On Friday, after two days of non-stop rain, we welcomed the New Year with a day that the weather app on my phone described as “dreary.” The skies lived up to the prediction, but the atmosphere in my family certainly didn’t. January 1st is for us, however dark the weather, a celebration of light, our light, my daughter Lucia who was born New Years Day six years ago.
Though we didn’t get to have our annual outing to U.S. Pizza, her favorite, we did order in and celebrate her birth with close family. For some of the other people in Lucia’s life, friends and mentors young and old, my wife Emily invited the delivery of a different kind of gift. “As we enter the new year,” Emily texted, “our theme is hope and wonder. So to celebrate Lucia’s birthday drop off something homemade or found in nature that inspires hope and wonder for you.”
And the gifts came. There was a bird’s nest carefully wrapped in a box, there were shells and coral, there was a set of magical images cut from a calendar and a map of Little Rock we spread across our floor. Friends made finger puppets and paintings, delivering them in secret or with welcome driveway visits. All of them were wonderful, all of them pointed to hope.
Signs of wonder and hope. We need them in any season, but on days that could only be described as dreary, when the normal comforts of restaurants and coffee shops and the embodied closeness of friends is unavailable, we need them now more than ever. And if we look, wonder and hope are ready enough to find. Ours is no static world, no meaningless accident of cosmic forces. All that exists was born from the life of a God who made it all in love, a God who is endlessly fascinated and fascinating.
And yet, for so many of us, our lives are plagued with boredom and anxiety, a sense of ennui. Ennui, a term adopted from the French, captures the existential exhaustion of those who have lost all wonder in the world. It is as much a sign of our lostness as any vice. And so it is that salvation, far from an escape from a life of experience and fun, is actually a delivery right into the heart of all that is truly interesting. God sent his son among us to return us to our fullness and therefore to make our lives far more fascinating than they were before. This is the wisdom of God, born in a hope forged in awe, an openness to the Word that speaks through the cosmos itself.
In the Proverbs, Wisdom is personified. She speaks of her life at the beginning of creation, of her presence with God as the world was formed. “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,” she says, “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Wisdom here is no dry scholarship, no reduction of the world to the bare knowable facts. Wisdom is a playful force of delight, responding to God with rejoicing. To be wise is then to be one captured by delight, worshiping God with wonder, living in hopeful fascination at what God will do next.
So it is with the wise men in our Gospel this morning, the Magi who saw a sign of wonder and hope and let their curiosity lead them to the child who would change the world. Though there has been much tradition and supposition about these wise men, the Gospel tells us very little. We know only that they are from the East and that they saw a cosmic sign—a star, an angel, some light in the heavens—that led them to Bethlehem. We know that they brought with them expensive gifts and that they were strange and powerful enough to catch the attention of Herod, who hosted them like foreign dignitaries. But most of all we know that they were open and curious and that they let wisdom in her wonder lead them to worship.
Worship is this posture by which the magi are known, frozen into statutes of wood or ceramic. Three bowing men before the Christ child offering gifts, arranged around the manger. When the artists of the past imagined this scene in oil and pigment, they almost always titled their paintings “The Adoration of the Magi.” Joyful worship, playful wisdom, openness and curiosity—these are the signs of hope and wonder that we find in our Gospel.
Sing, dance, be merry, says Jeremiah, the lamenting prophet who cannot help but be overwhelmed with hope in God’s goodness. Delight, rejoice, find wonder in the swallows nesting by the altar in the temple, see hope in the sparrow feeding her young in the House of God, calls the song of the Psalmist. Give praise to God for adopting us into his family, giving us gifts of wisdom and power in his love, St. Paul preaches to the early Christians in Ephesus. In all our scriptures ,Wisdom offers playful invitation, signs of wonder and hope that delight in the God who came here among us in the everyday realities of our lives. But how are we to answer that offer now? Does wisdom still play in a world as overwhelmed as ours?
One morning last week, as Emily and I sat with our coffee, talking over dreams and hopes and what the day would hold, we turned to this sermon. I’d been struggling through the scriptures, unsure what to say. Two drafts had been deleted, and I was starting from the blank page once again. “I know you need to preach for the congregation,” she said, “but maybe you should start by preaching the sermon you need to hear.” The conversation meandered from there, to what we’d been reading, to our goals for the coming year. “My focus this year is going to be wonder and hope,” Emily said. And in the wisdom of her focus, I heard my own need as well and perhaps your need too.
For wonder and hope are fundamental to the world. Creation was made in delight and love and play. God has no interest in efficiency and dry business, the cold control of the Herods of the world, whose only reaction to new stars is to hide them behind the glow of artificial lights, safe and easy to manage. Look at God’s creation and you’ll see a mockery of pure function, an excess of color, the strange imagination of a curious creator. On a rainy day, watch one bead of water on a branch, see the globe of life it reflects, wonder at the clouds and the cycles of earth and air, look at the soil and imagine the life you cannot see and yet is teaming beneath you in the billions. It’s all there, all the time, God is always offering us these signs, but so often we lack the wisdom to see them.
Ours is a world in need of wisdom, but not the sort that often goes by that name, the kind that creates products or lives through knowledge that can be simplified into syllabi. We need the wisdom of the wise men, who came without guile, who were open to see the new thing God was doing in the world. Led by their wonder and their hope, they responded with worship, not praise given through dull obligation, but adoration born of joy. This season when we dwell with the Incarnation and we look to the light that has come into the world, let us make a resolution to live in the delight of wonder and the desire of hope.
The God of all peace and joy, of curiosity and fascination, has come into our midst. Look up and look around, let the eyes of our hearts be enlightened with God’s wisdom, so that we can find the awe that is already here. And let us sing, praise and rejoice, let us adore the child who changed everything and the man who died that we might find life again. For worship is wisdom and wisdom is worship and it is through them both that we will find the hope and wonder that God is so ready to give us. Amen.
Christ the King Sunday
The election is over and the deciding vote has been cast. It was bloody, the Opposition was strong, but it is clear, at least to most of us here, who the winner is. The problem is that though the election was some time back, there are many who still don’t accept the results. Some are hedging their bets; some are afraid of the Opposition. They don’t realize that the only power he has is the power they give him. The Opposition’s power can’t create or make or do anything, in the end. It can only destroy, undo and unravel. Still, he is noisy. Even if powerless, he can make himself seen. It’s easy to get distracted in all the busy hubbub he weaves.
The Leader, however, knowing the noise, knowing the difficulties of building a new reign without a concession from the old, decides to go ahead with governing. And to do that he has to choose who will rule by his side, who will serve in his cabinet. He doesn’t interview potential cabinet members. He doesn’t ask for resumes. He cares little for their degrees or even their experience in the usual sense. He goes out in secret where he can see them, he puts on disguises, and he watches what they do. How do they respond to him when he’s a beggar on the street? How do they treat him when he is locked up like a common thief? When he asks for a cup of water, do they send him to the local charity or do they just go get him one?
