Justice – September 23, 2021

A sermon by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh

I want to tell you the story of a martyr, and then talk about how his courage helped save the world.

Guy M. Bradley was a kid who grew up poor. His family moved from Chicago to the Everglades in the 1870’s, looking for opportunities. His father was part of the famous barefoot mailmen, working for years to deliver people’s letters. Guy loved spending time outside, and knew where everything was. He also worked as a postman, and then took up guiding bird hunters at age 15, as a way to supplement his family’s income. At that time, the mid 1880’s, there was a thriving business of killing breeding birds and using their feathers, their wings, even their whole bodies to decorate hats. Guy was a part of that. 

Until he wasn’t. There was one day when the egrets were on their nests in a colony, many birds, many nests, and Guy led hunters there. The hunters killed the adult birds, skinned them and left their insides behind. The babies were in the nests, waiting to get fed. Guy looked at the baby birds in the nests, the flayed adult birds, and the whole scene there.

He had a change of heart. In Greek we call that “Metanoia”, and it is where you stop, in the middle of something sometimes, and shift your life. 

When Jesus said for us to pray “Thy Kingdom come”, as the King James Bible has translated it, he wants us to put ourselves in a similar space, where we are ready for a change. Because the Kingdom of God is a space where the people, the animals, the plants, life on earth, are mutual and sharing. The Kingdom is a place of equality. 

If you go back to the Aramaic language, which is the language Jesus spoke, the word for Kingdom of Malkthah. It has the same roots as the words in ancient Aramaic for the Divine Mother. It’s about ancient blessings, healings, and almost unnamable work for peace and change and healing. 

Krister Stendahl says it so well. He says, It is striking that Jesus, who could have chosen out of hundreds of concepts out of his Jewish tradition or trillions of ideas out of his divinity in its infinity: of all the crazy religious ideas that could be percolating, Jesus centers his message on something that he calls the Basilea, the Malktha, the Malkuth, the Kingdom. Mending creation is the job of Jesus.

The emphasis in the center of our central prayer: on mending, healing, peacemaking.

So back to Guy Bradford. I want, I wish, that I could tell you that everything went easily for him and easily for the birds on their nests, and he lived happily with his change, with his metanoia. But this was what happened to Guy. He took a job with the Audubon Society of Florida, to protect birds, instead of lead hunters to their nests. At about the same time, it became illegal in Florida to do this kind of hunting, because the numbers of egrets was down to 5% of what the egret population had been 30 years before. It was 1900, and the Lacey Act passed, restricting the transporting of fish, plants, and wildlife. Guy wrote to the Florida Audubon Society, after the law passed, saying that he saw that hunting birds on nests was a “cruel and hard calling, notwithstanding being unlawful”. And so he got a job, instead, being a game warden, and deputy sheriff, to oversee the everglades and help others stop hunting migrating birds. 

Five years later, he was thirty five, and it was the height of the egret breeding season, the ibis breeding season, the heron, the spoonbill. Guy was working his job, was earning $35 a year. One day he came across three people poaching birds, and as he tried to arrest them, they shot him. 

You would have thought that this might have been the end of it: the death of a postman turned deputy sheriff in Florida in 1905. But there was a group in Boston, organizing to protect migratory birds from the hat trade, and they would not let the death of Guy Bradley go. Minna Hall was a spinster, an activist, and a hard worker in the world of organizing in 1900. Harriet Hemenway was her cousin, an anti-racist, and a community organizer at the same time. When Guy Bradley died, they galvanized the community. They organized 900 women to in Boston protest his wrongful death in Florida, and to raise his vision to the world. They took it to the senate and the congress, and Senator George McLean of Connecticut, and Congressional Representative John Weeks of Massachusetts, passed the Weeks-McLean act, which in turn became the Migratory Bird Treaty in 1918, effectively ending hunting of migratory birds. 

All this because Guy Bradley had a change of heart when he saw what was going wrong. And because Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway mourned his death and said “No more,” and asked people to join. All this because Jesus gave a prayer with Malkthah in the middle of it, “thy kingdom come” in the middle of it, and called the people who prayed it to work for justice.

The Kingdom of God is a place where we find each other: where we care about each other’s lives. It is where we care about the economy of the planet, and long for it to be equitable. It is where we care about the life of a postman in Florida, and we care about the ecosystem of colony of birds’ nests.

It is so curious to me that the ibis and the heron and the egret often flock together. They have been roosting here in the marsh here in Ipswich too, near the beginning of Great Neck. And they are wildly different colors, with different voices, different habits, though they all are water birds. But they clump together to take care of each other, while they are nesting, as they get ready to migrate. They look to each other for courage. In their diversity, they need each other. 

I think this is what Jesus would have had us work for, when he said for us to pray “Thy Kingdom Come”. I think this is what he meant when he said that the malkthah is what is God’s, along with the power and the glory. 

It is what we pray for, work for, vigil for, believe in. It is more important now than ever.

In conclusion, I wrote a set of new words to the tune my cousin wrote for her wedding this week. My cousin is Heather Goff, artist living on Martha’s Vineyard. She wrote a love song, a round. And I put the words to psalm 46 to it, thinking, in Jesus’ brilliance and Jewishness, he just might have been starting with Psalm 46, whole cloth, to teach about the Kingdom, the malkthah, the holy justice of God. 

Put down your shield, your spear, your rod.

Be still and know that I am God.

My river flows to make you glad.

%d bloggers like this: