… There your heart will be also

A sermon for August 7, 2022. The readings are for Year C Proper 14.


The other day I was looking for something in my house. I can’t remember what it was, nor even whether or not I found it. What I do remember was that, while scouring the back of my bedside drawer, my eye happened on a glint of silver. It was the old name tag from my Granny Lyle’s dog, Littlun, taken from her windowsill after her funeral, before we cleaned out and left her little council house for the final time. How I still have it, three continents and some forty years later, God alone knows. But then love does have its ways of hanging on, doesn’t it, and resurfacing at the most unexpected times to surprise us with memory, grief, and joy?

We talked a little last week about legacies, and here is Jesus at it again: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What we invest with meaning, what we treasure, what we seek out, accumulate, spend, hoard, love: that tells a story about our orientation, our perspective, our life.

And look, Jesus is not being a scold about this. Sure, he starts with the parable of the rich man with the overstuffed barns and the understuffed heart, but he goes on to tell his disciples about God’s loving provision for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. “Of how much more value are you than the birds?” he asks them (Luke 12:24). So do not worry: God loves you.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Jesus is not sentimental about it either, mind you. He is eminently practical, saying, sell your possessions in order to give alms to the poor. This is not a theory but a call; one which at least one rich young ruler failed (Luke 18:18-25), and most of us, too.

I read the chapter on Treasure in Gail Ramshaw’s Treasures Old and New. She observes,

“Most readers of this volume live in capitalist societies. The economic theory behind capitalism is that an individual’s accumulation of personal treasure is a social good because it eventually enriches the entire community. Christians who wish to live faithful lives within capitalism continue to reflect how to juggle this idea of treasure with that in the New Testament. What does it mean to treasure God?”[i]

Well, and I have a few follow-up questions. If individual accumulation is good only because it “eventually” enriches the entire community, how can we hurry that process along? Jesus has a suggestion (see, again, his encounter with the rich young ruler). If the accumulation of treasure is good because it enriches the entire community, why is the gap between the very rich and the very poor still increasing, in this country and across the globe? Where have we put our heart? If Christians who wish to live faithful lives have to juggle the claims of capitalism and those of the gospel, which will we drop first?

I’m not loving the implications of these questions. I live too comfortably to be comfortable with them.

But “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Not the power, or the wealth, or the glory, but the kingdom of God, in which the oppressed and the imprisoned are set free, the afflicted are healed, and the poor have good news delivered to them by God’s own Word.

How will we set our hearts there? How can I set my heart there?

The other question that came to me as I was thinking about this passage was, “What did Jesus treasure?” Or, to paraphrase a once-popular wristband, “What would Jesus accumulate?”

He treasured God. He valued the time he set aside for prayer, climbing mountains or going to the lakeshore to find space to be heart to heart with the one he called his Father. 

He accumulated stories, told to the astonishment, confusion, and curiosity of his disciples and his detractors alike. He spoke of the always unexpected, often counter-cultural, utterly unnerving mercy and love of God.

He collected people as he went, again, disciples and detractors – honestly he had no standards, he would talk to anyone – and then there were those who came to him for healing, for favours, for a word of encouragement or the touch of forgiveness. He dispensed blessings without a copay, healing without fear, life without observing the limits of death.

Where was his heart? When he saw the people, he had compassion for them – his heart went out to them – because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

Gail Ramshaw, in her article about Treasure, notes that this aphorism, about the treasure and the heart, appears also in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, when we read it out of Matthew. It is bound up with our call to fast, pray, and to give alms. She writes,

“We are called to find our treasure, as we give alms, in the poor; as we pray, in the needy; as we fast, with the hungry.”[ii]

You might say, we are called to find our treasure in the image of God, in our neighbour, in those whom Christ came to serve, and whom we are called to serve in his name, with our whole heart.

By the time my grandmother died, I was a little old for a child’s treasure box. Still, I hung onto that dog tag. Granny Lyle left next to nothing when she died: a windowsill full of bird seed; the bird and the dog went to live with a neighbour. She had loved that dog like nobody’s business, and he only had eyes for her, and teeth for everyone else. I didn’t keep his broken nametag because I loved him, but because it reminded me of how much, how stubbornly, how idiosyncratically she could love something, someone, through her last breath.