The inauguration comes. The Opposition is banned from the premises, unable to join the banquet. He could have come, he was given an invitation, but he still won’t concede and so can’t be allowed in. Some day soon he’ll face a judge, given all his crimes, but its doubtful he’ll bow to the new Leader, even for a pardon. Whatever happens, he’s old news, no longer in the headlines. The new Leader is here and everyone knows his term will be a long and sure and good one.
But after the swearing in many are still anxious. He hasn’t announced his cabinet. Who will it be? He calls a press conference to reveal his choices. “For my Secretary of Defense, I name Billy Parsons,” the Leader says. No one’s heard of Billy Parsons. The press scrambles. He’s a deacon at a small church on the south side of a big city. He is known for his broad smile and the stories he tells at the local breakfast spot. He works nights at the postal distribution center sorting mail, but in the day he meets with young men in his neighborhood, men filled with anger at the world and one another, and he makes peace. “He’s got lots of peacemaking experience,” the Leader says. “He’s defended his neighborhood by making it safer. He visits people in prison and helps make sure they don’t need to go back.”
The Leader works down the list. There’s a woman who loves gardening and cooks fresh, hot meals from her produce and delivers them to her elderly neighbors. She’s put in charge of the Department of Agriculture. There’s a retired man who has befriended a homeless couple who sleep in a park near his house. He brings them fresh water and makes sure they have the supplies they need. He’s put in charge of the State Department. For Treasury, he appoints a young woman who works three jobs and sends half her income to her family in Central America. When the press ask her why she does this she said she just wants to make sure her brothers and sisters have enough to eat. Even with her late hours, she’s never missed the Leader’s standing Sunday morning meeting. He knows he can trust her to take care of all the kingdom’s riches.
Everyone is amazed at the choices, not least those who are chosen. They are all fans of the Leader, of course, they voted for him, but to help him govern? It seems too much. The Leader assures them, he’ll give them what they need, and most of it he’s given them already. They know he’s good and wise, they trust him, and so they accept.
There are others, though, who aren’t so happy. They’d been working on their applications, building their resumes with all the right bullet points. They’d voted for the Leader, sure, when it was clear he was going to win, but they had a different version of their resume ready if he hadn’t. Always good to be prepared, right. When they hear the announcement of the cabinet picks, they object. Look at our certifications! Look at our degrees from the great universities! Look at all the things we’ve done! The Leader, heading out of the press conference, turns to them: “I don’t care about what can be put on a piece of paper. I care about who you are. What you do when no one’s watching. When I came to you asking for food you told me to get a job, when I slept in your doorway you called the cops, when I was sick you never came by.” Their faces grow red. “Forget you, forget this kingdom,” they say. “We’re going to go join the Opposition!” “Go,” the leader says, “its always been your choice.” And they do, joining the Opposition’s club on the outskirts of the kingdom.
It’s been a while, now, since those tumultuous first months after the election. The Leader has been in charge for a long while now. People call him the King of Kings and Lord of Lords these days. A high title, but his supporters say he deserves it. The Opposition still hasn’t conceded and just beyond the kingdom he paces, raging, plotting, sowing what discord he can still manage. But the Leader’s reign just keeps growing, as more and more places concede, and more an more people admit his victory and welcome his goodness. He’s the kind of Leader who likes to include others in his decisions, he loves to work through a whole network of friends and allies, formal and informal.
His is a Kingdom of love, he says, and love, like electricity, is dangerous and powerful and must be distributed to be helpful. He needs lots of people who know how to handle love, how to do it and share it and grow it, to help him bring it to every state, every city, every neighborhood and household. And so he’s always watching, always wondering who should be on his team. He still searches in secret, putting on disguises, looking for those who feed, clothe, visit without any hope for reward. Maybe today you will meet him? Maybe he’ll invite you to reign with him in his land of love. I know he will, if you’re ready. Amen.
Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 14:15-24
In the hills of East Oakland there is a 500 year-old redwood that has survived the Spanish conquistadors, the Gold Rush, earthquakes and storms, the booms and busts of a world always hungry for resources. The tree is the only old growth redwood in the city and its is something of a miracle that it is still alive. Locals call it, “Old Survivor.” The tree is located on a steep rocky slope and the trunk is twisted, misshapen by the standards of timber mills. And so it has stayed, marginal and strangely formed, witnessing a world in flux as a rooted grace, contrasting with the vagaries of human ambition. “Old Survivor still stands,” wrote a pair of Oakland residents, “as a sentinel to remind us to make our choices wisely.”
On this day, gathering our prayers as the church when the choices of the ballot are being made, I thought about that tree and its ancient witness. The church, more than two thousand years old, its roots linked to an even more ancient worship, now stands in the world like a witness tree. Ours is community of cosmic scale, joined in Christ across time and space, united in the common response of love to God and neighbor. Over the church’s history we have seen empires crumble and new states rise, we have existed on the edges of every terrain of political power. We have survived the persecution of dictators and the indifference of democracies. The church has carried out the call of Jesus to endure to the end.
This endurance of the church, like that of Old Survivor, is a result of its strange shape. It is a useless reality from the perspective of the world, a community not easily conformed to any of the ends of earthly power. It’s teachings talk of a God who become like a slave and of a king who invite all the riffraff of the streets to a banquet. The usual human ambitions for sex, money, and power are replaced in the church by a call to sacrificial love, to service instead of domination. And yet oddly formed, we have continued.
The survival of the church, like that of Old Survivor, also comes from its depths, its deep roots. Artist and writer Jenny Odell writes that the “rootedness” of Old Survivor “…is something we desperately need when we find ourselves awash in an amnesiac present and the chain-store aesthetic of the virtual.” The church too has roots to provide for a world unmoored, tossed like a plastic bag in the wind. Trees whose lives span thousands of years do not live from above, but from the community of life they have cultivated beneath—not only their roots but the bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, and fungi that live in symbiosis, life together, below the surface.
This depth through which the church continues is rooted in Christ who did not go up but instead went down. This is a truth to which the Apostle Paul called the church in Philippi, divided over struggles for power. Paul called for them to inhabit a different kind of life, a mindset that diverged from the Roman world, where status was everything and achievement was made through domination. The church was instead to have a mind like Jesus, who though the Son of God, came to sleep in the kitchen with the slaves rather than to eat at the master’s table. It is that same mindset that Jesus offers in the parable of God’s reign, where the banquet is filled not with campaign donors or the practitioners of power, but by the poor and lowly. In both scriptures, the message is the same—our God is humble, found among those who are close to the ground and on the margins. It is the lowly who provide the life of any church that will survive.
Today is a day of anxiety in America. Whoever wins the presidency, many are worried about what may come. But I am here to say that whatever plays out over the days ahead, the church will endure in its witness to a life and love beyond anything that results from the machinations of power. As engaged as we might be in the questions of this time we belong to a politics far greater, a politics that stands in witness against this moment as it has stood in witness against every moment of the world. It is a politics that is found not by looking up to those who claim the seats of so called power, but down, among the lowly, the down and out, where Jesus lived and lives still.
