“Deeper and deeper into the world”–– In Praise of Mary Oliver

Go not to the object; let it come to you….
What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.

–– Henry David Thoreau [i]

We need only unite our minds to the outer universe in a holy marriage,
a passionate love-match, and paradise is ours.

–––– M. H. Abrams [ii]

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.

–– Mary Oliver [iii]

 

The poet Mary Oliver departed this world on January 17, 2019, in her 84thyear. But her acquaintance with heaven began long before, in the fields and woods of her childhood.

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught. [iv]

What Oliver would learn outdoors, in moments of grace, wonder, and the cultivated practice of paying attention, was the holiness and radiance of the natural world, the earthly paradise revealing itself to the receptive eye and heart.

What do I know
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun
lights up willingly. . . [v]

I imagine her early experiences of nature to be as formative as those of the young William Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence . . . our minds –
Especially the imaginative power –
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood. . .

Thus day by day my sympathies increased,
And thus the common range of visible things
Grew dear to me… [vi]

While Wordsworth’s epiphanies (“spots of time”) are ancestral to the sensibility of every modern nature poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence was even more direct in Oliver’s development. “I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy,” she said. “He has taught me as deeply as any writer could.” [vii] Emerson’s voracious engagement with the visible world led his mind––and his readers––into its invisible depths, where “the aroused intellect . . . finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds, that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.” [viii]

Persuaded that she lived in a world eager to show itself, Oliver pursued the life of a beholder:

The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees––
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention. [ix]

Writing nature––translating the world around us into words––is a complex, nuanced dance between the subjectivity of the self who writes what she sees and the elusive otherness of the not-self. How much of what we see is constructed and colored by our minds, our feelings, our cultural and aesthetic presuppositions? Is it possible to lay all that aside and become pure receptivity, a “lens of attention” which renounces the perceiver’s interpretive shaping of visible phenomena? Can we look without naming? Can we receive what is outside us just as it is and not only as we see it?

“I long to be,” said Oliver, “the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.” [x] But the very fact of longing admits defeat––such pure emptiness is unattainable in this world. Even the most receptive poet brings the particularity of self to her encounters with the wider world. And that is how it should be: our own way of seeing, whatever the proportions between shaping and receiving, is itself part of nature’s multiplicity. We do not stand over against nature in a binary opposition, but dwell within it, adding our own unique perception, feeling and response to the mix of Creation’s dance.

This requires humility and reticence on our part, so that nature does not become eclipsed by our response to it. What happens to the self in the encounter does matter, but whatever nature is prior to––or in excess of––that encounter must be honored and reverenced as well. As Sharon Cameron says in her study of Thoreau’s explorations of the world beyond his mind, “nature has an identity separate from what is felt about it.” [xi]

California’s uncompromising poet Robinson Jeffers thought it best to renounce the human altogether for the sake of an impersonal and indifferent grandeur:

Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from
humanity,
Let that doll lie…
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself . . . [xii]

Without sharing the extremes of Jeffers’ chilly “inhumanist” philosophy, Mary Oliver also wondered about the hindrances of ego, and spoke of “vanishing” into the world. “Maybe the world, without us,” she suggested, “is the real poem.” [xiii] But as scholar Laurence Buell argues, the personal is just as much a part of nature as everything else. The goal should not be the eradication of the ego, but “the suspension of ego to the point of feeling the environment to be at least as worthy of attention as oneself and of experiencing oneself as situated among many interacting presences” [xiv]

Wendell Berry describes the inseparable relation between self and world as a dance. Contemplating an old sycamore tree on his farm, he says, “We are moving in relationship, a design, that is definite – though shadowy to me – like people in a dance.” [xv] Oliver’s poetry would devote considerable attention to this choreography of interacting presences. “What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing, and it neither begins nor ends with the human world.” [xvi]

As with any significant relationship, the self can grow anxious about getting lost in the other, or violating the other’s integrity through domination, or drifting apart into an irredeemable state of alienation. All these have in fact occurred in our relations with the natural world. That is why a poet like Mary Oliver is so necessary. Her deep feeling for the world about her helps to repair the broken connections, retracing the forgotten path back to the garden. She leads us besides the still waters; her poems restore our soul.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily. . .
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.” [xvii]

It is not always a summer noon in her poetry. Her light is aware of the shadows, though her poems spend little time on her personal struggles. Writing only briefly of her parents’ toxicity, she says, “I mention them now, / I will not mention them again.”

