Year C, 4thSunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)
July 7, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.”
Good morning, everyone! Graduation season has just passed but I want to share an excerpt of a graduation speech by the late Utah Phillips. Phillips was an actual Wobblie, part of the IWW, the International Workers of the World. And he spread that word as a musician. He was a troubadour of a past age. He addressed a graduating class in Idaho, saying:
“You are about to be told one more time that you are America’s most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources?! Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clear cut in the forest? Have you seen a polluted river? Don’t ever let them call you a valuable natural resource! They’re going to strip mine your soul. They’re going to clear cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist, because the profit system follows the path of least resistance and following the path of least resistance is what makes the river crooked!”
“…following the path of least resistance is what makes the river run crooked.” Now that is a truth statement that you can sink your teeth into. That is some good theology that reflects the paradoxical nature of existance. That was also the driving metaphor of my doctoral thesis. It was used in the context of agriculture, my thesis was on the theology of sustainable agriculture, one of the implications being that we should look to naturally occurring living systems as models for our humanly curated living systems (specifically we should try to mimic nature as much as possible in our agricultural systems). But looking at agriculture was really only a mode of considering the human condition, that we as divinely created, naturally occurring beings should live as such. One of the ways we discern how God would have us live, how we shouldlive, (should is a tricky word), is to discern the way it would be without our conscious interference, in other words, the path of least resistance. Sure, we can make a river run straight. We can dam it up and stop it completely. We can make it run backwards. Butwhywould we do that? As we as a species tend towards hubris, we often need to remind ourselves that just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.
Amongst the most important tasks before us as Christians is discerning the will of God, discerning how the world is, how it actuallyis and what to do about it. When we push aside our sinful proclivities, our grasping, our aversion, our distorted, ignorant view of the world and see it for how it actually is (or how God intended it to be), well, there is our mission, there is our purpose and work right in front of us in Technicolor. Our religion is all about discerning how the world actually is, and how it can be, should be, or in Christian terms, how God intended it to be, and then closing the gap. That is making real the Commonwealth of God.
That is what Isaiah is all about, telling his people about the true nature of things. Isaiah was actually three distinct voices consolidated in one book. Our passge this morning comes from Third Isaiah (chapters 56 – 66). It is post-exilic; it was written after they returned from Babylon. (1stIsaiah was written before the exile and 2nd during it in Babylon). 3rdIsaiah is a collection of oracles that that exhort the people to keep the covenant as God’s righteous plan comes to pass. Today’s passage, “…that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast…” is an account of God, an account of Israel’s relationship with God. It relates a lived experience of the nature of God. In this case, the relationship is that of an infant being comforted at her mother’s breast. That is how some people experience God; that is the comfort some seek in God. This is the prophet telling us how things actually are.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we also hear how it is, how the world actually is. “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.” Paul was a lot of things, chief among them was an astute observer of human nature. He is telling us how it is.
Then in St. Luke’s Gospel we hear of Jesus appointing the 70 and instructing in their mission. He sent them out two by two to prepare the way. To every town He himself intended to go, they were to go first, the advanced guard. He told them very specifically what to expect (lambs amongst wolves) and how to do it: bring nothing with you and waste no time on the road. He told them how to eat, what to do, and how to take leave, both when they were welcomed and when they were not. He gave them power over demons and sickness, “…authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy…” but reminds them that power over is not what is important, but what is, what they should rejoice over is that their “names are written in heaven.” That is how it is.
So how are things? Well first off, sometimes we experience God the Father as more God the Mother. For most of us, at least some of the time, we experience, or at least we imagine the intimate embrace of God in terms of Mother, not Father; of She, not He. Anyone here experience that? You haven’t been alone in that feeling for a very, very long time.
A strong father figure is sometimes what we need of God: a mighty fortress, a provider and protector, regal, noble, a touch removed, but ever and vigilantly present. Aren’t those the fatherly archetypes? I need that kind of strength and reassurance sometimes. And sometimes we need (and just as surely receive) the strength of a mother from God, fearsome in nurturing, creative power. Sometimes we need to be gathered in, to be comforted on the breast of creation. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” The creation, like our understanding and experience of God, sometimes has a distinctly feminine character. We humans have always understood, felt, experienced masculine and feminine attributes of reality, including ultimate reality, God. That is how it is.