I do not mean to say that fear is not warranted or that worry is unfounded. I feel the fear and worry as much as anyone else, but I am saying that like a tree that has stood for a thousand years, we have a place to take shelter; ground in which we can plant ourselves toward flourishing even amid the most dire outcomes. Our politics is not, in the end, that of any particular nation or even any particular time. Jesus is a politics, strange and misshapen according to the purposes of the world. Being useless to the powers that be, we have a freedom in Jesus for a life and love not found by those who must hold onto control. We can live, even now, into the grace and peace that is at the foundation of the world.
I recently heard a story from someone in our community. She and her daughter were going into the grocery store where they encountered a black woman and white man in the heat of an argument outside. It wasn’t clear what the conflict was about, but it seemed to be that there had been some racial slight. The woman and her daughter thought of turning away, but then had a sense that God was calling for some grace in the moment. She went up to the woman who was yelling, angry and hurt, and said, “I want you to know that we love you.” Her face softened. “Thank you,” she said surprised.
This woman and her daughter then turned to the white man behind her. He was maskless, standing by a luxury car. At first he seemed to hold all the power that being a white male confers, but when the woman looked into his face she saw brokenness amid the anger. “I want you to know that we love you too,” she said to him. The man tried to begin explaining the situation, but the woman stopped him. “We’ve got to go shopping, but I just wanted you to know that we love you too.” She and her daughter left, having sown a seed of strange grace.
This Election Day, when so much seems to hang in the balance and anxiety fills the air, let we who now worship be formed by our prayers into a people of peace. May our church be a witness to God’s grace, useless and strange, close to the ground and in community with the lowly. The people of God have endured through all the vagaries of a violent world and will endure still to announce again that Jesus, who lived among the outcasts and on the margins, is now the prince of peace, the Lord of all Lords and kings and emperors and presidents, now and forever. Amen.
Last week, winding my way through Allsopp Park, I was met everywhere with rustling of squirrels among the leaves, the blue and white flash of Blue Jays against the ground. Along the trail I could see pockets dug into the humus, its wet browns now joining with fresh yellows of hickory leaves. Like a visit to the pumpkin patch and Halloween, rain or shine or virus, I was witnessing an annual tradition. This tradition began long before I was born or any human even lived in these woods, and it will continue, I hope, as long as the world endures. It must continue, in fact, because the world will not survive without it.
The heroes of our common future are the squirrels and Blue Jays working at this very moment to bury acorns across the forests, yards, and gardens of this city and beyond. But it is not clear that the participants in this world saving work know the scale of what they are doing. Each fall they simply answer a call, deep within their bodies, one learned from their parents and others of their kind. They want to do it because they know it will help them make it to another year, but the abandon and glee with which they commit to the work goes well beyond necessity.
A Blue Jay can bury as many as 5000 acorns in a season, its memory powerful enough to retrieve all they need throughout the winter. Gray Squirrels bury up to 10,000 nuts each fall and fail to retrieve 75% of them. Whether bird or rodent, squirrels and jays are as much tree planters as they are food warehousers.
In planting oaks, storing acorns across the forest floor, these creatures are, from a theological view, giving glory to God. This glory stems in part from their obedience to God, for they are fulfilling their purpose, they are doing what they were created for. In reflecting on the question of obedience and disobedience, the monastic writer Thomas Merton once wrote: “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means for it to be is obeying Him.” Squirrels and jays are obedient to God by living into the fullness of their nature and answering its call. They work toward the future, but do not think about it. They simply do the work of the season, living the lives that they were given.
It is not so clear for human beings. We were made for something, we have a call to answer in this world, to which we can be obedient. But our purpose has been muddled. So close to God in our form, in our willing and desire, we make the mistake of thinking that we are God. Rather than participating in the chorus of creation, we raise our voices so that the earth is filled with our dissonance. The future is not something we live into through the patient work of obedience to our being, but rather something we shape and mold through our plans, our power however good our hopes.
For Moses that hope was the promised land. He had led the people from their slavery in Egypt, following God’s fiery cloud through the wilderness. It had been a long and hard journey, one that tried the patience of the people with Moses and Moses with the people. At a critical moment on their journey, the Israelites are thirsty and complaining. But God, true to his promise and care, tells Moses to speak to a rock and ask it to give forth water. We can imagine the scene. All Israel watching and Moses who was already being challenged in his authority trying to sweet talk a spring from a stone. Moses decided to accomplish God’s promise in a different way. He moves with the decisive action of a military leader and strikes the stone. It gave forth water, but because of his disobedience, God does not permit Moses to enter the promised land. God’s salvation did not fit with Moses’ expectations and so we have the tragedy of his death in Moab, just shy of the place he’d been journeying toward so long.
In our New Testament reading it is the Pharisees who have their hope set in stone. They live in expectation of God’s Messiah, one they are certain will be a Son of David, following in the footsteps of Israel’s greatest king. But Jesus unsettles their expectation, showing from a familiar Psalm that David wasn’t the master, the form into which the Messiah would be molded. David was the servant, another human struggling with obedience to the salvation God is working in the world.
Jesus offers this challenge to the Pharisees just after they have asked him what the greatest commandment is. He gives them a familiar verse, one that would have been said daily by faithful Jews, one found in the Law of Moses—Love God, love your neighbor. In challenging the expectation of the Pharisees, I think Jesus is in a way answering the desire of all of us to keep the future visible, to know what to expect and then to make that expectation happen. Here though, I think Jesus is instead reminding us where the real work lies. The daily obedience to our being, our call to love.
We do not live under the occupation of an empire like Rome; nor are we wandering in the desert, hoping for the promised land yet thirsty for a drink, but still the future looms heavy on our horizon. We talk constantly about what will lie ahead, worrying what will come. Our politicians are obsessed with such questions, promising always that our hopes will be better accomplished through their agendas. On our darker days we wring our hands, wrapping them around questions like when a vaccine will come, or what our children or grandchildren’s lives will be like. In the church we have a own special worries, like a report out this week of rapid decline in our denomination, so much that some say there will be no Episcopal Church by 2050 if things continue as they have. With such fears we begin to think that we must do something and we get a firm image in our head of exactly how God will save us. Knowing God’s plans we go ahead and get started on accomplishing them.
But if we are to learn from Moses and the wisdom his mistakes, Jesus and his teachings, our work is not to save the future or bring either God’s judgement or salvation into the world. Our work is not even to save the church or preserve the present. Our task is be obedient to the small work of loving God and loving our neighbors, simply and directly, in every aspect of our lives. This is the work of our being, the seeds we are called to plant, not because we have plans for a harvest but because it is the call of our nature, the fullness of our flourishing like jays and squirrels storing acorns.
There is a wonderful poem by Wendell Berry called “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” In it, his wild prophetic character issues the call for living into the future:
“Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.,” he cries,
“Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.”
