The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
I remember when we used to answer the phone. Back in that technological Eden, we had the device connected to walls and cords, so they could not chase us wherever we went. When those phones rang, we answered, knowing that the voice on the other end brought us connection, conversation, and information that the caller knew we needed. Sin being what it is, ambitious marketers began calling when they knew we were home, during the dinner hour, and mostly, we learned not to answer as nobody we knew and loved would have the bad sense to interrupt sacred time. The amoral nature of technology gave rise to answering machines, caller identification, and we learned how to unplug the phone, or turn off the ringer. Over time, we learned that not every voice is friendly.
Enter the world of the mobile phone. It used to be a luxury, and opportunity to move around and still connect. The expense of the phone and the cost per minute tempered their use. Now, of course, mobile devices are a necessity for participating in the world of the living. Even in the poorest corners of Haiti, arguable the most destitute, corrupt, and dangerous nation in our hemisphere, if not the world, a place where 63% of the population lives on less than one dollar a day, and get this, 63% of their population has a cell phone. That is more than one phone per household, showing that modern inconvenience is for everyone.
Being a clever lot, we have adapted to avoiding useless intrusions. With incoming caller identification, we can avoid calls that come from places where we know no one, reject calls, and block pesky repeat callers. As telemarketers and scammers have become wilier, our discernment and defenses are heightened. Email has become so saturated with spam folder avoiding intrusions, that younger folks have quit using it altogether. Uninvited voices now send texts through mined data extracted and processed from every bit and byte of information we consume. A recent documentary we watched concluded that if we are not paying for it, we are the product and not the consumer.
All of this is a long way of saying that I do not answer calls from unknown sources. If you call me, I identify your number, save it, and know it is you. I expect that many of you do the same. We were not designed to hold and process so much information or to feel all of the feels that others want us to feel for their gain. Unfriendly voices can sound attractive at first, and that goes back to Homer’s Odyssey where sirens alluring songs that luring ships to wreckage and plunder.
It is now an important life skill to limit and filter the siren voices we hear, and this has a direct connection to the Word Jesus brings in this morning’s gospel. Spinning a message for nefarious purposes is not a new thing. Controlling the narrative was as important in the first century as it is now. When Jesus challenges to the religious monolith of the day, he encourages the faithful to hang up on curated messaging that leverages political power and keeps the shekels flowing inward and not outward. While the Church is slow to change, it has always provided fertile ground for manipulation, ego feeding, and positive cashflow. Of our leaders are holier than us, invulnerable to questioning, or more focused on power than the poor in material or spirit, it might be good to block that voice.
Recent surveys reveal that when asked about their religious affiliation, Americans who check to box labeled “none” are rising at an exponential rate, especially among young men. Many in the big “C” Church believe the sky is falling. I do not. I see this as the freedom from cultural strictures that brings more honesty to the table. Every threat is an opportunity to refine our approach to living this love life. If Jesus is to have a voice in our world, it might be good for us to listen for his voice. And that may be easier said than done.
Aside from being Mother’s Day, (more on that at announcement time), today is known in the Church as Good Shepherd Sunday. We harvest various and fertile messages that play on the metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and the ubiquitous love for babies. Lambs are so innocent and cute looking. Protecting them used to be important for sustenance. If we are not as agrarian in our experience, we must know that shepherds are known for benevolence and caretaking qualities. Their voice is the voice of safety and security, and any sheep that wants to survive and thrive knows that voice. A voice is such a particular and unique thing, that it is hard to imitate. When I say treat to our dogs, in that particular way, they come running. It doesn’t work as well for the dog sitter. Hers is a different voice.
And here is the obvious place where I tell you how to hear the voice of God, of Jesus the Good Shepherd of all of us, the Holy Spirit that moves like the wind, breathing well-being joy or peace or belonging into us, or like a raging fire that moves us to act and speak truth in love. Here is where I might tie all of this up into a neat little pastoral package and keep The King of Love my Shepherd is resounding as an earworm tune, set on repeat in your brains. And yet, I cannot. Try as I may, Jesus voice is not my voice. It is not yours either. It is not to be crafted or contained in a message, text, email, podcast, book, or even, gasp, the Bible. We are so painfully human, so necessarily defensive, and so conditioned by our own self-styled desires that Jesus voice gets garbled, or stuck in our inbox, waiting for a quieter space for us to hear it clearly.
How can we hear God’s voice? I am not all that sure. What I believe from experience is that I believe I know it when I hear it, but I cannot prove that. What I believe from experience is that when I hear God’s voice, it doesn’t sound like my voice, but I cannot prove it. What I believe from experience is that when I hear God’s voice, energy and hope and healing that does not come from me, washes through my being, but I cannot prove it.
I do know and can prove what God’s voice is not. If is not a cacophony of messaging (notice the root of that is phony). It is not about anger, entitlement, ego inflation, blaming, shaming, and name calling. It is not about scarcity, fear, and revenge. It is not about legalism, destruction, domination, material excess, and any form, fashion, or feed that leverages feelings that we are not worthy, beloved, beautiful, capable, and important. I wish that we had a good scam filter for such cacophonies. They are legion as we are vulnerable in our insecurity. To hear Jesus’ voice, the good start is screening out and hanging up when we feel less than enough.
All I can say is that like those who describe jazz, great barbecue, moments of birth, bone crushing grief, and, even, a mama’s love, we know it when we taste and see - know our Good Shepherd’s voice in our knowing places - and move with the Spirit in a harmony we cannot make alone. This why we come here, and seek other spaces for holy listening, to feel with God and for God, forgetting formulary thought and the burden of proof, to flow out of us and into God. When Love’s voice speaks to that unutterable peace of our being, hang up on all the discordant clatter, and take that call. Amen.
Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The women did not believe what they had seen. The men blew them off completely, thinking it was some sort of wishful thinking. Not sure how that went for them. Nobody used the word resurrection because it had not been invented yet…. Because such things don’t happen. Dead people stay dead. The whole tale is a little nuts. Ridiculous!
These people lived in a world without AEDs, EKGs, and maps of the human genome. But they knew what dead was. They knew it happened when a person’s blood poured out of them. They knew the pallid look of modeled flesh. They knew how death smelled. And Jesus was dead. He had been cleaned, anointed with sweet smelling balm, wrapped in white, and placed in a stone sealed tomb.
