Despite years – and I mean YEARS – of therapy, I still run like a madwomen from my own feelings of sadness, especially during the holidays. Denial has always been my favorite coping mechanism. So this weekend, when my holiday spirits started to dip, instead of looking inside for the cause I started finding fault with everyone around me. My husband said the stupidest things; my kids seemed ungrateful; and friends were ignoring me. I became irritable and grouchy because no one was being nice to me anymore. And I hadn’t done anything to deserve such treatment! But guess what? No one was being mean to me at all. What I realized after a few days was that I was scapegoating them in order to avoid feeling sad. Once I let myself feel sad, suddenly they all got a whole lot nicer.
When we talk about scapegoating, we usually don’t think of it going on at the psychological level like this. But our own interior sense of goodness can generate torrential streams of false accusations against unsuspecting others. Why? Because we usually run a script like this in our pretty little heads: “The only thing that could cause perfect moi to be less than a perfectly happy, generous, and grateful person would be someone else. It certainly couldn’t be some failure on my part, like an inability to tolerate sadness – heaven forbid!” What I didn’t want to face was that I was missing my friend and pastor David Owens who died ten years ago during Advent. I don’t like feeling sad during the holidays and I don’t like that deep down I’m angry at David for dying when and how he did; I don’t like – okay, I hate that he was taken from me by a stupid curable disease like prostate cancer just weeks before his 57th birthday. I hate missing his humor, his sermons, his talents and his foibles. And I really hate that David spent the last few years of his life defending himself against scapegoating accusations, a time when I witnessed firsthand the pain and shame of the place occupied by a victim.
So you’d think I’d know better than to scapegoat others over my feelings for David. But sadly, I keep doing the dreadful blame-someone-else-first routine. Hey, I’m human. We all are. The trick is to recognize our scapegoating before we do damage to healthy relationships; early enough that forgiveness is still possible; maybe so early that we are the only ones who noticed what we were doing. That’s what Advent hope is all about, really. That when we are behaving badly we are capable of turning it around. That God entered into the midst of our world BEFORE we got our act together, because for some unfathomable reason God believes in our turning it around. That’s the thrust of a sermon David delivered on Christmas Eve in 1994, The Star Thrower. He said that “God shows up in the least likely places” and so we shouldn’t be afraid to “seek out the weakness and folly in this world, and in your soul.” So if, like me, you run from sadness or grief with scapegoating zeal, my prayer is that you will find solace in David’s Christmas message and hope in the birth of a baby so very long ago. (This sermon is part of a collection published by our congregation in the year after David’s death. The collection has two volumes, I love to tell the story… about Hope and I love to tell the story… about Miracles. Both volumes are available for purchase here.)
The Star Thrower
David Owens, Christmas Eve 1994
How are you? How is your spirit? Is it well with your soul? Are you prepared to receive the blessing of God’s love in the birth of Christ this evening? Just take a deep breath. There is nothing more that needs to be done but to receive the gift that is offered.
We gather this evening in the hush and quiet of this sanctuary to receive the gift of God’s birth. And to dream… to dream of that world of peace and good will that comes with God’s birth. Did your imagination catch fire with the words of Isaiah, the prophet-poet in our Scripture lessons? His prophetic dream prepares for God’s coming world of peace and good will.
Remember the images he uses, images of peace and harmony? The wolf will be the guest of the lamb. The calf and young lion will browse together. The cow and the bear will be companions. The lion will eat hay with the ox. The baby will play by the cobra’s nest. And a little child shall lead them.
I know that some of you, even some of you who are very close to me, are saying, “Dave, don’t get carried away! Christmas is wonderful, it’s a wonderful time of year. It’s good to be in a generous and warm spirit, but life is going to be dog-eat-dog tomorrow and in the days that follow. Forget about all these Pollyanna-ish dreams where wolves and lambs pal around together.”
Honestly, I understand your hesitancy about dreaming of a new world dawning. I, too, have pragmatic moments when I would rather be safe than sorry. I, too, have moments of doubt when I apply the acid test of reason and the empirical methods of science to the magic of poetry and song. And I ask myself… is it true? Is God with us? Has God entered our world and taken up our struggle for wholeness?
