One enormous privilege of my recent sabbatical was the opportunity to travel, especially when it meant returning to places that have been important in my formation as a person of faith. In late June I was about 90 minutes south of Atlanta, on a farm near Plains, Georgia. I lived and worked there as a volunteer during a break from my seminary training, almost 30 years ago. It is called Koinonia, and is an ongoing experiment of intentional Christian community. People commit to living as a kind of village, sharing at least one meal a day together, praying together, and working to earn a living as farmers, and offering ministries of compassion, and justice, and service to the neighbours around them.
I hadn’t been back for 25 years. Many who were in the community in my time have long since moved on, or died. I walked around the farm with my daughter Naomi, telling stories about people I knew, work we did together, and fun we had. It seemed to all come to life in my heart, and my imagination as we wandered. I showed her the garden where we picked tomatoes at sunrise, before the heat of the day. I described how an over-ripe tomato could burst, and explode a hot red mess in your hands when you tried to pick it. I told her about the flies that would circle, drawn to the red stickiness. I don’t think I sold her on farm labour as a future vocation.
I was sad to see the house I shared with 3 other volunteers had been demolished to make room for a playground. I’d wanted to show her the places in the wall that bore bullet holes. When this community was founded as a colour-blind, equal opportunity place of inter-racial harmony in the early 1940’s, there were death threats from some local folks. This was, after all, the deep south. That old farmhouse protected Clarence and Florence Jordan, who helped found Koinonia, and their children, but they never repaired the bullet holes. They were battle scars, or marks of the struggle, reminders of how serious it can be, to follow your faith.
I was consoled to find the library much as I remembered it. It is a two room building only a little bigger than the average Oakville backyard garden shed. It now bears a sign naming it in memory of Fran Warren. Fran was the gentle-spirited Quaker woman who served as librarian for many years. I spent a lot of time in the library, partly because it was one of the few buildings on the farm with a window air-conditioner, to protect the books from the high humidity. It was also where my volunteer group met for bible study, and where we taught English as a second language to migrant workers from Mexico and El Salvador.
Librarian Fran led a small group in Quaker worship early on Sunday mornings. We gathered under the shade of a big pecan tree, and sat in silence, to open ourselves to the presence of God. Fran’s tree is still there. It is not far from the commercial kitchen where I learned to can tomatoes, and pears, and peaches, preserves put up in the late summer, to add colour and sweetness to meals all winter.
Naomi and I had just walked by the big old pecan tree, and I was telling her about Fran, and Quaker worship. Naomi mentioned she needed to use a bathroom. The closest was at one end of the commercial kitchen. I led her to the door, and helped her find the bathroom. As we entered the building, I realised with a thrill of wonder and joy, that the screen door I had just pulled open is actually one I made in the woodshop, when I was a volunteer. In those days, and probably still today, when they could fix something on the farm rather than buying new, they would. When given the task of repairing a very beat-up screen door, I decided to just build one. I was amazed it was still there.
I told Naomi about the door. I think she took a picture. Naomi thought I should write my name on it. I decided my autograph would just look like graffiti to the people who now live and work at Koinonia. It is enough the door is still there. That is all the mark I felt I needed to make on this special place. More important to me is the mark the place, and the experience has left on me. I learned so much about faith, and prayer, and community while I was there. Lessons I am still pondering, and trying to live out. How can we work together, where we are, to share God’s love with a hurting world, and leave our mark, in the here and now?
In our Old Testament story we heard about an ancient tradition, of using blood from a sacrificed lamb to mark the door posts and lintel of every house containing a Hebrew family. For those of you, like me, who have never framed a house, the lintel is the horizontal beam above a doorway, supported by the posts or timbers on either side. The practice was to mark the top beam, and the two side posts of the front door with the blood from a freshly sacrificed lamb. This was in the time Moses led a struggle for the freedom of Hebrew people. They were being used as slave labour under the rule of the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Some may remember this from Sunday School.
Moses, born a Hebrew but adopted and raised as Egyptian royalty, had access to the court of Pharaoh. Moses went to Pharaoh, and asked him to set his people free. Not surprisingly, the Pharaoh was reluctant to give up his hold on a cheap labour supply, and refused. As the story unfolds, Moses tells the king that he is speaking for the God of the Hebrews. They have a series of conversations on the topic, and each time Pharaoh refuses to free the Hebrew slaves, God tells Moses to tell the king that plagues will be visited upon Egypt. The plagues get ever more gruesome, beginning with all the water in the land turning the colour of blood, moving on to an infestation of frogs, and progressing to a thick unnatural darkness that fell over the land, so thick it could be felt. The very last, and worst of the plagues was the death of the firstborn of all families of Egypt.
The story says Hebrew families were to each sacrifice a lamb, and mark the doorway of their home. When the Angel of Death flew over all the dwelling places of Egypt, those marked by the blood sign would be spared. They would be passed over, without harm. This may be the origin of the name Passover for the festival that celebrates the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery. After this, Pharaoh allowed Moses to lead his people out into the wilderness.
In all the centuries since, Jewish people have commemorated these events with the Passover Festival. They no longer practice animal sacrifice, but they do repeat the story, and remember the marking of the doorways with blood. The story got me thinking about the outward signs of our faith. Can people tell when they pass by our homes, or first meet us, what we believe, and how we might be living it out? What are the visible signs of our faith?
I heard someone say if baptism left a permanent mark, like a cross tattoo on our foreheads, perhaps less people would bring their children to church to be christened. When I heard that, I immediately thought about faith groups that are recognizable, simply by their appearance. Old Order Mennonites we see at St. Jacob’s who dress very plainly. There are the Sikhs who wear turbans. There are Hindu women who daily put on the bindi, the little circle of colour on their forehead, between their eyes. There are Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, although I have heard that this is as much a cultural symbol as it is a religious one.
Apparently in ancient Rome, when Christians were still being persecuted, the symbol of a fish was used as a kind of secret code that allowed one believer to reveal themselves to another. We might think wearing a cross would work in the same way today, but I’m not sure. I think some who wear a cross do so for decorative, or dramatic, or even ironic purposes.
So for me at least, the question remains. When people look at us, or as they get to know us, can they tell we are followers of Jesus? Hopefully they could see it if they came to worship with us today. We will break bread and pour the cup, and we have been singing hymns and making prayers, and reading from the Bible. We will ask for God’s blessing, and we also make our offerings, our own kind of sacrifices. These are all activities of our organized religion. But when we leave here today, will these things leave a mark on us? How will we each be living signs of God’s love? Amen