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Here follows a sermon delivered by John S. Thornton, former Episcopal Bishop of Idaho, to the congregation of St. Michael’s Cathedral (Boise, Idaho) on May 4, 2014.
It is one of fifteen sermons found in Bishop Thornton’s new book, The Backside of God.
“This is the first in a series of sermons on our Eucharistic liturgy. My task is to talk about the whole purpose of the liturgy. There will be others, on the Peace, the Offertory, the Fraction, and the Dismissal. As for the purpose of our liturgy, I’ll take a roundabout way; but we’ll get there. Bear with me.
I’ve read quite a few books on liturgy. In my opinion, the best book on liturgy isn’t on liturgy at all. It’s on baseball. The book is A. Bartlett (“Bart”) Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise.
I have a history with Take Time for Paradise.
Sometime back in the mid-1990s, I got a call from a chaplain at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. He asked me if I would give the benediction at their National Prayer Day Breakfast. I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to.” Then he told me that the speaker would be Tommy Lasorda, the Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. (He was also featured in those SlimFast® ads.) “Wow,” I said, “I’d love to hear Tommy Lasorda speak.” I got the impression that it was a sure thing. However, the chaplain added a little caveat, with a voice so smooth that it screamed uncertainty. “If for some reason ‘Tommy’—as if the two of them were on a first-name basis—couldn’t make it, would you be the speaker?” Three months away from an event, you agree to almost anything. I did. Within minutes, I was in a panic about what I had agreed to. The chaplain promised to stay in touch. The days of unease went by.
A week before the National Prayer Day Breakfast, I called the chaplain. “Is Tommy Lasorda coming?” “He plans to, though he’s having a little trouble arranging transportation.” I accepted that as a “yes.” On Monday before the National Prayer Day Breakfast, I called the chaplain again. “Is Tommy Lasorda still planning to be there?” “He says so, but he still hasn’t worked out the transportation.” What? Is it really that hard to get from Los Angeles to Mountain Home? On the Wednesday before the National Prayer Day Breakfast, I called the chaplain again. “Is Tommy Lasorda going to make it?” “He’d like to, but he wants us to send an F-16 to pick him up. We can’t do that. It looks like you’re going to be the speaker.” Oh, God.
I could just see it. An officers’ club jam-packed with Air Force personnel and their spouses and their children, every one of them excited about seeing and hearing the legendary Tommy Lasorda. And what do they get? The Episcopal Bishop of Idaho. A preacher.
It was now the Thursday before the National Prayer Day Breakfast. Jan and I were in Buhl at the time, working with the church there. We got into our car and drove as fast as the law allowed – maybe a little faster – to the Barnes & Noble in Twin Falls. I needed some books on baseball, in an attempt not to disappoint people too much.
Barnes & Noble did have some books on baseball, mostly big picture books. I needed little word books. We picked two of them, David Halberstam’s The Summer of ’49 and A. Bartlett (“Bart”) Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise. Back to Buhl we went, Jan driving, I scanning the two books. The Summer of ’49 was too fat; so I put it aside. Take Time for Paradise was a lot skinnier; so I started to read it cover to cover. It was so beautifully written that I didn’t notice how fast – or slow – Jan was driving.
Bart Giamatti was the Commissioner of Baseball from April 1, 1989 until September 1, 1989. He died of a heart attack after only five months in office. He had been the President of Yale University, but he resigned to take the job he had always wanted. He loved baseball and he understood its philosophy, its geometry, its numerology, its strategy and tactics and its rites and ceremonies. He made baseball’s hunger for homecoming as important as Homer’s The Odyssey.
By bedtime on Thursday, I had a speech, written on the back of seven envelopes. It was either going to work or be a colossal flop and the whole Episcopal Church in the United States of America would be humiliated. We slept well, but not long. By five in the morning, we were up, showered, dressed and on our way from Buhl to the Mountain Home Air Force Base.
We got to the gate of the Base at about 07:30. I pulled into the guardhouse parking lot and hurried in. An MP noticed my collar and asked, “Are you here for the National Prayer Day Breakfast?” “I am,” I said. “Follow me, sir!” Who was I to disobey orders? He ran to his patrol car, got in, started the engine, turned on the flashing lights and careened out of the parking lot. We followed right behind him. We’d never had that kind of treatment before. We felt like the President and the First Lady. When we got to the officers’ club, the MP skidded to a stop, jumped out and shouted, “Park here, sir!” It made no difference to him that it said “No Parking.” He was making lawbreaking so much fun.
