Season of Creation
Today, as we enter this fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, we stand at the edge of a vineyard in the early evening light. We stand at the edge of a vineyard, staring in frustration and anger at the small silver coin we hold in our hands.
Life isn’t fair.
Can you imagine yourself as one of the laborers who have arrived early, preparing to work all day, looking ahead to receiving your pay for a job well done? As more and more laborers come into the field over the course of the day, do you feel yourself becoming slower, more fatigued, but assured, at least, that these extra hours among the vines will be rewarded? And as people come in even as the sun is beginning to set, and your feet are dragging and you just want to be home, do you know that at the very least you will have earned your daily wage?
And in this early evening light at the edge of the vineyard, how do you feel when you receive your pay: a small silver coin, the same as everyone else?
Life isn’t fair.
But where does this sense of unfairness come from? You have agreed, after all, to the usual daily wage—the expected, standard payment for a day’s work. It’s not any less than you’d get any other day. No, the sense of unfairness comes from anticipation—seeing others receive more, you expect to benefit likewise. You imagine a scenario in which—despite the agreement you made and despite everything you’ve come to expect in your life as a laborer—you are paid more because you deserve it.
I’m sure you can think of a time in your life when this has been true for you. You learn about a coworker who gets a bonus or raise, and you say to yourself, “I’ve been here longer than them. I deserve as much or more.” Or you spend more hours practicing your sport or instrument, or perfecting your craft, and you reassure yourself, saying, “I’ve put in more hours than them.” Or, “They didn’t do what was expected, or enough, so they doesn’t deserve that.”
I’ve been there, and I’m sure you have, too. I’m sure we’ve all been there because we live in a competitive society, a competitive world, where we are expected to fight for every advantage, for every advancement that we can. We compete for jobs, we compete for honors, we compete for attention. We don’t necessarily like it, but it’s just the way life is. And not only that. We are also surrounded by a natural world whose very beauty and diversity is the result of competition; those species that are best adapted to compete for limited resources survive. Unlike our nonhuman neighbors, though, when we face uncertainty and factors outside our control, when we strive for whatever possible advantage we can find, we tell ourselves that that effort, that labor, makes us somehow more deserving. And if our expectations are thwarted, we tell ourselves that life is unfair.
Is it any surprise, really, that Jonah feels himself so ill-used? Sent on a long and perilous journey, he arrives in Nineveh and proclaims to the citizens there, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4). The people believe him, God is merciful, and, against Jonah’s expectations, his labor is not even rewarded with the destruction of the city! That he has been an agent of good, of the people of Nineveh’s transformation of heart, does not cross his mind; what is the point of God’s justice if God is just going to relent? I mean, is it really too much to ask that God at least just follow through? If God is always going to be “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon 4:2), then what is the point? What has his labor been for? How is this God fair?
God’s answer is to allow Jonah to experience the unfairness of God’s mercy. God makes a bush to grow and shade Jonah from the heat of the sun, an act of mercy that is free and undeserved. And then God makes the bush to die back, exposing Jonah to the elements: an act that is similarly free and undeserved. What right does Jonah have to be upset? “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow” (Jon 4:10). We can hear an echo of our gospel passage here: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). Where does fairness enter into this?
God isn’t fair. But God’s unfairness isn’t arbitrary or abstemious. God’s unfairness is universal and prodigal. It’s the unfairness of a landowner who pays everyone the same out of his boundless generosity. It’s the unfairness of a father who welcomes back with open arms and a spread table the wayward son. It’s the unfairness of a God who, in the psalmist’s words, is “faithful in all his words and merciful in all his deeds” and who “upholds all those who fall” (Ps 145:14-15), whether they deserve it or not.
We experience the unfairness of the world, but we also experience the unfairness of God’s prodigality toward us. The psalmist expresses this, “The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works” (Ps 145:9), but I prefer Shakespeare here: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” So says Juliet to Romeo, but it could be God saying these words to us, God revealing to us our greatest gift: that we are loved, infinitely and unconditionally, undeservedly and unfairly. And through the gift of the Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, we are given this love, made aware that we are loved as God’s children, and knit together into a Body. But we are not made a Body to labor for our reward. We have already been rewarded. We are knit into a Body to work is with God. We are knit into a Body to be collaborators, co-laborers with God in the ongoing miracle of Creation. “If I am to live in the flesh,” Saint Paul writes from prison, “that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22).
And what is this work, this co-labor? If we have been given this great gift of love undeservedly, if we have been given this Spirit, this Comforter, this Advocate, what greater sign can there be than for us to do likewise? What greater confirmation that we are loved than that we can love: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:11). Experiencing the overflowing bounty of God’s love and generosity, we too can turn toward our neighbors, human and other than human, and love them, and advocate for them, and be the Advocate for them, knitting them into our Body. We can raise up the low, the marginal, the undeserving, the forgotten in our midst; we can make the last to be first. We can respond to the unfairness of life by loving unfairly, as God unfairly loves us.
