The late film critic, Roger Ebert, had an observation in one his reviews that I have been thinking about a bunch this week. Ebert was reviewing a film that contained a bunch of parables. And he said:
…all good parables [are] expressed not in words but in emotions.
If Ebert is right, then the question for us this morning goes like this. As we listen to Jesus tell one of his most famous parables, maybe his most famous parable, the one that some Bibles entitle The Prodigal Son, how are we to feel? How are we to feel about God? About ourselves? About faith? About life?
One possible answer – maybe it’s the first one that comes to your mind, I don’t know – is that to encounter God is to be almost overwhelmed with joy and with gratitude. I’m going to venture that we have, all of us here this morning, made mistakes, done things that we regret, done things of which we are even ashamed. We have wished that we could go back in time and undo the words that we said or left unsaid; that we could go back and put the effort into maintaining a friendship that we damaged or simply let lapse; that we could go back and make a different choice on the day that changed everything in our lives. Failing that, failing a scenario in which we have access to a time machine, we wish that we could be forgiven. That we could be welcomed home once more.
All of us have been the younger son in this story, longing to be welcomed home, even as a servant.
And all of us – I hope, I trust – have indeed had the experience of being welcomed home, at least once. An experience in which we are staggered by the forgiveness of another person and of the forgiveness of God. In which we remember, as the old hymn has it, that great is the Lord’s faithfulness. That the Lord can and will forgive even someone like you or like me. And more than that, that the Lord will celebrate, that the Lord will throw a party when we come home.
Here is the other old hymn: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
To hear Jesus’ story about God, about the Kingdom, is not just to feel joy and gratitude, but to be amazed by joy and gratitude.
That’s one possible answer to our question: How do we feel when Jesus tells us this parable? And it’s a really good answer. I want to be clear that I’m not doing that annoying rhetorical thing where someone shares an argument with you for no purpose other than to later tear it down.
Joy and amazed gratitude may not be the only emotions that this story might inspire in us. Much as we all have been the younger son, welcomed home with a celebration in spite of everything, we all have been the older son, watching our brother welcomed home.
Maybe what we feel hearing this parable is resentment and anger.
What is it like to be given a group assignment by a teacher only to discover that there is a classmate in your group who is checked out, who is simply not pulling their weight? And then, on the strength of your effort, to see that classmate get an A on the assignment? Or way more intense even than that, what is it like to be the one who steps up for an aging parent, taking them to appointments, advocating for them with doctors, maybe having them move in with you, while your other siblings are passive and distant, only to discover, on the day when the will is read, that your parent remembered everyone equally.
Sometimes, folks will cast the older brother as the one who just doesn’t get it, as this cautionary tale about, I don’t know, preferring the law over the love of God (quite a bit of anti-Semitism has flowed out of that reading). But actually, the older brother is behaving thoroughly reasonably, he’s behaving as I would probably behave in this same scenario. I think it’s Barbara Brown Taylor who poses the question, “Are you in favour of parties for prodigals?”
Here’s the younger brother, he’s leaned on his softy of a Dad until his Dad has caved and given him his inheritance early. And with that money, the younger brother has gone to the city and picked up a sports car and a drug habit. His life has been party after party, he’s spent his Dad’s money and more, maxing out every credit card that he can get his hands on. The older brother would’ve liked to go to the occasional party, he had his own wild oats that he wanted to sow. But he didn’t. He stayed home and did his duty.
The older son has heard that his kid brother has finally run out of money. And on his good days, his generous days, the older son can imagine his Dad letting his kid brother crash in the basement for a while. But making him work in return for his room and board. Because what his kid brother needs is tough love.
But that’s not what his Dad gives him. There is nothing even remotely tough about this love. It is naïve and generous beyond a fault.
The older brother hears the sound of the party and his hands shake with anger. And I can’t blame him. In this parable, Jesus has a major character who says, quite reasonably, that’s not fair. And how does the story reply? It says:
You’re right. It’s not fair. Unfair is what the Kingdom is like.
The late poet and theologian, John O’Donohue, has an absolutely amazing poem/prayer. It’s called For the Parents of One Who Has Committed a Crime. Although it could just as well be called For the Parents of a Prodigal. I thought about reading part of it to you. But I realised that there was no gracious place to stop or to cut. So I’d like to share with you the whole thing. It goes like this:
No one else can see beauty
In his darkened life now.
His image has closed
Like a shadow.
When people look at him,
He has become the mirror
Of the damage he has done.
But he is yours;
And you have different eyes
That hold his yesterdays
In pictures no one else remembers:
Waiting for him to be born,
Not knowing who he would be,
The moments of his childhood,
First steps, first words,
Smiles and cries,
And all the big thresholds
Of his journey since…
He is yours in a way
No words could ever tell;
And you can see through
The stranger this deed has made him
And still find the countenance of your son.
Despite all the disappointment and shame,
May you find in your belonging with him
A kind place, where your spirit will find rest.
May new words come alive between you
To build small bridges of understanding.
May that serenity lead you beyond guilt and blame
To find that bright field of the heart
Where he can come to feel your love
Until it heals whatever darkness drove him
And he can see what it is he has done
And seek forgiveness and bring healing;
May this dark door open a path
That brightens constantly with new promise.
