Anchored in Hope

Pentecost 16 Year C Proper 21 . Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-                                       

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

On Rosh Hashanah 1944 a shofar was blown, as it always has been, and as it will be tonight, as part of the observance of the Jewish New Year. What made the cry of this particular ram’s horn so significant was that it took place at Auschwitz. The story goes that Chaskel Tydor, a prisoner in charge of assigning work details at the concentration camp, contrived to have a group of prisoners sent on an assignment far enough away that they could pray without being caught by the guards. And apparently, miraculously, someone had smuggled a shofar—a ram’s horn– into the camp and was able to take it with him and blow it for their clandestine High Holy Days celebration.

At Auschwitz. Amidst the terror, the death, the grief and the desolation—the utter insanity of those days in that place; the shofar was heard; the persistent cry of hope.

This is a story that resonates with anyone who has forgotten, or fears forgetting, what hope looks like. When the view of the future appears chaotic virtually into perpetuity, as it does lately, the knots in the stomach seem constant. We each have our own litany of monsters under the bed that keep us awake at night, or distracted during the day. Whether personal, political, ecological, or just generally existential, there doesn’t seem to be enough anesthetic to combat the overall anxiety that many people are confronting in these days. And when you go to the doctor for a physical, as I did last week, and are handed a depression-screening questionnaire as a matter of routine form-filling, you know, at the least (the very VERY least) that you’re not alone.

Someone said to me over coffee one day: “I don’t know if I have hope anymore.” A few days later, another person said, “Please, talk about hope!” Okay. So let’s talk about Jeremiah.

Biblical scholar John Collins writes that Jeremiah confounded everyone because when they were trying to be hopeful he was all doom and gloom, and when they were in despair he had words of hope. Sounds like a prophet to me.

He is one of the Major Prophets, along with Isaiah and Ezekiel, with 51 chapters of compiled sermons, signs and oracles, poems, essays, biographical narrative, condemnation, complaint, and, ultimately, eventually, words of comfort.

As I mentioned the other week, Jeremiah lived and prophesied at a pivotal time, as Judah was being besieged and ultimately destroyed by the Babylonians, with many of her people taken into exile for the next generation. Jeremiah warned, over and over again, that Judah’s worship of idols and disregard for the poor and marginalized would have serious consequences—which, by the way, is what our Gospel lesson emphasizes today. So as Babylon came knocking at the gates, Jeremiah said that God’s justice was being meted out to Jerusalem and Judah.

The thing is, he said this directly to King Zedekiah, and told him that under the circumstances the best thing to do was just surrender. Which would explain why, as our story opens, Jeremiah was euphemistically ‘under the care of the palace guard.’ Less euphemistically, he was in jail for treason.

Jeremiah’s entire prophetic vocation, begun reluctantly as a young man and pursued through years of hardship, ridicule, persecution and depression— had come to a head as Babylon tightened the noose around Judah and he himself was imprisoned.

It looked like a pretty hopeless situation, for both Judah and Jeremiah. But God would not be silent. God’s call is persistent.

God tells Jeremiah that his cousin Hanamel was on the way with a proposition. He would be asking Jeremiah to buy his land in the town of Anathoth. Jeremiah would have understood the nature of this deal because it involved his responsibility according to the right of redemption—when a relative was at risk of losing property the next of kin was obligated to buy it—redeem it—to keep the land in the family. But just because Jeremiah understood his obligation wouldn’t necessarily mean that he would be excited at the prospect.

This is because the saying that a prophet is not welcome in his hometown might actually have originated with Jeremiah. The last time he’d been in Anathoth the people there—these were his neighbors and the folks he had grown up with– had tried to kill him because of his prophecies.

So. He’s in jail. In a city about to be destroyed. Being asked to redeem a parcel of land in a town that despises him. Just another day in the life of a prophet.

“For thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Does Jeremiah blink? Does he flinch? Hardly. He buys the land, as he has been told to do. He does it publically, according to custom and proper procedure; documented (in duplicate), signed, witnessed, sealed, placed in the equivalent of a safe deposit box, money weighed and exchanged. Signed, sealed, and delivered. Words of hope in spite of all appearances. Punching despair in the nose.

Whenever I read this passage I am both amused and bemused by the ability of a real estate deal to move and inspire. It’s just a land transaction, for goodness sake! But it’s a land transaction with resurrection implications. It is God’s promise to God’s people that life will emerge from the ashes of despair and destruction. Life will win, because God is faithful.That’s Hope.

What makes Jeremiah’s hope more sustaining than wishful thinking, which is what hope is sometimes confused with?

Hope is public. The community around Jeremiah witnessed his act of faith, with their eyes and their signatures. This was not a solitary act; it was communal. It involved accountability. An act of hope will not let you off the hook.

Hope is courageous. Jeremiah’s transaction was undertaken against the odds—a statement that, in spite of evidence to the contrary he was staking his claim on the future rather than conserving his resources for the short term. An act of hope calls you to dig deep and find inner resources you didn’t know you had.  But you do.

Hope is risky. God called Jeremiah to invest his faith in a place that had rejected him and betrayed a lifelong relationship. Not only that, it was effectively in a war zone. Who buys a house that’s on fire? Someone who has faith in rebuilding it from the ashes. An act of hope can look just a little bit crazy.

Hope is incarnational. God asked Jeremiah to do something and to ask others to join him. Writing, witnessing, signing, sealing, enclosing, weighing. Parchment, ink, wax, pottery, silver, land. Physical actions involving tangible things. An act of hope demands skin in the game.

And most importantly and foundationally, Hope is rooted in identity. Jeremiah acted as one who knew who and whose he was. He was the child of a God whose call into renewed relationship comes again and again in spite of humanity’s tendency for brokenness and infidelity. He was one of a people loved into being, liberated and called into covenant relationship with a God who had promised never to fail them. An act of hope is rooted in our identity as beloved of a God who never gives up on his Creation.

Hope challenges us to remember who we are!

It doesn’t have to be a land deal in a war zone. It doesn’t have to be the blowing of a shofar in a concentration camp.

It can be holding a cardboard sign that says, “There is no Plan(et) B” in New York, or Sidney, or Providence while marching with millions of young people worldwide. That’s public.

It can be in the passion and indignation of a sixteen-year-old with her cry of, “How dare you!” calling out the climate change complacency of the powerful in the halls of the powerful, in spite of efforts to sideline, demean and discredit her. That’s courageous.

