1 Timothy 1:12-17
Recently, I was sorting through some corn we grew this year up at Emery House. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me to watch this stuff grow all season. Br. James had started the seeds in little bio-degradable cups that Br. Keith and I put in the ground once they had sprouted. Then we watered and waited and those stalks got taller and like magic the ears of corn showed up. And then, one sabbath a few of us grabbed some of the prettiest corn I’ve ever seen and brought it in for lunch. It was magnificent. I was pretty excited to harvest the rest and bring it back for the rest of my brothers and our guests. So, I started shucking and let’s just say not all of those ears of corn were as pretty as the ones I had for lunch that day. Let’s call them “artisanal.” There were some pollination problems with some that left little holes where the kernels hadn’t developed, and some corn bores had gotten to others and eaten their way through the rows. It was a mixed lot.
The truth is most of them had perfectly fine kernels of corn on them but not all of them were exactly “table ready.” At first it was easy to keep the ones that looked good, and toss the ones that had hardly developed at all. Some of them just needed the ends cut off and they looked fine. But some I really struggled with. I might have been fine eating them but I’m not sure I’d set it in front of a guest. It would have been nice to have a strict standard by which to measure them, but my heart really wanted to salvage as much as I could.
At a time when there is so much tragedy around the Church’s witness to the native and First Nations peoples of North America, one wonders about the appropriateness of remembering a nineteenth-century man who spent much of his life as a missionary in Canada’s north. It’s hard to disentangle the very real harm that settler or western religion, culture, and institutions have done in our attempt to follow Christ’s command to go therefore and make disciples of all nations…from the desire to make known the God who is love.
An Englishman by birth, Edmund James Peck spent thirty years in the Canadian Arctic, often separated from his own wife and family for years at a time. We don’t know what Peck’s racial biases were. Like all of us though, at least all of us of European descent, he must have had some. Yet his work on behalf of the Inuit of northern Canada was prodigious. He took a syllabic writing method developed for the Cree of northern Manitoba and adapted it to Inuktitut. By the 1920’s Peck’s syllabic writing method was so widespread that most of Canada’s Inuit people could read and write, and pencils and pocket notebooks so popular, they were in great demand. In 1897 the four gospels were printed as were extracts of the psalms and the Prayer Book.
Lately, I have been listening to a new podcast hosted by the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Webber called The Confessional. Each episode of The Confessional features a guest who speaks with Nadia and reveals (to her and us) some of the worst things they have ever done. When I first heard about this podcast, before I had heard even a single episode, the traditionalist in me had his doubts. I imagined there might be something a little unseemly about taking the tenderness and intimacy of a one-on-one confession into the arena of public listening. The seal of the confessional is a grace that I cherish. The knowledge that whatever I disclose will be met by only three sets of ears—my confessor’s, mine, and God’s—is irreplaceable. I wondered if something about this kind of sacramental reconciliation would end up lost (even cheapened) over the airwaves and apps.
Yet as I began to listen to each of these brave, faithful people tell stories about their most notorious failures and deepest shames, my own suspicions began to disperse as something else became clear. Yes, these are stories about human failure, human weakness, and human insufficiency. At the same time (and perhaps more significantly), these are stories about God’s boundless generosity, forgiveness, and desire to be reconciled with his creatures.
So where are we now?
We have come, at last, to the end of one of the most bitterly contested national elections this country has ever seen. For many of us, finally naming a winner doesn’t bring the resolution we hoped it would; it feels like we’re all on the losing side in this contest. We are like two battered and weary fighters standing in the middle of the ring, faces bruised and bleeding, bent over with exhaustion, waiting for the referee to raise the arm of one of us. Our country is as divided as ever. Our political leaders are locked in seemingly irresolveable conflict that limits their effectiveness at home and diminishes our influence abroad. We are facing the largest public health crisis the world has ever known, with the numbers of new cases soaring to unprecedented heights in half of our states. We’re tired – of this pandemic, its restrictions, and all the pain and loss it has brought. We’re weary – of this toxic political deadlock, of the vilifying that characterizes election campaigns, of the threat of violence and lawsuits, of the seeming intractability of systemic racism, and of so much more.
What message of hope can the Church possibly offer?
Our answer begins with a reminder of who we are. We are human beings, created in the image of God, knowing ourselves to be loved by God in all our diversity. We are people who belong to God, who have been invited to live in a relationship with love with our Creator, who have been forgiven and redeemed by Christ, and who can reflect God’s glory in the world. The prophet tells us that God has called us by name, and we are precious and honored in God’s sight: every one of us. There is not a single human being that God does not love.
For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’
I do not really know, Jesus. That is the challenge of our walk of faith, is it not? Forgiveness. To arise, to walk, knowing we are forgiven. It is all too easy a thing to say, ‘I forgive you.’ But I think all of us know that the manifestation of those words in a lived, shared life can feel as daunting and impossible as trying to cure paralysis with a speech act. It is easier to say, ‘I forgive you.’ It is harder to live the sacrifices required of what is said.