I am not sure whether she would have called herself a Christian. I would never have dared to ask. But the kind of love that invests itself where others hold back, that spends itself without counting the cost, that endures well after death has had its final say: that is something like the kind of love Jesus has for us wretched people, who make often unwise investments and who juggle our hearts and hope for the best, who stumble unexpectedly and often over the surprise of God’s merciful grace. We have the map; we have seen its cross. There lies abundant, unburied treasure.

Amen


[i] Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary (Fortress Press, 2002), 392

[ii] Ibid

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Where your treasure is

In a child’s treasure box you’ll find
a leaf, flower, or petal
once lovely,
chosen for its fragrance or
the promise of colour
broadening the senses
like a never-tasted flavour;

A rock, stone, or pebble
of indeterminate origin,
chosen for its shape,
heft, and texture, the left-overs
of creation’s crashing asteroids
imagined to contain
the footprint of a dinosaur or fern,
or worn smooth by water
into the irregular form of a heart;

A piece of beach glass,
imagined to be a jewel;

The shell of a long-dead
animal of land or river,
polished clean by grit and seagulls,
because mortality has its own beauty;

The words of a story,
bible verse, or limerick
faithfully copied 
and mostly rightly spelled;

A marble, bead, or bouncy ball
snuck away from the common collection
not to be played with except surreptitiously,
an early experiment in sequestration
deemed a certain, if lonely, success;

Some fur, the collar, or faded photo
of the much-loved pet now
buried beneath the flagstones
of the new back patio;

A single wrapped sweet,
for emergencies.

In the child’s treasure box
you will find
the decadent, sticky scent of optimism,
dust of a thousand lives unlived,
a heart of flesh, calcifying,
hope adrift on an ocean of memories
whose swell and valleys may
at any moment inundate.


This upcoming Sunday’s Gospel reading includes Jesus’ aphorism: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34 and parallels). Last week, looking for something I have already forgotten, I found at the back of my bedside drawer the name tag of my grandmother’s dog, which I have apparently and largely unknowingly kept for some forty years; hence this poem.

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Bonsai, barns, and building a legacy

A sermon for Year C Proper 13: July 31 2022. In the news: devastating floods in eastern Kentucky


A few weeks ago, on my way to General Convention in Baltimore, I stopped off in Washington, DC, and visited the National Arboretum. That was where we found the bonsai museum.

I had not realized that such a wide variety of trees could be made into bonsai. Perhaps my favourite was the olive grove, a miniature version of the scene that greets visitors to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Some of the bonsai were relatively young; others were hundreds of years old. I got to thinking about the generations of trainers and nurturers who had tended those trees – how many hands must they have passed through? Then I wondered, when a bonsai is inherited, when its originator dies, is the inheritor expected to be faithful to the vision of the first owner, or does each generation add its own twist, as it were, to the trunk and the branches?

The readings that we hear today, particularly from the Teacher of Ecclesiastes and from the good teacher, Jesus, focus on legacies. 

Ecclesiastes rails against what he sees as his wasted work – he does not trust that his legacy will be respected or worthily received. “Sometimes,” he says, “one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.” He declaims this as a great evil. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-23)

And yet, I think of the bonsai, hundreds of years old. I am told that bonsai take a lot of work, and daily attention. The trees signal subtly their needs, and their carers rush to interpret their signs and respond to them. True, it must be true that some, perhaps many, have been lost along the way, bequeathed to inheritors who had neither the skill nor the inclination to nurture them. And yet here are those that have been tenderly serviced and kept from generation to generation – and who can say that their first parent’s skill or wisdom or knowledge was wasted? Perhaps it inspired a new generation to learn something new about caring for the bonsai, about listening to the leaves, about selfless engagement with creation.