God is the one who always sees beauty in darkened lives. God sees that beauty in your life and mine, even in our darkest moments. And God sees that beauty in everyone else, ever those who least deserve it. God is the one who sees the strangers that our deeds sometimes make us.
How should we feel when we hear this story? Full of joy and gratitude? Yes. Full of anger and resentment? Sometimes, yes. But if the saints are right, and it is your calling and mine to imitate Christ, then following the one who sees beauty in darkened lives means that you and I are called to do likewise, that we are called to welcome the hurting sinner home, to look out at the world, in spite of everything, with hearts full of love.
What do we mean when we use the word temptation? More specifically, what does the Bible mean when it uses the word temptation?
In popular parlance, temptation frequently has to do with sex, with booze, or possibly with cheesecake. We often use the word temptation in the same way that we use words like decadent and sinful. While these words are officially negative modifiers we mean something more ambiguous when we use them. We use these words to talk about things that we love but that we feel kind of guilty about. Or, at a minimum, we use these words to describe our sense that there is someone out there, some school principal or straight-laced neighbour or humourless priest, who thinks that we ought to feel guilty.
We sand beside the dessert tray and we say:
O, these cookies are so decadent. They are sinfully good. I am tempted to have another.
And that’s fine. I am not troubled by using religious or moral language in a playful way.
I am a little more troubled when we start applying the language of temptation to sex. As I told you a few weeks back, Phoebe and I went to see Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at Trinity Cathedral. And it was important for me, as someone who has had overwhelmingly positive experiences in church, to witness just how many people have been profoundly wounded by screwed-up church teachings around sex. These teachings have left thousands if not millions of folks carrying around this bucket of shame and carrying as well as a thoroughly distorted picture of God. As Bolz-Weber puts it in the book that she was launching that evening at Trinity, our theology does not speak well of God if we imagine that God built this passive-aggressive test into human beings, so that God has given us sexual yearnings but God requires that they must be expressed absolutely nowhere other than in the context of heterosexual marriage.
Regardless of whether we use the language of temptation to mostly harmlessly talk about cookies (although I realise that there are folks who have shame around food) or to harmfully talk about sex, we are talking in a way that doesn’t have much to do with scripture. Yes, sexual temptation exists in the Bible – David murderous adultery is a cautionary tale about the combination of lust and power – but they are the exception to the rule. Notwithstanding the guilt-filled ideas that Augustine planted in our heads (I love Augustine, but when he was wrong he was really really wrong) the temptation that the snake in the garden tricks the first human beings into has nothing to do with sex. And the conversation that we hear today between Satan and Jesus has nothing to do with sex.
Jesus has just been baptised. And depending on which Gospel you are reading, he is then driven or, here in Luke, he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. He eats nothing for forty days. And while he keeps this epic fast, there is with him in the wilderness another presence. This is the same presence that came to Adam and Eve, that the monks and the nuns and so many others will later write about, the one that will come to them in the middle of the night or, sometimes, in the lull of the noonday, and tell them that there is something better someone else, at a different monastery, in a different life, with a different spouse, in a different job, or with a new sportscar.
Today, when we speak of the devil or Satan, we picture a horned creature with a tail and a pitchfork, maybe red all over. But this picture of Satan has more to do with Dante and the tripped-out paintings of Bosch and Bruegel than it has to do with the Bible. Scholars tell us that, in the Ancient Near East, in Jesus’ time, Satan is something like a title, a role, a job description. Satan means the Accuser or the Tempter.
Much as he came to Adam and Eve, this Tempter comes to Jesus. And he offers Jesus the same temptations that, come the 20th and 21st centuries, the preachers of the prosperity gospel will offer to you and me. The Tempter says: Follow me, do what I say, and I will reward you beyond your dreams.
The specific temptations are threefold. The Tempter says to Jesus: If you are the Son of God (somehow, it is the demons, the spiritual forces of wickedness who are able to recognise Jesus with an immediacy and an accuracy that his friends can’t match) then take this rock and make it into bread. But Jesus, drawing on the Book of Deuteronomy, as he will throughout this conversation, replies:
One does not live by bread alone.
Then the Tempter shows Jesus the whole world. Maybe we can imagine the two of them standing on a towering mountaintop, the famished and exhausted Jesus shivering and the Tempter, comfortable and resplendent in a three-piece suit or a Mark Zuckerberg-esque black hoodie. Perhaps the Tempter’s magic bends the light in such a way that the whole round world is visible at once. And the Tempter says: worship me and I will make you the supreme dictator of all of this. Again Jesus draws on Deuteronomy:
Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.
The Tempter takes a final crack at things. He takes Jesus to another pinnacle, this time the top of the temple in Jerusalem. And there from these vertiginous heights, the Tempter decides to give Jesus a taste of his own medicine. He has notices that Jesus has been fending him off by quoting the Bible, and so like the people who will later defend slavery and withholding the vote from women and refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple by citing Bible verses, the Tempter cracks open his Bible to the Psalm 91, and he reads: The Lord will command his angels to protect you, they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
Come on Jesus, the Tempter says, Why don’t you jump?
One last time, Jesus turns to Deuteronomy:
It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
And then the Tempter is gone. Gone, that is, until the cross, until what Luke calls an opportune time.
