Seeing the “Kami”

FujiA sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at Christ Church Sei Ko Kai (the Japanese heritage congregation in San Francisco) on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 2, 2014. 

Have any of you, I wonder, climbed Mt Fuji – Fujiyama – Fuji-san?  I did it many years ago and I bring it up because this morning’s gospel takes us to a mountaintop in Israel and I’ve been there too. But when I climbed Fuji-san, I walked and arrived peacefully at the top.   When I went up the mount of vision in Israel, I went in a car driven by a man who had done it so often that he went zooming around hairpin curves on the edge of a cliff as if he were driving along on Interstate 80 in Kansas and arrived at the top in a nervous state.

So there are two mountains, each with a commanding view, but getting there makes all the difference.  They were two very different experiences.  But there’s a more important difference in the way you approach the mountain.  Again and again as you approach the summit of Fuji-san, you encounter “torii”, the traditional gateway that frames not simply the entrance to a sacred site but often the site itself so you have it framed to contemplate.  You look at it through a doorway, a window. It concentrates your vision.  It asks you to look at this scene, look at it deeply, and appreciate what it is. This is not just a mountain, not just a pile of rock, but a place capable of speaking to you, showing you something more than itself, something beyond itself, something you ought to see more deeply with an inner eye of vision.

What the “torii” does, as I understand it, is to give definition to something basic to being human.  Human beings seem to have an innate sense of something more to life than biology. We live, we reproduce, we die.  So do other animals. But so far as we can tell,  animals generally go about their assigned job without worrying a lot about questions like “Why?” We have a cat that eats two meals a day, lies in the sun when it hits her favorite window sill, climbs into our laps occasionally when she feels lonely, tears paper apart if she can find some, and otherwise just naps.  Dogs do what dogs do and cats do what cats do and whales do what whales do but human beings do zillions of things that have nothing to do with our material, animal existence. We play golf, we listen to music, we read books.  We do things that are inexplicable, counter-intuitive, that are useless In terms of their material well-being. We elect members of Congress.  We go to church. And we do these things because they are satisfying in some strange way. We human beings apparently have a sense of something more, something beyond, something that gives life a larger meaning.

So the “torii” frame places, objects, scenes that awaken that sense of something more.  Some use the word “numinous” or the more familiar word “holy.” The “torii” frames an entrance to the holy. It can, of course, be simply the gateway to a shrine and you pass through it on your way into the shrine, the holy place, but also it may frame a scene that is evocative, that holds your attention, that makes you thoughtful. The snow-capped volcano, Fuji-san, is a one such place that inspires awe and wonder. So does a tree, especially a gnarled and twisted tree or a bansai, or a lake or a rough stone.  Every human society, so far as I know, has developed some way of responding to that sense of something more that seems to be a deep part of our nature.  We develop patterns of worship, some way of recognizing, developing, and institutionalizing that sense of what we call “the holy.”

“”Kami”” is the Japanese word for that sense of the holy and it’s a word that has a broad range of meaning.  It troubled the early missionaries in Japan because in translating their faith into Japanese they needed a word for “God” and “kami” seemed too vague, too impersonal, too general. The God of the Bible is not vague at all.  The Biblical God gets involved very specifically in human events: God acts in history. The first Roman Catholic missionaries finally imported the word “deus” from the Latin because it was specific and it was what they were used to – but “deus” has problems too. All the Roman and Greek deities also were “deus” or “theus” so, yes, it’s specific but it can be specifically wrong. It might just mean one of those mythical deities that the Hebrews refused to honor even if it cost them their lives.

But the Nippon Seikokai and most other churches have been content to go with “”kami”.” It has its problems, but it can be redefined to connect with the God of the Bible, to take on that more specific meaning. And also it creates common ground with Shinto and that’s important too.  After all, the “kami” of Japanese tradition is a sense of the holy and the sense of the holy connects us also to the God of the Bible who calls us to be holy also. Christians and Jews and Moslems also respond to the holiness of God.  So “”kami”” can be Fuji-san but it can also be Jesus.  The point is that we have a sense of something beyond and it’s as if you were in a closed room and had a sense of something outside and needed a window to see it. The “torii” is such a window; it frames some earthly thing that has the ability to point beyond, to open our minds, our souls, our selves, to the other, whatever you want to call it – “the wholly other” – the numinous – the sacred – the transcendent – the ultimate reality – the ground of being – or just plain “God.” God, the ultimate reality, is always visible in some way here – more so, perhaps, in some places than others, more evidently to some people than others. Some people talk about “thin places” where the separation between this world and another is less thick, less opaque.  I don’t like that myself because I don’t like to imagine any division between this world and another. It might be better to say that a “torii” reminds us of a holiness that is in all things but too easily lost sight of or forgotten.

The “torii” reminds us of an ultimate reality we might otherwise forget. In the west, I think we are likelier to build a church or a cathedral to remind us, to create a holy place rather than recognize one.  But many of the ancient cathedrals in Europe were built on top of pagan holy places. The first cathedral at Salisbury in England was built near Stonehenge.  I think they couldn’t move Stonehenge – they’d lost the ability to move stones that big – but that place seemed as thin to the Christians as it had to the pagans a place where a sense of the holy was stronger so they built a cathedral not far from those ancient stones.

I think that sense of holiness can be built up in places that have been used for prayer to the point where we sense it, feel it.  T.S. Eliot spoke about such a place in England, in his poem Four Quartets, a place called Little Gidding where a small group of men and women kept up a pattern of prayer for many years in the seventeenth century and made it a place of pilgrimage and prayer – which it still is. If you go there, there’s not much to see: a very small chapel and, of course, a souvenir shop, but Eliot says:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.
You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Yes;  prayer is communication with the holy and it takes place at Shinto shrines as well as in churches.  But it’s more than places, and the gospel today moves us from a place to a person.  The place is a mountain somewhere in the mid-east.  One gospel account places it just north of Israel but another puts it in the center of Israel. Either way, it’s a commanding height, the kind of place that literally changes you, transforms, transfigures.

I think you can get something of that sense even in San Francisco – or is it that I’m still new here? – but I know when I’m in a car or bus or walking and I come over a rise, a hill, and see a part of the city laid out below me it makes an impact. A few blocks from where I live, I can climb Golden Gate Heights and see the ocean to the west and the city to the east and the Golden Gate Bridge to the north. And that’s somehow special.  Can you be blasé about it? Maybe you can. Maybe after a while you stop really seeing it and responding to it with some sense of awe and amazement.  But the higher and more dominating the mountain the greater that sense of being raised up – and we may know intellectually that heaven is not literally up but we can’t help feeling that way, feeling that whatever the tensions and problems of the world may be we can rise above it all in a place of serenity and peace.  It’s no wonder we instinctively talk about heaven as “up.”

But the gospel this morning is about more than a mountain climb and a sense of exhilaration, separation, bring lifted up and separated, because the three apostles in the story are not looking down at the world or even up toward heaven but looking at Jesus and seeing him as if for the first time.  It’s as if he becomes for them the gateway, the “torii”, the door through which, or through whom, we come closest to the “kami”, the very specific, holy God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, Savior.  And this is critical. Yes, there are places and buildings that give us a sense of the holy but the holy God we worship is not an object or a force but a personal being, a God most fully revealed and known in a human life, in Jesus, who calls us to respond with the full offering of our life to a living God whom we can call Father, or Mother if you prefer, but to a being beyond any idea of person we can have but none the less, at the very least, personal – a God to whom we respond as person to person – possibly more than that, probably more than that, but nothing less than that, personal at the very least and made known most fully in the person of Jesus Christ.

It’s too bad, I think, that we can’t put the gospel reading this morning in context by reading on to see what came next. When they came down from the mountain, two things happened: they came to Jesus with a paralytic boy and asked for healing and they came with a question about taxes.  The next two stories in the gospel are about taxes and health care – it sounds like the evening news. And that’s exactly the point.  If God is present to be encountered in Jesus, then Jesus is not here to separate us from the world, to give us a break from all that, but to transform that too by entering it, coming into it to heal and transform – to transfigure not Jesus alone but this world also with all its narrow and limited agenda.

Can you imagine what would happen if the members of Congress would pause for a moment and think about what they are doing in the light of the Transfiguration, if they would come down in that light and with Jesus on their minds to deal as he did with the reality of human need, not politics as usual, but the reality of human need? And what difference would it make if we did?

What difference would it make if we tried more consciously to live in that light and not just on Sunday morning when we have shaped this place to make it easier but on the street and in stores, in Safeway and Walgreen’s. Try thinking of the checkout counter or parking lot as one of those thin places where the glory of God is visible. Think of the glory of God in the Safeway parking lot.  The gospel, after all, is not primarily a story of magic moments like the one in the gospel this morning but of gritty, day to day encounters with suffering and doubt and death and it is not at last the mount of transfiguration that best expresses our faith but the mount of Calvary, Jesus lifted up not on a mountain top but on a hill top on a wooden cross.

“I, if I be lifted up,” he said, “will draw all people to myself.” And we are called to be his agents.  What we are called to do is to be people who carry God’s light and peace down from the mountain top, out of our churches and places of prayer, into the dark places, the hard places, where the holy God is most needed and also very often found. So we ground our lives, yes, in times like this when we can come away briefly from all that as the disciples did and see the glory but we go back out through the doors of this place as if we turned the “torii” around or as if we passed through it from the other side with the “kami”, the special holy place, behind us and moving out in us into the world.  Then, you see, we will be coming through the “torii” in the other direction so that what is framed now is not the set apart sacred space but the everyday world.

There’s an old tradition, you know, of painting church doors red but we should, perhaps, especially paint the frame of the door red and red on both sides so that we go out, as if through the “torii,” into sacred space, the created world, with the cars going by, the stores open, the bicycles and taxis, the satisfied and the sick, the happy and the homeless, and Christ there in all of it, especially the places of need, the thin places of need, and recognize the “”kami”” there, divinity there, God present there, present in you and in me.

Torii Gate on Mt. Fuji


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