Sermon for 3rd Pentecost, Year C, June 26, 2022: A Sonnet (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)


In the name of God, giver of life, example of courage, and source of love. Amen.

“Why,” Calvin demanded of the divine being before him, “can’t you see what’s going to happen”?

“How can I explain it to you?” she said, “In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet… It is a very short form of poetry… There are fourteen lines… all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter… And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet… But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants…So…”

“So what”? the boy demanded.

“Oh, don’t be stupid, boy!... [I am] comparing your lives to a sonnet. A strict form, but freedom within it… You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”[1]

God allows us to make choices – to write our own sonnets. But many of us would prefer not to have to make choices at all - because we are afraid. We are terrified of making the wrong choice, even when the stakes are relatively low. In the book from which the passage I just read is taken, the stakes are very high. The boy, Calvin, demands that if she wants him to make this decision, the divine being should tell him what will happen if he does. But even this supernatural creature cannot do that - because she cannot foresee the choices people will make along the way – and those choices will determine the outcome of the quest. They have been given the tools they need to triumph, but they must wield them themselves.

So it is with God. Our Divine Maker has given us all the means we need to live in what we call Beloved Community – an environment of compassion, equality, health, joy, and peace – but we must choose to use them – and sometimes those choices are hard and we don’t want to make them, preferring to allow ourselves to be swept along in the current of louder and stronger voices. We figure that this way when they make the wrong choices, it will not be our fault.

This mindset is responsible for some of the worst sins humanity has ever committed against God’s creation. The number of military and political leaders who have devised the wars, famines, and genocides that litter human history is minor when compared to the multitudes who simply allowed these things to happen. As Rabbi Shlomo Litvin says of the Holocaust, “We recall that the world saw some of the most evil acts we’ve ever seen in human history… and the world did nothing. They did less than nothing. They shut doors to those who they knew were fleeing”[2] – and now many deny it ever happened. These people were, of course, afraid to act – just as we would have been. So, while it is tempting to condemn generations of people who chose to do nothing in the face of evil, we cannot do so when we so clearly understand that tendency ourselves.

I do, anyway. I struggle mightily over what to say and when and how to act, particularly in relationship to my calling as an ordained person. I work hard trying to find the line between welcoming all people and all perspectives and my duty to speak the word of God as it is revealed to me. I am afraid of making a terrible mistake and causing the fall of this church and, indirectly, The Episcopal Church and the Church of Christ itself. I am afraid of failing my people, my calling, and my God.
Obviously, I am not the first person who has had such feelings. In last week’s reading, we met the prophet Elijah hiding from queen Jezebel in fear of losing his life for bringing God’s wrath down on her false prophets. This week we learn that he has reluctantly anointed a successor and is headed to Bethel, where he hopes his work will end. Elijah was a solitary prophet who suffered extensively to serve God in a time of wicked and rebellious political leaders. His successor will be different. Elisha is what we would call a team player, which is why he vows that he will not let Elijah die alone. When asked what he gifts he would like to assist him with his ministry, Elisha comes up with a hard ask - a double share of the great prophet Elijah’s spirit.

This story makes three important points about what it means to do God’s will. The first is that Elisha does not ask for human power or riches. He asks for spiritual gifts. Secondly, the story itself shows us why God gives Elisha his wish. In it, Elisha proves himself to be both faithful and brave. The third lesson is less obvious, but no less important. Elisha is only given what he asks for because he sees Elijah ascending into God’s presence. Elisha is favored by God because his vision, which might have been clouded by the smoke of fear, grief, and the dangers of the world, is clear. He sees. He knows what God is asking of him, asks for what he needs to do it, and God provides.

This is what always happens when we put aside our fears to do what we know is right – actions that produce the fruits of the Spirit. St. Paul went to great pains to make the Galatians understand this. At no point in his letter to his feuding friends does Paul tell them that wanting is bad. It is desiring the wrong things that is destructive. The list of “wrong things” that Paul provides should not surprise us. Paul condemns behaviors that cater to selfish desire and undermine community. Now, I know that if someone made a quiz of this on Facebook (Ann Fisher?) asking each of us how many of these things we have done, no one would score a zero. The issue is whether we understand that they are wrong and try not to do them (or do them again). True sin – chronic, communal sin - happens when we start to value the works of the flesh and lose sight of the kin-dom of God. This means that when any government, any body, any Church acts in the interest of its corporate survival and the safety of its members over the interests of God – when they choose power over peace and lust over love - they commit evil. God does not give us freedom to make temples of ourselves, but to make holy the temples of God.

We do this by choosing Jesus and his Way - a way based on love. Jesus asks us not to control others, but to serve them – just as he did. He asks us to try to do what we say we believe in – making choices that reflect our faith. For the disciples who followed him toward Jerusalem, that meant turning the other cheek and persevering when people mocked and rejected their message. It meant emulating Jesus’s pattern of kenosis – Greek for “self-emptying.” It meant putting him before their comfort, safety, families, and friends, rejecting the ways of their world, and recognizing that the only home we need is Jesus himself.

They didn’t like that idea any better than we do. Their first reaction in the face of hatred and rejection was a desire for violence and revenge – as it so often is with us. But Jesus clearly tells them that “the use of violence to enforce Christian faith is counter to the spirit of Christ.”[3] Right now, this command is particularly hard to accept. All around us we see people acting with violence against those who think differently than they do. In action after action, those in power reject Jesus’s command to care for those who are poor, marginalized, and oppressed and instead empower the few to limit the freedoms of the many. This enrages and discourages us. We cry aloud to God and we refuse to be comforted. But just as Jesus does not allow us to answer hatred with hatred and violence with violence, he also dissuades us from hiding our faces and hoping that someone else will do something to stop these evils. We are to act, but also to take comfort, remembering that faith always overcomes fear. And we must use our freedom justly, identifying and combatting restrictions of freedom that are based on fear.

This is a hard road, as Elijah and Paul both knew, but we have many examples of saints who swallowed their fear and walked the way of Christ - people like Howard Thurman, Gene Robinson, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who reminded us that when we simply remain neutral in situations of injustice, we are choosing the side of the oppressor.

We can choose to see the limits of the form that God has given us within which we write our lives, or we can choose to see its freedoms. We can choose to give in to the fears that haunt us, or we can choose to put our faith in God. Life is a sonnet. Go forth and write yours with courage and faith. AMEN.
[1]Madeline L’Engle, (1962), Paraphrasing of A Wrinkle in Time, [New York: Dell Publishing, Co., Inc.], p. 198-199. [2]Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, (July, 2021), “Some of the worst evils in history: Lexington rabbi discusses Holocaust Remembrance Day,” https://foxlexington.com/news/local/some-of-the-worst-evils-in-history-lexington-rabbi-discusses-holocaust-remembrance-day/ [3]Elaine A. Heath, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year C Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 192.
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