A Single Garment of Destiny

In one of Martin Luther King’s most poignant writings, written from a city jail in 1963, Dr., King spoke of our common fate in America.  We are one people tied up in a bond of interconnectedness.

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” [1]

This sage warning is no more apropos of our survival than today, when we consider our society’s response to COVID-19 and a myriad of other present challenges.  It is most relevant to our texts from Genesis and Mark considering marriage.  And…wait…wait for this….it ties into our celebration of St. Francis and our patronal feast day this Sunday.

First, on marriage and this rolling pandemic.

St Francis is the saint of interrelatedness.  He believed that all creation is a seamless work of mutuality.  All – humans, plants – even the sun and the moon – the physicality of it all, living and non-living.  And this is indeed true because in the end, you see, we are all stardust.  Precious in the being of God, stardust.

For most of us, in this mortal life, our family is the most immediate expression of the reality of our mutuality.  Marriage is the sacrament of transforming mutuality.  Somewhere, theologian and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor said marriage is our “one opportunity to grow up.”

“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh’ So they are no longer two.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Down through the ages peoples of all faiths have been very wary of infringing on this relationship between man and woman.  It is most precious and holy – except when it hasn’t been.  Since the days of slavery, families were torn asunder on the auction block with no regard to the sanctity of the marriage vows.  Just as they were most recently at our southern border.  All justified and excused by the supporters of our previous president and his party of so-called Family Values.  Heart-wrenching, the scenes were.

As our knowledge of human relationships and genetics has grown, society now can acknowledge that Ed and Steve can live in the same bond of wedded bliss as John and Alice, or Jane and Joan.  And do raise well-adjusted and successful children.  The point is – it is through the intimate mutuality of the family that most of us will find our greatest satisfaction and love in life.

I had a cynical high school teacher whose take on marriage equality was, “why shouldn’t they suffer just like the rest of us?”  Now it might have been that Mr. Coulson’s relationship could have used a touch of family counseling.

Given that some of us come out of damaged and damaging family relationships, the ideal doesn’t always work out.  Sometimes addiction and mental illness are challenges too big to overcome.  Sadly, divorce is the better option.

For some, especially as we grow older, deep and abiding friendships provide that love and support.  As especially for the aging who may have earlier lost life partners.

Growing up in Signal Hill we had neighbors who had know my family for years.  The wife had actually been the baby sitter for my brother and me when she was a teenager.  When they moved down to the ocean, one of their sons and his partner moved in to the house.  My father, especially, was intolerant of what he called their “lifestyle.”  He wouldn’t have anything to do with them and called them names you’d have gotten thrown out of school for using.

But over the years, a good number of years, Dad mellowed.  He grew beyond his West Virginia provincialism and prejudice – actually, ignorance.  Eventually, they were just Fred and George.  Two wonderful neighbors who helped him with some of his chores as he grew less able to do for himself.  And after Mom died, they became close companions.

That is the sort of “web of mutuality” of which Dr. King speaks — the interconnectedness of creation of which our beloved St. Francis lived.

Secondly, we also form those bonds with our non-human companions.  I still miss having our son’s two cats that lived with us for well over a year while he was in Spain and Morocco working on his dissertation – yeah, he’s still working on it!  I keep telling him, as in the old Grey Poupon mustard TV commercial, “While we’re young, Christopher, while we’re young.” 

But back to these cats — It would only be seconds after I got back home that they’d be curled up on the sofa with me watching the news.  Brian and Larry, I was so glad to see them when we went back to New Haven to visit.  It’s like we hadn’t missed each other a day as Brian curled up in my lap.

This past week we lost another beloved sister at St. Francis.  Covid and pneumonia took Diane from us, even though she had had her “jab.”  Departed, but still living on in the memories of those who loved her, she remains a part of our blessed, unbroken circle.  Diane, presente!

All life about us is precious without measure.  Let us cherish one another every day.

As the planet warms, much more than Brian and Larry will we all be missing.  Last week when I opened the Los Angeles Times, the accompanying picture to an article on the diminishing Salton Sea, as we rob it of water, was the photo of a magnificent great egret taking flight.  The wing span of that bird was breathtakingly beautiful as it began to gain altitude.  It’s long neck so graceful in takeoff.  In Spirit I am a part of that bird, and it is part of me.  I knew this reality deep in my soul as I sat transfixed, mesmerized by that picture.  We are blessed with one woman at our church with a tender heart who understands such relationships.  Sister egret, we cherish you – precious gift of our Creator.  Just as St. Francis taught us.  If we destroy your habitat, it will be a spiritual loss to our souls, to the soul of all creation.

