Surrounded by Saints (COVID-19 and George Floyd version)

Sermon at Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ

July 5, 2020

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,[a] and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of[b] the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12.1-3

All of the places of our lives are sanctuaries; some of them just happen to have steeples. And all of the people in our lives are saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most will never have feast days named for them – Robert Benson.

One of the advantages of growing up as the son of a funeral director is that an early age I gained a keen awareness that the reality of death always frames the film we call life. How could it have been otherwise when my first bedroom neighbored the casket showroom in a Victorian funeral home in Bowling Green, Ohio? As a toddler, I rode my Big Wheel around the embalming area while my dad was working; my first paid job was washing the hearse and vacuuming the wilted flower leaves leftover from burials. In the course of my childhood, I viewed the mortal remains of not just a few of my fellow townspeople.

With this odd familiarity with the various and sundry ways in which we leave this world (and there are many), I developed a rather intense fascination with ideas about what stood beyond the veiled curtain of this mortal life – a life I learned that sometimes ends with alarming speed, violence, and unpredictability.

My quest assumed particular urgency in sixth grade when my maternal Grandmother died suddenly and tragically. In the sickening chasm of grief into which I catapulted, the bland reassurances I received from my pastor and Sunday school teachers about heaven seemed artificial, if not outright disingenuous. Plus, the picture of the afterlife they were painting looked unimaginably dull; I don’t think too many adolescent boys long to walk on streets of gold with winged angels flying overhead.

What did begin to fire my imagination were graphic depictions of an apocalyptic destruction of earth – preceded, of course, by the rapture into heaven of the few brave souls who had resisted “the mark of the Beast” and had been sealed with the blood of the Lamb. Much to the alarm of my parents, I became obsessed with the imminent end of the world. I worried deep into the night about the eternal destiny of every soul I encountered (including my desk mates at school who soon grew tired of my assurances that they were bound for hell unless they repented of their vile language and rule-breaking).

_________________

Fortunately, by high school, I had mentors who helped me see that in Christianity salvation is not merely an otherworldly venture. Jesus came, not to condemn the world, but to save the world by ushering in God’s reign. The Jesus Way is just as much about the work of healing, reconciling, justice-bringing, and peace-making in the here-and-now, as it is preparing ourselves for what the Creed calls “the life of the world to come.”

One of the qualities I find most attractive in the more “Catholic” expressions of the Christian faith (Roman, Orthodox, Anglican,) are their ability to focus on God’s activity in the world without forgetting that the trajectory of Divine Love always transcends the realm of that which we can see with our eyes and know with our reason. The Kingdom of God is now but not yet. The world is hurting and broken but is also the dwelling place of the Divine Presence.

This balancing act is made possible by the doctrine of the Incarnation – the idea that God took on bodily form in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Because God became a human in Jesus, it is possible for human beings to share directly in God’s own divinity. Through the lens of the Incarnation, the world – battered and broken as it is – is also beautiful and good because it is in the process of being healed and restored to its state of Original Blessing.

Moreover, all who walk the Jesus Way are invited to share in that work of healing made possible by God dwelling in the world.  Central to the notion of Incarnational faith is the understanding that God makes the world holy (whole) by showing up in and through the everyday, human lives we lead with our bodies, minds, and spirits.

________________

A huge breakthrough for me occurred when I was introduced to the idea of the “communion of saints,” or the notion that somehow my life is inextricably part of and connected to all of God’s people who lived before me, all of those with whom I now share the earth, and all of children of God who will come after me when I am gone.

Saints are those people who mediate God’s peace, mercy, justice, healing, forgiveness, and grace to us in a special way. For a long time, my understanding of a saint was limited to the “great ones” of history. In addition to the official, canonized saints of the Church, in my pantheon of the Great Cloud of Witnesses were inspiring figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Dag Hammarskjold, Rosa Parks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Bede Griffiths, and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador.

When I started doing hospice work in Boston while I was still a divinity student, I began to understand that saints were not just the “big” personalities of history. Defined as those who are powerful channels of God’s Eternal Now, saints literally surround us, if only we develop the eyes to see and the hearts to feel their presence.

_______________

I remember the first patient I met in hospice, Ruth, as if it were yesterday. Ruth had endured decades of physical abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness and lay dying from ovarian cancer in the hospice house a few miles from Harvard Square. In the hours that I sat with Ruth, holding her hand and listening to her sobs as disease ravaged her already frail body, Ruth taught me more about life, dignity, death, and resurrection than the most learned theologians I was studying.

Kneeling beside that deathbed with the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows, my status as an “intellectual,” a theology student, and a professional “helper” faded into the New England autumn shadows. Even in the midst of her suffering, Ruth radiated a light, a peace, and Presence which I could neither deny, nor explain. Ruth invited me to see the world, not just as a vale of tears but also a landscape infused with Sacred Mystery, Beauty, and Divine Love. What mattered was my willingness to be a fellow pilgrim with a heart open enough to experience that mystery, beauty and love.  Over the course of my 25 years working among those at the margins of life, I have encountered many such saints like Ruth. They remind me on a daily basis that, in the end, nothing really matters more than embracing life with open arms and soft hearts.