We will hear the rest of the story in time. Jesus shows up to a couple of sad sacks on the road to Emmaus. Jesus shows up in a locked and guarded room, in the flesh, for Doubting Thomas and many others to see. Jesus shows up and makes a fish breakfast for the disciples turned back to fishermen on the lake. There are even more tales, but the central plot but they all share one central detail: Jesus shows up, and they do not recognize him at first.
In more time, the cockamamie story spreads, crazy talk many still think. With none of the modern inconveniences the story continues to by word of mouth. There are no printing presses, nothing beyond hand written scrolls and letters, and, of course, there is a 98% illiteracy rate with the two percent literates being folks who would like this story to go away. Transportation happened on foot, by donkey, or in slow and frighteningly tiny ships of trade. Most never traveled more than a fifty of sixty miles from where they were born. There is no Twitter or Instagram. How would Jesus tweet others? @Sonof God or @theRealJesus or, simply, @Savoir?
It took years for the story to get to Greece and Rome, told at great peril to the tellers, as sole allegiance to emperor types was mandated. The fact that Jesus’ story survives is a miracle in and of itself. The story’s wildly illogical plotline runs counter to reason, basic biology, and the survival of anyone telling it.
Over time, groups gather, feast, and celebrate Jesus showing up. Others are moved to tell the story and live in particular ways in its light. Christ followers gather to take council, establish a consistent written record, develop calendars and rites, and ritual. Still later, people build soaring Cathedrals and tiny village churches. Of course, the groups, being full of humans, bend and twist and coopt the message, missing the mark, and fitting their own needs for power and control. When people get involved, faith, empire, and material stuff can get all twisted together in ways that do not resemble the basic and humble person and work of Jesus.
And still, in every generation from then to now, people have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. And here we are. We may be here by obligation, arm twisting, sentimental attachment, curiosity, habit, and the promise of a great brunch, an world class egg hunt, and a larger than normal spread at coffee hour. We may be here for reasons historic, affiliative, associative, or thoroughgoing, daily, big deal faith. Nevertheless, we are here. No scoffing is allowed because for this story to be told, divergent perspectives are necessary. In the family of God, there are no guests, there are no right answers, no easy explanations. We deal more in question marks than periods. But why?
Through all of the illogical, biological, epistemological, legendary, and apparent impossibility, we are here because the story gets us. Perhaps, it is because we would love for Jesus to show up, maybe as a blinding light, a voice from heaven, or mystic sign like the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the stump of the Emmanuel Oak would be nice. What we seek tells us more about us than it does about Jesus.
But allow me to step out on a limb of the deep-rooted tree of life, in the faith I have deep in my bones. Jesus is always showing up, as he says he will. Here. Now, in the intergenerational love we attempt to practice at Emmanuel (God with us). In the bread we break and the cup we offer, not just at Eucharist, but at coffee, picnics, dinner parties, Bread Fund, and Disciple’s Kitchen. Jesus shows up as we go, in the many hands that make things work here from ushers to Altar Guild, flower people, setter uppers and taker downers. Jesus may be easier for me to name as showing up here, but this is just practice to see Jesus showing up out there, at the gas station, the grocery store, in the carpool and in the peace and quiet of the dawn. From before our momentary birth and after our inevitable last breath, Jesus shows up.
Whether we see this as Jesus, God, Spirit, Higher Power, or Love, the showing up shows us clearly and simply that we belong in this world, and that we are being held by some Larger Force. In that, life feels okay and even good and right and purposeful. This is what it feels like to be “saved.” (paraphrased from Richard Rohr on salvation in Breathing Underwater).
Jesus’ Resurrection is an old story, told from many different perspectives even in our own sacred texts. We cannot prove that and more than we can prove a parent’s love for our children, which is very real. But something happened. That something that has captured hearts, minds, imaginations, art, music, creativity, across all generations. Somehow, we remain joyful, though we have considered all the facts. We remain hopeful, though we have been disappointed often. We love, and give, and love some more, because we find that in the end, love is the only permanence ever meet.
We are not here because the Resurrection happened. We are here because Resurrection happens. Look out! The world will Easter up on us when we look for it. Jesus shows up. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Palm Sunday, Year C
April 10, 2022
When you go to a big city, it is easy to spot the tourists. They are the ones looking up. They are the ones who are amazed at the size, the grandeur, and the energy that is so unlike things back home. Jesus gathered all kinds of people and met them where they were, which was, mostly, a long way from the big city.
The excitement is palpable. Even from a distance, they see the walls, the guarded gates, and inside, the majestic temple, built on the highest point. The largest stones at the base weigh in at more than 500 tons. The smallest stones, near the top, weigh 2 tons. In their time, Jerusalem is a remarkable human achievement of engineering, constructed over centuries at incalculable expense.
How could they not be excited as their man, Jesus, enters this citadel: the intersection of religion and empire. This is the big time. This is where big things happen. If you make it here, you have made it. And now, Jesus arrives.
It is hard to tell what Jesus and Jesus’ people expect. They have seen him work miracles and gather all kinds of people to join the procession. Jesus tells them he is there to set things right and show the power of God. God can make the stone shout. Whatever is going to happen, it will be big.
Between the triumphal procession and the eventual retreat back to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, Luke tells story after story of Jesus leaving no stone unturned. He wrecks the temple market as an offense and a farce before God. He denounces religious leaders as greedy and self-serving profiteers, he denounces the Romans as just the latest of a long string of strongmen there to extract wealth, and demand worship and honor for their leader. He tells a biting parable about wicked tenants, implying that the powers that have taken hold are not rightful heirs of God.
We are about to tell the story of what happens when human power is threatened and challenged. We are about to hear how God’s power does not come through might and wealth making right, through some twist of redemptive violence wherein regimes are toppled and their adherents get what is coming to them.
What we will see is the fully human God stand up and take the absolute worst that humanity can dish out. God does not pull back, regroup, and attack. God stays there, as tragedy unfolds, and power does what threatened powers do.
