Ripon College, Cuddesdon
July 11, 2008

Stir up your might, O Lord, and come to save us. Restore us, let your face shine, that we may be saved. I imagine that prayer has been said many times by those in this room. And perhaps even more often the prayer, “how long, O Lord, how long?”

Well, stir up your courage, my sisters (and brothers). God is at work, even when you can’t see the seed growing or hear the angel speaking in the night. The faithfulness you need in order to endure comes from God. This struggle is not new, yet you are soon to be delivered – soon enough, in God’s time. Those who endure to the end will be saved.

There is plenty of fear around here and around the Anglican Communion just now – don’t let it be yours. Jesus may say, “don’t worry about what how you’re going to speak or what you’re going to say,” but the BBC wanted my sermon texts for Sunday 10 days ahead of time! My reply was, “the Spirit isn’t working quite that far ahead of time.” “Well, we are responsible for every word that goes out over these broadcasts…” Fear seems to be equal opportunity, free floating, not just here, but almost anywhere there are human beings struggling with truth and their take on ultimate meaning.

“I’m sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Are you or we sheep among the wolves? And if so, does being a sheep mean rolling over and playing dead? Well, what gifts do sheep have? Wool, lots of it at the right time of the year – that might just stick in a wolf’s throat if it’s long enough. And if a whole bunch of sheep get together, they can defend themselves against a wolf, even pretty aggressively. But I don’t think Jesus is encouraging striking the wolf with hooves or butting it to death. It’s that ability to get together that is the greatest gift the sheep have – that herding instinct that can put the weakest in the center and gather round them. Don’t put anybody out there all alone.

Sheep can survive on pretty meager grazing – goats are even better at it, but most of the biblical writers have a pretty dim view of goats – they’re seen as too smart for their own good, most of the time. But sheep can find food, and even thrive, in places that look a lot like a desert. How is this flock going to keep finding adequate grazing, and support each other in the process? Who are the shepherds who are going to keep the flock moving between oases? Sheep – care for your shepherds. Shepherds – tend your flocks.

Who or what are the wolves? I’m not so sure it’s your opponents. I think the wolves have a lot more to do with what we fear most – and most of that is internal. The wolves don’t get the upper hand unless the sheep are not paying attention to the shepherd – unless they’ve scattered. Wolves have to find prey to survive; sheep don’t have to cooperate. That take on things sometimes looks like what the Canon to the Ordinary in Nevada use to call “malicious compliance” (or “subversive overcompliance.” It underlies all of Jesus’ language about walking the extra mile (to catch the soldier off guard) and giving away your coat, and turning the other cheek, so the hitter has to recognize you equally as a human being.

Be wise as serpents – lie there in the sun, looking lazy, taking in everything that’s going on. Listen to the vibrations of marchers far away, notice the odors of fear, sense the heat of those advancing, and take to your holes when you have to. And be innocent as doves – like Jesus, go around unprotected by the violent response to fear. Fly above it.

What if all the women clergy of the CofE took a Sunday off? What would happen if they and all their supporters stayed away? Do you think the Church would notice? A CNN reporter noticed something quite interesting this week. He said, “well, 1300 clergy may have said they’re leaving the CofE if it consents to women bishops, but I couldn’t find anybody at the Synod who would say why. There was no representative of that position anywhere to be found.” Sometimes the doves get above the fray, and ask the awkward questions.

Maybe you know the story of the women of the Niger delta. Oil exploitation in that part of the world has devastated villages, poisoned the drinking water and the fish by spilling crude oil. The flares that burn off excess gas pollute the atmosphere and cover everything with soot. The villagers worked for years to get the oil companies to change their habits. They were in a bind, for they had nowhere else to go, and they had long depended on the fruits of the earth and sea to survive. They pleaded and picketed, and some even tried destroying the pipes and machinery. Nothing worked. Finally a large group of women marched down to the corporate offices, sat down outside the building, and took off their shirts. They didn’t shame themselves, in that culture they shamed anyone who saw them, and they shamed their opposition into action. The oil companies began to negotiate.

Doves can fly above the armies gathering, and spend their energy where it will do most good. They can’t do much to defend themselves on the ground; their safety lies in a larger perspective. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves. We’ve just watched Ingrid Betancourt and several other hostages delivered from years of captivity in the jungles of Colombia. If what we saw was accurate, it was a pretty wily operation, that somehow managed to avoid violence – only by the grace of God. I’m not convinced they would not have resorted to violence if something had gone wrong, but it is the kind of crafty wisdom for which snakes are known. Wilier yet if it was a ransom operation.

Ingrid and her fellow captives endured years in the jungle, feeling pretty despondent. Come and save us, O Lord. Who else tells a story like that – lost, misunderstood, abandoned? Hagar’s story is like that, and others who read her story remember that she and her offspring also got a blessing and promise from God. The woman at the well certainly is a witness to that kind of endurance. So was Hildegard and the other mystic women of the Middle Ages. You walk in the footsteps of the wise women burned at the stake for being uppity enough to think they could heal people. Your witness and solidarity mean that you hold the hands of the trafficked and the abandoned ones. Your preaching can speak the pain and injustice of women and girls mutilated or married too young “for cultural reasons” and women of all ages raped by the doers of war. And you are also the sister of the 41 year old mother who just made the Olympic swimming team in four events – Dara Torres may seem as strong as the teenagers, though not for long – but she is far wiser.

You are building that vision Hosea speaks, of Israel blossoming like the lily, and abundant as the forests of Lebanon – a community fruitful and fragrant, flourishing with abundance for a feast. Keep nourishing that vision, not with the warrior’s tools, but with the wiliest and most challenging creations of the spirit you can muster. Those who endure will ultimately be blessed.