Let’s return to our opening question. What is temptation? More specifically, what is temptation as the Bible presents it? With what does the Tempter successfully tempt the first humans, Adam and Eve, and with what does the Tempter unsuccessfully tempt Jesus?
Well, in answering that question I’m going to draw on the work of the wonderful writer and preacher and theologian, Ron Rolheiser – I’m going to be paraphrasing him heavily in the next few paragraphs. Rolheiser argues that how the Tempter tricks the first humans is to show them something that God has offered them as a gift and to convince them that they have the right to take it.
God puts the first human beings into the garden. The garden and the people alike are God’s work of art. And God says to the human beings I am giving you life and I am giving it to you abundantly. But you must always receive this life. You must never take it. As long as you receive my gift, it will be full of joy and love and freedom. But on the day that you begin to take, rather than to receive, your actions will begin to sow death, distrust, alienation, and shame.
Rolheiser makes the amazing claim that this single command from God – receive, do not take – encapsulates all of morality. That each of the ten commandments are a variation on this theme.
Now Rolheiser anticipates an objection here: Why, we well may ask, is there a condition on the human beings in the garden? Why didn’t God create a paradise without conditions, why didn’t God allow the first humans to take the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to take everything? It’s a fair question. But in answering it we need to be careful that we don’t understand God’s condition as something capricious or arbitrary, some trap in the garden, something that God might or might not have set.
That’s because God is love. And the condition that God has set is inherent to love.
Love is something that can only be received, never taken by force, never claimed as a right, never owned.
I think we know that from our own lives. When we say to another person, in a marriage or in a deep friendship, I love you, we are giving the other a gift, we are giving the other light and life. The gift becomes fractured, however, when one of the partner attempts to take the love, to insist on it, to keep it locked up. A marriage or a friendship in which one of the partners is required by law or by force to love the other isn’t a marriage at all – that’s a hostage situation.
In a similar vein, I want you to come to church, I want this place that we call Grace Memorial to be vital, I want it to grow in love and service and discipleship and, yes, in numbers. And because I want that, I do not want to participate in any strategy whereby I or anyone else coerces you into coming to church, whereby you are here out of guilt or shame or fear that God will punish you if you do not. I want us to receive one another’s love and God’s love as the Body of Christ. I don’t want us to be taken or to take.
And so the Tempter, having successfully pulled off this temptation with Adam and Eve, reckons if it worked once it’s going to work again. He goes to the famished Jesus and, just like before, he starts with food – this time it is not fruit but bread that he offers. Use your magic, he says, take that rock and make it into food. When that doesn’t work, he moves onto power. Take the fidelity of the people of the world, make them kneel before you. And when that doesn’t work, when Jesus resists that as well, the Tempter moves on to the biggest temptation of all.
Because what does Jesus want, what do any of us want, more than to know that we are loved?
The Tempter says Take the love of the one whom you call Father. If the Father really loves you like you say he does, he will save you. (This reasoning, by the way, that has since showed up in a thousand and one broken relationships, so that one partner decides that they are going to set one test after another for their partner until they end up fracturing the love that the two of them shared.) If God loves you so much, then jump. You won’t even hurt your foot.
How tempted is Jesus? Is there a moment when he moves closer to the edge, when his toes curl around the edge of the precipice, when he says to himself, With one step I could prove that God loves me once and for all, by just shifting my weight I could get rid of all of my doubt and all of my fear. I could know. I could make God love me.
But then Jesus remembers. Jesus remembers that this would be a violation of the ancient command, that he would be taking something that the Father is giving him for free. And so he looks the Tempter in the eye and summoning whatever strength is left in his exhausted body, he shouts:
It is written:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
And with that, the Tempter is gone.
There is a documentary from 2014 called A Will for the Woods. The film follows a man in early middle age, maybe more or less the age that I am now, by the name of Clark. Clark has lymphoma, he is undergoing chemotherapy and other treatment. And simultaneously, he is facing the escalating likelihood that the treatment isn’t going to work, that he isn’t going to get better, that the end of his life is approaching sooner than he ever imagined possible.
And so, even as his visits to the doctor continue, Clark and his wife Jane start thinking about his death and, still further, about what will happen after his death. And by that, I don’t mean that they ask theological questions – Clark and Jane are Christians, and so his hope, as we say in the funeral service, is that in death, life is changed, not ended – but rather they ask a much more earthy and basic and ancient question, What will we do with my body after I die?
What Clark decides pretty early on is that the standard-issue funeral ritual is not for him: he does not wish his body to be embalmed, to go into a metal casket, for that casket to be surrounded by concrete, for it to be placed underneath an impossibly perfect lawn. He wants none of the rituals that announce to the world I am not dust, and to dust I will not return. Nor does he want to expend the fossil fuels required by cremation. He wants his last action on earth to be as ecologically responsible as possible.
And so Clark and Jane start looking seriously into what is variously called Green Burial or Natural Burial. Their interest is deepened when they learn that a local cemetery owns several acres of undeveloped forest (the “woods” from the title of the film). This is forest that the cemetery is planning on cutting down and turning into the aforementioned perfect lawn with row upon row of headstone. But if enough people like Clark get interested in being buried in and among the trees as they are, then the cemetery is willing to leave the woods standing.
