An Interview with Br. Keith Nelson:
You went to Navajoland this summer; how and why did this come about?
This opportunity came about as a direct invitation from our diocesan bishops in Massachusetts, for me to participate in a new component of formation for ordinands that will take effect in 2024, a period of cross-cultural ministry. Though I was ordained a transitional deacon in June of this year, they asked that I also participate. It’s aimed at building deep relationships and facilitating essential hard conversations about race. It asks white ordinands in particular to immerse themselves in the experience of church communities who are majority Black, brown, or indigenous within the Episcopal Church.
I spent some real time in prayer about it, and the prompting that emerged from the Spirit was a strong desire to spend time learning from and collaborating with Native Christians. I returned to our bishops, and we began a conversation from that request.
I have been moved and troubled by the histories of indigenous peoples, Christian missionaries, and the Doctrine of Discovery since first learning about it as a teenager. Those feelings and thoughts have been reignited in the past several years. A passionate spiritual need to enter true intimacy and synergy with the entire creation has been forming my sense of priestly calling. That has found intersection with deepening care and concern about those who have, historically, centered their whole way of life upon that intimacy and synergy: the indigenous peoples of this continent. Finally, within the last year I read the book Unsettling Truths, co-authored by Mark Charles, who is Diné (Navajo) and a Christian Reformed pastor. I wept and sometimes screamed in outrage and, by the end of the book, was convinced I needed to seriously ask: What is the invitation in the midst of this anger and sadness? Then this opportunity came along.
Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is upset that Mary sits listening rather than helping her with the work as host. Some hear this as about work versus prayer or balancing action and contemplation.
This story come just after the lawyer who tries to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘Then who is my neighbor?’”[i] Paul Borgman says the lawyer and Martha are both anxious and trying to justify themselves.[ii] I am doing what is right. I know and follow the law. “Who is my neighbor?” I am upholding our virtue of hospitality. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
Jesus replies to the lawyer with a story of a man robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both pass him by, but a despised Samaritan stops to cares for him. Which one was a neighbor? Not our religious leaders. The one who showed mercy. Jesus says: “Go and do likewise.”[iii] Jesus replies to Martha. “You are worried and distracted by many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.” What does it mean to inherit eternal life? Listen to Jesus like Mary and be a good neighbor like the Samaritan.[iv]
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?”
Whose voice aren’t we hearing?
This has been the question that rings loudly in my mind as I hear our Gospel lesson today. In it, we learn a lot about our characters: what Lazarus wanted in life, what the rich man is desperate for in the afterlife, and that Abraham cannot—or will not—give to the rich man what he desires.
“Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,” the rich man begs (Lk 16:24). No, Abraham replies. There’s a chasm fixed between us, and no way across.
“Send [Lazarus] to my father’s house . . . that he may warn [my family]” (Lk 16:27-28). No. There’s nothing the dead can do for the living that the living can’t get from the law and prophets.
This story illustrates Jesus’s own statement, from just a few verses before, that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped” (Lk 16:17). The rich man’s reversal of fortune is because of how he lived his life. The remedy was there in front of him all along, in the law and the prophets. We have that remedy, too.
Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is upset that Mary sits listening rather than helping her with the work as host. Some hear this as about work versus prayer or balancing action and contemplation. Paul Borgman points to parallel structure. This story is right after the lawyer who tries to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘Then who is my neighbor?’”[i] The lawyer and Martha are both anxious and trying to justify themselves.[ii] I am doing what is right, am I not? I know and follow the law. I am upholding our virtue of hospitality. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
Jesus replies to the lawyer with a story of a man robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both pass him by, but a despised Samaritan stops to cares for him. Which one was a neighbor? The one who shows mercy. Jesus says: “Go, and do likewise.”[iii]Jesus replies to Martha. “You are worried and distracted by many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.” What does it mean to inherit eternal life? Listen to God’s Word like Mary, and do it like the Samaritan.[iv]
How are you relating to Jesus? Like the lawyer and Martha, where are you anxious? How are trying to justify yourself? What good is getting in the way?
I stood patiently by the door, waiting to be told where to sit. I saw all my Brothers take what I thought was their designated seat. It was my first time at “rounds” (what we Brothers call our daily morning meeting: that time where all the Brothers are in the same room at the same time to talk over the day’s business face-to-face).
I kept waiting to be told where to sit. I felt like a stray dog who had just been adopted days before, trying to figure out the ways of the household, not wanting to cause a stir, just looking to obey. Eventually I realized no one was going to tell me where to sit, and so I just sat down in an empty chair. I kept waiting for one of my elder Brothers to look at me and explain kindly but firmly that I was sitting in a chair that another Brother had been sitting in for longer than I had been alive. Luckily that never happened.
I went through thousands of moments like that in my early days as a Postulant: long moments of waiting for someone with authority to swoop in and tell me exactly what to do. It took me a long time to realize that was not the way authority was exercised at SSJE. Those in power were not going to tell me where to sit. Instead, those in authority were focused on having a productive morning meeting and getting through the day. This was a big difference from the days back when Novices had their mail read.
Joseph is one of those biblical characters who exists mostly in the shadows. He emerges just a handful of times, only to disappear once again, more or less for ever. Today in this account of finding the boy Jesus in the temple is the last time we see him in person. But what we have from this handful of references, is enough to weave together a portrait of a man who is good, and kind, loving, and compassionate. The thing is, he didn’t need to be, and no one would have thought any less of him.
