Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Wild Things and Us

"Wild Things and Us"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 30, 2019 

Job 38:1-11; Luke 8:22-26

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, is the story of Max, who we soon realize is a lot to handle. After his mother sends his to bed without supper, Max falls asleep as his room transforms into a moonlit forest surrounded by a vast ocean. There is a boat awaiting him, and Max eagerly embarks on a voyage to a faraway land without his mother’s restrictive expectations.
After sailing for quite some time, Max finally finds himself in a place where the big and ferocious wild things are. They try to scare him off by roaring, stomping, and showing their teeth and claws, but Max unflinchingly joins their antics. Max is soon recognized as the king of the wild things. With Max in charge, the wild things let the rumpus begin! They shout and stomp and dance and swing.
When Max has finally had enough, he puts the wild things to bed without supper, just as his mother had. Alone again, Max begins to miss his mom. He realizes that guiding and caring for a beloved wild thing is challenging work, and even misses his own bed. As he drifts off to sleep, he smells something delicious, perhaps the dinner that he had missed, still waiting for him, still warm.
Children often let their Wild Things loose. How fortunate are we adults that our Wild Things are so well contained …, that is, until the beasts become too big, too scary, and too strong. One way to understand the story of the frightened disciples rousing Jesus is that the storm was a cloud of fears, doubts, and impatience on the voyage of faith they had embarked upon with Jesus. Then, as today, we understand faith to be a voyage, the church to be a vessel, and our destination to be both near at hand, and yet with an uncertain arrival time.
It’s not unlikely that Jesus and the disciples took a literal voyage on the broad, shallow fresh-water lake in Galilee. Jesus did not share the destination with the disciples, and they may have been wondering impatiently, what is he up to now? Suddenly, the wind came up fast and roiled the waters – and immediately we, the audience, are reminded of the Spirit roiling the waters at creation – something big is about to happen. We, the audience, also remember that the Holy Spirit shows up at every turn in Luke’s gospel. The realization of the Spirit’s presence can be frightening and disorienting. Fear, doubt, and impatience can take on monstrous proportions when we are confronted with the storms of life – whether they are Spirit-led or not. These can be emotions too big to mask. We all have times that bring similar reactions. Life gets too complicated or what was promised is not delivered or danger simply gets too close. Angry outbursts, uncontrollable sobs, quick and foolish words are said, and rushed decisions are made. These Wild Things are close by and sometimes they get into our boat.
But before we chase them out with memorized Bible verses about more pleasant emotions or, worse yet, beat ourselves up for an uncontrolled moment; let’s reconsider our Wild Things. I am convinced that these emotions never left the disciples. After Pentecost, eventually each disciple charted her or his own voyage. A few stayed in Jerusalem, but the majority scattered and changed the world. Andrew died in Greece; we assume he started churches there. Matthew died in Ethiopia. We have the same assumption about him. All of the disciples, excluding John, were martyred. We don’t even know what happened to the women disciples, whose stories were too unsettling, too threatening, too radical, or too impractical to honor with canonization. I suspect the early church “fathers” – many of whom seem to have been uncomfortable around women – had something to do with that. Perhaps the women were simply taking Jesus at his word, and that was a little too wild for the men. Just sayin’….
Fear had to be present, just as the possibility of death was around every corner. My point is this: great adventures are always accompanied by our Wild Things. Fear. Doubt. Impatience. Those three Wild Things will always be with us. We are human.
At the end of my first year in seminary, I was invited by the pastor of Long Beach, CA United Methodist Church to preach in his absence. I had not yet taken a preaching class, and had just finished my first New Testament class. The story of Jesus and the storm was in the lectionary text, though it was the version told by Mark. I was full of myself – completely unafraid. That poor congregation had to suffer through what was probably a 35 minute sermon on a hot Sunday morning in late June. Looking back, I don’t think I knew where I was going with that sermon, but the Spirit carried me. And the congregation was forgiving, grace-filled, and confident they could worship God even with this clueless seminarian in the pulpit.
At some point in the following year, it began to dawn on me what kind of journey I had embarked upon. And it started to get a little scary. I began to wonder if I was headed on the right path. And in only my second year of five in seminary I was already eager to be done with this part of the voyage. A friend detected a pause one day when he asked how I was. His kind curiosity elicited this response from me. “There’s a storm, and Jesus is ­asleep in my boat.”
Fear, doubt, and impatience are not entirely bad. They can bring us to point of saying, “Wake up Jesus! Restore some order to this chaos!” What I suspect, though, is that the wind and the calm are working together to help us realize our own creative power. Everyone in the boat shared their fears and doubts, and all were impatient for God to work. These daring followers were accepted by Jesus at whatever level of faith and belief they offered. As it turns out, the boat trip was mostly a trust building exercise – kind of like a ropes course on water.
After a quick stop to rid a man of unclean spirits, Jesus and the disciples made the return trip, and Jesus sent them out to try it without him – seventy of them. Soon after their successful return from their solo voyages came the opportunity to extend hospitality to the thousands who had gathered to receive healing and teaching from Jesus – the feeding of the multitudes – a kind of wild communion with whatever elements were at hand. The prospect of hungry thousands certainly could instill fear, doubt, and impatience – fear of the crowd and doubt in the disciples, as well as impatience in Jesus.
We can imagine the suddenly hungry and restive crowd like a storm looming. This time, Jesus calls directly on the creative power in those gathered to turn fear, doubt, and impatience into inclusion, compassion, and grace. Our celebration of Eucharist – the Greek word for thanksgiving – has much to do with sharing five loaves and two fish amongst the thousands. We are grateful for radical hospitality – both a practice of, and a destination of, the voyage. Luke tells stories about the voyage and how to make the most of it. We make the most of our voyages when the Wild Things are made welcome. Wild Things, like fear, doubt, and impatience are named, explored, and felt. When our emotions are honored, we give ourselves the gift of owning them. Our Wild Things do not own us, and we ready ourselves for God’s next great move.
When the little boy of Maurice Sendak’s adventure is banished to his room, the adventure begins. He embarks upon a voyage that might not have occurred had he not been a Wild Thing himself. When he returns to his room, the meal is waiting, and it is still warm. The voyage is where the Wild Things roamed in his dreams and he was a Wild Thing himself. As you chart your course to the communion table today, I remind you that this is a voyage for Wild Things of all shapes and sizes. It is the place where Wild Things gather.
So: Come one wild thing; come all wild things.
The supper is still warm.

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