death and dying

go to sleep, Dionysus

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of my brain surgery.  November 14, 1995 was a watershed moment in my life.  I came to think of that experience in terms of BC and AD: before cancer and after diagnosis.  Also, there was the traumatic event caused by radiation therapy.  I lost the hair on top of my head!  It began with a little piece falling out here and there when I combed my hair.  Then one day in the shower while washing it, a big hunk decided to say farewell.  That was when Banu and I decided to shave it all off.

A side effect of the cancer has been the influence on my brain itself.  I have found if I get really tired, I might have an episode in which I want to speak, but the words get hung up before I can get them out.  These episodes usually last from 5 to 20 seconds…  …but it sometimes feels like an eternity.

1 thMy doctors have said one way to combat this tiredness is to make sure I get enough sleep.  That sounds like good advice!  As a result, if I’m able to (after all, I do have meetings and other stuff to do), I’ll try to take a nap sometime in the afternoon.  At first, I was a little hesitant to admit it, but when one considers the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and body, I think taking a nap is a good choice.  The Spanish, and other cultures around the world, have embraced the value of the siesta.

I’ve brought all of this up because the first part of our epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians speaks about slumbering, snoozing.  As a bit of preview, verse 11 is a bridge to the second part.  “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  What kind of things are they doing and should continue to do?  Check out verses 12 to 22.  It’s quite the laundry list.

First, let’s return to getting shuteye.  Is the apostle Paul’s warning to “not fall asleep as others do, but [to] keep awake and be sober” just refer to physical sleep?  No doubt it includes that; it is possible to sleep one’s life away.  To use a common metaphor, one can wind up in the sleep of death.  (Actually, that’s pretty much guaranteed.)  Only one person has woken up from that sleep.  Only Jesus has awakened from a dirt nap!

This text is a grab bag of goodies.  I’ll have to leave some of the goodies in the bag.  It’s all framed within the theme of the coming of the Lord.  It’s an Advent theme before the season of Advent arrives.  The opening verses speak of “the day of the Lord [as coming] like a thief in the night” (v. 2).  Pay attention.  Pay attention to your life.  Don’t get caught napping—and this time, it really isn’t about physical sleep.

Thessalonica was a place where worship of Dionysus flourished.  He was the god of wine, agriculture, theater, and insanity, among other things.  (And according to the stories, Dionysus also rose from the dead.)  Still, it was his role as god of wine that guided his worshippers.  Their nighttime gatherings tended to be frenzied drunken orgies.  They just went mad.  When one worships the Lord of insanity, that seems fitting.  (Take note of the word “orgies.”  We’ll come back to it.)

The apostle counters with the life the Thessalonians have been called to.  “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8).  Paul tells them how to dress appropriately.  They are to clothe themselves with faith, love, and the hope of salvation.  They are not to be found in a state of undress, of a Dionysian nature.  And yes, “undress” is more than walking around physically disrobed.

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Why does he tell them that?  Why should they change their wardrobe?  He says, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 9).

That word “wrath” is an interesting one.  It might sound like God is ready to send a thunderbolt our way.  However, the wonderful truth of the gospel, the good news, is that God is not ticked off at us.  It’s true that God grieves the pain we inflict on each other, on creation, and on ourselves, but God’s essential nature is love.

The Greek word for “wrath” is ὀργή, orgē.  Guess what English word comes from it?  We think of “orgy” as a party with sexual abandon.  But the word orgē means anger, wrath, indignation.  The root idea is to swell up from within, like a fruit swelling with its juice.  Paul counsels the church to not go that route.  He doesn’t want them to stew in their own juices.

That word is used of Jesus himself.  In Mark 3, he is dealing with opposition to curing a man’s withered hand on the sabbath.  That’s the point; he shouldn’t be doing this on the sabbath.  Heal the guy some other time!  Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath?” (v. 4).  They don’t say a single word.

“He looked around at them with anger [with orgē]; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’  He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (v. 5).  That had to make an impression!  Have their hard hearts been softened?  Apparently not, since we’re told they immediately went out to make plans on how to do him in.

(Please note: orgē doesn’t describe Jesus’ overall approach to life!  It was a flash, prompted by the injustice faced by the man in need of healing.  And it was commingled with grief.)

That’s not what Paul’s talking about when he tells the Thessalonians they haven’t been destined for wrath.  It’s something more expansive.  They haven’t been relinquished to that state of life.  They haven’t been left in that horrible, frightening condition which would shape them.  That’s a word for us, also.  We haven’t been abandoned to hating and being hated.  We haven’t been given over to the cynicism which so often pervades.

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Instead, we have been destined for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The path of the god Dionysus, and Dionysus today, with its uncontrolled passion, its undisciplined hunger, is a life of slavery.  Salvation through Christ is liberation—it is freedom.

Having said all of that, there is grace.  Paul adds that the Lord “died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (v. 10).  There is provision for those still slumbering.  They haven’t been forsaken.  They are still pursued by the Hound of Heaven.  I, for one, am thankful the Hound is pursuing me!

On that note, the apostle congratulates them.  Continue to encourage one another and to build each other up.

This was probably Paul’s first letter, written in the early 50s.  He has already encouraged them, in that the expectation of the Lord’s return is very much in the forefront of their minds.  It has troubled them concerning those who have already died, those who have fallen asleep in the other way.  Paul assures them their dearly departed will also be with the Lord.

Back to that laundry list.  He wants them to pay special attention to some things.  Make sure you don’t forget these!  First, he reminds them to take care of those who “have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you”—those who would caution or advise you (v. 12).  Maybe Paul has been to places where that doesn’t happen!

Looking through that list, I want to pay special attention to verse 14: “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.”  I’m especially interested in his call to “admonish the idlers.”  The NIV says “those who are idle.”  Is he telling them to reprimand those who just lounge around?

It’s not that such behavior—or rather, lack of behavior—should be commended, but the Greek word (ἄτακτος, ataktos) expresses something other than simply being idle.  “Idle” is not a very good translation.  The New Jerusalem Bible speaks of those who are “undisciplined.”  The term ataktos means “disorderly,” “out of ranks.”  It refers to soldiers who have broken formation, who have fallen out of line.

John Wesley speaks in these terms: “Warn the disorderly—Them that stand, as it were, out of their rank in the spiritual warfare.”[1]

The expectation of the Lord’s return can be portrayed in a way that inspires dread.  I once read a caption that proclaimed, “The good news is Jesus is coming back.  The bad news is he’s really ticked off.”  (“Ticked off” is a euphemism for what it really said.)  Maybe the point is made.  Paul indeed desires to reassure them, and by extension, us.  The spirit of Dionysus is still with us, and yet, as we await the Lord’s coming, we have not been consigned to wrath or disorder.  Maybe we should say, “Go to sleep, Dionysus.”  Go to sleep, you who would have us lose ourselves in the moment.

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Friends, let us raise our heads and welcome the Lord who brings clarity and freedom.  Who knows, we might have a BC and AD experience!  It might happen when we don’t expect it, like a thief in the night.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.xiv.vi.html


eulogize! mourn! move on!

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

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Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”  There’s no word on who actually dug the grave.  Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!

2 dtNo one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.

All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed!

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would be someone who had a long tenure.  His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones!  Sometimes they go the other way.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

3 dtWhat in the world could have been their motivation?  Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test?  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.

2a dtLook at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man.  He was ripped.

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

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Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.

Having said that, we do indeed move on.  Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

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This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).

What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak?  (I want to get this out of the way!)  He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10).  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide.  If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.

The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us.  A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14).  It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering.  We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.

Moving on!  The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage.  What are they to do?  Simple.  Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over.  Easy-peasy.

We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps.  The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Put yourself in their shoes.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  Are you overjoyed?  Are you supremely confident?  Or is there something else?  Are you anxious?  Are you terrified?  Do you feel abandoned?  Do you feel betrayed?  Do you feel rage?  Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks?  This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.

Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions.  It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning.  Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?

I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner?  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?  What about Super Bowl parties?  (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game!  It’s just fun!)

We might find ourselves eulogizing.  We praise the way things were before.  Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this!  We mourn.  As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on.  And so, are we ready to move on?

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It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river.  I think we could get used to life there.  Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse.  As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation.  We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites.  However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent.  We lose our joy.  The colors are not so vivid.  They become a gray wash.

There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2).  We eulogize.  We mourn.  And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.


wordless words

Sometimes, events happen that simply must be addressed in a sermon.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.  When the president and first lady tested positive for the coronavirus, that pushed its way to the front.  It’s a tragedy when anyone contracts Covid-19.  It has happened tens of millions of times worldwide.  Over one million people have died.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say 2020 has been a year unlike any other for every human being alive on planet Earth.  (I know we’ve said that for various years in the past—but this time, it’s really true!)

Aside from the global pandemic, which is way more than enough, demonstrations have spread across America, the political landscape has been incredibly volatile, the ice caps continue melting, the oceans are getting warmer, but guess what?  The Spirit of God is moving.

And I trust the Spirit of God was moving me when I wrote this sermon.

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In July, I started noticing something else about 2020.  I began a frequent ritual of gazing into the night sky.  From our vantage point, Jupiter and Saturn have been doing a nocturnal dance since early this year and will continue to do so for the rest of 2020.  The two largest planets in our solar system have recently begun sharing the sky with our neighbor, Mars.  I often like to await the appearance of Jupiter as the sky gradually darkens.  It becomes visible well before any stars.

Seeing those planets has been a gift.  They are my cosmic friends!  I have been reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, our problems—as genuinely serious as they are—still are part of a vast intergalactic tapestry.  Contemplating such matters has become almost a spiritual discipline.  It has been therapeutic.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  So says the beginning of Psalm 19.

That psalm is one of my favorites.  It would seem I’m not alone in that.  It has been celebrated down through the ages for its poetic beauty.  A prominent writer in the 20th century also had great admiration for it.  That would be C. S. Lewis, professor at Oxford and author of numerous books, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.  A professed atheist, he came to Christ, partly due to his conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis’ praise for the psalm has been widely quoted.  “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter,” he wrote, “and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1]  I wish he had said how he really felt!

2 psHe spoke of how the psalmist describes “the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west…  The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.’  It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardor.”

He’s really passionate about this psalm!

Psalm 19, which displays the eternal word of God, is laid out in three sections.  The first part, verses 1 to 6, is an exaltation of the majesty of creation.  Verses 7 to 11 glorify the written word, with the benefits thereof: it is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true, and righteous.

It revives the soul.  It makes wise the simple.  It rejoices the heart.  It enlightens the eyes.  Its beauty puts gold to shame.  And how does it taste?  Sweeter than honey, child!  Psalm 119 agrees.  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v. 103).

We end with verses 12 to 14 with a prayer of repentance and protection—and that includes protection from oneself.  You did know we can be our own worst enemy?  The psalm ends with words that might be familiar.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (More about that one later.)

So there’s a lot in this psalm, but I want to focus on something I know I need help with—silence.

I started with speaking about admiring my friends, those radiant beauties in the night sky.  I think of how long it’s taken their light to reach me.  (Minutes?  Over an hour?)  I can’t hear them, but they proclaim the work and word of God.

Verse 3 speaks, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”  Recall the line from our call to worship: “Without a word being spoken, all creation bears witness to the goodness of the Lord.”  Their voice is not heard, and yet, “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (v. 4).

Maybe if I would just shut up, I could hear their silent statements, their wordless words.  Maybe if I weren’t too busy thinking about what I could say about them, I could listen, and my soul would be enriched.  I could pass that blessing along to others.  But no, I have to focus all my attention on myself.

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Sometimes my dog joins me on these nightly sojourns.  After a little play time, he will lie down and occupy himself with chewing on a stick, or he’ll walk around, sniffing stuff.  He doesn’t say much.  I could take a lesson from him.

I want to revisit that final verse: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, etc.”  The word translated as “meditation” is an interesting one.[2]  It carries the meaning of a “murmuring sound.”  It’s compared to the sound of a harp when struck.  There’s that lingering sound as it begins fading to silence.  It’s not like a drum, something percussive, something rat-a-tat.  It’s smooth.

Another translation speaks of “the whispering of my heart.”[3]  It is as loud as a whisper.

We’re reminded of the prophet Elijah when he is on the run from the wrath of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab.  Elijah has presided over the killing of the prophets of Baal.  Jezebel is not happy, and she gives orders to her hitmen.  That’s when Elijah hits the road.

In the desert, the word of the Lord comes to him.  It isn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  It isn’t in any of the sound and fury.  It is in sheer silence, a small still voice.  It is “a light murmuring sound” (1 Kg 19:12, NJB).

We tend to be quite uncomfortable with silence.  We can notice that in worship.  Moments of silence can seem to go on and on.

There’s another thing I want to mention in this psalm.  Verse 13 says, “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”

The poet wants protection from the insolent, the arrogant ones.  The plea is to be shielded from the harm they would do.  However, as before, the Hebrew word (אֵל, el) can have another nuance.  It also refers to “proud thoughts.”  It can also mean inner insolence.  I wonder if that isn’t the meaning that better applies to most of us.