The film has a tragic and beautiful trajectory. Because Clark does not get his wish to get better. But he does get his wish to preserve the woods, for his resting place to be in the midst of nature, for his body to lay beneath the earth and beneath trees. Partway through the movie, he and Jane visit the place where he will be buried. It is a scene full of big feelings. For the two of them in then moment, assuredly. And also for us as we watch. To stand there among this beauty, to know that your body will soon become part of this beauty and will feed this beauty: well, it is wonderful and strange and, to use a Biblical word, fearsome all at once.
Eventually Clark dies. And Jane and their friends enact a ritual that, maybe, will seem bizarre or macabre or inappropriate to us in the developed world in 2019, but that would have seemed thoroughly normal to our ancestors. They bring Clark’s body home from the hospital where he died. They wash him. And then they lay Clark out on a pine box in the living room, and all of their friends come to visit and to sing songs and to pray.
At night, Jane sleeps on an air mattress on the floor beside her husband’s body.
And then after a few days, they seal the pine box and they take him to the forest, to the place that Clark and others have preserved through their choice to purchase a plot there, and Jane and all of the people who loved Clark lower his body into the ground, dropping greenery onto the lid of the casket before picking up shovels and taking turns covering it with earth – no backhoe involved.
Our sometime organist, Bill Crane, leant A Will for the Woods to me. It’s a movie that overlaps heavily with Bill’s own vocation. Because, in addition to being a musician, Bill is someone who has a long history of sitting with people in grief and or in trauma or who are approaching the end of their lives or all three. He is someone who, as the amazing expression has it, serves as a midwife to the dying.
Bill says that his experience is that folks who behave as Clark and Jane and their friends did, who behave as our ancestors did (remember that the place where we used to receive guests and where the body of a deceased loved one used to rest was called the parlour – and then it got rebranded as the living room, a name change that sure sounds like a renunciation of anything to do with death) find healing more quickly, they engage in the hard and necessary work of grieving better and more thoroughly than those who follow our society’s standard-issue script. The standard-issue script being: don’t talk about death, don’t plan for it, don’t write a will act, as though we could live forever if we just avoided eye contact with the grim reaper; and then, when death comes, have the professionals get the body out of sight as soon as possible, because – why? – because a human being’s mortal remains are offensive or dangerous, because they destabilise our story that death is something that happens to other people?
If Bill is right, then this day in the church and, indeed, the whole season of Lent that it introduces is both subversive and freeing. Because this is the day that we say that death is real and inevitable and, not just for other people but for us, and it is also the day that we say that forgiveness is real. That healing is real, reconciliation is real. That resurrection is real.
Somehow, these two themes: you are going to die and new life is yours are, well, they are indivisible. Maybe this is counterintuitive, maybe it is a mystery. But maybe it makes profound and ancient sense. Because to do as Clark and Jane did, to stand in the woods and say, This is where I came from and this is where I am going back to, to say, I come from dust – this dust – and to this dust I shall return (all metaphor is gone in this moment, this is real), well, it is to know that we come from somewhere beautiful and good and safe that we will go back there. To name our earthy origins and our earthy destiny – and maybe this is unexpected given the amount of time and effort that we put into denying finitude and death – sometimes leads us to an unexpected okayness with all of the loss and grief and endings of this life.
On this day we engage in the weird and ancient ritual whereby we draw the sign of Jesus on each other’s foreheads, in which we say to one another, Don’t forget that you are going to die. Together, let’s remember that we are here just for a while. Let’s remember that from the dust we are fearfully and wonderfully made by the very hand of God. Let’s remember that we will go down to the dust and feed the trees, our dust will go up into the sky and dance with the saints, our dust will be on earth as it is in heaven. When that happens we will participate in resurrection.
I’m going to tell you a story this morning that I am kind of nervous about sharing with you, that maybe I am embarrassed to share with you. I’m nervous or embarrassed or both because it’s a story about racism and about my participation in racism. And there are few subjects that white folks find more unwelcome than the subject of how racism might have anything to do with us. As consequence, there are few subjects that white folks are keener to avoid.
I’ve come to believe over the years, however, that the conversation that I am most nervous about having, that I most want to dodge, is often also the conversation that I am supposed to have, that I am called to have. With alarming frequency, it turns out that these conversations are where Jesus is hanging out.
So, here’s the story. It goes like this.
Several weeks ago, Grace hosted an event by the City of Portland, a forum in which communities of faith were invited to learn about leveraging their properties to create affordable housing, to respond to Jesus’ call to serve him by serving the poor, by being part of the solution to our city’s housing crisis. The event was high-energy and inspiring. In attendance were stakeholders from across the city, including reps from Carleton Hart, the architecture firm with whom Grace is working to create what are called conceptual plans for our campus.
After the formal presentation concluded, I headed over to the Carleton Hart table to have a little visit. I knew two of the people there, Brian Carleton himself and his colleague Ariel Chavarria, both of whom we have been working with over these last number of months. As I was talking with them, an African American man came up to me, he stuck out his hand, and he said:
Hi, I’m Bill Hart!
Now friends, here comes the part that I am embarrassed to share with you.