It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.

. . . I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life. . .[xviii]

The shadows are deepest in “The Journey,” her most painful––and redemptive––poem.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice––

The feeling of a backward suction into a vortex of melancholy and suffocation is palpable and relentless. The way forward seems impossibly clogged with stones and fallen branches. It’s like a nightmare where you can’t escape because your body has forgotten how to run. The terror of it makes the poem’s redemptive turn all the more cathartic.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheet of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do the only thing you could do––
determined to save
the only life you could save. [xix]

However autobiographical this poem may be, its impact is universal, and I suspect that “The Journey” has saved more than one reader’s life. But trauma is a rare subject for Oliver. In her writing, the more common counterpoint to joy is not pain but mortality. If you are going to write about self and nature, your subject­­s––“all that glorious, temporary stuff” [xx] ––are ever on the verge of disappearing. However much we may love what is mortal, we need to remember, “when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.” [xxi]

Accommodating ourselves to mortality is one of the primary spiritual tasks. We may not know why death needs to happen, but we can hold it within a larger theological container, trusting there is something more to our story beyond the horizons of earthly experience.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke. . .
He’s the ice caps, that are dying . . .[xxii]

I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.

But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement. . .[xxiii]

And still, whose heart is not broken every time a beautiful and beloved presence goes missing? Even an armful of peonies can bring tears, as we exclaim of their dearness, “their eagerness / to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are / nothing, forever? [xxiv]

“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!” cries the poet, cherishing the priceless worth bestowed by impermanence, while at the same time suggesting something more lasting behind the veil of appearances.

The geese
flew on.
I have never
seen them again.

Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly. [xxv]

Thoreau, Oliver’s predecessor and kindred spirit, perfectly described the vocation of nature’s receptive and responsive beholders: “I am made to love the pond & the meadow as the wind is made to ripple the water.” [xxvi] Thank you, Mary Oliver, for the ripples you made during “your one wild and precious life.” They continue to carry us deeper and deeper into the world.

May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,

leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,

still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world. [xxvii]

 

 

All photographs by Jim Friedrich.

[i]Henry David Thoreau, Journal, September 13, 1852.

[ii]M. H. Abrams on the Romantic sensibility of William Wordworth, in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), 27.

[iii]“Terns,” in Mary Oliver, Devotions(New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 158. All Mary Oliver quotations will cite page numbers from this edition.

[iv]“Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer” (191).

[v]“Daisies” (176).

[vi]William Wordsworth,The Prelude(1799) 1.288-296 / 2.215-217.

[vii]Mary Oliver, “Emerson: An Introduction,” in Arthur S. Lothstein & Michael Brodrick, eds., New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century (Albany: State University of New York, 2008), 8.

[viii]Ralph Waldo Emerson, lecture on Dec. 19, 1838, q. in Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 8.

[ix]“Entering the Kingdom” (406).

[x]“Blue Iris”) 215

[xi]Sharon Cameron, Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal(New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 35.

[xii]Robinson Jeffers, “Signpost,” q. in Laurence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 162.

[xiii]“From the Book of Time” (234).

[xiv]Buell, 178.

[xv]Wendell Berry, q. in Scott Slovic, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 127.

[xvi]Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures(1995), q. in Christian McEwen, World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011), 167.

[xvii]“When I Am Among the Trees” (123).

[xviii]“Flare” (230, 231).

[xix]“The Journey” (349-50).

[xx]“On Meditating, Sort of” (22).

[xxi]“In Blackwater Woods” (390).

[xxii]“At the River Clarion” (86-87).

[xxiii]“Sometimes” (104).

[xxiv]“Peonies” (298).

[xxv]“Snow Geese” (180-181).

[xxvi]Journal,Nov. 21, 1850.

[xxvii]“Prayer” (84).

Consumed by Love: The Flames of Candlemas

Giovanni Bellini, The Presentation in the Temple (1459)

Today is Candlemas, the 40thday after the Nativity. Its liturgical origins are obscure, but its blazing processions of candles in the winter dark not only made a glorious end to the extended Christmas celebrations of less hurried times, it also provided a brilliant preview of the resurrection fires of the Easter Vigil. Although it still may allow, for a few liturgically-minded procrastinators, a generous extension of the deadline for boxing up our holiday decorations, Candlemas is rarely observed in American homes and churches. Our minds are fixed on groundhogs and football, not the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.