Also, we reap what we sow. That is the truth Paul is offering today, that is his observation about how things, how we actually are, how the world actually works. “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” Remember, fleshin Paul is not sex, well, not just wrongly manifested sexuality. The flesh, sarxin Greek, is the human realm; the self-interested, self-satisfying human realm, of which our sexuality can certainly be a part. We do have other appetites: power, wealth, comfort, success, respectability, ease. Sowing to your own flesh is all about making me more important than we; considering I more important than Thou. Sowing to our own flesh is shining our light on the perishing, and the perishing is what we will get. If we shine our light, give our attention to the immortal, invisible, God only wise… that is exactly what is reflected back to us 30 and 60 and 100 fold.
The Buddah taught a similar lesson that can help illustrate this truth. He taught that we are what we eat, meaning that we become what we consume. And by consume, he means what we bring in through our six mouths, the five senses, and the sixth being our imagination. Our hearts, our lives, we become what we pay attention to, what we value. Our concern, our ultimate concern as Tillich puts it, is in fact where our God is discerned. That is just how it is.
In Luke, Jesus is simply teaching how the Word is spread, really. He tells us not to waste time, not to bounce from host to host, to be polite and eat what is given. We are supposed to share the God News, and if it takes, if people want it and can hear it, great! The Commonwealth is near! And if not, that’s too bad, but do you know what, the Commonwealth of God is still near! Move on.
The Word is heard, or it is not. And not just The Word… from climate change to Russian dossiers, if someone doesn’t want to believe something, or really does want to, there is not much we can do about that. There is nothing we can do to convince someone of something they don’t want to be convinced of. Fifteen of us could read the same passage of scripture and give completely different interpretations, to the point that we can say, “I know that’s what it says, but that’s not what it means…” That is a terrifying and dismaying fact of life: if I don’t want to believe you, for whatever reason, there is virtually nothing that you can do about it. Unless someone is open to changing their mind, there ain’t nothing changing it. That is how it is.
Our Christian faith is a lot of things. Most importantly, our faith instructs, informs, illuminates us on the true nature of things, seen and unseen, how it actually is. Through stories, myths and parables, law and prophesy, the truth of poetry, and the collected wisdom of a people, we are offered the wisdom of generation after generation of our ancestors on how it is, and why, and what they did and failed to do in their time.
Traditions of practice and belief follow the stories. In prayer and sacrament we learn to experience Our Living God. In community, in the very Body of Christ we learn to seek and receive love and forgiveness, solace and strength, pardon and renewal. Under the shadow of God’s wings we learn of the suffering of the world, the holy response of Justice, Truth and Peace, and receive the strength to do the work that God has given us to do.
And in each of our hearts and minds and bodies we are blessed with the gift of reason, the ability (and responsibility) to respond to all of it, to respond to the demands of living in a God-given world by way of our God-given lives.
We don’t do all this, we don’t gather together like this, we don’t learn these stories for their own sake. Sometimes our use of these wonderful stories and traditions can become circular, self-referential so our eyes never leave the page or the altar or the building project. But Bible verses can illuminate other bible verses which in turn can illuminate practice, surely, and the narrative trajectory itself, made up of so many stories and historical vignettes that together give us ancient reference points by which our understanding of the world is relayed. Jesus, Paul, Moses and the Prophets, the countless famous and anonymous saints and sages, all those whose words and actions and wisdom and knowledge we have inherited… they are not selling some story, some formula of belief that we need to somehow fit ourselves to, that we need to decide whether to “believe” or not. Our time gathered around this altar, in our solitary practices of prayer and meditation, in the activity of this community in the larger world, all of it pulls our heads up out of the morass and sets our eyes on the prize.
Through all of this, scripture, tradition, our own God-given ability to reason, what is revealed is an organic vision of how the world actually is. A world is revealed in which the seen and the unseen is accounted for, and a coherent response is formulated, a coherent moral response, one that has stood the test of time and as the revelation continues to unfold, the faith itself continues to deepen, mature and evolve. And it all comes to us in the way we, as human beings can grasp it: in story and poetry, in song and ritual, in silence and around a pot of coffee and plate of cookies, in the homeless shelter, a brand spanking new wooden yurt, a conference table, and at a bedside. The path of least resistance iswhat makes the river run crooked. The Truth will set us free. AMEN