The scribes in this morning’s gospel—however swayed by ‘even thinking’ in their hearts—are nonetheless right: true forgiveness—forgiveness of sins, forgiveness of human disintegration—is the property of the divine. It is priceless. It has the power to bring life out of death. But of course the scribes don’t quite see what is in front of them.
Therein lies the miracle of today’s gospel. Yes, a paralytic man regained authority over his limbs, but this is not what amazes the crowds, and it is not what should amaze us. For the healing of the paralyzed man is merely the sign of something much more significant. As with all of Jesus’ miracles, I often have to remind myself that the sign is not itself the thing signified.
Versions of these kinds of complicated family dynamics exist throughout the world – always have, always will – but as for this particular Gospel story, that’s what it is. It’s a made-up story by Jesus about two lost brothers and their father. This is one of Jesus’ parables. As were the two parables that Jesus tells immediately preceding this: about a lost sheep and a lost coin.
Sheep may know they are lost, but they are certainly not repentant. Lost coins are completely clueless. And yet, when either is found, there is rejoicing. The scholar Amy-Jill Levin reminds us that in Jesus’ parable about the brothers and their father, no one has expressed sorrow at having hurt one another. No one has expressed forgiveness.[i]And yet there is rejoicing. Sort of. Two out of three. So what’s Jesus’ point? What’s his point in this trilogy of parables?
Don’t wait. Don’t wait until your offender “gets it.” Don’t wait until you have received an apology. Professor Levin says, “share a cup of coffee; go have lunch.” If creating a banquet for this other person is too much of a stretch, at least keep in mind that’swhere this is headed: a heavenly banquet, where all will be well, and all will be reconciled. In the meantime, if you cannot begin to reconcile, cannot even imagine doing it, know that some day you will, if not in thislife, then the next. In the meantime, don’t be mean. Move away from resentment… a right move which will help prepare the way in your own heart and maybe in the other’s. Jesus reminds us he’s come “to seek and save the lost.”[ii]All of us get lost periodically. Most of us, most of the time, cannot find ourselves without help.
[i]My inspiration is Amy-Jill Levine in her Short Stories by Jesus; The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (2014); pp. 25-70.
[ii]Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10.
This afternoon marks the conclusion of our four-part Advent preaching series, entitled “Salvation Revisited,” in which we have been exploring the meaning of “salvation,” a concept that is at the heart of the Good News that Christian faith offers and proclaims. If you’ve missed any of the three previous sermons in the series – by Brothers Curtis Almquist, Geoffrey Tristram, and Mark Brown – you can read or listen to those sermons on our community’s website, www.ssje.org. This afternoon, our focus is once again on the meaning of salvation, this time asking the question: “Salvation: From What? To What?”
The very notion of “salvation” rests on the assumption that there is something wrong that needs to be put right; if all is well, there is no need for a savior. What is it, then, in the view of Christianity, that is wrong and needs to be put right? Frederick Buechner summarizes it when he writes:
I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it.[i]
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you
do not give up all your possessions.” – Luke 14:33
The Brothers have been here since the 1950s, when this farm, which dates from 1635, came into our care, thanks to the generosity of the Emery sisters. But it was not only generosity to the SSJE that motivated these remarkable women. Sarah, Mary Elizabeth, Frances Louisa, and Georgiana Emery were devout Episcopalians who lived modestly on this farm, even after coming into a large inheritance. The legacy they received enabled them to be active in a number of ministries to the poor; in time, their paths crossed with Brothers from the SSJE, who were involved in some of the same charitable work.
Gardens and farms have been associated with monastic communities since the beginning of the monastic movement in the Church. We read stories of the Desert Ammas and Abbas tending their gardens. We know from the history of gardening that the monasteries of Europe were always associated with gardening (and in some cases plans and inventories have survived telling us, for instance, that garlic was one of the most popular things grown in English monasteries before the Reformation!) This connection between monasteries and gardens was for practical, theological, and spiritual reasons.
Practically speaking monasteries needed to feed themselves and the extended communities that grew up around them. As they are today, monasteries were centers of hospitality and mission, and there were always people who needed a bed, a meal, and a listening heart. Then, as now, food played an integral role in the daily life of any monastic community. What could not be produced by the monastery needed to be purchased, and so a surplus of what could be produced was used to buy or trade for what could not be produced. By the late middle ages, some monasteries in Europe had become great landholders, employing hundreds of people to farm and tend the land. In some cases land management and tenant relationships became a major preoccupation for many of the monks.
Most High, all – powerful, all good, Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.1
There is a cost to being in touch with our natural world. Like just about anything worth having there is a cost to it. There is real joy in discerning nature and its wonders, yet there is also pain in knowing this.