Still, I would gladly join a candlelight procession to a holy place on this night, to beseech the Light of the World “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”

In the Eastern churches, Candlemas is called “The Meeting,” highlighting the moment when two old souls, Simeon and Anna, met the One for whom they had waited all their lives. Simeon had been told “by the Holy Spirit” that he would not see death before the coming of the Messiah. Every time he went to the Temple, he wondered, “Could this be the Promised Day?” Whatever he may have imagined––the House of God filled with smoke and shining angels, a mighty king arriving in noisy triumph––the long-expected day arrived like any other, without the slightest fanfare.

Simeon liked to go to the Temple early, when it was still blissfully quiet and uncrowded. He began his prayers as usual, but his attention wandered when the entrance of a young couple and their baby caught his eye. He could tell they were country people, the way they looked with such amazement at the vast interior. As they passed by him, he smiled kindly, then closed his eyes to resume his prayers.

But everything within him shouted, “Look! This is the time. Don’t miss it.” As soon as he opened his eyes again, he knew. He didn’t know how, but he knew. That child, cradled in the arms of a peasant girl, was the One!

“Please,” he said. “Please wait!” The couple stopped and turned to face him. Simeon held out his arms, and the girl, as though they had both rehearsed it a hundred times, handed him the baby without the least hesitation. And gazing into those infant eyes, seeing there the future of God’s hopes for all the world, Simeon began to murmur the prayer which the faithful have sung ever since at close of day:

Lord, now at last you release your servant
to depart in peace,
for my eyes have seen the Savior,
just as you have promised.

Then Anna, the old prophetess who had camped out in the Temple for many years, stepped out of the shadows to add her own confirming praises. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

The Nunc Dimittis of these two old saints, near the end of their lives, being granted the grace of completion on that Temple morning, is beautifully echoed in a passage from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter…

 

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

It is a custom at Candlemas to bless the candles for the rest of the year. In 2003, I happened to be in London’s Cathedral of St. Paul for a similar rite, when members of the Wax Chandlers Livery Company, in a practice dating back to the fifteenth century, brought long candles to be blessed for their service on the high altar.

The preacher on that occasion, Canon Martin Warner, took comfort in the fact that when his own brief candle should come to an end, another candle, the Paschal Candle of Easter, would burn over his coffin, declaring by its resurrection light that each of us is but wax “being consumed by the incredible flame of love that is God’s own self, melted not into oblivion but into the freedom of attaining our perfection and deepest longings.”

A candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing. Even so, the fire that consumes it bears Love’s name, and does Love’s work. Whatever is offered up shall receive its true being. Whatever is lost shall be found anew.

Fire of heaven, make us ready.

Jesus and the Rich Man: “Do you want me to tell you easy things?”

The Getty Villa in Malibu, California, is a careful reconstruction of a Roman villa. Funded by the estate of a 20th century oil billionaire, it is a lavish display of the wealth of two eras: the ancient world and our own Gilded Age.

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

–– Hebrews 4:12-13

 

Is that why we come to church––to be pierced by the sharpness of God’s word, to have our innermost selves laid bare to the eyes of the one “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid?” [i]

Not all the time, surely. Who could bear that? In a world of sin and strife, we all need an oasis of rest and refreshment, a word of consolation and encouragement. But God is not always easy, as our first two readings make clear.

“Today my complaint is bitter,” cries Job. “God’s hand is heavy despite my groaning. . .
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” [ii]

And the Psalmist who sings of goodness and mercy, and a soul restored by divine presence, is now heard to cry out one of the most terrible lines in all of Scripture:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [iii]

No, God is not always easy. And neither is Jesus. One moment he’s the Good Shepherd, saying “Come unto me, all you who struggle and are heavily laden, and I will refresh you,” and the next moment he’s challenging you to change your life.

The poet John Berryman captures this contradictory quality when he says that Jesus’ words were “short, precise, terrible, & full of refreshment.” [iv] Another poet, James McAuley, echoes the image from Hebrews in his own poem about Jesus:

He thrust his speech among them like a sword. . .
And told them nothing that they wished to hear. [v]

Today’s gospel, Mark 10:17-31, is a case in point. A man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” At first, Jesus gives the stock answer, like something out of the catechism:

“You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

The man, impatient for an answer he has not yet found, shoots back, “Yes, Teacher. I’ve always kept those commandments, even when I was young.” This gets Jesus’ full attention. The text tells us that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. That’s such an interesting description. He looked at him and loved him. It sounds a little like love at first sight. There isn’t another sentence quite like it in the gospels.