To consider our work wasted if another is to inherit it or reap the benefit of it is a terribly selfish and limiting point of view. This is exactly the parable that Jesus told, of the rich man who thought of nothing but enjoying the profits of his own work, and forgot to look beyond his own storage barns. (Luke 12:13-21) The joke is on him, though: God asks, “these things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The rich man will leave a legacy whether he likes it or not, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if those storage barns were opened up to the poor and the needful to take whatever they could use, and they celebrated him as a great benefactor, who had no thoughts of generosity in his own lifetime? Wouldn’t it be just like God to subvert his selfishness and redeem his legacy despite his limited outlook?

And wouldn’t the man have enjoyed seeing that redemption in his lifetime, if he had remembered to look beyond his own barns, if he had for a moment thought of the servants who built them and filled them and perhaps even went home hungry? “Didn’t toil for it?” they mutter, behind Ecclesiastes’ back. None of us survives or thrives without the labour of others; our legacy is not entirely our own.

And we have seen, all too clearly and nearly, how quickly a life can be swept away, and worldly possessions with it. Even that which endures is transformed: love into grief, faith into lament, hope into who knows what?

The precipitating scene for this parable of Jesus is the argument between two brothers over their inheritance. Jesus refuses to get involved, but he does warn against letting material possessions take precedence over relationship, with God and with one another. He warns against limiting our view of what we inherit, and what we leave as an inheritance; against being over-rich in worldly goods, but poor toward God and our neighbour.

The Book of Common Prayer has an obscure rubric tucked away at the end of the service of Thanksgiving for a Child – obscure because it is buried within that particular liturgy, even though it is not only addressed to parents or families. It provides that “The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in good health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.” (BCP, 445)

In other words, while Jesus will not tell you how to solve disputes over the distribution of inherited goods, the church advises that it is better to think ahead, in order to head off such arguments before they begin; to be as clear as possible about how you would like your goods distributed after you have no further need of them, to do so with a heart for charity, with a sense of responsibility toward family, and with the understanding that all things come from one Creator, and that nothing is ours forever, since we ourselves will one day return to the dust from whence we were formed.

The thing about thinking about our legacies generously, rather than complaining like Ecclesiastes or hoarding like the rich man in the parable; the thing about imagining those who will take on the bonsai, and continue to care for it and shape it and tend it, is that it lets us look at our lives now, the shape of them, the trajectory of them, and assess whether the legacy that we are nurturing is the one by which we would want to be remembered, the one we would want to outlive us, outgrow us.

This past week I spent some time with young people enjoying a summer peace camp. We gathered in a hot parking lot with a hot forge and they helped hammer gun parts into a garden tool and leaves for the healing of the nations, leaves for a tree of life made out of ammunition magazines. They are already thinking about the legacy they will bring to their community, not after they are gone but now, while they are young and vibrant and hot with the possibilities of forging a life for themselves and for their brothers and sisters and siblings.

They made a tree of life, not out of bonsai but out of gun parts, and I fixed it in a frame, but it will not be bound by glue and glass. It grows in them, with them, I hope.

The legacy that Jesus left us is life, and life with abundance. It is our inheritance, it is our joy and our salvation. It is ours here, and now, and it is not our own; but we are invited to nurture it, shape it, tend it, share it, so that all who pass by may see what hope there is in Christ, what resilience, what love.

Amen 


Bonsai image: detail from photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

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The sin of Sodom

A sermon for Year C, Proper 12, track 2: Genesis 18:20-32

It reads more like a folktale than theology. God says to Abraham, “I’ve heard reports about this place called Sodom. I’m wondering if they’re true,” as though God could not see into the very souls of Abraham, Lot, and all in existence. And Abraham bargains for the lives of the righteous, as though God does not have mercy upon sinners and saints alike; as though we are not all a bit of both. (Genesis 18:20-32)

It reads like a folktale, and as such it has taken on a resonance that permeates our culture. When we think of Sodom, we think of sin. But when we think of the sin of Sodom, we often get it quite wrong.

Dozens of biblical references to Sodom and its destruction fall into a few patterns.

Some reference Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of faithlessness, of infidelity to God. Sometimes this is cast as adultery, but the context makes clear that this is idolatry. This is the turning aside from the God who has created us and covenanted with us and borne with us all our lives on this planet, to covet something altogether other. Echoing the story that follows our Genesis reading, Jude describes it as an unnatural lust for angels, a discontent with being human. (See Jude 1:5-7.) Like the story of the Tower of Babel, or the legend of the Nephilim, the image is of humanity breaking the bonds of Creator and creation, seeking to be something other than the humans that God made us to be.

