Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | November 5, 2023

Sermon – Baptized into Joy: Barbara Kingsolver, J.R.R. Tolkien & Ocean Beach

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

“I sought the Lord, who answered me and delivered me out of all my terror” (Ps. 34).

Inspired by Charles Dicken’s novel David Copperfield, Barbara Kingsolver’s book Demon Copperhead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. In the book she describes rural poverty, the effects of the opioid crisis and a scene that is so upsetting that both my wife and I independently had to stop reading and look away.

The main character and narrator Demon is born in the aftermath of the collapse of coal-mining as an industry in his Virginia town. He longs to see the ocean but wonders if he will ever get there. His father died before he was even born. Demon’s mom marries an abusive step-father and herself dies of an OxyContin overdose on his 11th birthday.

Demon lives and works (without being paid) with foster children on a tobacco farm. For a brief while he is taken in by the McCobb family with four small children under the age of seven. They too take most of the pay check he earns sorting garbage at a local convenience store.

When their car gets repossessed and they have to move, the family abandons him. He takes to the road with his backpack and his life savings in a peanut butter jar and tries to find a distant grandmother he has never met. It is terrifying to read about a twelve year old hitching rides with strangers.

At a truck stop he tries to escape a prostitute by going into the men’s room. He doesn’t realize it but she follows him in and sees him sitting in the stall. When he comes out she accuses him of stealing her money. The store clerk searches his backpack and gives every cent he has to the woman. The boy runs out into the night with nothing.

Intense misery, injustice and cruelty make us want to look away. Think of the way we sometimes respond to people with horrifying sores who we encounter on the streets here in San Francisco, or the families whose loved ones were murdered or kidnapped by Hamas, or the near total destruction of Gaza. Suffering like this can feel like a threat to our innermost self because we know how vulnerable we are too (becoming a parent exposes us to a radically new vulnerability). When we see too much suffering we cannot look anymore.

Jesus does not get to this point. Jesus sees people for who they really are and loves them. Jesus is not afraid of his own vulnerability. Jesus does not look away. That was true as he went from town to town with his friends in Galilee and today too. This is the most important thing to know in order to understand Jesus’ primary teaching.

In his Gospel, Matthew describes Jesus as the new Moses. Let me give three quick examples. 1. Just as the Pharoah killed male Hebrew infants in the book of Exodus, Herod tried to kill the new king by murdering babies in the Gospel of Matthew. 2. There are five books in the Torah. In Matthew Jesus has five main discourses. 3. Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. In Matthew, Jesus gives the most important sermon of his life on the Mount. Earlier Matthew writes that many in the crowds who have come to the wilderness to see him include people who are, “sick… afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, ” and presumably those who help them (Mt. 4:24).1

Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness.” We call these the beatitudes and it is easy to misunderstand them. The Greek word Jesus repeats is markarios. The dictionary definition for it is, “pertaining to being happy, with the implication of enjoying favorable circumstances.”2 On social media when we see the hashtag “blessed” we expect pretty much the same things the ancient Greeks did. Blessed people are happy, rich, healthy, attractive, strong, popular, often ruthless, sometimes deceptive and aggressive. In the face of this common sense Jesus says, blessed are the poor, those who are mourning, the gentle, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, the persecuted and reviled.3

Jesus is not telling us to try to become poor in spirit or to make ourselves sad so that we can mourn. Jesus changes what it means to be blessed. Let me take a short grammatical digression. Languages have a category of expression that we call mood. It describes the speaker’s view of an event’s reality – something that is certain, wished for, possible or demanded. The indicative mood makes a statement or asks a question. For instance, “Caroline sings in the choir,” or “Is she the newest member?” The imperative demands that someone do something. For instance, “Sing us a hymn Caroline.”

