[McFerrin’s Psalm 23]
There is a video making the rounds on social media. Maybe you have seen it. It’s short and to the point.
More than one person has shared that video with a caption that goes something like this:
Actual footage of me and my relationship with Jesus.
That’s hilarious. And it’s accurate. It’s one of those jokes that tells the truth.
In the hymn Amazing Grace we sing, “I once was lost but now I’m found.” But I wonder if those words might be more accurate if they went, “I keep on getting lost and I keep on getting found.”
This is Good Shepherd Sunday, the day every year on which we hear Psalm 23, probably the most famous and most beloved of all the psalms. (If you grew up in a certain tradition, there is a good chance that you know the King James translation of Psalm 23 by heart.) And it is the day as well in which we hear Jesus make this staggering and enigmatic promise:
I am the good shepherd.
What I am noticing in particular this year as I listen to Psalm 23 and Jesus is that each of these readings name danger, they name hurt, they name loss. Yea, the Psalmist writes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. And Jesus – well Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is talking about the sheep – you and me – living in danger from wolves.
From the beginning, the church has had to wrestle with the paradox that on the cross and in the empty tomb God defeated death and that, simultaneously, death and, more broadly, suffering and unfairness and injustice remained. We still die. Awful things still happen. That kind of seemed wrong to the first Christians. And, I don’t know about you, but it kind of seems wrong to me today. If we are living in the time of Easter – and I don’t just mean this particular season, but rather the almost 2000 years after Jesus’ resurrection – shouldn’t all of that be over?
I guess that I am thinking about hurt persisting after resurrection this week because this is the week in which I got the news that a friend’s cancer has likely metastasized. “Metastasized” being a variation on a lovely ancient Greek word that in, this case, means that the monster inside of my friend that is eating him alive has given birth. Nationally, this was the week in which we witnessed the trial of Derek Chauvin and held complicated feelings as we did so. While there was a glimpse of justice in the verdict, George Floyd remains dead and a guilty verdict against a police officer for this sort of crime remains vanishingly unusual. And here at Grace, this is the week in which our beloved friend and longtime groundskeeper, Frank Schramling, died. We’re going to be doing a parish workday at Grace on Saturday, May 15th – you’re invited to help – and as we encounter the layers of grief in Frank’s death, a big layer will come as we work on Grace’s grounds and he is not there.
The resurrection has happened. We live in the time of Easter. And all of this hardship is still true and real.
In case it’s not obvious, I’ve just painted myself into a corner. If a solid structure for a speech is to pose a question and then to answer that question, I’m kind of hooped. Because, as my old Jesuit theology professor, George Griener, put it, theology – the words that we say about God – are nowhere more incomplete and inadequate than when it comes to suffering and evil.
Lots of folks have tried to give a neat and complete answer to why suffering exists and, in particular, why it exists after Easter. When the door-to-door religion peddlers come to your house, they will cheerfully hand you a pamphlet that explains everything. And just yesterday on Facebook I encountered someone making the extraordinary (and yet extraordinarily common) claim that everything happens for a reason.
What the hell is the reason that my friend’s cancer has metastasized?
What the hell is that a conviction such as Derek Chauvin’s is vanishingly unusual?
What the hell is the reason that Frank is dead?
Do not insult anyone’s suffering by trying to give an easy answer to those questions.
Give them the dignity of sitting with a question that, at least this side of heaven, does not have a good answer.
Maybe I started this morning with poetry (what are the psalms if not ancient poems?) and song because, sometimes, art has a capacity to hold mystery in a way that an argument or a speech or a thesis cannot. We could write books about where Jesus is in suffering – lots of people have, and lots of those books are glorious and consoling and important – but come the end of the book we would still have the sense that our questions were unanswered, that we had barely touched the beginnings of an answer. In art, in beauty, we sometimes catch a glimpse of God, of truth, of love in a way that we cannot via any other means.
So, as I hold the news of my friend’s diagnosis, as our nation holds the news of Dereck Chauvin’s trial, as our parish holds the news of Frank’s dying, let’s sing. Let’s sing about how the Lord is your shepherd and mine. About how we, Jesus’ sheep, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. About how, even in this Easter time, we keep on falling into that ditch beside the road. About our trust, our trust in spite of everything, that Jesus is with us and will pull us back out.
April 29, 2021
- Song of Songs 4:16–5:1
- Psalm 104
- James 2:1–9, 14–17
- Luke 24:13–35
It is an uncommon privilege to speak at Frank Schramling’s funeral.
