Chapter 5: At the Soldier’s Town
“Whenever a thunderstorm was coming I felt happy, as though somebody were coming to visit me” (38)
“If we caught a little fish, we would kiss it and throw it back” (40)
My reflections on this chapter take the form of a homily that I preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer on December 4, 2016.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent:
Psalm 72:1-7; 18-19
Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
This Advent, I have been reviewing, reflecting and blogging on a book that I read while at Standing Rock North Dakota. The book is called Black Elk Speaks and it is essentially the autobiography of a Lakota medicine man and mystic named Black Elk who lived during the turn of the century, from around 1860 to 1950. As a young boy, he suffered from a life-threatening illness, which caused him to fall into a deep sleep in which he received a series of visions not too unlike those described by the Hebrew prophets in our readings this morning. In his visions, young Black Elk witnessed spotted eagles fluttering on peace pipes, ancestors transforming into white geese, bright red sticks sprouting branches upon which singing birds perched, horses with eyes like stars snorting like thunder, and skies full of baby-faced clouds. Although it took him decades to understand and interpret the details of his colorful visions, their general message was relatively clear: He was chosen and loved by the Great Spirit. And by accepting his belovedness, he was able to experience profound healing and freedom and lead others into a similar experience of healing and freedom. He became a great medicine man, healing hundreds of sick people in his area and safeguarding the creatures of the earth.
The Hebrew prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist and the psalmists also seemed to have mystical visions that led them to experience God as healer and liberator. Through their own vison quests, they discovered immense freedom in their belovedness and they eagerly wanted others to enjoy that freedom as well. That was their message. And during this season, I feel God calling us here now to discover freedom in our belovedness. I am not entirely sure what that looks like and I haven’t had any grandiose mystical visions like Black Elk or Isaiah, but as I have been praying for us, the phrase continues to emerge: find freedom in your belovedness.
When I first started prayerfully discerning a call to serve here at Redeemer as the Long-Term Supply Priest, I felt the Spirit inviting me to reflect on the name of this parish: Church of the Redeemer. Usually when I think of names of Episcopal churches, I think of saints like St. John, St. Paul, or St. Francis. But our patronal namesake is Christ the Redeemer, the One whom the saints seek to emulate. But why Christ the Redeemer? Why not Christ the Savior or Christ the King or Christ the Light? Those who originally named this community chose to focus on Christ’s role as the One who Redeems. So what does that mean?
Our Collect this morning invites us to repent, to forsake our sins in order “to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” These theological terms— “sin,” “repentance,” and “redemption”—can be very daunting and off-putting, especially since they have been used and abused by fire-and-brimstone preachers who insist that we are all worthless sinners in the hands of a deeply offended and angry God who can only bear to look at us if we repent and reject ourselves and our desires completely in order to be saved and redeemed by God’s excessively worthy Son. Many preachers understand this message as the Gospel, but honestly, it does not sound like good news to me. However, I still understand myself as a repentant sinner continually in need of redemption. But what do I mean by that? I mean that I am someone who needs to continually seek my true freedom, my true liberation, my true healing in my belovedness.
I am going to condense a whole library of theology about what is called the economy of salvation and redemption by offering this very simple definition of Redeemer: the Redeemer is the One who frees us to be our true selves because he loves us more than we can imagine. The Greek word for Redeemer is lutrotes from the verb lutroo, which means “to liberate from any bondage or oppression.” The Redeemer is the Liberator. It would not be theologically inaccurate to call us the Episcopal Church of the Liberator. And Christ the Liberator “redeems” us primarily by his death on the cross, which reveals to us how far he is willing to go in order to show us how madly in love he is with us. And he wants us to find our freedom in that belovedness. That is Redemption.
I must say that I have experienced you all as very lovable and I’ve only known you for a couple months. Now imagine the One who has known you since you were in the womb, being fearfully and wonderfully made, the One who delights in you and is proud to call you his own, the One who smiles with tears of joy in his eyes every time he thinks of you. Imagine how much he loves you. He wants us to find our freedom in that love. Freedom from all anxiety, anger, depression, fear and greed.
The problem is that we often struggle to find sufficient security and freedom in our belovedness. Often we seek our identity and security in other people, in institutions, in money and wealth, status and prestige and in various addictions. This is what the prophets referred to as idolatry and when we seek our ultimate identity and security and liberation in things outside of God’s love, we are committing idolatry. And we do it all the time. I know I do. And when various addictions and idolatries prevent us from finding our true freedom in our belovedness, we fall into what Christians have historically called “sin.” And this “sin” prevents us from seeing not only our own belovedness but also the belovedness of others and of all creation. And that is why the prophets, including Jesus, call us to “Repent!” The Hebrew word for “repent” is “shuv” which means to “turn around.” If we are seeking our freedom in something apart from God’s love (which I know I do all the time), we are invited to turn around and find our freedom in our belovedness. So again, when I say that I am a repentant sinner continually in need of redemption I mean that I am someone who needs to continually seek my true freedom in God’s love for me. So this Advent I invite all of us sinners to repent in order to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. In other words, I invite us to find our freedom in our belovedness; to find our freedom in what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls the “liberating” and “life-giving” love of God.
In one of Black Elk’s later visions, he saw a man surrounded by light and he says, “It seemed as though there were wounds in the palm of his hands.” And then later he says, “It seems to me on thinking it over that I have seen the son of the Great Spirit himself.” No matter what culture one comes from, whenever someone seeks true freedom in God’s love, Christ the Redeemer is bound to show up in one way or another; Christ, the embodiment of God’s overflowing love for us. The word that the Lakota use for Messiah is “Wanekia,” which means the “One who Makes Us Live (Freely).” So may we repent and forsake our sins that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus our Wanekia, our Liberator, who guides us in discovering true freedom in our belovedness. Amen.
 John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 13 – 29.
 Raymond J. DeMallie, ed. The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1984), 263, 266. Cited in Black Elk Speaks (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2014), 326, n. 11.