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Traveling Mercies:
A Tale of Annie and Jesus
Larry Reimer
Palm Sunday, April 16, 2000

READING – from "Happiness" by Jane Kenyon
There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away…
Happiness is the uncle you never knew about,
who flies a single-engine plane onto the grassy landing strip,
hitchhikes into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep mid-afternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of the pine barrens,
to the rain falling on the open sea,
to the wine glass, weary of holding wine.

Mark 11:1-10

Originally, I intended to weave Annie Dillard and Annie Lamott into this sermon. But Annie Dillard remained in the Call to Worship. Bringing her into the sermon took the sermon on another jaunt, which would have lasted until Tuesday. The Annie of this sermon whom I will eventually link up with Jesus is Annie Lamott, a writer. Like most successful writers she’s a little eccentric. She grew up in a classic liberal atheist/agnostic family in the sixties, a family that believed in social justice, good books, gourmet food, and grand intellectual discussions. In this family, to believe in God meant you were stupid, ignorant, or uncouth, and "we," says Annie Lamott, "were very couth."

Her family drifted into alcoholism and divorce. Her mother went to law school and moved to Hawaii. Her father went to girlfriends, more wine, and then died of a brain tumor. Annie herself began to drink heavily, do a variety of drugs, and have affairs with lots of men, mostly married, all unavailable.

But a constant theme throughout her life, like an old song that keeps running in the back of your brain that you never quite remember all the words to but still can’t shut off, was a belief in God. It was nothing specific. In fact it was in constant combat with intellectual challenge and bitter despair.

As a young adult, on Sundays, hungover or coming down from a cocaine binge, Annie would hang out at a giant, dusty flea market in Marin City, just outside Sausalito on the other side of the bay from San Francisco. Between eleven and one, she could hear music coming from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church across the street. It was a homely, impoverished, ramshackle building. The gospel music was so haunting, however, that she went and looked in through the back door. The music came from a choir that consisted of five black women and one Amish looking white man and a congregation of thirty people "radiating kindness and warmth."

For months Annie stood at the back door, captivated by the music, but she never went in and sat down.

One night, a week after she had an abortion, she discovered she was bleeding badly. She was also drunk again, and too disgusted with her own behavior to even call a doctor or a friend. She quit drinking, got sober very quickly, and after a few hours got in bed, stayed very still, and just lay in the dark of her bedroom.

She writes, "After a while, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father (‘s spirit), whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this."

Finally, and this is what I love about what she calls her beautiful moment of conversion, she said, "----(expletive deleted) it. I quit. All right. You can come in."

After that experience she began finding these words of the poet, George Herbert everywhere:

And here in dust and dirt, O here,
the lilies of his love appear.

It took two more years for her to quit drugs and drinking altogether and actually begin sitting through the whole service at this little church.

Life didn’t then become automatically happy for her. Her best friend died. Sometimes she had money. Sometimes she didn’t. Annie had a child. She made, lost, and broke relationships with men. But she became part of that funky little church, stayed sober, and discovered, in the midst of all its dead ends and bad turns, that life had meaning. In short, she reminded me a lot of us here. Like one who can’t quite say they’re a Jew, but rather Jewish, she thought of herself as Christianish. The little church became a home for her and her new child.

All of which leads up to the phrase from the sermon title I want to share with you today, "Traveling mercies". A new minister came to her church, an African American woman named Veronica. It’s the nature of life, said Veronica, that lives and hearts get broken. Sometimes the world feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward, and we who are more or less OK for now need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room until the healer comes. Our job is to sit with people, get them juice, and graham crackers.

After saying this, Veronica went on vacation. And in that little church, when someone went on a trip, people would say, "Traveling mercies." Which means, "love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound." (p. 106).

Which brings me to Jesus. It dawned on me the other day that no matter how you look at it, Jesus had a tough life. In my more sentimental times I might pray to be gentle like the quiet, kind Jesus who gave love so beautifully. In other times when I am struck with bouts of delusional grandiosity, I might pray to be like the effective Jesus in actually changing lives, healing diseases, and feeding five thousand hungry people. But in times of clarity, I realize Jesus had no home, no family and only three years in which to get his word out. People challenged him like a pack of incessant, yapping, annoying little dogs, and his disciples just never got it. And then I remember that I don’t really want my life to be like that of Jesus.

Yet I can imagine this Jesus of the tough life heading out for Jerusalem, with a sense of foreboding perhaps, that the holy city might be the death of him. And I have a sense that before he left on that journey, an older woman, maybe his mother’s cousin Elizabeth, took him aside and said in effect, "Traveling mercies: God is with you, love the journey. Come home safe." And maybe just because somebody reminded him of this, he got this idea of a donkey, a parade, and a whole lot of fun.

The majority of Palm Sunday sermons, mine included, point out that the parade was a misguided, short-lived disaster. I have been fond of pointing out that the crowd that shouts "Hosanna," today will shout, "Crucify him," on Friday. Like the brilliant idea for the TV show, "So You Want to Marry a Millionaire", Palm Sunday was a parade concept that couldn’t last. But in writing this sermon, it hit me that rather than reminding ourselves that the parade always ends, how much better to celebrate that parades happen at all.

I’m so glad Jesus had that parade. I can see him waving, smiling, blowing kisses. I bet he felt like Tony Bennett the first time he left his heart in San Francisco or Liza Minelli singing, New York, New York. Happiness doesn’t have to be permanent to be real. And it doesn’t have to be grand to work. A donkey, a bunch of wild shouting people, and some branches can do it. And this brought me to the poem printed in your bulletin and the way the gift of happiness searches for each of us like an eccentric unknown uncle landing a single engine plane in a nearby field.

When I became a minister, I thought that I had to trade grand experiences of happiness for meaning. I figured there would be neither money nor time to take my kids to Disney World or even see Florida for that matter. I didn’t think I’d ever get to play trumpet in a spotlight, ski, or be told one Sunday morning that I had an unexpected gift and could go to Europe. I didn’t even think I would find a church this beautiful and people as open-minded as you. Yet all this happiness found me like a crazy uncle in a single engine plane.

Yet there are even deeper experiences of happiness, like those described in the second half of the poem, the kind shared in a hospital room, in a prison cell, in doing a truly stinking job, or in the weariness of forever holding the sacred wine of forgiveness.

Happiness is a sacrament, the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace that comes to us in traveling mercies, unexpected outbreaks and surprises, often when we have given in to despair.

Today is the beginning of what is known in the church year as Holy Week. This Wednesday is our last Taize service, a sacred time for reflection and prayer. On Thursday we have our Tenebrae service when we share Communion and the stories of the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. After each reading in the Tenebrae service a candle is extinguished until the sanctuary is dark. The word Tenebrae is Latin for the shadows that fell across the earth when Jesus died. In the darkness of the service’s end the cross is draped in black. Then one candle is re lit, symbolizing the hope of Easter and participants leave in silence.

All of this is of a piece, from Palm Sunday, through the silence and singing of Wednesday, and the story of loss of Thursday night and the beauty of Easter Sunday. They’re all connected, the stories of Annie Lamott, Jesus, you and me.

Three quotes sum it up for me. One is by Annie’s son Sam at age seven. "I think I already understand about life: pretty good, some problems." (p. 145).

The second a loose translation of the Psalm 118, "Blessed are all who come in the name of the Lord. God has bathed us in light. Let us join the glad parade."

And finally, "Traveling mercies. Love the journey. God is with you. Come home safe." Next week we’ll talk about where Easter sends us.