Friends, the message of Christmas is too incredible to believe. In fact, it is impossible to comprehend. But here we are this evening, some of us in different states of array, but here we are, proclaiming the message of Christmas. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, we hope, and we hope, and we hope that somehow the creator of this universe, who made lambs and wolves, came to dwell with us one night in Bethlehem of Judea, and decided to stick around with us to see it through until the end.
Loren Eiseley was Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a poet-scientist, a unique bird, who struggled with the stupid cruelty that humans inflicted on one another in the natural world. After reading one of Eiseley’s books, the poet W.H. Auden paid him the highest compliment one genius could confer on another. He wrote, “I wanted to read anything and everything of his could lay my hands on.” Auden described Eiseley in these words, “He is a wanderer who is often in danger of being shipwrecked on the shore of dejection.”
Is not this an apt metaphor for many of us? Do we not long to hear the angel message, “Fear not. You are not alone. You do not carry your burden in solitude. Your fears and worries are assumed by another.” Like Eiseley, we too are wanderers in danger of being shipwrecked on the shores of dejection. We, like the Magi, are in search of a star.
Eiseley’s story begins during a bout of melancholy when he found himself lying on motel bed near the beaches of Costabel. Outside, a heavy storm raged. In that pause between and morning when dark hesitates, Eiseley went outside. Fires sputtered up and down the beach. Eiseley knew that professional shell collectors were at work. He was passed by a frantic shell collector who rushed, heavy-laden, toward a boiling kettle. As he watched, the man dumped his bag of shellfish into the boiling water and stoked the fire under his pot.
That was the “why” of the fires on the beach. Shells, once boiled free of all living tissue, could be sold or kept by the most aggressive shell collectors. A very apt metaphor again… shell collectors without shame or guilt, boiling away the flesh of living beings to possess the shells as ornaments of greed. Eiseley journeyed like the Magi of old and past the scrambling, bumbling shell collectors.
As he rounded a point on the beach, he noticed the emerging sun pressing red behind him and above the shell collectors. Ahead, over a distant point, he saw a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection. It sprang, shimmering, into existence. Eiseley saw a human figure standing within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. Eiseley labored toward that figure over a half a mile of uncertain footing. Drawing near, he saw the man stooping, stooping and retrieving a starfish from the silt and sand where it was trapped. Eiseley ventured a comment, “It’s still alive.”
“Yes,” the man said. And with a quick and gentle movement, he spun the star out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume and the waters roared once more. “It may live,” he said, “if the offshore pull is strong enough.” He spoke gently, and the rainbow light danced on his bronzed, worn face.
“There are not many who come this far,” Eiseley said. And then, looking at the man, he asked, “Do you collect?”
“Only like this,” the man said softly, skipping another star into the water. “And of course, I collect only for the living. The stars throw well,” he said. “One can help them.”
Eiseley nodded and walked away, leaving him there along the dune with that great rainbow hanging up the sky behind him. As Eiseley left the star thrower, he thought, “Perhaps, far outward on the rim of space, a genuine star was similarly seized and thrown. Somewhere, there is a hurler of stars:’
Friends, I believe there is a star thrower, a cosmic power moving us in a direction away from the drive for mere survival of the fittest, a presence who moves among the debris and tragedy of life and flings gently a star, our star, back into the mystery and wonder of existence. Friends, I believe God chose to appear on planet Earth in the least likely of places in order to reveal divine power through human weakness and human folly. God showed up at the birth of a baby in the animal quarters of a Jewish Palestinian peasant’s home. God chose to become known through human weakness and folly… our weakness, our folly… in these places where we’re least likely to look for the God of power, justice and mercy.
God shows up in the least likely places. God shows up to be with the child afraid of the dark where things go bump in the night. God shows up to be with the rich man who has everything, but feels empty. God shows up to be with the single mother who has nothing, but feels fulfilled. God shows up to be with the one who longs to go home and dreads to go home all at the same time. May we look for God, the star thrower, in the least likely of places.
Seek out the weakness and folly in this world, and in your soul. There stands the star thrower… at the foot of the rainbow, hanging up the sky, tossing you into the joyful mystery of your life. Tonight, a child is born. Angels sing… and stars are thrown.