You know, I have my opinions.  (And of course, they are always the correct ones.)  But at the end of the day, they pale in comparison with Jupiter and Saturn and Mars, who keep doing their thing.  The noise we humans make doesn’t affect them at all.  And my opinions pale in colossal fashion in comparison with the one who says in Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).  Period.

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Our proud thoughts affect the way we treat others.  They affect the way we treat planet Earth.

Besides being World Communion Sunday, today is also the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  He is considered the patron saint of ecology.  He was noted for befriending the animals!

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing prayer walking.  Last Monday, I considered something with which St. Francis would be an excellent guide.  I reflected on how we called to tread lightly on the earth.  Indeed, walking on God’s good creation can be an act of prayer in itself.  Think of it.  We easily disregard that.  We pave over everything.  Our bombs and weapons of war kill more than just humans.  Lord only knows how many plants and animals we kill.  We dump poison and plastic on land and in the sea.  We foul the atmosphere.

We destroy ourselves, and in doing so, we defile the presence of God within us.  We grieve the Holy Spirit.

As I move toward my conclusion, I’m not going to tell you to do anything.  Just turn off the noise.  Open yourself to the word, however it appears.  When we befriend silence, we can better hear the word of the Lord; we can better hear those wordless words.  Let that sweetness fill you up.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

 

[1] reiterations.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/c-s-lewis-on-psalm-19/

from Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harper One, 1958), pp. 73-74.

[2] הׅגָּיוׄן, higgayon

[3] New Jerusalem Bible


memento mori

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

1 ps

"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

That is the poem “Ozymandias,” by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in the early nineteenth century.

This Ozymandias was a fellow who wanted his name to live forever.  By virtue of this massive monument, he wanted to defy the grave.  I wonder how that worked out?  The traveler tells the poet of a “colossal Wreck.”  Long ago, the head fell off.  “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.”  The face has been smashed.  There is a proud boast: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  However, who is there to look on his works?  “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

Having led or helped lead two funerals in just over a week, and one the week before, I’ve been thinking about death recently.  Actually, I’ve been reminded how everything returns to its fundamental parts.  The chair you’re sitting on has crumbled into nothingness—it’s just a question of when it happens.  It’s true of your house.  It’s true of planet Earth itself.  In about seven billion years, our sun will expand out to Earth’s orbit.  (Not exactly the day after tomorrow, but we’ll get there.)  Bye-bye, Mother Earth!

2 psMemento mori.  That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.”  It’s a reminder that we are not immortal.  Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something else to remember: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent.  Our Ash Wednesday liturgy directs us to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer.  I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.

There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has helped remind me of such things these past few days.  “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.”  It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.

Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans.  We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”[1]

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”?  Well, here’s another one.  “You can’t take it with you!”

That seems to be the message of Psalm 49.  We already get that in verse 1, as the psalmist proclaims, “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world.”  It’s a message for everyone on planet Earth.  The Hebrew word used here for “world” is interesting.[2]  It only appears five times in the entire Old Testament.  It means “world,” but with the sense of a short period of time.  It means “transient” or “fleeting.”  It’s the perfect word, considering the theme of the psalm.

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

There’s quite a bit in Psalm 49, but we don’t have time to go into all of it.  I’ll just mention a few points.  I want to take a tip from Ozymandias and “those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches,” as verse 6 puts it.

That’s some shaky ground.  We’re told we can find security in money or gold or real estate or whatever.  Considering the fires and floods and famine and whatever the coronavirus is up to, I think security might better be found in drinkable water.

3 ps

The psalmist continues: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.  For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (vv. 7-9).  Well, tell that to the researchers who say death is something we can delay indefinitely.  There are some folks who say a lifetime of 150 years isn’t too far down the road.  And then there are already some people who’ve had themselves cryogenically frozen.  The hope is they can be thawed sometime in the future.

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

Keeping my promise to hit only a few points, I want to jump to verse 16.  “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.”  We can become intimidated in the presence of those with great affluence.  Verse 18 reminds us, “you are praised when you do well for yourself.”  (Remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?  Robin Leach would engage in what could almost be called televised drooling.)