_____________

Quite frankly, were it not for the saints of my life, past and present, I am not sure how my faith would be sustained during these past months working inside the COVID-19 wards and trauma bays of Hennepin Health care and living in the midst of a pandemic which continues to devastate vulnerable communities – black and brown and confined elderly people  – with shocking unfairness. I live alone and have not had the comfort of seeing my children very much, in large part because of the fear some of their relatives have about where I work and what I might bring home. 

As a human being, I am created for communion and community and these have been very hard to come by – at least in person since March. Yes, there are also times I grow close to despair about the political disrepair, social alienation, economic and racial inequality, ideological fragmentation, and environmental collapse my generation has handed down to our children. 

My life has been blessed with much privilege – based on the fact that I am white and male and over-educated. There are days when the realities of racism, injustice, oppression, white supremacy, violence, poverty, addiction, mental illness, and tragedy to which I bear witness as a chaplain in a trauma center tempt me to use that privilege to escape to some enclave where I live closed off from the pain of the world – unencumbered by facts or news or people who don’t look like me or stories that might make me uncomfortable and push me to live differently or question why things are the way they are and my part in them…

Ah, but the saints in my life, past and present, through story and song and blessed memory and example, remind me that there is no road to glory, to Emmaus and the New Jerusalem, to transformation and union and bliss, except the one which traverses the sometimes dark and often treacherous path past Golgotha. In more contemporary lingo, no justice, no peace. We cannot really talk of healing until we have done the hard work of transformation.

I spoke of Ruth as one of the saints who sustain me. Let me honor two more (even though there are many). 

____________________

My Dad. He was born at the end of the Great Depression to children of the Greatest Generation. When my Grandfather finally arrived home from his World War Two combat service in the Pacific, my Grandma had to introduce my Dad to his Dad because my Dad did not recognize him, he had been gone so long. After serving in the Army and working in a factory, my Dad followed in the footsteps of his uncle and became a funeral director.  

It wasn’t until I became a hospice chaplain, that I became aware of two things: how incredibly hard my Dad worked his entire life and how much of his work touched thousands of people – literally – and their loved ones through his care. And now I to I wonder – too late to ask him – how much some of that care must have exploded his heart? 

On the surface, Dad and I were light years away from one another politically. Looking back, I am not sure how he tolerated me on those trips home from college when, from my newly-found high-horse I belittled his sense of patriotism, criticized his political leanings, attacked his Middle American worldview, and started arguments just to make myself feel better. Sometimes he argued back but usually he just smiled and said he was happy I was getting educated about things he knew little about. 

When I came home after 18 months in Jerusalem a few years later, I had very much fallen off that high horse. I had seen more death and destruction than my thin, liberal idealism had prepared me for. My Dad was there – not to understand (he said he did not) but to listen, take me out for dinner, and to remind me that I was his son and he would always have my back.

In the ensuing decades, I presented a lot of other challenges to my father: broken relationships, failed plans, dashed hopes. I did not end up living the geographically, financially, and vocationally stable life he had led. But even as he declined from Alzheimer’s dementia, which finally took his life this past October, I ALWAYS felt loved by my father, in part, because I know now we shared a bond in the vocations to which we were both called. 

His was the vocation to tend to and care for the body of the ones who had died and for their loved ones in the most tender moments of sorrow. Mine has been to journey as far as I can go with those walking through the valley of the shadow and like my father, to be a channel of solace to the grieving who are left on this side of death’s dark vale. In this work, especially during the time of COVID-19, I feel God’s presence, as mediated by my father’s witness, more powerfully than words can describe. 

___________________

The second saint (again, I have had so many!) who is sustaining me now is Elaine Garnes of Blessed Memory. I always knew her as “Auntie Elaine” because that is what she is asked me and my brother to call her. Elaine was the mother of one of my closest childhood friends, John Garnes, Jr. John became my classmate in elementary school when my family moved to Marion, Ohio, a Rustbelt City north of Columbus, when my father co-purchased a funeral business there. 

While technically Marion is in “North-Central Ohio,” its cultural fabric is Appalachian through-and through because many of Marion’s residents have roots deep in the hollers of West Virginia and Kentucky from which the robber barons of Marion’s steam shovel and steel industries recruited cheap labor to work in their factories. Marion could be a harsh place. It was pretty much the quintessential picture of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” – boarded up factories and businesses, soaring unemployment, class antagonism, widespread anxiety about the future in Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again” America.  A bumper sticker urged the last resident leaving Marion to turn off the lights.

One of the most prominent features of Marion as I remember it was racism – and not always the subtle kind. I heard the “n” word roll off the tongues of police officers, barbers, neighbors, coaches, and friends with shocking regularity. This is not how my parents talked but the fear and disdain of black people was part of the air I breathed as a child. Through the 1960’s Marion had a thriving chapter of Ku Klux Klan.

Enter the Garnes family, the only African American family on “our” side of town. I am not exactly sure when John Jr.’s parents, John Sr. and Elaine moved to Marion from Los Angeles for John Sr. to take a job in one of Marion’s industries. I know that John Jr. and I became fast friends. We were both sensitive kids and shared a love of those all day, black-and- white Godzilla movie marathons that showed on a Cleveland tv station. 

When the Garnes’ joined the same church as my family, John and I became inseparable in Sunday School, church camp, and the Children’s choir where we became famous for our duets.  I loved John but was still scared of him, well – really just scared of his blackness. This became very apparent the first time he invited me over for a sleepover. Even though John was my close friend, I had never been in a social situation where I was the only white person. 

Growing up where I did, I had been socialized into the norms of White Body Supremacy. (For more on this, read “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem). My little white body and brain had a fear-based reaction to being outnumbered by black people. Sensing that fear in me, Elaine went out of her way to welcome me, to make me feel like I was home, that I “belonged.”

Now, I realize how much of a precious gift Elaine gave me. She could have responded to my own inherited racialized trauma in a very different way because of her own racialized trauma history. Years later, I learned more about the challenges Elaine had faced because of racism. Raised in Jim Crow-era Washington, D.C., Elaine moved to LA to find a different life. That is where she met John Sr.  After Elaine died, my mom told me harrowing stories of the explicit and implicit racism Elaine had endured in her job at the state maximum security prison in our town. I can remember incidents where neighborhood kids attempted to vandalize the Garnes’ house with racist graffiti. When John’s brother got engaged to a white woman, I recall an intense debate among our adult youth leaders about whether the Bible forbade interracial relationships. I look back and wonder how Elaine, John, David and John Jr. not only survived but thrived in such a hostile place. 

I know that as a young person the thing I found most true about Elaine was her rock-solid faith. I am not talking about some pie-in-the-sky, things-will-get-better-if-we-pray-hard-enough-faith. I am talking about a faith rooted in centuries of surviving and struggling and suffering and overcoming. Overcoming, not based on white America helping black people, but overcoming rooted in the conviction that ALL people are created in the image and likeness of God and possess inherent dignity that no one can take away. 

Elaine made no apologies for who she was: an incredibly proud, Jesus-loving, African American woman living in a sometimes hostile environment. She stood up for her children, and she welcomed their white friends into her home as one of her own. Her witness gives me hope as I continue to confront my own racism and to use my power to fight White Body Supremacy here in Minnesota.

______________

I work in a racist health care system. I am not singling out Hennepin Healthcare. Actually, we are doing some good work there to confront racism, beginning with an acknowledgement of the reality of the historical trauma that many of our patients have experienced vis-à-vis genocide, slavery, boarding schools, segregation, mass incarceration, unjust policies (the list goes on). I am speaking about all health care systems in Minnesota which have a shameful legacy of participating in the creation of one of the worst racial disparity gaps in the nation. Racism and White Body supremacy are the soil in which we are rooted and the air most of us have breathed for a very long time. The murder of George Floyd is shining a spotlight on these shameful gaps and has awakened a lot of people to the need for systemic transformation. 

The impetus for this change should NOT be on the backs of black and brown people who have already suffered enough. White people must partner with people of color and indigenous people to tear down the system we have created for the benefit of white people, to build something which will equitably benefit ALL people. For me, especially in my role as a white leader in spiritual care, this journey has many miles to go. I have been on it for a while, and I do get weary sometimes…

And then, just as I did a few mornings ago, I wake up smelling eggs and bacon and grits cooking in Auntie Elaine’s kitchen. As far as I know, she never gave up or gave in or cursed the darkness the way I am tempted to do. Even when she was battered by the bruises of living in a racist society and system, Elaine welcomed me, a little white boy into her home and family as if I were her own child. She lived the Bible more than spouting it. And Elaine will remain one of my saints until I breath my last. 

Because of Elaine, and many others in my Great Cloud of Witnesses who have taught, led, inspired, challenged, and loved me along the way, this Jesus Way, I commit to keeping my heart open in hell;  to using my power “with” and not “for” people; to confront racism in my life and the system in which I work;  and to welcome “strangers” into my midst, not as enemies but as friends and fellow children of God.

—————— 

I think that the great Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton summed it up well when he wrote shortly before his own accidental death,

Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.

Saints are the ones who help us discover and fulfill the Love for which we were created – the Love that sustains us in this world and the Love that will carry us to that place where death and crying and pain will be no more because “the old things will have passed away and all things are being made new” (Revelation 21).

This holiday weekend, when we celebrate the birth of a country with such a mixed legacy for many,  I hope to spend some time remembering and giving thanks for all of the men, women, and children whose lives remind me of the Love for which I have been created and whose deaths teach me how to welcome my own death when that moment comes. May all of God’s Friends rest in peace and dwell with joy in God’s Eternal Now. Amen.