We’re here in a place that Frank Schramling loved: the courtyard of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church. We’re officially out here for Covid reasons. But it seems to me that this is an enormously fitting place in which to remember Frank. This place is Frank’s Cathedral. The flowers and trees around us are in many ways the work of his hands.
Frank collaborated with God to create so much of this beauty.
And here in this Cathedral, we are surrounded by stories of Frank. Some of them are written down on paper and hung from the walls around us. And still more of them ae hanging in our hearts.
In the Creed, it says of Jesus that he will come again to judge the living and the dead. And maybe we can picture that judgment as a courtroom scene, with Jesus way up on a bench or a throne ready to send you to prison or to set you free. So kind of fearsome. But maybe we could also imagine it as a scene more like this one. As a place, a garden like the one at the beginning of scripture, with all of the stories of your life – all of the stories that people tell about you, all of the stories that you tell about yourself – hanging from the trees like leaves.
And at the end of your life, you walk through this forest of stories with Jesus at your side. And together you read them. Jesus will periodically point at a story and smile and say, “What do you think about that one?”
There’s an opportunity, then, to apologize – to say “I’m sorry” when you read stories about folks whom you have hurt or let down. There is an opportunity to forgive, as you read stories of people who have hurt you or let you down. There is an opportunity to hold the wistfulness of stories that might have had a different ending, risks you didn’t take, choices you didn’t make, paths you didn’t walk.
And there is an opportunity to be surprised, maybe, about the things that you said or did were a big deal for other people. About the acts of kindness and generosity, large and small – some so small, at least to you, that you may not even remember them – which were a source of healing or encouragement to someone who needed it.
If the day of judgment is anything like that, what do you suppose that Frank is noticing as he walks through the stories of his life? What do you think that Jesus is pointing out to him?
Probably Frank is noticing how many stories that describe him use the word curmudgeon. I expect that is not a surprise to him. Frank knew that he had a temper, knew that he wanted things a certain way and that he could become seriously irritated when he had the sense that someone was horning in on his territory: see Nancy Entrikin’s story about the several months in which he referred to her as That Woman. Frank holds the record for quitting Grace Memorial the most number of times – sometimes he quit more than once in a single day. It is a record, I suspect, that will never be broken.
But I hope as well that Frank is noticing and being surprised by and being delighted by how deeply people loved him and by how much his work mattered to them and how his acts of kindness changed them.
If Frank lost his temper sometimes I suspect that was because he was carrying within him a fear that a great many of us carry within ourselves. I suspect that there was part of him that was afraid that no one noticed him or appreciated his work or maybe even loved him. And sometimes, when that story would get a particularly solid foothold inside of him, it would blast forth as anger, as I quit!
I hope and trust that there were times here at Grace when he knew that that story was never, ever true. And I hope and trust that now, in the resurrection, Frank knows that that story was never, ever true. We noticed all of the ways that he served God and served neighbour. We loved him. His ministry changed us.
Consider Jo Bronson’s story. It is Maundy Thursday. And Jo’s young Goddaughter Clair is there with her doll. The moment of foot washing comes, Clair and Frank and Jo go up together. And Clair presents her doll to Frank. And Frank – the parish curmudgeon – carefully, gently washes the doll’s feet.
There is Maundy Thursday summed up in a single moment!
And maybe Frank guessed that this act of loving kindness was source of comfort for Clair. But I suspect that he did not guess that, as Jo Bronson witnessed this moment, her heart was broken open. That this was a moment of profound holiness for her, that it was a God sighting.
Jo says that, to this day, she cannot tell that story without weeping.
Or consider Elissa Hare’s story. Elissa is a time of depression and poverty. (This is not poverty of a metaphorical sort but of the I don’t know how I am going to buy groceries sort.) She comes by the church a lot and so she sees Frank a lot. And he always has a kind word for her. They talk about what it is to be poor – Frank knows about not having enough money, too. And Elissa feels less alone. She says that these moments with Frank are, for her, an oasis.
Consider all of the days that he set the table at the Friday Feast, all of the times that he came early to get ready for quilting. If James is right, and we find our faith in work, Frank taught us about faith then.
May now, in the resurrection, Frank knows how deeply his kindness mattered and how profoundly he was and is loved. May you and I catch a glimpse of the same truth: that when we wash a doll’s feet or are kind to a woman enduring a hard season in her life or prepare a meal, we invite God’s kingdom a little nearer. In such an action, we – like Frank – plant a holy seed that grows in God’s garden.
