Koinonia: “Briars in the Cotton Patch”

We watched “Briars in the Cotton Patch” today at Pilgrimage. I’ve been talking, preaching, and writing about Clarence Jordan and Koinonia for many weeks now. I think the folks who saw the movie today now have a much better understanding of just how radical Clarence’s vision was.

“Briars..” documents very well the history of Koinonia, especially the violent protests against it in the 50s and 60s. You see some footage of Clarence and hear his voice in some audio clips. There are interviews with many of the residents of Koinonia–including “Koinonia kids,” all grown up. There are even interviews with people who opposed Koinonia Farm at the time.

My favorite part is when Americus resident, Frank Myers says, “When I asked those folks at Koinonia to leave, I thought I was doing the right thing. It really seemed like the right thing to do. But I see now how wrong I was. I didn’t have any guts back then.” Wow.

I’ve now seen “Briars” at least four times. I’ll watch it again with anyone who wants to see it!

Koinonia: The Cotton Patch Evidence, by Dallas Lee

I recently finished reading “The Cotton Patch Evidence,” by Dallas Lee. It’s part biography of Clarence Jordan and part history of Koinonia Farm until Clarence’s death in 1969. Reading all those pithy, scathing quotes by Jordan is well worth the price of this definitive chronicle of Koinonia.

The greatest gift of reading the book was learning just how difficult living Christian community can be. I think I’d always idealized Jordan and Koinonia…but, in many respects, the Christian community Clarence had envisioned never actually happened. There was even a point at which the community and Clarence and Florence considered parting ways.

The vision of community Jesus invites us to just isn’t easy live out. We’re so set on our individualism, on hierarchies…living as true equals takes a lot of imagination…a lot. I sometimes wonder if we well-meaning, but individualistic Americans can do it.

There’s so much more to this book. One blog post isn’t going to do it justice. So here’s an idea…

Beginning in September (sometime around the 7th or 8th), I’m going to be reflecting on “The Cotton Patch Evidence” one chapter at a time. If you’d like, check in, see my thoughts about the book, and share your own.

Peace for the journey,

Koinonia: Taking Jesus Seriously

The more I read about Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, the more times I watch the documentary, “Briars in the Cotton Patch,” the more I talk with people about Koinonia and hear sermons like the one preached by Jimmy Loyless today at Pilgrimage, the more convinced I become that everything I’ve been doing in my faith life until this point hasn’t even begun the scratch the surface of what Jesus was talking about.

Richard Rohr’s book on the Sermon on the Mount is called, “Jesus’ Plan for a New World.” I think Rohr is exactly right. There is so much about the world as it is, especially its inequities, that we unquestioningly accept as “simply the way things are.” But Jesus challenged us all to think–to THINK, for Christ’s sake (literally)!–about how fair, how loving, how gracious our world is…and to make changes where things weren’t fair, gracious, or loving. In another place, Rohr says that the greatest enemy to living the Gospel is conventional wisdom, the status quo. Jesus called us–calls us still–to look honestly and seriously around at our lives and to work to make changes that contribute to the wholeness of all people. All people. All people.


Sermon: Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted… (Jimmy Loyless) August 21, 2011

August 21, 2011 “Blessed are Those Who are Persecuted…”
Matthew 5:10-12

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. A few verses earlier, Jesus says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. In the context of the Beatitudes, righteousness means fairness, wholeness, justice for all people. Thus, those who hunger and thirst for fairness, wholeness, and justice for all people, we are told in Matthew 5:6, will be fully satisfied….mostly because those who hunger and thirst for justice and fairness are likely to seek them out and make them happen. And that’s a good thing, right? Seeking fairness, wholeness, and justice for all people….

What Jesus DIDN’T in Matthew 5:6, but does say now in 5:10-12 is that hungering and thirsting for righteousness also is likely to make you some enemies. Actually working toward wholeness and justice for all people DEFINITELY will make you enemies. Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for that reality when he says “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” If you take action to the end of creating justice and wholeness for all people, there’s a good chance you’ll experience some persecution.

Working for righteousness—the wholeness and well-being of all people—looks different in different times, in different cultures, for different people. Many of us have taken stands for and worked actively for the wholeness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered folks. Mahatma Gandhi worked for the poor of India, as did Mother Teresa. Mr. Wilberforce in the 18th century, worked to end the institution of slavery in England. Our own Dr. Joyce Baker worked for the physical wholeness of the poor in Honduras when she served as a medical missionary there for 30 years.