In this case Jesus uses the indicative. He is describing how his hearers are, not telling them how they should be. In the world of Jesus, God’s blessing always comes first. We do not act a certain way and earn God’s love. God loves us first. This love gives us strength to not ignore our own vulnerability. Jesus does not turn away from the person

who is addicted, or shattered by suffering, or afflicted by nightmarish circumstances. Jesus looks into each person’s heart and says, “You are blessed.”

On Thursday night Augusta, one of the candidates for bishop, mentioned an essay by J.R.R. Tolkien called “On Fairy Stories.”4 The author of The Lord of the Rings analyzes the genre of writing that we call fantasy. Before his generation there were stories like those of Jules Verne that accepted the world as it is and changed one element of it (like in The Time Machine). But Tolkien and his friends gave us something new –whole imagined worlds with entirely different rules than our reality.

One of the defining features of these stories is what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe. A catastrophe is a sudden disastrous event. The Greek prefix eu means good. A eucatastrophe occurs when there seems to be no way out, no reason for hope, then, suddenly something completely good happens. Like the prince’s kiss, the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars or Harry Potter returning to life again for his last battle with evil Voldemort.

For Tolkien in the face of universal defeat, these stories, give us a “sudden and miraculous grace never to be counted on to recur.” They give us a taste of joy that presents us with, “a sudden glimpse of… underlying reality or truth. It is not only a consolation but a satisfaction” of the question of whether or not life has meaning.

Tolkien goes on to say that the Gospels, the stories of Jesus, are about a kind of eucatastrophe in history. The story of Jesus changes everything, all human history. This story begins and ends in joy – the joy Mary experienced when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus, to the joyful reunion of friends after Jesus is raised from the dead. It is the story of someone who is not afraid of his vulnerability, who can see every kind of suffering and not turn away. This is Christian joy, the gloria, the good news.

In Kingsolver’s novel the orphan Demon Copperhead longs to be adopted by a loving family. This morning through baptism, God will adopt 15 people into this, “new life of grace.” The courage and openness of Jesus will help them to, “love others in the power of the spirit,” and, “to grow into the fullness of God’s peace and glory.” This experience of Jesus, of the one who does not look away, will lead them to have “inquiring and discerning hearts,” “the courage to will and persevere,” and “the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.”5 In this hard world, they will be baptized into joy.

Some people (like Robert Sapolsky) believe that we are accidents, mere biological machines determined in all our decisions by the hard realities of evolution. But Jesus

gives us another way. He shows us how to experience our life as a gift from a God who loves us even when our suffering makes us unrecognizable to anyone else.

Although I rarely surf on Sundays, a week ago just before sunset, I longed to see the ocean. I ended up paddling out at Ocean Beach into some of the best waves of the year. Distant horsetail clouds were darkening with the setting sun. Everything seemed so still along the whole coast from Point Reyes to Pedro Point and Mt. Tamalpais was an image of serenity. The warm offshore breezes formed the waves into perfect tubes and the world felt completely right. That is the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.6

Do not look away. The eucatastrophe is happening. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are you, beloved and adopted by God – baptized into joy.

1 “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, and he cured them.” The New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (RSVUE).

2 “Marakarios,” Louw & Nida 25.119.

3 Matthew Boulton, “Blessing Comes First: SALT’s Commentary for All Saint’s Day,” SALT, 30 October 2023.

4 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,”

5 Baptism liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, 299-308.

6 I don’t surf on the sabbath. The waves are best in the morning and I’m always at church then. But last Sunday was an exception. In late afternoon the winds died down and after two full days at the Cathedral I rushed out to Ocean Beach. The surf was pumping. A thousand other people showed up to look at the sunset and formed a crazy traffic jam going through the parking lot. Finally I followed another car past a line of pylons. Throwing on my wetsuit, I grabbed my board. A kind guy on the boardwalk looked right in my eyes and said, “are you late?” “Of course I am the sun is setting in an hour!” The first wave pitched me. But the next ones took me into ecstatic joy. Until I saw the lights of the tow truck right where my car had been in the parking lot.

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