Homily from Br Clark Berge SSF at Hilfield Friary for 30 June 2019
Working in our garden, I have become really aware of a couple of plants—ground elder and comfrey. Nothing you can do will rid you of these. If you disturb them they proliferate. Both have their uses—comfrey is good for fertilizing plants, ground elder I’m told is edible. But I have come to think of them as the symbols of some human attitudes that never seem to go away. Competition, division, envy—us versus them thinking. No matter Jesus died on the Cross to break down the dividing walls, and Paul dedicated almost every moment of his ministry to promote a new consciousness of life in the Spirit which exhibits peace, love joy. Like ground elder you can attack the negative attitudes and yet they come back
Take the disciples. After three years of going around with Jesus he trusts them with a mission to go ahead of him to a Samaritan village. Jesus had a special place in his heart for Samaritans—people who were despised by the Jews, outsiders. There are several stories in the Bible where he meets them, engages with them and includes them—sometimes they have to argue for it like that poor woman who uses the example of a dog eating scraps from the masters table, but they were part of his decade of evangelism so to speak. I can only imagine the disciples went along with him reluctantly, carried by the force of his personality. Obviously, they hated the Samaritans in a visceral way—hatred as persistent as our garden weeds. When Jesus bypasses the Samaritan village on his way to Jerusalem, they automatically assume it was because he hated them, and suggest a plan dear to their hearts—eradicating them with a rain of fire. Scorched earth policy. They wanted something closer to what we heard in the Book of Kings: I think they longed for a battle plan like the one for Elisha—inducting him into a maelstrom of conflict: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill. Whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill” Why didn’t Jesus stop over? I think he had a sense of urgency abut getting to Jerusalem. The Passover was approaching, he needed to get there. He obviously was deep in the grip of a sense that the time was at hand for everything to come to a head.
The Bible says Jesus rebuked them. I imagine that is a mild understatement. They didn’t get it. Perhaps he wondered if they would ever get it. I’m not sure we have gotten it. Hatred of enemies is the engine that drives the politics of our age. Competition, envy, dissention—these are also the stuff of our everyday maneuverings. We don’t always describe our actions so starkly. I remember a time when Sr. Mary Dorothea and I were driving along the road with the windows down when a car came alongside us at a stop light. Inside a couple were having an unholy row. Really laying into each other. As we drove off, she looked a little nonplussed, and finally she said, “Brother, do you brothers fight with each other?” I couldn’t think of a time when we ever went at it furiously like that poor couple, but I didn’t want her to think we were always sweetness and light either. “Sometimes, sister, we have issues with each other.”
Call them fights or issues, I must confess a firestorm would have been welcome from time to time.
So the challenge of discipleship is a stark one. We see Jesus trying to jolt his followers to think differently. And we vacillate between receptivity on our good days and complete deafness on our bad ones. The first of the three Gospel statements suggest complete exasperation; the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head: Jesus is saying he has no sense of home, that his message is falling on deaf ears. Second, when Jesus hen tells the bereaved to let the dead bury their own dead—a rhetorical statement that underscores in a dramatic way that following Jesus is first and foremost about living, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Funeral homilies are often a good time to get the message across, but this is not a moment for nuance. Jesus is on his way to his own death, and he is giving his disciples extremely important teaching: focus on life, the living, and all that makes for happy, healthy, faithful living!! Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Not a whisper about eradicating your enemies, engaging in guerrilla warfare against your opponents. Then in an explicit contrast with Elijah, Jesus refers to putting your hand to the plow and not looking back. Again a provocative rhetorical statement urging his followers on to Jerusalem, to the confrontation with impurity, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissention and factions there. Plainly they would have welcomed a delay, taking the time to kill and ox, roast and eat it—several days delay at least! But no, there is no time to waste!!
The only way I know to keep ground elder in check is to repeatedly grub it out. It is an exercise in persistence and patience, The tenacity of these things suggest we need to keep ever before us the ways we acquiesce in violence, negative thinking, secretly wishing to vanquish our enemies, turning aside from Jesus’ harder statements and teachings such as to love our enemies. We get caught up in ancient conflicts while mouthing the teachings of Jesus like platitudes. Every day we need to address our spiritual commitments, to keep spiritually fit as they say and keep our eyes fixed on that event in Jerusalem that Jesus is hurrying along to. He died to break down dividing walls between Jew and Samaritan, jew and Greek, Male and female, slave and free. He died to show the bankruptcy of the world’s way of doing things, the way of the flesh as Paul characterizes it.
Our life here at Hilfield is a laboratory. It is a place where we can experiment with the life of the Spirit. Our commitment to the Jesus vision of non-violence, of grace supported living must be nurtured and practiced. There is nothing more beautiful than a reconciliation and the healing of memories of hurt which provoke the violence. Here we can learn strategies for dealing with the persistent weeds and failures of human nature to create something beautiful that is not about perfection but about intention and grace, of seeking forgiveness and learning to listen to and challenge the voices in us that long to win arguments or to humiliate another to feel better ourselves–for a comeuppance. The awareness of our failure or struggles can be bugle calls to engage the spiritual battle, if you will, to engage again in silence, prayer, reflection, practicing the disciplines of repentance. These are the golden teaching moments. The weeds can be our teachers about greater spiritual truths.