It can be feeding the hungry homeless in the streets or giving sanctuary to migrants even as the authorities warn of legal consequences. That’s risky.

It is wherever music and art stir the soul, wherever the sound of laughter lifts the heart, wherever an act of kindness heals the broken-hearted. That’s incarnational.

It is whenever two or three are gathered together in God’s name to be fed by word and sacrament. That’s who we are. The Body of Christ; sent into the world to heal and to make whole.

Hope isn’t as easy or as platitudinous as wishing. It requires us to stake our claim against despair and sound the proverbial ram’s horn of renewal. Hope lays claim on our energy, our patience, and our faith.

But, as long as we remember who we are, we choose Hope. 

Loyalties

Luke 16 1-13

The parable of the dishonest manager is perhaps one of Jesus’ most confusing teachings.

A steward, the manager of an entire estate, becomes suspected by his employer of defrauding him. The steward, anticipating the likelihood of dismissal, prepares for the prospect of a grim future in which he will not only become unemployed but because of reputational damage, like as not be unemployable. So, he sets about renegotiating contracts with his employer’s debtors; reducing the amounts owed in one case by 30% and in another as much as 50%. What attracts our curiosity is that these are huge margins for debt relief; perhaps an indication of interest charges that would excite any modern payday lender.

The puzzling aspect of this parable is why his employer commends the steward for his foresighted shrewdness? Can it be that he’s so impressed by the steward’s entrepreneurial enterprise that he doesn’t notice or care that the steward’s actions have reduced his own profit margins?

Jesus then commends the steward’s actions, telling is disciples to do likewise. Further puzzlement. Can Jesus really be advocating sharp practice as acceptable behavior for discipleship?

Having appeared to commend sharp practice: make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth – Jesus then extols the virtues of faithfulness and trustworthiness – culminating in the famous statement: you cannot serve God and wealth –(at the same time).

This is a parable of the dishonest steward is difficult for us to fathom partly because the elegance of the NRSV translation. For instance take: the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their generation than the children of light – elegantly distances us from its core meaning. Eugene Peterson in his translation in The Message gets more to the heart of the matter: Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.

Jesus is therefore telling his disciples: I want you to be smart in the same way – [but be] smart for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

Peterson’s colloquial directness cuts through the elegance of the NRSV to disturb us even more. Where the NRSV’s elegant translates Jesus words as: you cannot serve God and wealth – in Peterson’s translation becomes: You can’t serve both God and the Bank.

Jesus’ address the complexities of conflicting loyalties. Yet for a community like St Martin’s, his identifying the conflict as between God and the Bank or wealth, is somewhat disturbing in more ways than one. Is Jesus really saying that you cannot be Christian and also have a very healthy bank balance at the same time? With an eye to an eventual capital campaign at St Martin’s, I’ve a very strong investment is hoping this is not what Jesus is saying!

The key to interpreting parables, I think, is to allow them to be as complex as they actually are, and then wait to see what they cause us to wonder about.  This one makes me wonder about how it is that we actually live together.

Richard Swanson

The parable of the dishonest steward reminds us that Jesus was not naïve in his understanding of how the world works. Using Swanson’s idea of parables making us wonder about how it is that we actually live together, we see emerging from this particular parable a realization that avoiding potential and managing real conflicts of interest are central to the way we actually live together. Navigation among conflicting interests is an essential life skill.

None of us lives in a world where we have only one loyalty. We are all torn between competing and conflicting loyalties. As a pastor, I have a loyalty to the members of my community. This loyalty frequently threatens to conflict with my loyalty to God. If I speak the truth – no matter how lovingly I do it, oftentimes someone is going to feel hurt, or judged, or rejected. Do I maintain someone within the community at the cost of turning a blind eye to inappropriate behavior?

Jesus is asking us to let one primary interest, one key relational loyalty, in our case our primary loyalty to God guide our navigation through the other conflicting sets of demands placed upon us.

We are all faced with similar conflicts of interest all the time. Jesus is asking us to let one primary interest, one key relational loyalty, in our case our primary loyalty to God guide our navigation through the other conflicting sets of demands placed upon us.

As a pastor and congregational leader, I strive to be tolerant, understanding, and non-judgmental. I accept a certain level of flack without retaliating. But I also know that sometimes the tensions just can’t be fudged, and I may have to speak my truth as I understand it emerging from within my primary relationship to God. By doing so someone may be lost, which is always a huge personal loss to me.

Being streetwise, on constant alert, looking for the angles that will stimulate us to seek creative solutions always in the interests of what is right – is preferable to being naïve and living life as an exercise of only painting by numbers – only coloring within the lines. Jesus recognized this as simply the reality that confronts us all as we negotiate our way together within complex social and economic systems over which none of us as much control.

In identifying a conflict of interest – am I loyal to God or to my bank balance, the question is not – can we serve God and also be wealthy at the same time? The better question is – how does this parable shine light on how it is we actually do live together in our present-day society?  

Sunday’s O.T. companion reading to Luke 16:1-13 is Amos 8:4-7. Jesus is in one sense the last of the Hebrew prophets. When taken together the gist of both Luke 16 and Amos 8 might be translated into contemporary terms as: the prime duty of a corporation is not to make a profit for its investors but to be an engine for social utility. By extension, investment in the market for financial return needs to be balanced with investment as a support for social good. Investment, you see, cuts both ways. When businesses are engines for the strengthening of social good, their investors benefit in more ways than simply a return on the bottom line. History is testament to the fact that mutual flourishing is a prerequisite for social stability. Unstable markets are an investor’s nightmare.

The young people this weekend rallying with raised voices in the Climate Strike events all over the world; the striking GM workers, objecting to the company’s two tier employment and benefits policies, both remind us that stability results when our flourishing is fundamentally dependent on our neighbor also flourishing.

Amos is clear that greed is seductive, and we are all seduced at least some of the time by it. When we believe that our privilege or our wealth is the result of our own hard-won gains, rather than a combination of luck and hard work, we are being seduced by greed.

When we willfully ignore the way the arrangements in human societies reflect an unlevel playing field not accessible to all, we are guilty of self-serving greed. Because, some of us enjoy an unearned leg up from the start because of our race, our gender, or the fact that we are part of a family system in which wealth has been accumulated and passed on – so that elite education flows into good jobs and fine houses and the spare financial capacity to enhance wealth through prudent investments.  All of these factors help those beneficiaries move more successfully through the complexities of the world. From those to whom much is given, a special responsibility is also required.

