September 25, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
How We Are Haunted
(second in the series “Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel”)
The Table is a new United Church of Christ congregation that will begin meeting in Davenport on Sunday evenings. Its pastor is Rev. Rob Leveridge. Rob has preached here before, and he is a good friend of mine. We went to seminary years ago, and who knew we would reconnect in the same neighborhood all these years later?
On September Eleventh, Pastor Rob offered a reflection on the Table website which I will link to through this sermon on our church website. He told the story of Vaughn Allex, a man who worked at Dulles Airport on September Eleventh fifteen years ago. Vaughn remembers two men who arrived late for their flight, so he hurried to help them. He took their tickets and made sure they got checked in. Later, he discovered those two men hijacked the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. If only they had missed their flight… If only he had stopped them…
In the days and weeks that followed, Vaughn experienced ferocious guilt. He blamed himself for allowing the attack to happen. He had the chance to stop them, and he didn’t, now he would never not be haunted by that knowledge, by those people.
In reading this reflection, I thought Pastor Rob might be heading toward strident absolution. Bring in the chorus proclaiming to Vaughn: “It was not your fault! You were doing your job; you didn’t know. Stop feeling guilty!” But as it turns out, Pastor Rob takes a different approach. Now he does not say, “Vaughn Allex is responsible for the September Eleventh attacks. What was he thinking?!” Rob does not say that.
He does invite us to consider whether there might be something more to guilt than we often realize. We know about the kind of guilt that functions like an emergency signal. It sounds an alarm in my conscience saying, I did something wrong. I need to go back and make amends. This is one way guilt can be useful, but what if guilt can do something else? What if it also brings to light the deep, hidden ways we are interrelated…
Of course, Vaughn Allex does not deserve to feel guilty, but his feelings sure make sense. And since when is guilt concerned with deservedness? It is common to feel guilty when something terrible happens, even when it’s not your fault. And maybe this guilt isn’t the problem; maybe it’s actually a reminder of our connection to each other.
As Pastor Rob puts it, “People only haunt you when they matter to you.” And that’s the thing. The hijackers matter. And so do the one hundred eighty nine people who died in that plane crash. And so does Vaughn Allex. So do you. We’re all woven together in the undeserving, heartbreaking, holy love.
Today we’re continuing our fall sermon series, Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel. It begins when Jesus is off in the countryside with his disciples who are baptizing, while his cousin John was at Aenon near Salim baptizing.
As it turns out, there was a rivalry between the followers of John the Baptizer and the followers of Jesus. In fact, there is a religious community today who still believes that John is the Messiah, not Jesus, and that question seems to be an issue for the community of the Fourth Gospel. You can tell it’s a point of controversy because John keeps insisting that he is not the Messiah which suggests that some people aren’t convinced.
The Bible says a dispute arose between John’s followers and a Jew. Please understand. This is a story about Jewish communities; John is Jewish; Jesus is Jewish. Calling someone a Jew sounds like a derogatory slur to our ears. It’s not altogether wrong to hear that. But in this context, it refers to a person who’s from a different Jewish sect or a person who may have been a Jewish leader.
So John’s disciples come to him complaining, “Rabbi, the one to whom you testified is over there baptizing, and everybody’s going to him instead!” It’s like he’s winning. But John does not get defensive. He does not say, “We’ll just have to up our game and win those members back.” What John does is rather extraordinary. He says, “You are witnesses that I am not the Messiah… I am the one who goes ahead. I am not the bridegroom, I’m the friend of the bridegroom. My joy has been fulfilled. Christ must increase, but I must decrease.”
When Jesus heard about the allegations that his disciples were baptizing more than John, he did not say, “Oh good, we’re winning!” He left the countryside to go back to Galilee. This leaves a lot for us to wonder about. What was the relationship like between John’s followers and Jesus’ followers? What was the relationship like between these cousins John and Jesus?
