““Glory in the Ashes””

With our daughter Eliza, I’ve been reading Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo. Louisiana Elefante is born into a family under a curse, a curse of sundering. Synonyms of sunder include: divide, split separate, and sever. Which is why I could not stop laughing last night as I sat at urgent care dealing with this finger and finishing up this sermon. In Louisiana’s brief life, she has suffered sundering after sundering. She never knew her birth parents. She was raised by “Granny,” who is, to say the least, a bit odd. The story begins at three o’clock one morning. Louisiana remembers: “Granny woke me up. She said, ‘The day of reckoning has arrived. The hour is close at hand. We must leave immediately.’” (p. 2) So they got in the car and started driving. In this moment, Louisiana is torn from everyone she loves—her best friends Raymie and Beverly, Archie, King of the Cats, and Buddy the one-eyed dog, “also known to us as the Dog of our Hearts.” As Granny and Louisiana cross the Florida–Georgia state line, Granny is in terrible pain, delirious because her teeth are infected. So Louisiana has to drive the car, find a dentist, and talk him into extracting all of Granny’s teeth. They finally land at the “Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel” featuring a stuffed alligator, a miraculous vending machine and a crabby owner with her hair perpetually in curlers. Granny only has money to pay for one night, so Louisiana takes a gig singing for a funeral at the nearby church. Then Granny vanishes, leaving behind a letter for Louisiana. The letter explains that Louisiana’s parents were not, in fact, the famous trapeze artists known as the Flying Elefantes. Louisiana was named after the Louisiana Five and Dime where her Granny was working when she discovered a baby in the alley.

The world itself is under a curse of sundering. That’s what occurred to me as I pondered the transfiguration story in its context of the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The chapter begins this way: “Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” The next verses explain that Herod, the ruler representing Rome in the Jewish territories, was perplexed. He had beheaded John the Baptist and he thought that was that. He had dealt successfully with this challenge to his authority. But it turned out that the healing, liberating ministry of Jesus’ disciples carried on John’s work, continuing to disturb the authority of an empire grounded in power-over; rather than power-with. They defied Herod’s sundering force and resisted the relational violence that severs people from each other and cuts off creation from its Creator.

In the next scene, Jesus and his disciples multiplied bread to feed the thousands, displaying their life-giving power on a vast scale. This demonstration must have only increased the tension between the community of Jesus and Herod. However right after this moment of apparent triumph, Jesus made it clear that he did not intend to “win” this power struggle with the empire. “The Son of [Humanity] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” His disciples would also share in this suffering: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” And after the transfiguration, Jesus again predicted his passion and death. He had been bathed in the glow of heavenly light, renewed and refreshed, changed inside and out. He’d soaked up wisdom from the great prophets of old. With those prophets he discussed his mission—to lead a new exodus, to liberate the whole earth from our slavery, to the ways of sundering. Jesus had clearly heard the voice of God affirming him as beloved, as bearing God’s own authority. Even amid all this dazzling glory Jesus stayed focused on the cross. “Let these words sink into your ears” he said, “The Son of [Humanity] is going to be betrayed into human hands.”

Luke book-ended the story of Jesus shining on the mountaintop with Jesus’ words about the inevitability cross. The theology of Martin Luther might help us understand why. The heart of Luther’s theology is the theology of the cross, which he opposes to a theology of glory. A theologian of glory wants God to heal the creation through power-over, by wielding the same sundering authority that empire does. A theologian of the cross, Luther said, is one “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”[1] A theologian of the cross knows that God must do things in God’s own way, in a surprising way, a way that is hidden to us and must be revealed, because it is utterly contrary to our way. A theologian of the cross trusts in the mystery of God’s powerful powerlessness.

Let me return to Louisiana Elefante for a moment. After her granny’s disappearance, she decides that she must take initiative to remove the curse of sundering from her life. She remembers the sign on the door of the pastor’s office at the church: “Minister’s office, Reverend Frank Obertask, Assistance, Advice, Healing Words” And she thought to herself, “Wasn’t a minister like a magician? Weren’t healing words like a spell? Maybe Reverend Obertask knew some healing words that could undo the curse!” (p.144) When Louisiana knocks on Rev. Obertask’s door, he is fast asleep with his feet on the desk. “His glasses were crooked on his face, and his mouth was open, and his face was covered in whiskers. Reverend Obertask looked very much like a walrus and not one bit like a magician.” (151)

Louisiana tells the minister that her parents abandoned her.

Rev. Obertask nodded. He said, “What a terrible thing.” And it was a terrible thing, wasn’t it? It was a relief to hear somebody call it what it was: terrible. “How could they do that?” I said. “How could they just leave me? What kind of people would do that? I don’t understand.” Reverend Obertask shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t understand either.” I have to say, Rev. Obertask was turning out to be something of a disappointment. He couldn’t undo curses. He couldn’t explain things. . . . I said “I thought you would be able to help me. I thought you would have some kind of magic. On your door, it says you dispense healing words.” “I can listen to you, Louisiana Elefante. That is the only magic I have.” (pp. 161–163)

Louisiana says to the reader: “I looked into Reverend Obertask’s sad walrus face. Poor ineffectual Reverend Obertask.” (p. 164)

Jesus does not heal us by taking away our pain but by bearing it with us. The compassionate listening of poor ineffectual Rev. Obertask embodies this truth. Both Jesus and the kind walrus minister wielded the power of powerlessness. Luke’s version of the transfiguration insists that we place the dazzling glory on the mountain in the context of the cross. The world is under a curse of sundering and it cannot be lifted by the same consciousness that created it. The grace-filled and generous posture of accompaniment is the only power that can heal us.

Anxiety, stress, addiction, depression, grief, divorce, economic inequality, climate change, political polarization, war . . . How does the curse of sundering wound you in body and spirit? How does it drive you to wound others? We stand at the threshold of the season of Lent. Lent is a time for courage. Walking with Jesus on the way of the cross, we find God’s healing and liberation, God’s light and hope and glory in power with instead of power over. We gain by losing and we hold on by letting go. In the words of the poet Hafiz: We have not come here to take prisoners, but to surrender ever more deeply to freedom and joy.

Amen.

[1] Martin Luther, The Basic Theological Writings (2nd Edition), ed. Timothy F. Lull. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, p 49.