January 11, 2015
We had some cold weather this week.
Wind chills close to zero.
Schools and work delayed or cancelled.
It’s been cold.
And so I turned the heat up.
Put on an extra sweater.
Wore my hat (my mother would be pleased).
Bought some new mittens.
Whenever we have cold spells, as I bundle up and hurry to get to one warm place to another,
I wonder ‘how in the world do the homeless survive outdoors on days like today?’
…and I think about Mike.
Mike was a homeless man I came to know about 7 or 8 years ago
when I was working at a social services agency in Maryland.
He loved to talk.
So I asked him…
I asked Mike, so how is it that people survive outdoors when it gets so cold?
Mike taught me a lot.
He said that folks that live outside come to depend on each other.
They pass tips along to each other like where to find a spot to sleep;
what time the security guards make their rounds;
or which librarians will kick them out and which will let them stay.
About ½ mile from our office, was a gas station,
and Mike said the station had a storage shed which an employee would ‘accidentally’ leave unlocked for people to sleep when it got really cold.
That gas station also gave away free coffee to the homeless every morning.
Then one particular cold night there was a terrible accident.
Mike and a couple of friends were huddled together sleeping under a bridge.
They’d lit a fire in a trash can to keep warm.
Mike’s girlfriend Brenda was sleeping too close to the fire –
her sleeping bag caught on fire.
Brenda died in the fire.
Mike and Brenda and their friends were in the wilderness.
They were deep in the wilderness.
The wilderness is a place of the margins.
It is a place of exclusion and loneliness.
It is a place in which the boundary between life and death,
hope and despair is so very thin.
A scholar of the gospel of Mark, Ched Myers says the wilderness[i]
is indeed outside – it is outside the centers of political, economic, social, or religious power.
It is where the prophets speak.
And also, the Bible says… the wilderness is a place to meet God.
Today we heard the very first words of Mark’s gospel.
Chapter 1, verse 1 says,
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”
and the good news actually begins in the wilderness!
According to Mark, the beginning of the story of Jesus is not his birth –
there is no miraculous story of Jesus’ birth in Mark.
(In fact, there is no story about his birth at all in Mark!)
In fact the beginning of the story of the good news of Jesus
doesn’t even begin with Jesus for Mark,
it begins with that odd character, that unusual prophet, John.
John is out in the wilderness;
and Mark says that people from Judea and all of Jerusalem were coming out to meet him.
For the Judean people, Jerusalem was the center of the world.
Over and over again the Hebrew Scriptures said that all nations
would come to and submit to Jerusalem.
In his very first lines Mark turns things around!
He writes that John calls the people to repent – to change direction.
The people turn away from the seat of power in Jerusalem and head out to the wilderness.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus,
is that his story begins at the margins.
It begins with people like Mike and Brenda and their friends.
Jesus also comes to the wilderness at the Jordan River
where he is baptized by John,
the heavens are ripped apart,
and he hears a message,
“You are my Son, the beloved,
with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus hears the voice of God for the first time in that wilderness.
He too is met by God in the wilderness.
And there he is empowered for ministry.
“This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus,” Mark says.
The song from the musical goes, ”Into the woods…but home before dark!”
Most of the time we don’t choose to go into the wilderness …the real wilderness
And if we do, we make sure we’re home before dark.
Most of us don’t choose to go to those places
where we become scared and overwhelmed;
beaten down and despairing.
But those who find themselves stuck in the wilderness
know that some of the most powerful prophets come from that very place.
Over the weekend I saw the movie, “Selma.”
Please see it – it’s an important movie – not just for history’s sake, but for today.
The movie of course is about the struggles of African Americans in the wilderness.
people sent to the margins;
left outside the centers of power and privilege;
beaten down over and over again.
The movie is also about prophets who spoke from that place.
and also John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy and Diane Nash
and Andrew Young and Hosea Williams and Amelia Boynton Robinson
and countless other men and women
who heard the word of God in the midst of the wilderness…
and then were empowered for ministry.
It was a most difficult ministry at that…
a ministry confronting those centers of power and privilege.
A ministry that continues today.
I do not have a voice like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr…
but hear some of his words which come out of the wilderness.
They are words from a prophet spoken at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery:
“Let us therefore continue our triumphant march to the realization of the American dream.
Let us march on segregated housing until every ghetto or social and economic depression dissolves, and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe, and sanitary housing.
Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past, and Negroes and whites study side-by-side in the socially-healing context of the classroom.
Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat.
March on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist.
Let us march on poverty until wrinkled stomachs in Mississippi are filled, and the idle industries of Appalachia are realized and revitalized, and broken lives in sweltering ghettos are mended and remolded.
Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena….
Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress, men (sic) who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God…
Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.
There is nothing wrong with marching in this sense. The Bible tells us that the mighty men of Joshua merely walked about the walled city of Jericho and the barriers to freedom came tumbling down.”[ii]
Words from a prophet in the wilderness.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus begins there.
[i] Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Naugle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor, Say to This Mountain, p. 3.