Mother Ann’s sermon preached on Nov. 20, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Nov 20, 2022 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Last Sunday after Pentecost

Banishing the Blackberries

Nov. 20, 2022

A sermon about God’s clout to set things right

Here is a true story about something wonderful that happened a few years ago in the little town of Valleycliffe, British Columbia. Valleycliffe lies halfway up the road that climbs from Vancouver to Whistler. Anyone who’s driven the route knows its breathtaking vistas of pristine mountains, vast woodlands, and cobalt blue skies.  As the name Valleycliffe suggests, the town’s homes and shops lie nestled in a valley sheltered by massive granite cliffs, overlooking a river coursing southward toward Howe Sound.  

For generations valley families had enjoyed picnicking and strolling along a local creek that meanders down the hillside. Children growing up in this natural paradise thought nothing of munching their sandwiches out in the meadow, alongside deer nibbling on salmon berries on the grassy stream bank, and herons spearing fish in its currents. 

But that was all before the Himalayan blackberries moved in. Like all invasive species they swiftly took over the idyllic habitat, engulfing the meadow and suffocating the streambed.  Time passed and the wildlife wandered away and the picnicking tapered off; the families of Valleycliffe wistfully talked about the good old days, but it seemed impossible they would ever return.

Then one day a stranger came to town, and latched onto the wistful reminiscing. He suggested that something actually could, and should, be done to reclaim the meadow and creek for the banished deer and herons and the good people of Valleycliffe.  He spoke to teachers and students at a nearby school.  He consulted a regional environmental group who knew a lot about invasive species.  The more he talked the more people listened, and the more everyone agreed they had given up too much because of these voracious vines.  They started thinking it didn’t have to be this way after all, and with that “aha” they were galvanized for action.

Under the newcomer’s lead they rounded up an arsenal of garden tools for digging, and convinced local trash haulers to contribute trucks and drivers. They circulated sign-up sheets door to door, then organized everyone into shifts, and just went at it for four days straight. After lopping and dragging away the thorny canes, they dug and dug away at underground runners until they had uncovered and destroyed the pernicious root buds that could send up new shoots.  By the time the last dump truck of debris pulled away, they had completely peeled back the thorny pall imprisoning the meadow, and unbound the streambed from its shadowy cage.  Best of all, powered by the vision of reclaiming their natural preserve for good, they managed to eradicate the invader at its root.  News soon spread of their valiant victory; newly planted native grasses and salmonberries started to fill in, and the blue heron and deer returned.

I share this true story, originally reported in Valleycliffe’s local paper, because it provides a great introduction to our readings today. These inspired people rooting out blackberries can help us imagine ways to understand all kinds of invasive evil in our world.  In our reading from Jeremiah we meet a bunch of wild and faithless shepherds who forsake their sheep, abandoning the poor creatures to predators.  Bystanders lament the coming carnage, but they just shake their heads, and turn away. There’s nothing to be done now, they say. Isn’t that what we say when we see people in charge shirk their responsibilities? We just cynically say there’s nothing to be done, right? But God is not content to let nature take its course. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands…,” says the Lord, “and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall not fear any longer.” We can begin to realize it’s true if we recall times in our own day when God inspired some flock to shift its point of view, and begin moving in a fresh direction that led to a better place.  So let’s think of the Protestant and Catholic moms of northern Ireland back in the late 1990s. They were sick to death of the nightly carnage, as their sons stalked one another through the Belfast streets. It gradually dawned on the mothers that life didn’t have to be this way. That’s when the moms of both Protestant and Catholic faiths began marching out their front doors as the sun went down. They patrolled the streets in teams, night after night. Just picture it. Moms in housedresses, sweaters and headscarves, gripping rusty flashlights and reclaiming their hometown for their own families.  Isn’t this God’s inspiration in action?

Images of God’s saving ways abound in the Gospel.  Today the setting is Christ’s crucifixion, as he hangs suspended between two scoundrels. Below him crouch the soldiers who forced Jesus to drag the cross up the hillside. Now they huddle together gambling on his clothing.  To the side stand Jerusalem’s religious leaders, gesturing insolently and taunting Jesus to save himself.  The soldiers jump to their feet and join in the mocking.

Amidst all the shouting we must listen carefully to catch the voices of the two scoundrels talking with the Savior. The first has joined in the scoffing.  There is no way any of them is getting out of this alive! But the second scoundrel allows himself to be powerfully moved by Jesus, and he begins imagining beyond the grave.  He dares to suppose that this worst possible thing happening to him will not be the last. In a leap of faith he asks Jesus to remember him—to re-member him, to put his life back together again in a better way, as God intends. And Jesus vows that he will. 

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, that crowning Sunday of the Church year that calls us to ponder the Bible’s wisdom about where all creation is heading. Our lifetimes unfold in the meantime, in the middle time that began after that blissful Creation reported in Genesis.  Our destiny is to share this world with the serpent.  We repeatedly encounter the snake’s intrusive evil: invasive blackberries keep needing to be rooted out, and war-torn neighborhoods must be continually reclaimed for peace, and persecuted sufferers must be constantly offered fresh hope.  No wonder we look forward to the awesome end times reported in Revelation, when everything will once again be set right, and Christ will reign as King over all. 

By grace, in these in-between times, we remain mindful of the best within ourselves and others.  These are the times to take heart, and take hope that the good news of Jesus is already and always coming true.  By fits and starts we and all creation are headed for that day when Christ will be all in all. And we’ll arrive there together to see it.  Amen.

© 2022 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.