But God is not finished. God is about the long game. Immense stones are impressive, but they area not eternal. With water and pressure and time, stones become sand, and wash into the sea. Nothing we build will outlast, overpower, or divert the oceanic love of God.
On the walk of Holy Week, we will look up to see the massive monoliths of human power appear fixed and immovable. We will look up, see love on the cross, and see what is big beyond time. We will see what is all powerful. We will see the Way of Eternity. Love is God. Everything else is just so much sand. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Lent V, Year C
April 3, 2022
“You always have the poor with you.”
I really wish Jesus had not said that. It is so radically off message. After all, 11 of his 39 parables are about the folly of hoarding money. One of Jesus’ most central messages is that we are to care for everyone, especially and particularly the poor. If we pull back and read the Bible Jesus had, even before the Gospels and the Epistles and Revelation, there are more than 2000 references to the poor as emblematic for our call to love all people, not with our emotions but with our actions.
“You always have the poor with you.” That is such an oft lifted line and hopeless view of poverty, usually giving the speaker an out, a justification for cynicism or fatalism about poor people, or at least, a way to end a conversation and move onto a more comfortable subject matter.
“You always have the poor with you.” The Muslim faith has a saying they repeat regularly roughly translated “It must be the will of God.” It is said often as a way of living with what cannot be explained, or that which is uncomfortable and frustrating. Further, my friend, Ed, reminded me that there are no weather reports in Saudi Arabia. The reason for this is that it would be presumptuous and arrogant to predict the will of Allah. It could also be that there are only two kinds of weather there: hot, and really hot. “It must be the will of God” is onthe one hand, a faithful way to accept reality. On the other, it is a safe out like “You always have the poor with you,” rendering us free of moral agency, innocent of what we allow or enable, as if we are just just flapping in the wind of God’s capricious activities.
The pervasiveness of evil, the random chance and cruelty of bad things happening to good people is a question for the ages with no satisfactory answers this side of eternity, does not mean we are created with no free will of our own. “Things happen for a reason” is what some folks tend to say because there is nothing else to say, and tends to do more harm than good. Rotten things can and do happen. The world can be terrible, tragic, and awful. The world can be beautiful, amazing, and wonderful too. Even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, we can show up with casserole, cookies, and the willingness to just be there, not trying to do anything to make us feel better. We may not know the will of God, but that does not mean that we are helpless to be God’s hands, feet, agents, actors, givers, and advocates in this world.
“You always have the poor with you.” This is the closer of this short vignette about Jesus’ stopover in Bethany, a bedroom community outside of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, it steals the thunder of the message, and provides the convenient line to put to rest our unease about the scandal of poverty. As with most things biblical, it is better expressed in context.
The backstory is this. Lazarus has been raised from the dead. Jesus is having a big celebration dinner with Lazarus. His sisters Mary and Martha are there serving up the feast. In the middle of all that, Mary cracks open the nard. Nard is an exceptionally expensive and fragrant oil used to anoint the dead, covering the stench of rotting flesh in an era without embalming and refrigeration. There are lesser quality oils, but the Lazarus family must have some resources. This pound of nard Mary slathers on Jesus tired and dirty feet is a left over from that which still gives Lazarus a sweet-smelling cologne. Of course, John the gospeler is all about symbol and metaphor too. Mary is foreshadowing Jesus’ death, and highlighting the sacrifice that is to be made.
Meanwhile, Judas is grumbling at his end of the table. A pound of nard is worth about an average year’s wages. Surely, it could have been sold and the money used to help the poor. Of course, John throws some shade on Judas, saying he was skimming of the communal bank account, so his sentiment is tainted at best. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Still, we have to wonder. Even if he is a scoundrel, does Judas have a point?
“You always have the poor with you.” Jesus knows that even 300 denarii is not enough to fix the problem, but the statement is not what it appears if we take it by itself, apart from all of his teaching about money and, people with money. Over and over, Jesus speaks of abundance in God’s kingdom. When people get money, people tend to see it as a limited resource. While it may be so for them and us, and the irony is that the more folks have, the more conscious folks are about protecting what we have. Clearly, a billion is not enough, if you are a striving and scrapping billionaire. In God’s economy there is plenty. It is not that there is not enough food, it is just that food is unevenly distributed. There are not too few resources for God, there is a lack of imagination, faith, and generosity on the side of humanity. Our nation spends more than half of all we have, collectively, on what we call defense. Defending what we have. And it is naive and idealistic to say that this is not needed, but it is no less shocking or scandalous that humanity is so short of our potential to wage peace.
“You always have the poor with you.” Maybe Jesus says this because poverty is a sign of opportunity for God’s people to participate in God’s abundance. Maybe Jesus says this because poverty is not just about money. As fallible humans, we experience a poverty of hope, imagination, generosity, peace, patience, kindness. This is not the will of God. This is the absolute, utter, and stark statement of our need for God to rearrange our wills, imaginations, and priorities.
True, we may not give it all away and go all ascetic on the world. True, we cannot blow up the world’s economic systems, rearrange the distribution of wealth, or enforce an ethic of enoughness for the 1 percent. The world may be as it is because humans are inherently sinful and selfish, BUT, that does not have to be because of us. Just because something is does not mean God wills it that way. We have agency. We have ability. We have influence.
“You always have the poor with you.” We always have the poor with us because we are broken and in need. I take it back. I am glad Jesus said it, because it is the Truth. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Lent IV, Year C
March 27, 2022
It is an oldie and a goodie, this parable of the Prodigal Son. Church folks know it well. It is about the kid who takes an early withdrawal on his inheritance, takes off to Vegas and blows the whole wad. Once he is reduced to homelessness, he decides to go home and ask to work for his father for minimum wage. But the father, takes him in, cleans him up, and throws a big party for his return. But the older brother, the one who stayed back on the farm and did his chores dutifully, objects strenuously, to which the father says “get over yourself, your brother was lost, destined to die, but here he is: found, alive, we are preparing a feast.”
But I want to go back to some particulars in the middle of the story. After the so stated period of “dissolute living,” there is a famine and jobs are scarce, but the younger brother is lucky to get a job feeding pigs. Of course, the Jews hearing this story did not keep or eat pigs. In fact, for them, touching a pig rendered them unclean before God, and one who did so had to undergo a ritual of purification before the priests, and then, rejoin their community. But the younger son was hungry and, as the text says: no one gave him anything. Back home, even the poorest of the poor were given something as a matter of decency and respect for God, if not the beggar. Two strikes.