And yet humanity was sufficient for Jesus. God willingly entered into our humanity, having more humility than we ourselves apparently possess.

Some use Sodom as a byword for the results of its destruction: the tale is told to explain how the salt flats along banks of the Dead Sea came into being, and to warn against future desolation. (See for example Deuteronomy 29:32, Zephaniah 2:9, Matthew 10:15 and parallels.) A modern-day prophecy along these lines might warn of our climate crisis, the wildfires that are devastating parts of our planet, the heat that is killing us. “Turn!” the prophets of climate change urge us: “Turn, or burn like the plains of Wyoming.” Even London is burning, not for its own sin alone, but for the recklessness of us all.

These references should warn us against categorizing the sin of Sodom as something specific to those people, in that city, in that story; the prophets recognize that the same danger awaits us all.

This is important, not only but righteously because for centuries, LGBTQ people, and particularly gay men, have been made scapegoats for the sins of Sodom, which had nothing to do with loving relationships, and everything to do with selfishness, violence, and blasphemy.

It is important to recognize what the sin of Sodom is and what it is not – and I will repeat until the cows come home that it has nothing whatsoever to do with love, or loving, or the delight of happy human relationships. It is important because when some of us make others of us scapegoats for the sins of the world, we miss our chance at repentance.

Ezekiel writes to Jerusalem, a city so full of its own satisfaction that it is fit to burst, a love letter from God, but it is a bitter letter, from a spurned lover: Jerusalem has forgotten her covenant with her beloved. Ezekiel writes that even Sodom and her daughters have not committed the crimes of her sister, Jerusalem. “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:50.) This is the perhaps most explicit description of Sodom’s sin that we find in the Bible: selfishness, pride, and contempt.

The judgement which was pronounced upon Sodom in the old folktale is the judgement pronounced upon Jerusalem and upon all of us, when we are faithless, dissatisfied with the wonderful and variegated humanity with which God has blessed us; when we either become self-righteous, or turn to other gods to fill our covetousness and our envy.

And yet, God entertains Abraham’s pleas to stay the hand of judgement, for the sake of the little bit of righteousness that exists among us, the spark of humanity, which is made in the image of God, that inhabits each of us. And yet, says Isaiah, just as Lot and his family were plucked as a brand from the burning fire (see Amos 4:11), God does not delight in our destruction. (See Isaiah 1:9-10.) And yet, as the arc of scripture unfurls, and the prophets post warnings, God is merciful. And yet, God not only sends angels disguised as men, but God becomes human, comes to us, lives with us, would die for us to save us from the tribulation that we are about to bring upon ourselves.

“I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes along with theirs,” prophesies Ezekiel, “in order that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done, becoming a consolation to them.” (Ezekiel 16:53-54.)

In a divine twist, God uses mercy and forgiveness as the instruments to provoke repentance from Jerusalem, to bring hope even to the destroyed Sodom and the abandoned Samaria.

The folktale of Sodom’s destruction seeks on one level to explain the sulphurous landscape of the Dead Sea plains that lie between the fertile Jordan Valley and the Red Sea. Today, even the Dead Sea is dying, drying up as the planet warms. Yet it is Ezekiel, again, who has a word even for that desolate region, prophesying in a vision that even the Dead Sea will be restored to new life by the waters that flow from the new, the renewed Jerusalem. (See Ezekiel 47:1-12)

May we be the prophets we need for this time, this place, this peril; and may God continue to be merciful to saints and sinners alike, for as long as we are human, we are both.

The story of Sodom is one that has been repeated as a cautionary tale for generations, and it has done such harm when it has been wielded as a weapon against God’s beloved children, when it has been used to deny love. And yet, God is love. Even for us, there is hope in the mercy of Jesus Christ, who is the very life of our loving, liberating God.

Amen.