The thing is, as any seeker after righteousness knows, going against the cultural norms, trying to change the status quo sometimes creates enemies. It’s like Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara said: “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a communist.” Changing systems can be dangerous. And yet, that seems to be what the Gospel is all about.

We’re calling this year a “Year of Koinonia.” In part, we are exploring what it means for us to be a Christ-centered, God-following community. (Koinonia is the Greek word for community.) We’re also learning about Koinonia Farm, an experiment in Christian community started by Clarence Jordan in 1942 in Southwest Georgia, near Americus.

The system those Koinonians in the Jim Crow south sought to change was racial segregation. After worship today, we’ll be showing the film, “Briars in the Cotton Patch,” an excellent documentary on just what sorts of persecution the people at Koinonia Farm experienced for their righteous stand for the equality of the races. Koinonia—by its very life—threatened the status quo. That threat netted them the wrath of their fellow south Georgians.

A few weeks ago, Jimmy Loyless came to me and said he’d be willing to share with us some of what life was like in south Georgia during the 50s and 60s. Jimmy?

[The rest was written and spoken by Jimmy Loyless. Note: The original was typed–appropriately–in “Georgia” font.]


Welcome to the most segregated morning in America, which it was for Clarence Jordan in the 1940s and it still is today in 2011. Oops, I forgot, we have a different reason for that today – the music is too different for those people at the AME churches and at First Congregational in Atlanta!!

You have heard the scripture for today read from the version of the Bible we use here at Pilgrimage. That is certainly not the version my father used in his sermons – “the King James version is the holy and only word of God”, I remember he would say!!

Y’all please do sit back and relax, I do not have his cadence or his typical sermon length!! However, one of the phrases I most remember from his sermons is “Brothers and Sisters, just remember that when my finger is pointed at you, my thumb is pointing back to me.”

Well, there is another version of today’s scripture I would like to read from, “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John” that was written by Clarence Jordan. “You all (or y’all) are God’s people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that’s the way they treated men of conscience in the past.”

Today’s scripture was likely the “vision” statement for Clarence Jordan. He was certainly persecuted for the vision he pursued when he established the Koinonia community just southwest of Americus in Sumter County, Georgia. If there is anyone who deserves to be seated at the table with our God in heaven, it is Clarence Jordan along with many others who have lifted the plight of the impoverished, opened the doors of opportunity to those who historically faced locked gates before reaching the front (or back) porch, and defended the rights of all of God’s children, not just those who were the same skin color as they are.

Just a few years before Clarence Jordan established the community at Koinonia, there was a prominent American who was forming a vision to address the impoverished communities he saw while taken for a car ride through the countryside near Warm Springs, GA. As an aside, his car was often driven by my cousin, Tom Loyless, who was manager of the Warm Springs Center. Many of the ideas developed for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were formulated while undergoing treatment at the well known rehab center just northwest of Columbus, GA.

President Roosevelt arrived at Warm Springs by train and he often traveled by train to other parts of the South, including my hometown. On both the car and train trips, Franklin Roosevelt saw the impact of the Great Depression first hand. He saw some of the freed slaves and the first generation of “born free” blacks struggling to survive beside the black and white sharecroppers who were also scratching out a meager existence in the area where the red clay meets the sand in southwest Georgia.

President Roosevelt saw people who had lost their life savings when their local bank failed or who had not recovered from the stock market crash of 1929. Farm families were still devastated from the arrival of the boll weevil that destroyed their crops and their livelihoods. The majority of the population was in poverty and was no longer in a position to retire or scale back from working, due to the devastating losses and the poor economy. At times, it seems that part of our history is repeating itself today.
I was born in Bainbridge, GA and graduated from high school in Blakely, GA. Those towns are 70 to 90 miles away from the Koinonia Community. All of those towns and communities are south of the “Gnat Line” in Georgia.

My early childhood was in an era when many of the norms and practices associated with the Jim Crow laws continued to exist. Included amongst those practices were separate sections for whites and blacks on buses and train cars, restaurants and businesses offering services to whites only, separate entrances and waiting rooms at doctors’ offices, and separate schools.

Fortunately for me and for so many, I grew up in a time of marked change in those norms and practices. There are many memories and recollections of those times, a few that I appreciate the opportunity to share with you today.

