The Gospel according to Huckleberry Finn

January 11, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

The 1st Sunday after Epiphany
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

IMG_1793After the worship service on Christmas morning, Alice and I headed to Hilton Head for a few days of R&R. We stayed at a hotel with a beachfront view, and each morning as I awoke, I could see the thin glimmer of day breaking, as color peeked above the ocean waters. I was drawn to it. Each day I welcomed the gradual emergence of a new day; of God’s creation.

That first morning at the beach, I began reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You know Huck, he’s Tom Sawyer’s good friend; the one who traveled down the Mississippi River on a raft alongside a runaway slave named Jim. I’ve always loved Mark Twain’s humor and the way he captures the full picture of life, both glistening and gritty. Through his stories he brings to light the truth of real-life experiences.

With my recent early morning ritual fresh in mind, I was struck by Huck’s observation of sunrise. You see, Huck and Jim had to travel by night so they wouldn’t be seen. It made them keenly aware of when day was dawning so they could find a safe place to lay-low. After finding a place to hide their raft, Huck said,

then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and
sunrise - dec 2014-cropthe east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it![i]

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Yep, Huck’s got it right. The dawning of the new day is a joyous thing; a new creation. And, in today’s Old Testament scripture we imagine the first day of God’s Creation.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Gen. 1:1-5, NRSV)

And from there, God breathed all things into being, and with each step of creation God saw it and said that it was good. And on the sixth day, God created humankind:

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;… So God created humankind in [God’s] image… God blessed them, …  And it was so. God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good.

At our very core, God made us and we are very good. Our essence, God’s essence implanted in us, BREATHED into us, is good.

As we move through our lives, most, if not all of us, begin to doubt this inherent goodness. The judgments others put on us – or that we put on ourselves – start pushing aside this belief in our own worthiness. We come to believe that we aren’t smart enough, pretty enough, tall enough, thin enough, rich enough; or perhaps we look differently, love differently or believe differently than others around us. And the goodness that is our true essence gets covered up by the doubts and shames we take on.

Look at John, the baptizer – clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey– certainly not the kind of guy that you’d see every day in Galilee. Too different for us to be seeking out if we wanted to be baptized. We most likely wouldn’t pay attention to him if we heard him on the street corner proclaiming that some guy named Jesus was coming after him, and would baptize with the Holy Spirit. We’d just keep walking.

Yet this is the one Jesus went to – the one whose voice was different than his own. And, Jesus certainly had his own “otherness” to deal with. He wasn’t born into wealth or power; from all appearances, he was just a common man; a carpenter’s son.

And, unlike Matthew and Luke’s gospels, for Mark, Jesus’ birth story is of his baptism. And, just as each of us were born good, and are beloved by God, at the time of Jesus’ baptism we are told:

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Not unlike the creation story itself, from the very beginning, God is well pleased. Before Jesus’ ministry has even begun, before a single disciple has been called to follow him, Jesus is reminded that he is Beloved by God. The Breath of the Spirit in the image of dove, descended and breathed into Jesus this affirmation of worthiness.

Was it because Jesus was willing to understand the otherness of John the Baptizer, and instead of avoiding it, welcome and accept it?

Later in the gospels, we see the Jesus that dines with sinners and cares for those in need, even if they are outcasts by society. He doesn’t do this based on their country of origin, their race, their gender or religion. He purposefully and pro-actively welcomes all, even if they aren’t quick to welcome him.

I believe that when we are able to embrace our own belovedness, knowing that God loves us just as we are, flaws and all, then we are no longer threatened or diminished by the aspersions of others. And when we reach this place of our true essence, a return to our child-like state of welcoming-love for others, it is then that we can live into the command to love others as Christ loved us.

HuckJimRaft_6518We see Huck and Jim do this, even though they may be putting themselves at risk. When two scoundrels are trying to get away from the townspeople they have each defrauded in their own schemes, Huck helps them, and gives them a place to stay on their raft.

When these two each claim a grand beginning in life, one asserting that he was born a Duke; the other that he was a direct descendant of the King of France – and each bemoaning their fall from grace, “despised by the cold world, ragged, worn, heart-broken, and degraded to the companionship of felons on a raft!”[ii]

Even with this, Huck and Jim don’t get offended, but instead, they comfort the men and treat them with respect. And when the duke was befuddled by having been out-ranked by the king, the king began with this plea:

“Like as not we got to be together a blamed long time on this h-yer raft, … and so what’s the use o’ your bein’ sour? It’ll only make things oncomfortable. It ain’t my fault I warn’t born a duke, it ain’t your fault you warn’t born a king—so huckleberrywhat’s the use to worry? Make the best o’ things the way you find ’em, says I—that’s my motto. This ain’t no bad thing that we’ve struck here—plenty grub and an easy life—come, give us your hand, duke, and le’s all be friends.” The duke done it, and Jim and me was pretty glad to see it. It took away all the uncomfortableness and we felt mighty good over it, because it would a been a miserable business to have any unfriendliness on the raft; for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others. It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it’s the best way; then you don’t have no quarrels, and don’t get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn’t no objections, ‘long as it would keep peace in the family; and it warn’t no use to tell Jim, so I didn’t tell him. If I never learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way.[iii]ontheraft

In a world that seems so full of conflict, prejudice, injustice and tragedy, sometimes we feel that it’s easier to keep our guard up and keep those that are not like us away from us. To not let anyone on our raft except those who we already know, or who look, think, and believe like we do.

But, that isn’t what we are called to in this Christian life, sealed with a dove descending upon us, being baptized through the Holy Spirit. In this baptism we are called to a higher purpose. In our Baptismal Vows, which we will renew in a few minutes, we affirm to put our whole trust in God’s grace and love. And having put our trust in God, through Jesus Christ, we commit to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  We are to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” [iv]

This is our faithful response to God’s breath of belovedness inside each of us. And with God’s help, let us follow Huck’s example, and share our raft with all those we meet. And let us greet each new day knowing that it was created for us, and we are worthy, just as we are.

And there was evening and there was morning, and we are very good.

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[i] Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Classic Illustrated Edition, first published 1884, Heritage Illustrated Publishing, 2014, p. 88.

[ii] Ibid., p. 94.

[iii] Ibid., p. 94.

[iv] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 304-305.

One Response to “The Gospel according to Huckleberry Finn”

  1. Jim Greenwood said

    Beautiful. The sermon and you. You are a blessing to me and to the World.

    Love,

    Dad

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