How utterly removed many of us are from nature that we don’t even seem to have a care for what we are looking at. On the one hand we see the autumn colors in the fall and we think “What a pretty picture!” What a glorious creation. Or we see the first spring green in the woods and say to ourselves, “How thrilling!” What a glorious creation. But we know the names of nothing. And that makes our lives easier. Once you learn the name of things, maybe you will see the early fall color along New England roadsides and think, “Oh, my, look at all those choking vines aglow in yellow: oriental bittersweet, everywhere.” That first spring green in the woods? Japanese barberry. The downside to knowing the names of things can be an element of disenchantment.
To witness the Creation truly, it should be an honor to know the names of things, to know our world by name. Naming the world was one of God’s first gifts to humankind. We should be able to name Creation, even though it might sometimes mean introducing new heartache or anxiety into our lives where before there was none, where before there were just pretty pictures.
Learning the names of things also deepens our appreciation for the sugar maple, the white oak, the tree or the shrub we may before have regarded as just some tree or bush like all others. The tree and the shrub become individuals, which is what they are, with an identity in the Creation that is unique and fantastic, with an ancient lineage all its own. A lineage like your own that brought you to this place, time, and moment in Creation. That tree, that shrub is an inheritor of billions of years of survival and each also is a giver to pollinators, birds, and the myriad upon myriad of icky things from which we would rather turn our gaze.
Birders can tell a sparrow from a sparrow, or a gull from a gull – and the world becomes richer, truer, more real. And what might be thought of as a dull sparrow becomes a source of excitement and joy.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits with colored flower and herbs.
On an August afternoon during the Monastery’s renovation, the Brothers made a field trip to Garden in the Woods, located in Framingham, Massachusetts, about twenty miles west of Boston. That trip constituted a turning point for the community in thinking about how to restore and renovate the Cloister Garden after the site was cleared of the construction materials that were housed there during the renovation. Up to that point, we had been thinking along quite conventional lines. That trip to Framingham helped us to begin to imagine something that would seek to bring other values to our idea of what our garden should be like.
It was in that visit that the idea of a naturalistic, native plant garden was born. The results of that vision are now visible from the cloister windows.
With hundreds – no maybe thousands – of hours of careful research, planning, and design, the community’s friend, Patrick Smith, helped us bring to birth (the process sometimes felt just like that!) a vision of the cloister space that has been a transforming and life-giving experience for the entire community and our guests. Like so many other notions about the earth, the environment, and our role in that great interchange, ideas about what a garden is and should be are undergoing great changes. The garden design that Patrick developed for us tries to take many of these new understandings seriously and put them into practice.
We have been encouraged to think of our garden as an opportunity for us to be the best stewards of the land that we can be. Each plant was chosen with the site in mind, bringing into play the current thinking which advocates choosing plants that are appropriate to the existing environment rather than trying to artificially modify the environment to accommodate a less appropriate choice. This is about working with nature and what nature has already given to the site, rather than imposing something out of place. We also saw our garden as a being that should be life-sustaining to itself, us, and the other living beings with whom we share this space. This impulse lies behind much of what motivates any gardener to sink her hands into the soil: the desire to cultivate and connect with life itself.
Our garden is also intended to be a marker of time. We live our life according to a liturgical calendar that marks the natural rhythms of the seasons by recalling the great salvific acts of the Creator. Through the four seasons, the garden is designed to be a grand calendar, from snow covered limbs, through the bud-break of a million shining chalices, the steamy heat of summer alive with crickets and katydids, and then through the cool and refreshing fire of autumn’s colors.
Finally, the garden is a way of extending monastic hospitality to non-human guests. We are blessedly close to the beautiful Mount Auburn garden cemetery, the home or migration ground to so many birds and animals. Our garden’s berries, water, and shelter are already drawing wild birds that we have never seen before on the Monastery’s urban-enclosed grounds. In a sense, those visiting and lodging birds have become ambassadors by carrying those seeds and berries outside the garden perimeters into the wider world. As a nourishing and nurturing place, the Cloister Garden has in common with other native plant gardens the capacity of existing beyond its borders for the benefit of all.
The new Cloister Garden is a palate that will hopefully help each of us grow more and more into relationship with the individual plants. We hope guests who come will learn, as we Brothers have, to name and know the beautiful and varied forms and flowers of native dogwoods, sourwood, sweet-bay magnolia and autumn witch hazel, old man’s beard, ironwood, serviceberry and paw-paw. We hope you’ll spot the divine presence along the paths that wind through an understory of viburnum, rhododendron, holly, spice-bush, and mountain laurel.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, and serve him with great humility.
1. [The italicized lines throughout this article are taken from Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures (The Society of St. Francis, Little Portion Friary, Mt. Sinai, NY: 1926).]↩