Life isn’t fair. Thank God for that.
 Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.140-42.
We find ourselves today, on the second of three days, when we are invited to pray specifically for the ministry of the church, and those engaged in it. So, on one day we pray for those to be ordained; on the second, for the choice of suitable persons for the ministry; and on the third, for all Christians in their vocations. Historically these are called Ember Days, and they happen four times a year: in Advent, Lent, just after Trinity Sunday, and in the middle of September.
While today these Ember Days are associated with prayer for the ministry of the church, it was not always so. Liturgical scholars believe their placement in the four quarters or cycles of the year, or quatuor tempora, in Latin, or ymbren ryne in Anglo-Saxon, which is where our word ember comes from, is no accident. It is thought that originally these days were associated with the agricultural cycle of the year: spring, summer, fall, and winter. If that is the case, the origin of Ember Days predates the history of the church, and prayers for ministry, and reaches back to our pre-Christian, agricultural forebears.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus once again – as is so often his custom – draws on natural imagery to illustrate spiritual truth. Here he contrasts “good trees,” those which naturally produce figs and grapes, with “bad trees,” those which naturally produce thorns and brambles. A “bad tree” cannot produce good fruit; good fruit only comes from “good trees.” Similarly, Jesus says, one whose heart is good will naturally and without effort produce good fruit, while one whose heart is evil will naturally produce evil fruit. The point seems obvious. The metaphor is clear.
But there are two things to note: First, there is a difference between trees and people: A “bad tree” cannot stop producing thorns and brambles and suddenly begin producing good fruit. Because of the type of tree it is, it is incapable of bearing fruit; it can only bear thorns and brambles. But that is not the case with people. A person with an evil heart can be transformed into one whose heart is good. That’s a key difference. Someone whose life is oriented towards evil rather than towards God can change! The gospel is all about repentance, forgiveness, conversion of life, and reconciliation. Sinners can become saints – and they do!
Second Sunday in Season of Creation
Today we continue with the second in a five-part preaching series for the church’s Season of Creation. The theme this week is “Learn.” As many of you will know I spent six-weeks this summer learning from and collaborating with Navajo Episcopalians. I learned so much, and I’d like to begin by sharing one of my experiences.
I was driving a rental pickup truck along the winding, narrow highway that snakes its way through Monument Valley, Arizona, but I returned the gaze of the woman in my passenger seat at every moment I could. It was urgent that I do so, because her eyes shone with the sorrow and righteous anger of generations. She gestured all around us at the sunbeaten landscape of rock and endless horizon that she called home: Dinétah, the Navajo Nation. Though nothing appeared unusual to the naked eye, she told me how this iconic region contains 63 abandoned uranium mines. This is only a fraction of the total number in Navajoland, over 500. Beginning in the 1950’s private, white-owned companies hired primarily Navajo workers to extract this radioactive element for nuclear weapons. Increasing rates of cancer afflicted Navajo people at alarming speed throughout the sixties. Though studied and documented, nothing was done to protect Navajo people. In spite of the founding and intervention of the EPA in 1971, to this day large amounts of radioactive waste remain – in the earth, the air, and in vital aquifers. As she listed the lives of family and friends cut short or diminished by radiated lungs and failed kidneys, my companion’s tears spilled over and her voice trembled as she asked, “Why do they do this to us?”
The Martyrs of Memphis
“Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins. A sad coming home.”1
So wrote Sister Constance, whom we remember today along with other Episcopal religious and priests who perished in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Frances, and priests Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler were six of the over five thousand people who died between August and October.
At a time when so much of the city’s population was fleeing—fleeing according to the wishes of the civil authorities—these sisters and priests came to the city, into danger, into a “scene of desolation and death.” Over the course of just under a month, this corps of sisters and priests worked themselves to exhaustion nursing the sick, caring for orphans, coordinating and disbursing donations, and celebrating mass.
Today is a perfect day for me! I love this feast for all sorts of different reasons.
I love it because it is slightly quirky. Nowhere in scripture is anything at all mentioned about the birth of Mary. All we can really say, unless we believe that Jesus arrived on earth via space ship, is that it happened.
I love it, because who could not love something whose source is a second century document entitled the Protoevangelium of James. While the feast itself may not date to the second century, the very human desire to know more about the people we love, and honour is as real desire.
