Mark 6:1-6; Matthew 11:2-6
The Rev. Tom Herbek
August 28, 2016
Morgan Laidlaw tells the following story:
I’m originally from Orange County, California, where I had the pleasure and honor of serving as a Newport Beach ocean lifeguard for five seasons. Whenever I could, I got shifts working the Point. If you wanted to save lives, that’s where you worked. The Point was known for its massive, spontaneous rip currents.
So, late in a shift, I’m working Tower 15. Two blocks to my right is another guard named Mike, working Tower 17. I’d known Mike for a number of years. He calls me over the phone and says, “Hey, I got a couple kids. I gotta go give ’em a warning. Keep an eye on us.”
I say, “Sure;” and hang up.
Anytime you get out of your tower, you’re supposed to let somebody else know, in case a situation develops. And sure enough, as soon as he hangs up the phone and grabs his buoy, a rip is snapped up under these two kids, and they’re getting sucked out. Mike sees it before it’s happening, and he’s running full tilt toward the ocean. I scan the water. All I see is two small noses bobbing in the choppy water.
I drop my binos and I call in and say, “Double rescue 17-he’s out. I’m going.” Mike is already punching through the surf line. By now, the mother of the two kids realizes what’s happening. She’s on her feet and screaming. I start sprinting toward her, but before I’m even halfway there, Mike reaches the kids-a brother and sister around eight or nine years old. Mike told me later that he got to the boy first, and when he turned to the girl, he had to reach down into the water and catch her by the hair to pull her back up.
Mike swims sideways out of the rip current into the clear water and starts bringing them in. When I reach their mother, Mike’s in waist-deep water. These kids are so exhausted, they can’t walk, and so Mike’s carrying them. He’s got one under each arm.
I turn to their mom and say, “Hey, it’s gonna be OK. They’re safe.” I see the terror start to drain out of her.
Then she glances back and gets her first good look at Mike. And a crazy thing happens. I see a new kind of panic wash over her as though there’s some new, equally dangerous threat on her kids’ lives. She rushes up to Mike and snatches her kids and turns up the beach. Not even a thank-you.
Now, Mike had a rough-upbringing. You can tell just by looking at him. He has a number of really intimidating tattoos, and his shaved head shows the scar he got from a broken beer bottle. Maybe he wasn’t the friendliest guard on the beach. I admit, I didn’t really get along with Mike.
But everything he lacked in PR skills, he more than made up for in lifesaving ability. If any other guard had been working 17 that night, including me, there’d be a very real chance that that mother wasn’t going home with both her kids.
I have a young son and daughter, and I can’t even imagine the depth of her terror, and so I sympathize with her. Even in her assessment of Mike, ’cause he was a really intimidating guy. Maybe she didn’t know anybody who looked quite like Mike. He wasn’t her idea of a knight in shining armor.
That doesn’t change the fact that he had just rescued her kids. It was hard to understand what had happened in her heart.
Mike just glanced at me, shrugged, and jogged back to his tower.
That was ten years ago. If you asked Mike about it today, I doubt he’d even remember. But I won’t forget. As I jogged back to my tower, I promised myself I’d never let my own fear or prejudice prevent me from recognizing a hero when I see one.
-“Readers’ Digest”, 7/8/16
How often do we allow our own fear or prejudice to prevent us from recognizing a hero when we see one?
In Mark’s gospel reading, the people who know Jesus’ family are very clear that he is no hero, no one worth listening to. Their questions to him were really the same ones we ask of some young person who we knew when they were just a kid: “Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to think you are somebody special? After all, we know your family. We knew you when you were growing up.”
Not only can fear keep us from recognizing a hero among us, obviously, so can familiarity.
One of my heroes is Joan Chittister. A Roman Catholic nun and best-selling author of thirty books, she has dared to say things and write things that no nun would say or write. She wrote the following:
God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning the human mind could muster. And always, always, God was “God our Father.”
I began to realize-and here my heart stood still for a moment-we never, ever prayed to “God our Mother.” God, the source of creation, God the Eternal Womb, was never-ever-recognized as a mothering God. We could call God “rock,” “fire,” “light,” “wind,” “bird,” “door,” “key,” and “father,” but never, ever “mother.” It was a moment of soul-shaking revelation. Where were women in these images of God? And if they weren’t there, what kind of God was this? And if they were there– or otherwise how could God really be the God of all being, all power, all life- then what kind of people were we that we refused to admit it? What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God’s own.
“This is wrong,” I said to a sister beside me. “We have to be patient,” she said back with a smile. I couldn’t help but wonder if two thousand years wasn’t patience enough for her. I also had to wonder what it said about a woman’s sense of self that she was willing to become invisible and be “patient” about it.
But to confront the heresy of God the Father, I discovered quickly, is to be called a heretic. It is to come face to-face with the possibility of exclusion, one way or another. We must accept the notion that God excluded femaleness from the Being that is God. Or, we must deal with the possibility that in reclaiming the fullness of what it means to be made “in the image of God;’ we may well be excluded from the community that taught us to believe that in the first place. To belong we must either diminish the very definition of God or demean the spiritual status of femaleness. A woman who is willing to do that mocks the God of creation. Any man who is willing to do that does not really want God at all. He simply wants himself writ large.
Thinking our own truth and claiming that truth are two different things, however. Lots of people think lots of things- but they don’t say them. They know that saying them out loud would change their lives. They know they would have to make changes in their own lives and perhaps even threaten the lives of those around them.
They know that claiming their own truth is the first step off the edge of a mountain alone. It’s not strange that so many people keep so silent.
In the end power does not lie in wealth and authority; it lies in having nothing to lose. When we have nothing to lose or to gain in a situation, we are finally free. Then, the only things that stand between us and integrity are consciousness and truth. Powerlessness does not neutralize us; it drives us on. We are the only ones on the battlefields of life with an eye on the questions alone. Everybody else is too busy calculating the effect of the loss of the situation on their reputations and their careers and their images and their positions. The powerless go naked into combat and cannot be scarred. They alone have the power to endure it all.
It is only when we speak that there is any hope of change. But once we realize that, then we realize that the real spiritual question is not, Do I have the power to change this? The real spiritual question is, Do I have the courage to say no to it?
-Called to Question
This Roman Catholic nun, whom I have never met, is one of my heroes.
A lifeguard with intimidating tattoos is one of my heroes.
A Jewish man from a small town whose neighbors thought he was pretty uppity is one of my heroes.
And one of my heroes is found in a true story written by John Philip Newell, and this hero is – believe it or not – a used car salesman:
In the last months of my father’s life, as dementia was rapaciously taking his memory and mind from us, I witnessed the river of feeling flowing strong in him. In fact, it was flowing more uninhibitedly than ever before. Throughout my father’s life, one of his favorite blessings was the prayer attributed to Aaron in the Hebrew Scriptures, sometimes called the Priestly Blessing. It begins with the words, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you” (Numbers 6:24-25). In my father’s flow of feeling now, he wanted to give this blessing to everyone, everywhere, repeatedly.
During my last visit to Canada before he entered a nursing home, my sister asked if I would help sell the family car, which my father was still trying to drive, illegally. I called the local car salesman and set up an appointment for the next day. I made a point of saying to him, “When you meet my father tomorrow you will notice that he seems confused about all sorts of things. But please honor him by speaking to him, not me. This is his car. And I’ll be there with him.”
The young salesman totally got the point. There was playful banter and repartee. My father never lost his sense of humor. There were, of course, absurd moments in the conversation, as there always are when you are dealing with dementia. My father tried to say to him, “Now how much money do I owe you for this car?’ The salesman replied, “No, no, Dr. Newell. We want to give you money for the car.” To which my father said, looking at me, “This is very generous of them!”
At the end of the transaction, as the check was being handed over to my father, I said to the young salesman, “Whenever I part from my father or whenever we finish a telephone conversation, he gives me a blessing. And I think he would like to bless you now.” So there we were, standing in the middle of a car showroom. My father took the salesman’s hand, looked straight into his eyes, and said, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
I stood gazing at my father, thinking, if only I could be such a bearer of blessing in the world. And then I looked at the young car salesman. Tears were streaming down his face. He will never forget that moment. Never. Do we know that we carry within us for one another the blessing of God? Do we know that the springs of compassion deep within us can flow again?
-The Rebirthing of God
Our fear, our prejudice, our familiarity, our stereotypes can keep us from seeing the heroes we meet every day. What a shame it would be to be able to encounter the wisdom, the teaching, the compassion of Jesus of Nazareth and have to say, “I had the opportunity to hear him and I stopped listening because I knew him when he was a kid.”
There is an old legend that the Messiah comes to us often, but in disguise, and because the Messiah doesn’t look the way we expect, we miss her or him. The tattoos get in the way. Her gender gets in the way. His job gets in the way. “I know him” gets in the way. It would be a shame to miss the disguised Messiah in our midst.
And it would be a shame for us to not say or do what needs to be said or done because we have something to lose in saying it or doing it.
The Spirit of God is within each of us, and there are opportunities for us to be heroes in our own unique way. We may not look like a hero should look or act like a hero should act most of the time, but the truth is that God is counting on us to be God’s hands and feet and voices.
May God’s light shine upon us, this day and in all the days to come.