If you can’t fly…
The idea for my message today first came to me from a Facebook friend, Fr. Philip Chircop, a Jesuit priest who does retreats which I attend once a year, and who scours books and the internet for spiritual messages of all kinds. He posted a song by David Roth, who is a balladeer living in Cape Cod and travelling the world. David Roth in turn borrowed the words from Martin Luther King…
“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
By these words, Martin Luther King energized the entire civil rights movement and, at the same time, joined the aspirations of all mankind together with the Christian message of doing for others. How do the two come together? How does a human aspiration of victory merge with the Christian message of love? Well, I’m going to take a winding path to show – or attempt to show - that it is possible, and not only possible, but very desirable.
First, let me talk to you briefly about a carpenter’s son by the name of Yeshua, or as we know him, Jesus of Nazareth. When traditional religious leaders talk about Jesus today, it is invariably in the sense of his divinity as Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. He came to earth to suffer and die for our sins, and to be born again on the third day after his crucifixion. In fact, as we enter the third week of Lent, this is exactly the Christian message unfolding and reminding us as it does every year at this time. We know this story so well, it is burned into our psyches from childhood, because it is the foundation of our Christian faith. So, it is right that we always meditate, pray, and worship on it.
But what we often forget or overlook in our eagerness to praise Yeshua as our Lord and son of God, is that he was in equal parts both divine and a completely human being, with all the tics and warts that all humans possess. If he were not, if he had been solely divine, then I’m not sure our ability to relate to him would be quite the same, or his sacrifice quite as personal. After all, it’s one thing for God to play at suffering and dying, pretending to go through the whole ordeal. We lowly humans might say, “Oh, yeah, but he is God, after all, so what’s the big deal?” It would be the same as watching a movie. No matter how well it’s done, you know the guy on the cross is not actually going to die. No, it’s quite another thing to have God sacrifice his son as a complete human being. Now, we can feel his suffering, we can feel the burning of the whiplash, we can sense the pounding of the hammer against the nails. We can hear his piercing cry, “My God, my God. Why have you forgotten me?”
No, Yeshua or Jesus was…totally…fallibly…human. And I would suggest to you that he did not begin his ministry with his act all together. No, the task that he would undertake was something that evolved through trial and obstacles, and time. Certainly, his aptitude and desire were there. We find him at age 12 discussing points of religious law with elders in the synagogue.
But in his book, Rabbi Jesus, the writer Bruce Chilton makes an interesting point or two. We, as the heirs of Jesus’ teachings, assume he was born with all his spiritual tools already in place, since he was the son of God. But the Jews of his day certainly didn’t believe this. In fact, they would question him as to how he got the nerve to teach at all. Wasn’t he Joseph the carpenter’s son? Wasn’t he from Nazareth? And even more damning, did anything good ever come out of Nazareth? You know. Big town/small town stuff.
Bruce Chilton even goes one further. To the Jews of his day, he claims, Jesus was not born of Mary as an immaculate conception. No, Jesus was an illegitimate child, a mamzer, that Joseph claimed and accepted as his own because Mary was his betrothed, and Joseph was an honourable man. But, the tongues would wag and the insinuations would follow him around. Not only that. If he were indeed regarded as illegitimate, a huge stigma in those days, he would not be permitted to take part in synagogue rituals or teachings. According to Bruce Chilton, this would form the foundation of Jesus’s disdain for religious authorities of his day. But since there was no fast communications in at that time, it seems that what took place in Nazareth, would stay in Nazareth, and Jesus could take his message on the road.
All this, of course, is to a degree speculation, but speculation based on the known traditions and prejudices of the times. What we do know for certain is that Jesus’ ministry would not begin until he was in his thirties and even then it was done in baby steps. When he walked down to the Jordan to be baptized by John, he walked that lonesome valley all by himself. He had no followers. In fact, he was his cousin, John the Baptist’s follower, and he came to be baptized by him that day. After that, he walked his lonely self into the desert for 40 days and nights, meditating on the path he must take, crystallizing his goal to bring the good news to all the people according to the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets. It all took time, study, prayer, and resolve. He was 30 before he was finally ready.
Even then, his journey began at a snail’s pace, a crawl, you might say. At the site of his first miracle, he still didn’t seem quite sure of himself. When his mother said to him, “There is no more wine,” he asked her, “What would you have me do, woman, my time is not yet come.” In other words, he said he wasn’t ready. He was unsure of himself, like any young man before he is tested. He may have suffered from a lack of confidence, a totally human weakness. And what did his mother do? She did like any loving mother might. She looked him right in the eye, turned to a servant and said, ”Do whatever he asks of you.” In other words, “Go ahead, son, you can do it. I know you can.” And do it he did. And he kept doing it, day after day, selecting his disciples, mostly with great skill and leadership. He messed up with the one, proving once again that he was human and could make mistakes. But he kept his goal in sight. He kept moving forward.
And that was Martin Luther King’s message, “If you can’t fly, whatever you do, keep moving forward.” As an ordinary person, I have to ask, “What’s the point? What am I hoping to accomplish?” Move forward to what? Obviously, that calls for having a clear goal. To the civil rights movement, it wasn’t difficult to come up with a goal. End segregation. End colour barriers and prejudice. Let us, for God’s sake, see each other as brothers and sisters, equal in all respects.