When school choice was initiated in Bainbridge and Decatur County in 1966, a local minister and his church decided to start a private, “Christian” school. He approached all of his fellow ministers within the ministerial association to demand of them that they place their children in this new school. In a blessing for me then and for my lifetime, my father refused and stated, “Jimmy will be around people who are different from him for the rest of his life and now is as good a time as any for him to be getting used to it.” My father only completed sixth grade due to the death of my grandfather but, my oh my, did he outsmart Rev. Dr. Bishop?

Around the same time, my father pastored a small rural church that had a normal attendance of twenty to thirty each Sunday – he pastored there for nine years until one fateful day. One of the member’s grandsons was killed while serving his country in Vietnam. As tradition was then, the minister normally meets with the family at their home before going to the church.

Things did not seem right when we turned down the red dirt lane toward the church. Standing on the top step outside of the church was a deacon while the honor guard and casket were not yet in the church, as they should have been.

When asked by my father, the deacon forcefully stated, “them boys ain’t coming in this church.” My father responded by saying the honor guard is with us to represent our country and to participate in the service for this young man who gave his life for all of us.

My father asked the deacon to move aside because the service was going to proceed as planned. To which, the good deacon stated it would be the last service my father led at that church.

The very next week, four families from that church met together to pray about and plan a new church start. One family donated two acres of land. A new building was completed in six months with much of the work done by the members, friends, and relatives. My oh my, what people with a vision and a unified mission can do.
During much of my pre-school years, I often spent time at my uncle’s and aunt’s house due to my mother’s illnesses. My uncle was a supervisor at a local mill that produced feed for many types of animals, including horses, cows, and chickens.
Most of the employees under his supervision were black. He often shared time with them outside of work, including fishing together.

When he died in 1971, several of the black employees came to the house to pay their respects to my aunt and cousins, saying they had so much respect for him for the manner in which he treated them as employees and as people. They also felt that they had to ask if it was OK for them to attend the visitation and funeral – what a shame they felt they had to ask.

In 1970, schools were integrated in Blakely and Early County. A new, county-wide high school was built to facilitate the change. The existing white high school in Blakely became the county-wide middle school and the existing black high school in Blakely became the county-wide elementary school. Four school buildings around the county were closed and everyone was bussed to the three new locations.

To my best recollection and from those of many of my classmates, the process went very smoothly, considering the radical nature of the change and unlike many other schools in the South and the North.

The only incident many of us can recall was pre-game at the first home football game that year. The black drum major was much more animated with his on-field routine – it appeared our principal was going to hyperventilate. After all, it was rumored the principal had banned Elvis and the Beatles at proms in the past.

What we did not do well at the start was having separate proms – something again about the music, from both perspectives. That is no longer true; I was “volunteered” to assist decorating the cafeteria for this year’s prom while visiting home.

To this day, my graduating class is yet to have an integrated reunion. Some of us have started work on plans for that to change next year for our 40th.

A lot of things have changed back home since the founding of Koinonia and the repeal of the Jim Crow laws, some good and some not yet. The population of my home county has declined from 18,679 to 11,008 from 1940 to 2010, a drop of nearly 40%. Less than half of the population (48%) remains white while the percentage black has dropped from 51.5% in 1940 to 49.6% in 2010.

The high school graduation rate has improved to 72% but remains 10 percentage points below the state average. Today, over 35% of the people in the county are living below the poverty level, compared to 16% for the state. The median household income is $20,000 below the state average. But, the average travel time to work is only 18.7 minutes.

There are so many challenges the Koinonia area and my Early County continue to face today. In Early County, people have worked together to form a vision for the community and to collectively work to improve the community by business development and job creation. In forming that vision and plan, participation was open to all members of the community. They sat around the table and worked together to envision the future for the community.

In his time, Martin Luther King gave many fiery, prominent speeches with several phrases and sentences continually used to this date. One I heard again recently for the Table of Brotherhood Project that is being held in various locations certainly seems to define what Clarence Jordan envisioned – “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

Today, we are all sitting at the same table but are all of our lives any better and what they could be? May we better strive to reach the visions of Clarence Jordan, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King to lift the plight of the impoverished, open the doors of opportunity to those continue to face challenges, and defend the rights of all of God’s children, no matter where you are from or no matter where you are on life’s journey. Peace.

Sermon: Blessed Are the Peacemakers (August 14, 2011)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Through the magic of genetics, I ended up looking just like my grandmother. When I’m with extended family, someone always says—still, nearly 20 years after her death–“Kim, you look just like Lujette!” No matter what I do, because of my physical traits, I always will be known as “Lujette’s granddaughter.”

