Saturday, February 28, 2009

God in the Wilderness with the Beasts

Mark 1.9-15


To tell you a little secret, I must say that I’ve never in my life been farther east than Evanston, Indiana or farther west than Phoenix, Arizona. Now, I’ve traveled all the way up and down from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, but I still think from time to time about how I’m not very well traveled, especially not as well traveled as my cousin Tyler who just came back from Denmark. He remarked to me on Friday at lunch, “It’s no big deal. It’s just Europe.” It’s amazing how our perspective on other places change the more we visit places or even live in other places for extended periods of time. I know my perspective of Taylor has changed and keeps on changing even as I have only two months living here as your pastor. After having lived here for two months, I’m beginning to see more of what’s around me as the depth of this place keeps getting revealed piece by piece. Living in a place always changes your perception of that place and deepens your understanding of it and the people who inhabit it.

Just this past Thursday, the conference pastors from this part of the Northwest Synod all got together for our monthly worship and meeting. At the meeting portion of our time together, Mphatso Thole visiting pastor from our companion synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi, told us what ministry in the ELCM is like – its challenges, opportunities, joys and sorrows. He told us of how there are over 300 Lutheran churches in Malawi, and yet they have just over 50 ordained pastors to serve all those congregations. Each pastor serves upwards of nine churches and uses a motorcycle to get from place to place to be able to administer the sacraments to the people of the church. It’s a different context and a different situation, and I can only imagine what it is like even with Mphatso’s descriptions of what it is like.

One of the things we spent quite a bit of time talking about with Mphatso were the challenges that the ELCM faces. We had opened our time together in worship focused around Jesus being driven out into the wilderness to face temptation, Satan, and even wild beasts. For Mphatso, wild beasts are a very real thing to contend with in Africa, as either large animals like elephants or predators like lions are real dangers that people face in the land of Malawi. Yet, Mphatso also stated quite clearly that the most dangerous wild beasts that Malawi and most of Africa faces are the wild beasts of poverty, hunger, and HIV/AIDS. Each year, these wild beasts prey upon the people of Malawi to the point where the average life span of someone in Malawi is only 37 years. This got me really thinking about all the “wild” places in the world I have no personal experience with, because I’m not well traveled. I don’t mean wild as in terms of savannah, desert, or jungle, but those places in the world where grief and sorrow have a seeming stranglehold on the lives of people.

Yet, this also got me thinking about I push to the side the fact that there are “wild places” all around, even in the places I’ve gotten to know well, as people deal with the wild beasts in their lives. We too deal right here and now with wild beasts that cause grief, break relationships, and strain our ability to see the good in the world God made deemed to be “very good.” People right here, right in Wisconsin, right in this county deal with the wild beast of poverty and malnourishment. People right here deal with the wild beast of drug and alcohol abuse. People right here deal with the wild beast of domestic violence. People right here deal with failing health as disease take control over our bodies that once worked so well.

These wildernesses have existed all over the earth throughout the ages. This was especially true for Jesus, as he dwelled in the wilderness for forty days and contended with wild beasts himself. What’s strange is that Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit AFTER the Father from heaven declares that he is the Son of God. It’s as if just as soon as Jesus is declared to be the Son, he has to go into the lonely place of wilderness to figure out what all this means for him. To make matters worse, Jesus has to contend with Satan tempting him. The thing is, the Gospel of Mark isn’t very clear as to how Satan was tempting Jesus. Maybe it was simply Satan trying to see if Jesus really was going to hold onto his proclaimed identity as the Son of God. To think that Jesus didn’t see all the wrong that was all around him in the world would be very na├»ve. Jesus knew that people struggled with pain and suffering. His temptation could very well have been whether or not he was going to confront that pain and suffering in the world. He saw the wild beasts of his world as clearly as he saw the wild beasts out there in the desert. The question he contended with: How is God going to respond to a creation that is groaning with sin and death?

Yet, Jesus’ presence in the desert should tell us something of how God is answering that question. God knows that there are wildernesses in our lives – real and imagined. God knows that there are wild beasts that we contend with in our daily lives. And God comes out into those wildernesses to be present with us in our pain and suffering, not leaving us in the grip of sin and death.

Jesus had options. He could have answered Satan’s temptation by becoming a tyrant and forcing us into obedience with God’s ways. He could have wiped the earth clean and started over. But Jesus, God, the Son of the Father, sees that he is as much a part of all this creation as every one of us and simply loves all of creation too much to be done with it all. God says in sending us the Son, “there is nothing you can do, no wilderness that you can go where I will not come to you bringing love and mercy.” Jesus’ faithfulness and unending love is the choice he makes in response to Satan coming to be with us in all that we are – even coming into our wilderness and death, facing our many and various wild beasts.

There was one other thing that Mphatso talked about last Thursday. He said that, even though there are many challenges, many wild beasts that the people of Malawi face and the Church needs to confront, the people have a vibrant and strong faith. Even mired in a society where life expectancy is less than half of what it is here in the U.S., the people in Malawi hold firmly onto the promises of God’s love and care for them, because it gives them hope that all the wild beasts around them aren’t the only truths for them in their life. In Jesus, they have a truth of eternal life and release from the Sin and death that is present all around them.

We would do well to recognize this truth that Jesus holds for us in our lives. Jesus comes to us in our lives and brings us hope, love, and forgiveness. We would do well to recognize that Jesus comes for everyone around us as well. We would do well to recognize that Jesus is in the faces of anyone who wanders in wilderness and contends with wild beasts. I keep finding out more about the wild beasts that this parish, this county, this town deal with, but I also keep finding out more and more about how Jesus is alive and loving the people in the lives of the people who live, work and love here. I know this to be true no matter how far I’ve gone or how far I haven’t gone in my life.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sorry, I meant to post this earlier...

Mark 1:40-45


It was Tuesday morning, and it was much like all the other Tuesday mornings throughout the year. Chad had woken up at 6:30 am so he could walk the few blocks to the elementary school so he could catch the bus ride to middle school. Chad lived in a small town where the county’s schools had consolidated, so middle school for him meant an eight mile bus ride to a town just northwest of the town he lived in. There wasn’t much about the way that this school day started that foreshadowed the coming event that was about to happen three hours from now. The school day started off normally enough – home room to listen to announcements, and then English class – but it was that switch from English to Algebra that started the ball rolling down the hill picking up speed before it crashed into the wall.

The switch meant that Chad had to stop by his locker and pick up his Algebra book. That seems innocuous enough, but his locker just happened to be set right next to Andy. You see, Andy was a kid that looked for ways to get under people’s skin. He searched for the buttons to press, and this morning he found exactly the right one for Chad. As Chad was getting his Algebra book, Andy started pushing Chad’s locker shut laughing because he knew it was going to rile Chad. It worked, more than Andy could have ever have imagined. As Andy slapped Chad’s door shut just one more time, Chad broke into something that was not quite rage – more like a calm cool resolve to finally put a stop to the incessant annoyance. Chad balled his hand into a tight fist, swinging and connecting with the side of Andy’s face with a satisfying thud.

Chad took no pleasure in how well he connected, although he did say later that was surprised that the single punch opened up a cut on Andy’s lip and brow. No, he simply knew that the job had been done and there was nothing else to say or do to anybody. Chad grabbed his book walked to his algebra class. Of course, there would be repercussions, as Chad was told not much later that he had been summoned to the principle’s office. Chad left that day with two days of in-school suspension. A day for each punch he threw.

Chad had never been well liked. He moved into the area when he was in first grade, but no matter how much he tried, the people in his class would inevitably cast him as the person they could pick, the person they could gang up on to make themselves feel better. The thing that Chad could never understand, though, was how they could be such nice people individually in one on one situations, yet when ganged up together, they could hurl the nastiest insults and dispersions upon, seemingly for only a few laughs. Chad didn’t know why, even after six years of living, working, playing and even praying with these kids, how he could still be such an outsider amongst everyone else.

The next day started off somewhat similar to the one before it. He walked to the same elementary school and boarded the same school bus, but when he got to the middle school, he was immediately ushered off down the hallway to the janitor’s workshop where there was a single desk and a single chair. In a lot of ways, Chad found the absolute depths of boredom. Though homework assignments were definitely given to him, there was no one else in there to talk to or to listen to. He was all alone. In fact, Chad got so bored that he stared at the clock on the wall watching hour hand make its trek from one number to the next. The next day wasn’t much better as the motivation to do or feel much of anything got sapped from him in his time of isolation.

Utter isolation might have been a better term for what he was put through during those two days. The only contact that Chad had throughout the day was the principle, teacher, or janitor popping in from time to time to check in on him. During these two days, Chad was even subjected to having to eat his lunch in that same room by himself apart from anyone else, apart from the normal life and community that he had been a part of. There’s something about being forced to eat alone – not choosing to eat alone – that to Chad felt like the biggest sign of separation and exclusion. At home, he ate almost every evening meal with his family. At school, he ate with his classmates. At church, he ate with everyone else who filled the basement fellowship hall for one of the various pot lucks that came around throughout the year. Now, here he was, forced to eat alone, separated from everyone else in his life, and he began to cry.

None of this was fair. None of this seemed like the correct punishment his standing up to a kid who was constantly pestering him. He was all alone, and in the loneliness and silence, he began to pray through his tears. He began to pray to God, “Take me out of this! I just want to get away from here. I don’t want to be in a place where I’m constantly reminded of how lonely I am. I don’t want to be left on the outside anymore. God, if you are listening, release me from this place, and release me from the constant reminder that I’m not one of ‘them.’”

The minutes passed by, and the tears eventually dried up as silence was the only response he heard. It was a deafening silence, as he could almost hear the air pressure pushing in on his ear drums. He didn’t even notice that the janitor, Bernie, had come to take his lunch tray away from him. Chad couldn’t remember what exactly he said, but looked into Bernie’s eyes and saw in them something saying, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m sorry that you feel all alone.” And he laid a napkin with two chocolate chip cookies in it on Chad’s desk and spoke, “I thought you could use a little pick me up, so I grabbed a couple of cookies from the lunch room for you.”

As Chad ate those cookies, he felt a spirit welling inside of him. All of a sudden he wasn’t alone. Bernie had come to him, just simply by showing a kind face, speaking a kind word, and giving Chad those cookies, Bernie had brought the community to him. Bernie had told Chad, “You are not alone.” It was then that Chad understood that he had never been alone. It was then that Chad saw that something had been with throughout all this time. Chad had seen that he was not too far away, not too bad, and not too much of an outsider for Christ to be with him in his life. He saw that Jesus had been yearning to come to him in his hour of grief. He saw that Jesus had come to him even though felt so separated from everyone else in his life. Those kind words and that kind action had made him see that there was no place where God couldn’t go. Those kind words and that kind action showed him that Christ could break through any barriers that we try to construct for ourselves. Chad saw that God loved him dearly, and there was nothing that could separate him from that love.