These lines echo the call I hear in our scriptures, a call to participate in the whole of creation, playing our small part with love. Our work is not to save the world, or close down the possibilities of God’s work in the cage of our expectations. Our task is the be like the Blue Jay, sowing a future she cannot hope to harvest, being obedient to the seasons call to do again the work for which God made her, sowing a seed of love whose harvest only God can know. Amen.
Year A, Proper 22 / St. Francis Day
I recently found myself on TheKnot.com’s list of the greatest love songs of all time. Like many such lists, its contents are easily contended, but I was surprised to find that even with my limited knowledge of pop, there were plenty of tunes I could easily hum. First was Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” followed shortly after by “Time After Time” by Cindy Lauper. Celine Dion was the only artist with two songs in the top ten with her “The Power of Love” and “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song to the movie Titanic. And of course songs by Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Whitney Houston all had their representation along with some more surprising picks further down the list by bands such as the Foo Fighters and Radiohead.
Though we may not all agree on the top love songs of all time, or even this time, I think we can agree that there is something sappy at the heart of the human soul. Whether its from the most aloof hipster or the hardest rocker, the fast rhyming hip hopper or the honky tonk circuit singer—we’re all suckers for a good love song. And it is a real art to write a great one.
In the Medieval world of France and Northern Italy there arose a special class of performers who specialized in love songs. They were called the troubadours, traveling singers who created poems and songs celebrating chivalry and courtly love. Sometime in the 12th century, a few of these troubadours wandered down to the Perugia, a province in central Italy. There they caught the attention of a romantic young man and sparked in him a dream of the valor and glory.
This young man was Francisco Bernardo, the person we now know as St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate today. Obviously his plans to be a chivalrous knight didn’t work out. After a brief battle Francis was captured and spent time in a jail cell where he began to feel the call to a different kind of adventure, one that embraced lepers and disdained material wealth.
Francis’s was a life that we must admit was extreme by most measures of practicality and common sense. Francis wore an itchy and uncomfortable hair shirt, he diluted his food with water so as not to enjoy it, and frequently fasted. He did wild things like diving naked into the snow and preaching sermons to the birds. He had such a disdain for money that when one of his followers accepted a coin Francis made him drop it into a dung heap. And yet many claim that there has been no better Christian, before or since. Even now there is something in Francis that captures our imagination more than any tale of chivalry.
To understand Francis and all the beautiful and bizar things he did we must know that Francis named himself a “troubadour of Christ,” recalling those traveling poets of his youth. In Francis’s case he was both the singer and the subject of a love song.
Francis embodied the truth that Elvis Presley, that later troubadour, would sing in his famous “Fools Rush In”:
“When we met
I felt my life begin
So open up your heart and let
This fool rush in”
Francis was a fool for Christ, made foolish by love, and he traveled the countryside singing the songs of that love to all who would listen. His wild, impractical life was the life of someone in love with God. As G.K. Chesterton puts it in his brief biography of Francis, “He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a Lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation.” And not only of people but also all the creatures he encountered for he knew that they were God’s creatures, made from God’s love and delight.
Lovers make wild promises to one another, promises that would seem strange and problematic apart from love. When my wife and I were married, here in the very space of this church, we promised that we would forsake all others, restricting the boundaries of our relationships. We made promises we couldn’t have even understood at the time, agreeing to a rule and limit to our lives because we knew that such a limit was necessary for the fullness of our love. We can only understand passages like the Ten Commandments we read this morning in the context of a loving covenant, the rules of a marriage. When the enclosure of love is taken from them, they become nothing more than cold, abstract laws.
To remedy this, the people of Israel had their own troubadours, the prophets singing love songs, often of a jilted lover longing for reunion. One of the most famous of those songs came from the prophet Isaiah, who sang of a lover who planted a vineyard that would bare celebratory wine, the drink of lovers. That vineyard, the people understood, was Israel—the people who were to be God’s lovers in the world.
It is this image of Israel as a vineyard that Jesus has in mind as he tells the parable in today’s Gospel. The problem here is that those who were meant to be the troubadours, those whose role it was to inspire and cultivate love, had failed. They had become interested only in their own power, their own ambitions and sense of righteousness. They had turned the covenant rules of lovers into abstract laws and then had used those laws to put down the people on the margins.
Jesus came to pick up the song lines of love again, to renew the romance with God. This is what his mission was all about from his healing of the blind to his teaching about who is really blessed, from the cross to the resurrection. Francis, a lover and imitator of Jesus followed in that way. In doing so he learned the particular loves that are at the heart of any true devotion. For there is no good in an abstract love. As the essayist Charles D’Ambrosio has put it, “If you can love abstractly, you’re only a bad day away from hating abstractly.” And perhaps that was the problem of the religious leaders, the Chief priests and the Pharisees. They had made their love too general and it had slowly turned to a murderous hatred.
“A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids,” writes Chesterton, “But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ.” Francis was a lover of the particular people and creatures around him, the God he found in Christ, and if we want anything of that joy of his that seems still to radiate across the centuries, then we too must learn to be lovers of the particular, lovers of God and people and creatures in the concrete individuality of the man named Jesus Christ, our neighbors right around us, and the wild lives just beyond our doors.
What the world needs now is a love song, a tune that calls us toward the God we find in every present moment, the people and creatures we find right around us. This is the song Moses heard in the wilderness, it is the song that Jesus sang in Palestine two millennia ago and still sings in the hearts of those who listen, it is the song that Francis heard and belted out to all who would hear it, be they his brother friars, displaced lepers, or the wild birds. Will we too sing that song of love in a world filled with the noise of narcissism? Will we too hum it in the silence of our hearts and share it with every creature we encounter? I hope we all can become like Francis who became like Jesus, a troubadour of love. Amen.
When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to his children. "You are sheep among wolves, be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves."
These are words from the opening lines of the great American film, Gone Baby Gone, staring Casey Affleck, written and directed by his brother Ben. It’s a crime a drama, a detective story centered around the abduction of a little girl. But at its center is the question—how do we do what is right in a world that is corrupted in every corner? How can we be guided by light when everything seems like a fog?
As the film plays out, Casey Affleck’s character, Patrick Kenzie, embodies the advice of his priest. He maintains a deep innocence and belief in the goodness of people, especially those down and out, but he is absolutely shrewd in turning the tables on those who stand in the way of his pursuit of truth. Patrick lives, in all the best ways, the life of a subversive. He is not powerful, but when met with power he turns it against itself.
I thought about Gone Baby Gone and Patrick Kenzie’s subversive ethics, as I read our lesson from Exodus. In the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, we see that same subversive spirit that embodies the soul of a dove and the mind of a serpent. When faced with an impossible situation they are guided by goodness and act with cunning.
Pharaoh is nervous. He rules Egypt under the guise of a god, but because he is not God, Pharaoh can maintain power only through coercion and exploitation in order to feed the appetites of his Empire. He has made the descendants of Israel into slaves—an ethnic underclass exploited for their labor. But their numbers are growing and Pharaoh knows that one day they could be strong enough to revolt. He identifies the threat in the Jewish male and so he seeks to keep them in their place.