Are there times when God’s anger is good news?
I realise that this is a dangerous question. More than one person at our virtual service this morning grew up in a religiously abusive environment. In such a context there is very little good news about an angry God. Here is the god who looks at you and, like a drunken and abusive dad home from a bender, finds you perpetually wanting and screams your inadequacies at you. And I realise as well that, just floating around in our culture, there is a picture of God’s anger in which God is always ready to rain lightning strikes down on people who have failed to love him enough.
So, let me be clear: that isn’t what God is like. 1John is right when it tells us that God is love. God loves you beyond limit and beyond measure. And, more than that, that isn’t what I mean by the anger of God.
What I mean by God’s anger is what we witness today as we watch Jesus in the temple.
As Jesus makes a whip and chases people around, as he flips over tables, is this good news? Or, if we prefer, because this is the Gospel – in English, good news – and I reckon that our ancestors got that name right, how is Jesus’ anger good news? How is it good news for the people visiting the temple? And, maybe this second question is harder, how is it good news for the merchants selling doves and sheep and for the moneychangers?
How is Jesus’ anger evidence that God is love?
I’m going to invite you to cast your mind back – maybe to your childhood, maybe to a more recent time – and see if you can remember an occasion in which someone became angry on your behalf. Maybe you got ripped off by a neighbourhood kid or by a neighbourhood merchant. Maybe a teacher was cruel to you. Maybe you were the victim of a still more serious injustice. And someone who loved you and wanted the best for you blew their stack. They got red in the face, maybe even spit flew out of their mouths (this was before masks and physical distancing made that sort of thing impossible) and they told the person who had hurt you a thing or two.
What was that like? What did that feel like?
There are a lot of ways that a loving parent tells us that they love us. And one of them is this kind of anger. When you witness this anger you say, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain.
And that’s what Jesus does on behalf of the poor people coming to the temple today. He blows his stack at the folks who are getting rich by selling stuff to them at a criminal markup.
Now, I need to stop here and inert a kind of footnote. There is a long and disastrous history of reading this story through the lens of antisemitism, so that this story and ones like it are, somehow, Jesus versus the Jews. No! No, Jesus is Jewish, the people getting ripped off are Jewish, the people doing the ripping off are Jewish. This is an argument within a family. If it’s helpful, imagine Jesus as a faithful and committed Episcopalian, someone who has no intention of leaving the Episcopal church now or ever, let alone starting a new religions. And Jesus runs amok in an Episcopal church gift shop that has been ripping off other Episcopalians. (I don’t know if that analogy totally works, but it’s the best that I’ve got.)
If the poor people in Jesus’ time were anything like the poor people of today, they were ripped off all the time. In a funny way, they were almost used to being ripped off. I knew a guy in Spokane who was being treated in a totally unfair way by his landlord. And he said: My landlord is rich, I’m not. My landlord has a lawyer, I don’t. There’s nothing I can do.
And maybe the poor folks coming to the temple say the same thing. Maybe they say: We’re going to get hosed trading money. We’re going to get hosed even more buying our sacrifice for the temple. There’s nothing we can do.
But then Jesus loses his temper on their behalf. And maybe they feel something similar to what you felt in that memory that I invited you to examine a minute ago. Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like Jesus is hurt. My pain is his pain.
Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper on their behalf is God.
This is good news.
But what about the merchants? What about the money changers? Surely this is nothing but bad news for them – they were having a good day, a god week, a good fiscal quarter. And suddenly their coins and running in the gutters and some dude is sending their tables airborne.
Again, I’ll invite you to cast your mind back. See if you can remember a time when someone loved you so much that they lost their temper with you. Maybe this was a teacher who knew that you were not trying anywhere near your best. Maybe this was a neighbour who discovered you stealing something. Maybe this was a friend or a partner who named your selfishness in unvarnished terms.
What was that like?
Well, if you are anything like me, it was no fun at all. If you are anything like me, you may have resented that anger. Maybe you sulked, maybe you retreated into silence, maybe you became angry yourself.
It is only with time that you came to say, Gosh, I really needed to hear that. It’s because of that anger that I started trying and I got into college; it’s because of that anger that my conscience grew a couple of sizes larger; it’s because of that anger that I realised that I was being selfish and that I wanted to do better.
And maybe with time you said, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain. The love me enough to blow my stack.
