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Wild Beasts and Angels

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Feb 18

Texts: Psalm 25:1-10 and Mark 1:9-15

 Last summer I went on a study tour to Israel with Jewish Community Relations Council. We drove across northern Galilee, with its limestone and sandstone contours, green valleys, Mount Carmel in the distance. Not far from where Jesus was baptized, we waded into the Jordan River and remembered our own baptism. At night, with stars overhead, a few of us swam in the Sea of Galilee—with Syria across the lake to the east, and the twinkling lights of Tiberias to the south. I woke in the middle of the night to hear jackals yipping in the distance, calling to each other across the hills—eerie voices that animated the desert night.

 Today, as we begin the holy season of Lent, we read Mark’s brief account of Jesus’ baptism, the moment when the heavens opened up, and the Spirit descended in blessing. In contrast with Matthew and Luke’s accounts, Mark doesn’t give us much. No fasting, no hunger, no bread, no stones. No enticement to worldly power, no conversation with the devil, no quoting of scripture to silence the tempter.

 Mark gives us one spare line. “Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

 This single line leaves a great deal to our imaginations, yet it evokes worlds of meaning. Mark knows, as well as we do, that the wilderness is not only a physical place. It is a spiritual place.

 Our forty days of Lent are modeled on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. And in turn, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness mirror the forty-years wandering of the Hebrew people during the Exodus. They parallel Moses’ forty-day fast, and Elijah’s as well. And so, it seems that wilderness time is a Biblical theme which commands our attention. 

 Wilderness—we understand—is both literal and metaphorical. “Wild beasts” literally inhabit the wilderness of Galilee. But can we not find them also it the recesses of our own minds? What are the figurative “wild beasts” of our internal landscape with which we must contend in this season of Lent?

 Explore with me, if you will, the literal wilderness of Galilee. The wild beasts and where to find them. What do you imagine when you think of this wilderness? I have to start with jackals, because I have heard them with my own ears. But, also, these: the ibex and oryx, two antelope-like creatures. Arabian leopards (now critically endangered) and sand cats—shy desert felines with huge eyes and buff-colored fur. (A personal favorite. You’ve got to check them out on YouTube.) And centuries ago—before their extinction—the Asiatic lion, Asiatic cheetah, and the Syrian brown bear. The Galilean desert of Jesus’ time was alive with real beasts. Jesus spent forty days and nights in a wild, untamed place. Possibly, even, a dangerous place.

 Surely Mark’s reference to wild beasts in the wilderness is intended to send a shiver down the spine.

 But most of us do not have to contend with such wild places. It is, rather, the inner wilderness of the human mind and heart that is so intimately familiar. Our “beasts” are self-doubt, depression, discouragement, aimlessness, lack of resolve, jealousy, envy, addiction, the suffering that accompanies chronic illness, broken relationships, the sometimes-painful longing for connection and meaning. Our intense need for quiet, calm, and reflection in the midst of lives that are choked with activity, tasks to accomplish, places to be. Our fear of sitting quietly, even for an hour, because we have become like a wilderness to ourselves. 

 Lent beckons us to walk assuredly into this inner wilderness, knowing that we are beloved of God, blessed and called precisely to this place of intimate encounter. A wild untamed place, where we may discover the truth of ourselves and the truth of God.

 And since we are speaking about wild beasts, let us also admit to the brutishness of our collective lives. There is a whole zoo full of beasts there. For those who care about democracy this is a painful time of legislative impasses, great chasms of communication, growing divisions between left and right, an apparent lack of good will, generous intention, and genuine care. 

 For all who call ourselves followers of Christ, these are distressing days. This nation we love, and we call home, is so alien and even hostile to immigrants. We exhibit a shameful disregard for the poor, the sick, and devastating capacity for structural racism and injustice.

We cannot even find the public will to protect our children. We, in the church —who join together in covenantal community, we who promise to love and cherish our children, and teach them the ways of Jesus— we live in a nation that cannot and will not protect our children.

 Forgive me. I did not want to preach about gun violence today. But we experienced another excruciating episode on Wednesday. Let us observe a moment of silence for those who lost their lives in Parkland, Florida. In this moment of silence, let us also remember those from Columbine and Sandyhook, Aurora and Orlando, Charleston and Madison, Las Vegas and Virginia Tech, and all who have lost their lives in mass shootings in the U.S.  (Silence.)

 Such pain is hard to bear. Chronic, mass trauma like this leads to cycles of grief and anguish, rage and resolve, action and organizing, and even despair, as we try to bring about lasting change that will protect us from senseless, needless acts of violence. There is not a person in America who cannot see that we have a problem. But where is our political will?

 U.S. Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population, but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. From the mid-sixties to 2012, thirty-one percent of gunmen in mass shootings were U.S. Americans. Only Yemen has a higher per capita rate of mass shootings. (1) I’m not going to give you any more statistics. Yes, people kill people. But there are a lot of people in India and China and Indonesia and much lower rates of gun violence.

 This impasse is a terrible beast of our collective life in the U.S. It is so ugly and so menacing, that mass gun violence presents very specific temptations for us.

 Yes, temptations. The temptation to give up, to give in to cynicism or despair, to stop trying, to become frozen, to look away, to stop feeling, to withdraw into ourselves, to stop hoping. All of these are understandable and familiar responses to trauma. Yet we must not lose hope. Do not be tempted to lose hope. For hope is something quite precious. Hope is grounded in our knowledge that God calls us beloved and wants for us fullness of life. That God pours out blessing upon us, and when we go into wilderness places, God is there.

 This, then, is a Lenten practice: to hold fast to hope in the midst of legislative impasse, to hold onto hope in the face of trauma, to hold onto love, within an ocean of grief.

 Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day. I would like to recall the words Abraham Lincoln spoke in his first Inaugural Address. It was March, 1861, in the midst of a bloody Civil War, in a nation divided. Lincoln called on Americans to summon “the better angels of our nature.”

 This, again, is such a time, when we cannot succumb to our lesser nature. We cannot allow political division to stop us from keeping our children and our communities safe. We must not.

 There’s a movement afoot for massive student walk-outs on March 14, and a call for a “national day of action” on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Maybe what will make a difference this time is our anger. The president of the American Federation of Teachers suggests that, “What gives the Florida shooting more potential to spark change, is that the students themselves got angry really quickly and demanded change.”  (2)

 Are there angels who wait on us? An odd question, perhaps, for us moderns. We are not sure what to make of angels.

 But Mark is clear. When Jesus was in the wilderness, angels came and waited on him. Maybe our angels are all those things that help us to hold fast to what is good, to love God passionately, to love each other, and to hope and to act in love for a better world. Maybe our angels are Lenten practices like prayer, meditation and fasting.

But perhaps there are other angels we must summon in this season of Lent. Perhaps the “angels of our better nature” are fierceness in the fight for justice, and the power of anger in the work of love.  (3)

 

 

 

1) Max Fisher and Josh Keller, “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer” New York Times, Nov. 7, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html Adjusted for population, only Yemen has a higher rate of mass shootings among countries with more than 10 million people.

2) https://www.denverpost.com/2018/02/17/school-walkouts-sit-ins-florida-shooting/

3) “The power of anger in the work of love” is a phrase orginatted by Christian feminist social ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison, in her foundational essay by that title, published in Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics, Beverly Wildung Harrison, Edited by Carol S. Robb, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1985.

 

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