Through the Torii

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saint’s Church, Haight-Asbury, San Francisco, on August 6, 2017.

I wonder whether any of you have 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. When I went up the mount of vision in Israel, I got there in a car driven by a man who had done it so often that he went zooming around hairpin curves as if he were dealing with Interstate 80 in Kansas.

So there are two mountains, each with a commanding view, and how you get there can make a big difference in your experience of it. I wonder whether for most people It isn’t the climb that matters more than the view. People don’t come back from Everest talking about the view but about how they survived a land slide or had their tent blown away. The view, when you get there, isn’t that different from the view from any other peak in Tibet and you can get a better view much more easily from an airplane. I didn’t come back from Israel talking about the view from the top but the kamikaze driver who got us there.

This morning we hear nothing about the climb. It’s what happens on top that’s critical. But there’s a more important difference, I think, in the way you approach the mountain in the first place. Again and again as you approach the summit of Fuji-san, you encounter torii, the traditional gateways that snowy-mount-fuji-view-through-torii-shinto-shrine-gate-at-fuji-sengen-D8B3G9frame not simply the entrance to a sacred site but often the site itself so you have it framed to contemplate as in the picture in your bulletin. The torii asks you to look at the mountain as if 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. To call it Fujiyama is to say “Mt Fuji” but to call it Fuji-san, as they often do, is to call it “Lord Fuji.”

What the torii does, as I understand it, is to recognize that Lord-ship: 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, other 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 she can find it, climbs into my lap occasionally – most often when I’m working on my lap top – 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 go to church. We climb mountains. We do things that are inexplicable, counter-intuitive, and really useless in terms of their contribution to our animal existence, our material well-being. We elect Presidents and members of Congress. What does that do for our well-being? But I digress.

The point is that very often we do things hard to explain logically but we do these things because they are satisfying in some strange way. They appeal to us in a way we often find hard to explain. Human beings apparently have a sense of something more, something beyond, something other, something that gives life a larger meaning.

Now, the torii, as I understand it, 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 Erlangen-botanical-garden-toriicourse, be simply the gateway to a shrine, but also it may frame a scene that is somehow evocative: it evokes, it “calls out” some other aspect of your being, that holds your attention, that makes you thoughtful. The snow-capped volcano, Fuji-san, rising out of the plains is a place that inspires awe and wonder. They say it’s a wise man who climbs Fuji once; it’s a fool who climbs it twice. But the vision inspires. So does a tree, especially a gnarled and twisted tree or a bonsai, or a lake or a rough stone. So the instinct is to frame it. Erect a torii. Call attention to it. Challenge others to see what you see.

Every human society, so far as I know, has developed some way of responding to that sense of something more—a pattern of worship, a building with a spire or minaret—some way of recognizing, developing, and institutionalizing that sense of what we call “the holy.” “Kami” is the Japanese word and that’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, acts in history.

The first Roman Catholic missionaries to Japan tried to import the word “deus” from the Latin because it was specific – but deus has problems too. All the Greek and Roman deities were “deuses,” dei. 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. So the Anglican missionaries 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 more specific meaning. And also it creates common ground with Shinto and that’s important. 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 and Buddhists and Shinto respond in various ways to the holiness of God. It is, I would say, a universal instinct. So “kami” can be Fuji-san but it can also be Jesus. We use a cross or crucifix to concentrate our thought on the revelation of holiness In the life and death of 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 – 1024px-Shitennoji-toriithe holy – the transcendent – the ultimate reality – the ground of being – or just plain “God.”

God, the ultimate reality, is always visible in some way here in this life, this world – 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, forgotten. The torii reminds us of an ultimate reality we might otherwise forget. It says, “Stop, and look, and remember.”

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 area seemed as thin to the Christians as it had to the pagans. Salisbury plain was a place where a sense of the holy was strong so they built a cathedral not far from those ancient stones and people still go there and are moved by the mystery of it. I wonder how people felt when they moved this church off the noisy, main street through Haight-Asbury to the nice, quiet side street where it’s hard to find. I wonder how people felt when they moved from the place this congregation once used to this place. Was there a sense that however necessary it was, this place lacked the holiness of the other? That would be understandable. I think that sense of holiness can be built up in places that have been used for prayer. TS Eliot wrote 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. There’s not much to see when you go there now—just a very small Little-Gidding-8920chapel 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.” “Prayer is more. . . “ Yes, prayer, of course, is communication with the holy and it takes place at Shinto shrines as well as in churches and it’s why we’re here. 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 and come over a rise, a hill, and see a part of the city laid out below me it makes an impact. Or look at the city from where I live: I can climb Golden Gate Heights just a few blocks away 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 very special. There ought to be a torii there framing the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. 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 upGolden Gate Bridge – and we may know intellectually that heaven is not up but we can’t help feeling that somehow it is, that somehow. whatever the tensions and problems of the world may be, we can rise above it all to 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. No, they are looking at Jesus and seeing him, seeing who he is, as if for the first time. It’s as if he becomes for them in that moment the gateway, the torii, the door through which, or through whom, we come closer 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” as some like to say, 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 and yet, none the less, at the very least also 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. If that sounds like the evening news, 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?

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 where 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 check out 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 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, 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 gloryholy place, not only behind us but moving out in us into the world, 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 – the cars going by, the stores open, the buses and taxis, and Jesus there, the kami there, divinity there, God present there, as truly as God is here, the holy God, present, incarnate, in you.

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