That’s because when Bill Hart said his name, I had an instant of confusion, of internal dissonance. My startle reflex very nearly kicked in when a person of colour introduced himself to me as a partner in an architectural firm.
Prior to that instant, if you’d said to me, “Tell me about the Hart of Carleton Hart,” I would’ve said, “I’ve never given any thought to that person.”
And yet. I somehow knew that Hart would be male (it turns out I was right about that part), that Hart would be tall, and that Hart would be white. Because, well, in our society tall and white and male is what partners in architectural firms look like.
All of this happened in a micro-second. I hope that none of it registered on my face or in my body language. If it did, I am profoundly sorry. I am so sorry to think that I contributed to the everyday indignity of being black in America.
The micro-second over, I shook Bill Hart’s hand and we had a good chat.
It is a cliché to speak of an experience haunting you, but that is kind of what this experience did for me. The memory of it walked up and down my like Jacob Marley dragging his chains. Here I am, a progressive guy living in a progressive city serving a progressive church – I’m woke, aren’t I? – and yet the expectations of racism have bent my very imagination so that, in it, black person and architect are categories that are pushed apart from one another, that cannot merge.
I decided that this was a story that I was supposed to tell, that I had a responsibility to tell, after attending a workshop by a man by the name of David Campt. Campt’s workshop, his labour of love, is called The White Ally Toolkit. And the catalyst for the workshop is simple and kind of appalling in equal measure. When surveyed, 55% of white Americans say that either racism is no longer a problem today or, alternatively, that racism against white people is just as bad as racism against people of colour. Campt’s goal is, by the year 2025, to reduce that number to 45%. He would like a simple majority of white Americans to agree that (a) racism exists and that (b) people of colour are its target.
The method of The White Ally Toolkit is to equip those of us who aspire to be allies (and let’s be clear, “ally” is not a category or title that those of us with status, power, or privilege get to assign to ourselves – it is people of colour who get to tell straight people that we are allies, it trans folk who get to tell cis people that we are allies, it is women who get to tell men that we are allies, the list goes on) for conversations with our uncles, cousins, friends, whoever when we sit down with those folks at the Thanksgiving Table and argue that racism isn’t such a big deal.
Campt’s method – and this is the super-condensed version of his workshop – is to start with empathy and agreement, to say, “I can understand why you would feel that way, things really have improved a lot in the past fifty years” and then to tell a story, ideally drawn from your own experience, that introduces some challenge. The method, in other word, recognises that, generally speaking, our hearts are opened not by arguments and statistics but, rather, by stories told by folks with whom we are in relationship.
The folks who attended The While Ally Toolkit were overwhelmingly white (I guess that’s what you would expect) and overwhelmingly lefties. Campt took an anonymous political survey of us early on, and it turned out that I was one of the most conservative people in the room, a thing that does not happen often. This was a room full of people, in other words, who were so far left that there was no left left. But that didn’t stop every one of us from having a story that was remarkably similar to the one that I shared with you at the start of our conversation this morning.
Campt broke us into small groups and invited us to risk telling these stories to one another. And so we heard about the woman who met a young black man on the street near her home and who became frightened and fought the urge to cross the street; about the guy who went to a concert and became seriously alarmed when he realised that the audience was more than 90% people of colour; about the woman who was generous in inviting friends of friends to stay in her home until one of those friends of friends turned out to be young and black and physically large and dreadlocked.
What I experienced at Campt’s workshop is good news. It is good news because it means that racism is not an individual character flaw, something hopelessly broken about a particular person. We live in a hyper-individualistic culture and we primarily talk about racism through the lens of me. And I suspect that is the reason that so many white folks are so defensive around the subject of race. We have this need – and we saw this in the news earlier this week – to frantically explain how we are not personally racist. Look at me, I have a black friend! Look at me, I have a black employee! I am exonerated!
That is absurd. Rather is a system. It is a system from which white folks benefit and by which white folks are diminished.
The other way in which this Campt’s work is good news is that it actually gives us tools to respond to racism. I don’t know about you, but every anti-racism training that I had done before Campt’s had sent me away feeling terrible about myself and with no new tools whatsoever. So I came out of these workshops saying, I guess this is my role as a white person in a racist society: I’m supposed to feel terrible about myself and change nothing about my behaviour.
Campt is totally uninterested in shame and blame and totally interested in equipping his students. And he argues that, because those of us who aspire to be allies are reluctant to tell these stories, because we let the nervousness and embarrassment that I talked about a few minutes ago scare us into silence, we inadvertently function as allies to those who want to deny that racism exists or not it is a problem. We inadvertently support and empower our friends or relatives or neighbours in being able say, I don’t know anyone who has racist thoughts, feelings, or actions. Through our silence, we facilitate the argument that racism doesn’t exist.
Moses goes up the mountain and when he comes back down, his face is shining from his encounter with God. And so his friends are afraid to look at him, he has to put on a veil before they can interact. Sometimes when something shines with the holiness of God, we cannot look because it is too beautiful. And sometimes we cannot look because that holy light shines on things that we would prefer to leave hidden.