But then, or as the text says “when he came to himself” [comma] he decides to go home, confess his sin, and accept the consequences. It is a curious phrase “he came to himself [comma].” The comma is a small and underappreciated centerpiece here. A comma is a punctuation mark, indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. (It is also used to separate items in a list and to mark the place of thousands in a large numeral, but that is not the case here). Neither Ancient Hebrew, nor Biblical Greek has commas, or periods, or question marks. The sense of the sentence tells you what to do. Where we put a comma, they might well just start another line for emphasis. All this is to say, that there is a pause there. When he came to himself, pause, there is moment to think, to notice, to give silence to a moment of realization.
True, I am a grammar nerd, but I read this comma as significant. The pause might just need to sit there, echoing in our imagination for a bit. How does he come to himself? How do we come to ourselves? Does the necessity of “coming to” happen all at once, through a process, or just a flash of holy hope in the depths of despair? The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard defines sin as the despairing refusal to be ourselves. He goes on to say that getting to that despairing place is a not necessarily a bad thing, but if we stay there, stuck there, we are never fully alive.
This is where the story gets personal for this sinner. I can bear witness to what that comma was in my own experience. Without getting into the gory detail, I can say that I thought I had years ago taken my place on the wagon of sobriety. I had recognized that I was not one who can drink alcohol. While many can, I cannot. Whether this is genetic or situational is a matter of debate, but the chemical nature of dependency means my brain, with alcohol, flips switches that bypass the off button. The disease of alcoholism is fatal when left unchecked. I had been on the wagon, but I had never really taken my seat, put on a seat belt, and taken it slowly. Instead, hung my feet off the sides, and drove too fast across some really uneven ground, and, as a result, fell hard. I had talked with my family too much and not enough. On a morning in late September, I sat on the floor of our living room and talked to the dogs. “I surrender.” I felt really physically, emotionally, and spiritually horrible. But then, I felt really good, even right there in the horrible. I made some difficult phone calls. Others stepped up and gave me space to go for help. Janice was supportive and anxious and weary. Her journey is her story to tell. There have been many angels along the way. I guess I had begun to come to myself [comma].
When I check myself into residential treatment, I walked into a lobby, gave my name, and went back through an empty dining room to a conference room. With the nurse and clinical director, I answered a bunch of questions, signed a bunch of papers, answered the same questions again, and was told that the house manager would meet me in the dining room. Anxious, ashamed, nervous, and emotionally raw, I walked out into the dining room, and found the table to be full. People were eating, talking, and laughing… a lot. One woman said, “I guess you are new. You are in the right place. We can help.” Apparently, I interrupted a staff meeting as folks introduced themselves one by one. One guy put his fork down, grabbed my suitcase, and showed me to my room. The woman who had welcomed gave me a brief tour: the snack room, the laundry room, and the meeting rooms. Then, she got me some lunch, took me to the dining room, and set a place for me at the table. I asked her how long she had worked there. She laughed and so did the others. “We are here for treatment, just like you. You may feel awful right now. We have been where you are. It gets better” [comma]
It got better. It still does. I experienced coming to myself not as some gargantuan self-actualized achievement, rather as a real, complete, and unconditional surrender, giving up, and letting God welcome me back to me, welcoming me home. [comma]. And you all did the same.
It’s funny how we call today’s gospel the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus never calls it that. The word prodigal is a describing word for one who spends money or resources freely; one who is extravagant. True enough, the younger son does some expensive dissolute living, but he does not die. He comes to himself and goes home where his father welcomes him, cleans him up, and throws a big feast to celebrate. The father is not duped. He knows his child, his children, and he loves them beyond ways words or actions can measure. With no promise of perfection or smooth sailing for the rest of time, he seizes a moment, celebrates the son’s return, and shows him what love does.
The son is not a hero because he left and came back. The older brother is not a hero because he never left home. The hero is the father’s unwavering and unchanging love for all of them. Some might call the father one who spends resources freely; one who is extravagant. [comma]
This is a story of the prodigal alright, but not the Prodigal Son so much as the Prodigal Father who welcomes the one who ran off, the one who stayed home, and everyone he can find, making a place at the table, so we, too, can come to ourselves [comma] and find our way home.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Lent III, Year C
March 20, 2022
We were getting ready for the business portion of our weekly Staff Meeting at Emmanuel last week, and I asked everyone what their favorite movie was. I will not give up my colleagues, but I said one of my favorites is O Brother, Where Art Thou, (starring George Clooney) which is a stylized version of Homer’s epic Odyssey tale, set in the 1930s as the four main characters break out of prison. I could go on about that film, its genius, its wit, and its extended metaphor. I can quote from it extensively, but we can save that for coffee hour. Then I was telling somebody else about the choices, and she said, “What is it with men, and prison movies?” Then I thought about it and remembered that I love Raising Arizona (Nicholas Cage) which also begins in a prison, and then there’s the Great Escape (Steve McQueen), another classic, and then I went and watched Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman), but really, the best prison movie men seem to love is The Shawshank Redemption (Morgan Freeman and Tim Robins). There are so many great lines there, so many metaphors for life, so many so excellent expositions of Lenten themes. My next book shall be entitled: Lent at the Movies, featuring all of the above.
I stayed up way too late that night, watching Shawshank again. And so many lines struck me. A recurring theme is when Red, the main character, goes before the Parole Board. They ask him the same question each time. “Do feel you have been rehabilitated? Ready to reenter society?” Red answers “Yes, sir,” and each time, year after year, Red’s form is stamped “Rejected.” Near the end of the film, he goes before the board again, and he is asked the same question: “Do feel you have been rehabilitated?” And he says the following:
Rehabilitated? Well, now, let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means. I know what you think it means, sonny. To me, it’s just a made-up word. A politician’s word, sonny, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did? There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here. Because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then. A young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him. Tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man’s all that’s left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? That’s just a [B.S.] word. So, you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time.
And, spoiler alert, Red is set free. Preachers love this movie, and with good reason.
