Many years ago, when I was about fifteen, my grandmother need to go into the hospital for a treatment. We drove up there to see her, bring her some flowers. As we got to her floor, a nurse stopped us, told us everything had gone well, but that she was on some heavy medication and might be a little out of it. OK. Good news. No problem.
So we walked into her room, and said, “Hi Mimi, it’s your grandkids! How are you doing?” Then Mimi, who was laying down, slowly leaned her head forward, reached out her hand, and said, “I ... I ... I ... I can’t see!” We looked at each other, looked back at Mimi, and said, “Mimi, open your eyes!”
Today I want to talk with you about the power of seeing.
As some of you will know from my often talking about it, even in previous sermons here, I grew up in a fundamentalist church in small-town Texas. To make sure to save our souls, we were in church whenever the doors were open. My father was the song leader. We went to church at least three times a week: for Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening prayer service. Sermons were generally 40 minutes long (don’t worry, I won’t go that long today). There was always an invitation call, what in some churches is known as the “altar call,” at which we would stand and sing countless verses of “Just As I Am” while the preacher encouraged anyone to come forward who needed baptism, confession of sins, or just prayers in general. And we sang lots of songs with phrases and words little kids have a bit of trouble really understanding.
Years later we would laugh at what we thought we were saying or singing. Like the song “When the rolls are called up yonder,” or “Up from the gravy the rolls,” (for a five or six year old boy ready to get home for Sunday dinner, you can understand why so many of my misunderstandings had to do with food), or “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” Or my father’s favorite quotation from the Apostle Paul, as we heard it from the King James Version: “I would not have you, ignorant brethren.”
My friend Sally tells a story about growing up—growing up in the 1950’s on a farm in the deep south, a farm far outside of town—the sort of place where you only see the folks in your family, and the folks who live on the farm, and the folks who come occasionally to visit. Sally made friends among the folks that were around—and her best friend was another little boy just a couple of years older called Frank who lived on the farm, too. When Sally was about five and Frank was seven, they’d spend hours running through the cotton fields together and pulling one another around in a wooden red wagon along the dusty roads of the farm. They were the best of friends—until Sally started school, and she noticed that Frank didn’t go to the same school as she did. And as she got older she noticed that she never saw Frank at the same places she went in town—the soda fountain, the doctor’s office, even the movie theater. And finally, when she was older, and she invited friends over to the farm for picnics or dinners in the dining room, she learned that her best friend Frank wasn’t welcome to join.
You see, Sally is white, and Frank is black. And somewhere along the way Sally learned that it wasn’t okay for them to be friends. That Frank wasn’t welcome as an equal in her world. And what a perversion of the message of the incarnation that lesson was—a lesson she still grieves today.
I admit it. I was sorely tempted. I am moving this coming week and the lectionary presented me with a real gift. The epistle reading (at least the optional part of it) has the part of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he commands them to “bear one another’s burdens.” What does it mean to bear one another’s burdens? To bear, of course, literally means to carry something. The apostle urges the church to help one another by picking up their oppressive, heavy burdens, like boxes or sofas, and carry them in such a way that relieves them of their trouble. So, … [gesture with hands]. The application would seem pretty clear.
But I would never do that. You all are far too smart. You would have simply responded, “Yes, but Father, three short verses later, St. Paul he says, “Every person must carry their own weights.”
Think about the last job you applied for—or, if you’ve not applied for a job yet, maybe a school application, or any sort of application, really, that you have to wait to hear from. After the application, the screening interviews, maybe a phone call or Skype, additional questions, writing samples, in-person interviews, and follow up conversations, you probably expect at worst a letter saying thanks, but no thanks—or, in the best situation, a phone call saying, Yes, you’re it! We want to hire you!
Now imagine the situation of the great prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha. Elijah has been told by God to anoint Elisha in his place, but rather than making a phone call, or sending an email, Elijah goes out to look for Elisha—and he finds him tilling the soil, driving a team of twelve yolk of oxen, two dozen oxen—quite a lot of ox power—and to tell him he’s been chosen, Elijah comes alongside the young Elisha and throws his mantle, a big cloak, over him. It might seem strange to our modern ears—imagine if you knew you’d gotten the job when your boss threw his coat over you—but this gesture, the same one from which we get our phrase “assuming the mantle,” means just that—that Elijah is passing his authority, his responsibility, to Elisha—that he has been chosen, he has been named. He is the prophet. He got the job.