Because when we make a mistake, when we fall short of the mark, when we sin, what is frequently the behaviour of someone who doesn’t love us? Sometimes they will get angry. But as often as not, they will shrug. I was just listening to a popular song, the words of which contain ancient wisdom, wisdom that Jesus new:
The opposite of love is indifference.
Now, like you and me, I suspect that the merchants and the money changers don’t experience this moment as love, especially if Jesus’ whip gets anywhere near their behinds. But maybe, after a while, they too will say, You know what? That was the day that changed my life. That was the day that I understood that I wanted to be someone else. Someone kinder and more loving.
And they will remember and say Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like he is hurt. My pain is his pain. Jesus loves me enough to blow his stack.
Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper with them is God.
This is good news.
So. When you suffer injustice, know that Jesus is angry on your behalf. That Jesus will flip over tables for you. And when you hurt another person or hurt the world, know that Jesus loves you so much that Jesus will get red in the face and tell you the unvarnished truth. In both cases, Jesus’ love for you is fierce and abiding and huge. It is a love that will lead you into life.
This is good news.
The name Sarah, or its previous iteration of Sarai, appears more frequently in the Bible than that of any other woman, 55 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the New according to the womanist Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney. Granted, the list of women with names in the Bible is a pretty short one, but this points to the significance of Sarah in the story of God’s people.
Despite her importance in the narrative and her role as the matriarch of the people of Israel, I know I tend to only think of her as a supporting player in the stories of others – in the wanderings of Abraham, in the abuse and exile of Hagar and Ishmael, in the birth of Isaac.
But in today’s reading from Genesis God points to Sarah by name as being blessed by God (twice in fact, God repeats the words “I will bless her” two times) and that “she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Of course this proclamation is not spoken directly to Sarahm but to her husband Abraham, and I wonder how much he might have told her about his conversation with God. After all, Abraham does not have a good track record of treating her well or protecting her. Abraham is her husband, but also her brother, and he switches between those roles throughout the narrative depending on what best suits him and protects him. This happens most famously in the chapters before this one, as Abram and Sarai travel through Egypt and Abram travels as Sarai’s brother and gives her, traffics her in the word of one Biblical commentator, to Pharaoh in order to secure his own safety and wealth.
Interestingly, at the conclusion of that part of the story, when Pharoah realizes he has slept with Abram’s wife, it is God who is furious and punishes Pharoah (the text says that God afflicted him with ‘great plagues’) and not Abram himself. God seems to be more aware and present to Sarai’s trauma than her husband.
Another source of Sarah’s pain, I might suggest, comes from being unable to bear children. During this time and this culture, being childless would be one of the worst shames for a woman, who was (at least in the Bible) always considered the one to blame….the metaphor being a barren field rather than unfruitful seed. But in today’s reading God announces that Sarah and Abraham, despite their very advanced age and inability thus far to have children, will indeed bear a son and this son will be the sign of God’s covenant and promise and hope.
God has articulated this covenant three times before to Abraham, but this is the first time God names Sarah in God’s promise. Right after the passage we heard this morning, Abraham suggests that God might consider Ishmael – his child with Hagar – as heir instead. Abraham sees a child being born by Sarah as a ridiculous impossibility given their age and Abraham tries to point God toward a more realistic and achievable plan.
But God names Sarah. As in their journey through Egypt, God is there for Sarah even when Abraham is not. In Egypt God saw Sarah’s pain even when her husband did not, God stays in relationship with Sarah even when her husband offers God an easier alternative, God promises life to Sarah even after she has suffered so much pain even at the hands of her own husband.
This is not just a story of the way God stays in relationship with Sarah through pain and trauma, but the story of how God stayed in relationship with the people of Judah during a violent and traumatic time in their history. (and with all of us). One scholar suggests that we might read the Book of Genesis as ‘survival literature”, written by the people of Judah in the time of the violence and trauma of the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. Many of the stories of the Book of Genesis, including the ones of Sarah and Abraham, were likely written during this period, known as the “Babylonian Captivity”, when the center of Jewish life and worship was destroyed by the Chaldeans led by Nebuchadnezzar, the monarchy was killed, and many were deported to live in exile in Babylon.
Through these stories, through characters like Sarah, the Jewish people tried to make sense of what was happening to them and where God was in the aftermath of the unimaginable. God meets Sarah in the midst of her trauma and abuse – of being childless and married to her brother and trafficked to Pharaoh – and renames her and reiterates God’s promise to HER – that life will be created in HER body, that she will be the mother of a new nation. God does not take away her pain or her past but meets her in it and creates the possibilities of new meaning and new life from that pain and loss.