If this were a movie we’d get a closeup of Jesus’ face, taking in the man’s truest and best self with a gaze that is both affectionate and inquisitive, as though his eyes are asking, “Are you the disciple I’ve been waiting for so long to show up, the disciple whose singleness of heart, shorn of all lesser desires, wants nothing but the only thing truly worth having?” Then we’d cut to a closeup of the man’s face, so earnest and hopeful, on the verge of finding at last his heart’s true desire.

But then Jesus says to him, “There’s just one more thing you need to do; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”

We can imagine the man’s expectant face slowly collapsing into disappointment. This is not what he wanted to hear. He lowers his head and stares at the ground, trying to absorb the shock of Jesus’ shattering directive. Then he gets up and backs away slowly, like a boxer reeling from a punch, until he finally turns his back on Jesus and disappears into the crowd. As Mark reports, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

As a lifelong Episcopalian, I’ve had to listen to this gospel many, many times in the liturgy––for seven decades. And as a North American person with more privileges and possessions than most of the earth’s inhabitants, I have always shared the agonizing discomfort of that man who found it way too hard to give up everything for the sake of the gospel.

Some Christians have taken this story quite literally. In the 3rdcentury, a wealthy young man named Antony heard it read at Sunday mass. He could not escape the feeling that the words were aimed directly at him. As soon as the liturgy was over, he rushed out to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and move to the desert, where for the next 80 years he lived a life of radical simplicity and exemplary sanctity––a life which had a great impact on the development of monastic spirituality.

A thousand years later, another wealthy young man shocked his family and friends when he renounced his worldly goods to embrace a life of poverty, service and prayer. We are still in awe of that man, Francis of Assisi, who found himself utterly unable to say no to Jesus.

In the 20th century, Dorothy Day would sacrifice the comforts of her class to live in solidarity with the poor, founding the Catholic Worker and devoting her heart and mind and strength to the vision of a just and peaceful society.

Many other saints have done the same. And even though you and I are not going to walk out those doors this morning to give away everything we have, we cannot repress the questions which the story of the rich man poses for us. We’ve heard this gospel before, and we’ll hear it again. And each time we must wonder, what is it trying to say to us?

There is no single answer, no single response to the challenge of this gospel. It’s a story, not a rule, and most Christians have not felt compelled to take Jesus’ words to the rich man in the demandingly literal way of an Antony, Francis, or Dorothy Day. But this gospel will never cease to trouble us with questions about both personal and social economics. Is the common wealth of society justly distributed? What is true wealth in God’s eyes? And where does our own treasure lie?

In first-century Palestine, wealth was measured more by the amount of land you owned than by the number of things you had. And since land acquisition usually came through the default of debtors who could not keep up their payments, wealth at the top was accrued at the expense of those further down the economic ladder. More wealth for the rich meant more poverty for the rest.

We have a similar imbalance in our own day. Right now in America, the richest 10% own 77% of the nation’s wealth. The 20 richest individualsown more than the entire bottom half of the population. As wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, the poverty of the many grows wider and deeper. As in the time of Jesus, those at the top get richer by taking from those below them. The recent tax cuts are a perfect example, siphoning huge increases in wealth to the rich, while cutting survival assistance to the needy. Fewer school lunches for poor children, more private jets for the rich.

But if ours is an age of grotesque economic inequality, it is also an age of remarkable private generosity. We have come to look upon billionaires and wealthy foundations as the solvers of public problems, as they dispense impressive grants to improve the lives of the many. So when Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos give away enormous sums or underwrite beneficial actions, are they in fact doing what the rich man fails to do in the gospel story? Are they doing what Jesus asked?

Anand Giridharadas has studied this critical question, and in his provocative book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, he argues that the powerful rich who address problems without changing the very conditions that create those problems is at best a failure of social imagination. A lot of good may be done by the rich, but the system that perpetuates the wrongs being addressed remains firmly in place. In fact, such acts of benevolence provide justification for the continuation of the status quo, making it appear more benign than it really is.

