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Once upon a time there was a field.
What’s so special about a field, you ask? Probably nothing, in all honesty. Although this one did have good soil, plenty of sunlight and available water, all of which made the field fertile. Those who worked it would say, of course, that the abundance of produce had as much to do with tending, fertilization, and irrigation; caring enough to allow the field to lie fallow and recuperate every few years. Those who worked it would say it took labor, even as they recognized their good fortune in being able to work this particular land.
But from the outside… it’s not only grass that’s greener when seen from a distance.
The reputation of this particular piece of land grew: its ability to feed people, the height of the grain, the abundance of the produce. Stories grew, legends even, and with them: envy. Until eventually, a neighboring nation invaded, seeking the field for its own; seeking to feed its own people with its abundance.
Certainly that year, the crop was destroyed in the ferocious fighting; trampled by soldiers and horses, slashed with sword and spear. But the following spring, those who now inhabited land planted, fertilized, irrigated, tended, and harvested from the field. And the year following, and the following… right through the fallow year, for there was no one to remember when the soil needed to rest.
So it went, for years. The land produced, and those who occupied it learned to work it. While those who had been displaced remembered the fertility, but began to forget the work, the hard years; began to resent their exile away from such abundance and perfection. So they returned to re-take their land, and the two nations did battle again… and again…and again. They battled over the course of decades, of generations, for the sake of this one field, noted for its fertility and abundance, though now the battles raged so that there was scarcely ever a year of harvest; a year in which the seedlings were not trampled; a year in which anyone tended to irrigation or to fertilization; a year in which hope did not give way to resentment, to anger, to despair. Until, in time, the fighting moved to other fields, other areas, and no one even remembered why they had started fighting in the first place.
No one remembered the field which had once been so valuable.
One day, a soldier from one side (that of the original invaders, but who remembers that now?) was sent out to scout the enemy position, but became hopelessly lost in the forest. Finally he stopped, and made camp by night on the edge of a field. And so it was that he found himself, as the sun rose, face to face with desolation, feeling as though he must be the only human left in the world, such was the emptiness, the barrenness of this place. The soldier stepped out across the hard dry ground. Dust swirled around his boots at each step, settled into the cracks in the hot, hard earth. There was not a blade of grass, not a leaf, not a sign of life for almost as far as he could see.
So he was immensely startled by a movement, off to his right. He grabbed for sword and turned to see another man standing, just a stone’s throw away: an enemy soldier. The first soldier hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should kill him, and thereby remove at least some of the shame of getting lost? But even as he considered it, the other looked around, apparently unsurprised to have company.
“Can you believe it? This place really exists…”
The first man lowered his sword a little, understanding what the other said despite the slight difference in dialect. The second continued, “I thought it was just stories my grandmother would tell to get me to sleep…” He glanced up at the apparent confusion of first soldier. “Don’t you know? This used to be most fertile ground anywhere…”
The first man laughed at the impossibility of what had been said, and gestured at the barren ground before them. But the second, not looking at him, spoke his grandmother’s stories. He told them quietly, almost as an invocation, reverentially, as though pleading forgiveness from the land. His words wove themselves into the first man’s mind, into his heart; his words wove the stories into being, until they both could see the grain rising, the people at work, clearing irrigation canals, planting, harvesting; the battles that had wrought such devastation, the blood which had stained the ground. A tear fell from his cheek, and glittered for a moment on the hot, hard ground before sinking, turning that spot a darker red, as though the ground itself was bleeding
Two stood in silence. The sword of first man, still in his hand, became suddenly too much weight to bear and he flung it away, hard enough to slice a furrow into the dirt.
His heart leapt into his throat, and he moved slowly forward to pick up the blade, then used it to carve, with exquisite care, a long, straight line in the red and cracking ground. The second watched; the beauty of his stories gone, grief lined his face and he turned away. “It’s hopeless, you know…”
“So, what – are we supposed to go back and trample out another field in fighting?”
The two stood, still a little ways apart, and gazed around. The remains of earthworks and trenches masked the old irrigation canals, but the first could see where the old streams had been dammed up, so he started that way. “Come on.”
“You’re crazy.” The second one stood for a moment, uncertain, but then followed the first. The two worked together to move the fallen trees and rocks that clogged the stream. By the end of the day, both were soaked. Their armor and weapons had been set aside… on opposite banks, still, and not quite out of reach. They had argued, as they worked, over whose field it was, and thrown handsful of cold, slimy mud until they laughed at the childishness of it, at the idea of fighting over such desolation.
At the end of that day, more water flowed down to the field, and tiny, sparkling ribbons seemed to snake into the edges, darkening and dampening the long-dry ground.
