Under the Oaks at Ketoctin

Last Sunday I was the guest preacher at the annual Homecoming of the Ketoctin Baptist Church, near Round Hill, Virginia. This was my third invitation in thirty years to offer reflections that might speak to the heart of the values, stories, and struggles that have taken place on this “ancient wooded hill” in the past 270 years. It adjoins land that was once my family’s farm but which is now dotted with expensive homes spawned by the explosive growth of Washington, DC, 45 miles away. My great-grandfather was wounded fighting for the Union at Antietam, a few miles away. A pastor of this church was a Confederate chaplain. In the cemetery are both Black and white, slave and free. It is a complex history. Around the church stand aged oaks and maples. As the raucous cry of 17-year cicadas echoed through the trees in the 92-degree heat, I turned to the story of Abraham’s meeting with God, appearing as three men, on another ancient wooded hill, as told in Genesis 18:1-15. This was, in fact, the starting place for my reflections on “home” some 12 years earlier. Here are my remarks:

We gather here for a time of recall, remembrance, and return, not only to a place, but to some core beliefs and memories.

We gather and celebrate our own return to this place after a year of isolation and loss, with a new appreciation for the benefits of silence, solitude, and close friends.

We gather to recall memories of this place, many of them only barely surviving the neglect and loss of physical records, going back to 1751, 270 years ago.

We also gather to remember this as a sacred place, a door to the sacred, a place where we remember ancient memories of God’s encounter with us. And in these memories we renew our commitments to some fundamental values reflected in the lives of people who have gone before us. We rediscover anew the importance of memory and confession as well as of the promise of God’s reconciliation and peace.

The original tribes here called this Ketoctin, “ancient wooded hill.” And so it has remained to this day, even though Christian garb surrounds the clothing of the native customs and beliefs that first embraced this wood.

Nurtured in the stories of the Bible, we also can see in this sacred place another, more ancient sacred grove of oaks—another sacred place called Mamre in the Scriptures—a place where ancient religious belief found new life in the emerging faith in the mysterious Yahweh of the Hebrew people.

This ancient place of sacred rites was called the “oaks of Mamre.”  It was where Abraham went after separating from Lot in their division of the land. It was near present day West Bank city of Hebron, near the burial place of Abraham and Sarah at nearby Machpelah. In 2008 my wife Sylvia and I were able to visit the temple that marks their tomb. To do so, we had to win our way past several checkpoints staffed by armed soldiers seeking to ensure the safety of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims to this holy site. Although it was a place of relative peace in the Genesis story, it has been a place of terrible strife today, just as this place here, a sacred place of peace, was torn apart in Civil War and controversies over the meaning of liberty for all. How cruel it is that sacred places of the divine-human encounter become testimonies to our fear, aggression, and brutality. And yet it is in these very places that we are called to lift up a light of peace and reconciliation.

It was at Mamre that Abraham built an altar for ceremonies of sacrifice to the mysterious God they could only name with the breath-word “YHWH.” The place of the oaks revered by the ancient inhabitants of the land became a place of worship for the people of Abraham. The breathing of the wind among the leaves became a mirror of the breath of God.

And so, first of all, we remember that under the oaks we find a place of worship. It is a place where we are drawn from the ordinary into the extraordinary, from anxiety and restlessness to awe and peace. It is a place that renews our souls as they entertain the strength and patience of the mighty oaks.

And it was here that Abraham received Yahweh, appearing as three men, three strangers. And here he and his servants prepared a feast, just as has often occurred here on these grounds beneath these oaks (though to be sure with much more planning!). For many Christians, this story has been pregnant with meaning, for they have seen it as a premonition of the understanding of God as Three-in-One, as Trinity. In this Christian interpretation God is not only the breath and spirit of life but the relationship of love. Indeed, Sylvia and I were privileged to gaze upon a depiction of this very scene as it appears in the sixth century Cathedral of San Vitale in Ravenna on Italy’s east coast, where it is done in lavish mosaic on one side of the central altar, explicitly interpreting the meal under the oaks as a Holy Communion, a Eucharist. Under the oaks, God comes to be in fellowship with human beings.