In this last week’s E-News I laid out the case for Christian Capitalism, a capitalism guided by Biblical principles of social and economic justice. The conflict between God and the Bank as Peterson interprets Jesus’ words is the conflict the ensues when the forces of the free market are decoupled from the consistent Biblical voice on social and economic justice. From Moses, through prophets like Amos, to Jesus – we hear God’s requirement that we build fair societies. Courtesy of our Senior Warden I was furnished with a wonderful quote from Andrew Carnegie:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of the modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community – the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

The Gospel of Wealth 1889

Jesus is warning us that when greed – in all its subtleties makes us oblivious to the reality that what we enjoy is not solely the fruit of our own hard work but is entrusted to us in service of the greater good, we fall into the trap of truly conflicted loyalties.

The final collect at Compline reads:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live
in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day,
who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never
forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Confronted

Luke 15:1-10

Are we among the lost or the found?  What do these terms even mean? Is finding ourselves the same as being found? Why don’t we notice that the experience of finding ourselves is so completely unsatisfying? The best solution to the experience of being lost is to be found. But waiting to be found is a bit too humiliating for most of us who prefer the illusion that we have already found ourselves.

Luke records two of Jesus parables in the first 10 verses of chapter 15. To anyone who has ever lost or misplaced a cherished object, or heaven forbid, lost a pet these two stories are immediately familiar. We can readily identify with the panic of the shepherd who is willing to leave the 99 in search of the missing one. We have all been the woman who ransacks her house in search of the lost coin; her mind completely fixated on finding the lost coin to the extent that nothing else matters – no food prep or cooking is done, no laundry is washed, the kids are not even picked up from school. We all know how great her relief is when she finds her lost coin. Yet, do we share her gratitude that finds expression in an exuberant celebration of generosity showered upon neighbor and stranger alike? Perhaps not.

It’s so like Luke to pair a story about a male shepherd with one about a female housewife. For Luke the kingdom of God is a place of complete gender equality.

The parable of the lost sheep is a story about the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. In Luke’s telling it’s clearly an allegory about God’s relationship with us -a relationship that is informed by the intimate connection between the Middle Eastern shepherd and his sheep. B.W. Johnson in his 19th-century commentary The People’s New Testament, 1891 reports and earlier experience:

As we ate and looked, almost spellbound, the silent hillsides around us were in a moment filled with sounds and life. The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view and we watched and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering, as he advanced, a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken with some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer, until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders. Such a sight was not new to me, still it had lost none of its interest. It was, perhaps, one of the most vivid illustrations which human eyes could witness of that beautiful discourse of our Savior recorded.

The parable is a form of ancient storytelling – its content instantly recognizable from the everyday lives of the story’s hearers. But while the storyline is familiar from experience, it’s the unexpected twist at the end of the story that leaves the hearers wondering what just hit them. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep is like all of Jesus’ parable stories – a familiar story from pastoral life that unexpectedly confronts the hearer.

Luke identifies two distinct groupings: Pharisees and scribes, and tax collectors and sinners. If this story is an allegory of our relationship with God, what is the takeaway? For me, the takeaway lies in discovering in which of the two groups I find myself reflected?

1900 years of Christian anti-semitic interpretation of this parable tricks us into too easy an answer which bears closer examination.

Pharisees, Scribes, tax collectors and sinners all are historical reference points in Luke’s world that enable him to sketch the picture of Jesus against a background of conflicting worldviews. I wonder between Luke’s time and ours, has anything really changed much? The names change, but the dynamic of conflicting worldviews stays the same – a conflict at its essence between those who have and those who have not. Yet the deeper question in much of Jesus teaching is – what constitutes having and not having? The answer is not always obvious.

The Pharisees are smug and self-satisfied. They thank God that they are not made as these contemptible others are. They feel confident in a system that makes them the authors of their own salvation. Here’s the rub. Like them, do we not feel we are the authors of our own salvation? We have the power and privilege of being in control of our lives. We are pretty satisfied that we are right with God, or more arcuately, isn’t it that God is right with us? Privilege blinds the complacent.

The Scribes are certainly censorious. Cocooned in a world of religious privilege that insulates them from the necessity of risk-taking. Their legalistic piety leads them into judgement of others. Aren’t we too pretty good at that. But wait a minute, on closer examination, if only we took our spiritual lives as seriously as the Scribes did theirs. Oh, that we cared as much as they did about being right with God and being faithful and regular in our daily and weekly religious observance. Unlike them, privilege breeds in us a worrisome lack or spiritual urgency.

The tax collectors are a wiley bunch. They benefit quite nicely from the fruits of economic and social injustice. They may earn the contempt of their fellow Jews, but sandwiched as the middlemen between their fellow countrymen and the Roman occupation they turn a nice profit. Are we not among the winners in our capitalist system, a system that is fundamentally exploitative? Perhaps its this lack of identification with the tax collectors that lies at the root of our reluctance to understand the need for root and branch change?

And then there are the sinners. Sinner is a technical term for Luke. Sinners does not mean bad people in the sense that we might use the term to describe the morally compromised. Sinners are those who live precarious and risk filled lives on the margins, shut out from both the religious and economic systems. It’s not likely that transported into Luke’s 1st-century scene, we would identify ourselves with those whose poverty grinds them down and puts lives luxuriating in self-satisfaction and respectable guilt far beyond their reach.

We’re probably way too proud to think of ourselves as lost sheep. But the image seems to fit. For have certainly wandered off so that to be found requires God to go in search for us. The problem is that even when God finds us we don’t think we need to be found, because we can manage our own state of affairs, thank you God.

The comfortable have no need of God. Those humbled by worldly circumstances know only their need of God. Now we come to the heart of the difference between Pharisees and Scribes on the one side and tax collectors and sinners on the other. One group stands a little apart in a stance of the self-righteous; judging Jesus because he does not conform to their rules. The other group crowds in upon him — hungrily feeding on the image of a God willing to take considerable risks to go in search of his lost sheep. For those on the outside; those who are considered nothing because they have nothing, Jesus words have powerful effect and their longing is palpable. Longing to be found is also a metaphor for longing to be changed.

Where do we find ourselves reflected in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep? To be honest with ourselves – it’s not necessarily a pleasant discovery. So how do we change this? Now that’s a question for us to consider.