Image: Wildfire photo by Mike Newbry on Unsplash

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Heron

The heron is back. No doubt
it is not the same one as before.
This heron is taller, leaner,
fixes me with a bolder eye. No doubt
the old one is buried beneath the surface 
of shared memory, guiding this newcome
to fertile fishing grounds. No doubt
“One day tells its tale to another”; that 
which one has heard and known is passed
from shell to feather. No doubt
God is faithful from one season
to the next.

___________

Psalm 19:2 “One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another.”
Psalm 78:3-4 “That which we have heard and known, and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children.
   We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works he has done.”

___________

This poem first appeared at the Episcopal Journal

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Where we sit

A sermon for July 17, 2022: Year C Proper 11

Abraham was camped out at the oaks of Mamre, when God visited him and Sarah at their home. In a flurry of activity, Abraham set Sarah to making quick cakes of bread, then he ran to the field and picked out a calf, handing it to a servant to complete the preparations – he had that liberty – then he stands by his unexpected guests while they eat, attentive to their bodily needs (do angels have bodily needs?), but also to their wildly improbable message: you, Abraham, and Sarah are about to have a son.

Abraham and Sarah both laughed when they first heard that promise (see Genesis 17:17). Yet God is faithful and merciful, and apparently did not hold it against them.

Jesus visited Mary and Martha in their home at Bethany, and they scurried about like schoolgirls making ready. Then Mary sat at his feet, rapt with attention, while Martha continued to attend to the details that she was sure her hospitality demanded. In fact, she was so wrapped up in them that she forgot herself, and asked the guest of honour himself to intervene. Can you imagine hosting a dinner party and then telling your guests they are simply too much work for you? Jesus demurred, but kindly. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10:42)

Sarah laughed, Martha forgot her manners, yet God is faithful and merciful, and, as Jesus has shown us, endlessly loving.

I am struck, reading these stories again, by their settings. Abraham was at the oaks of Mamre, which was most likely a shrine of sorts: he had chosen the site to pitch his tent as one of refuge, of contemplation.(1) He located himself on holy ground, then he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, and looked up to find three men, three angels of the Lord, attending him.

Martha and Mary live in Bethany, on the far slope of the Mount of Olives, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem. They are close to the centre and climax of Jesus’ action on earth, and Mary wants only to become closer still, to sit at his feet, and to anoint them. Both sisters recognize Jesus for who he is, and they love him, and he loves them, too.

I found myself reflecting on these settings as I return from a General Convention that was busy and full and tight, as I remember the work that was done and all that is left to be done, the tasks we have set ourselves, and the commandments that God has given us.

We met against a background of violence. Even we arrived, there was tension between those who heard Baltimore as a code for danger, and those who saw its humanity through a more merciful and loving lens. We were told, moreover, that we would be in the tourist part of town, protected by economics from harm.

But while I was inside the Convention Center for the first time, registering, outside something had broken on the streets. A motorist apparently raged at some windscreen squeegee people, armed with a baseball bat. One of them struck back with a gun. Now a father of two is dead, and a child is charged as an adult with his murder.

Inside the Convention Center, we did a lot of work: we passed a budget, we reformed the budget process, we commissioned an audit of how we came by our wealth, and what reparations might be owed. We heard emotional testimony from those affected by our historical support of boarding schools for indigenous children. We agreed to re-read our common prayers with our eyes open and our hearts broken to the language of colonialism and white supremacy. We discussed the hospitality of our future Conventions and how we will protect the health and welfare of pregnant people in places where certain kinds of healthcare are hard to come by, even in an emergency.

But this is the setting against which we do our work. The inequality of labour and economics: Abraham ordering his servant to butcher and prepare a calf in short order, while he stands with his guests; Martha run off her feet and out of her mind. The violence that erupts between those who do not understand nor see one another as a father, as a child, as a person, but code them as an obstacle, an aggressor, or a threat.

We met, too, on holy ground, not because we hallowed it with prayers, anointed it with the promises that God has made to us, the church, and through us to the children of God: but because even in the valley of the shadow of death, there is no one who is beyond the reach of God’s mercy; because God so loved the world as to come among us, to live for us and die for us; because God is in the mayhem, with the living and the dying; because with God, nothing wonderful will be impossible, like peace, like justice, however outlandish and improbable it may seem; because God’s mercy endures forever, and everywhere.