There were a lot of people milling around in the entrance of the officers’ club, but the chaplain elbowed his way through and greeted us. I said, “Could you take me to a private room so that I can look over my speech? Let me know when it’s time for breakfast.” No problem. I looked over what I had written on the backs of the envelopes, scratched off some lines, scribbled some new ones. I was getting confident and panicky at the same time. Then the chaplain came and told me that it was time for breakfast. Jan and I were seated at the head table, on the dais. I sat on the chair that Tommy Lasorda was supposed to have sat on, and I felt people’s excitement dying down. No Tommy Lasorda. A guy with his collar on backwards. And we paid for this. We ate.
I was introduced by the chaplain. There was polite applause. I said, “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not Tommy Lasorda.” They roared. To them, that was funny. I thought, I think I’m going to like this audience. “You’ve come to hear Tommy Lasorda talk about baseball; so I’m going to talk about baseball. Well, you say, you don’t know anything about baseball. What difference does that make?” I said. “People talk about things they don’t know anything about all the time. If Tommy Lasorda were here and talked about Process Theology, you’d love it.” They roared. I was having fun. They were egging me on.
First, I talked about Jackie Robinson and baseball as meritocracy. It’s not whom you know, it’s what you can do that matters. You could see “yes” on every face. The audience was full of scrambled eggs and sausage patties and hash browns and alleluias.
Then I talked about baseball as a parable. Baseball is America’s parable. It’s a universal parable. It’s about coming home again and having a reunion with those who care most about you. It’s like the ancient myth of Odysseus, who risked whatever he had to risk and suffered whatever he had to suffer to get home again.
And on and on. When it was all over, I signed Tommy Lasorda baseball cards with my own name. One woman came up and told me, “Whenever I see those SlimFast® ads, I’ll think of you.” I’ve rarely had so much fun.
In baseball, there are four bases, but the fourth base isn’t called “fourth base.” It’s called “home.” The object of baseball is to get on base and around the bases and back home again. But once you get a hit or a walk – with the exception of a “home run,” for which you get safe passage around all the bases – you’re out there all alone in a dangerous world. Everybody out there is out there to make sure you’ll never get home again. They can make it “swift and savage.” If you take too long a lead off first, the pitcher can pick you off. If you try to steal second, the catcher can throw you out. If you take too big a lead off second and head for third, you can get trapped between the second and third basemen and get tagged out ingloriously. If a fielder has the “arm,” he can throw you out at second or third or home. Everybody out there is practiced and primed to make you fail. But when you do get home again, there’s a combustion of glee and a compaction of boyish physicality, high-fiving and back-slapping and hugs. The “family” is together again!
Even if you don’t play baseball or never have, that’s your story. The world isn’t always a safe place. It can be dangerous and often is. But the mature and healthy person doesn’t slink from it, loves the challenges, takes the risks, wins some, loses some. Nonetheless, we all get weary and need to go home again. “Ye, who are weary, come home.”
All the elements of our Eucharistic liturgy combine to make our worship an experience of coming home again. Here there is the sense of safety and security. Here there is “the freedom from wariness.” Here there is the coloration and “aroma of inclusiveness.” Here there is the atmosphere of absolution and embracement. Here there is the affirmation of individuality and autonomy. Here there is the celebration of the giftedness and goodness of each person. Here there is the pulsating and palpable presence of the mystical Christ. Here is “home,” a state of belonging to all whose hearts are in the heart of Christ. That’s where we are, home again, as we kneel and eat the sacred bread and drink the sacred wine. That’s how we ‘take time for paradise.’”
The Backside of God, written by +John S. Thornton and edited by Stuart Hotchkiss, is now available for sale in paperback (132 pp.) on Amazon.
Bishop John Thornton is a great homilist and sermonist. Those of us who have heard and/or read any of his sermons can attest to that. In fact, it is because of us that he began, in 2014, to publish his collections.
His latest volume, Good Seed and Zizania, contains not just sermons but other great writings as well. As he was digging through old boxes to create this work, he came across a poem that was published in Episcopal Life, the National Church’s monthly publication years ago. It’s titled “Did you see Him in the 60’s?” It’s passionate and, typically, sassy. The publication date had to be sometime at the end of the ’60s or in the early ’70s.