I, for one, need to hear these stories right now, in this time and in this Lent. One year ago today, this very day, the first case of Covid was announced in Oregon and recently we have passed the unimaginable number of 500,000 deaths. There has been a renewed reckoning with the violence done to black and brown bodies through the systems of white supremacy and the state. And many of us, I know, have our own stories of particular grief and loss throughout this year.
Yet, just as God was with Sarah, God is with us, offering a horizon of hope. These stories were written millenia ago to help our ancestors of the faith make sense of a hard time. I think they invite us to similarly tell our stories, to share our pain, with each other and with God, so that we too might see how God is with us and is calling to us by name. Last Wednesday, I had the privilege to help lead the first in our Lenten series from grief to joy, 28 people came together to learn about lament and to name their own particular laments in this time. It was a holy time and a holy space
I think by telling our stories of pain and grief, by listening to the stories of others, we meet God in a powerful way. God met Sarah in the most painful part of her story, in her childness and in her marriage to Abraham, and offered a relationship and the possibility of new life. God did not take away the pain of her past but rather offered a new way to make sense of it through relationship with God.
The first hymn we heard this morning was “The God of Abraham Praise” and it is one of my favorite hymns, but I do think we have too long given short shrift to Sarah….a complicated and brave and really human character. God named Sarah, God was with Sarah in her pain and trauma, God made an impossible promise to her and God was with her when that promise was fulfilled. So yes, let us praise the God of Abraham, but let us also praise the God of Leah, the God of Rebekah, the God of, Hagar and the God of Sarah and the God of all those whose stories of survival and hope speak to us still. Let us praise the God who was there with them and is here with us now and will always be with us forever.
In the Gospel of Mark, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is defined by three events. First, there is his baptism in the Jordan in which he comes up from the water and he hears the voice that declares who he is. Second, there is his time in the wilderness, a time of hunger, searching, and temptation. I’ve thought about – and prayed and preached and written about those first two – a bunch of times. But I’ve spent less time with the third defining event that Mark gives us. And that is the arrest and, later, the murder by the state of his cousin John.
One of the weird things that many people, maybe even most people, do is to imagine that hardship and suffering are things that will not happen to them. We are aware that time passes and that aging exists. But we are surprised when we cannot run as fast or as far as we once did and we begin emitting grunts and sighs when we bend over to pick something up.
We are aware that loss and grief and unfairness exist. But we are surprised when these things descend into our lives like a lightning bolt, when the phone call comes that changes everything. Sometimes our very faith is shaken.
We are aware that death exists. But we are surprised to learn that it exists for us. When my friend Don was dying he said to me, simply and wistfully, “I didn’t understand how short life was.” Don was one of the smartest and wisest people I have ever met: how could he not have understood? People are constantly saying “Life is short.” But somehow, I knew exactly what Don meant. And I suspect that, when my own death nears, part of me will be just as surprised as Don by the shortness of this life.
Jesus grows up in a volatile and dangerous world. Disease, pandemic will show up without warning. A farming or fishing or carpentry accident can change or end a life in an instant, and there is no ambulance to come to the rescue. And the army of another land walks the roads, ready to build their crucifixes on a hill for any or no reason.
And yet if Jesus is fully human – and Jesus is fully human – then maybe knowing that all of these things exist does not stop him from reckoning that, somehow, they apply to other people.
The taking of his cousin John will change that.
It is not long after the two of them have reunited and John has lowered Jesus into the waters of the Jordan that Jesus receives the news that the soldiers have come for John. That John is in prison. This is the van that comes in the night, the door kicked in, the flashlight shone into the face of the sleeper who awakes into confusion and terror. And then the house left empty again, the bedsheets still warm but no one in them anymore.
If Jesus is fully human – and Jesus is fully human – then when the news reaches him that John is gone he may utter those words,
I can’t believe it.
And this will not entirely be a figure of speech or a metaphor. Part of him – a big part – will be unable to believe that someone whom he knows and loves has been taken to empire’s prison, a prison from which few return alive and from which fewer still return without scars.
In not so long he will learn that John is not among the few. That empire has killed him.
This shattering, awful, unjust grief will shape the rest of his life.
