Welcome back, St. James! I missed you so much last week. However treacherous and inconvenient the weather was, it did at least provide more time to snuggle indoors, beholding the beauty of nature, and spending time with those we love. Did you read any books or stories, perhaps with young ones?
As we prepared for and presented our first weekend performing Pinocchio, I’ve been remembering favorite stories of my childhood. One of the ones I loved was The Wind in the Willows, a children’s novel from 1908 by British author, Kenneth Grahame. It describes a community of woodland creatures who live beside the river Thames. My heart still longs for that picture of broad willow trees fluttering beside the river, an image recalled by today’s readings from Jeremiah and Psalm 1: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord; they shall be like a tree planted by streams of water” . . . Blessed. Happy.
The same Hebrew word is used in both these writings: ashre. Sounds like wind in leaves doesn’t it? Ashre. For the ancient peoples, this meant much more than mere contentment. It meant being rooted in a place, with your feet on the right path, being right with God, in a relational experience with others. It meant experiencing an authentic life, the kind possible when we open ourselves to true connections to God and one another.
Knowing this word, this concept, ashre, helps us to form a context for Jesus’ “sermon on the plain”. Blessed. Its also important to notice the audience to whom Jesus was speaking. Not only his twelve apostles, but crowds of disciples – and that includes us. There were also multitudes – the greater number – of people who had come to be healed. Healed. Remember the other stories of healing in these ancient times. It wasn’t only seeking a cessation of symptoms. It was also begging to once again be included in community. Out of fear, communities and individuals ostracized those who were ill, which perhaps more than their diseases caused them to wither and die. We need community to live and thrive.
In Graham’s tale, the creatures – Mole, Ratty, Badger, the Otters, and even the notorious Mr. Toad – work out their lives together, helping one another to solve problems, to escape disaster, to become happy. The reckless and narcissistic Mr. Toad causes trouble by “going rogue” as it were, not thinking about others in his actions. His friends help him to come back to a path of caring.
Luke’s Gospel talks about those with “unclean spirits”; whether that means anything like what we understand as mental illness is debatable. In any case, though, these people were suffering from feeling broken and separated, something that is true today of so many who, because of their illness or culture or abilities, are considered “other”. This crowd came out simply to touch Jesus, believing in his power, his possibility to include them, to acknowledge them, to make them whole.
And so Jesus referred to the Hebrew Scripture concept of ashre – to be Blessed, Happy, whole with God and community. But Jesus, as always, did it with a twist. He turned things upside down! He referred to those who were considered “less than” – who were poor, hungry, weeping – as those who were Blessed! How is that possible? Is there something in those states that causes us to reach out, to God and to one another, to create community out of our vulnerability?
I know for myself the times when I am suffering are times on my knees and taking the hands of friends. Perhaps that is why, in children’s stories, we relate so much to the struggling protagonist – to little Mole, or to Wilbur the Pig, or even to the poor wooden puppet, Pinocchio. We journey with them, seeing our own longings, our own hungers, our own sorrows in them. And we rejoice when they achieve that balance, that community for which we ourselves thirst, like a tree in a drought. Jesus reminds the crowds that the stories of the prophets are like them. On the other hand, Jesus reminds us how easy it is for those who are affluent, who have seemingly everything they need, to falsely put our trust in those things, rather than in God or in community. To forget that such thinking is the path to sorrow. Now, this may not have seemed like Good News to those who were – and are – living in this way. But once they inevitably reached that point of brokenness– such as when Mr. Toad crashes his car and ends up in jail –Jesus is also promising them that Blessing, that ashre is possible.
Life can be complicated, full of twists and turns. Its easy to get lost and confused. The early church in Corinth was confused about the concept of Resurrection, and whether it referred to the present or to the “end times”. The apostle Paul reminded them – and us this morning – that Christ is indeed raised from the dead. That Jesus has conquered death – the ultimate brokenness, the ultimate sorrow – in all of its forms, physical, mental and spiritual.
We have a Lord that we can relate to, not just when we’re rejoicing and all is well, but also, perhaps especially, when we are feeling sick in spirit, and outcast, and stuck. Jesus experienced those things too, he claimed them, and then he redeemed them! He Blessed them! And so today, wherever you are on your journey, whether you are the wandering puppet trying to find your way home, or little Mole just cleaning your house and longing for Spring, or even Mr. Toad on another wild ride, know this: you are beloved. You are Blessed. You are a part of the family of God and Jesus, our brother, will never, ever forsake you. Take a moment, and imagine: you are sitting beside a clear, running stream, beneath a whispering tree; Imagine “enter(ing) into the joy of running water; and with (your) ear to the reed stems (catch), at intervals, something of what the wind . . .whisper(s) so constantly among (us). . . .and with a new-born need stirring in (your) heart, the clear sky over (our) long low outline seem(s) to pulsate with promise; today, the unseen (is) everything. The unknown, the only real fact of life.” (from The Wind in the Willows)
And all of God’s creatures said together, AMEN.