In a recent talk in Seattle, Giridharadas put it this way:

“You can tell rich people to do more good, but you can never tell them to do less harm. You can tell them to give back, but you can never tell them to take less. You can tell them to share the spoils of the system that benefitted them, but you can’t ask them to concede that system.” [vi]

If this is true, then the question that Jesus poses to the rich man, and to us, is not simply about the individual stewardship of our personal wealth, but about our willingness to work and pray for a very different kind of economy.

As biblical scholar Ched Myers has argued in his commentary on this gospel story, if you want to enter God’s kingdom, you have to make an exodus from the dominant paradigm of economic inequality. “The only way [into the Kingdom],” he says, “is to restore to the poor what is theirs by the right of community justice.” [vii]

Perhaps a better term for the Kingdom of God would be the Economy of God, something that was first described in the Book of Exodus. God delivered the people of Israel from the unjust slave economy of Egypt, and then spent the next 40 years providing a desert workshop, trying to teach them a new economy, a new way of living together––without greed, fear, or self-protective violence.

In the desert, God’s people learned to depend on what the Lord’s Prayer calls “our daily bread” – whatever each day provides for you (“give us the bread we need today”).

In Egypt, the idea was to accumulate enough stuff that you didn’t have to depend on others. You didn’t have to trust that you would be provided for as you went along. You could live without God and live without neighbor. But in the desert, you needed God and you needed each other. Whenever the Israelites tried to hoard the manna that fell from heaven each morning, the manna would rot.

Now when the people of Israel came into the Promised Land, they succumbed to the trap of accumulation like the rest of us. But they did not entirely forget their desert wisdom. In the concepts of Sabbath and Jubilee, as well as the impassioned exhortations of the prophets, the Economy of God opposed the concentration of wealth through accumulation, while advocating the circulation of wealth through redistribution.

The Economy of God is an interdependent, communal condition where there are no more divisions of rich and poor. So when Jesus says that the idea of a rich man getting into the kingdom is as absurd as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle, is he judging individual behavior? Or is he saying that in the Economy of God the categories of rich and poor will vanish with the just distribution of divine abundance?

The Economy of God is not like our commodity economy, where things are accumulated, hoarded, and protected by the threat of force. The Economy of God is a gift economy, where the gifts of creation and the gifts of human labor and skill are freely shared, the way manna was shared in the desert by the Israelites of the Exodus.

We practice that economy in this church every Sunday. Every time we break the bread and share it at Christ’s table, we remember the economy of grace taught to our ancestors. The eucharist is a rebuke to the selfish economics of haves and have-nots. It is an invitation into a new way of living and being together.

Is this too much to ask? The rich man in the gospel thought so. But as Wendell Berry reminds us, “The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent upon what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.”

When Jesus invites the rich man to let go not only of his wealth, but also of his participation in an unjust economy, he is calling him out of his comfort zone into an entirely new way of being. That’s what Jesus did, and what Jesus continues to do. As one of my former theology professors, Harvey Cox, has said,

Meeting [Jesus] always seemed to shake people up. He constantly pushed them to think beyond their own immediate interests, to picture themselves in a variety of situations in which choice and action were required – in short, to use their imaginations.” [viii]

In 1969, BBC television aired an unusual production on the life of Jesus, written by the brilliant David Potter. [ix] My favorite scene in this film shows Jesus trying to convey another one of his most challenging teachings––in this case, to love your enemies. As he moves among the crowd, Jesus gets them to embrace one other, as in our liturgical Passing of the Peace.

“Go on,” he says, “love each other. See? It’s nice, isn’t it? It’s easy––easy to love your brother, easy to love those who love you. Even the tax collector can do that. But tell me, tell me, happy people, what is so extraordinary about holding the hands of your brothers and sisters? Do you want me to congratulate you for that, for loving only those who love you? But I say, love your enemy. Love your enemy!

[The crowd is taken aback. Some murmur in protest.]

Love those who hate you, love those who would destroy you,
love the man who would kick you and spit at you. . .

[The protests grow louder.]

Listen to me! What I’m telling you now hasn’t been said since the world began.
I bring you the Way. I am holding up a light in the darkness. . .

 We cannot divide ourselves. We must love each other. . . Pray for your enemy, love your persecutor. . . It is easy to love only those who love you. Would I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?

Jesus might have said the same to the rich man. And to us.