Most white folks would prefer for the light of God to stay well away from the perverse and rigged system that we call racism. It hurts to look at it, and so our habit is not to look at all. But there is freedom in shining the light, freedom in looking, much as there is freedom in receiving a diagnosis or getting the news of a breakup of a layoff or a death. Naming the truth – well, as Jesus says, it will set us free. Shining God’s light onto the truth allows us to plan, to admit that we have an illness that needs treatment, to join Jesus in doing the work of justice and healing.
Because if I know anything about Jesus, it is that he is always to be found on the margins, always with those who are wronged, always with those who suffer. All of the stories that I shared with you this morning, all of them were about Jesus. Jesus is the young African American man on the street of whom we are afraid. Jesus is there in the audience at the concert with his brown friends waiting for the concert to start. Jesus is the houseguest knocking on the door with the brown skin and the dreadlocks. Jesus is the man sticking out his hand who, for a moment, I cannot believe could be an architect.
Let’s shine the light of God onto these stories, onto the shared sin that we call racism. Or no, that’s wrong, because God does not need our help or our permission to shine God’s light anywhere. Let’s notice that the light of God is shining into the margins, into the places where we would rather not look. And hard though it may be, let us trust that we will find our hope and our joy in joining Jesus there.
It takes but a moment to realize that Dianne Delaney is a serious woman. Not boring. Not glum. Not stuffy. Far from it. She is joyful, funny and bursting with energy. And she has really interesting things to say! So we quickly agreed that we’d talk about hobbies, previous homes and the like AFTER she had shared a little about those life experiences which have shaped her faith and ministry.
It was 1967. The school was in East St. Louis, Illinois. Dianne, still very new to teaching (she had been in school herself three years before) was teaching a class of 35 10th grade young women, 34 of them black, one white. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered days before, and a silent parade was passing in front of the school. As Dianne told me, “Just before the passing bell to their first period, these young girls rose from their seats, went to the windows, and stood silently as that parade went by. Then they walked silently with heads held high to their classes. Their dignity and silent witness had a profound effect on me.”
Such courage and resolve created a hunger in Dianne to understand and identify with their protest. Racial justice has been a part of Dianne’s spiritual and political “furniture” ever since. Her work as director of an ethnically diverse daycare center in Santa Barbara, and later as a teacher there, only increased her passion for racial justice. She was later inspired to lead a group of white junior high students to Navajoland, to learn a little about native American culture.
Along with this important work, Dianne has found time to raise two children, pursue watercolor painting, embroidery and the piano, work as an assistant to an Episcopal associate rector, and lead a Godly Play group. She is currently a Democratic Precinct Committee Person right here in Multnomah County. And she loves liturgy, sermons and singing, (which this writer thinks may have something to do with her joining Grace!)
Dianne ended our conversation by reflecting on that moment in the East St. Louis classroom over 50 years ago, describing it as “a touchstone for my spiritual journey.” Her candor was a gift to me, and opened a window of personal reflection about the process of spiritual formation.
So, when you meet Dianne at coffee hour, be prepared for a wonderful, serious, spirit-jolting conversation. And plenty to think about afterwards!
Thank you, Dianne, for sharing your story. We rejoice that your journey has led you to Grace.
Worship in Pink
The chance of winning the Powerball lottery is 1 in 175 million. Yet people play. A LOT of them play. We take our chances.
The chance of being struck by lightning in a lifetime is 1 in 14,000. Yet people walk in the rain, attend sporting events in the rain, and go storm watching. We take our chances.
The chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident is 1 in 88. Yet people drive, even some without seat belts or too fast (not something that is advisable). Sometimes good or bad, we take our chances.
For women, the chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is 1 in 8. Over 41,000 people in the United States alone die of breast cancer yearly. Yet many women do not get screened with exams or mammograms.
My name is Rachel Sanborn. I am a medical oncologist at Providence Cancer Institute. The term “medical oncologist” means that I am the type of doctor who helps coordinate chemotherapy, immune therapy, and other systemic treatments for cancer. My specific subspecialty is in treating lung cancer and working with early phase clinical trials for people with advanced cancers. Basically, as a group, we recognize as specialists in this field that we are the doctors no one ever wants to have to see.
In times past, there were no methods for treating cancers, let alone screening for them. Cancers were diagnosed when very advanced, and almost universally became a death sentence. History can become folklore, folklore can become pattern, and pattern can lead to sometimes unshakeable perceptions.
Times have changed. Science has changed. Treatment options for cancer have changed dramatically over the last decades. Many cancers, if caught early, can now be cured. Even when not curable, most people can live longer and with better quality of life having their cancers treated.
The term “cancer screening” means attempting to identify a cancer when it is still small, when potentially more easily treatable, and when the chance of cure is greater. The goal of cancer screening then is to find a cancer at an earlier “stage”, meaning before the cancer has had a chance to become large, or to send seeds in the body to other more distant locations. Smaller tumors in general can be more easily removed, and have had less time to send those seeds in the body to spread.
The first paper describing the use of xrays of womens’ breasts to identify breast cancers at an earlier stage was published in 1959, and thus mammography came to be. Today, mammography uses ultra-low-dose radiation to generate very high-quality and sophisticated images of breast tissue, with the images looking for small calcium deposits where they do not belong, pointing out areas of potential problem.