Should we use up all the water from the Colorado river and dry up the Salton Sea, we humans have the power to drive these splendid creatures into extinction.  At least here in California.  Remember, we must, the old Beatles song from their White Album, “Hey, hey, Bungalo Bill – what have you killed today?”  That’s us. 

Don’t forget the millions upon millions of passenger pigeons, so numerous they once darkened the skies over America.  Don’t forget the “Good God Almighty” woodpecker whose last, dying cry long ago echoed through the old forests of Arkansas and Tennessee.[2]  A cry and a sight that astounded all who ever witnessed it.

Thank you for the warning, Dr. King, Thank you for the warning, St. Francis.  Extinction is forever.

Back in college, several of us guys would pack up most every summer and go camping in Yosemite.  Most mornings we would hike up to Vernal Falls from the valley floor, and once or twice, to the top of Half Dome.  Often, as we would begin our climb up the trail to the falls, an old guy – I mean, a really old guy, all muscle and bone, would pass us, running up the trail.  By the time we would be about two thirds of the way up, huffing and puffing, he’d greet us on his way back down.  Today, I’m not in his shape, but do still envy his stamina.  Face it – I was NEVER in his shape.  He, too, was every bit a part of St. Francis’ amazing web of interconnectedness, as was Half Dome and the rush of Vernal Falls. Thank you, King and Francis, for the reminder.

Those invigorating summer days were a life-saving reconnection back to God’s splendid, restorative creation.

One year us guys decided to go to see the Big Trees in Sequoia National Park — not all that far from Yosemite.  I had never seen anything so awesome.  Staring up into the heavens to where the treetops soared, was a spiritual experience.  Some of these 3,000-year-old giants were over three hundred feet tall.  With trunks larger than six feet in diameter.  St Francis would surely be one with these magnificent specimens. I surely was.  In fact, on first arriving, all us guys got very quiet as we beheld their majesty.  I remember us jumping out of the car and just staring up into the clouds and treetops.  WOW!

Now, we could lose it all to fire.  These magnificent trees, the Ancient Ones, as known by Native Americans — have stood for centuries – from the time of the Prophets, Amos and Hosea — from the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire.  From the time of tramping boots of conquerors: Charlamagne, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan.  From the time of George Washington, Mozart, John Muir and John Donne… from the moment of that very first Fourth of July at Independence Hall…Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea… Harriot Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger – these trees have witnessed it all.  Count the tree rings.

They now urgently summon us to face the catastrophe of Global Warming.

These lofty Ancients of Days have been on the minds of many of us lately as infernos now rage about them.

The Sequoia National Monument lies partly on the Tule River Reservation. Many of those devastated by the fire damage, and those who care for these trees, are First Americans.  But these trees are precious to all who’ve ever been transfixed by their majesty.

A forest ecologist with “Save the Redwoods,” Linnea Hedlund, remembers the first time she saw one of these trees.  “My 7-year-old brain could not fathom it was real.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen, she recalled.”[3]

Sequoyah Quinton, a member of the Cherokee Nation and a storm chaser, had been named after his grandfather, “who was named for Sequoyah, who had created a written form of the Cherokee language in the early 19th century, felt his heart break as he watched firefighters wrap the base of the Sherman tree in aluminum foil.  The morning the fire approached the sacred grove, Sequoyah dropped to his knees and prayed for something to stop the destruction of the sequoia trees.”[4]

Together, we are one blessed gift of God, bound up in an “inescapable web of mutuality” — Husband, wife, lovers, children, companions – Brian, Larry, First Americans, and old man running.  Sequoias and Half Dome.  All that shares being itself with us.

The first gift of Grace, the first gift of Creation, is the simple blessing that there is Something at all.  Instead of Nothing.  “It is not fitting that man and woman should be alone.”  We are not.  We are all One in the Spirit of the Great Creator.

Thank you, St. Francis; thank you Dr. King, for this reminder.  In the splendor of all creation, “Soon and very soon, we shall see the King.”

Pray, God, we learn to take care of one another while there’s still time. Now, let’s go bless the animals.  Amen.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham jail,” April 16, 1963

[2] Ed Bradley, “Finding the Good Lord Bird,” 60 Minutes, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/finding-the-lord-god-bird/

[3] Diana Marcum, “Making a Stand for the Giants,” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 2021.

[4] Ibid.

St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach

        Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

       Pentecost 19, October 3, 2021
  Proper 22

 “A Single Garment of Destiny”

Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8;
                         Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

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