Mark is the most urgent of the Gospels. It has this driving and driven quality. Mark loves the word immediately. And I always figured that told us a lot about Mark (and it does). But it also tells us a lot about Jesus. Because, after John’s death, Jesus understands that there is a holy urgency to this life. The things he is called by the Father to do: he needs to do them immediately. He needs to do them now.
John being taken, John being killed. This trauma has given him the difficult gift of understanding what Don did not understand until the end of his days. That this life is short.
When I think about my own regrets, the things I have done and left undone, many of them are about saying or doing cruel or selfish things. Many of them are about not taking a risk when I had the chance to do so. And many of them are about acting as though this life were something other than short.
A number of years ago, my beloved father-in-law, Bob, went on a pilgrimage to Greece, to a series of ancient monasteries. My brothers-in-law and I were all invited. But I didn’t go. I didn’t go because the trip was expensive and I didn’t make a whole lot of money working in the performing arts. And I didn’t go because I thought that there would be other opportunities. But there was no second trip. Bob is dead now. I didn’t understand how short life is.
More recently, I imagined that I would invite my friend and teacher here to Grace to preach. Bill was an amazing preacher: y’all would have loved him. And Bill was a bunch younger than Bob, I reckoned I had lots of time. But last spring Bill abruptly died. I didn’t understand how short life is. I could keep on giving examples. My regret is magnified because I have made the same mistake more than once. I keep on not understanding.
The same Don whom I was talking about earlier: He said something about the Lord’s prayer that I’ve thought about often. He said that the word that he thought was super important came right at the end. It was the word Now. As in Now and Forever. Amen. Don would encourage you to pray that prayer hitting that word hard, repeating it, now, now, now. using your arms to pull the world into yourself.
Now, now, now.
Give us today our daily bread. Now.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Now.
On earth as it is in heaven. Now.
I do not wish grief upon you, nor loss upon you, nor the injustice upon you. I hope that you do not have to endure anything like what Jesus endured when John was taken. And if you have endured such a thing, know that I am so, so sorry.
I do hope that you and I come to understand what Jesus understood in that loss, what shaped the rest of his life. This life is short. It is a fleeting, beautiful gift.
So, if you are called to speak words of love, speak them immediately, speak them now. If you are called to do works of mercy, do them immediately, do them now. If you are called to forgive, do so immediately, do so now. If you are called to take a holy risk, do so immediately, do so now.
Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbour. Love yourself. Right now.
A story in which Jesus and three friends go for a hike.
The three friends are John and James and Peter. They are Jesus’ closest friends, hold oldest friends. Or at least they are his first friends since he was changed, since he came out of the Jordan’s waters and heard the voice, the voice that said to him and of him:
This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!
The four of them have been on the move ever since. Walking from place to place as Jesus tells stories and feeds people and heals people and casts out demons. Walking as others have joined them.
Today, they stand at the bottom of a mountain. And Jesus says:
Today, our walk is going to take us up.
And so they go. They start walking. This is how things are with Jesus. He does things right now and if you want in on the adventure you drop your nets – be your nets metaphorical or, in the case of these three, be they very wet and very real – and you go too.
Notwithstanding all of the walking that they have done, notwithstanding the great advantage that is being young, this hike is difficult. They climb up and up, breathing hard, the world getting more quiet around them as civilization recedes and, simultaneously, the world gets bigger around them: they can see more and farther with every step that they take up.
Maybe they have brought water with them and they stop from time to time to drink it, letting their speeding hearts slow for a moment or two, looking back down the mountain and out at the immensity of the horizon. Maybe as they drink they talk – about everything that happened to bring them to the mountain, about what its summit might be like and how far it might be still.
Or maybe they say little or nothing. Maybe this is a moment for which there are not words, in which any effort at small talk feels, well, too small on the immensity of the mountain. And so the friends get only a few words in before they decide to choose silence once more.
Those maybes done, the friends resume climbing. Up. Up. Up. Up past the tree line, the place where the vegetation stops and the rock and the wind begins. Up into the brightness of the sun, a sun that, even as it leaves you squinting, does not take your cold away.
Eventually, they make it to the summit. And there the four of them stand, panting and looking around in wonder.
They are alone, the four friends.
Centuries after this moment, an anthropologist will appear in a documentary in which he will explain that, for our ancestors, for people like James and John and Peter and Jesus and billions of others, the world was malleable and permeable. Malleable meaning that categories were not as rigid as maybe we think of them as being today. To look at a drawings an ancient cave is to discover images in which someone is both a human being and, say, ox. It was possible to be both at once. This both/andness was something that people understood and accepted as normal. Our ancestors had a way of being that, perhaps, we are rediscovering a little today when we speak of being fluid or non-binary. Our ancestors lived in a non-binary or fluid or malleable world.
