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A Dialogue Sermon for Epiphany 3 Commemorating Mary Oliver

Epiphany 3: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

The Summer Day, & Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

Elaina LeGault & Margaret Dyer Chamberlain

January 23, 2022

Exchange 1 - Elaina

Today, Jesus preaches a message about freedom, love, and justice. Reading from Isaiah he tells us the Spirit of God is upon him because the Spirit anointed him “to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

Freedom and healing are both themes we hear about in The Summer Day and Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. The grasshopper who snaps her wings and floats away, the wild geese who are heading home. These creatures experience freedom, and today’s readings invite us to reflect on the freedom of God’s love and mercy.

Wild Geese has long been, for me, a poem about freedom. It says, “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I grew up in a church where I was taught that being LGBTQ was a sin, and a world where I was expected to repent for my queerness. So when I first heard Mary Oliver’s words in college, and they became sacred words for me, they were the good news that God loves me and invites me to love myself.

When Mary Oliver speaks about letting our bodies love what they love she speaks about true love - God’s love. If we believe that God is love, then when we are called to love one another as friends, or family, or as a romantic partner, then that love is good. My love for Jessica is good, and I do not have to repent for the goodness and love that I am called to as a queer Christian. I do not have to repent for being who I am, and neither do you. We are called to love ourselves as God loves us and to experience the freedom of that love.

Exchange 1 – Margaret

What strikes me about the themes that Elaina mentions is just how very expansive God’s conception of freedom and healing is. God intends freedom and healing and love and grace to be available to all of us – everyone – no matter who we are, what we believe in, where we are in our journey of life and faith. This is a radical and profound expression of welcome – welcome for all of the beloved children created by God.

It’s a welcome for -- “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely” as Mary Oliver writes. As Paul emphasizes in his letter to the church in Corinth – “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we are all made to drink of one Spirit.” All of us. And when Jesus unrolled that scroll and read about who he was anointed to bring news to ---- it wasn’t for a small set of perfect believers or people of faith. To the contrary - it was for everyone, and particularly for the people who are easy to forget – the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed.

This expansive welcome matters. And it gets tested. Do we always feel that we are clear about our place in the family of things, to use Mary Oliver’s words? I’m not sure that we do. I know I sometimes have my own doubts.

Henry Nouen, another favorite writer of mine, wrote “Not being welcomed is your greatest fear. It connects with your birth fear, your fear of not being welcome in this life, and your death fear, your fear of not being welcome in the life after this…At every moment, you have to decide to trust the voice that says, “I love you. I knit you together in your mother’s womb.” We hear that voice from the scripture of our tradition that shares the words of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And I hear that voice from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese too. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

Exchange 2 - Elaina

We hear the message of being called into beloved community in our second reading from Corinthians telling us that we are all part of the one body of Christ, yet each has our own distinct part. Paul’s letter to the Corinithians tells us that it is not just about being a part of the body, it is about how we function as part of the body. He begs us to ask, What role do we have to play in the Christian community? Mary Oliver in her poetry, expands this question to ask, what role do we play in creation? How do we function as part of the beautiful mystery that is our world?

Nature is often a place where I experience God and Mary Oliver continually turns our attention and our hearts towards the wonder of creation. Every time I see a sea otter, seal, or those rare occasions when I see a whale - I encounter God’s mystery. It reminds me that we are not just part of the Body of Christ but the body of creation. We are called by Jesus and Mary Oliver to find the ways we are meant to function as part of these bodies. Perhaps we can ask ourselves - how are we called to care for creation and for one another? How are we being called to witness the mystery of God’s love that compels us to seek justice for the oppressed and justice for the natural world?

Exchange 2 – Margaret

It probably won’t surprise any of you that I feel most connected with creation when I’m gardening. When I first got involved in urban gardening, it was at a garden called The Free Farm in the Civic Center area. The volunteers at the Free Farm were a diverse array of people including seniors who lived nearby, residents of a halfway house for recently incarcerated men next door, college students from USF, master gardener types, a few church people like me, and lots of hipster/foody/environmentalists in skinny jeans. On the face of it, we had little in common, but what became clear was that we all loved growing things because that was a way to honor God’s beautiful creation. We all wanted to give away what we grew because we thought it wasn’t right that poor people don’t have access to healthy food. And we became a rag-tag kind of community in this sacred work. We loved the little plants we nurtured, we felt the Farm nurturing us, and it was all thanks to God’s beautiful created world.

And so, when I think about our Good News Gardens group, and our little raised bed by the front door of the church, and the Little Red Hen garden plot we tend, to me this is all about honoring creation day by day. “Who made the world?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem The Summer Day. We answer that question, day by day, by our actions and by our work.

Exchange 3 - Elaina

We are asked in The Summer’s Day, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” How do we plan to live a life of freedom in which not just our own lives but the lives of others experience the good news that God’s love will triumph.

Mary Oliver speaks about being called to be present to the mystery of nature and the mystery of God. She speaks of being idle and blessed, and asks “Tell me, what else should I have done?” This is how I feel when I spend time in prayer, when I spend time here at St. Aidan’s. What else should I have done except listen to God when She called me to this beloved community? There is nothing else I should have done with this time. Being here, being present is enough. Witnessing the mystery and miracles of nature is enough because these moments call us to keep wondering and wandering - to keep seeking the mystery that fills us with curiosity and awe.

Perhaps we can each ask ourselves what the great mystery is calling us to today. What are we going to do with our wild and precious lives?

Exchange 3 – Margaret

I am a lover of big questions – it looks like Elaina and I share that! Along with Mary Oliver who asks us – “What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

How do we think about living into this question – and to the questions implicit in our scripture texts today? Paul’s letter to the Corinthians causes us to wonder - in what ways might our gifts be offered – gifts of healing, assistance, leadership, speaking? And what about the example that Jesus is offering us in the Gospel – about bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed? How might we follow Jesus’ example in thinking about this?

These are indeed big, and seemingly overwhelming, questions.

But/and - there is a beautiful clue I am finding about all of this in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day. I think it might help us break down the big questions into smaller bits that we can manage, and pray over and act on. Here it is:

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down in the grass,

How to kneel down in the grass,

How to be idle and blessed,

How to stroll through the fields,

Which is what I have been doing all day.”

I love this call to all of us - to pay attention, to pray as we are able, to be blessed, and to do this all day.

May it be so.


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