A similar thing happens with people of faith when we make peace. When we work actively to create peace in ourselves and those around us, others will know—they’ll just know–that we are God’s children. Apparently, peace-making is a dominant gene for God, so dominant that anyone who actively works at making peace is going to be known as “God’s child.” So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get to it!

Making peace, making peace…Let’s see…First, I’m going to…Yes! I’ll go to the United Nations! They’re all about peace, right? I’ll bet I can purchase my ticket right now.…I’ll go to the United Nations and I’ll… talk to…people… about… peace. World peace….like peace all over the world! Hmm… sounds a little vague, doesn’t it?

Maybe the Peace Corps would be a better way to go. With them, you go and actively work for peace, right?, for like two years or something. I could go and help somewhere in the world, working for peace…but two years. I’d have to quit my job…and the Peace Corps isn’t a religious organization, so they probably wouldn’t let me preach. Or sing Broadway songs… no. I don’t think I’m called to make peace with the Peace Corps.

Maybe I’ll go to the UCC website… Does someone have a smartphone? Look up the UCC website—– and search for “peace.” Tell us what comes up…(Responses.) That might be a way to get working for peace…but it’s a little overwhelming. I mean, working for peace in the Middle East? I’d have to do a lot of research before I’d even know what the issues were, much less how to address them. And helping Iraqis and Afghanis or the people in East Africa…I could do something there, I guess. But what difference could my small contribution make? [David begins playing, “Let There Be Peace on Earth….”] Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me…

When I planned to preach this Sermon on the Mount series, I thought we’d be addressing the externals of our faith–doing unto others as we would have them do to us, judging not, loving our enemies, that sort of thing. Tons of people throughout history have used the Sermon on the Mount as a platform for living the gospel in the world—Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Clarence Jordan at Koinonia Farm. If you’re wanting to live your faith actively in the world, there isn’t a better text in all of Scripture to follow.

The thing that’s surprised me about the Sermon on the Mount, though, is just how much time Jesus spends on the internal lives of believers, especially in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” One of the key things about living faith, it seems, is getting our internal lives and our external actions in sync. Clarence Jordan said it this way: “Before this new order (the kin-dom of God Jesus is trying to establish), before this new order can ever become a reality, it’s got to take root in our own lives” (Cotton Patch Evidence, by Dallas Lee, p.193).

Which is certainly the case with making peace, isn’t it? How can you create peace outside you if your insides are in turmoil? [David: Let there be peace on earth…]

When doing research for a book on silence, author George Prochnik visited a monastery in the Midwest. Brother Alberic, his host for the visit, shared some thoughts about monks and silence. “Monks live in the desert,” he said. “These giant, snow-covered fields are the desert. It’s where monks have always been drawn. We come for a radical confrontation with ourselves. Silence is for bumping into yourself. That’s why monks pursue it. And that’s also why people can’t get into a car without turning the radio on, or walk into a room without switching on a television. They seek to avoid that confrontation.”

Here’s where Alberic’s ideas get really interesting. “I think this may be one reason for the incredible violence of that final surge during the Gulf War…You remember there were those long, long delays before the last invasion, with waves of troops going over there and just sitting in the desert, week after week. The soldiers just sat and waited in more silence than many of them had ever experienced. And then, all of a sudden there was that huge violent surge—the Highway of Death. Americans don’t sit in a quiet, solitary place and flourish. They were starting to have a monastic experience. And that doesn’t jibe well with the military’s goals.” (27)

Fascinating theory, isn’t it? That those soldiers were so disturbed by what they discovered internally they lived it out externally. Makes you wonder what might have happened if their monastic silence had lasted longer…or if it had occurred in different circumstances, not in the middle of a war. Might they have found internal peace? Might they have externalized that peace?

Are you at peace? Do you have “peace like a river?” Is it “well with your soul?” Let’s try an experiment. Take out a piece of paper and something to write with. We’re going to have a few seconds of silence. Write down everything that comes to your mind in those few seconds. (You also can just do it in your head if you want.) Ready? [15 seconds of silence] Now, take a look at what’s on your list. Based on what’s on your list, would you say you’re at peace? Are the things on your list the signs of a peaceful person?