In the end, neither returned to his regiment. They remained by the field, toiling as best they could – for they were soldiers, not farmers, and the knowledge of the land had long been lost, replaced by the knowledge of how to possess it. They toiled and they argued, though soon enough the arguments – old senses of nationality, of identity – faded into sore muscles and plans for tomorrow’s work. Weeks went by, and slowly others joined them. And the two would remember, in the eyes of those newly arrived, that they were enemy. In those moments, they would stare out at the field, still so barren, even as the water began to flow, and wonder why they bothered.
One night, the first man approached his friend, who stood apart from their little camp; away from the bickering of the newcomers from both sides. He stood by the field, sword in his hand, looking out at the reddened soil. The first looked back towards the clearing where they slept, remarking only, “They’d have us keep fighting.”
The second grunted. “Would almost be easier.”
They gazed together at the land they worked, the beginnings of new irrigation canals.
“It’s hopeless, you know.”
“We could give up. We tried. It’s not like we didn’t try.”
The second man turned, finally, to look his friend in the face. “That’s why I came here. I was leaving. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
“What stopped you?”
The second man held up his sword for his friend to see. Even in moonlight, the blade looked battered. “This isn’t meant to be used for digging. It’s useless now.”
“Not so useless, it seems to me…” The first gestured at the long straight lines in which water now flowed across the field. “You know what they need?” he went on, gesturing to the camp, “Your stories. Your grandmother’s wisdom. The vision of what this place could be.”
“Perhaps. But look what they have done so far…”
The second man to look his friend directly in the eye. “Do you believe in it? That anything we do might make a difference?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to imagine. But I’d rather imagine life, than live in a reality that is only death.”
Without another word, they turned, together, and went back to the camp.
Once upon a time, there was a field.
What’s so special about a field, you ask? Probably nothing, in all honesty. Although this one did have good soil, plenty of sunlight and available water, all of which made the field fertile. Those who worked it would say, of course, that the abundance of produce had as much to do with tending, fertilization, and irrigation; caring enough to allow the field to lie fallow and recuperate every few years. Those who worked it would say it took labor, even as they recognized their good fortune in being able to work this land: the particular reddish soil that they worked with such care.
One day, two glittering columns of soldiers approached, one from either side, having heard tell of the fertility of this place: the height of the grain, the abundance of produce. They came to possess the land for themselves, to feed their own, to keep the land from the hands of others. But as they approached, each army was met by emissaries from those who worked the field, who invited the commanders down into the little village, set in a clearing beside a canal. Both commanders, of both armies, were invited to supper, together with the people of the land… each with their weapons left outside.
At the table, the villagers gathered amid laughter and good-natured teasing. Heaping dishes were brought and shared out generously. The people talked easily among themselves and with their guests, in a dialect both commanders understood, though it wasn’t fully the dialect either spoke.
As the meal ended, and people sat back, loosening their belts, a young woman stood and began to speak. She was a storyteller, and began a tale that she called “The Wisdom of our Grandmother.” With her words, she wove before the eyes of these commanders lush fields turned fallow and desolate, earth stained red and cracking beneath the sun. She spoke gently of the ravages of greed, and violence that put an end to all that people had fought to possess.
Late in the evening, the stories ended, the commanders were escorted back to their armies, past the fields where rusting spears supported rows of beans, where plows bore an uncanny resemblance to their own weapons… which suddenly weighed heavily at their sides. As they left, they turned to the two old men who, alone at the table, had been silent. They asked, “But how did you know this was possible? How did you know that death and despair would not win?”
And the two old men smiled. “We didn’t know. We still don’t. But we worked, and we hoped, and we learned, and we listened. And it was enough.”
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. -Isaiah 2:4
Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. – Romans 13:12b
I am very fortunate: there are several clergy groups of which I am a member, both in real life with local and regional colleagues, and on social media. This latter tends to connect me especially to younger clergy, like myself; and perhaps the best part of that is the frequent recognition that I’m not the only strange one out there.
This week, as I was preparing for Bible study and for this sermon, one particular quote kept rattling around in my head… and I turned to Facebook, only to find that same quote apparently rattling around in a lot of colleague’s heads, as well. It’s from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, in which the mantra of one of Harry’s professors is “Constant Vigilance!” (Bonus points if you can name the professor.) But it’s an appropriate quote for many biblical passages, both in the Gospels and the epistles, where we are frequently exhorted to be vigilant, to be watchful. It’s even appropriate in the specific context of Harry Potter: he and his classmates are, of course, being warned to keep an eye out for the works of Lord Voldemort, who is essentially evil incarnate. The Bible isn’t quite so dramatic in this instance, but we are reminded that if we had known when the thief was coming, we wouldn’t have let our house be broken into (Luke 12:39). We are reminded to be vigilant for the Master’s coming (Luke 12: 35), with the implication of great trouble if we’re not prepared. The message seems clear, from the Bible as from Harry Potter: keep an eye out, because you never know when something bad is going to happen.
