Link to Mary Oliver Poem, “Crows”: https://www.poeticous.com/mary-oliver/crows
Link to Lectionary Texts: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=140
I love crows…they may even be my favorite bird, although there are lots of cool birds to pick from. But I didn’t pick today’s Liturgical reading because I really like crows – I picked it because I really do not like the two readings from the Bible that I don’t get to choose!
The reading from the Book of Acts, where they pick a replacement by drawing straws, is either a really bad case of magical thinking or conflict avoidance began really early in the Church.
Then there is that mind-numbing, rambling speech that John concocts for his character of Jesus to speak. So I found Mary Oliver’s “Crows” because I remembered the Legend of Crow that cuts to the chase better than John.
I do not remember which Native American tribe told this particular version of the legend because I have read several versions of it. But it seems that the future of humankind was seriously in question by what we would call an Ice Age. It had become frigid and the sun would not return and many in the animal kingdom were endangered.
A council was held and the birds were inventoried as to which one of them would fly to the sun and bring back fire. The biggest and most powerful birds were asked first. Then the fastest. Then the most magnificent. None of them would go because they all knew is was a fool-hardy venture.
Whoever went would become consumed by the fire.
Finally Crow offered to go. Crow was not graceful and an ungainly scavenger of others’ leftovers. Crow had not a hint of color – an albino among the glorious plumage of others. But Crow was willing to try.
To make a long legend short…Crow does indeed make it back with a burning coal but is singed and blackened in the process. The Creator heals Crow and bestows great powers upon Crow in gratitude for Crow’s bravery and love. Crow’s present color is the sign that the Creator sanctified Crow – set Crow apart among all the other animals – because of Crow’s great deed.
So next time you are driving down the hi-way and you see a long-legged old crow hopping over to munch on a dead skunk, don’t be thinking “Yuk!” – roll down your window and yell,“Bon appetit!”
In the end it doesn’t much matter how it happens, whether it is via a short straw or a decisive act of intention, you and I are sanctified by what we do…or not.
In the midst of all the gobbledy-gook and redundancies John has Jesus pray, he also has Jesus ask God to sanctify his little community so that they will be in-the-world but not belong-to-the-world.
Let’s pause on that a moment…Like slow-roasting chestnuts rather than like Crow picking at carrion.
Like stone-age priests were sanctified…
Like the ancient’s sanctified animals before murdering them on the altar and smearing their blood in the name of God…
Like how people and places were set apart for God’s business and smeared with blood.
“Sanctify them” Jesus asks God, at least in John’s imagination.
Sanctify them. What a bewildering idea.
This prayer Jesus prays in chapter 17 of John, is a lonely prayer. The Church calls it Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” – and that means the Church likes to think of Jesus as a priest instead of a prophet. How convenient for the Church. But this prayer, as composed by John, consists of a series of reports Jesus makes to God, like a field commander reporting in. The prayer lets loose a flurry of petitions for God to care for Jesus’ little community of friends from whom he is about to withdraw. And then, at the end, Jesus makes a final request that that his band of friends be sanctified.
It is the same word his ancestors in Israel used to describe the nation as “set apart.” It is the same word used to suggest Israel was to be a model of relationship with God. It is the same word used to describe the temple priests as “set apart” to function around the altar. It is the same word used to describe the animal without blemish and set apart for sacrifice.
“Sanctify them,” Jesus asks, “and for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified.” It is a bewildering idea for us.
And you should be sitting there wondering what all this could possibly have to do with people who work for a living; who have houses and gardens and monstrous amounts to take care of; with people who have places to go and people to see, commitments to be fulfilled, bills to pay, children to nurture. People like you and me who are not set apart but live with our feet rooted in the mud of life. What does an other-worldly high priestly prayer like the one John wrote for Jesus, have to do with us who are trying to live and thrive on the cusp of difficult and changing times?
Just this: we are baptized.
If we are the spiritual descendants of those first sanctified pals of Jesus –and through baptism and tradition we are in fact that same community gathered in a another century – we need to know what we are sanctified for.
If we are distinguished, differentiated, given a special role to play, made peculiar for a reason that God intends will benefit the Creation – like Crow was, like Jesus was, like so many have been – what is it?
Clearly it is not for moral purity as the Puritans and others have struggled to achieve.
Clearly, we in the church, are not distinguished by our virtuous living or high moral standards; no way, no how, has the church or many of us ever fulfilled that mission.
So maybe that is too big of a question.
It is a question worth asking as individuals baptized to be agents of God among those with whom we live and work and play. And it is worth asking about ourselves as a community, as the 21st century version of Jesus’ community.
What sets this place apart? The community where you worship, I mean.
It is not the beauty of your building – Jesus wasn’t about beauty.
It is not the uniqueness of your membership – surely you are like most anyone else we might meet.
It is not your congregation’s overly proud and glorious history – Jesus doesn’t gush about the glory of any synagogue.
It is not your liturgy or sacraments or music – we can go to any of a thousand sanctuaries and find a way to be fed, challenged, and infused by the Holy Spirit.
What sanctifies your church?
What distinguishes your spiritual community?
What differentiates your band of worshippers?
What special role have you been given to play?
For what peculiar benefit to creation has God brought together the present mix of crows in your church?
There you are, a community of strangers whose destinies have become intertwined because you were led to the place you now find yourself. For what purpose has God invited you to gather?
Why did God invite you to that particular place, with those particular people, at this particular time in your life?
There is also the communal corollary to that question: Why did God invite us together, and how does our being together in this place at this time sanctify us – or set us apart – as an act of love for the creation?