Restoration

On Homecoming Sunday, we gather to commence a new program year only to find God speaking to us through Jesus’ amazingly poignant and timely words recorded in Luke chapter 14, the gospel appointed for the the 12th Sunday after Pentecost.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish it, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying “this fellow began to build and was not able to finish”.

Luke 14

In late January, a significant rainstorm caused significant water damage in the tower, effectively rendering the chapel unusable for the last nine months. The storm highlighted the perilous state of the tower roof and cap stones, together with the deterioration of the leaded windows in the bell chamber, which allowed alarming amounts of water to flood in.

But it wasn’t only the tower. It became alarmingly clear to those of us in leadership that we could no longer ignore the ever-increasing number of leaks, damaging not only the chapel, but appearing throughout the church.

Flashings are the copper interfaces that connect the roof to the stone gables, of which we have three. In addition to the tower roof, it was clear that we had multiple flashing failure points at the west and east ends and the raised stone gable bisecting the church and chancel roofs.

As we began to address this escalating crisis, of course we then discovered other problems – particularly the crumbling state of the Great East Window mullions and other stonework problems. I encourage you all to stop by and view the excellent electronic bulletin board presentation of the issues located in the atrium or visit the website for a fuller PowerPoint presentation of the issues and the scope of the work.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish it, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying “this fellow began to build and was not able to finish”.

Although Jesus’ words indicate the prudent approach to undertaking building work, sometimes life doesn’t fit into the logical and sequential planning process Jesus seems to advocate here. As the full implications of the scope and costs involved began to dawn on us, thank goodness we didn’t read Luke 14 at the time or we might easily have felt indicted as fools. For it was imperative that we acted urgently to begin the work before it was clear how we would pay for it; not the normally prudent way of going about such things.

We began this 1.2-million-dollar restoration project in late spring, and we are on course to complete the work by Autumn’s end. The quality and scope of the work done will secure the Church from water ingress for at least another 100 years.

Over the summer the Church Wardens, John Bracken and David Brookhart, together with Peter Lofgren – who thanks be to God – quickly became our resident architectural supervisor of works, have worked tirelessly to oversee this building restoration project. Without these three crucial leaders, I do not know how we would have been able to respond to the urgency and scale of this project, which also involved exploring a viable way in the short term to fund the work.

As the scale and cost of the project dawned on me, I felt like Prissy, the black maid in Gone with the Wind who protests to her mistress: I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies, Miss Scarlet. I protested to God that surely God didn’t imagine that church roofs and raising money were in my wheelhouse of skills?

So, God did what he normally does when I complain. He ignored me. Or so it seemed at the time.

Soooo, what does all this now mean for us? I want to share some reflections with you as we come home to begin a new program year.

Jesus’ words in Luke 14 occur within a larger passage which is really about the challenges and costs of discipleship. Throughout the restoration of the building project those of us in leadership positions have learned many things. However, it’s about discipleship that we have learned most.  

We found ourselves becoming transformed from a fearful and anxious state of mind to hold an attitude of courageous and energized confidence.

As rector, wardens, and vestry gradually came to terms with the challenge facing us, something quite extraordinary happened to us. We found ourselves becoming transformed from a fearful and anxious state of mind to hold an attitude of courageous and energized confidence.

At one level the challenge can be reduced to being about stone and copper. Yet, at another level the challenge reignites our affection for buildings as the spaces within which our community flourishes. St Martin’s buildings communicate the warm experience of fellowship and shared endeavor. They also invite and communicate an experience of numinous space that stimulates a sense of being present with God.

After the crucial Vestry meeting in May, the Senior Warden reported to me that when he’d gone home, his wife had asked how the meeting had gone? He was about to say his usual understated way “it went well” when he paused and marvelled that the Vestry had just approved the signing off on the construction contract and one million dollar three-year revolving line of credit from Bank RI – in a spirit of unanimous and confident excitement.

We were indeed surprised to have no doubt that we were responding to God’s paradoxical invitation. By this I mean we understood that this restoration project is not primarily about raising 1.2 million dollars to pay for the physical restoration of the church. It’s about an invitation to move into a new and energizing phase of spiritual engagement with spiritual selves.

At first this invitation was an unwanted one, but it quickly transformed into something we actually welcomed and embraced with enthusiasm; an opportunity to think a-fresh the kind of vision for our community we want going forward.

Sometimes in life we don’t have the option of careful and controlled planning before we have to act. What we discover instead is the source of courage that allows us to confidently set out on a challenging path – not simply do what has to be done, but to become changed in the process by discovering spiritual benefits we could not have imagined.

I find Jesus’ words in Luke 14 more than a little puzzling. Careful planning and controlled anticipation are not the characteristics of either Jesus’ own approach to life or the life of discipleship he called his followers to. Faith, courage, and the quiet hope that propels and nurtures both are the marks of discipleship, not confidence in our own power and strength to be in control of everything. Faith, courage and hope, these have been the discovery among our parish leadership team these past months. Like the crowds who went on their way after listening to Jesus, we are all amazed by this experience.

Brits, Aussies and Kiwis have a rather down to earth expression. We often speak of a situation or person being arse about face, (US English translation ass about face) to mean that things seem to be evolving or they are going about things in a back to front kind of way. Here at St Martin’s we are having an arse about face experience which actually alerts us to the nature of authentic discipleship. In fact, maybe the path of discipleship is always to live in an arse about face kind of way.

In fact, maybe the path of discipleship is always to live in an arse about face kind of way.

That being so, we cannot completely escape our conditioning and so we are about to begin a process of discernment for the feasibility of launching a capital campaign in 2020. We last had a capital campaign in 1996. The result was the building of the atrium and the massive enrichment the atrium has brought to our community life. Getting our face back in front of our arse means inviting you to now share your hopes and vision for St Martin’s with us.

We’ve appointed a consultant from the Episcopal Church Foundation to guide us through the discernment and feasibility study phases that precede any possible launching of a capital campaign. In a matter of weeks, we will produce a discernment brochure outlining discussion points designed to excite a parish wide conversation. There will be a number of cottage meetings – small group get-togethers – that will allow all of us who want to participate to have a voice in sharing what St. Martin’s means to us and what we would like to see as the fruit of a possible capital campaign.