That’s usually how we understand vigilance: it’s the preparedness and alertness on our part that keeps bad things at bay. It’s what keeps us safe, keeps our loved ones and our families from the potential harms that are lurking, just out of sight. It’s the constant awareness of the worst-case scenario. And so vigilance often renders us suspicious; mistrustful of anything new, or strange, or different.
Constant vigilance! we are told, as though the Master were coming. Constant vigilance! as though thieves might break in any moment. Constant vigilance! And we respond as though Jesus’ examples weren’t just that – as though they were real scenarios, rather than metaphors. As though there really were thieves, as though there really was some great evil against which we needed to guard ourselves and our loved ones, as though Lord Voldemort might – at this very moment – be aiming his wand at us.
As though it weren’t the Kingdom of God for which we were being told to watch.
There was a fascinating story on NPR this past week – similar to, and possibly inspired by, one circulating as an internet rumor for quite a while now. A Mormon bishop in Taylorsville, Utah, outside of Salt Lake City, paid a visit to a local makeup artist. She found him a gray, grizzled wig; added bushy gray mutton-chops and a scar on one of his cheeks; she blacked out a couple of his teeth. The bishop completed the transformation with some old, ratty clothes, and I rather suspect he didn’t bother with a shower that day. In costume, he showed up in front of the church, an hour before the services began. Many people ignored him, a very few gave him money. Several church members specifically asked him to leave, told him that the front of the church wasn’t an appropriate place for him to be. He was quite convincing in his role of homeless man, even as he slipped into the church about 10 minutes into the service; even as he quietly made his way up to the front… and into the pulpit, where he removed his disguise.
The reactions were more intense than he’d imagined, and he took care to let his congregation know that he hadn’t intended to shame them, or guilt-trip them, but to make them aware that human perception can be faulty. That most of the time, we see only what we are expecting to see. That we need to be vigilant in a whole new way.
Vigilance need not imply suspicion. It simply remarks upon our perspective, our vision… and our blinders. If we are vigilant for evil, then we will be aware of evil. We will see what we are expecting to see, what we’re looking for, whether or not it’s actually what is in front of us. When we are suspicious, when we are expecting thieves, then we see a smelly panhandler, rather than a child of God. When we are suspicious, we see a threat, rather than a nineteen year old whose car has broken down, or an Alzheimer’s patient, or a human being in need of help – and we react accordingly: both of these people were shot to death this month. When we are suspicious, we see a trap, rather than a merchant beaten and left for dead on the Jericho road, passed even by the priest and the Levite, whose vigilance on that road didn’t show them the way to compassion.
When we are suspicious, we see more need for swords than for plowshares, more need of spears than of pruning hooks. We feel more need to protect our loved ones from the possibility of hurt or evil than we do to ensure an adequate harvest to feed those very same people.
The cycle of vigilance, of suspicion, just continues… and yet we are surprised that, despite our vigilance, the Kingdom of God does not seem to be drawing any nearer.
We are surprised, but it has never been thieves for whom we’re supposed to keep watch. Despite the similarities with Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort is not right around the corner, and we’re not called to be vigilant against evil. We are called to be vigilant without suspicion: vigilant for the best-case scenario, vigilant for God, and God’s presence in our every day lives. We are called to a vigilance that allows us to see one another with compassion, ans human beings in need one of another; even if we are strangers, even if we are different.
Paul reminds us to clothe ourselves in the armor of light – which also sounds like a militaristic, suspicious turn of phrase, implying that something bad is coming. But militarism, protectiveness, suspicion – all that divides us, all that comes from fear and mistrust – these are the powers of darkness against which Paul is speaking. The armor of light is not protective, but clarifying, opening our eyes and allowing for the vigilance that our faith requires. Clothe yourselves in light so that you may be on the lookout for all of the signs of God in the world: for the Christ who walks as one of us, for the Spirit’s still, small, continually-speaking voice.
We are called to be aware of the sparks of light in the Advent darkness; not just the Advent that heralds the old story of the birth of the Christ child; rather the Advent that we have all been in since that first Christmas day: the darkness that lasts throughout the year, whatever our seasonal liturgy. We are called to be aware of the sparks of light that will lead us to the promised Kingdom of God.
For there is good, if we simply know to look for it.
There is light in our darkness. There is hope; there is peace; there is joy; there is love: there is God, present in our lives, visible to us if we are vigilant. If we allow ourselves to be aware. If we allow ourselves to live in the light.
Constant vigilance! Even in Advent, God is nearer than we realize.