Is Jesus’ message any different? “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” As Christians, this becomes our goal, our destiny. This is how we merge our desire to move forward with a clearly defined goal, to love one another by baby steps first, and perhaps by giant strides that eventually take flight. But the single most important thing is to keep moving forward, and to never stop.
At first, Jesus didn’t seem to know how to go about recruiting followers. As you heard in the gospel reading, John said to Andrew and another, “Behold, the lamb of God’” when Jesus walked by. They had to follow him and prod him about where he was staying. They went with him and talked with him at length. Andrew, the first apostle, then went to his brother, Simon, and told him they had found the Messiah. Now, remember, that in those days the Messiah that Jews were waiting for was not just a holy man. He was to be another David, a conquerour and defender of the faith. It took them quite some time to realize who this Yeshua, this Jesus, really was.
We admire and worship Christ because he was God-become-man with the single purpose of showing us the way to become one with God, his Father.. He said, there is no greater love than this, than that a person give up his life to save his friend. And his example, his death on the cross without fighting the authorities who arrested him, was proof that he lived according to his teachings.
Isn’t this what Mother Theresa did every day of her life with the untouchables of India? This was a woman who was torn with doubts throughout her life, as she makes plain in her biography. Yet she kept moving forward, sacrificing her life consistently, with greater and greater numbers until she took flight in sainthood, to the approval of the whole world
Now, I am no Mother Theresa, even if I were a woman. But I am certain of one thing. God’s greatest gift to me is that of unselfish love. Isn’t that what we all cherish, to be loved? Isn’t that what others would like in return from us, that we love them? Isn’t it the one thing we all agree on no matter who we are, no matter our colour, creed, language, or gender? Isn’t it also the one thing we find most difficult or puzzling to do?
Yes, we all walk alone in making tough decisions about our faith. But I bet all of you who have helped another out in some way feel good about it. You feel good about it because you have taken one step closer to a union with God. And that good feeling gained by service to others is the love of God shining on you. It’s not easy, as it wasn’t easy for Jesus. It wasn’t easy for Mother Theresa, or for Gandhi, or for Martin Luther King. It wasn’t easy for the apostles. All but one died a martyr’s death by sacrificing themselves for Christ and his message. They failed him time and again at first. They denied him. They melted into the background when he was being tried and finally crucified. Despite that, they came through in the end. Doubting Thomas had the blinds removed when Jesus told him to touch his wounds. He fell to his knees and could only utter, “My Lord and my God!” It was at that instant Thomas realized who this Jesus was. This was when Jesus’s humanity merged with his divinity and Thomas saw the face of God. Jesus placed his confidence in the right people. They moved forward from there conquering the world with faith, hope and love.
I’m not suggesting we all become martyrs. I have no wish to go that route myself. But I am saying we all can do something no matter how small to harness the God-given seed of love that we are all born with. It’s amazing what a ripple effect that can have. Start with a smile and shake a neighbour’s hand. Give a person a lift who may need one. Forgive someone you hold a grudge against. Let your resentment go. Overcome your doubts and shrug off your shyness or apathy. “Faint heart never won fair lady.” Faint heart never erased mistakes either. And don’t bother with ‘what’s in it for me.’ That’s a one-way road to nothing. As JFK so famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country…or your family…or your church…or your neighbor.
One of the most repeated phrases in the bible is, “Have no fear.” Each person has to make his way through the trials of life on his own. But God is always there to help lift you higher. Like the words of a song, “Love has lifted me higher than I have ever been lifted before.” You can eventually overcome your fear if you just keep moving forward.
My mother-in-law, Agnes McWhinnie, was a total giver. She gave to her family and friends consistently in small ways. She would read The Gazette with interest and a keen eye. She kept track of everyone’s birthday on an eternal calendar and when the time came she would send a card and maybe a small gift or a clipping from an article she felt would interest that person. This is the way I found out some years ago that the high school and college I attended, Loyola of Montreal, were having their 100-year anniversary. We were living in Kitchener then and they had lost track of me. But Agnes’s caring note allowed me to take part in the centennial and to meet old friends.
She was never that keen on religion itself, but she always gave to her church because she felt it was the right thing to do. When we moved to Huntingdon 4 years ago, she decided to come to church with us, more I sense, because she felt we wanted her to and as support to us. When she was close to dying she said to me, “What do you suppose happens when you die?” It’s not a question I ever expected from her. It came right out of the blue. “What do you suppose happens when you die?”
I said to her, “I believe when you die, you come face to face with God. You become one with him in the most unexplainably beautiful mystery in all existence.
”She looked at me with shining eyes, and simply said, “I hope so.”
She may not have been totally convinced, but she was ready to accept the possibility. I have no doubt that for such a woman her hopes were totally fulfilled. I have no doubt that in death, her soul took flight right into the arms of God. I have no doubt that when we love our neighbor as ourselves, we book a flight on that same journey.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.