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422 Brenau Avenue, Gainesville, GA 30501
There is another Grace Church in my life, as dear to me in many ways as this Grace is. She’s a little younger, built in 1891, a Carpenter Gothic very tiny building nestled in the center of 27 acres, 12 of which are carefully landscaped, with brick pathways that wind around to reveal several outdoor rooms with fountains and seating. At one time, seven treehouses, each with a distinctive theme dotted the gardens, and the Children and Youth Sunday School classes were held in them, unless it was cold or raining in which case, Sunday School was canceled.
Jack and I were married there. I tossed my bouquet from the balcony of the main treehouse. It was the parish from which I was ordained to the diaconate in 2004. The playground was just a collection of randomly scattered tree trunks, casualties of any number of storms, carefully trimmed of remaining branches so that children could navigate them without injury. At one point, we did install an enormous brass hippopotamus on which the children happily played. One Sunday the hippo was gone. The gardens were a favorite haunt for young people.
We didn’t file a police report. The gardener wrote an editorial for the local paper about the apparent prodigal hippo with hopes that, at some point, he would recover his senses and return home. Two weeks later, the hippo was back in its spot, looking perhaps a little worse for the wear, now a cautionary tale about the dangers of misadventure.
Greening the church in Advent was an all-member affair, dragging branches from the property and simply stapling them to the plank walls until the inside of the nave felt like an elves’ burrow. On the Sunday nearest Epiphany, we simply opened the windows after the dismissal and threw out all the branches. It was pretty easy flower guild duty.
For decades, the space between the walls behind the altar had been home to a billion honey bees. Older members described the sticky glistening honey dripping down onto the fair linen to the point that they would either need to stop using fair linen or smoke out the bees.
The decision was made to “relocate the bees.” It was a complicated and expensive choice, as these things are.
But, if you’re imagining that this bucolic setting seeped into the liturgy, you’d be very mistaken. The priest did not cut us any slack from the pulpit. He was a former Baptist, Harvard Divinity graduate, who like Miss Marple when describing life in St. Mary Mead was convinced that the presence of “sin” in our tiny village was every bit as prevalent as in the big city. His sermon craft enabled him to deliver messages that were like some exotic pepper whose flavor on one’s unsuspecting tongue slowly turns into a stick of C4 upon reaching one’s stomach. There were Sundays when the Eden-like setting did little to assuage our guilty consciences.
So it is with today’s readings, especially from 2 Samuel and from John’s gospel. I see some parallels between King David and Nathan, and the hungry crowd and Jesus. At first glance, the world looks to be overflowing with good fortune and many blessings.
King David has literally gotten away with murder. And the crowds are not only following Jesus but being pretty nicely blessed for sticking close to him. This is, after all, how life works, right?
I mean, David couldn’t very well let Uriah find out what he’d done with his wife. It would kill him. So, hekilled him. And, the western climate around Christianity is certainly that the closer to Jesus one follows, the greater the blessings. Right?
But then two worlds collide: The world of: “What’s in it for me” collides with the world of: “What is truth?” And no amount of pretty gardens softens this blow.
When the duck boat sank several weeks ago in Branson, Mo., and 17 people drowned, I was taken aback by the account of the survivor who said she prayed that God would protect her family, and he did. Please understand, I would’ve prayed the very same and been so grateful for a similar outcome. But what does that say about all those other people and God’s love for them? Is our God that small?
We are outraged at injustice, and we should be. But we cannot allow our righteous outrage to deflect from the Spirit’s conviction on our hearts that in instance after instance, it is US to whom the prophet Nathan speaks: We are that person!
We are that person who thinks that, if we cover up our sins, they don’t count or that if we pray “real hard” good things will come to us.
And in my righteous frustration over what to me seems like a welfare dependent economy — the image that the Gospel story evokes in me when Jesus tells the crowd that they’re only following him in order to get more bread — I cannot avoid the story in my own spiritual journey of the many years that I loved Jesus because I was afraid not to, and not because Jesus was worth loving.
It is too easy to create stereotypes that we can hold out as examples of what we are not, surely. A sneaky King David and those hungry folks in the Gospel embody the traits we love to despise.
These are harsh pictures, harsh and extreme. But, there is truth in them. There is also personal conviction.
How are we to manage our life together when underneath our stereotypes are us?!?
This is not new. At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians in today’s epistle, he could see the political writing on the wall. The Ephesians were living in a religiously pluralistic society, wildly wealthy, with many homes as large as 10,000 square feet. There were various ethnic groups each with its own cultural practices, and yet rather than creating a utopia where everyone lived in harmony, they had become vicious toward each other. Newly formed fellowship was breaking apart over partisan opinions. They were being “tossed to and fro, blown about by every wind of doctrine.”
Paul, however, is writing from prison, decidedly NOT living in luxury, and he can see a nefarious man called Nero moving toward power and anticipates the vicious ruthlessness that is coming for the entire Roman Empire. Time is running short. “I beg you, by the mercies of God to live lives worthy of God’s call to you;” to stop all this nonsense and recognize that you are one in the Spirit though possessing many and diverse gifts.
“Bear with one another in love, and make every effort to maintain unity and the bond of peace.”
These are our marching orders. This is God’s call to us: To make every effort! To do what? To maintain unity – not identical-ness but unity IN our diversity.
This life “worthy of our calling,” this moral life, is not a condition of going to heaven when we die. It is the requisite mindset that governs the equilibrium of our lives, as individuals and as an interrelated humanity.
Political and social discord are not modern phenomena. Staying together in our diversity has always been a challenge. As Erma Bombeck observed: “The ties that bind us can sometimes feel like they are gagging us.”
The secret for me has been to hold in my imagination that picture of the “Chinese handcuff” toy that we used to play with at Christmas. The impulse when “trapped” is to pull away. It is counter-intuitive to relax in order to free oneself.
If I am determined to grasp onto my opinions whatever the cost, locking myself into a struggle with another person, I will find myself trapped rather than engaged. With very few exceptions, I am not prepared to gain the “last word” at the high price of having a last conversation with someone.
Different perspectives on issues are examples of the “various gifts” that St. Paul cites as essential to effective ministry. I believe that God calls us to hear each other in a spirit of love, not grasping but listening.
As we learned last week, the one who listens is often the first to be transformed. So whether we are speaking the truth in love or listening in love to another’s gift, our hope is that the advantage we will gain is to be knit together into Christ’s body.
“Cleanse and defend your Church, O Lord…protect and govern it always by your goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”
The Collect for Proper 13 Year B
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
August 5, 2018 Year B