The year was 1665. It was the year the bubonic plague struck a small Derbyshire village, Eyam (pronounced eem). The plague that was carried there by a bolt of flea-infested cloth from London. It was a year of rampant death, terrible grief, but also a year of wonders. The author, Geraldine Brooks, weaves a beautiful and challenging tale in her historical fictionalized account of the town—a town that, in truth, did make the difficult decision to try to confine the plague to the boundaries of their village by agreeing that they would make the voluntary decision to quarantine themselves until the plague had run its course.
What follows the town’s decision in the book is then an examination of how individuals can behave under the stress of extreme circumstances and extraordinary times.
It is the village minister, Rector Michael Mompellion, who urges the people to undertake the oath of remaining in the village and serving one another rather than risking the spread of the disease beyond the town limits. There the people must choose daily to minister to one another, to serve each other in sickness and in health, and to shoulder the burdens of the plague together, without fleeing. In building his case to his fellow townspeople, the minister appeals to the villagers’ sense of legacy and purpose: an engaging hope to be remembered as a blessing, and not a curse throughout the generations and beyond their town borders.
In our scripture today, we are reminded of the special inheritance that we share as followers of Jesus. This inheritance is freely given, but is costly to those who choose to live by the warp and weft of faith, a faith that emboldened Jesus to challenge the powers and principalities of his day and age, the same contours of faith that countless others have found to be a strong medicine to both counteract and heal societal ills and to treat the depths of human misery and pain.
But what of that inheritance? Is it the promise of glory? Is it the hope of some heavenly realm? Is it some kind of prosperity gospel, or riches measured by dollars, stocks, and a guaranteed return on our investment? What is the specific inheritance to which we have been given?
Written by Paul or someone writing in Paul’s name, the letter to the Ephesians has one line which signals to us what we have been given: the hope of God’s call and the greatness of God’s power that works among believers.
It is the latter that I want us to consider for today. What exactly is the “greatness of God’s power that works among we who believe” and trust in God?
We do not need to look far to see that our American society is ailing from something like the plague. However, instead of a plague spread by bacteria, we have a plague spread by fear, by racist behavior, demogogic thinking, by scapegoating the poor and immigrant among us, and spread by powerful interests: be they lobbyists, leaders, or our media. We have a plague among us that has already claimed lives – bullying has risen in this country, gun violence continues unabated, and a culture of rape and lasciviousness is inculcated and tolerated by both leaders and the led. Every single one of these ideas is repudiated by the trajectory of scripture and the stories that Jesus shared and taught. Every single one of these ideas spreads like the plague when we refuse to minister to one another in love, serve each other in our sickness and in our health, and shoulder the burdens and blessings of being a civil society together.
Our legacy begins with our commitment to God: to follow in God’s ways to the best we are able and with as much courage and compassion as we are able. Our legacy is not built in one election or with one leader, just as Jesus was not the only leader who was doing good work in his time or struggling to reform the institutions of his day. Our legacy-making is not seasonal and not set into stone. Our legacy is slowly known and formed over time as each one of us becomes known to ourselves and known to each other. We are already known by God. God knows what we are capable of—both the depravity and remarkable goodness. However, we do not yet know ourselves, friends. This election—for all the things that it has shown us—has held a mirror to ourselves and we have flinched to see what is there: the gap between who we believe ourselves to be and who we actually are as a people.
Faith teaches us who we are, but also who we may become.
It also teaches us “whose we are.” Because it seems that the choice that we, as a people, make on Tuesday should be placed on a continuum of the many and daily choices we make about the God that we say we belong to and espouse. Humans are made in God’s image, but we have made gods to our own liking: wealth, power and prestige, ignorance and the 30-second soundbite, gods of acrimony, deceit, and destructive discourse. This year, which gods have you chosen NOT to follow? What idols do you currently decry in your life? Where does the Holy God of Abraham, Sarah, Jesus, Mary, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day fit into the pantheon of gods to whom we have ceded moral ground both in our country and in our very heads?
What happens on Tuesday is important, but not as important as what shall follow in you after Wednesday morning. People will still be divided and hurting. You will still have a role to play. And if some of you are considering throwing up your hands and moving to Canada, even in jest, I beg you to consider the challenging decision of the villagers in Geraldine Brooks’ novel about the plague.
In her story, and in the real historical place of Eyam, every villager but the very wealthiest family in town chose not to flee the task ahead of them but to hinder the plague by staying put. All of the villagers were sorely tested, but many attempted, under extreme duress, to care for one another in ways that shined as wonders in a year of so much death and despair. While it is true that some townspeople capitulated to crass self-interest, still others rose to selflessness. Each day they faced a choice as to whether they would bring more brutality into the world, or more blessing. Each day they faced a choice whether they would contribute more ill-will, or more understanding, more death, or more life.
You, too, face the same choice.
Our inheritance, as a people of God and with God, is that the greatness of God’s power works among us—not above us, and not beyond us—but among us, and we believe that we can actually see God’s power working, participate in it, and use it to resist those evils that continue to plague us as individuals and as a nation.
Friends, a “credo” is a statement of beliefs that guides ones actions. There are as many different “credos” as there are human beings. Many of us have an unspoken, unconscious credo; some of us have borrowed a credo from others. Even if we have no money to our name and own not a single possession, a credo can also be a legacy that we make and leave to others.
On her FB page, the religious historian, Diana Butler Bass, offered this:
Credo: A Litany of Grace for This Election
I believe* God creates the world and all therein good, even very good, no matter how far from that goodness human beings wander;
I believe Love casts out fear, and that living with compassion is the path to joy;
I believe Gratitude threads all of the connections in the web of life;
I believe Wisdom dwells among us, embodying both divine insight and human intellect;
I believe Hope banishes cynicism, always drawing us toward a creative future;
I believe Awe opens us to an awakened life that reaches out to the world to restore and save;
I believe Justice flows all around us, like a healing river;
I believe All Shall Be Well. All Shall Be Well.
*Believe means “trust.”
It is my hope, dear sisters and brothers, that the legacy that you choose to build, the credo that guides your actions, will be one of blessing and beauty, one of challenge and wonder, and that this choice—made this day, and all your days—will bring hope and healing to our troubled world.