Permeable probably has a complicated dictionary definition, but I’m going to give it a simple one: it means that God isn’t somewhere else, that heaven isn’t somewhere else. To live in a permeable world is to trip over miracles all the time. It is to go into your kitchen to make coffee and to encounter something shining with divinity as you do so. In a permeable world, a friend will tell you that they encountered a bush that was on fire but was not consumed and you will neither assume that they are nuts nor that they are speaking metaphorically. In a permeable world, someone will walk on the surface of a lake, will make a finite amount of food into an infinite amount of food, Jesus will die and yet will talk with you and eat with you.
(These things still happen, by the way. One of the privileges of doing this work is that people tell me things. And lots of folks to this day still have profound visions, have profound God sightings. It’s just that we’ve lost the vocabulary for talking about these experiences and we are justifiably afraid that if we share them out loud people will think that we are loopy or, maybe worse still, will dismiss our most holy encounters as trivialities, as stuff that we plain-old made up.)
They are alone, the four friends. Alone on a mountaintop in a malleable and a permeable world.
And Jesus, whom doctrine says is fully human and fully divine, suddenly embodies this malleability, this both/andness before John, James, and Peter. He stands before the three friends, still the person whom they know, but shining so bright that they can barely look at him. He has become an explosion, become the sun – not s-o-n but s-u-n. The three friends look at him through their fingers, squinting. And they notice this incredibly folksy thing. They notice that no one, no matter how good they are at bleaching, could make Jesus’ clothes dazzle the way that his clothes are dazzling right now.
And the permeability comes at the same time. Elijah and Moses, those ancient prophets, gone into heaven centuries ago, are there and talking with Jesus.
Can the three friends hear any of their conversation?
Peter feels like he has to say something, like he has do something to mark this moment. And so he blurts out:
I’ll build you houses! We can stay here forever!
He does not know what to say, for the three of them are terrified.
They may live in a malleable and a permeable world, but that doesn’t make this moment into no big deal. You and I live in a world in which thunder and lightning exist. And to see a lightning bolt land on the ground before you is still to have something big and primal get touched within your soul.
But the terror, the wonder, is not over. A cloud shows up. And in a moment of fearful symmetry, the voice that comes from it utters the very words same words from the Jordan:
This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!
And then the voice is gone. And Moses and Elijah are gone. And Jesus shines no more. Or no, that’s wrong. The three friends are able to look at Jesus again. And they realise that Jesus always shone. They just never saw it clearly before.
And that’s almost the end of the story. Except that there is this epilogue. The four of them go back down the mountain and, as they do, Jesus says:
Don’t tell anyone about this, okay?
Scholars have spilled a lot of ink over this. What does it mean, that Jesus wants this moment to be a secret? Maybe it has a really complicated explanation. But maybe it isn’t complicated at all. I wonder if seeing Jesus transfigured, seeing Jesus shine, isn’t something that you can be told about and understand. In order to understand, in order to integrate the shine of Jesus into your own life, you have to climb the mountain and see for yourself.
SERMON JANUARY 17, 2021, JOHN: CHAPTER 1, VERSUS 43-51, HONORING MARTIN LUTHER KING JR
Today I want to offer a reflection of my early life with a man I never met. I found him to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I was fascinated, inspired, confused and wanted to learn from him. I was in high school in the town I grew up in, Pecos, Texas. I was 16 years old. I heard for the first time about the work of Martin Luther King regarding civil rights. My family had purchased our first television in 1954 and I could both see and hear civil rights issues being talked about in our country. Especially around issues of school segregation. The Supreme Court had a land mark decision in the 1954 case that the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitional. The name of the case was “Brown vs The Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas”.
I will admit to being naïve on the subject of race. It only came to me over time that as a white person in the United States, I was privileged and white supremacy had a long history in our country. In my own small town of 10,000 people we had signs in restaurants that said “whites only”. At the Greyhound bus station there were separate restrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “blacks”. I asked my father about these concerns since as a well-respected attorney in Pecos. He said it was the law of the land handed down by the Supreme Court. Separate but equal meant separate schools for black and white people and there was to be no togetherness in social or religious settings. I can remember thinking at the time…I had no choice to be born white. A black person had no choice to be born black. We are all God’s children so why do we have to have discrimination? A question….I continue to ask and try to answer.