As the parish leadership have already discovered, the real challenge is not to raise 1.2 million dollars. The real challenge is to allow ourselves to become transformed into disciples; an experience the leadership has already discovered is actually amazing, and which we now recognize as being beyond price.

Benedictine wisdom on the nature of community observes a common pattern: young monks are fervent but not holy, old monks are holy but not fervent, and middle-aged monks are neither holy nor fervent. In as much as this might be a good description of our community, let’s rise to the challenge for all us monks to be both fervent and holy.

Carefully Taught

                                                                              

A sermon from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs

Jeremiah 2:4-13  Luke 14: 1, 7-14

“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

My most vivid memory of my fourth grade Virginia history book was the chapter entitled, “A Red Letter Day.” Of course the first thing we had to learn was what a red letter day was. Mrs. Hosner said that it was a day that was special—pleasantly noteworthy or memorable. The day in question was in late August 1619, when three things arrived in the little English colony at Jamestown: indentured servants, women, and slaves. A red letter day. America’s original sin of chattel slavery was portrayed to us as pleasantly noteworthy.

Thus began my education, or rather, indoctrination. What I didn’t know until much later (last week) was that the book that I was reading from, studying, and dutifully parroting back on tests, was part of a set of three textbooks for elementary, junior high and high school, created in the 1950s (and used until the late 1970s) under the heavy influence of the segregationist political machine of Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., who wanted to make sure that Virginia children learned proper history, not tainted by any of that Communist or Civil Rights malarkey. And so we learned of red letter days, of how slaves (please call them servants,) were well-treated and content, of the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War (please call it the War Between the States,) and how handsome and gallant Robert E. Lee was as he rode his proud steed, Traveller, and how the reason for the War Between the States was certainly not slavery, but states rights.

As Rogers and Hammerstein noted in the musical, South Pacific, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear;

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

And we were.

Those books—that propaganda—affected multiple generations of children, because many of the ones who originally learned it taught it to their children. Look at the faces of the young people who rebelled against the removal of the Lee statue in Richmond two years ago. Hear the people who defend flying the Confederate flag. Heritage, not hate, they say. It’s about tradition and history, they say. Not about slavery.

They have been carefully taught.

When history is written, or rewritten, by those in power, the narrative is theirs to dictate.  Fortunately that is changing, and we have the opportunity to hear the voices of the oppressed more broadly and deeply than before; to hear the stories

of slavery and its repercussions from the perspectives of the enslaved, the sharecroppers; the victims of the Black Codes, the lynchings, Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration. We have the opportunity to ponder the true legacy of that August day in 1619 and to begin to understand that the white European-descended power structure that we have today was built on a foundation of the labor and suffering of fellow children of God who were bought and sold as property.  We are beginning to understand the idea of white privilege; the idea that the benefits in education, healthcare, home ownership, employment, voting and legal rights that the white community takes for granted are generally not benefits accruing to our black sisters and brothers. And the reason for that dates back to August 1619. We have been carefully taught that our rightful place is at the head of the table, and the fact that others are seated lower is their responsibility, not ours.

Jesus told his parables of the wedding banquet to an audience who was aware of the proper etiquette of table seating at dinner parties; that the people with greater power and influence would be granted the privilege of reclining closest to the host, in the places of honor. In offering up the rather ridiculous image, of guests racing and climbing over one another to be the first to the bottom of the table so that they may be asked to move higher, Jesus is encouraging his hearers to think more deeply about entitlement; about the economy of standards that they use to measure themselves against one another. Why does somebody deserve a place of honor? Wealth? Education? Gender? Hometown? Looks? Jesus prompts us to ponder; are these the standards that apply in the Dream of God? He prompts his audience to consider that they might be confusing privilege—the special rights or advantages available to a certain group—with blessing—the favor, protection and care of God. Jesus calls God’s people not to rush to claim the fruits of privilege, but rather to hold their privilege lightly—so lightly that that they can share it with others, thus embodying God’s blessing as members of a beloved community.

Today, 400 years after that dubiously named August day in 1619, might it be that Jesus is asking those who have heretofore controlled the narrative of racial history in this country to take the challenging and humbling step of questioning our place at the table?

The message hasn’t always been so gentle as Jesus framed it in Luke’s Gospel. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass didn’t go to the Gospels as the Biblical source for his writings and speeches. He made a beeline for the prophets, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jeremiah wrote about thirty years before the fall of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. and he could see the signs of the looming consequences of Judah’s worship of idols and refusal to turn back to the God who created and delivered them. “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.” Jeremiah’s accusations against the powerful and the privileged—the rulers, the priests and the prophets—were the heart of Douglass’s passionate tirades—his biographer calls them jeremiads—his tirades against the slave owners, the church, and the politicians who ignored his cries for justice for his people. The abuse that he suffered, the scars on his back and the discrimination that dogged him even as a freedman—this was his first-hand knowledge of how the white power structure exploited black human beings—sacrificing them to the idols of cotton and tobacco, financial gain and political power. Douglass, like Jeremiah, wrote on the eve of disaster for the country—a civil war/War Between the States that would bring emancipation of our enslaved brothers and sisters, but at the cost of 620,000 lives.

And the costs have continued to mount over the past 150 years as the wounds of racism have festered. Because the power structure that has written the narrative of race until recently would like us all to forget what the marginalized and powerless can’t help but remember. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In a New York Times Magazine piece a couple of weeks ago journalist Bryan Stevenson summed up where we are now: “…[W]e are at one of those critical moments in American history when we will either double down on romanticizing our past or accept that there is something better waiting for us.” He continued, “I realized how important it is to stay hopeful: Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

And justice is all of our business. We can’t opt out because we aren’t Virginians. Rhode Islanders—including Episcopal Rhode Islanders, played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade whose consequences continue to transcend generations. Justice, and hope, are the business of all of us.

Last Sunday afternoon churches in Virginia and Rhode Island, at the encouragement of the Presiding Bishop and in cooperation with the Center for Reconciliation, rang their bells, to remember. To remember 20 African men who were brought to Virginia in a Portuguese ship named for John the Baptist. To remember them and the millions more who were brought later and those who died on the Middle Passage. The bells rang as a wake-up call and a prayer of hope, that we can hear our story anew; listening with open and humble hearts, ready to offer our places at God’s Banquet table to all, so that we may share God’s blessings of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

You’ve got to be taught

to be afraid

of people whose eyes are oddly made

and people whose skin is a different shade.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught

before it’s too late

to hate all the people your relatives hate.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Hardness of Hearts: Luke 13:10-17

He was teaching in one of the synagogues – every  Sabbath. Look, a woman – a breath she has –  a breath of weakness for eighteen years.  She was bent together.  She was not able to stand erect at all.