Abraham had positioned himself and his home in a holy space in readiness to receive the messengers of God. Martha and Mary lived likewise, and Mary made sure that she did not miss a moment of Jesus’ time among them, because she knew where it would end. That was what she meant when she anointed him (John 12). She knew, because she paid attention. Abraham and Sarah heard the angels’ promise, because they paid attention. They placed themselves in the presence of the Spirit of God, and that, too, is our work, and our joy, and our promise.

They still laughed when they heard what the angels had to say, and Martha still stumbled, and Jesus caught her, “Martha, Martha,” and bid her sit with her sister next to him.

We are distracted with many things, and there are many things that rightly call for our attention. But if we can locate ourselves in the presence of God, at the feet of Christ, at the foot of the Cross; if we can remember that we occupy holy ground – and in all the wonders of the universe, in the vastness of the abyss, there is nowhere that is not holy ground -; if we set alarms as reminders to pray, and never hit snooze; if we will make time, in the heat of the day and its demands, in the cool of the night and its shadows, to pay attention to the presence of God, the gentle voice of Jesus, we will find mercy, perhaps even mercy enough to share with the living and the dying.

If we will prepare ourselves and live with prayer and pay attention to the Word of God, not only within the walls of the church, or our own conventional work, but especially when we think there is no time, no place for it, out in the world, then we will be ready with Abraham and Sarah for the improbable promises of God, for unexpected laughter, for mercy, and hope, even joy; for such is the irrepressible grace of God, and it is only by God’s grace that we live.


(1) See W Sibley Towner, Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion series (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 169

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At the intersection, revisited

At the intersection of arrogance
and mercy a memorial seeps
into the earth: oil from the olive,
water from the enemy,
blood of the wounded, its anthem
a tattoo of pilgrim feet released
from the mountaintop, hurrying
down. Underground it feeds
roots of weeds and olive trees.
One springs up for a day, wreaks
its seeds and withers;
the other stands staunch witness
to the precipitous descent of violence
and the breathless, dangerous rise of love.

I am away at General Convention and not preaching today. However, listening to this morning’s Gospel of the parable of the Good Samaritan, envisioning the steep and scary road from Jerusalem down to Jericho, I was moved to revisit also the intersection referenced in yesterday’s prayer poem, to seek hope in the mercy that Jesus related. Where is our mercy? Where is our hope?

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At the intersection

At the intersection of futility and rage
hangs a monument to discord,
its anthem the harsh horn punctuated
by arguments, epithets, and gunshots.
It is not rooted in earth or tarmac,
not rendered in stone or broken glass.
You will breathe it unknowing in air
hung heavy with pollutants
dampened but never washed clean
by rain that falls like a lament
and rises like grief, the ghost
of a sigh murmuring beneath
the breath of the street preacher:
Vanity; all is vanity.

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Peace, and if not peace, then protest

Even during and after the Civil War, Americans used Independence Day to argue and to advocate for their idea of America, their ideals for America. A project from Virginia Tech reports,

… a wide range of Americans — northern and southern, white and black, male and female, Democrat and Republican, immigrant and native born — all used the Fourth to articulate their deepest beliefs about American identity during the great crisis of the Civil War.
…  For everyone, the Fourth was a day to argue about who counted as an American and what that meant.[i]

Certainly, we are still debating what it means to be free, and whose life matters in America. I am aware, as we meet today, of our neighbours in Akron, and another family grieving for answers.

Jesus was not an American, except insofar as he was Everyman.

He began with peace: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’” (Luke 10:5). If the house would not receive the kind of peace that belongs to the kingdom of God, the kind of peace preached by the Prince of Peace, the kind of uncompromising love and mercy that accompanied his lambs into the midst of the wolves – well then Jesus advised protest. “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” (Luke 10:11)

How does the lamb protest against the wolves?

How do we, who know that the kingdom of God requires mercy, not sacrifice; love, not legalism; courage, not arrogance or violence; how do we offer peace to a world full of wolves? 