In God’s relationship with humanity, and humanity’s relationship with God, there is always a tension between our broken-bless our hearts, hot mess selves, and the holiness, righteousness, and perfection our pandering selves attempt to curate to please the Almighty. We are apt to believe that God keeps score, that Church really has an attendance record that gets faxed to heaven, and that if we just did enough, prayed enough, kept our morning quiet time, read the Bible more, we will be good enough for God. All of that is the self-centered curation a type of prison we inhabit.
There are some who profess to feel none of that guilt, borderline of full-blown narcissists, who are sure that they are right, righteous, entitled, deserving, and worthy of admiration. These folks are not unsuccessful in this world, but they hurt people quite a lot, with heaps of self-justification as to why that is just fine. Such folks may have no use for God, or such a shallow view of God so as to use God like everyone else. They rely on cheap grace, their own wit, and a limited view of reality. The bad news is that this offense is on our rap sheet too. Same prison, different way of being there.
Somewhere in our sordid story of prison time, we resort to blame. We are the real victims! It is the system’s fault. Then warden, guards, and parole board are corrupt. And, when we are honest, we throw the blame on God for all sorts of random tragedies, some of which we perpetrate, doing so in the name of our own self-styled truth: “my truth” as we like to say.
When Jesus comes to us, he tackles all the tough reasons that lock us up. Like anything difficult, we are complicated. There is no simple answer or solution. Today, Jesus is asked about a couple of tragedies where innocent people suffered. He gives a partial answer, only, saying that we may feel better about such things, believing that those who suffered were somehow lower on the holy tote board, but that is not helpful. Nobody has a clean slate, and that should keep us humble. The right definition of humility is not just I am no good – it is I am no better than anyone else and I am no worse than anybody else either. The question of suffering never gets a good answer. It never has, except to say that God does not desire, require, or exempt us from suffering. The miracle is that God can use it, but that is not all that helpful if you are the one suffering while others are not.
Finally, he tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree. For three years, it bears no fruit. He tells the gardener to cut it down, but the gardener implores the man to give it another year. The gardener will tend it and feed it, and if it does not bear fruit, it will be cut down. This is both hopeful and grim. But Jesus never explains the story. He rarely does, so it is open to interpretation.
There is one more fact that his listeners were bound to know. Fig trees never produce fruit in their first three years. Thus, the gardener stacks the deck for success, asking for more time. All of a sudden, no matter how we seek to twist the metaphor, and label the parts, we are not hopeless. Hope is the connective between our mess and God’s glory. Hope is the winning ticket, and the get out of jail card, but unlike in Monopoly, Hope is not free from suffering. God suffers for us. God suffers because of us. And as Hope (another good name for God), God does not consign us to rot in solitary confinement. Turns out, we are not even in prison at all – only the prisons of our own making.
Back in prison, before his friend Andy escapes, Shawshank Red warns him: “hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” But Andy says, no, “hope is a good thing maybe even the best of things and good things never die.” And when Red finally gets free too, he heads off to find Andy, concluding: “it is a terrible thing to live in fear… Get busy living, or get busy dying… So, I hope”
We hope our way to freedom. Amen.
In spite of yesterday’s climatological slap in the face, we are getting close. I have begun to map my driving through Child’s Peach Orchard to go anywhere west of the church. There is nothing like seeing life rise in the orchards: blooms, bees, and babies. All of it. Every blossom tells us there will be strawberries, peaches, blackberries, apples, and grapes, all through the divine gathering of species and critters. We will feast on such things, but not just yet. This already but not yet time is an in-between time, and even in-between spaces are holy.
I have about a thousand pictures of the Grand Canyon, trying to capture a different kind in-between time and none of them do it justice. What looks like still life is not still at all as pressure and time and rock and rain wash a new land. Inevitably, we have to accept the fact that we cannot capture a moment in time. Sometimes, we have to put making art aside in order to be the art of life in all of its multisensory glory.
Walt Whitman uses word art to shape this idea. In his poem, Song of Myself, he says: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” Perspective, he claims, is everything. What we see depends on when, where, and how we look. In all matters, large and small, we are part of the picture too.
Luke’s Gospel today is word art, giving us look into Jesus, who is an eternity and a moment. Where he stands in this picture is crucial to placing ourselves in the picture. Jesus is at a wayside, a viewpoint on the Mount of Olives, looking east across a narrow valley to the walled, mountain top city of Jerusalem. We find all kinds of fortifications on mountaintops, but not many teeming cities. What makes Jerusalem particular is its strategic position with 360-degree views, one can see whatever is coming from Jerusalem. Just as important, it has a unique water source welling up beneath it.
Those who study civilizations know that the presence of plentiful fresh water is the first and most important need for groups of people to survive. The major cities of our country can be mapped as waypoints on waterways of sustenance, travel, and trade. Water is life.
Where Jesus stands in today’s story an unobstructed viewpoint. The place affords a panoramic eastern view of the ancient and modern city, then and now. The picture of that place on the front of your service bulletin for today comes from a Franciscan church built on the site of a Byzantine church, built on the site of a pagan shrine, where travelers marked their arrival, making offerings to what they believed were the local gods, seeking their favor.
From where Jesus stands, he sees Roman soldiers at the gates and on the parapets guarding, commanding, and flexing the muscle the empire they preserve. Jesus sees the grand towers of the Temple, the sacred center of Judaism, with its ornate ceremonies, animal sacrifice business, and lots of pious and elaborately bedecked religious leaders. Within the walls as well are a host of others come to trade, negotiate, and curry favor with all kinds of power.
Jesus has made clear that he goes there, and belongs there, at the symbolic and geographic center, the crossroads of religion, commerce, and empire. He is the Word of God, water crashing over the rocks of time, drawing us together in an ocean of God’s love.
The elite religious folks come out to meet Jesus, trying to redirect his flow. They tell Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. Herod is a local boy, a nominal Jew, who made a backroom deal with Rome to get appointed governor, biding his time with the Jews, waiting for Rome to snuff them out and give him a real kingdom to rule on his own. That will not go well for him, but the Romans want him to keep the peace and dispatch with any rabble rousing. Convenient that, religion leveraging amoral politics to wall off the threat to their way of life. Jesus dismisses Herod, likening him to a fox in the henhouse. Jesus is there for all of them, to the whole of Jerusalem, religion, empire, pagans all of them. He tells them God is not about domination, but about gathering. He wants to bring them together as a hen gathers her chicks. Where they see conflict, competition, and the physical structures of power, Jesus sees an orchard, fallow, but fertile.