He saw her,  Joshua [Jesus] did.  He called to her – he said to her: Woman: You stand released from your weakness. He placed on her his hand suddenly she was straightened. She glorified Elohim [the God of justice].

He answered – the leader of the synagogue did  – he was angry  because  in the Sabbath  Joshua cured.          

He [the leader] kept saying to the crowd:  Six days there are  in which it is binding to work.  In these  therefore  you come and be cured and not in the day of the Sabbath.

He answered him – haShem [the Lord] did, he said:  Poser!                   
Each of you,  in the Sabbath, don’t you untie your ox,  or your donkey, from the stall  and lead it out  and water it? This is a daughter of Abraham whom the satan bound;  look, eighteen years. Is it not binding that she be untied from this bondage in the day of the Sabbath?

Luke 13 translation by Richard Swanson

Swanson’s translation of Luke’s Greek conveys an idiomatic immediacy which the NRSV smoothes out into a more flowing, less choppy, English, at the expense of losing the breathy tension in this scene of confrontation between Jesus and the Synagogue leader.

I blogged on this text in August 2013:

The weightier part of this woman’s burden is not her physical deformity, but the burden of being morally and ritually unclean. …. It is from this moral burden that Jesus releases her and claims in doing so he is fulfilling God’s Sabbath command to keep this day holy. In his question Jesus couches the woman’s condition in terms of satanic binding.

Looking back it appears to me that my statement above underestimated the importance of the woman’s physical predicament in favor of emphasizing the spiritual element. Both are inextricably connected and the connections flow like this: disease is a punishment for moral sin – moral impurity is a spiritual problem – enter the Satan – in Hebrew meaning the judicial accuser, as an explanatory cause of the problem.

These days many of us regard the Satan not as a celestial rival roaming the universe in opposition to God, but as the symbol for the presence of evil rooted in the human heart. Satan exists, because we exist!

Satan is a projection of the evil opposing God that lurks in the human heart. Evil as hardness of the human heart becomes magnified by social and political forces – so as to take on an almost universal or cosmic dimension.

Time and again in the Gospels Jesus stands in powerful opposition to the way that religious traditions easily fall captive to the hardness of the human heart. History shows that if unchecked even the best religious traditions and social systems inevitably degrade into legalism becoming instruments of oppression and discrimination.

History shows that if unchecked even the best religious traditions and social systems inevitably degrade into instruments of oppression and discrimination.

Jesus is not simply performing a good work of healing with disregard for the Sabbath, he is deliberately choosing the Sabbath as the opportunity to declare God’s opposition to the way human traditions straight jacket our spirits and force our bodies to double over under the weight of such traditions. Doubling over is as much a powerful metaphor for the spiritual condition as a description of the woman’s physical condition.

In the NRSV, the woman is described as having a spirit that crippled her – bending her over so that she was unable to stand up straight. Swanson translates her as having a breath of weakness – the result of being bent double.

Stand up and bend over as far as you can go and see what happens to your breath and more importantly to your ability to speak out. Weak breath, weak voice. When religious and social traditions become degraded instruments of oppression, bending us double under their weight, the first consequence is that our voice is silenced.

Evil is embodied when institutions and traditions privilege hardness; the hardness of fear, and the greed that lurks in the depths of the human heart. As instruments of oppression, they silence not only victims but also all who become caught up by fear or greed in distracted allegiances. So numerous are the examples of this in our current social, political, and religious life that I refer simply to all the ‘isms’ that double us over, weakening our breath, and silencing our voices – from racism (1619). through sexism (#me too) to global capitalism (G-Seven and Jackson Hole).

Go: Cross borders, listen deeply, and live like Jesus is a phrase taken from the Presiding Bishop’s program Way of Love . I offer it as the sound bite to guide us into a new program year. I am particularly moved by the words live like Jesus because I am curious about how we will discover together what these word might come to mean for us individually and as a community.

What I do know at the outset is that we can do no better than to follow the example Jesus gives us in Luke 13; to live courageously in the place of tension between the traditions we receive and the challenges and opportunities through which God invites us to confront oppression and injustice and grasp:

the lives we came here for and waste out time on fear no more.

John O’Donoghue

In our hands, the Tradition we receive becomes an instrument for liberation from hardness of heart on the long march of the Children of God.

Songs in a Season of Discontent

Isaiah 5:1-7 – Luke 12: 49-56

Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard is a poetic warning to Jerusalem and Judah concerning the terrible sickness that belied the appearance of prosperity and the false illusion of national security. Two characteristics defined the nature of the sickness. Firstly, the erosion of justice. Secondly, the willingness of the ordinary people to be distracted from the inner truth of the political sickness eating away from within Judah’s society, by a false narrative of prosperity .

It seemed that Mid 7th-century Judah enjoyed many parallels with contemporary America. As now, so then the rich grew richer at the expense of the ordinary citizenry, supported by an early form of GDP, a false and misleading measures of economic crude activity. As now, so then a false narrative functioned to distract attention away from the reality that ordinary families – the core social units of society – were languishing instead of flourishing in the face of a supposed booming economy.

Today, ordinary Americans are angry. Yet so many of us are distracted from the causes of our anger. We should connect our anger with the erosion of the rule of law – with the law interpreted one way for the privileged rich, and the corporations, and another for workers; the law interpreted one way for middle-class white Americans, and quite another for African Americans and Hispanics – with poverty preventing equal access and uniform application of the law.

We should connect our anger to the oppressions of a global economic system of multinational conglomerates who play fast and loose with national and community interests. We should demand better regulation and protection of privacy from the manipulations of social media platforms, which exploit our data for political gain and economic profit without out recompense. We should be more consciously angry that our government cares so little for our protection as individuals and as citizens from the exploitation by the misuse of power.

In the last lines of the song God abandons the subtlety of metaphor to sing plainly. God expected his people to produce a rich harvest of social justice and righteousness – a righteousness defined not by self-righteousness but by mutual obligation. Righteousness comes about only through doing right by someone else.

The Song of the Vineyard is a timeless love song of God’s lament against all our contemporary isms of oppression. It’s a song of bitter contrasts. It tells of God’s considerable investment of hope for a fruitful harvest of social justice and equity. It tells of God’s disappointment and hopes dashed time and again as human societies prefer to privilege the dynamics of inequality. The metaphor is the hope for a fruitful harvest of sweet grapes, contrasted with the bitterness of wild fruit that rots on the vine. God’s investment of love – cultivating and protecting his vineyard – is frustrated by human neglect.

Luke’s momentous 12th chapter contains the heart of Jesus teaching on social and economic justice. But it ends with a series of verses in which Jesus’ words sit very uncomfortably, with us. 

There is no comfort in Jesus’s words at the end of Luke 12. In a passage in which the overriding message is do not be afraid, Jesus suddenly confronts those who will say peace, peace, when there is no peace, and there, and castigates those who say there, it won’t be as bad as we fear! Maybe there were some just off stage whispering false words of security – another false narrative designed to distract. Jesus rounds on them with a harsh message. It’s not only going to be as bad as you fear – it’s going to be worse.

In a metaphor that strikes at the family as the core building block of society Jesus predicts – where there is five there will be three against two and two against three. In the heart of the family’s protection – wife will rise against husband, husband against wife; child against parent, and parent against child; parent and children against grandparents and grandparents against children and grandchildren. No, these are not words of comfort. Only words that promise the baptism of fire.

We are now harvesting the rotten and bitter fruits of 30 years of distorted and false narratives, of alternative facts – scattered for sectarian political gain producing a bitter harvest of cultural conflict. A large swathe of the electorate has been distracted by distorted political messaging on abortion, guns, immigration and unfettered rights and freedoms without mutual obligations.

We seem oblivious to the roads, bridges, railways, and levies crumbling around us. So distracted are we by the bread and circus of single-issue reality TV politics we are easily distracted for the election cycle from the way we are adversely affected by social justice inequalities of eligibility for decent healthcare for our families, pre-K child care for working families, affordable college and tertiary education for our kids, protections in the workplace, and of course the most pressing issue of all, climate change and its adverse effects for the poorest sections of American society.

This situation is not going to change any time soon but change it must. Jesus’ warnings are timely reminders that there are always consequences not of God’s, but our choosing.

Jesus complains that we know how to predict tomorrow’s weather, yet we are blind to the signs of the times indicating longer-term direction of events. Things are not going to get much better over the short term (short term from God’s perspective not ours), for we have a lot of bitter harvest to consume first. But get better the times eventually will.  Jesus’ over-riding message that despite the present difficulties of our own disobedience, ultimately, we should not fear for it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

In the meantime, what are we do in this season of discontent – over which we have so little control?

  1. Politically, we must wake up to the distraction of single-issue politics, luring those on the right to vote against their larger self-interests, and those on the left to not bother voting at all.
  2. Spiritually, we must be more faithful in the practice of our Christian faith– attending in a disciplined way to the practice of our faith as a matter for every day and in every moment of every day.

As a spiritual leader I have little impact on the political trajectory, other than to exercise my democratic rights. But I can encourage us to go deeper spiritually. As we move towards the beginning of a new church program year, I have a number of ideas about how we can move forward together. A warning however: run for the hills now or stay tuned.

Naming The Scary Things

References: Pentecost 9, Isaiah 1, Luke 12, & Toni Morrison

Last Tuesday we celebrated the Transfiguration of Jesus which is the turning point at the heart of the gospel story. The truth of Jesus’ inner identity is revealed before he turns his face towards the road to Jerusalem. In the Greek used by the gospel writers metamorphos is the word used for the transfiguration experience. Metamorphoses describes the experience when the inside meaning and truth of Jesus identity, i.e. his divinity is revealed in the outer appearance of his humanity. The inside and the outside become one.

How does the inside match the outside? What is real and what is mere appearance? This is Plato’s central question. It is also ours as well.

The great African-American novelist Toni Morrison died this last week. With her death we witness the passing of a prophet. Again we will find that prophets are more honored after their death than during their lifetime.

We could think of Morrison as a prophet because in her writing she revealed the tensions between inner truth, i.e. the way things really are or at least need to be, and the easy acceptance of the distorted appearance of things.

The first reading for this Sunday opens with Isaiah’s vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Through the mouth of the prophet, God declares:

I have had enough of your ritual sacrifices and solemn assemblies. Instead remove the evil from your actions from before my eyes by learning to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Paraphrase of Is 1:10-20

Stan Mast in his commentary on this Isaiah passage interestingly quotes from James Limburg who noted paradoxically that:

Jerusalem just past mid-eighth century BC was a place where the economy was booming, the elite were basking in the prosperity of the Uzziah years, and ecclesiastical institutions were buzzing with sacrifices and songs.  But beneath it all, something was wrong.  A terrible sickness was eating away at the heart of the nation. Isaiah had seen it and tried to warn his people before it was too late.

The terrible sickness that belied the appearance of prosperity in mid-eight-century Judah included a reckless adventurism in foreign affairs, the greed of the powerful, the corruption of justice, all typical characteristics of a society of haves and have nots. However, the core of the sickness lay in the willingness of the population to be distracted by a glittering but false narrative of prosperity and security. This false narrative distracted the people from immanent national disaster and the erosion of the shared common values ensured by the Mosaic Law, Israel’s ancient constitution. The external narrative creating a false and distorted appearance of things functioned only as a distraction from the inner meaning of the truth of the terrible communal and political sickness eating away from within Isaiah’s society.

However, the core of the sickness lay in the willingness of the population to be distracted by a glittering but false narrative of prosperity and security.

Toni Morrison wrote to expose the terrible sickness at the heart of American society; the inner truth and meaning of the sickness of racism belied by the appearance of things. She noted:

The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”

(“A Humanist View,” a 1975 speech Morrison gave at Portland State University).

We live in a culture that has become easily and alarmingly distracted by a series of false narratives, perhaps the one with the greatest long-term impact being climate change denial. The economic measurement known as GDP is another false narrative that functions as a distraction from real experience. How can the economy be flourishing when the experience of our well-being languishes? The answer lies in what you choose to measure, and what you exclude from measurement.

We can become familiar with the distorted rhetoric of narratives that distract us from the inner reality with glossy versions of the external appearance of things. God’s message to Judah in the time of the Isaiah is the same as God’s message to 21st century America, delivered as then, so now, through the mouth of modern day prophets such as Morrison:

Come now, let us argue it out that I may bring you to your senses!

