Ian Sowton reads Dry Bone Valley

Homily for Pentecost 17

Hebrew testament: Proverbs 31: 10-31.

The heading of this concluding chapter of the book of proverbs is “the sayings of Lemuel king of Massa,  {taught him by his mother}.” The first few verses are of practical political advice on the national level, ending with an emphasis on the king doing justice.

Then we come to the domestic, local level and get this paean to “the truly capable partner in marriage”.   It’s a highly structured song of praise, being an acrostic type of poem, each verse beginning with a letter of Hebrew alphabet….this paragon of a chatelaine clearly rates as a subject for the lead article in an issue of good housekeeping—textile artist,  shrewd businesswoman, domestic manager, always usefully occupied, charitable, dress-maker, wise of speech and more than fully deserving of her  family and her “share in the fruits of her labour”.

A contemporary women’s rights point of view throws a spotlight on an ancient tension, or paradox here: on the one hand there’s not the slightest doubt who’s fashioning and running this household; on the other hand it’s clear that the immediate and chief beneficiary of this woman extraordinaire is her husband.  Here’s a wife who knows her place but—or “and” if you prefer, it’s a very powerful, influential place.

It’s been speculated that this poem once functioned as a kind of compendium of advice to upper class girls.  The main point I wish to derive from this Hebrew testament reading is the wisdom it takes to create and maintain domestic harmony…I didn’t initially give you the complete chapter heading, which I leave you to ponder the significance of.

Psalm 1:

This psalm asserts the venerable wish-fulfilment theology that the good prosper and the bad come to a bad end.  Everyone, including the psalmist, knows that this system of reward and punishment is not very often borne out in real life.  And indeed, the psalmist complains about the injustice of it; or pleads for protection from the bad guys on the grounds that he’s a good guy.  But he also persists in linking goodness— especially reverence for Yahweh and the commandments—to reward and wickedness to punishment.  Occasionally punishment is linked right away and unmistakably to wickedness.   The most spectacular case of this being David himself when he is caught out as an adulterous murderer, which gives rise to his penitential psalm #51.  Even though he is exempted from direct punishment on his own person, he is punished by the loss of his new born son and the judgement that his royal house will never be free of turmoil and the sword; and he is punished, too, by having to live with these disastrous consequences of his sin….but in the main, the dogma of goodness being rewarded and wickedness being punished persists.

This persistence is a faith-act, faith being the hope for things as yet unseen—things that have not yet come to pass.  Such wisdom as there is in today’s psalm is the psalmist’s faith, his persistence in hoping for things as yet unseen in spite of all contrary evidence…(the book of job profoundly queries the dogma of the good and innocent being always rewarded and the bad and guilty always punished.  It is a tremendously powerful exploration of the way things really are, and one that doesn’t reflect too well on its version of Yahweh.  But that is another story.)

The Epistle: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

I’m really fond of James; he is so forthright and adds a nice amount of ballast to theological discourse.  He’s been taking us through his letter over the last few Sundays.   We can summarize a good deal of what he writes this way: you may talk the talk of faith but if you do not walk the walk of faith in good works your talk is meaningless.

In today’s passage he moves from that kind of foundation to wonderful injunctions like, “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.“  wonderful.  Or a saying like, as the translation in the Jerusalem bible has it, “the peace sown by peacemakers brings a harvest of justice.”  Note that peace is made—it is a good work done with gentleness born of wisdom….these sentences provide an immediate context for the problems James now wishes to address: “these conflicts among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?….” {etc}

Except for the murder bit (since various elements of the world-wide Anglican communion haven’t got round to cutting throats yet) these Jamesian words strongly remind me of the afflictions currently besetting the Anglican/Episcopalian world.  There have been breaka- ways, law suits, endless palaver, postponements like referring back to committees and commissions, gays leaving the church in despair, excommunications, and reversals of the original flow of missionary traffic for the purpose of rescuing us poor benighted souls lost in the heretical darkness of same-sex blessings and marriages and/or the ordination of women bishops.

And now that covenant, for which I must confess up front I have no use.   I do not think we are people of the covenant, neither the old Hebrew testament covenant nor this new one being touted, though it’s been running into some pretty stiff opposition…..these covenantal conflicts

Among us, where do they come from?  I think there is a multiple impulse for covenant. First: a hankering for a secure, centralized, hierarchical authority—the kind of ambition and aspiration that James repudiates and, if we refer to the gospel for today, that Jesus has to confront his disciples with.  Their recent embarrassing conversation has been about who among them is the most important, who is the biggest cheese.  “friends, you‘ve got it all wrong,“ says Jesus, “all upside down and back to front.” ….so for me part of the impulse for covenant smacks of setting up a framework for an enforceable power trip by whoever sees themselves as most important, as possessing the most authority.

Second: it is also an impulse to impose conformity, to map uniformity onto unity -–to make them much the same thing.  But of course they’re not the same thing.  I don’t conform to various usages and traditions of our Episcopalian brothers and sisters, for example, but that in no way impedes or compromises my strong sense of unity with them.

Third, and perhaps the most troubling thing for me about the impulse to covenant: religious covenants in particular are by nature divisive.  To belong you sign on and thereby become an insider.  Any inside necessarily creates an outside.  This compromises the impulse to inclusiveness and leaves a door ajar for exclusiveness….we all have the fundamental theological as well as psychological need to belong, to be included in community.  We are all vulnerable to being or becoming disabled—physically, mentally, spiritually, socially.  I’ve been fortunate, but I can attest from my lofty height of 83 years that being physically abled and hale is a condition both vulnerable and temporary….finally, all three aspects of this multiple impulse share the element of safe-havenship.

Here in this congregation there are various models of inclusion that we try to live up to.  Four of these are: [1] an early Sunday morning ministry of hospitality toward our non-parish friends some of whom are un-homed or de-housed.  [2]  helping sponsored refugees to become included in the fabric of Canadian society as smoothly as may be.

I take my membership on our refugee committee to be my part in a ministry of inclusion.  [3] Intentional, proactive inclusion of lgbt members.  We have been a queer friendly congregation for so long and so openly that we tend to take this mode of inclusiveness for granted, though we shouldn’t, because it is still a very live issue in our Diocese of Toronto, not to mention elsewhere. [4] Seeking continuously to make sure that our wheel-chair members are truly welcome and really included by trying, among other things, to amend any of the ways—including issues of accessibility—that might make for a sense of limited inclusion or of not being genuinely welcome.

I conclude with two poems that I’ve recently written which have to do with that just mentioned fourth example or model of inclusiveness.

My hope is that between them these two poems bring home some of the things that are fundamental to all our efforts to be inclusive—even though the poems are keyed to truly including the disabled.


Some of you are gone now but, absent
or still present, your words and actions
go on teaching us the lexicon
and meaning of solidarity:

Mind your linguistic P’s and Q’s,
get straight your nouns and adjectives:
we are not cripples but persons
named, proper-nouned,
who happen to be disabled.

Healing may usually be taken to mean
getting better”, “being cured”; but
it always also means restorative
welcome into community.

Take your pity and stuff it.
Be gingerly with charity.
What we look for is solidarity
in exchanges of compassion.

Courage is first among your honesties.
Never mind hands that are shaking
or lock-fingered, or feet folded over,
your words, if you have speech, and
in any case your very being, your solid
I am here-ness, have weight enough
to rap smartly on truth’s door.

To those of you among us,
Hail friends and well met.
To those of you now gone:
Fare well wherever, however you are—
enjoying a heaven of mobility
or dispersed among creation’s elements
midwifing the birth of some new star.

Ian Sowton, September 2012

MARILYN FERREL, 1948 – 2011

You were born wounded, jostled from the nest
to flutter past green joys and flop below
on thorns of life as an endurance test.

Yet you helped yourself, made yourself a guest
wherever rich ideas are served, although
you were born wounded, jostled from the nest.

Your vocation was both to be a pest
to clichés of disablement and grow
on thorns of life as an endurance test.

We all have wounds, you said, and made a quest
of teaching us shared pain, we who know
you were born wounded, jostled from the nest.

Your God was a great flaring forth of zest
for creation, not antidote for woe
on thorns of life as an endurance test—

it was our job to see your wounds were dressed.
What healed was mutual inclusion, though
you were born wounded, jostled from the nest
on thorns of life as an endurance test.


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