Do you want me to tell you easy things?

 

 

 

 

[i] Collect for Purity, The Holy Eucharist Rite Two, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

[ii] Job 23:2, 16.

[iii] Psalm 22:1.

[iv] John Berryman, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” Love and Fame (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970). Berryman attributes the description to Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165).

[v] James McAuley, “Jesus,” Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess & Peggy Rosenthal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 104. McAuley (1912-1981) was an Australian Roman Catholic.

[vi] Originally delivered September 20th, 2018, at Seattle’s Southside Commons as part of the Town Hall Civics lecture series, it was broadcast on the Seattle NPR station, KUOW, in their Speakers Forum: https://soundcloud.com/kuow/anand-giridharasdas-full-talk-at-southside-community-center

[vii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

[viii] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard (New York: Mariner Books, 2004), 25-6.

[ix] Son of Man (BBC, 1969), directed by Gareth Davies. Irish actor Colin Blakely played Jesus. Dennis Potter, who wrote the script, also wrote the strange and brilliant serial drama, The Singing Detectivein the 1980s.

Faith Meets Works: And the Winner Is . . .

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Jesus open eyes of a man born blind (1311)

Without faith, no good work is ever begun, or completed.

–– Caesarius of Arles

 

A homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the longest running debates in Christianity is the one about faith and works.
Which is primary? Which is more necessary?
Are we saved by faith alone, or do our works matter as well?
Is our salvation due entirely to God, or do we ourselves play any part in it?

This argument goes all the way back to the New Testament. As James asks in today’s epistle, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14)

James is responding to the notion that we are saved sola fide––by faith alone–– and not by anything we ourselves are able to do. He seems to be dissenting from St. Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith,” worrying that it could weaken our ethical motivation.

If the good works that we do make no difference in whether we’re saved––because God is as gracious to sinners as s/he is to saints–– then what’s the point of working hard to do the right thing?

Like the workers in the vineyard, can’t we just show up at the last minute and receive the same wages as those suckers who spend the whole day sweating in the hot sun? (As if our own reward is the heart of the matter!)

Such a caricature, of course, does little justice to the nuanced reflections on faith and works by great thinkers like Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin. But still, in the end, it is fair to ask whether the whole debate is more a matter of language than substance. What do we mean by “faith,” or “justification,” or “salvation?” Without getting too far into the theological weeds, I’ll just say that such words, whatever their particular meanings, all signify a state of being tuned in to the divine way–– a condition shaped by and conformed to what James calls “the royal law”: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, the life of faith is the life of love, mirroring the eternal self-offering of the Holy Trinity in our own manner of living each and every day. When we no longer live for ourselves but for God, anxiety about whether we’re good enough is the last thing on our minds. When we surrender our lives to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, good works are simply who we are and what we do as Love’s chosen instruments.

Good works are not a means to an end, a way to glorify ourselves or earn heavenly rewards. They are simply what happens when God is in us and we are in God.
If you are a blazing fire, you give off heat and light.
If you are “Christ’s own for ever,” your actions are radiant with love and justice.

As Jesus put it, “Let your light so shine before others,
that they may see your good works and give the glory to God” (Mt. 5:16).

Jesus was speaking from experience. As St. Peter said in one of his sermons, “because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good and curing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Today’s gospel, cramming multiple healings into two paragraphs, fits Peter’s concise description of Jesus as a man who went around doing good, a man in a hurry to repair the world.

Good works have been called the fruits of faith, because they make the inwardness of faith visiblein a way that others can see, and nourishingin a way that others can taste. “Good works are witnesses to the Christian faith,” said a fifth-century priest named Salvian, “because otherwise a Christian cannot demonstrate that he has that faith. If he cannot show it, it may as well becompletely nonexistent.” [i]

Where would the world be if we were all faith and no works? The hungry can’t eat our ideas. The vulnerable won’t get much protection from our “thoughts and prayers.” Intention without implementation is pretty useless, as James reminds us in his Epistle:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17).

There was once a man whose heart was so broken by all the pain and injustice in the world that he cried out in anger and despair, “O God, see how much your people suffer! See how much anguish and misery there is in the world! Why won’t you send some help?”