For Jewish readers this story is first of all a simple assertion of the centrality of hospitality to strangers, a hospitality that is at the heart of recognizing God as Creator of All. In our own time the work of hospitality and its grounding in the belief in the unity of humanity is more important than ever. For we are schooled daily to see the stranger as an enemy, a threat, as in some way sub-human. Living in fear of the stranger, we are quickened to violence rather than conviviality, to self-protection rather than self-giving. But here, in this story, we remember that under the oaks is not only worship, but hospitality, its truest expression.

But neither Jewish nor Christian readers stop there, for the passage goes on to the famous prediction of the strangers that Sarah, despite her years, will give birth to one who will open the way of promise to a living heritage of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to this very day. Sarah, as we remember, laughed in disbelief, anticipating the very name “laughter” that they gave to Isaac when she did indeed give birth. In the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah is the beginning of a tradition of faith that has suffered grievously to this day, with a horrific shedding of blood among the children of Abraham and Sarah, an enmity that is still crying out for God’s reconciliation. In the work of reconciliation of these estranged descendants of Abraham and Sarah we can find a promise of a greater humanity united in God’s spirit. And even today we see the ongoing challenge of reconciliation among the children of the generations that have worshipped here on this ancient wooded hill.

Under the oaks of Mamre, like the oaks of Ketoctin, we see both hospitality and awesome mystery, an unbelievable promise and mocking laughter.

Belief and disbelief.

Awe and feasting.

Worship and rest.

Pulpit and oak.

Bible and nature.

We remember death and we seek to live into resurrection.

So here we remember that under the oaks is God’s promise of reconciliation.

This work of reconciliation is a work of confession as well as conversation. Here we have the quiet peace under the shaded oaks, and the solemn graves of generations who have gone before us. Here we have memories of terrible destruction as our ancestors fought over slavery and freedom. And so we bend our hearts in confession. Here we have a memory of those who sought the freedom to preach, worship, and live according to the dictates of their conscience rather than the dictates of the state or an established church. And so we lift our voices in thankful praise. Under the gracious oaks we have an invitation to show forth our hearts in confession of sin as well as gratitude for God’s grace.

Another way of putting this is that under the oaks we have the mystery of a holy conversation. Under these oaks we have a tradition of listening for the presence of God and also of table hospitality and conversation. Here we have a conversation between pulpit and tree, pew and field, ancestral memory and prophetic promise. In the pew and pulpit we have a conversation among a people and also a conversation with the writings of the founders of our faith many centuries ago. In this holy conversation, we seek to enter into the spirit of Christ, so that it is a conversation of love as well as insight, of self-restraint as well as self-expression, of conscience as well as of reasonable persuasion, of hope as well as judgment. Baptists in particular sought here recognition of the right of a people of faith to have a free conversation in the midst of a free republic. It was a dream that began as a limited conversation among propertied white males, but then they began to broaden the economic circle, for they were not propertied people. And there were decades of bloody turmoil to extend it beyond the bounds of race and ancestry.

According to one source, they endorsed the gradual emancipation of the enslaved in 1797, only to be engulfed in the fracturing growth of slavery in the subsequent years. And today this same spirit of holy conversation strains to take us beyond the limits of sex and gender. In the midst of many arguments, fights, and separations they sought to stay in the circle of Christ’s conversation with all of us. And now, though the conversation in this place is often but a silent memory, this faith has become an expanding circle of conversations around the world. We can no more see its end than did the ancient ones remembered among these stones.

It has been a conversation of confession of sin as well as exultation of hope, thanks, and assurance. For they were fallible as we are fallible. Just as they suffered over slavery, we are now experiencing a suffering over the life of all creation. These murmuring oaks may be testifying that we are not living in harmony with our natural environment, a way that is bringing suffering to us all, human and non-human alike. They invite us to a better path of care and conservation.