The fact is, most abnormalities identified on mammography are benign, meaning, not cancer. Cysts, scars, and other non-cancerous findings may show up on a mammogram, which may require further evaluation and testing, such as ultrasounds or biopsies, in order to make sure. This is the case with any screening test; in looking for the real problems, other abnormalities may be found, but you need the test to be sensitive enough that real problems are not missed in the process. In general overall concept, and to use an analogy we are used to hearing in church, with a screening test like a mammogram we will still need to separate the wheat from the chaff. But we don’t want too much wheat to escape.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force has found that mammograms have reduced mortality, the chances of dying, from breast cancer. The amount of benefit from mammograms can vary by a number of factors, such as age, family history, and a woman’s general health status. This has led to different organizations making slightly different recommendations for timing of having mammograms, but the overall message is that mammograms are important, and for a woman it is important to talk with their doctor about recommended timing of mammograms and breast cancer screening. For a relatively quick test that has been around for almost 60 years, there are some estimates that 1/3 of eligible women don’t get tested. In some groups, this number can be even higher.
This is particularly important when we look at the fact that in the US, African-American women are disproportionately affected by breast cancer, meaning that breast cancers are diagnosed more often at more advanced stages, with more aggressive cancers, and African-American women have higher mortality rates with breast cancer.
Why do women not get screened? The answers to this question can be many and complex. There is fear: the test might hurt, it might be embarrassing. There is nihilism: finding the cancer won’t change the outcome, I don’t want to know. There is lack of awareness. There is concern for cost.
The last part of that issue is a challenge in every society worldwide, and our relatively affluent country is no exception. Many people in the US are without health care coverage, or fit into a category we call “underinsured”, which can make the out of pocket costs for mammograms and other basic health screening prohibitive.
For the last part, at least, there is good news. There are services that can provide financial help or even free mammograms for women without adequate insurance coverage. There are people and organizations willing to help. Having a mammogram does not need to be financially out of reach for a woman who may be recommended to be screened. In the coffee hour today, there will be information provided specifically about resources in Oregon and Washington to help cover the cost of mammography for women who need it.
Chances of surviving 5 years with stage I breast cancer, the earliest stage, is close to 100%. Chances of surviving 5 years with stage IV breast cancer (cancer that has spread to other areas of the body) is about 22%.
If a woman has a mammogram, there is a chance something will be found. There is a chance she will need more evaluation. There is a chance she will even need to see a doctor like me. There is a chance the news will be bad. There is a (pretty good) chance that in most situations, she may still be able to be cured with treating the cancer, and will be able to live the rest of her life cancer-free. It may be scary, it may not be easy.
How do YOU want to take your chance?
I met Donald Grayston for the first time at a party almost a quarter of a century ago. And I remember it vividly. Don had this generous energy and a wide smile to match it– a smile in which he opened up his mouth to show an inch or more of gap between his upper and lower teeth, a smile that suggested he was on the verge of laughter, a smile that suggested he was drinking in the beauty of the world around him. And while Don was appreciably older than most of the people at the party – I suppose he would’ve been in his early or mid fifties back then, so eight or ten years older than I am now – he seemed entirely at home in the youthful, playful energy of that room.
I don’t know if it was that night at the party or shortly thereafter that I learned that Don was a Priest. And that knowledge was an instance of cognitive dissonance for me, of confusion. I didn’t have anything to do with church back then, and on the rare occasion when I did think about faith, I reckoned that church was anti-intellectual, judgmental, humourless, and frequently immoral; when I read the news or turned on the TV, I constantly saw churches on the wrong side of the great moral issues of our time. What did it mean that someone like Don – who was fun and smart and compassionate – was a part of church? I started to wonder if there was more to faith than I had allowed.
Don Grayston engaged in evangelism, in other words, by being out of the closet as a Christian and by being Don Grayston. He never handed me a pamphlet, never knocked on my door wearing a suit and tie, never gave me a lecture, never threatened me with hell. What he did was to live with enough curiosity and generosity and compassion and joy that, like the woman at the next table in When Harry Met Sally, I looked at him and said:
I want what he’s having.
I am, in large part, a Christian because of Don’s evangelism. When I read the Bible for the first time and I got to the Gospel of John, in which Jesus makes his first appearance at a party, I said:
Oh! Just like Don Grayston!
I met Donald Grayston for the last time just after Christmas in 2016. He was in the hospital, quarantined into one of those rooms with negative air pressure so as to keep the germs from escaping into the rest of the hospital. I had to wear a mask and a gown and latex gloves when I sat with him. Don was frail and struggling to breathe. The doctors thought that he might have tuberculosis or some other radical respiratory ailment. And while Don he subsequently rallied and got to live for most of 2017, using the time for writing and prayer and visits with friends and activism and maybe even a little holy mischief – Don died on October 23rd – on that day in December, it looked like Don was within days or weeks of the end of his life.
Maybe because of the intensity of his illness, maybe because it was the last time that I saw him, our conversation back in December feels in my memory like a farewell, it has the ring of earthly finality to it. What we shared felt on that day a whole lot like a deathbed conversation.
This is the day on which we remember all the saints, who from their labours rest. And because of that, I’d like to spend a little time with you this morning wondering with you about that final talk with one of the newest saints, with Don. Don and I visited for maybe an hour on that day. And one of the big things that he wanted to talk about was regret. He didn’t feel a need to formally confess any of what we might call sins – but he really did want to sacramentally name, to have a holy context in which to name, his regrets.
And so I listened.
What was amazing to me as I listened to Don speak was how gently he held his regrets. Don spoke without bitterness. His regrets were, like his illness, something that he could hold in his hands, that he could name, that, yes, he could be sad about. But his regrets weren’t something that owned him or controlled him or obsessed him or crowded out the joy in his life.
When I spoke with Don last on the telephone, maybe a month ago, I asked him if I could share his regrets publicly. I knew that I was going to be speaking at his funeral, and it seemed to me that what he had named in the hospital was a kind of epitaph, that what he had shared with me on that day as good a sermon as I could hope to come up with. I wanted to make sure, however, that telling you what he told me wouldn’t mean violating our confidence or hurting anyone. But Don immediately said it was okay, that it was fine.
And so here are the late-life regrets of Donald Grayston. They are all brief.
One. Don said that, when his children were small, he had the opportunity to take his whole family to live and work in a third world country for close to a year. But that they decided against going. Don told me that he regretted the choice not to go – and this is an observation that, as a parent myself, has stuck with me – because a year in in a third world country would have inoculated his children against consumerism forever. Stop and think about that one for a second.
Two. He said that he regretted that he had, as he put it, dabbled in many things but focused really intently on none of them. Don saw himself as a pretty good professor (after he left parish ministry, he taught at Simon Fraser University in the humanities department) and a pretty good Thomas Merton scholar, but as a master in neither field. The problem, as he put it – and I think that this is a challenge shared by many really talented people – is that he found everything, everything to be just so interesting.
Three. Don said that he regretted that neither he nor his former wife were willing or able to name sooner than they did the reality that their marriage had died.
Four. And here is an echo of the regret about the third world country, it would’ve taken place around the same time: Don regretted that he had the opportunity to go teach at a major European university but, with a young family, the idea seemed overwhelming. And so they didn’t go.
There was a time when we understood the late-life words of a person to be a really big deal, when we understood them to be a vital source of wisdom, an insight into the holy. As a culture, we’ve mostly forgotten that today. I think that we have forgotten deliberately. We have forgotten that because we are a culture that denies aging and denies death, and to listen carefully about what someone wants to say as they approach death is to sabotage our denial.
I’d like to see if we can remember that practice this morning, if we can ask the question:
Don was a teacher – not just at SFU, not just in the parish, but across his life. What do Don’s regrets have to teach us? What does his relationship with them have to teach us?
Well, let’s notice the themes that run through them. (Don had a fifth regret, by the way, but he told me that regret number five was too personal to share with you. I will say only that it the fifth regret is consistent in nature with the other four.) Each of these regrets is about loving more, about risking more, about, as Holocaust Survivor and author, Viktor Frankl put it, saying yes to life in spite of everything.
Notice the regrets that aren’t in the list. None of the regrets are about how Don had the opportunity to buy stock in Apple or Nike but he passed it up, about how he could’ve become rich but missed his chance. None of them are about how he might’ve become famous. None of them are about how he hadn’t achieved worldly power.
What Don regretted were those instances when he had the opportunity to become more fully alive and to invite those around him to become more fully alive and he didn’t say yes. Even the regret about not naming the reality that his marriage had died – to my ear, the saddest, the most painful of the regrets – is a regret about not offering real freedom to his spouse and to himself sooner than he did; sometimes, you and I mistake delaying a conversation like that for compassion, we convince ourselves that we are being compassionate by delaying telling another person the deep truth. But as Jesus says – as Don affirmed in his regrets – the truth that will set you free.
On All Souls and All Saints, we name our grief, our deep sorrow at the reality of death. And we proclaim as well the resurrection. We ask:
Grave, where is your victory?
Death, where is your sting?
In the Christian tradition, resurrection is not only something that happened to Jesus almost 2000 years ago – although don’t misunderstand me, the empty tomb, along with the Incarnation and the cross, makes up the cornerstone of our faith. And nor is it restricted to something that we hope will happen in the future, after we die. Rather, in Christian practice, resurrection is a lived and ongoing reality. It is something in which we can participate right now.
Don’s conversation with me in the hospital room was a conversation about resurrection. It was a conversation in which, without bitterness, he named his regrets. He named them as one might name the scars on one’s body. Here are things that hurt, that maybe are hard to look at. But here as well are things that we dare not wish away. Because these regrets, these scars, well they woven inescapably into our story. Like grief, these regrets, these scars, are evidence of having lived and having loved. To wish them away is to wish our history away, to wish our very lives away.
Don had come to understand his scars as his teachers, as something for which, in spite of everything, he could say thanks.
Or maybe scars are the wrong metaphor. Maybe Don’s regrets were like words written into the book of his life, a book filled with jubilation and sorrow in equal measure. Or maybe that too is wrong. Maybe, to borrow an image from the poet, Mary Oliver, Don’s regrets were a box full of darkness that, after years, he had come to understand as a gift.
In our conversation in the hospital, Don lay his regrets down. He placed them on the rectangular table that you can swing over a hospital bed. We prayed over them. And then he gave them to God. And then, with a gap of an inch or more between his upper and his lower teeth, Donald Grayston smiled.