Saturday, September 19, 2009

Where have all the flowers gone?

RCL Proper 25B
20 September 2009

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers: Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 1; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37

On Thursday, the 17th of September 2009, Mary Travers of the vocal trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, died after a lengthy battle with leukemia. When I heard the news of her death, I was deeply moved. I grew up in the United States during the turbulent years of the struggle for the civil rights of Afro-Americans, the civil strife over the war in Vietnam and the transition from the white, middle-class society of the post-war years into the more multi-cultural and politically-fractured society that is the United States today. When I reached adolescence, it was the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary that spoke to more far more than those of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or any of the individuals and groups that colour the music of the sixties.

I listened to their songs because the words mattered. Their music was the vehicle that caused the words to remain in one’s consciousness. When they sang about peace, I believed that peace was possible. When they sang about justice, I believed that justice was possible. When they sang about the value of every human being, man, woman, child, I believed them. When they sang about childhood dreams and fantasies, I believed them.

I believed Peter, Paul and Mary because, even when I might not entirely agree with the political views they expressed, I knew that they were willing to put their lives where their songs were. They were with Martin Luther King during the March on Washington in the early sixties. They were in the midst of those who were protesting the involvement of the United States in what was essentially a civil war in Vietnam.

When I heard the news of Mary Travers’ death, I came to realize that a significant factor in my emotional response to her death was due to a simple fact: She taught me to believe that fundamental change was possible and I found myself no longer certain that this was true. I am fifty-six years old and discrimination against gays and lesbians, aboriginals and people of colour, the exploitation of the poor and the pursuit of personal privilege rather than the common good are still powerful realities not only in places far away from ‘the best place on earth’ but even here in this place of safety, prosperity and relative freedom. Even when I played her music on Thursday and Friday, the emotion was not renewed hope but disappointment that the vision still awaited its time.

Then I realized that I was to preach today, so I turned to the readings in order to prepare. In these texts I was brought up short and forced to consider what it means to be wise in the eyes of God. Although it is not common on so-called ‘green’ Sundays for the readings to present a unified picture, there is a strand that connects them together.

For those of us who were present for June Eveleigh’s funeral, the first reading will be familiar. In the closing section of the book of Proverbs, the writer composes a hymn to praise ‘the woman of worth’ who exemplifies “strength, independence, courage, kindness, wisdom and piety”. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed., 942 Hebrew Bible) What struck me at June’s funeral and in reading these words again is how the writer understands wisdom to be more than just knowledge. Wisdom is shown in how one actually lives and ‘the woman of worth’ is praised because of how she lives her life and conducts the affairs of her household.

We then responded with the psalm that ancient editors decided should introduce the whole collection of psalms. The righteous, the writer says, are known for what they do: they delight in the law of the Lord, they mediate on God’s law and they bear fruit.

Then we hear the words from the letter of James to an early community of Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah. Throughout Christian history this letter has been an object of controversy because of its clear affinity with Jewish tradition and its perceived critique of the theology of Paul, a powerful figure in the development of the Christian faith. But what wonderful words these are to hear: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. . . . (The) wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (James 3.13, 17) True wisdom is made evident in the conduct of one’s life, both personally and communally.

The lectionary seals the readings with a short passage from the gospel of Mark, but it too speaks of true wisdom. “Do you want to be great?”, Jesus asks his disciples, “If you want to be great, then act like a child.” Treat every moment as a gift. Be prepared to be surprised by new possibilities. Give flawed people the benefit of the doubt. Do not be afraid to express your feelings. Believe that the world is good. Sing, whether in tune or out of tune, at all times and in all places. This is wisdom; this is greatness.

Wisdom is shown by our actions in the midst of this confusing yet profoundly simple, at times disappointing yet always promising, marked by sorrows yet grounded in joy story we call our lives. There are those who believe that what we do, in the end, really does not matter, but the Scriptures and the experience of Jews and Christians throughout the millennia unite to sing a song of resistance to such counsel. Wisdom is known by her children and, through the Holy Spirit and the obedience of Christ, we are the children of the Holy One who is the source of our wisdom. Whether cities rise or fall, whether churches flourish or diminish, whether we live to see the fruits of our labours or not, wisdom is known by how we live and love, by how our words are embodied in our actions.

I know why the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary mattered and still matter to me. When they sing, they sing in the hope that their words will stir us into action. When they sing about peace, justice and the integrity of every human being, they are issuing a summons, just as surely as the writers of the Proverbs, the Psalms, James and Mark who wrote so long before our time. All unite in a common song, a song that echoes through time and must be sung again and again.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on (this) law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

So let us sing our song of wisdom, a song that begins with the breath of our bodies and ends with the work of our hands. Amen.