Forest Forensics – Br. Mark Brown

Mark-Brown-SSJE-2010-300x299Luke 14:25-33; Philemon

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” [Luke 14:33] 

Some very challenging and grim sounding words from the gospel…

I spent the day yesterday at Emery House.  It was one of those warm, sunny, late summer days with just enough breeze to be gently intoxicating. Br. Geoffrey and I and the Brothers at Emery House had some very stimulating conversations with a group of friends and advisors about new developments at Emery House.  We also had a fascinating tour around the woods and fields guided by an expert in forest forensics: I had no idea there was such a thing as forest forensics. I had no idea there were so many wonders to be told in stones and trees and the lay of the land.  I had no idea there was so much poetry in roots and leaves and micro-organisms.

The Brothers have been in West Newbury since the 1950’s, when the farm came into our care, thanks to the generosity of the Emery sisters. Sarah, Mary Elizabeth, Frances Louisa and Georgiana Emery were devout Episcopalians.  They lived modestly on their farm, even after coming into a large inheritance. They never married, but gave themselves up to good works and ministries to the poor.  Eventually they crossed paths with the SSJE, who were involved in some of the same work.

When the last Emery sister Georgiana died in 1952 the farm was given into the care of the Brothers with the stipulation that the property be used for Christian ministry.  We do not actually “own” Emery House; we have stewardship of the place for the express purpose of the ministry that we do there.  The Emery sisters thought of their inheritance as a gift from God and not their own possession.  And out of this abundance they gave generously. And they were very generous to us–no doubt with every expectation that we will hold Emery House and its land in trust to be a gift from God to be shared with others. That is certainly our desire.

We Brothers try to remember to think of “ownership” and “possession” in these terms.  If we were to purchase property and “own” it in the legal sense, it would still be with the understanding that we wouldn’t in truth “own” it, but we would be stewards or caretakers.  All that we have the use of, from our toothbrushes and clothing to the Monastery buildings to the financial resources that sustain our ministry, we try to remember does not, in truth, belong to us.

The traditional monastic vow of poverty, the giving up of “all our possessions”, as Jesus put it, actually opens up for us a way to relate to all of creation. Yes, we may in a legal sense “own” something—the concept of property “ownership” is a kind of necessary fiction, a legal construct to promote stability in society. But there is growing freedom in the growing realization that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” [Psalm 24].  We are passing through and may have the care of resources for a season or for a lifetime.  We are temporary.

We are temporary. And who, after all, “owns” a poem? After the poet speaks the poem into existence, who can say he owns it?  Who can say she possesses it?  We are, and the world is, in a sense, the poem. Some of you may have heard me say this before; because it’s an idea I keep coming back to: when we recite the ancient creeds we say we believe in God, the maker or creator of all things.  As it happens, the original Greek of the creeds uses the word ποιητής  [poietes], for maker and creator.  This is the same word used in the Bible for “poet” [Acts 17:28].  God is the maker, the creator, the poet of the universe; we and all things visible and invisible are “spoken” into existence, as it were—we ourselves are the “poem”, heaven and earth are the “poem”, the seas and dry land and all that dwell therein and thereupon are the “poem”.  How can one line of a poem “possess” or “own” another—in truth?

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Jesus’ words sound very hard, even unattainable.  Who can do without stuff?  Everybody needs stuff—stuff to eat, stuff to wear. But we might hear in those challenging words an invitation to a new way of being: we may find ourselves drawn to let go of the idea of “possession” itself.  Drawn to give up the notion of  “ownership” itself and drawn toward a new way of being in relationship to the world around us.  In relinquishing notions of dominion and domination and subjugation, we can become more aware of our place in the seamless web of life, in God’s seamless, infinite web of poetry, God’s infinite web of living poetry whose words are written in light and life and love and all manner of “stuff”—even micro-organisms.  In this letting go we find ourselves drawn closer to the freedom promised in Christ.

Ownership is a fiction, a convenient fiction, a legal convention.  But we can be owned, we can be possessed by stuff—we can become slaves to our own stuff.  We can be subjugated by our own attachment to stuff.  Yes, we need things; but we don’t need to be possessed by our things. “For freedom Christ has made us free.”  Christ calls us into a new relationship with the world around us.  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” [2 Cor. 5:17]. In Christ we grow into our new self, our true self. And this new, true self is free, neither slave or slave owner; neither possessing nor being possessed.

Can the sunshine over the meadow own the moonlight over the woods?  Can the river say to the grassy hill “I own you”? Once we begin to awaken to the wonders to be told in stones and trees and the lay of the land; once we begin to hear the poetry in roots and leaves and micro-organisms; once we begin to read the words of the Divine Poet in all creation, we begin to see how absurd the idea of possession is. Beholding the glory of one single tree (let alone the forest); really seeing the complexity of a single flower (let alone the glory of the meadow)—how can we say we own any of these things?  We can only stand in awe.  Or, perhaps, even kneel in silent wonder.

Even more absurd is the idea that we can own another human being: a creature made in the very image a likeness of God.  Jesus’ very provocative and hyperbolic words about hating even our own families may be his way of putting a rude stick in the spokes of the wheel of the whole tribal-patriarchal family system of his day, where women, children and enslaved workers were considered the property of men.

Well, we can truly own one thing–and one thing only.  And we can be truly owned by one thing– and one thing only, and that thing is not a thing but Christ himself, the Beloved, Christ the Living Word of God who speaks all the poetry that has ever been. We are in him and he is in us.

 “My beloved is mine and I am his;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.
Until the day breathes and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved,
be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft of the mountains.” [Song of Songs 2:16-17]

My beloved is mine and I am his.  And in having him we have all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever shall be.

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  1. Robert Shotton on September 17, 2013 at 23:42

    Thank you, Brother Mark. Your sermon has really made me think, and look at my “stuff” in a different way.

  2. Kateri Walker on September 12, 2013 at 14:33

    Such a blessing,
    Thank you!

  3. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas on September 10, 2013 at 18:08

    oh, what an articulate and moving reflection… it brings me happiness to read this, Br. Mark. many thanks.

  4. Ruth West on September 10, 2013 at 13:13

    This is such a good homily. I have heard and agree that we should hold
    all things with an open hand–no clinging, no grasping. I so love your last
    passage, “My beloved is mine, and I am His. And in having Him we have
    all that is, all that ever was, and all that shall ever be.”

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