November 3, 2013
Through the Fog, sermon by Pastor Fred Kinsey
The misty fog of November can be mysterious, beautiful or 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 stop and go 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... well... mysterious, beautiful, dangerous, or, all of the above.
At the lakefront, fog can cover the threshold between land and water. Once I was fishing on a Michigan river early in the morning. A patchy fog obscured the banks of the river, and the fields of lily-pads we suddenly came upon. It was disorienting and hard to get our bearings! There was no wind, and it was so calm that the surface of the water was like glass. Barren birch trees, and oaks still hanging on to their leaves, would look familiar one moment, and then let us down, as we attempted to find our way, paddling through the fog. It felt as if time was frozen. No, as if there were no time, only place, the present. Only now, amidst a deafening silence, and whispered promises we couldn’t quite understand. It was mysterious, beautiful and even a bit dangerous.
Foggy morning commutes are notorious for accidents, of course. In the fall of 2002, an infamous pile-up occurred in Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee on I-43, which is near Lake Michigan, involving 50 vehicles. Dense fog conditions were reported, and it was considered the worst multiple-vehicle collision in Wisconsin history. Tragically, 36 people were injured, and 10 people killed.
All Saints Day was placed at this time of the year, 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, 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 lights, and dressing as the dead come back to life, not unlike the costumes of Halloween. And most interesting, I think, is the tradition of going to the cemetery and preparing lavish party tables of food and drink. The parade in costume makes its way there, and families leave real food and wine on the tables, to celebrate and dine 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 beautiful, mysterious and, more playful than dangerous, I’d say, a fun tradition that overcomes the dangers and fearfulness of death.
The theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." How do our beloved dead pass on a living faith tradition, to us, and the present-day church?
We see in the gospel that the fog can also be a wonderful leveler. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in our gospel reading this morning, we miss the verses before, which set the scene: “Jesus came down [from the mountain] with the disciples,” Luke says, “and stood on a level place…” So instead of the Sermon on the Mount, which comes from Matthew’s gospel, Luke pointedly, has Jesus delivering The Sermon on the Plain, or level place!
In Israel, it’s actually pretty hard to find a level place! Jerusalem and the Temple are on a conspicuous mount. The region of Galilee is full of rolling green hills. Perhaps only the Jordan Valley, and the coastal plains around Tel Aviv and Joppa on the Mediterranean Sea, can be considered level places. But following John the Baptist’s proclamation, from Isaiah, Luke shows from the very beginning that it was important to make way for Jesus, the Messiah, by, “making his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, ” as John declared, “and the rough ways made smooth.”
Why? Because that’s also the message of Jesus that he will go out to deliver: the poor and hungry, those who weep, and are reviled and excluded, will be lifted up. While the rich, the fully satisfied now, those on top, who are having fun 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; 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.
Normally, the take-away message we are taught, is about revenge and 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. The realm of God that Jesus comes to inaugurate, is a great leveler, inviting all to live on the plain. In George Orwell’s “1984,” the secret book of how to overthrow Big Brother, states, that there always has been a rich ruling class, and always will be. It just goes through a series of coups. The middle classes overthrow the upper ruling class, the lower class always stay where they are, and, then it starts all over again. And so, God in Jesus, brings a new, a third, way, for us.
This is not a message likely to be well received, Jesus knows. Prophets – a class whom Jesus includes himself in on – were usually hated, excluded and reviled. Sometimes killed, as well! It might be risky, dangerous even, but Jesus comes to lift the veil between heaven and earth, lift the mysterious beautiful fog, and open up a new way, level Jacob’s ladder to heaven, or, at least make it handicap accessible! 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 liturgy’s, but every day, wherever we are, to give us hope, to lift the fog of our grief. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
"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 carry on with a living faith. Not always because what they said, or did, was Jesus like! For we are all a mix of human and divine, saints and sinners, simultaneously. But – because we are still on this side of the fog – they challenge us to a living faith by the core of their love that we remember and refine in our hearts, refined by Christ’s promise and blessing, that we might be filled and know the kingdom of God.
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, and danger. The fog, is the culture of oppression of this world, the tempting glow, but ultimately dangerous mountaintop of the vengeful 1%, the excesses of those who are always full, and laughing, and entitled, and those whom society asks us to revere, to look up to, and “speak well of.”
Jesus, teaching down on the plain – from the leveled mountain-top, the straightened road once crooked – stands with the poor, of all kinds, and unveils the foggy paths we walk – or paddle! – in our lives. Not to bring about a violent revenge, that continues to repeat itself, but to offer a grace-filled truth, and reveal a third way, more beautiful, and mysterious, and yes, dangerous to get to – the way of radical forgiveness and universal respect, which challenges the structures of this world.
Jesus, on the plain, looking at us, his disciples, gathered around the banqueting table, lifts the fog, and reveals the feast of victory for our God, and it is a mysterious and beautiful sight!