It might be helpful to step back and look at what peace is. What does it mean to be at peace? The Greek word for peace, which is used in this verse, is eirene. It’s related to the Hebrew word “shalom.” Eirene and shalom mean completeness, harmony, wholeness. Thus, the one who is at peace is whole, he is completely himself; she is completely herself.

So, another way of asking, Are you at peace is, Do you feel whole? Do you feel completely at ease with who you are? Or do you feel like something’s missing? Do you feel like all the pieces haven’t quite fallen into place for you? What would make you feel more whole? A job? A better job? A better marriage? A stronger relationship with your kids or parents? Relief from an addiction? Relief from an illness? Less anxiety? Less fear? More confidence? More quiet?

I’ve been doing some reading on silence lately. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that peace and quiet are intimately related. Brother Alberic’s theory about the violence of the Highway of Death is kind of out there, but it does make you think about how noisy our world is and how closely that external noise relates to our inner lives. It does seem sometimes like we insulate ourselves with noise. We keep everything that’s real and good—including peace–at arms length by enveloping ourselves in blankets of sound.

In the book I mentioned before–In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise—the author did more research by going on patrol with a policeman in a large city to see how the police respond to noise complaints.

That particular night, there were no official noise complaints. Finally, about 3:00 in the morning, Prochnik’s host, Officer Spencer said this: “The majority of domestic disputes we get called into these days are actually noise complaints. You go into these houses where the couple, or the roommate, or the whole family is fighting and yelling and you’ve got the television blaring so you can’t think, and a radio on top of that, and somebody got home from work who wants to relax or to sleep, and it’s just obvious what they’re actually fighting about. They’re fighting about the noise. They don’t know it, but that’s the problem. They’ve just got everything on at once.

“And so the first thing I’ll say to them is, ‘You know what, don’t even tell me what you think you’re fighting about! First, turn down the music. Switch off the game station. Turn down the television.’ Then I just let them sit there for a minute, and I say to them, ‘Now that feels different, doesn’t it? Maybe the real reason you were fighting is how loud it was inside your apartment. Do you still have anything to tell me? Do you?’ You would be amazed how often that’s the end of it.” (18)

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be known as the children of God. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. Peace and quiet… I wonder if the way we begin making peace is simply to be at peace, to make friends with quiet? Take a couple of minutes and see… [Two minutes of silence.]

Why I waltz at church…

Our church ends every service by joining hands and singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

“Let There Be Peace on Earth” has three things going for it. First, it has great lyrics. “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” That’s kind of what it’s all about, right? Second, it has a wickedly hard melody line that jumps around every which way. Any congregation that can sing that song–and our congregation can–can sing any song!

Third, the song is in triple meter. I confess that, at the beginning, I wasn’t thrilled with ending every service with a waltz. Really? A waltz? But then I met MR. Waltz. Leroy Waltz.

Leroy was the wise elder of Pilgrimage when I arrived. When I met Leroy, I sensed that a lot was riding on the encounter. Impress Leroy and I was in. Flub the meeting and I wasn’t. Simple as that.

I must have done okay with that first meeting…because the church called me. For the first few years I served as pastor, Leroy still came to church…faithfully! As a deacon, he took his duties seriously. He ushered, he greeted, he helped with missions. Leroy was a fine church member, one everyone looked up to.

Then, we didn’t see Leroy for a while. He called one day to ask that his name be removed from the church rolls. We’d taken “that Open and Affirming thing” too far for him.

Six or eight months later, I got another phone call from Leroy. “Kim,” he said, “There’s just not another Pilgrimage out there. I’d like to come back, if I may.” Everyone welcomed Leroy home with open arms.

When driving to church became too difficult for him, I began visiting Leroy at his small apartment. The first few visits were very hard. The usually congenial octagenarian was almost rude when I’d visit. I began to wonder if I had done something wrong.

On a later visit, though, when he opened the door to let me in, I knew the old Leroy was back. He welcomed me gracously. In our conversation that day, he told me he’d been praying. In his praying, he said, God had given him peace about not being able to go to church any more. I realized then that before he’d found his peace, every one of my visits had only reminded him of all he couldn’t do any more. And not serving his church? That had been devastating for Leroy. He’d had to grieve that loss.

Once his grieving was done? We had the best visits! Leroy told me once, “There are some things I just don’t bring up with you.” In light of our many theological differences, I had to agree in the wisdom of that decision.