I was president of my junior and senior class in 1956 and 1957. Our school board accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court and decided to integrate our schools. I was amazed to discover that Pecos had a high school of 20 students that were black. My ignorance was such that I did not know that. The town became heated about the decision of the school board to integrate our school. My father was asked to run for the school board as a last minute write in candidate because he was segregationist. I was for integration so we had some very interesting talks. I learned a lot from him and I believe he learned a lot from me. We respected our different views and I have always respected my father. He was elected to the school board but never once punished me or degraded me for my own thoughts. Twenty students from the black high school joined our high school.
I was the manager of our football team and one of the black students was a talented end for the team who made many touchdowns. He became a hero. We would sit together on the bus to go to games and we became friends. We had a pregame meal at a local restaurant at 4:00 before our games. The restaurant was closed while our team was eating there. We entered the restaurant and the owner looked at Bubba, my friend, and said to him, “Bubba, you know you can’t eat in the restaurant. You go eat in the kitchen.” I tried to argue but Bubba did not want to argue and headed for the kitchen. I followed him and ate with him. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. It was not right. So I grew up a little that night and that year.
Fast forward to 1968 at Grace Memorial in Portland. I was ordained a priest on January 10, 1968, here at Grace Memorial. Last Sunday was my 53rd anniversary of ordination. I worked two days a week for the Diocese of Oregon as City Missioner and four days a week as Curate at Grace Memorial. Some of us here remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968. The rector at the time was Duane Alvord and he and I spent many hours with black leaders trying to find our best responses for our churches and the city. As we know this conversation continues to this day.
I would stop for gas regularly at a Texaco Station on Broadway just at the entrance to the freeway. I had been ordained a short time. On the sidewalk there were several prostitutes walking on what was then Williams Avenue. As I was inspecting my car while getting gas, I heard a voice from the street, “Dick Toll is that you?” I turned to the voice and a black woman wearing a blond wig walked toward me. You can realize my surprise and wondering what in the world was going on. She came up to me and again called me by name. She said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” I said no I did not remember her and she said, “I was one of the black students who integrated Pecos High School 12 years ago.” She handed me her card with a name I did not recognize. We talked briefly and I asked her about her life style and coming to Portland. I will always remember her answer, “What is a black girl from Pecos, Texas, suppose to do to make a living?” She left to go back to the street and I left in my car wondering about the new kick in the gut I had received.
I offer this reflection because of the very fact that I look back on so much of our society that has been built on racism. We as a society have allowed our racism to enter into every aspect of our common life. Whether it be the way we treat the Native American people and still deny them their rights or the exclusion acts for Asians, Muslims, Japanese and of course our long history with slavery. We as individuals and as a society have allowed systemic racism to invade our lives. And we live in denial if we do not allow ourselves to see it and to change what we have become.
I read this publication from the Oregon Historical Society. It is a special issue about Oregon and white supremacy and resistance. It spells out in detail the way that systemic racism was built into the foundation of Oregon from it’s very foundation…the way we took land from the native Americans, the way the government would not allow people of color to own property, the laws that were reflective of the society we were building throughout our country. It took a man of the stature and vision of Martin Luther King Jr to confront our issues within our society that set us on a path of healing. But the wounds are deep and need our individual attention today.
Over the years I have learned so much from people of other cultures and observed the ways they have been discriminated against. I worked with Native Americans in the 1960 and help start the Native American Rehabilitation Center that is still in existence here in Portland. The motivation for it’s beginning was that our Native American brothers and sisters wanted to find a way to heal their additions in their own cultural way and not depend on the white man’s way. It worked and is working.
I assume you as and individual have felt punched in the gut the way I was as I watched injustices take place. And I assume you have been willing to step forward to change the situation of injustices in the work place, the neighborhood, the city government, and on, and on. My hope is the future will allow our responses more and more as individuals and communities.
We as a society have been honored by the lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr. He chose to follow Jesus just as we heard in the Gospel today when Jesus tells Phillip, “follow me”. One thing I have learned from my black brothers and sisters is the deep longing for the Gospel message to be shared in music and in song. The song I am going to sing was written by Thomas Dorsey, considered to be the father of gospel music. He wrote this song in the 1930’s after he lost his wife and son in childbirth. He closed himself off from the world as he grieved and gave us this beautiful hymn. It was sung by Mahalia Jackson at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral in 1968. The name of the hymn is “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.