In a preview of coming attractions, he tells them they will welcome him in God’s name, but it will not be all sweetness and kumbaya. He knows that principalities and powers work to preserve themselves at all cost. Their beliefs about power, authority, and control will be exposed for what they are: selfishness, greed, and bottomless ambition. Such things do not surrender quietly.
Modern-day Jerusalem is much like it was then. The structures are of ancient and insistent powers. On closer inspection, we may see glorious gold Muslim Dome of the Rock, the El Aqsa Mosque, The Western wall of the Temple - the so-called wailing wall - where Jews go to lament and hope for restoration. There are spires of Christian churches and immense Church of the Holy Sepulcher, literally built around, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. That place is a teeming amalgam of Christianity: Eastern and Western traditions, reeking of incense and multi-lingual noise. In the background, there are modern structures of commerce national pride, with power lines, satellite dishes and skyscrapers. Police and soldiers are everywhere, not with spears, but with Uzi machine guns to keep the peace. Someone will have to explain to me the concept of arming and invading as peace keeping. Such things are ironic and sad misnomers. There is little secular peace in this view of humanity.
And yet, can we see the Holy humor in all of this? The political, cultural, and social intersection of East and West, the sacred spots of the three main monotheistic traditions all within five city blocks of one another? Crumbling structures of power built one on top of another? Jesus will show this to be a perfect place to begin setting things right. Love prevails, but not through right religion as righteousness, not with guns and bombs for national victory, and not in dividing the haves and the have nots in some twisted form of moral calculus. No. Love is not a battle to be won. It is a force that shapes all life and whatever goodness we see. If we look carefully, love gets its way, as surely as water carves the earth.
Of course, what we see depends on when, where, and how we look. In all matters, large and small, we are part of the picture too. Jesus stands at the crossroads and provides a complete overview. God is the Gatherer. Nothing stops God. Not the worst we are. Not the worst we do. Not the powers we put in place of God. We may not see this from our particular perch, but as sure as the water greens the grass, and shapes the rocks, Love shapes everything. This is the view Jesus sees, and helps us to see. And unlike all things, all moments, all of our worrying or wondering, God’s glorious gathering action is the best view we have of the Way home.
Mark Twain once said that a classic piece of literature is a book that everyone talks about, but no one ever reads. He placed the Bible at the top of his list of classics.
This does not mean that people do not know something about the Bible. The highly regarded pollster, George Barna, who happens to be an Episcopalian, has been tracking what he calls the “State of the Bible” for years (https://www.barna.com/research/sotb-2021/). His results are fascinating and sobering. In 2021, 73% of Americans identified as Christian. 50% of Americans claim to be “Bible users,” which Barna defines as one who reads some part of the Bible four or more times a year. This is a low bar, for sure, but it is up from 48% in 2020. When asked where Jesus was born, only 72% of those claiming to be Christian Bible users could identify Jesus birthplace as Bethlehem. In reading the whole Barna report, the findings tend to bear out what Twain said over 100 years ago.
This is not to throw shade on anyone who does any Bible reading. While the Bible is the best seller of all times, four billion and going strong, is a complicated collection of stories that span more than four thousand years or storytelling. The title, Bible, comes from the Latin word for library, and that is really what it is. Each book comes from a different time, place, author, or group of authors, and has been translated from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin into most all but the most obscure of written world languages. The Bible’s existence is a miracle, really, having been preserved more or less intact for a massive chunk of human history. If you have shown up for worship, tuned in on-line, or read the Bible on your own four or more times of the year, you are deeper in your Bible engagement than most. The fact we can read the Bible for ourselves, or even own one, sets us apart from the majority of those across time who have lived with the Bible as text for their faith.
Polling of self-identified Christian “Bible users” also tells us that most favorite story in all of the Bible is… Noah’s Ark. The most well-known story, meaning people can recount it in detail, is Noah’s Ark. It is no wonder people think God is mean. Jesus’ birth story is third. In both categories, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus feeding the five thousand come next. Crucifixion and Resurrection just barely crack the top ten. You all can draw your own conclusions, remembering that Mark Twain also said there lies, damn lies, and statistics. Or the cynical quip that 90% of all statistics are just made up.
As we tell and consider the stories we read today, we are engaging in precious, rare and important work of Biblical study. I am suspicious as to why today’s stories, for all of their familiar bigness, are not among the most memorable or most favorite of stories. Moses is a major player in the Old Testament. Our Gospel mountain top, glowing white Jesus event, called the Transfiguration, is a story we tell often, twice a year. In our three-year cycle of lessons, where most of the stories only come up once in three years,
We start today with Moses. If it were not for Cecil B DeMille’s epic movie “The Ten Commandments,” I am not sure we would know it as well. Remember that scene where Charlton Heston as Moses comes down from the mountain, toting two stone tablets, and clearly, wearing a coat of red makeup on his face, and having had his hair teased out all frizzy? I laughed out loud when I saw the film. That was the cinematic attempt at capturing the glow and aura of one who has encountered God. Moses had gone into the clouds, and he came back to tell the Israelites what God revealed to him. Proof this divine encounter was the hairy, showy, glowy countenance. Due credit to DeMille, it is a hard thing to convey.
When Jesus goes up on the mountain, he takes three followers as witnesses. A cloud descends. Their report is that Jesus was praying, and suddenly, he glowed radiant white, then Moses and Elijah appeared for a heavenly conversation. About the best Peter, James, and John could do was watch and listen, as a straight up mystery was happening right before their eyes. But, Peter, whose middle name might as well be ‘bless his heart,’ pipes up: “Why don’t we build a house for each of the holy rockstars, and hang out here with God.” But then comes the booming voice, the same voice from Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the chosen, listen to him!” Peter got the message. Listen. Yeah.