Most preachers, when they reflect on their preaching, will find that they have a few themes that they come back to again and again. For me, one of those themes is the question of what it means to believe. I return to this theme repeatedly because I want to challenge the popular understanding that believing means holding a certain set of statements or claims to be true – statements, for example, about God or Jesus or the Bible or salvation. When we speak of believing in this way, Christianity becomes a matter of the head rather than of the heart.
We know that faith does not spare us from the pain of human existence. Believing does not guarantee that we will never have cancer, or suffer the loss of a loved one, or lose a job, or watch a business fail. Believing does not solve all our problems or make us rich or popular or successful. It does not exempt us from the experience of pain and suffering. It does not make everything right.
Season of Creation
This morning we begin a 5-part Sunday morning sermon series on the Season of Creation. This “Creation” focus for our preaching and prayers is going on with other Christians throughout the world, across the denominational spectrum. In the upcoming four Sundays, the preachers here at the monastery will focus on themes related to “Creation”: to Learn, to Act, to Advocate, to Bless, and, beginning this morning, to Pray.
Emery House, our rural monastery in West Newbury, Massachusetts, is bordered by the Merrimack River, and so a story about the Merrimack, told by Henry David Thoreau, is particularly endearing. In the first two weeks of September 1839, Thoreau set off on a homemade wooden boat with his older brother, John, to explore the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[i] Later, while living in his sparse cabin at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote about this river experience, his first book. The writing project took him 10 years, not because of the length of the book, but because of the depth of his grief. After the river trek, Henry’s beloved brother, John, had cut himself while shaving and contracted tetanus, dying in agony the following week. John was 28; Henry, 25. In his grief, Henry was destroyed… almost.
Henry David Thoreau’s healing, his resuscitation, came at Walden Pond as he intently watched the goings on of flowers and trees, of birds and animals. Observing the natural wonders, he slowly realized that death is not the end of life but rather an intrinsic part of life. He learned from observation that the very process of decay, diminishment, and death is a life process. It is the way that God has created all of the earth, from the life of the tiniest bird and flower to humankind. Thoreau wrote in his Journal, “Do not the flowers die every autumn? …Yet death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident. [Death] is as common as life. Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.”[ii]
Two realizations had happened in Thoreau: in his mind and in his heart. In his mind, he came to embrace a “disindividualized” view of life. Thoreau writes, “The individual may die, but the materials that make up the individual do not. They are subsumed into new forms and so live on,” true for every living thing that has ever been created.[iii] And emotionally, Thoreau’s grief in his brother’s death never went away; however his grief came to be companioned by gratitude and wonder. Thoreau’s love for his brother, John, his joy in the life together they had shared, and his many memories had not died. They actually took new form and lived on. Thoreau realized that death is not the end of life but, rather an essential part of life, by God’s design, and this is something we share with everything and with everyone and for all time. Thoreau said that, in a certain sense, there is no death; everything is part and parcel of life. Thoreau’s epiphany brought to my mind what we pray at a funeral, that at death, the life of this departed one “is changed, not ended.”[iv]
So we look to the whole of creation as if it were an icon, a window through which to know God on God’s terms:
- the window of creation opening our eyes to the majestic beauty of God;
- the window of creation opening our eyes to the panoply of the diversity which God creates, multiplies, shares, and invites; in the beginning, God’s creation teems with beauty and diversity, and God said, “it is good”;[v]
- the window of creation – what is the most massive and mighty, and what is the most tiny and delicate – with a lifespan the prepares and provides for what is next. This is why we call it “the created order.” We read in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…”[vi]
We have an invitation and an inspiration for our prayer as we learn from God’s creation that surrounds us and fills us.
- Be still enough, focused enough, close enough to notice, expectant enough to notice the majesty and terminality of creation. You might ask, “Notice what?” To which I would only smile.
- The autumn season is upon us. The colors and fragrances of plants, and flowers, and trees are changing, preparing the way for the next season. Outside in front of the monastery, the sycamores, these elephantine trees soaring into the sky, have decided this is a year to divest their bark, their old bark. Behold, a fresh skin of bark is awaiting. Very soon these great soaring trees will also surrender their leaves… which leave space for new life to emerge in the spring. In our Rule of Life, we write how the autumn of life prepares the way: “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.”[vii] Is death an end in itself? Not at all. Death is part of life; death is the portal to the new life that Jesus promises us.[viii]
- See how the creation that surrounds us does not clutch at its life, but rather lives and gives its life. Letting go is an important life practice. I love an ancient word in the church’s vocabulary: oblation, from the Latin meaning an offering, a gift. We live the gift of our lives as an oblation, offering our lives back to God the custody God has temporarily entrusted to us.
We notice, we acquiesce, we participate most fully in life when we live with the terms by which God has created all of life, which is terminal. All of creation is a teacher for our prayer.