PARAPHRASEd from Is 1:10-20

In her 1975 novel Beloved Morrison wrote that freeing yourself was one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

Being open to the stirring of the Holy Spirit within us, speaking to us both individually and in community, is for Christians the key to discerning what is authentic and healthy, true and good, from the false and distorted distractions of external appearances. Through the power of the Spirit we claim ownership of our freed selves.

How do we cultivate our listening to the promptings of the Spirit guiding us amidst the cacophony of competing messages? The simple answer is to return and rest in the formative language of the biblical story.

Receiving the Nobel prize for Literature in 1993, Toni Morrison said:

Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation. ….. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

Luke’s chapter 12 forms the heart of Jesus’ teaching on economic justice, culminating in two key statements:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms.

Luke 12:32-40

Note he does not say here sell all your possessions. Selling your possessions in order to give alms means in other words behold one another with generosity and concern.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.

Luke 12:32-40

The inner truth is the kingdom is already here and it is already ours by gift. The inner truth is that generosity binds us together. The warning here is – be careful about the priorities you take to heart.

The inner and outer realities metamorphose – come to resemble each other when we hear the inner promptings of the Spirit speaking to us through the biblical narrative; giving us the language for naming what Morrison called the scary things which otherwise continue to have no names.

In the face of distortions and lies couched in sometimes glossy, sometimes fear inducing narratives of distraction – like Toni Morrison, and most of all like Jesus – we speak the inconvenient truth – so that the words we speak, and the priorities of our hearts will become the measure of our lives?

The Shame of Being Loved Unconditionally

Unconditional love is difficult to bear because paradoxically as it conjures up our hope it triggers our shame.

Returning home can be a bitter-sweet experience. Over the course of hours we transitioned last weekend from the traditional stone farmhouse in which we’d spent a month – unplugged and secluded among the vines and plum orchards of Loubes-Bernac on the border between Lot Et Garonne and Périgord-Dordogne. Let me take a short detour down memory lane.

Al and I first came to this region of Southwest France, 80 miles inland from Bordeaux some 30 years ago as very poor Church of England curates, grateful for  the offer of a free house for a couple of weeks. Over three decades we were regular visitors to the area. Following moving to the US in 2008, there was a break in our pattern for several years as we worked to reestablish our lives in a new country and culture. It’s a joy to now find we are able once again to return each year for the month of July, just before the explosion of the French holiday month of August.

This is a region not well known to Americans who seem to prefer the Loire with its grand chateaux and the more romantic sounding Provence and the Rhone Valley. However, if you want a feel for this region of Périgord-Dordogne, I recommend Martin Walker’s series featuring Bruno, a former soldier turned policeman, who as its Chief of Police has embraced the pleasures and slow rhythms of country life in the idyllic village of St. Denis.

Returning home can be a bitter-sweet experience, for going away enables a moment of fresh perspective on one’s everyday context. Driving into Providence last Sunday evening I was aware of two vying impressions. I felt gratitude for the good fortune of living in such a lovely place. But why did Providence have to be in a United States wracked with the political and social upheavals of 2019-20? I don’t mean to sound down on the US and actually, the thing that makes this slightly more bearable is a thankfulness that Providence is not situated in the United Kingdom at this time.

It seems wherever we live we find ourselves in uncertain times. We will need every ounce of the courage to keep faith and hope alive amidst unparalleled levels of domestic and international political turbulence unfolding against the backdrop of the relentless rise of the earth’s temperature and impending climate changes, that may prove irrevocable.

The Prophet Hosea also lived in challenging times -roughly between 786 and 721 BC. His prophecy ends with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721, an event preceded by 20 years of escalating crisis. Hosea is the first book of the 12 Minor Prophets, minor not because of the insignificance of their message but because of the shortness of the books that bear their names.

Hosea lived in a time of growing recklessness in foreign policy – Israel and her feckless rulers seeking to play off the two global powers of Egypt and Assyria against each other. Domestically, he lived in a time of increasing spiritual corruption and social degradation marked by the Israelite abandonment of the covenant with the Lord to worship at the feet of other gods. Hosea predicted God’s punishment; a punishment that finally came to pass in the crisis of 721-20. In 721 the Assyrians captured Samaria bringing the Northern Kingdom of Israel to a disastrous end.

This event represented the destruction of 10 of Israel’s 12 tribes, leaving only Judah and Benjamin inhabiting the Southern Kingdom as the remnant of the once mighty nation. The Assyrians sent the higher escallons of the 10 tribes into foreign captivity – from which they would never return. Into a largely vacant land they implanted foreign groups. Over time, intermarriage between these foreign populations with the remnants of the Hebrew population left behind created the mixed-race Samaritans much reviled by the Jews of Jesus’s day.

Hosea is unusual among the minor prophets in that it’s not just his words that form the core of his prophetic message. Hosea role plays his prophecies through the unhappy events in his domestic life. Hosea’s domestic life provides a role-play – symbolic of the unhappy dynamics between God and an unfaithful people.

Hosea had been marked out by God to be unhappy in love for God asked Hosea to marry a woman named Gomer with the promise that she would be unfaithful to him. Sure enough, after bearing him three children Gomer left him to become a prostitute. Hosea was reduced to the humiliation of nightly roaming the streets of Samaria in search of his wife only to find himself outside the door of her latest client.

His friends remonstrated with him, asking how could he debase his dignity in this way? Hosea replied that his unconditional love for Gomer was a representation of God’s love for an adulterous people, Israel.

Hosea takes his wife back, pays off her debts, and prophesizes the destruction and ruin of the kingdom as a punishment for foreign misadventures and the people’s infidelity. Through prophecies of doom and gloom Hosea works his way through to a remarkable ending. Because Hosea will not abandon Gomer, neither will God abandon his people. Despite punishment, God resolutely refuses to stop loving Israel, for his love is long suffering and unconditional.

God’s unconditional love holds a promise that we can be better than we are, that we can become liberated from the isolation of self, and so mourn the enormities of our infidelities.

We are a people who like Israel also worship at the feet of other gods. But it’s God’s unconditional love the holds the promise that we can be better than we are. This is not an invitation to a process of self improvement on our part, it’s an invitation that requires submission to the searchlight of God’s love for us. The promise is that we can be loved into becoming better than we currently are. As we face the challenges of the times in which we live, will we agree to the terms of this promise, I wonder?

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