From this point forward, the text will tell us over and over that Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem. If we were writing a movie script for this, the music would get more serious, and the pace would quicken. This central moment provides triumph, and clear revelation of identity, but it creates urgency as well. We might need an intermission here. When we come back, the music is more foreboding. The quaint stone and thatch villages and seaside miracles are fading into the background. The pace is quickening. The story is moving toward a confrontation toward Jerusalem, the center of politics, religion, and commerce. The time to face all of the worldly powers is at hand.
The Transfiguration this story is not among the favorite or most popular ones, but it deserves a good look. It is hard to get our mind around it. The details are wispy. How we see it depends on perspective. It looks like a Moses scene, but the light does not come from the outside, burning the subject’s face. The light comes from the subject himself. That light has always been there, veiled as it were in Jesus’ humanity, but now the divine light is Jesus. This is a hard story to tell. It is impossible to understand humanity and divinity all rolled into One. It is good idea to hear it often and see it regularly. Mysteries are really important to lively faith.
This time around, I hear this story differently. I have always thought this was about the disciples seeing Jesus transfigured before them. I have always thought that they were witnesses and by standers for a holy moment where Jesus changed, transformed, and converted from earth stuff to God stuff. Lucky disciples. But then, Jesus has always been the earthy God. He is always changing, transforming, and converting darkness into light. What happens on that mountain is not Jesus’ transfiguration. The transfiguration happens is in its witnesses as they know Jesus as God. The change this story is happening all of the time, as we come closer to the light, the mystery, the Power and the Glory as the prayer says. The transfiguration, yearning to be known, embraced, and lived… is ours. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Epiphany VII, Year C
February 20, 2022
World History. Ninth grade. Our teacher was Mr. Porter Smith, an LSU fan among Bulldogs, he fancied himself a missionary of the human story. The text book was insanely broad and decidedly western in focus, but over the academic year, we romped all the way from the Ancient Sumerians to the Cold Warriors, which was then, current events. Pedagogically, Mr. Smith was a cause-and-effect guy. Borrowing rather poorly from the Newtonian physical principal that all effects have causes, and all causes have an effect, intended or unintended. As lenses for big surveys go, it was effective, but we did not have much time for nuance.
Mr. Smith was a big believer that people learn what they write, so every week, we were assigned two three-page papers, to be hand written, in ink, on notebook paper. Naturally, we all raced out to purchase the widest ruled paper we could find and those new-fangled erasable pens. Papers were returned every Monday with a few words and phrases underlined, and a circled letter grade at the top. Topics were huge like: the reasons for the rise of the Roman Empire, the impact of the Norman Conquest, or the causes and effects of World War I. With no Google to help us, we were impelled to kick it old school, and read the textbook.
Inevitably, our world weary ninth grade whining erupted with every assignment. We complained about the grind of Porter’s Papers behind Mr. Smith’s back, and when my classmate, Lara, slipped up and called Mr. Smith, Porter, to his face, her grades went from Bs to Ds for the next two-week series of essays. The whining persisted. “Why, Mr. Smith, do we have to do this every week?” “Aren’t these assignments the subject of volumes of history?” “It makes our hands hurt to write so much.” “This is not fair!” If you have ever been a parent, an adolescent, or had parents, which is, well, all of us, you can predict his response. That’s not fair! Right. Life is not fair. Life is not fair, Bubba (he called us all Bubba).
I do not remember most of what I once wrote, nor would my present self be impressed with what my ninth-grade self deemed definitive, but I do remember that statement, repeated regularly and often. Life is not fair. And as an adolescent, college student, husband, parent, pastor, and friend, I have said this, thought this, and lived with this is life’s many chances and changes.
As random tragedy strikes, dishonesty thrives, relationships fail, the poor suffer disproportionally, where, when, and to whom we are born determines much of our lot in life rather than any other factor. It is easy to say life is unfair, throw up our hands in resignation, and become as existentially discouraged as a scorned Shakespearian lover.
Our biblical lessons chronicle heaps of unfairness in the life of God’s people. Joseph, beaten and sold off by his older brothers, suffers in slavery, is unjustly indicted, and goes to prison. His Israelite descendants are sacked, pillaged, enslaved, and occupied many times over. St. Paul squabbles with the Corinthian church because they believe that their faith should afford them special treatment and guaranteed happiness, that is what the tv preachers of their day promised. And Jesus, Jesus scorned with ridicule, challenge, and disbelief turns around and tells us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and turn the other cheek to be smacked as hard as the first one. This is no way to build a movement. This is no way to impose any restorative justice. (I will say here that in no way is Jesus condoning domestic abuse. This is not his topic or focus. Any attempt to justify such violence is wildly misguided and anathema to the dignity of every human being).
As we know, Jesus’ encounters with the forces of political dominance, the forces of strict and transactional religious potentates, and with followers much of the time, does not go well. They don’t get it. When faced with pure love in person, they all balk.
A newspaper Seattle reporter once asked Mohandas Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” He answered “I think it would be a good idea.” Any serious look at the process and evolution of civilizations reveals the necessary establishment of codified laws. The first laws we know of were established by Ur-Nammu, king of Ur, which was Abraham’s original home town, thus, the idea of law baked into the God story from the beginning.
And Lord, how God’s people have clung to and contorted rules as exclusionary, onerous, and requirement for earned blessing. What started with the 10 commandments, guides for living in community, were extrapolated into 613 laws, complete with a rubric for harsh punishment. That is some intricately crazy stuff in there, telling us what to do if our tunic has mold, or our neighbor steals our donkey. Following Levitical law was tedious. It is no wonder those folks were uptight as they took themselves too seriously and God’s grace, not seriously enough. All of this got done at the hands of religious folks who, bless their hearts, yearned for a God that kept score. Before Exodus got to Leviticus, the Law went from basic loving standards to a complex system.
We may think we have evolved, but our sense of justice and fairness tends to be skewed to our highly particular point of view. Where we stand depends, largely on where we sit. Even though we intone to our children that life is unfair, we bend over backwards to try and make it fair for us. Most of the polarization and division in which people stew is based on grievance: outrage that somebody, somewhere, getting an easier or better life than us.