To be a Jewish male in Egypt was a dangerous thing in the time of Pharaoh; not unlike being a black male in America . In both places the systems of the status quo locate their fears in particular bodies and seek to control the threat to power. But Pharaoh depends on the very people he seeks to exploit. He can’t exact his plan without the Hebrew midwives.
It may seem like a foolish plan from our side, centuries later, but from the perspective of Pharaoh this is a strategy that will work. Pharaoh sees from the position of power and since the Hebrew midwives are without power of the kind Pharaoh recognizes, he thinks they will do what he says because they fear what he can do to them. In his arrogance he cannot imagine an allegiance greater than himself.
But Shiphra and Puah have a different kind of strength. They worship God, and they know that Pharaoh, for all his violent presumption is not in charge. And so they act from an ethic of subversion, they turn Pharaoh’s racist understanding against him. The midwives tell him: “these Hebrew women are different, they give birth so quickly, there is really nothing we can do!” Shiphra and Puah are as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
How do we live now? It’s a question that comes each day, but in a time when our routines are unsettled and our habits out of sync, the burden of decision is even greater. We have to find an ethic, a guide to living that will help us move toward goodness and flourishing, even with all the evil in the world—the abductors and Pharaohs and automated systems of oppression. From Shiphra and Puah we can find some guidance. We need to live like subversives.
The pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson says that there are three assumptions that guide subversives. The first is that the status quo is wrong and must be overthrown. The world as it is is beyond repair, it is as the insurance agents say, “totaled.” The second assumption is that a livable alternative to the status quo exists. Subversives are not utopians, but they live in the assurance that, as my friend Claudio Oliver puts it, “another world happens.” Finally, subversives assume that the normal means of violence and coercion are not available to them. Subversives are not those with armies or weapons, the backing of corporations and electoral blocks. They have, as Peterson puts its, “neither a preponderance of power nor a majority of votes.” From those assumptions subversives find another way of acting, an alternative ethic in the world as it is.
It is an ethic we learn from Shiphrah and Puah as they seek to fear God rather than Pharaoh, it is a way of life Paul offers to the church in Rome as they follow Jesus under the shadow of Cesar. In both cases, the guidance isn’t some particular moral law, but rather a guiding center—an ethic formed in worship. Call it fear of God, or love of God—they are the same thing for both are responses to a proper appraisal of God’s reality—overwhelming in beauty and goodness, dangerous in power and mystery.
“Throw your whole body in the offering plate”—that is how scholar Beverly Gaventa says we should translate Paul’s call to present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice. By this Paul means that the whole of our lives should be an act of worship. A feel good supplement to life carried out on Sundays is not worship, for Paul. An offering of ten percent of our income is not good enough. Worship should be the basis of all our actions, it should be the guiding center of our ethics. It requires every aspect of our lives.
If the worship of God is the foundation of our ethics then we cannot help but be subversives for the world of the status quo is not formed by the love of God or the love of neighbor. Worship of God will always be out of sink with the way things are in this age of idolatry and greed. In order to worship God we have to have our minds renewed from their idol addled states. It is like a person who spends their day before a screen and then steps out into the evening realities of a garden, where life abounds and beauty surrounds in a way that no pixels could ever capture. It can be jarring, just as it is welcoming. The eyes and ears and body have to adjust. Boredom may even set in as minds have to change in order to free themselves from addictive stimuli. But once free, we can enter a powerful vibrant life that lies beyond us and yet welcomes us from the petty solipsisms of ourselves. This is what worship does—it puts us in touch with the other world that happens, the Kingdom of God that is here—and so we long for its coming rather than holding up the idolatrous empires of the world that do not recognize the divine presence and shield us from the truth.
In worship we begin to find the cracks in the Empire, the possibilities for the other world that is breaking in at the seams. This is the work of God’s kingdom and we are called to join it, but we cannot do so from the compromised positions of those who follow God but fear Pharaoh. We must throw the whole of our hearts and minds and bodies into the act of worship, we must join our bodies with the body of God’s subversive plot called the church, which must be remain subversive if it is to survive. When we do this, we will not find the road easy, but we will never be without enough light to travel by. We will know what to do, where to go, and how to get there. We will be like those great women in Exodus, Shiphra and Puah, who were guided by worship, cunning like serpents, righteous like doves. Amen.
I have long been a fan of the church marquee, those roadside signs with messages offered to the passing cars. I don’t generally pay attention to the service times or the pastor’s name written large; what I look for is a good word, a funny saying, some pithy call to the Christian life.
Here are a few examples: “Honk if you love Jesus, text if you want to meet him.” Or “Adam and Eve, the first people to not read the Apple terms and conditions.” Or “This too shall pass, it might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.”
I am, of course, often disappointed. Some jokes fall flat, some scriptures are ripped from their contexts, and often the theology is an abuse of all that is good and beautiful about our faith. But often enough the signs are just right.
Recently I saw a church sign flashing in LED with the message: “We are praying for scientists and for a vaccine.” It’s fine message. Scientists need prayer as much as anyone and a COVID vaccine would be wonderful, of course. But as I drove on from the intersection, I felt unsettled. I couldn’t quite identify the source of my discomfort, but I carried it with me as I sat down with the Gospel for this Sunday. It was in the story of Jesus on the water that I began to understand the problem. It is a question of fear and how we find our way out of it; of faith instead of false hope.
In our Gospel we find the disciples at night on a boat. They are traveling across the waters, a place that was familiar to them, but also alien. Far from the shore is never a safe place for humans to be. We are, at the end of the day, land animals, and out on the water we are vulnerable, fully aware of our fragility.
It is night, the waves are stirred by the wind, and the fragile boat creaks as it is tossed about on the water. We are not told if the night is cloudy, but it seems that there is a storm, and so we can imagine that there is no starlight, no moon. It is a kind of darkness that few of us have ever experienced in our light polluted world, but for those who have known it, you understand that such darkness can be both a comforting enclosure and a terrifying unknown. But the main action of our story comes when that dark is just beginning to fade, when the dawn light is breaking over the horizon. The refractions that form color are not apparent just yet; only shapes can be made out, the water, the distant shore, and then something out upon the waves.
What it is it? The water can be disorienting. It is no wonder that sailors are known for tall tales. Our eyes can play tricks on us when we are out on a boat and the sea is full of strange wonders, from creatures that glow with living light to animals whose shapes defy our land-born imaginations. The disciples have never seen anything like this shadow on the waves, but quickly they seek for some category to put it in so that they won’t have to dwell in the uncertainty of the unknown. “It’s a ghost,” they proclaim. They are terrified and we are like them.
Our lives have been unmoored. We are on a dark sea and uncertain what shore we will land on or even if we will make it there. And on the water there are apparitions, unknowns moving across the surface. We want to name them so that we interpret the dark shapes of our future, making their possibilities into ghosts that embody our fears. Our fears differ from one another and so the ghosts we see take many forms. Like the Boggarts in the Harry Potter novels, they appear to each person as the thing of which they are most afraid. We read the news, listen to the commentators, debate which ghost will rise from the water and how best to guard ourselves against it; what we should fear or not fear the most.
But then Jesus comes close and calls out, breaking the reality we thought possible. The disciples in the boat never imagined it would be him. Jesus on the water doesn’t fit the categories of their understanding. But here he is and he is telling them not to be afraid.
Jesus isn’t offering a generalized call to bravery here. He tells the disciples not to be afraid because he is here. Fear has its place, but not when Jesus comes close. Peter has a glimpse of that and he wants to experience the freedom from fear that Jesus provides. He knows that if he can walk on water then it must be Jesus who is in front of him. But once he is there on the unsteady waves the old uncertainties return. The wind whispers its “what ifs” and so Peter is distracted. Instead of looking at Jesus his mind flits among the headlines, scrolls through the alternating flashes of hope and fear and numbing trivia. He begins to sink, but Jesus saves him from his fear by calling him again to faith.
Ours is a windy world. There is the pandemic and its uncertain end, our politics in uproar, our climate in chaos. We want something to guide us through and so we pray in a pattern of “if only.” If only there was a vaccine. If only our politics were better. If only our economy was strong. And if we pray in such a pattern then the church has little to offer the world other than petitions for scientists who we set up as our real saviors.
We hope that somehow science can save us from our vulnerability to viruses, the fragile reality of our mortal lives. We hope that somehow technology will save us from the ecological destruction we’ve unleashed through our machine advanced greed. We hope that our national life can be solved like a puzzle with just the right politics. But when we place our hopes in such things as science or the next election or an economic policy we will go out onto the waters and find ourselves quickly sinking in the chaos of the changing winds.
The church has a better word to offer, a deeper hope. We can do more than pray for scientists and hope for a vaccine. We can worship Jesus, turning our gaze to him amid the waves. In doing this we will see his face and hear his words, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” And if we really hear that word, it won’t matter so much anymore if we live or die. What matters is his life and our life within it. What matters is God’s work in the world, no matter the electoral outcome. What matters is the abundant life of the whole of creation, that cannot flourish alongside our empires of greed.
So yes, lets pray for scientists, and give thanks if a vaccine comes. And let’s pray for political leaders, God knows they need it. Let us pray and work for justice and be glad when God’s reign glimmers in our laws. And let’s pray that all will have enough so that creation, with its human and non-human members, will flourish. But when it comes to the message the church should offer the world, I want to say with the Psalmist:
Search for the Lord and his strength; continually seek his face.
It’s the face of Jesus coming across the troubled water, the one who says: “Do not be afraid.”
That is my prayer, that is my hope, that is a message worth putting on a roadside sign. Amen.
Though I am generally a shoe wearer myself, the rest of my family get rid of theirs midway through March and rarely put them on, unless convention and politeness call for them, until later in September. Each Spring there is the initial period of readjustment from the tenderness of shoe-shod soles into the calloused feet of a native Arkansan—my daughters are barefoot and proud of it.
Going without shoes has many advantages. Some research even shows it can increase your working memory, but there are also clear disadvantages to exposing such vulnerable skin. My daughters discovered them this summer when soon after they leapt from the back steps of our house they were met with splintery thorns in the grass. I spent many evenings pulling tiny pricks from their bare feet and it became clear that something had to be done. Since getting the girls to wear shoes was an unlikely win, I had to turn to the yard itself—there was some unpleasant plant where we did not want it—there was a weed in our yard with which we had to deal.
The standard approach, of course, would have been to spray a healthy dose of RoundUp, killing the weeds and everything else around it. Then I could buy a bag of some Scotts grass seed, mixed with green nitrogen pellets, water it over a few days and my problem would be solved—no more thorns and green grass growing in its place. But I had learned too much to be comfortable with such a method. Over the winter I’ve been studying soil science and I knew the ecological problems that could be caused by RoundUp and nitrogen fertilizers. More than that, though, I realized that the problem wasn’t with the weeds.
Back in January I’d purchased a book called Weeds and What They Tell Us. It’s a classic work from the Austrian polymath Ehrenfried Pfeiffer who both developed a pioneering test for cancer and wrote extensively on ecological agriculture. Pfeiffer’s message on weeds is straightforward: “Weeds are only weeds from our egotistical human point of view, because they grow where we do not want them. In nature, however, they play an important and interesting role.” Weeds, he goes on to say, are messengers of “our errors and nature’s corrections.”
From Pfeiffer’s perspective the approach of killing the burrs with Roundup and then covering over the spot with fertilized seed, would be just avoiding the real problem. I needed to take a more patient approach. I needed to get down close to the ground and find out exactly what plant was producing the thorns and then understand what role that plant was playing in the ecosystem. To really get rid of the weeds, I needed to heal the soil of whatever defect the weed was answering, for without that, any attempt to remove the weeds would only see their eventual return.
I think Jesus is one who would approve of the slow approach of Pfeiffer, for when he was teaching on the nature of reign of God he told a story about a farmer who knew that the way to deal with weeds is to approach them with patient care for the whole field rather than a forceful violence that would damage the harvest.
To understand what Jesus is teaching us about the Kingdom of God we should pause for a moment and make sure we get as clear as we can on what this kingdom means. First of all the Kingdom of Heaven is not the afterlife. Jesus believes in some form of life after death, which the Kingdom of God includes, but the Kingdom of God is a reality that Jesus says is here and readily available for all. It is the realm of God’s effective will; the place where what God intends happens. We call this space heaven and you can begin to live in it right now.
The challenge is that each of us has a kingdom, minor compared to God’s, but still a space where our will is effective. We get to choose if we want our kingdom to be aligned with God’s or not, if we want to take the seed of our freedom and join in the harvest to feed a hungry world or live in the meager offerings of our own weedy ways that leave the world still starving.
The life of our age is a mix of wheat and weeds, with roots intertwined, sharing in the community beneath the soil. God’s kingdom growing right alongside the kingdoms of selfishness and pride and greed. It would be easy for God to come in with divine RoundUp to kill all that does not belong, but God knows that the good will be killed with the bad in an act of such violence and that sorting out the two is not something one can do until the final fruit is gathered. So the Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of patience, one that does not achieve its ends by violence, but rather takes on the violence of the world and overcomes it with the abundant life of resurrection.
Those who have chosen to join in God’s kingdom, aligning our wills with God’s will, must share in this patience. We are to be marked by our waiting upon God, our sense of slow ease in the world, our willingness to endure suffering for the sake of truth rather than perpetrate violence to assert our right.
The early Christian writer Justin Martyr said that the way that the Christians won over their pagan neighbors in the first centuries of the faith was not by force of argument or will, but rather by the character of their lives and their “strange patience” in a culture marked by “tyranny and violence.”
Ours is a world still marked by tyranny and violence and as a result all creation is groaning in eager longing for the arrival of God’s kingdom, the revealing of heaven upon earth. We want all to be healed and put right, but too often our attempts to achieve that end continue to perpetrate the violence that undoes the world. Instead we must follow the God of hope, waiting in patience for what we do not yet see. Those of us who are Christians should be known once again for our “strange patience” in the face of a rushing world.
I must admit that in this pandemic season my patience has worn thin. I find myself anxious for a solution, anxious for change, anxious to once again celebrate the Eucharist together. And I have recognized in myself that my impatience quickly leads to anger and contempt, the violence of the heart. But then I read the scriptures and hear the Gospel message of the Kingdom and I am glad for God’s waiting, I’m glad to receive God’s mercy, and I know that I won’t know my own fullness until I too slow into those patient rhythms. My work now is to hope for what I cannot see, to wait in patience for the fruition of God’s peaceable kingdom as it shines in each moment.
This work is best done through prayer, the slow and silent way that is formed in waiting upon God, listening to the still and quiet center of all things. When impatience rises in me, jolting my body out of sync with the ground of my being in God, it is to prayer that I must return to draw me back toward the roots of my life. This prayer, the monastic Martin Laird has written, is a source of growth that develops with our waiting. “Like compost, prayer breaks down into fertile matter for the life around it,” he writes, “Prayer matures by a process of breaking down rather than by acquisition and spiritual prowess.” To live into the patient ways of the kingdom we must become a people of this fertile prayer, maturing like compost into a source of growth for the world. For the world needs nothing more than for the people of God to be faithful to our hope, to grow in the patterns of grace that mark the in-breaking of God’s reign.
In my backyard, I’ve stayed away from RoundUp and fertilized seed. My solution is to work with compost teas and mulch instead, because the weeds that caused the burs are only signs of compacted soil, the burs may even be an ecological barbed wire fence to tell us to keep off. The way to get rid of them, in the end, isn’t to root them out but to change the conditions of the ground. This is the work of the kingdom of God, the one who makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on righteous and unrighteous alike. With patient tending rather than the violence of uprooting, the harvest may be better than we expected, because the slow work of prayer, the compost of the kingdom, has changed the ground so that goodness will grow there and quickly overshadow any weeds. It is a goodness for which we wait with patience and hope for with eager longing. Amen.
Recently my niece, finishing up her freshman year of college, called my wife to ask her a series of questions. “How did you pay for college?” “Have you ever inherited money?” “Do you own your home?” “If so, why did you choose where you live?” The aim of the questions, created in a class about social justice, were obviously meant to address privilege. Yes, both my wife and I have inherited money. Not a lot, but enough to make a down payment on our house possible. Yes, both my wife and I didn’t have to pay for college. We started our working lives with little debt and that has made it easier to reap the benefits of education without being saddled with the burden of its cost. We started the game, as I recently heard it said, on third base, while so many others aren’t even in the parking lot.
My niece’s questions came at a time when I’d been giving a lot of thought to my inheritances, individual and collective. We all have them. We have inherited genes, of course, and with them problems and proclivities and gifts with which we must come to terms. We have all inherited habits and patterns of life, ways of being in the world that have been passed down to us by our elders. We have also inherited social realities that we did not create but which have very much created us, whether it is the burning of fossil fuels or the idea of “whiteness.” Each inheritance creates possible patterns for our life, and we must learn what to do with them. For some this might mean an annual cancer screening, for others it might mean giving up the family fortune because it is based in exploitation and counted in human bodies.
This was the situation of Sarah Grimke, a South Carolina woman born to a devout Episcopal family, who made their living from the labor of enslaved people. When she was five years old Grimke saw an enslaved man being brutally beaten and it made her sick, but when she questioned it she was told that that was just the way the world works. She didn’t accept that answer or her inheritance, though, and she went on to teach an enslaved woman to read and write, an act that was a crime in South Carolina. Eventually at age 36 she fled for Philadelphia where she became a Quaker and an abolitionist. She went on to write a scathing letter to Southern clergy where she said that “slavery has…trampled the image of God in the dust.”
It would have been easy for Grimke to act as most people do when they recognize the part they are playing in an injustice—rationalize it. That is what most white Southern Christians did, my own ancestors included. They went so far as to rationalize their enslavement of people as an act of charity to Africans who they claimed would have been worse off without a regular meal and a house to live in. These white Christian slaveholders even considered their enslavement of people a kind of stewardship.
But Grimke understood that such a narrative was all a lie, a perversion of the Gospel. She knew that Jesus was not so much concerned about saving souls for an afterlife as bringing the reality of God’s kingdom here—a reality that directly challenges the economy, systems, and powers of this world that is built and maintained through injustice. So it was that she made the choice to disinherit all of the wealth her family possessed in the form of human lives and joined in solidarity with the disinherited peoples of the world.
This question of inheritances and what to do with them is the best way I know for us to understand the difficult Gospel reading we just heard. It is a Gospel that must be understood from the side of a society where family was everything and yet, then as now, inheritances were filled with injustices that are counter to the kingdom of love and truth Jesus is ushering into the world.
Jesus is speaking to his disciples—those who have already decided to follow him. But they are still entangled in their families, the extensive systems of kin and obligations that made up Jewish life. Elsewhere Jesus has made it clear that he affirms the best of the Jewish tradition’s call to care for one’s poor and vulnerable relatives. What he wants to challenge here are the more mundane ways that families can work against the coming of the kingdom. It could be the questions a mother has about her daughter throwing away her betrothal so that she can care for lepers, or a father being upset when he finds his son has sold his right to the family’s tenant lands in order to support the poor. If we are really seeking to live into God’s way and kingdom, Jesus warns, we will often find ourselves in direct conflict with those close to us.
Many of Jesus’s disciples likely came to him with because they were hoping for something like the first century equivalent of a Joel Osteen message—a path to living your best life now with a nice donkey, good morals, and respectful kids who get into Ivy League yeshivas. So, Jesus offers a fair warning to all who may be mistaken in thinking that following the prince of peace will mean a peaceful life. The Kingdom of God has come into the world to be in direct opposition to the standing order of things. And while Jesus acts and preaches peaceful non-violence, his unwavering commitment to the truth and love put him in direct conflict with the world around him. It is a reality that we can see in the lives of every person who has followed Jesus’ path of peace in confronting the evils of the world from St. Francis to Gandhi, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King, Jr.—all of these peace seeking people lived lives full of conflict because the world refused the justice required by peace and instead violently enforced stasis.
The sword Jesus brings is not the one he wields, but the one that comes for him when the police arrive to bring Jesus to the cross. Jesus knows his disciples will meet the same end, as will all faithful people down through the generations. I am more and more convinced that if you are free from conflict in your life then you aren’t following Jesus closely enough. I say that with a cringe because I’m included in that “you.” My life is pretty free of conflict and while it is never good to pursue it for its own sake, if we are really pursuing a life lived in God’s kingdom, then conflict will come for us, more often than not from those close to us.
What are we to do? If we want to live into the way of Jesus and see if his word is true, then a good place to begin is to address our inheritances. That can take many forms, but for those of us in the Episcopal Church a good place to begin is addressing our wealth and money.