For me, it is the essence of the history of that time, that troubling, yet freeing decade that transformed a generation and a nation. As the bishop opened his complimentary author’s copy, I asked him to read it outloud, once gain, to me. It gets better each time. In all of his writings — including this poem — Bishop Thornton doesn’t waver from what is important and what he believes. His perspective on the ’60s is every bit the John Thornton you may know or may want to know and, certainly, his unique way of looking at our world.
With his kind permission, I am able to share it with you.
Did You See Him in the ’60s?
The creeds of Man are
Penciled on restroom walls,
Chalked on sidewalks,
Painted on traffic signs,
Jack-knifed into theater seats,
Pinned on lapels,
Glued to rear bumpers.
Sometimes, they are a lamentation;
Sometimes, an exultation;
Always, a declaration:
Here I stand.
One of the best of the ’60s is
“God isn’t dead –
He just doesn’t want to get involved.”
That says so much about
And lack of it.
The faithless believer – of whom there are many – might say,
I believe in God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, too,
The whole thing –
But what difference does it make?
The difference is between
Seeing and not seeing,
Hearing and not hearing,
Being alive and wishing you were dead.
Assent to the ancient formulation,
Three in one,
One in three,
May help in getting through liturgies,
But not in getting through life;
And life is what there is to get through –
And get with!
Or, if I were you] –
I would not ask,
Do you believe in God?
Nobody wants to be unpatriotic.
What I want to know is this:
Did you see Him,
Did you hear Him,
Did you, at the very least, read about Him,
As He was creating worlds ex nihilo
And incarnating Himself in human form
In the ’60s?
If you did not,
You just missed one whole decade of
The Mysterium Tremendum’s extravaganza
He was involved in all that,
And unmaking to make all over again
A world He loves
With a love young lovers would be embarrassed by.
Perhaps His providence was too obvious – and too good to be true;
Perhaps it was hidden in the supposed insignificance of everyday things.
Now the ’60s are gone,
One hundred and twenty months,
Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days
Of good and evil
Chronicled in chronicles
Ten cents each, twenty-five cents on Sunday.
Headlines and fillers too,
Announcing what we did
Each other anno Domini.
Because of what we did to each other,
We have learned a little more about
The history and geography of folly and vengeance:
Dallas, Memphis, and Los Angeles…
Dugway Proving Grounds…
White Sands Missile Range…
The “et al.” is important –
It probably includes our hometowns.
Since AP and UPI did not,
We did not notice much wrong, either;
Though much wrong there must have been.
I doubt that the human race completed the lexicon of horrors,
To which St. Paul gave the title “Principalities and Powers of Darkness;”
But we gave some new meanings to some old words,
In a moment of calculated [and calculating] penitence,
We could wish for the publication of
An expurgated and abridged record of our deeds in the 60’s.
Perhaps our children’s children need never know
What destructiveness their grandparents were capable of.
We might look good
Even though we were not.
Write that on the blackboard of your mind
Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three times.
Someone waved and shouted for recognition.
Now I know that God is,
As I know that the Sun shall rise,
An uncanny and inexpressible knowing;
Though He still eludes and defies me
[And, I suppose, you, too].
I have said, jesting,
This much I am quite sure of:
God loves surprises,
God hates pastels,
And Styrofoam is the invention of God’s adversary, the Devil.
In the fourth decade of my life,
I learned one more thing:
God goes through history
As if it were a masquerade party.
He puts on costumes and faces
And makes us guess who He is.
Was that Albert Schweitzer
Or the Spiritus Creator in disguise?
Was that Martin Buber?
Martin Luther King?
Pope John XXIII?
And millons of unheralded others,
From den mothers to criminal lawyers,
Or the Spiritus Creator in disguise?
At long last,
I think I have guessed His identity.
When you reflect and reminisce about
The madness and miracle-working of the ’60s,
Do not forget what God and Man, cooperating, did:
The Czechoslavakian resistance,
The human heart transplants,
The 3:51.1 mile,
Pacem in Terris,
The German measles vaccine,
The Moon landings,
The DNA molecule’s decoding,
The Peace Movement,
Boston City Hall,
The War Requiem,
Project Head Start,
And Lyndon Johnson’s resignation.
It was quite a decade!
After we have done our penance,
Perhaps we should rejoice.
And Joseph, too!
The spirit of your son
Accomplished some mighty wonders in the ’60s.
Copyright © 2016 +John S. Thornton
You don’t know me and I don’t know you.
But last night, you did something so extraordinary in the history of our country that I want to reach out and congratulate you.
You have also removed any reservations or ambivalence I may have shown in the past about voting for you this November. You are the best choice—the only choice— for President of these United States. Period.