And God answered, “I did send help. I sent you.” [ii]

So where do we start? There’s a world of hurt out there. Can we make a difference? Scripture gives high priority to serving the poor, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, including the outcast, protecting the defenseless, tending the sick, visiting the prisoner, and guarding Creation. At a time when the exact opposite of all these things is being carried out by the highest levels of our government––with the enthusiastic approval of a shockingly high number of white Christians––we can become exhausted, if not despairing, just thinking about the immense labor of resisting evil and preserving the common good.

That’s when works need faith as much as faith needs works––faith that another power is at work here; faith that we aren’t doing it by ourselves. In fact, repairing the world is not a humanproject at all. God started that work, and God will finish it. Meanwhile, as God’s hands and feet in the world, we chip in as best we can for our brief span. Be not afraid. God is always out there ahead of us, hard at work.

God is out there in the attorneys fighting to protect and reunite the children and parents being separated and abused at our southern border. God is there in the faith communities offering protection and sanctuary to the victims of bigotry and racism. God is there in the striking prison inmates who refuse to be treated like animals. God is there marching in the streets against gun violence and environmental suicide.

Oh wait. Is this mixing religion and politics? Of course it is, because religion and politics have always been inseparable, if what you mean by politics is that people actually matter, and the common good actually matters. In a 1979 manifesto, activists Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson defined politics in what I would call religious terms:

“Politics is the way we live our lives. . . It is the way we treat each other, as individuals, as groups, as government. It is the way we treat our environment. It is the way we treat ourselves. Politics has to do with where we shop, what we eat, how we maintain our health. It has to do with the kinds of schools we create, the energy we use, the neighborhood organizations we build, the work we do. Politics involves our way of seeing the world, of developing our consciousness, of awakening our whole selves. It has to do with our attitudes, our values, our innermost dimensions.” [iii]

Of course, for many of us the work of repairing the world is relatively quiet and local most of the time. Random acts of kindness and so forth. As Wendell Berry says, “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling . . .” [iv]

A writer named Bob Libby gives a lovely example of this. He liked to go running at the beach, and whenever the tide was low he saw an old woman “walking along the shore in her white tennis shoes, floppy straw hat, and oversized print dress. She always carried a crumpled brown paper bag that matched the texture and color of her skin.”

Her name was Maggie, and she’d walk along with her head down, pausing occasionally to stoop over, pick something up, and examine it. Then she’d either toss it away or put it in her bag. Libby assumed she was collecting shells, but when he asked her about it one day, she said, “Not shells at all. Glass. Sharp glass. Cuts the feet. Surfers land on it. It sure ruins their summer.” [v]

It doesn’t take much to make the world better, does it? As John Wesley said,

Do all the good you can
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can. [vi]

I’ll leave you with one more story, a parable by Megan McKenna:

There was a woman who knew the world was falling apart. Every day the news made her more depressed. But one day, as she wandered sadly through her town, she had the impulse to step into a little shop she had never noticed before. To her surprise, standing behind the counter was Jesus! At least he looked like all the pictures she’d ever seen of him.

 So she went over and asked him, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?” “I am.” “Do you work here?” “No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.” “Oh. What do you sell in here?” “Just about anything!” “Anything?” “Yep, anything you want.” Jesus leaned forward. “What do you want?” “Um, I’m not really sure.” “Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

 So she did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. When she returned to the counter with her very long list, Jesus looked it over. Then he glanced at her with a smile and said, “No problem.”

 Then he bent down behind the counter, picked out a bunch of different small packets, and laid them out in front of her. “What are these?” she asked. “Seed packets,” Jesus said. “You take them home to plant, then you nurture them and help them to grow, and one day in the future there will be others to come and reap the harvest.”

“Oh,” she said. [vii]

 

 

 

[i] Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2007), 336.

[ii] David Wolpe, Teaching Your Children About God, q. in Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life (New York: Scribner, 1996), 317.

[iii] Ibid., 330. McLaughlin and Davidson were part of the New World Alliance, an idealistic project to create a “transformational politics.”

[iv] Wendell Berry, q. in Brussat, 341.

[v]Bob Libby, Grace Happens, q. in Brussat, 341-2.

[vi] q. in Brussat, 360-61.

[vii] Adapted from a story in Megan McKenna, Parables, q. in Brussat, 359. McKenna has the woman walk out without buying anything, like the rich young man who decided following Jesus was too hard. My wife, also a preacher, thought the congregation should be left with the woman’s final response still undecided. So I ended it with “Oh.” But I can’t help hearing the disappointment in her voice.