Give Me Shelter. Give Me Jesus.
A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
Dolly Parton?! Johnny Cash?!!! What in the world is happening in this pulpit?!!??!!?!?
For those of you bewildered and wondering what it is I’m referring to, in recent sermons first our Associate Rector, Craig, and then our preacher in residence, Barbara, referenced Dolly and then later Johnny, in what I can only assume is a game of musical one-ups-manship. Well, not to be outdone, I give you the Rolling Stones!!!
In 1969 the band released their album Let it Bleed, whose opening track “Gimme Shelter” begins with the inimitable Mick Jagger singing the words:
“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away”
Written at a time of great social and political unrest, at the height of the Vietnam War, the band attempted to express, in the lyrics and the driving melody, the urgency of the time, the sense that things were eroding, blowing away, like a deluge and a rising flood, things were pressing on us, such that our identity and humanity were in danger of washing away if we didn’t find some shelter from the storm. There was a real fear in those days that our leaders and our basest, most violent tendencies would soon consume and define us if we did not as a people stand up and speak out and reclaim the better angels of our human nature. For the Stones, shelter is clearly conceived as an existential protection against the most fearsome realities of our world. From what is it that you most seek shelter?
We hear about shelter today in the readings. In this morning’s gospel, here on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last revelation of Jesus as the glorified one, the Divine, the Messiah, is positioned on a mountain top, as if to punctuate the spiritual and theological significance of the moment, a mountaintop experience to be sure. And Peter soaking it all in, undoubtedly overwhelmed with feelings, urges his companions and Jesus, “Let me make three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He is in the moment. He is swept up. “It is good for us to be here!” he says. There is a deep emotional connection to this experience, one that far exceeds theology and history.
Peter’s reaction reminds me of my children, who will, after hours on a beach or on a trail, in moments of great transport and delight, gather rocks and stones, little objects of spiritual significance, that they can hang onto, as a reminder of this moment. Our house is littered with these objects of remembrance. Sometimes while we lounge and watch the waves, they will construct shelters and forts from driftwood, almost as if they wish to stay here in this moment forever.
My friend, the Reverend Dr. Eric Barreto, writes of this morning’s gospel passage that often this, or something similar is happening with Peter. He says:
“I have heard sermons critiquing Peter for wanting to contain this moment, keep it under a dwelling place to protect it from encroachments.”
In such a view, Peter is like the lyrics in the Stones’ song, craving shelter for fear that a moment, an identity, a piece of himself, that Jesus and perhaps the hope of salvation for his people, will be lost. This past week I had the privilege of seeing the Tony Award winning musical, Hadestown, a show I had, like a barbarian living in a cave, never heard of before our trip. Apparently it has something of an avid fanbase. The show reinterprets in part the myth of Persephone and Hades of Greek antiquity. Their story is a complicated one – are they lovers or an abuser and the abused locked in a cycle of dominance and oppression? Each year, as you might recall, Persephone returns to the underworld, to the kingdom of Hades, plunging the world above into fall and winter, marking the change of these seasons. The play has Hades wrestling with his darker nature – how his power and kingship have corrupted him, making him less the generous ruler of a place for the souls of the dead, and more a devil interested in acquisition of things and people and misappropriated power. He lures broken souls into his dominion, preying on weakness and hunger, exploiting them for his own personal gain. And, to protect these things, to keep his acquisitions in, and interlopers out, there is, the play tells us, a wall built by the prisoners of Hades. In a voice reminiscent of the gravelly bass of Johnny Cash, Hades indoctrinates his worker-slaves in the dogma of fear in a call and response song.
“Why do we build the wall?
My children, my children
Why do we build the wall?”
And the response, sung back by the chorus, the enslaved, is a litany of fear and insecurity,
“We build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall…
The wall keeps out the enemy…
The enemy is poverty…”
Written 10 years ago, before walls and the like were a common part of our cultural and political conversation, the song anticipates the kinds of fear and despair that drive us to build shelters and barriers and structures – attempts to hang onto, as the song says, what we have got and they have not. Is that what is happening here with Peter? Certainly Peter can and is often construed as I’ve shown as having fears that real loss is at stake here, or does he?
Barreto problematizes such an interpretation, writing, that perhaps other possibilities are available to us. He says,
“Perhaps Peter is reacting with awe and a deeper understanding of the scene than we tend to assume. What if the offer of dwellings is an act of hospitality for these three servants of God? What if Peter’s reaction is not to be critiqued but understood?”
What if, indeed?
Structures and shelters and walls are what we build in moments of fear, yes, and yet we are also prone to constructing dwellings in the midst of great joy and hope too. Think of the housing work of Habitat for Humanity, or the Saint John’s Clinic in Kayoro, Uganda, or even this church, of the open door. At our greatest and most hopeful, our most generous, we build, not for ourselves, but for others. At our best, our homes are not walls against a dark and greedy world, but shelter in the storms of life, a place from which we can extend hospitality and grace, love, and welcome. At our best, borders and barriers have doors and gates through which we can welcome the hurting and the poor and the lost. At our best, churches are not clubs to which we apply for admission, but are hospitals for the cure of weary souls, open to all, welcoming all, healing all!
Our faith is a faith that insists upon structure, on real, tangible, and human presence and connections. We do not live our faith on some disembodied plane of existence. We live it here, now, in the midst of a world in deep need and fear, in a world that is hungry spiritually and physically, in a world full of violence and oppression, grief and loss. So it is, that though Peter does not build his shelters, he and the disciples are given something far greater. Matthew tells us that the disciples were brought to the ground in fear at the voice of God. But, Jesus touched them, and bid them to not be afraid. He touched them, a physical act, an embodied act, a loving act.
As we enter the season of Lent, with its fasting and penitence and deprivation, we are given the loving touch, the physical presence, of Jesus, who says in only a few verses later, whenever two or three are gathered, in his name, he will be in the midst of them. This is the shelter we are promised – it is us, the body of Christ, not a building with walls, or a country with borders, but a body of people, in the flesh, in the world, connected to one another, supporting one another, calling each other to something higher and better, to love and to serve and to welcome. We, like the disciples, are given Jesus! Let us cling not to possessions or moments or things ephemeral – let us be strengthened by our connection one to another, by our connection to the living, breathing and redeeming God in Jesus, so that we can bear our cross, serve our neighbor, love our enemy – so that we can be transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus!