packs it all into three short paragraphs. No wonder Mark’s favorite word is “immediately.”
Jesus is baptized before the Spirit “drives him out” into the wilderness. And that sequencing makes a difference. If Jesus had been sent to the wilderness first, his subsequent baptism could have seemed like a reward for surviving, like it was earned. But equally important are the words Jesus hears after his baptism when the Creator declares, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.”

How many times have the equivalent of those words been said to you by a parent, a child, a friend, a partner? Have you really taken them in or did you dismiss them with a kind of required humility? And how was it not hearing them – at times when you desperately needed them.

Today I want to talk about wilderness and about love and the relationship between the two.

I’ve never forgotten my friend Mariann Budde’s statement: “Sometimes we go to the wilderness. Sometimes, the wilderness comes to us.”

We go to the literal wilderness on a trip to the Boundary Waters or camping in a wild, unknown terrain, facing the challenges and dangers of life without some of our normal supports.

We go to the wilderness when we promise to walk with a friend or family member through treatment for addiction or a health crisis with no foreseeable cure.

We go to the wilderness when we commit to a necessary financial decision that will be wrenching for our families or when we have to admit we disappointed someone we care about.

The wilderness comes to us with a diagnosis, a car accident, the abandonment by a friend, the death of a child, parent or partner, the loss of a job, when the weather destroys systems we rely on, or when Covid strikes your state, your city, or your family.

There are people for whom the wilderness never really leaves their conscious minds. In 1949, Howard Thurman, the great African-American preacher, teacher and spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King, wrote this:
“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you don’t count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you. In modern power politics, this is called a war of nerves. The underprivileged in any society are the victims of a perpetual war of nerves. The logic of the state of affairs is physical violence, but it need not fulfill itself in order to work its perfect havoc in the souls of the poor.” Is this any less true today – sixty years later- – when a knee on the neck suffocates an unsuspecting black man and the world gasps in disgust and disbelief? When we still have to be reminded that black lives matter?

Sometimes we go to the wilderness. Other times the wilderness comes to us. For some, it never leaves.

Mark makes quick work of the 40 days Jesus spends in the wilderness but we learn more from Luke and Matthew, and from the summary by the Russia writer Dostoyevsky, who through one of his characters, says that Jesus made some gigantic mistakes. He should have turned the stones into bread, as people always follow those who feed their bellies. He should have cast himself down from the roof of the temple and be swept up by angels, because all would see he was a god and people would follow him forever. He should have claimed the power Satan offers and he could have ruled over the whole earth and mandated Godly behavior.

In other words, as Phillip Yancy writes, “By resisting Satan’s temptations to override human freedom, Jesus made himself far too easy to reject.  He surrendered his greatest power: the power to compel belief.”

 Soren Kierkegaard wrote about “God’s light touch,” and the remarkable restraint of God.  Jesus never forced anyone into anything.  Even though he knew Judas would betray him, he did not interfere with his decision.  Yancy suggests that “’Take up your cross and follow me’ is perhaps the least manipulative invitation that has ever been given.”

But consider: is the tremendous assurance of the Creator’s love given him at his Baptism what enables Jesus to do what he does? And for us, how does love impact our time in our own wilderness?

Often I have not had that deep-down, rock solid-knowledge of being loved. My parents never spoke the word to each other or to my brother or me, nor did any of my relatives. When I was a teenager, I thought it would be wonderful to be part of the large Italian-American family of one of my friends where everything seemed excess: food, and gestures and I love yous. As I grew older, I felt I was harder to love especially by my father, who ruled the family with outbursts and directives. I fought it but eventually things settled down to an exhausted peace. Later, when I thought love was in my life, it went away.

Krista Tippet could be speaking for me here: “After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from my work. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be—as though without a romance, the many other kinds of love in my life didn’t really count. As though without someone who loved me in a certain way, I could never be complete. I do have love in my life, many forms of loving. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a lack of imagination and a carelessly-narrow use of an essential word…. “

It was lack of imagination, I think, that restricted me for a long time in thinking about my life. Growing up, I was hurt, I was lonely, sometimes I felt I had been switched at birth because no matter what I did, it seemed irrelevant to the currency of my family. However, this statement by Christian Wimans is also true: “There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us.”

While writing this sermon, I remembered a word that I have always loved: “pentimento.” Not only the name of a play by Lillian Hellman, in a painting, pentimento is the emergence of earlier images, forms, or brush strokes that have been painted over but you can detect them.

“Pentimento” became relevant as I have been going thorough boxes and albums of old pictures, organizing, throwing some out, and fitting them into some kind of sequence. As I examined the small, old black and white snapshots of my earlier life, I was able to see some of them in a new way, as if something that had always been there was more apparent to me now on a psychological level. Underneath the black and white snapshot of me at age ten dressed as a nurse with a real uniform complete with hat is the careful craftsmanship of my mother, who sewed it — probably to make me happy –and later prom dresses and coats and tailored suits impeccably and painstakingly crafted. If I scrape away my resentment, in another photograph I see a series of handmade oak bookcases my dad built according to my specifications for my first apartment. In the holiday photos with the family members lined up in a row, delving beneath the stern expression of my father on so many occasions I see more clearly the exhaustion and loss of his own dreams, like having to quit school after eighth grade to help support his parents– which he did until he was 60, and in my mom’s forced smile I discern her reluctance to stand up for me against my father, as she is held in the iron grip of a culture which insisted her generation of women be submissive to men.

“Pentimento” is a process of seeing beneath the surface. The word is Italian for ‘repentance’. Poet Laureate Louise Gluck wrote these words: “We are all of us still waiting to be transformed. That is why we search for love. We search for it all our lives, even after we find it.”

Covid has brought us all to a wilderness of sorts, in addition to the other wildernesses that come to us on a regular basis. Jesus went to the wilderness fresh from his baptism, knowing he was loved by the Creator. That sequencing, that order, makes a difference because frequently we forget that love came first, for us, too, even if we have to scrape beneath the surface of our lives to find it, where in some form, it has been all along: in what we have been given, in what we have been spared, and in what we have been endowed with ourselves to freely dispense on behalf of the Creator, who calls us each one of us “beloved.”

Amen.

Sources:
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 1949.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov, 1880.
Phillip Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew, 2010.
Christian Wimans, My Bright Abyss, 2018.
Louise Gluck, “An Endless Story”, in Collected Poems.

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