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” writes Paul (Galatians 6:14)

I have probably shared this quote with you before, but I appreciate Donald Mackinnon’s warning not to take this kind of talk as simple and traditional piety. Instead, he reminds us, the cross, the crucifixion was as real and true and deadly a defeat as could be imagined. Christ crucified: my God!

“It is a lesson to be learnt from tragedy,” MacKinnon writes, “that there is no solution of the problem of evil; … In the Cross the conflicting claims of truth and mercy are reconciled by deed and not by word.”[ii]

The apostles, the seventy, return rejoicing in the power that they have handled and handed out: “Even the demons submit to us!” And Jesus responds, “Yes; and I have seen Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Nevertheless.”

Nevertheless, Jerusalem and the cross await.

Jesus did not come to start a cult, nor a country. He did not come into the world for a select few people, twelve, or twenty, or seventy. He had no desire to keep the kingdom of God to or for himself, nor was he in any mood to argue about who should belong. Instead, he sent out lambs into the midst of wolves, loving disciples into the unpeaceful world, and bid them become messengers of God, speaking peace, and leaving protest in their wake where that peace that passes our understanding was not welcomed.

I like how this gospel passage frames the disciples’ engagement with the world. Peace, but if not peace, then protest. Lambs among wolves do not resort to the tearing and shredding with teeth that typifies their oppressors; yet they have a voice, and a flock, and a shepherd upon whom to call. 

The disciples, the seventy have power, but it is used only in the service of healing. The only beings cast out, cast down, are demons. Even then, Jesus warns them not to bask in their own good deeds, but to revel instead in the mercy, the love, the life that the kingdom of God has brought near to them.

If it had just been for the select few, for him and his crew, he could have stayed safe, done some good, cast out some demons, unmasked a few wolves in sheep’s clothing. But the Lamb of God was sent for the sins of the whole world, including ours.

We are living in wolfish times, full of appetite and anger, a pack mentality it sometimes seems; but the Lamb of God, our own Good Shepherd still sends us out to speak peace, and to bring healing where we may, with acts, with deeds of mercy, and of grace; to protest inhospitality and inhumanity to our siblings and cousins made in God’s image wherever it is found.

An email from the Episcopal Public Policy Network last week addressed the persistence of hard times, even of evil, and our constant need to boast only in the cross, that ignominious defeat that brought a whole new way of life, of victory, especially when the world seems wolfishly ravenous in its appetite for unmercy and unlove:

As Christians, we believe that Christ already is victorious. And so, even if the odds are long, even if we face defeat after defeat and do not see a way ahead, even if we feel that we are fighting the long defeat, we remain steadfast, our eyes fixed on the cross. As advocates, this means we continue to carry out our work and strive for justice. We do not do so because we will win every time, because we won’t. We do not do so because we are assured of progress, because we are not. We recognize that on a human scale, we may face defeat. We keep striving for justice because that is what we are called to do.[iii] 

If we feel as though defeat is always at hand, may it be a reminder of the cross of Christ, and be turned to our hope. If we feel as though the world is at war with itself, with us; if we think the world we thought we knew is strange and full of wolves, may it be a reminder of our own status as lost sheep, dependent on the love of our shepherd to find us and bring us home. If we feel as though peace has dissolved into protest, may we lift up our feet and find ourselves on the way of the Cross.

May we learn to boast of nothing but Christ, and him crucified; may we find our deepest identity in his merciful love.

Amen


[i] https://civilwar.vt.edu/mapping-the-fourth-of-july-in-the-civil-war-era/

[ii] Donald MacKinnon, “Atonement and Tragedy”, in Borderlands of Theology and other essays (Wipf and Stock, 2011), 97-104, here quoted 104

[iii] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ogr/why-do-we-advocate/

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#GunstoGardens

Pistols into ploughshares

Starve a fever, feed cold 
steel barrels into the forge

Beneath scorched earth cool clay
the kiln at earth’s core;
creation’s heart of stone

Beneath the concrete floor
reverb of the hammer starts a rumour
 – revolution, evolution, healing – 
over the anvil, fever breaks

swords into ploughshares
long guns into garden tools
threat into the promise of
life grown from a mustard seed …

This poem first appeared at https://episcopaljournal.org/pistols-into-ploughshares/

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