In just about every encounter, Jesus pushes us to change everything: change our worldview, change our view of others, change our view of ourselves, and when we can, act out of love without a transactional expectation. In going to the cross, Jesus takes on the deepest horror we can imagine, showing that life is not contained between a birthday and a death day. Life is bigger than we know; bigger than our limited ability can imagine. We are not built to fade away, we are created to rise. There is music and laughter and abundance for all, and lots of cake. Occasionally, we catch a glimmer and cannot say grace enough.
Mr. Smith was it wrong. I have been wrong. We have been wrong. Life is fair. We enjoy it through no innate ability of our own, not through our own goodness, good work, great thinking, or strict legal adherence. The fact that we live in all kinds of sin, along with the 100% of all others being sinful, in corrupt systems, and with a long record of atrocities, the great wonder is that we know anything of goodness and loving kindness. We find joy, peace, patience, kindness, and all that, not because we worked for it, legislated it, and made it so, but because God’s light outshines our deepest darkness. This case against life being unfair may include lots of historical and experiential evidence, but that case has already been settled for good. Love won. Love wins. The tragedy of human history provides more insight about us than about God. When the final exam comes, the history we studied and crafted as an epic tragedy is, really, a comedy of Divine Ecstasy. Life is fair, Bubba. Life is fair. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Epiphany VI, Year C
February 13, 2022
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Joyce Kilmer, a fellow Episcopalian wrote that old chestnut of a poem in 1913. Tragically, he was killed five years later in World War I. Though nothing else he wrote is ever read, this poem is one that I was forced to memorize and recite as a school kid in Georgia. Later, as Boy Scout, I backpacked in the Joyce Kilmer National Forest in western North Carolina. In the late 1930s, Kilmer poem and tree lovers set aside a wilderness that timber barons had never touched. It is a gorgeous place with many three and four-hundred old trees, groaning under the weight of longevity. Kilmer never made it to North Carolina, he wrote Trees in New Jersey.
Due respect to Kilmer, and to trees, the poem is not well regarded in literary circles. While it has quotable nuggets, the poem combines sing song couplets with mixed personified metaphor and sappy sentimentality. As such, Kilmer’s other memorialized legacy is an annual Bad Poetry contest at Columbia University. You may, of course, draw your own conclusions as explaining art kind of ruins it.
The thing Kilmer does capture is the large place trees occupy in our natural, physical, and metaphysical consciousness. Trees embody so many things: deep roots, long-term growth, rhythms of time and seasons, bearing fruit, and even when dead, providing wood for shelter, and fuel for fire. In an interview on NPR, ecologist, Suzanne Simard, summarized a number of peer reviewed studies saying: “Trees are [in fact] social creatures that communicate with each other in cooperative ways that hold lessons for humans. Trees are linked to neighboring trees by an underground network of fungi that resembles the neural networks in the brain.” She goes on to explain that trees send messages of stress and danger as well as working cooperatively to share light and nutrients. Natural scientists are give that cellular explanation to what Kilmer, however awkwardly, observes.
Trees point to Holy presence too. The earliest of God stories tells of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, right there in the center Eden. The earliest God stories people tell take place in a land where trees show them the places where water flows, food is plentiful, and life can flourish. In a hot climate without air conditioning, shade is more than desirable; it is necessary for survival. Not surprisingly, we hear all kinds of tree stories in Hebrew poetry. The very first Psalm, number one in the Hebrew Hymnal intones:
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked…
Their delight is in the law of the Lord…
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
In his poetic work, the Prophet Jeremiah borrows from Psalm 1 saying:
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
Trees are not just nice images, they are living examples of thriving, abundant life. Like most great teachers, they do not give advice. They just show us how to live.
And yet, even massive, thriving trees are not eternal, at least in the form we call tree. We have a clear example in the front yard of Emmanuel Church. The great Emmanuel White Oak, weathered three centuries, sent out seeds for who knows how many other White Oaks, created tons of biomass as rich soil for other life, provided food for birds, bears, deer, and ultimately, people too. That great oak is now a shell of what it once was, but it is not finished. In time, it will take on new forms of matter and energy, no longer what it once was, but part of what is and is to be. There the Oak stands, not explaining anything, rather, showing us life even in death when we are willing to look past the surface of what we see.
I am not going all Neo-Celtic Druid here. I am rooting us in context for the person and work Jesus. Having spent some time as a carpenter, he knows his trees. But, when he gives his sermon we hear today, he draws into a new way of framing how we see things versus the way things are. His people, like us people, tend to equate apparent wealth, cool stuff, happiness, and status with some sort of divine reward (#blessed). Jesus reveals that our way of seeing is incomplete, and wrong side out. Instead, Jesus looks points to the fringes, the messes, and the gaping wounds. Where there is poverty of all kinds, hunger for love, material needs, grief, and ridicule, he says, that is where God gets busy.
[The political among us might call this radical egalitarianism. The literary among us might call this foreshadowing. The theological among us might call this a theology of the cross. Whatever we call it, Jesus calls us to the see the forest, not the trees. We are all interconnected. We are part of a larger whole. We are all a mixed bag of woe and blessing. Jesus tells us to beware of false perception, shallow roots, and material assumptions – to beware of the narrow view from wherever we sit.
On this eve of Valentine’s day, beware the scourge of sentimental couplets, heart shaped chocolates, or greeting card sentimentality that commodifies love as a single expression or fleeting feeling.
God is love. The whole miraculously birthed, divinely present, teaching, preaching, healing, reviled, scandalized, arrested, tried, and crucified Jesus is love. The resurrected, living, present, and eternal Jesus is love. The wildly creative and active Holy Spirit is love.]
In Jesus day, the Romans were well known and much feared deforesters. They ravaged resources to build their ships of empire. They left behind dead branches as signs of their destruction, and when it came time to deliver the final blow, they fashioned crude crosses of dead wood to torture and kill all who stood in their way. For all the world, they looked like they were the winners.
And yet, one such set of branches, the detritus of perceived dominance, was fashioned into a cross for Jesus of Nazareth. On Good Friday, the blood of love mingled with the dead wood of a cross and trickled down into the soil. And that crude instrument of death was transformed into a new Tree: the tree of eternal life. No longer a sign of death, that tree has sprouted branches, seeded new lives, and stood in front of us to show us that what we think we see is not all there is.
Kilmer was right.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood