"Fog Lifted," Pastor Fred
The misty fog of November can be mysterious and beautiful, or dimming and dangerous. A thick fog can cover the ups and downs of any terrain, whether it’s the sidewalk or road, hills or valleys. Fog can obscure car headlights, and traffic lights. It can come on fast, and dissipate just as quickly. Tree tops and tall buildings, jut eerily out of ground fog, and can be…, mysterious and beautiful, or dimming and dangerous, or, all of the above.
Once I was fishing on a river in Upper Michigan early in the morning. A patchy fog obscured the banks of the river, and the field of lily-pads we suddenly found ourselves in. It was disorienting, and hard to get our bearings! There was no wind, and the surface of the water was like glass. Near barren birch trees and oaks, hanging on to their last leaves, no longer looked familiar as we attempted to find our way, paddling through the fog of another dimension. It felt as if time was frozen, like there was no past or future, only this place, an everlasting present, amidst a deafening silence. It was as mysteriously beautiful and dimmingly dangerous as I’d ever seen!
Likewise, foggy morning commutes can be dimming and dangerous. In the fall of 2002, an infamous pile-up involving 50 vehicles occurred in Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee on I-43, very near Lake Michigan. Dense fog conditions were reported, resulting in the worst multiple-vehicle collision in Wisconsin history. Tragically, 10 people were killed, and 36 were injured.
All Saints Day was placed at this time of the year on the church caelendar, some say, to coincide with the foggy days of early November, at least from a northern-hemisphere perspective. It was believed that, just like the fog, the veil between heaven and earth was very thin, and the saints of this world and the next, were closest to one another, possibly even transitioning from one realm to the other.
The Day of the Dead traditions, that come primarily from Christian cultures of Latin America, dramatize this thin veil, in elaborate celebrations, on the eve of All Saints, parading with candle-light, and dressing as the dead-come-back-to-life, not unlike the costumes of Halloween! In San Francisco, the tradition includes ending at a local cemetery, where they prepare lavish party tables of food and drink, by family grave stones with real food and wine on the tables, a kind of foretaste of the heavenly feast that they share with their loved ones. Not only does this proclaim and celebrate the resurrection, but it demonstrates the belief in a thin veil between heaven and earth, between the living and the dead. It’s beautifully mysterious, and more playful than dangerous – a fun and deeply meaningful tradition that overcomes the fearfulness of death.
The theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said, “Tradition is the living-faith of the dead – traditionalism is the dead-faith of the living.” If that’s true, how do our beloved dead, pass on a living faith tradition, to us, in the present-day church?
We see in our gospel reading, that Jesus is a wonderful leveler, lifting the veil between heaven and earth. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, in our gospel reading this morning, the introductory verses have been left out for some reason. But I think they help set the scene for us. As Luke reports it: “Jesus came down [from the mountain] with the disciples, and stood on a level place…” So instead of the more familiar, ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ from Matthew’s gospel, Luke pointedly has Jesus delivering a, ‘Sermon on the Plain,’ from a leveled place!
In Israel, it’s actually pretty hard to find a level place! Jerusalem and the Temple are on a conspicuous hill, Mt Zion, as it’s often called. And the region of Galilee is full of rolling green hills. Perhaps only the Jordan Valley, and the desert in Sinai, can be considered level places. But following John the Baptist’s proclamation, to make way for Jesus, the Messiah, by, “making his paths straight. [Where] Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the rough ways made smooth,” Luke teaches us how this is part of the kingdom message, and fits perfectly with the Beatitudes.
From this level place, Jesus declares that, the poor and hungry, those who weep, and the reviled and excluded, will be lifted up. While the rich, the fully satisfied now, those on top, and those who are laughing now at the expense of those on the bottom, will all be brought low. But it’s different than just a mere reversal of fortunes. For example, it’s clearly not about revenge, for Jesus hastens to add, “Love your enemies; [and] do good to those who hate you…” And so, even as Jesus stands on the level plain to deliver his message, he paints a picture of a valley where all stand together with him, on equal footing.
This is counter-cultural to the normal take-away message we are often taught, about climbing our way to the top; unseating the oppressor in order to take their seat, and continue the oppression on those who did it to you. It reminds me of the secret that Winston Smith discovers, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984 novel. To overthrow Big Brother, the underground manual said, you have to realize that there always has been a rich ruling class, and always will be. It just goes through a series of coups. It’s always the middle classes that overthrow the upper ruling class, and the lower class always stay where they are, and, then it starts all over again. But, says Jesus, it is not like that in the realm of God, which he came to inaugurate. The kingdom of God is a great leveler, inviting all to live on the plain. And so, God in Jesus, brings a new way, a third way, for us.
Jesus knows, this is not a message likely to be well received. Prophets – a class that Jesus identifies with – were usually hated, excluded, and reviled – and sometimes killed! It might be dimming and foggy, and dangerous even, but Jesus comes to lift the veil between heaven and earth, lift the mysterious and beautiful fog, to level the playing field and melt away the clouds obscuring Jacob’s ladder to heaven, and open up a new way!
Jesus, the first fruits of the resurrection, dressed in heavenly attire, climbs out of the grave to greet us at the great banqueting feast, not just in the cemetery of our Day of the Dead meals, but walks with us every day, wherever we are, to give us hope, and to lift the fog of our grief. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” says Jesus.
"Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." So, how do our ‘beloved dead’ pass on a living faith tradition to the present-day church? Today, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we commemorate our loved ones who have gone before us in the faith. And they challenge us to shed the traditionalism of our serial oppressions, and carry on with the tradition of our baptism. The saints are people who have been made whole by the grace of God – through baptism into Christ – not by their good works. So here, on this side of the fog – they challenge us to a living faith that is washed in the forgiveness and love of our baptismal font, that we might have a foretaste of the feast to come at our table – even as we remember their lives lived among us!
Jesus comes to lift the fog in our lives. And, now we see our tears, and our joys, more clearly for what they are, in all their beauty and mystery, dimming-ness and danger. The fog, is the culture of oppression and exclusion of the kingdom of this world, that Jesus comes to lift. The fog is that tempting glow, but ultimately vengeful and dangerous abuse of the privileged, from the mountaintop – the excesses of those who are always laughing and full, and entitled, and those whom society, the Kingdom of this world, asks us to revere, to look up to, and “speak well of,” but who are opposed to the Kingdom of God.
Jesus, teaching on the plain – from the leveled mountain-top, the straightened road, once crooked – stands with those who weep now, those who are hungry now, and the poor, and un-veils the foggy paths we walk – or paddle! – in our lives. Jesus showed us a third way, beyond the spirals of violence and revenge, offering a grace-filled truth more beautiful, more mysterious, though sometimes more dangerous, to get to – the way of radical forgiveness and universal love and respect of each other, which challenges the oppressive structures of this world.
Jesus – on the plain looking at us, his disciples who are gathered around the eschatological banqueting table of the LORD – lifts the fog, and reveals the feast of victory for our God, and it is a mysterious and beautiful sight! Come! You are invited! You are blessed, and the feast is prepared!