All four Gospels feature John the Baptist at the beginning. In Luke, John is introduced as Jesus’ cousin. When Mary finds out she’s pregnant with Jesus and goes to tell Elizabeth who’s also pregnant, John leaps with joy inside Elizabeth’s womb. Now thirty years later, according to all the Gospels, John is the opening act for Jesus’ ministry, the one who cries in the wilderness “Prepare the way!” He is not the light coming into the world, but he’s the one who sees the light and says “Behold.” It is John who baptizes Jesus in the Jordan.
All four Gospels report that John was imprisoned during Jesus’ ministry. Some versions also include a story about John’s execution which may be folklore. The legend goes that Herod granted his niece a wish for her birthday. To Herod’s dismay, she asked for John’s head to be brought to her on a platter, and it was (Matthew 14:1-11). All four Gospels begin with John the Baptist, but then his prophesy comes true. As the story gets told, John decreases while Jesus increases.
So what exactly does that mean for them? I mean, did John and Jesus grow up as friends then have some sort of falling out? Or was it a more subtle drifting apart? I wonder whether Jesus missed John while John was in prison, if Jesus ever felt guilty for being free, being able to travel, and heal, and eat with his friends, while John was locked up? I wonder if Jesus ever visited John… I wonder if John haunted Jesus when he would go off by himself to pray… After all, people only haunt you when they matter to you.
Think of any meaningful relationship you’ve ever had. I’m guessing it harbored an ebb and flow of intensity. Chances are, there are times when you move closer to each other —you might even cling to each other like Ruth threatens Naomi. This stepping up and holding on is the work we understand so well. This is showing up to clean your sister’s house after she had a baby. This is sitting up all night by your child’s bed in the hospital. Now if coming together and holding on were all that our relationships required, maybe that would be no problem. (Maybe.)
But then there’s this. Think of any meaningful relationship you’ve ever had, then I’m guessing you know what it is to let go. Sometimes we let go of abusive relationships in order to reclaim our own lives. Sometimes we let go in loving relationships, so the other person has room to go off to college or move to another country.
Whatever the circumstance, choosing to let go can be frightening and painful. It is volunteering to miss a person all the time, so you’re at the gas station and you think you see them standing at the next pump. It’s not them. Or something happens and you think, I can’t wait to go home and tell them, and they’re not at home, of course.
Letting go is painful, so it seems like that’s the whole problem. But what if the pain of missing someone is not the problem? What if it’s actually a sign of our deeper connection?
One of the ways prisons cause harm is by splitting up families. Sometimes inmates are transferred to prisons far away so their families can’t visit. Always the razor-wire fences and concrete walls harbor not only a physical power but also a spiritual power. It’s like the walls are standing there taunting, making the claim that the people inside are forgotten, that their lives don’t matter.
Well, when you miss a person who’s locked up, what you’re doing is taking some of the power out of that wall. When a church remembers the people who are locked up, and prays for them, and visits them, what we’re doing is silencing the taunting of the razor wire with the deeper truth of God.
Of course Vaughn Allex is haunted by the people who died on September Eleventh, including the hijackers whom he hurried to help. Of course we are haunted not only by loving relatives who have died, but by the people who hurt us and left, by the people whom we hurt and left. We’re haunted by all the people we miss.
Knowing this truth of our connection makes it possible for us to hold on and let go, to increase and decrease. It makes it possible to bless the pain that comes from missing the people we love, to bless the guilt that rises up when it’s not even your fault —not because you “should” feel guilty, but because guilt can release our compassion.
Look at what is happening in our nation. I promise you, this is not the time to withhold our compassion.
According to some of the Gospel accounts, on the night before he was executed, Jesus went off by himself and prayed. He was so alone that even the disciples who went with him couldn’t stay awake. Just like the spiritual that goes, “I got a brother in that land, where I’m bound.” I wonder if John showed up and haunted Jesus from the other side of execution. I wonder if he interrupted Jesus’ prayer to tell his cousin, “You’re not as alone as you might feel.”
Bless the holding on and the letting go. Bless the increasing and the decreasing. Bless the missing, and the guilt, and oh bless the haunting. We are always haunting each other, thank God. Amen.
 Rensberger, David K. John: Introduction, HaperCollins Study Bible, NRSV. page 2012.
 lyrics by Bernice Johnson Reagon