But here’s what we did do…We talked about the Bible. We talked about the Holy Land. We discovered a mutual love for the Gospel of Luke. We prayed together. And we shared communion together. Leroy loved communion; it was a key element of his faith. In those precious vists, Leroy taught me just how deeply two people of faith can connect with each other, despite their different theological leanings.

At the end of his life, Leroy’s mind started slipping. The last couple of visits, I knew he didn’t recognize me. That part was hard…but the hardest thing of all was the last visit. I brought communion as I always did…but that time, when I handed him the tiny bit of bread and the small cup of juice, he looked at me questioningly, as if to ask, “What do I do with this?”

When he didn’t know communion any more–that ritual of the church that had meant so much to him–I knew Leroy was gone. I quickly finished the visit, hurried out to my car, and sobbed out my sadness. Leroy died within the week.

Leroy’s been gone for several years. It saddens me now to look around the congregation and see only a few people who knew our saint of the church….

…but about a year ago, I found a way to stay connected to Leroy, a way to remember hs faith, his love for God, his love for his church, and even for his liberal-leaning woman pastor. Here’s what I do. Every Sunday as we gather around the communion table and clasp hands to sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” I sway. Yes–right there in church–I waltz. And in my waltzing, there at the table, I remember Mr. Waltz and everything that is good about faith and church and integrity and friendship. And I whisper a silent “thank you” to my old friend.

Peace for your journey…

Sermon: “Lord, Have Mercy” (August 7, 2011)

August 7, 2011 “Lord, Have Mercy”
Matthew 5:7

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Matthew 5:7

[Play, “Lord Have Mercy,” by Memphis Slim. Through 2:12 only!]

Everybody crying’ mercy. I wonder what do mercy mean? The folks on Walton’s Mountain were probably asking that same question when they first encountered recent divinity school graduate, Rev. Fordwick. Rev. Fordwick stays with the Waltons as he prepares to preach his inaugural sermon at an all-day tent revival.

I’m sure they covered the Beatitudes in Rev. Fordwick’s New Testament class, but he must have missed the day when they talked about mercy. At one point, he practices his sermon. It goes something like this. “Repent! For I say that the hour is nigh when judgment shall be visited and the sheep shall be sep-a-ra-ted from the goats. Drunkenness is an abomination. Repent! Fornication and lustful ways must be abandoned. Repent! Lying and stealing and bearing false witness are abominations. Repent, ye sinners! Carve out sin from your hearts like a boil. Repent! For whatsoever ye sow, so also shall ye reap.” Rev. Fordwick asks young Jim-Bob how his sermon sounds. “Scary,” says Jim-Bob.

As the Reverend walks up the steps to go inside the house, John Walton says to him, “I heard you practice.” “Perhaps you have a suggestion?” Rev. Fordwick asks, somewhat defensively. John tries to tell the young preacher that the folks on Walton’s Mountain don’t respond well to shouting and the use of fancy language. He gently suggests that the preacher say what he’s going to say, just to do it a little simpler and easier. Rev Fordwick’s response is less than gracious: “I have spent four years, Mr. Walton, learning and studying to preach the word of God. It’s up to you to accept or reject it.” And with that, he goes inside.

It’s clear with the slamming of the door that young Rev. Fordwick might know the Bible, but he doesn’t know much about people…or mercy.

But—it is The Waltons, after all—Rev. Fordwick gets a great lesson in mercy (and humility) before the end of the episode. The day before the revival, he receives a letter from his mother, who asks him to look up her cousins and extend a personal invitation to the all-day service. His mother’s cousins, as it turns out, are the Baldwin sisters.

For the uninitiated, the very proper spinster Baldwin sisters are the suppliers of moonshine on Walton’s Mountain. They refer to their “herbal elixir” as “Papa’s Recipe.” To refuse Emily and Mamie’s gift of recipe, is among the rudest things a visitor can do. Which is why Rev. Fordwick accepts the first cup of recipe offered. And the next. And the next.

By the time Grandpa drives him back to the tent where they’re setting up for the revival, the preacher is three sheets to the wind. The Waltons hurry him to the house to let him sleep it off.

As you might guess, Rev. Fordwick is deeply ashamed of what he’s done. The next morning as he makes plans to leave—both Walton’s Mountain and the ministry—he asks John Boy: “How can I ask people to do what I can’t even do myself?” Being the merciful people they are, John and John Boy convince Rev. Fordwick to preach as planned.