We also have an invitation to pray for the creation that surrounds us. So much of creation does not advocate well for itself when faced with human intrusion. One word captures how I, personally, pray for plants and animals, for birds and fish, mountains and meadows. My own prayer word is “channeling.” I pray that I can channel light; I pray that I can channel fresh water; I pray that I can channel the needed nourishment; I pray that I can channel a fresh breeze. I sometimes pray I can channel CO2 to some poor plant. I am placing myself with one hand pointing to the heavens, and the other hand channeling some life I sense this creature, this created thing, needs. I pray, co-operating with the Creator. I pray I can be a conduit of God’s life to this creature in need. If you were to ask me, “So does your channeling prayer do any good?” I would say, “Absolutely!” “Yes, I am quite sure.”
So this is free-form prayer, what captures my heart’s attention in the moment. And yet there are some specific creatures – by creatures I mean plants and animals, trees and meadows, mountains and waterways – some specific creatures that have a particular, ongoing claim on my heart’s attention. Maybe you, also? To what in creation are you drawn to give attention in your prayer? How do you pray to be a channel of God’s light, and life, and love to this creature? How are you drawn to pray? You might not be ready to publish, but I imagine you do have some prayer practice for creation. What is it?
For almost 20 years I have been fascinated with the work of Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist, who has devoted his life to saving an endangered bird species, the northern bald ibis. The ibis is a goose-sized black bird with a bald head and an enormous beak. Perhaps you’ve read about Dr. Fritz who feeds and cuddles the baby ibises and then, using his ultralight aircraft, he leads them in flight to a new safer winter migration path that bypasses the Alps. Global warming figures into the urgency of his work. Dr. Fritz has rewilded more about 300 of these ibises. It’s his life’s work. I mention this particular legacy as an amazing example of passion and advocacy. His passion is what I am talking about when I speak of praying for whatever in creation has captured your heart’s attention. Pray as an intermediary. Be like a third point in a triangle, whose two other points are God and the creature that has caught your heart’s attention. Pray your intercession, and then channel the power or provision for what God gives you for this fellow creature. Pray. Do pray.
In our lesson from the Letter to the Romans, we hear Saint Paul say, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”[ix] Creation is waiting for us to do our own part in the company of fellow creatures.
“i thank You God for most this amazing day, the words of E. E. Cummings:
“i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes….”[x]
[i] Henry David Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849.
[ii] From October 1837 to November 1861, Thoreau kept a handwritten Journal. Thoreau’s Walden was first published in 1854.
[iii] Three Roads Back; How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives, by Robert D. Richardson (Princeton Univ. Press, 2023), pp. 53-54.
[iv] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 382.
[v] Genesis 1 – 2:3.
[vi] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.
[vii] Quoted from SSJE’s The Rule of Life (Cowley, 1997), chapter 48: “Holy Death.”
[viii] John 14:3-10.
[ix] Romans 8:19.
[x] E. E. Cummings (1894-1962):
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Feast of the Martyrs of New Guinea
I have never been a fan of reading fantasy fiction. To me, most books of that genre are too epic, too long, too overwhelming for me to follow for any length of time. Reading J.R.R. Tolkein’s saga, for instance, proved to be difficult for me, especially in keeping all the strange and magical details straight. So, too, for me, is the book of the Revelation to John, steeped in prophetic symbolism including plagues, warfare, bloodshed combined with numbers, colors, animals, angelic and demonic beings, not to mention dragons! Perhaps if, like the Lord of the Rings, they made a movie of Revelation, I might dive right in.
However, as an Anglo-Catholic, I will say that there are parts of Revelation that I find quite awe inspiring, especially the descriptions of heavenly worship. We heard such a passage today. It is passages like these that make the very stone and glass of this monastic church resonate for me as we join with the heavenly multitude in worship here on earth as in heaven.
Are you ready?
The wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are ready when the bridegroom comes. They have foresight and plan appropriately, and so can follow the bridegroom into the banquet hall. They are ready.
Or were they? Or, rather, is this readiness?
In his retreat address on “Readiness,” our founder, Fr. Benson, sounds a seemingly odd note. Readiness is doing your best under the circumstances that face you—which may mean that you fail. It may mean you fail most of the time. But, Fr. Benson continues, “it may be that [your] failure is the way in which most is to be done. It may be that [you] will effect more than another person who might have brought some natural gift to the work and have succeeded in it.”
Readiness, then, is not the preparation and training for success, but rather the presentness of our attention and the immediacy of our response to God’s call. This kind of readiness would have seen wisdom not in bringing extra lamp oil, but in waiting on the bridegroom—waiting and trusting that what he sought was not a lit lamp but a listening heart.