I've been thinking
This Lent the focus is on being mortal. The first week the Frontline program "Being Mortal" and the discussions in the following weeks have been about end of life issues.
What I have been thinking about is this is not about dying but rather how do I want to live? This doesn't mean throwing caution to the wind and acting as if there is no tomorrow but rather how can I have the best quality life while I am here on earth. What are my beliefs and how do they form my actions in this world. What do I really want for myself and for others? These are the questions which have been forcing me to examine who I am and what is my place in the world.
While I do not have answers to these questions, I have noticed I am not alone in thinking deeply about these issues. The challenge is to be willing to hold in tension what I do and do not know and to be patient in waiting for some kind of direction or response.
The past few weeks have been interesting for all participants and it shows up in the attendance each week. What I do know I am in the right place at the right time with the right people to think of how I want to live. Then have the courage to live.
He will go where you don't want to go
In Tijuana, Mexico, at El Parque del Mapa (the Park of the Map), I approached a man to ask if he wanted a meal. I introduced myself as a pastor. “I killed several people just for fun,” he screamed at me, “and if I want to, I can kill you right now in front of all these people!”
As I think back to this encounter, I feel the shivers in my body again. After what felt like a long pause, I responded like this: “I don’t know why you did all that, but please know that God loves you, and because I have experienced God’s love in my own life, I can tell you that I love you too.”
This made him more upset. He started screaming in despair, “No! No, that is not possible. I am a bad person; no one can love me!”
“Yes,” I said, “God loves you, and I love you.” Miraculously, the man’s demeanor changed drastically. He held my arms and then started to cry.
I asked if he would allow me to pray with him, and he consented. Did he have a specific concern or request? “Pray for my family. I have not seen them in years, and I don’t think I will see them again.” I prayed, and when I finished he left without a word
Tell me what you believe and I will tell you who you are.
Each gospel states its thesis at the beginning
Matthew: Jesus reinterprets the Torah in the Beatitudes
Mark: Casting out the old
Luke: Jesus proclaims the Lord’s acceptance but is then rejected
John: Jesus shows his glory by remedying the wine situation at Cana
Mark’s casting out the old begins on an ordinary day in the synagogue. The men gather as they always have to study the scriptures. Jesus enters and begins to teach. In that moment, who the men thought they knew is shattered. He was teaching with authority. In other words, he had command of the Torah that went beyond what his peers would know. The men stare at him in amazement and turn to one another eyes wide pointing and saying under their breath “Can you believe this? He is so compelling. So smart.” Who would have ever thought this of him.
Then everything hits the proverbial fan. A man stands or enters and begins shouting. His voice is contorted-other worldly. He like the man in the story above starts screaming and may we be so bold as think swearing at Jesus. He points his finger at him yelling, “I know who you are?”
Jesus stands looking at the man, not fearful, not afraid. But he looks at him with love. He knows the man can’t help it. He is possessed.
Imagine you are one of the onlookers. How do you feel? Frightened it is safe to say. Perhaps you have found yourself in the same situation. Someone is walking down the road shouting to no one in particular. Having an animated conversation with someone who is not there. It is sad but it is also disconcerting. People who are unstable may do the unexpected such as attack innocents, shout in someone’s ear or even look and say, “I know who you are.”
What Jesus does is unexpected. He does not have the man removed from the synagogue, rather he looks him in the eye. Forces the man to look back at him and engage him. Not for the faint of heart. Jesus then performs an exorcism. Even those words cause the spine to tingle. Exorcisms are still performed today but they are not to be taken lightly. There are forces which surround us which serve to weaken us physically, spiritually and emotionally. Someone who performs the rite of exorcism is specially trained and not anyone can be called to this work.
We know Jesus was specially trained for this work-honed in the desert when Satan tempted him with worldly concerns. Mark doesn’t say what these worldly concerns are but if Jesus is human as well as divine it is easy to imagine what they are: wealth, power, greed, lust, gluttony to name a few but Jesus commands Satan to leave him.
Father James Martin writes about our temptations in his book “Jesus” He speaks of his own weaknesses: pride, ambition and selfishness. He laments these traits don’t change immediately like the demon coming out of the man. He writes I try not to avoid vanity but find myself being vain. I try not to be sarcastic but mean words fly out of my mouth. In prayer, I wonder where does this come from? Why am I still like this? When will these demons leave me?
He further writes one time he was so frustrated by his actions he got down on his knees and begged God to change him as quickly as the possessed man. After an hour of waiting Martin writes I rose the same person as before. How many of us have not found ourselves in the same spot? Wanting to change and then doing the very thing which makes us nuts not two minutes later. Not many of us are able to turn off a learned behavior we work at it and when we fail start again.
But once we focus on what it is we want to change about ourselves, the change comes. Slowly imperceptibly we don’t even notice until one day a trait which once bothered us, is gone. Martin writes of his own battle with envy. He said there were times when he was envious almost hourly of those around him. Reflecting on his actions and working hard to eradicate this trait through prayer, he realized one day it was no longer there. One of his demons had been cast out. There are more to be sure.
Jesus in today’s gospel heal the man but he also shows us what healing looks like which is a return to the life God wants us to have. The man could now return to his family, his work, his faith. Most of us thankfully will not be possessed by evil spirits but we may be possessed in other ways, ways that are equally as life draining. Thankfully we have someone who is ready and willing to return us to new life, that man is Jesus.
Shepherds and Such
Christmas Eve-here we are again in this beautiful church surrounded by friends and family. The question to ponder on these special days is “Why are you here?” What I mean by that is what has drawn you to St. Thomas tonight. Is it tradition? Family obligation? Why or for whatever reason you are here-Welcome! We are so glad you have made St. Thomas a part of your Christmas celebration.
It is a night of mystery. Important things always seem to happen in the dark of night. Sickness of someone dear, the touch of two lips as a couple embraces, and of course the birth of a baby. Tonight we come together to again marvel at the birth of a baby. A special baby who will change the course of human history. Then we remind ourselves babies are born all day everyday. You can rest assured that on this night long ago many babies were born. And continue to be born on this day.
This particular baby as we know is very special. All babies are special of course but how many babies are heralded by the angels trumpeting from heaven his birth? Only one that we are aware of. The whole evening has been one of chaos.
Joseph and Mary arrive to a heaving Bethlehem. People are jammed in the streets jostling and pushing one another as they too look for a place to bed down for the night. They feel desperate and frightened for where will they stay. Couples argue with one another, children wail and donkeys throw their heads back braying at the cacophony of sounds.
None are more frightened than Mary and Joseph. Joseph is scared. Near tears actually. He looks over to Mary sitting on the plump, plodding donkey, her face etched in pain. They have been everywhere looking for a place. Finally in desperation, he pleads with the owner of the inn. They will take anywhere to bed down for the night.
Through the dim lantern light, the innkeeper sees the human drama unfolding before his eyes. He too becomes distraught. Frantically thinking where where? His mind racing. He knows every moment counts he has five children of his own. Finally he remembers an old cattle shed at the back of his property. It is not ideal, but the best he can offer at this late hour. Also it offers the couple some privacy and he leads them back there all along apologizing he has nothing better to offer.
Mary and Joseph at this point don’t care. At the stable, the two men begin throwing straw on the floor of the stable. The innkeeper puts the lantern on a hay bale and shoos out some chickens and moves the cud chewing cow to one end of the shed.
Joseph takes Mary’s arm and gently pulls her off the donkey. The donkey joins the cow for some much needed rest and refreshment. They look at couple while munching away on a bale of alfalfa scattered on the floor.
Mary groans as she lays back on the straw. Joseph nervously paces and the innkeeper quickly departs. The baby is coming and Mary pushes and pants until the wriggly, wet body of a boy slips out onto the straw. All is quiet. Mary falls back exhausted and Joseph rushes in to cut the umbilical cord and clean the child off. Suddenly a cry pierces the night sky as the child makes his presence known.
Far away in the fields, the shepherds are on alert. They can hear a humming deep within the earth and feel up through their feet and their toes. The air tingles and crackles around them. Each looks at the other with a quizzical, fearful expression. On their faces they feel a sudden gust of wind. Their robes are whipped around their feet and momentarily their headpieces block their vision. A brilliant flash of light illuminates the night sky and an angel stands in front of them. Her clothes are dazzling white and her wings flap softly as she stands before them.
The shepherds clutch one another, shaking uncontrollably staring at the heavenly vision in front of them. She tells them not to be afraid that she brings good news of great joy. The savior is born for all people. The baby is in Bethlehem in a manger-go-find-see she tells them and with that the night sky is torn open and a heavenly chorus rings out through the night.”Glory to God in the highest and peace on those whom he favors.” And as suddenly as it began, it is over and quiet once again covers the land.
The shepherds do indeed, go find and see. Racing to the manger, these rough dirty men crowd around to see the baby. Mary and Joseph the proud parents look on. Mary shyly pulls the blankets away so the men can see. Their faces soften as they gaze upon the baby sleeping peacefully. Joseph though is ever watchful of these strange ragged dirty men. He knows about shepherds’ reputations.
You see shepherds were often involved in conflicts with villagers who wanted the land to grow crops and build homes while the shepherds needed the land to graze their animals. Many times, there would be violent clashes between the groups.
So imagine for a moment this lot of rough, dirty and uncouth men being told about a baby. Stranger still they are told by an angel peace on earth among whom he favors. To rush off to Bethlehem go find see Doing just that they are mesmerized by the baby before them. they gently lean in. Staring. Knowing in their hearts, this is someone special. The angel’s words ring in their collective heads “on earth peace among whom he favors.”
Wait a minute, Peace on whom he favors? God favors shepherds? God favors the ones who cause trouble? God favors the mean and the angry? In the words of Mary, “how can this be?” But it is true. It has come to be God has shown himself to the lowly and in the process created a new meaning for the word family. No longer is family blood relation alone but all of us are connected. God gathered together on this night a group of unlikely characters to share with them the news of the birth of his son.
So are you here tonight on this night of mystery for comfort, challenge or peace? Maybe a mixture of the three? Are you here because you need to hear the story again? Like the shepherds are you in awe of what God has done?
Most of us come here tonight in hope. Hope that if God can come to a group of outsiders, a bunch of rabble rousers, misfits. He can come to you and to me. There is no one who God won’t be with. When we are unlovable-he loves us. When we don’t love ourselves, he does it for us. He sees all the goodness and loveliness in each and everyone of us here tonight.
And it is His Son who came down to be like one of us. But it is not the end of the story. The birth of Jesus is like any human life the beginning of life-our life. Our lives of messy, strange and wonderful stories. Our lives of being with one another and sharing this one wonderful moment together on this beautiful blue marble hurtling through space. We have each other and we need each other but we also need to have Jesus in our lives. Without him, it is just not living, it is existing.
In his poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio the British poet WH Auden writes, “He is the Way. Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures. He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the Life. Love Him in the World of the Flesh; And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.”
Tonight is your opportunity to be like the shepherds in that cold, dark field long ago. When the angels said peace to those whom he favors. God is speaking to you. So whether you are here because you think you ought to be or its your tradition or again you are just a little curious about the mystery. Welcome we are glad you are here. We want you here among us as we all Seek Him. Each of us does this time of year like the shepherds did long ago to go, find and see.
Staring in wonder. Reflecting in joy and finding peace.