When they arrive at the revival, Miss Prism, a missionary, is talking to the crowd, calling the people sinners and abominations and outcasts who are not worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven—things like that. John interrupts her and asks if it isn’t possible for Rev. Fordwick to preach as he’d been scheduled to. Miss Prism resists, but steps aside when John says something about “he who is without sin casting the first stone”….

Here’s Rev. Fordwick’s sermon. I am a sinner. I guess I don’t need to tell you that. But I need to admit it. Maybe it takes a sinner to know another sinner, to know how it feels to do wrong things when you want to do what’s right. I think the Lord understands how hard it is to be good. He appreciates it when we are, and he’s sad when we aren’t, the way you parents are when you watch your own children making mistakes. It hurts. It’s hard to live in this world, especially these days. And I just want to say one thing…that the most important thing is to love the Lord and to try to do what He wants and to pray for forgiveness when you fail.

Unsure of how to end, he stands there awkwardly, still certain, it would seem, of his unworthiness to be in a pulpit preaching. Grandpa Walton—as only Grandpa can do—seizes the awkwardness and transforms it into a moment of pure mercy…he stands and begins singing “Just As I Am,” the standard Baptist altar call hymn. And wouldn’t you know? Every person in the place walks the aisle and joins Rev. Fordwick at the pulpit.

Did Rev. Fordwick deserve that act of compassion? No. Had he earned the good will of the people? No. But, as Richard Rohr has said: “You don’t know mercy until you’ve really needed it.” And Rev. Fordwick need those people’s mercy like nobody’s business. Happily, the people of Walton’s Mountain were gracious in extending it.

Here’s the thing. Before he had experienced mercy, Rev. Fordwick was unable to extend it to others. But, as his behaviour in subsequent episodes reveals, receiving mercy when he’d failed changed him for the better. Receiving mercy made it possible for him to give mercy to others.

What about you? Have you experienced mercy? Has someone shown you compassion that you in no way and no how deserved? And if someone has shown you compassion, have you allowed yourself to receive it? Have you taken their love and forgiveness and acceptance into your deepest self? Have you experienced mercy?

I don’t know this, but I suspect that part of the reason we resist taking mercy in is because, in order to do so, we have to acknowledge just how far off the mark we are…just how much we’ve messed up, just how far from God’s hopes for us we’ve wandered. And who wants to do that, right?

But if we only allow God into our good parts, are we really experiencing mercy? How much more deeply might we experience God’s mercy, how much more deeply might we experience God’s love, if we allowed God into the deepest depths of ourselves? The only way to receive God’s forgiveness, mercy and love into our depths is to acknowledge all of who we are in our depths…which includes the not-so-great parts.

That’s where we can learn a lot from the blues. The thing that’s so great about the blues is that they tell it like it is. There’s no pretense in the blues, no trying to put a positive spin on things. The blues start where you are—at the bottom…at the bottom of the bottom… at some place so low you’ve got to look up to see the bottom…a place you’re probably in because of something you yourself have done. If anybody needs to ask for mercy, it’s someone singing the blues.

“Everybody cryin’ mercy. I wonder what do mercy mean,” Memphis Slim asked. For Richard Rohr, mercy means “God’s very self-understanding, a loving allowing, a willing breaking of the rules by the One who made the rules—a wink and a smile, a firm and joyful taking of our hand while we clutch at our sins and gaze at God in desire and disbelief.” Then he quotes Thomas Merton who described his experience of God’s love as ‘Mercy, within mercy, within mercy.’ Rohr says: “It’s as if we collapse into deeper nets of acceptance, deeper nets of being enclosed and finally find we’re in a net we can’t fall out of. We are captured by grace.” (Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, 136)

Can you imagine? Looking honestly at your sinfulness, at the things you’re most ashamed of, and at the same time, feeling secure in a mercy net that you can’t fall out of, knowing—knowing— that you are “captured by grace?”

It’s when we can look squarely at all the things we’re embarrassed about, all the things we wish were different about ourselves, it’s when we can look honestly at everything we don’t like about ourselves and still feel, really feel, God’s love, that we truly know mercy. And it’s only when we truly know mercy that we are able to extend it to others.

And so, I’m feeling a little like a Baptist here, but I’m going to invite everyone to take your hymnal, open it to #207 and sing together “Just As I Am, Without One Plea.” This isn’t an altar call…but it is an invitation to acknowledge yourself “just as you are” and, at the same time, to feel God’s love and acceptance into the depths of who you are…to feel yourself “captured by grace.”

[Sing “Just as I am”]

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2011