In a lecture I once heard by the writer Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove he remarked that the “American economy has never learned to exist without slavery.” Most of us haven’t inherited a plantation, but we all benefit from the continued exploitation of the poor for their labor. Many of us also have our retirement accounts and other investments in companies that routinely rely on the exploitation of labor in other countries, who destroy the Earth by perpetual consumerism and petroleum, and that invite inequality through exploitative financial markets. Money and time are said to be the best measures of value and so we need to ask, is our money and time in line with the life of God’s kingdom? Knowing all the facts, can we recite our Baptismal covenant with a straight face when we look at our investments and bank accounts and shopping carts? Are we willing to even let our institutions and sense of security die if they cannot live into the life of justice and love?
This may all seem too hard, but what lies on the other side of enduring conflict for Christ’s sake, even if that conflict is within us, is abundant life. This life that is full of love and goodness and freedom will leave us satisfied in ways that an extractive economy never will. “So do not be afraid,” Jesus tells his disciples, reminding them that they are the beloved children of God, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” May we lose the life we’ve inherited from all the exploitations of our ancestors and find new life in the family of God, who is our good and loving Father. Amen.
Over the past few weeks I’ve seen celebratory signs in yards, shoe polished windows on minivans, and more than a few teenagers in parks, garbed in flowing medieval dress, topped with flat tasseled hats, their families adoringly snapping pictures. The class of 2020 has graduated and what a strange graduation it has been--online ceremonies, remote speeches, diplomas in the mail. Many of us feel for these graduates, but I’m sure that despite the strangeness, the meaning of this time still holds hope. School is over and new independence, learning, and possibility lie ahead.
The question before these graduates, in one way or another, is how to grow from here, what to do in order to embrace the fullness of what life is meant to be. For some, this will mean more education--college or graduate study or learning a trade. For others it will mean the mundane lessons of how to cook a meal, make ends meet, and do laundry. In whatever form, the class of 2020 is tasked with moving toward maturity.
To do that, they and all who want to live into life’s fullness, would do well to take some advice from another group of graduates, those in the class of 30. Not 1930 or 1830 or 1730, just 30--the uncertain guess of the date when Jesus left his students standing on a mountain outside Jerusalem in what had to have been the strangest graduation of all time.
Instead of the students leaving the stage, it is their teacher who leaves; instead of the best student getting to make a speech it is their teacher who gives them one final word before exiting up into the heavens, the universe beyond the world. Before he leaves, the class of 30 has a parting question. Like many graduates they want to know when the aim of all their education will finally come to fruition. For them, that is the restoration of Israel, which in effect is the restoration of the world--the healing and reconciliation of all things. This is what they’ve been working toward. But like many a parent or mentor since, Jesus directs them to the more immediate task. “How about you find a job,” he says in effect. And Jesus, being good to his students to the end, gives them one. They are to be witnesses.
Witness, for those who grew up in certain American strains of religion, can have a bad rep. We’ve all seen street preachers who seem more interested in their daily score of saved souls than in showing the way to Jesus. But at its best and truest, to witness means to speak the truth about what we’ve experienced, to point to the world where God’s grace and mercy have found expression. We say “look” to those who don’t yet see it and we help them find a glimpse of grace, hidden among the weeds.
I do this all the time with bird watching. I see an indigo bunting in a field, vibrant with a blue that is impossible to reproduce in a book or picture. If there’s anything in the world worth getting excited about its an indigo bunting, but it is slightly hidden in the grass. If you don’t know where to see it you will miss its beauty. So I tell anyone who will listen, “look, there’s this amazing bird there,” and some stop and some want to look and some see it and are filled with as much amazement as I have, while others just shrug. That is witness and that is the call of the disciples. To point out this beautiful and amazing reality in the world, the God who came among us and taught us how to be human, and suffered in the most human way, and opened for us an abundance of life beyond life. If you see it then you can’t help saying, “look!” That’s the job Jesus gives, this job of saying “look.”
Having provided them a job, Jesus leaves. Graduation is over, and the students milling about are moved on by angelic ushers who tell them to stop staring up and start looking forward. As their new reality sets in, these graduates begin to live into what they’ve been taught. Like an apprentice left alone to do her work for the first time, all their practice and training kicks in and they set to the task they know how to do.
The first task they take up in their new lives as employed apostles, is the job of prayer. It is prayer, they know, that will provide the ground for all else. It is by prayer that they will be connected to the reality of beauty, love, and grace to which they are to bear witness. It is prayer that will lead them into maturity and all the possibilities for growth that graduation marks. And so as our reading in Acts says, they devoted themselves constantly to prayer.
By taking up this task they are doing what they had learned in the school of discipleship. Jesus had taught them how to pray, in both word and example, and he had prayed for them many times. They remembered, perhaps, that last night they were together before the crucifixion and all became unsettled. It was then that Jesus prayed that they would join with Him as He was joined with His father. It was from and in that unity that they would be brought by the Spirit to very heart of God. Witness was the work, prayer was the way.
Our graduation may not take place on a mountain outside Jerusalem, but for those of us in the school of Jesus the same work and way remain. We are called to bare witness to the grace and mercy of God in the world, especially in the person of Jesus who is the bruised and beautiful embodiment of it all. Witness, although it is our work, is an outcome more than an effort. The effort lies in the life of prayer, the devotion of our time and energy to exist within the community of God. It is by prayer that we enter that oneness by which we live now as Christ’s embodiment in the world. Jesus’s exit to the place beyond the world opens up our role as the continuation of His presence, a presence we maintain by prayer.
The world needs the living Christ, now as much as ever. In a time of confusion and chaos; unsettled by the tenuous nature of our lives, we need graduates who have learned the lessons of their master, who can be light and salt in the bland darkness of the-way-things-are. To live as that luminous flavor in the world, we must do as those first graduates of the school of Jesus did. We must dedicate our lives to prayer.
Go, be quiet, listen for the music beneath the noise. Wait until your mind has settled like silt in the water. Be present to God and learn what it feels like. Then carry that presence into your day, returning whenever the feeling passes, whenever you realize you’ve lost the hum of the God-harmony in your heart. With time it will take less effort, with time the symphony within will grow.
Though you may not always see it, you will learn to trust that somewhere hidden God always waits. And then, like a flash of iridescent indigo, you will see him in the face of a neighbor, in the eyes above the mask of the woman at the checkout, the reckless play of a teenager; you will hear Him in the oxygen hiss of the loved one through the webcam, the song of a thrush that you never noticed above the traffic, the electric life of a 2 a.m. storm. And when you hear, and see, and feel God you will have to say “look, listen” to anyone who will stop, because it’s so beautiful you can’t help but share it. That will be your witness, and no one has to pay attention, except for you who must learn to ever more pay attention so that over time God becomes less a glimpse here and there, but a reality you live in.
Our graduation has come. It is time to live the lessons of our teacher, to grow up into the patterns of fullness he showed us. Let us dedicate ourselves to prayer, moving our lives into his life, so that we may show the loving, merciful, beautiful reality of God, here and to the ends of the earth. Amen.