Perhaps my favourite image of Joseph comes from the icon of the Nativity. There, away from the action, sits Joseph, with his head in in hands. Probably wondering what on earth was he going to do. Having sat this way more times than I can count, I have great sympathy with Joseph. Standing before him are two men, perhaps shepherds, obviously addressing him. Iconographic tradition calls this scene, Troubled Joseph. Matthew’s gospel tells us what is troubling him.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Had he done so, no one would have blamed him. No doubt, having heard the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph was scandalized, appalled, embarrassed, worried about his good name. He was perfectly within his rights to wash his hands of the whole sordid mess. And no one would have blamed him.
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30
Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ [i]
There are some who listen and follow, who find her dwelling and hold her fast. But there are many in the broad places of the world who ignore her. The marketplace is for many things, but not for wisdom. They don’t bother to look up from their tiny screens. Nimble fingers text and tweet faster than hearts can pause and feel.
‘We played the flute for them, but they didn’t dance. We mourned, but they didn’t wail.’ [ii]
With each comment thread, the bitter bickering shrinks the circle. Wisdom has not played by the rules.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.[iii]
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! he cries, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing.’ [iv]
When the words of Wisdom finally find their target, the reaction is visceral. As one body united for the first time and the last, they cry: ‘CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!’[v]
Yet – Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.[vi]
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Or, in Luke’s version, Wisdom is vindicated by her children.[vii] In books such as Proverbs and Job, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, we encounter God’s Wisdom personified as a Woman of great gentleness and strength, offering food and drink, shelter and instruction, scorned by the masses but taking her stand nonetheless. In the book Sirach, the wise elder instructs a disciple: “Listen, my child, and take my advice, do not reject my counsel: put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds… For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”[viii] In the gospels of Matthew and John, we bear witness to a Spirit-led conversation between this multifaceted tradition of personified Wisdom and the early Christian experience of Jesus Christ. For us as for them, Wisdom is Jesus, the embodiment of all good things in Wisdom’s treasury and the incarnation of God, the source and ground of Wisdom. This Jesus is without doubt a Savior to be worshipped and an exemplar of how we are to act in the world. But he is also a Teacher of the heart, what today we are calling “inner work.”
When I first read this passage from Acts, I was struck by how easy it seemed that the Holy Spirit would tell Paul and Barnabas exactly what He wanted from them. It all feels very immediate, and specific—and I’m sure there was more to it, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Has my experience with the Holy Spirit ever looked like that? Pray, fast, listen, and go? Is that how it is for you?
Well, I got to reminiscing, and I realized, for most of my life, I rarely approached God for anything other than to yell my thanks from afar. To ask for something?—His opinion?—for guidance? No, never did it, for the fear of appearing ungrateful. So, if He ever did speak to me in the Paul and Barnabas fashion… I wasn’t listening—not back then.
But that doesn’t mean He didn’t reach me. During that time, every life turn I took was, strangely, my second choice. From which high school I attended, to university, my first job… I never got what I thought I wanted, but all of those were what I needed. Before I was willing to actively engage God in my decision making, He led me through life by closing every door, except for the one that was meant for me. Let’s call that phase 1 of 3 in the progression of my communication with God: Him faithfully steering me in the right direction while I remained none the wiser.
Enter phase 2: In 2017, I hit a crossroads. I’d been in Japan for 4 years, and I had a beautiful life there. But a strange inkling… I wanted to go on extended mission. It was a very uncomfortable juncture. Should I leave my friends, my job, my stability… and go? I was at a complete loss—so, I approached God… and I asked. Now, in my mind, Paul and Barnabas were this unattainable model that I could never hope to reach. I was just me. Super regular—altogether unworthy. I thought I’d be met with excruciating silence. But, no. He dropped hints—a lot of hints—a comical amount of hints that I could only imagine reflected His delight that I had engaged Him in conversation. And in the end, I left on a life-changing adventure to Germany, and then Nepal.
So, enter phase 3. My last story, I promise. For this 2018-2019 academic year I had my sight set on going to graduate school. I had been accepted. I was going—but this time, God approachedme, and whispered, “Hey,monastery.” And I said, “Haha, I’m sorry…one more time?” And the difference is, this time He didn’t drop hints. And He didn’t shut the grad school door. He left it, wide open, alongside the opportunity to live in this wonderful community. And I asked Him, “Which one?” And He said it—and I heard Him—and I did it.
As I’ve grown in faith, our interactions have changed. Unlike those decisions earlier in life, He didn’t shove me onto the path that was right. He presented me with two amazing options, and then He stepped back—because now I could hear.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my pondering of this passage, it’s that some people are built for pray, fast, and do the thing. Some of us aren’t, or we dabble in it, amongst other kinds of communication. And even if we can’t identify what that is exactly… we don’t have to. Because God gets you. He gets you at phase 2, He got you at phase 1, and He’ll get you at phase 3. He’ll identify the growth in you far before you’ve noticed the change.
God will meet you where you’re at. He knows how you can hear Him—and that’s how He’ll talk. What’s phase 4 gonna look like? I don’t know. But I’m excited.