Years ago I heard a story that has always stuck with me. It’s a parable about two brothers in Scotland in the Middle Ages. They were from a good family. But somehow they started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and under the influence of others who didn’t respect the law, their childish pranks turned into worse and worse crimes. There was a rash of sheep who had disappeared in this part of the country and the local farmers thought that there must have been a wolf on the loose. But one day, it was discovered to the community’s horror that it was these two young men who were rustling their sheep and selling them.
Normally, in that society at that time, the boys would have been hung. But their respected family pleaded for them. So both of the young men were given the choice: either death or having the brand ST, for sheep thief, burned permanently onto their foreheads with hot irons, so the world would forever know their crimes. Both chose to be branded.
The story goes that the brothers were so shamed that they were forced into exile. They left their part of Scotland and wandered for years. One of the brothers never got over the crime, and its punishment. He blamed his family, even though it was thanks to them he was still alive. He blamed the community for failing him. He knew the letters ST would always mark him and so he continued to make the wrong choices, to get into fights, and to steal. He was a marked man, and eventually, bitter, he died too young and too unhappy, his life a tragedy.
But the other brother was changed by his punishment. He felt that his life had been spared to give him another chance. Since his marking with the brand made him among the lowest of the low, it was here that he decided to try to do what he could. For years he labored to help others who were poor and without jobs. He knew what it was to be a criminal, so he tried to help others who were in danger of falling into the mistakes he’d made. Over the years, bit by bit, his stature in the community grew, and with greater respect he continued to work for justice for those who didn’t have any. He was strong-minded but flexible, and because of his own mistakes wise to the ways we human beings can fail and be wounded. He knew what it was to have faults, and so was always ready with a kind word. He did not judge, except those who practiced no justice. Eventually, he became a leader of the community that he had wandered into, so far from his childhood home.
Of course, he had the brand on his forehead as well. But after many years, it faded a bit, and the generation who had known what it meant passed away, while new people just considered it an oddity. When finally this brother died and was buried, a visitor to the community, amazed by the number of people who had come to see the casket and pay their final respects, remarked on the brand. “Look at that,” the visitor said, “ST. What does it stand for?” To which one of the locals, answered, “you know, we never asked him. But I suppose it must be short for saint.”
Who is wise and understanding among you? Says the writer of the book of James. Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believed that every age we go through as human beings has certain tasks associated with it. For him, the task that is associated with maturity is the task of integration. When we reach a certain age, we put the stories of our lives together and try to make sense of them. To redeem the meaning and value of our lives (or not) we need to try find the value in whatever has happened to us – whatever that might be, whether we had the equivalent of an ST burned onto our foreheads, or something else. We either learn to live with our wounds and scars, or we don’t. If we remember that Jesus lived through a cross, in love, then that will help us immeasurably.
Many of us are at what Erikson would call the “integrative stage”. What is the meaning of our lives? Can we finally give up blaming our parents for who we turned out to be? How have we succeeded and how have we failed in caring for those God has put around us? How do we treat others and treat ourselves? Can we make our peace with those who disagree with us or have harmed us? These are the questions from which wisdom can sometimes, with grace, come. This is the time where, if we are fortunate and if we practice the discipline of love, remembering that we are forgiven people, we just may turn that ST on our foreheads into something redemptive.
A capable wife who can find? says Proverbs, sounding a bit like a Yiddish old man. But this text is not just about women! She opens her hand to the poor, it says, and reaches out her hand to the needy. It’s ALSO, and just as much, about values. It’s about what will help us to cultivate the kinds of things about ourselves we want to, in order to become the people God wants us to be. Notice how many of the thoughts are similar to James: Strength and dignity are her clothing, it says, about the woman. Strength. Dignity. Good strong words. And the good wife laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. The wise, forgiven, loving, just and generous woman AND the wise, forgiven, loving, just and generous man.
Today here in Canada is the Terry Fox run day. It will be hard for me to get back downtown after church, with at least one of the bridges closed for the marathon. But think about Terry Fox. He was a bit like those two brothers in my story. Marked forever by losing a leg to cancer. Terry Fox had every reason to be bitter. Young and active, he was condemned by a disease he did not choose, to death. And yet somehow, through his determination and an openness to a grace that turned him toward others, his disease was transformed, through his run, into such a gift to the world. Decades later, his wisdom and strength are still helping others.
Its interesting to me that in the never-ending election campaign we are going through, there’s a lot of talk about money, but not about which values might help us decide how to spend money in one way and not another. There’s been a lot of talk about immigration. But again, not a lot of talk about the values that can help guide us in our decisions about who to accept, and from where. And there’s been lots of talk about the economy, but almost none about the kind of people we want ourselves to be through our economy.
James is a letter that is written to people who are trying to live out their faith, and doing that in a community. We could do a lot worse than to listen to what he says. In his warnings, he seems to be describing a government, and a people, who have given up values except for money and power: for where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind, he writes. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.
Once you get to a certain age, you know that none of us gets through this life without some kind of ST burned into our foreheads. We are all wounded, somehow, by life. The question of faith then becomes, how do we live with those wounds? By grace and through faith, can we transform them? Can we accept the love and forgiveness we have as children of the creator? Do we work for justice and peace, in wisdom and dignity? Or do we bite and cut, never forgiving ourselves or each other?
Jesus took a little child onto his lap and said: this is the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. Draw near to God, says James, and God will draw near to you. This week, and every week, may we think about what wounds life has given us, and pray and work and trust that they can be transformed in us, until, like the brother who found peace, we too can take our place among the saints.