For many years Sylvia has been engaged in a special kind of art that the Japanese call kintsugi—the repair of broken pots, vases, and pitchers. In that repair the cracks are lined with gold, silver, and other beautiful elements that bring the pot back together so you can see even more vividly where it has been broken. The motto among those who do kintsugi is “more beautiful for having been broken.” It is an image of our fragility and the beautiful work of God’s grace.

When Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, spoke about the pages of a printed language, he called them “talking leaves.” Here, we have not only the talking leaves of the Bible but those of the oaks themselves, whose leaves speak of patient hope, of self-giving, of breathing as one with the whole creation. Here, we listen to talking leaves of many kinds as we struggle for God’s harmony and purpose. It is what Jews call “tikkun olam,” the healing of the earth.

And so we are turned to a new conversation—under these oaks, with this Bible, with the faithful of all ages. Among these oaks I hear their leaves talking, carrying on the conversation.

And so we gather. We gather to listen to ancestors whose voices linger only in some faint words in books. We gather at a table of hospitality and struggle for a greater hospitality for all. We listen to voices of the past and we listen to leaves that speak a patience we can scarcely imagine. It is a place of holiness, of breathing the breath of life. Having gathered here to remember, we seek to live into the promise of the life before us. And the question comes: Will we be faithful to that promise of life abundant, of life shared, of life forgiven, of life in harmony among the oaks of many generations?   It is the question that calls us forth today from Ketoctin, the “ancient wooded hill” of reconciliation with God, with each other, and with God’s world.

Under these oaks is worship.

Under these oaks is hospitality.

Under these oaks is a holy conversation without end. Amen.

Benediction

And now may the One who brings all life into being

Give you the strength of ancient oaks,

The Wisdom of the Word made flesh,

And the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit,

Now and forever. Amen.

 

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Weeping for the Peace of Jerusalem

In the stunned faces and writhing bodies of little children besieged by bombs and missiles we hear the ancient cry of the God whose own body is constantly torn apart by us all—God’s very own children. Whether we are Americans, Israelis, or Palestinians, our own tortured histories have produced this terror. We have all claimed lands and houses that our not our own, all in the name of God or history, or ancestry. The higher our reasons, the more vicious our justifications, the more violent our actions. The Bible may be a testimony to God’s grace but it is just as visibly a witness to our violence and aggression.

And so we weep.

And in this weeping, we continue to seek to crawl, to inch, toward a table where we might all eat together, where we might exercise hospitality to strangers, where we might reconcile our differences for the sake of the One who created us all. It’s a practice that stretches from Abraham’s welcome to the divine strangers at Mamre (Genesis 18) to Jesus’s table fellowship with his followers in Jerusalem. It is one we seek to live into every month here in our own little town with our Roundtable Gathering. And so I share again with you the Call and the Remembrance from our last gathering, as we pray for the Peace—the deep just Shalom— of Jerusalem. That God’s body—and ours—might be healed.

Call to the Table

Out of your desperate search to claim your land

I lead you to the land of my abundance.

Away from poisoned wells of greed

I draw you to the water of my love.

From ancient olive trees uprooted

I bring green branches of my peace.

Out of a dying Jordan River

I create anew the ocean of my faithfulness.

In a Jerusalem of national idolatries

I raise a table for humanity to gather for a feast.

We come to your table.

Your table of peace.

ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

 

Remembrance

In the garden of our innocence you gave us your companionship.

In our anxious drive for domination we cut up your land to house our fear.

Farmers and herdsmen fell upon each other’s throats.

Our ceremonies of devotion became the bloody pretense for a holocaust,

Your word of justice sank in silence underneath the stones of retribution.

Out of the suffering body of your precious world you birthed a new creation.

Out of the hanging tree, now full with blossom, you brought forth a fruit to feed the world.

Out of a dying branch you built a table open to us all.

Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

 

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Climate Conversion, Memory, and the Fire

As I was about to put together a posting with some of the liturgy from last Sunday’s Roundtable Worship, news and pictures reached me of the horrific fire on Table Mountain in Cape Town that has gutted the rare books library of the University of Cape Town. I could see the building, flames pouring out of its windows, where I had read some old journals containing articles about race relations and comparisons between South African and American experiences of “the frontier,” slavery, emancipation, and ongoing apartheid and segregation. Lost.

UCT Rare Books Library in Flames

And I thought about our loss of memory and the distorted memories that keep us from addressing our racist divisions and our alienation from a nature now consuming us. On Sunday we sought to speak about the deep conversion we must undergo to come to terms with our disruption of the world we have taken for granted. We didn’t speak about the consuming fire the Biblical writings invoke to speak of repentance and conversion. We spoke of caterpillars changing into butterflies, of renewed longing for the good. The fire devours and destroys. How can it redeem and renew?

On more than one occasion in our sojourns in Cape Town we would look with alarm at the brush fires consuming the fynbos and pine trees on Devil’s Peak behind the university. Some were “natural.” Others were set to control the accumulation of tinder-dry vegetation. We walked many times along the trails with desiccated leaves and stalks crunching underfoot. But now those paths had erupted into fires uncontained by controlled burnings. Our civilization has pressed too close upon the proper boundaries between life and life, become too contemptuous of the laws that still control our movement on this globe. The uncontrolled fire roared through the rustic café above the university buildings and somehow reached the library, turning it into a funeral pyre of collective memory. We do not yet know what other damage it caused, including to human life.

We gathered virtually on Sunday to try to imagine the people we need to become in order to be faithful earthlings, stewards where we have the power, friends where we must stand among the animal equals of this world. Neither the fires nor the floods, the droughts or scorching heat, are through with us. In our fear before this storm of Nature’s rage we turn against each other, turn against the messengers of doom, turn against the very knowledge that might guide us to a new convivium with the other creatures and forces of this world.

The fires, like so many other disruptive events in our midst, call us to a conversation open to a greater mystery and to a hope that there is a nurture at this special table that might help our eyes to clear amidst the smoke, our lungs absorb the air that brought us into being, our minds to wrestle with the task before us in the fire we have fueled.

Here are some words from our own gathering:

Call to the Table

            From stagnant waters of our brutal dominion

                        You lead us to the flowing river of your life.

            Out of the fiery furnace of our insatiable greed

                        You draw us to the cooling balm of your everlasting mercy.

            Through the swirling refuse of our careless exploitation,

                        You guide our fragile boat to peaceful shores.

            Out of the burning desert of exhausted habitations

                        You bring us to the shelter of your welcoming trees.

            We gather ‘round the table of your bounty,

Your table of Peace.

            ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

A Moment of Visualization: A painting on Native American wisdom by Wes Yamaka

Remembrance

From the dust you drew us into being as an earthling.

From the air you gave us breath to live by words and songs.

From the waters of the sea you brought forth the blood of every life.

From every plant in your abundant garden you gave us daily nurture.

By your grace and mercy we received the life of fellow animals.

By the moon and sun you ordered out activity and rest.

In the desolation of our globe we feel your judgment and your rage.

In the faithfulness of spring we feel your call to resurrection.

At the table of self-giving life our hope in you is once again renewed.

Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Thanksgiving  

O Source and Savior of Creation,

For the power of your love in overcoming our destruction, our lips are opened up in thankfulness. For the life you give beyond the death around and in us, we lift our voice in thanks and praise. For the love that brought us into being and upholds us to this day, our hearts are filled with gratitude. For the self-giving love that brings us to this table of your peace, our tongues burst forth in song.

Song, prayer, thought, words, listening—we seek to walk ahead toward a greater light.

 

 

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Demons Personal and Public

America needs its own day of Yom Kippur—a day of repentance and atonement, a day of confession and renewal. Without a time set aside for naming this essential human task, we have no container for the lament and grief arising in us as we look at our history of slavery and racism, for genocide and the wanton destruction of our habitat. We need a time and ritual forms to confess that we are not “the greatest” and do not live on a one-way express train to the Promised Land. Moreover, we need to suspend our belief in the quick fix and find ways to be open in humility to new possibilities for our personal and collective life.

Christians have Lent, where we are invited, indeed called, to do this work personally, but it rarely guides us to our collective need for confession, lament, conversion, and renewal. America has a long history of Jeremiads and “awakenings.” Indeed, we may be in one right now. But the old formulas and practices have lost their legitimation in the wake of corrupt would-be Messiahs and foolish fantasies and conspiracies. In the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic leadership and its reawakening in the Poor People’s Campaign led by William Barber today, we see lineaments of it. Whether we can enlarge the wider canopy of our deep culture to accommodate this work as a regular and intentional part of what it is to be American requires contributions from all of us.

Part of the challenge is to find links between the personal and the public, between our work of personal reconstruction and the reconstruction of our social order. We need language and symbols that take seriously the depth of the problem and open us up to the vistas of possibilities that can only emerge from the One who holds all things together in a divine purpose. In a Lenten meditation I wrote for our church recently I explored one source for thinking about the personal and collective demons that hold us in thrall and bondage. It might be a launchpad for your own search as well.

(You might want to refresh your memories by reading the three versions of the story of the exorcism of the demoniacs in Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; and Luke 8: 26-39.)

These three Gospellers relate versions of a story that has gripped, fascinated, and perplexed Christians for two thousand years. Scholars can speculate on the differences among them (was there one demoniac or two?), but certain points appear in all three. The demoniacs are outcastes. They live in the tombs outside the town. They are unrestrained wild men, who injure others as well as themselves. Mark says they are possessed by unclean spirits. In their mental pollution they have lost almost every element of their humanity and been severed from every social bond.

They are inhabited by multiple demonic forces who take over their psyches so they even lose their very identity. Today we might say that they had multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, or severe psychoses. Mark and Luke write that the demoniac tells Jesus that his very name is Legion, because of the multitude of demons that have taken over his life. When Jesus approaches them to throw out their demons, they fear that Jesus is bent on tormenting them. The demons also fear Jesus and ask him to let them flee into the pigs nearby. The herd of pigs then carries them away into the sea.

And then, most strangely, the people of the area beg Jesus to leave. They dread the very power by which Jesus heals the man. Matthew says nothing about the man’s fate, but Mark and Luke speak of Jesus leaving the man, now fully clothed and in his senses, and commanding him to witness to people east of the Jordan about what God has done to him.

We are passing through a time when it seems that demonic forces have taken control of people who have cast off normal loyalties, ranting and injuring others as well as themselves. And we are aware of demonic forces within ourselves, whether those of racism and economic injustice, or the destruction of our planet by the very practices that we have always taken for granted. It is a time longing for release from these corrupting forces but deeply afraid of such an exorcism as well. What shall we do when others return to their right minds and we are forced to examine the demons within ourselves? What will we do when our elaborate self-constructions for handling the torment inside ourselves are torn away with the removal of the fears and obsessions that gave rise to them? What will happen when Jesus tears down the wall between the in-groups and the out-groups, making the legion of humanity into one people? What will we do without the familiar scapegoats by which we heap our own sin, fear, and failure onto others? What will we do when the scorned creatures of the natural world can no longer bear our own demons and are thrown into chaos and destruction?

No wonder the Gospellers speak of people’s fear before the appearance of the Christ who will make all things new. It means not only a radical change within ourselves but in our ordering of our society and our relation to the other creatures of our world. It means giving up an identity that is “legion” for one that is focused and centered in God’s healing life within us.

We are in a time and a season when, like the demoniac, we take time to ask “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” This is not only a question, but a prayer to ask God to help us open our hearts for the new life awaiting us, if only we trust in our new identity beyond the demons of our time.

 

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