October 24, 2010
The Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity
A few years ago, one of the most popular movies was Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. Based on Nicholas Evans' wildly popular, but critically panned novel by the same name, the movie is a blueprint for healing. The patients in this case are Annie, an editor of a fashion magazine and the mother of an early-adolescent girl, Grace, who lost her leg in a horrific horse accident. The horse involved in the accident, Pilgrim, provides the overarching metaphor for the movie as the patient on whom the "horse whisperer" works his skill.
Pilgrim, so seriously injured in the accident that his trainer and other family members counseled "putting him down," is driven from New York City to Montana horse country for a consultation with the horse whisperer. Pilgrim's retraining must begin from square one. Rather than break the horse in a traditional sense, the horse whisperer is willing to let a horse be a horse. When Annie calls Tom Booker and identifies herself as a "person with horse problems," Booker says that he usually works with "horses who have people problems." The key is patience and an ability to get inside the horse's head. Healing takes time.
The horse whisperer is not only a channel of healing for Pilgrim, but spurs Annie to re-evaluate her own loss of soul. And Grace, too, is nurtured back to a place of healthy self-esteem and, even without the use of a leg, is able to again ride her beloved horse, Pilgrim.
In our text for today, we encounter a sage old horse whisperer near the end of his life. The apostle Paul has endured all manner of challenges and crises in his life, both external and internal. He worked with all sorts of people with varying levels of commitment and character. Some rewarded his patience, others sadly disappointed him: "Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me," he writes. Alexander the coppersmith "did me great harm", and, at first defense, he notes, "all deserted me".
But Paul didn't work with horses, bringing healing and training, but he did work with habits. Without a doubt, Paul was one of the most dynamic, successful "habit whisperers" this world has ever known. Through the power of his faith and the forcefulness of his personality, this apostle brought the gospel to the Gentiles and established the new face of the first-century church. But throughout Paul's ministry he constantly faced the challenge of keeping in touch with the ever more widely scattered new churches and keeping in line the diverse and sometimes downright ornery congregations that were now a part of Christ's body.
Part of Paul's problem was that he kept ending up in prison, cut off from both his coworkers and his enemies. Dealing with these difficulties forced Paul to develop some very good habits, behaviors and attitudes that enabled him to lead the church and guide its development no matter where he was or in what circumstances he found himself.
Unfortunately, bad habits are big business. Every day the makers of diet pills and nicotine patches, those who run state-of-the-art detox centers and rehab programs, divorce lawyers and plastic surgeons make a tidy profit out of bad habits. Because of the perversity of human nature, bad habits are easy to cultivate and good habits are hard to establish.
--Why is it that habitually not flossing your teeth is so much easier than habitually flossing them?
--Why is it that habitually staying up too late is so much easier than habitually rising with the sun?
--Why is it that habitually clicking on the TV is so much easier than reading a book?
--And why is it that habitually reaching for the ice cream in the freezer is so much easier than habitually reaching for an apple in the fruit bowl?
When you were a kid, did you ever notice how it's much easier to remember what your mom told you NOT to do than what it was she told you she wanted you to do? It seems we just naturally gravitate toward the negative.
Still need convincing? Try this: Think of the Ten Commandments, God's great list of "good habits." Now which commandments come first to mind? Is it those that begin with "Thou shalt" or those that sternly warn "Thou shalt NOT!" Isn't it much easier to recall the negative warnings, the bad habits God declares off-limits, than it is to remember those things God specifically wants us to do?
Intending to do something about all our bad habits "some day" is one of the commonest bad habits of all. And not only that, but over time, our moral hearing ability sometimes falls victim to petrifaction; our capacity to hear the normal voice of virtue diminishes. In such circumstances, it often takes a change of volume -- as from a shout to a whisper -- for us to really hear.
So today let's look at a list of bad habits that Paul, the "habit whisperer," would like to break us of.
When the going gets tough, get going. Get out of there. Obviously, Paul never picked up this habit, for he is writing from prison. His catalog of catastrophes included "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonment's, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger" and much more. But Demas was apparently afflicted with this habit. Faced with the choice between the hard road of the gospel and the easy enticements of this "present world," when Demas got bugged, he bugged out, bailed out, wimped out and copped out. He was "out of it."
Today's epistle reading reveals poignantly how Paul always worked as part of a team. He didn't always try to do everything himself. He listened to others. As he sits in his prison cell, growing ever more convinced that this incarceration will end only with his death, Paul's greatest sadness is that all his co-workers and companions except for Luke have left. Paul's ministry is one of the greatest models of team leadership we have apart from Jesus and the disciples.
Not Paul. Rather than reserve his energies and protect his resources, he was willing for his life to be "poured out as a libation." He was willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of his mission. He puts himself on the line -- all the time.
The gospel text for today gives a great example of alienating arrogance. The proud and preening Pharisee boasts of his obedience and righteousness even in his prayers. Paul, though often bold and boastful about what God could do, was not boastful of his own abilities. He is able to say he fought, finished and kept the faith, but it was "the Lord [who] stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed".
Although he might have been tempted to be a "know-it-all" -- for, more than any person of his age, this profoundly brilliant intellect no doubt did, in fact, know it all -- Paul's experience of God was of a God that does not fit into our two-pound box of brains. In fact, Luther's concept of the "hiddenness of God" was lifted right out of Pauline theology. God always confounds our categories. A God who is understandable and predictable is a God of our own creation. There is a valued saying in the Talmud that suggests: "Teach thy tongue to say, 'I don't know.'"
Paul admitted his mistakes. He took to heart Jesus' "sacrament of failure" -- if someone refuses to receive you, or shuts the door in your face, shake the dust off your feet and move on.
Meet another "habit whisperer." This elderly woman of faith lives alone and is blind. She lost her husband early in their marriage, went to work, raised two daughters, and maintained her home. John Buchanan fills in the details: "Over the years, she supplemented her income by baking wonderful, melt-in-your-mouth sourdough bread. When her daughters left home, she kept baking bread but now gives it away to her friends.
"And then she began to lose her sight. Macular degeneration was the diagnosis, a particularly severe case that progressed from partial sight to almost total blindness quickly. How to live? How to carry on? How to bake bread? Who would blame her if she at least stopped baking her bread?
"But instead of submitting to the darkness, she made an important decision. Baking bread enabled her to express her love, express the best of who she was, and she wasn't going to stop doing that even if she couldn't see. So she mixes from memory. And she finds the dials on her stove and bakes in the dark.
"It's risky. She's never quite sure of herself ... but she has decided to bake in the dark, to be without sight, to see without sight" (see John M. Buchanan, "Seeing Without Sight,").
Here was a woman who modeled the opposite of these defective habits. Here was a woman who, when the going got tough, and the heat got turned on, stayed in the kitchen.
She replaced cowardice with courage.
She rejected independence in favor of ministry to others.
She refused to be selfish by baking only for herself, and instead continued to give.
She renounced arrogance in favor of being faithful to her small gift -- baking bread, which, in God's hands, became a large blessing.
If we listen carefully, we can hear the voice of not only the sage "habit whisperer" of our text, but the Wise Whisperer who knows us better than we know ourselves, and who calls on us to transcend the defective habits that render us ineffective and be more like the woman baking in the dark: filled with courage, ministry, giving and faithfulness.
Such are the habits that will enable us, like Paul, to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.