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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Jesus Meets the Groundhog

2014-02-02 Jesus Meets the Groundhog
Matthew 5:1-12

So, we actually had some relatively unexpected Snow Days. Not Atlanta unexpected. Ours were were kind of a nice surprise. If you're a student, or a teacher, or work elsewhere and got time off, I hope you made it count. Perhaps for you it was a time of personal reflection, prayer, and Bible study.

I spent a portion of my Snow Day doing research for today. Today's a special day: Groundhog Day. And only every seven years or so Groundhog Day falls on a Sunday. Why did God make it like that? Is God trying to tell us something? What does the groundhog mean in a Biblical sense?

"Sayeth thou to the people: In the second month, on the second day of the month, thou shalt gaze upon the dwelling of the groundhog. Ye shall not touch the groundhog, neither shall ye eat of it. Thou shalt observe the groundhog. If the groundhog does gaze upon his shadow and hide himself in great terror, thou shalt gird up thyself for three fortnights more of winter. But if the groundhog sees not his shadow, ye shall leap for joy, for surely spring is upon ye." 

I'm pretty sure that's from, like, Leviticus.

Another part of my Snow Day research was watching the Bill Murray movie, "Groundhog Day." Murray plays a Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Connors. He's an obnoxious jerk of a human being. His station sends him to cover the annual viewing of the AMS certified groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil. Phil Connors hates Punxsutawney. He hates people in general. But fate plays a trick on Phil. He's forced to relive Groundhog Day, again and again, until he gets it right. Every day, the alarm clock goes off, and every day is February 2nd. At first, Phil thinks he's crazy. Then, he sees this as an opportunity to manipulate people. Then, the repeating day becomes a depressing curse. He even tries to break out by kidnapping the groundhog and driving over a cliff. But he wakes up and Groundhog Day starts all over again. Eventually, Phil has nothing left but to forget himself, and to start living for other people. Eventually, he falls into a day of perfectly unselfish love. Phil gets it right and time finally moves on.

Well, I've ruined that movie for you.

This Groundhog Day, the church calendar gives us a reading from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. And I wondered. Is God trying to tell us something?

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled...."

There's the word of the Lord. How many days do we have until we get it right? How many days do we have mourn before we're comforted? Hunger and thirst before we're filled? How many days do we get in order to learn how to be merciful and meek and pure in heart?

The groundhog is afraid of his own shadow. Are you ever afraid of yours? Do you ever worry you've cast more shadows than light in your days? What do you do with that? Blessed is the man or woman who arises on Groundhog Day, and who makes the day count the *first* time.


Does this happen to you, too? Somebody says something and 30 seconds after they're gone, you think, "Aw, I wish I had said [this]"? Somebody says something wrong, or something mean, or something just so totally dumb, and as soon as they're out the door, you think, "Oh, if only I had thought to say [this]." "Where are my keys? I'm gonna chase them down."

Or you do something in a quick response and as soon as you do, you go: "Oh, I wish I hadn't just done that." "Did I really click Reply to All in that company email?" "What did I just say to my mom?" "Did I really just tell my kid he's grounded for a year? I've just ruined my own year."

And then, out of the blue, at 3:42am, you wake up thinking of what you would have said, or done, or not done? And your brain keeps circling around on that idea like a vulture? Does that happen to anyone else?

Wouldn't it be so great if you got to live that day over, only this time you could get it right? "Dear God, if it's not asking too much, could you please alter the fabric of space and time and let me have just one do-over?" What would you give for just one Groundhog Day, like in the movie? Would just one be enough? If the universe would give you enough re-dos, you could come out smelling like a rose. You could outrun the shadow of regret.

There's a reason they call it "re-gret" instead of just "gret." Because if you only felt it once, it would be over. Instead it grets and re-grets and re-grets. Like Groundhog Day. No matter how hard you try, you can't outrun your own shadow. It's like a curse.


Jesus sat down and he talked to the crowd. I imagine there were a few people in the crowd with some regrets, don't you? Maybe one or two. Maybe one or two groundhogs trying to hide from their own shadows. Maybe one or two trying to escape the shadows that had been cast over them - by accident, by accident of birth, by accidents of other people's cruelty. I imagine there were at least a couple of people who wished they could have a do-over on a day, or a year, or one careless word.

And here's what Jesus said to them.

"Blessed are you."

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

Blessed are the people who have messed up. Blessed are those who have been messed over. Blessed are you when you hunger and thirst, and yearn for things to be different.

You feel cursed. But God doesn't wait for you to fix it. God doesn't wait until you're all right, until you've come up with your snappy responses, until you've made amends and feel all warm and good about yourself again. God doesn't give you a do-over. God gives you something else. God gives you blessing while you're running from your own shadows. God gives you blessing when you're hiding in your hole. God doesn't wait until you get it right. God blesses you where you are. God blesses you as you are. God blesses you even on your groundhog days.


At the end of every Children's Sermon, I use a prayer I learned from a children's choir director at Montreat. Children's choir directors have a special place reserved in heaven. Lined with juice boxes of gold. Every day, when I was waiting outside for practice to be over and the kids to be set free to run wild into the mountains, I'd hear the choir director say, "Let's pray: Thank you for today, and everything in it."

And I thought, "Everything?" Really? Everything? I don't know about that. I mean, what if something bad happens? What if it rains? What if the roads ice over and you're stuck - at work? What if your kid falls on the steps and scrapes up her knees and you're not a mom so you don't have a purse with multiple kinds of Band-Aids and ouch-less anti-bacterial spray? Thank you, God? for everything in this day?

I do not believe for one minute that all bad things are just nice things wrapped in sandpaper. Some stuff is really, truly awful. Some stuff takes years of sleepless nights and a lot of therapy to get over. I don't think Jesus is smiling and saying, "Just look for the good in everything." I think he's saying that even, and especially on the days you wouldn't re-live for a million dollars, even when it feels like God has abandoned you to all of life's curses, God hasn't. Even when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you, even when you feel like your poor spirit's been run over by a semi, even when this day and everything in it has hit the fan, you are not forgotten.


The groundhog rises from his hole and sees his shadow. Terrified, he pops back down and six more weeks of winter follow. 

But here's something the groundhog doesn't think about. Pretty much regardless of when he pops out of his hole, there's going to be a shadow. Whether he sees it depends on which way he's facing. Maybe he's facing the shadows. Or maybe he's facing the light. The darkness is still there. But so is the light.

You're not a groundhog. You're just human enough that among everything this day holds, you're going to cast a shadow or two. You're going to do something you wish you hadn't. You're going to have something done or said to you that you would rather have skipped. We can't escape the shadows.

But behind the shadows is the light you can't see. Behind the darkness is also blessing. The blessing is that God hasn't forgotten you, that God will not abandon you, that God does remember your name. Blessed are you, even when you don't feel it, don't know it, can't see it.

Jesus meets the groundhog. Meets him where he is. Even on this day, and everything in it.