I have called you names in the past and cited many of your flaws. To your credit, you’ve never said a thing about me or my worts or my stumbles in life. I was a Bernie supporter in the primary, but the primary is over, and you won the nomination. You appear to be working with Bernie to unify the party and include the voice of his supporters in your moving-forward agenda. Thank you. I feel like you are listening to me. I feel included.
You have only one opponent in this race. True, there may be other names on ballots in some states, but this is not going to be another 1992 when Ross Perot captured almost 20 million votes in the general election. This is 2016, and like it or not, the United States is a two-party country. Any votes cast for a member of a third or fourth party are nothing more than a constitutional right.
Your opponent, Donal Trump, has hijacked the Republican Party. He is the party and he is beyond any decent description of a human being. My late mother, a southern lady, would have described him as “common.” Mother and son do agree on something, after all. We argued about so much, so often.
On the surface, it would appear that you and Tim Kaine should win the election in a landslide. Any of us who were raised to be decent and caring souls would dismiss the Trump/Pence ticket as some sort of late night parody of “Jackass: The Movie.” (True confession: I did like the hardware store toilet skit.) But the Republican primary taught us a valuable lesson: people who are mad and feel disenfranchised will do anything to reverse the status quo. These people see you as stale and controlled by big money and another helping of Obama stew. They are willing to throw away decades of progress and revert to what Trump has promised as the good ol’ days.
It’s reminding me of the agony experienced by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Clarence the angel made it possible for George Bailey to go back in time and realize that he had a better life in the present than he did in the past. No harm done in a movie. Trump, however, would really take us back in time, permanently, and try to “imprison” us in one way or another. Probably in ways that would isolate the United States from the rest of the world. In the real nuclear age of 2016, it might just be the final, unwritten chapter of “The Butter Battle Book” by Dr. Seuss.
So, forgive me for taking so long to see the light. Forgive me for my earlier rants about your past. Please allow me to praise you for joining the ranks of some pretty incredible “first-feat” women and encourage you to keep fighting for us. You are going to win this election. Sooner or later, we are all going to get it.
Stuart Hotchkiss has never been a member of a major political party. His presidential voting record has been Carter (1976), Anderson (1980), Reagan (1984), Bush 41 (1988), Clinton (1992), Clinton (1996), Bush 43 (2000), Bush 43 (2004), Obama (2008) and Obama (2012). And a solid Hillary in 2016!
Dear Lisa, this time exactly one year ago today, I listened to your consent to marry me at St. Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boise, Idaho. The service was sacred, the reception quite festive, the gifts and cards quite bountiful. We, the bride and groom, “were in love,” and we’d beaten the usual stress that accompanies such life changing events with aplomb.
Thrice and twice down the aisle — that’s five trips in total — we had made promises to others that just simply couldn’t be kept. Yes, we’d grown cyclical about falling in love again. We’d resorted to Al Gore’s world wide web to find each other. Suddenly (well it seems like suddenly now, doesn’t it?), we oldies had just entered into a new union with the odds of success better than a nag winning at Churchill Downs. We had no prenup. We based our decision to get married on the one thing that money can’t buy: a shared and strong belief in the fact that we needed one another.
Bishop John Thornton delivered a homily that made even your dad cry. As you remember, it opened like this:
“Stuart, Lisa isn’t the only woman in the world. And yet she is the only woman in the world which, by love and for love, you and she have created.
This can be your Eden of renewal and gratefulness and wonder and delight and an unfathomable peace. Tend it.”
We have tended it, and +John reminds us every time we see him to continue doing so. We’ve made ourselves the priority, in daily life, in our recent travels, and in planning our future. It’s a bright future, wherever that may be, and I so look forward to the journey.
When I first proposed to you, I asked two questions. The first was, “Will you marry me?” And the second, “Will you marry me for fifty years?” You said “yes” to both questions.
Not that I have a mark-down-the-time calendar or anything, but don’t think for a minute that I can’t see the year 2065 from here.
I also told you before our wedding day that I would never hold your feet to the fire if I didn’t make you feel completely happy. In fact, I suggested we discuss ever year the strengths and weaknesses of our marriage and, as corny as it sounds, give each other a performance review and re-up, as some might say.
Well, I now admit that was a corny idea. You’ve loved me exactly the way I had hoped you would, exactly the way I want to be loved and exactly the way +John counseled us.
So will you, Lisa, marry me, again?