Nurse practitioner Vincent LaBarca notes, “Life pulls us into painful directions and our impulse is to fight.  But resistance is futile.  (I don’t know if he’s a Star Trek fan, but that’s the warning from the Borg.  You will be assimilated.)  Like swimming against a riptide, we inevitably wear ourselves out and drown.  If, however, we relax and allow the tide to take us, we are safely guided back to shore.”[3]

Verses 12 and 20 have always been the ones to catch my attention.  It is a repeated thought.  “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.”  We humans cannot hang on very long to our splendor.  I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “We aren’t immortal.  We don’t last long.  Like our dogs, we age and weaken.  And die.”

I suppose if our measure of life is pomp and splendor, we might very well end up like an animal, even a beloved doggie.  I don’t believe their deaths are meaningless, but one thing we can do which they can’t is to consciously prepare for our passing.

Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.”[4]  “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive.  It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.  The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude.  Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”

I had a professor at seminary who shared four statements that help in the very things I just mentioned.  “Please forgive me.”  “I forgive you.”  “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind.  No regrets.

4 ps

photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father.  Banu and I lived in Jamestown at the time.  My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it.  I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home.  I flew to Nashville the next day.  My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.

My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room.  They had already said their goodbyes.  So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed.  His eyes were closed.  I held his hand and told him that I loved him.  He didn’t last much longer.  I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived.  My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.  He was welcomed with its orange-red rays.  It was like something from a movie.

It puts a little different spin on the promise of the one who said, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved” (Jn 10:9).

I don’t need to tell you we’re constantly surrounded by death.  We are routinely reminded of the Covid count.  In some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to inspire fear.  However, our risen Lord says, “Fear not.”  Instead of fear, he inspires us with holy boldness. Memento mori is a fierce and wonderful embrace of life.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] medium.com/@julesevans/the-memento-mori-f588311adce0

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

[3] medium.com/illumination/an-existentialist-and-a-christian-walk-into-a-bar-91f713d5e5f0

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/a-grateful-death


death shall have no dominion

“And death shall have no dominion. / Dead men naked they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, / They shall have stars at elbow and foot; / Though they go mad they shall be sane, / Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; / Though lovers be lost love shall not; / And death shall have no dominion.”

1 roThat is the first stanza of Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have no Dominion.”  As you might have guessed, it was inspired by Romans 6:9: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

Thomas speaks of bones being picked clean, sinking through the sea and rising again, lovers lost but not love itself.  After everything is said and done, death shall have no dominion.

(That poem has appeared in many places, such as in Steven Soderberg’s remake of the movie Solaris.  In one scene, we hear George Clooney reciting that same first stanza.  It was also featured in the show, Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Pearlman.)

We will revisit death’s having no dominion in a few minutes.

Chapter 6 begins, “What then are we to say?”  St. Paul’s asking a question about something, so let’s check out chapter 5.  Very, very briefly, he’s been talking about Adam and Christ.  Through Adam, sin entered the world.  Through Christ, grace has been extended.  And this isn’t a tiny drop of grace.  We read in 5:20, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  There is a superabundance of grace.  We are awash in grace.

So how do we answer Paul’s question?  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v. 1).  Hey, that sounds like a plan!  Let’s pour on the sin, knowing a tsunami of grace is on the way.  If a little bit do good, a whole lot do better!  I imagine Paul would think about it for a moment, and say, “No way, José.”

2 ro

"Look, there's a tsunami!"  "That's nice. Who has the suntan lotion?"

Instead, the apostle asks, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (vv. 2-3).

Baptized into his death.  That is a serious way of looking at it.  And it’s also a quite visual way of “looking” at it.  That’s especially true for those of us who were baptized by immersion—going into the grave and being raised back to life.  Accordingly, I have a story of my own baptism.

On the evening of the 3rd of August in 1985, I had what I might call a mystical experience.  I was in college at the time.  I had been meditating on Isaiah 55:8-9.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I began to feel like I was being plunged into an ocean of love.  I was being baptized in love.  It was, as you might gather, a very powerful experience!

At the time, I did not go to church.  My mother, however, had begun attending an Assemblies of God church.  I told her I had this encounter with the Lord, and she said I needed to be baptized.  I really didn’t see the point in it.  What would it serve?  Didn’t God accept me as I am?  Her basic response was it was necessary to make that public profession of faith.

I eventually started attending church, though on a very sporadic basis.  Still, as the months went by, I began to sense baptism was for me.

So on a Sunday evening, the 3rd of August 1986, one year to the night I had my revelation of love, I stepped into the baptismal of the church, with its heated water.  There were two others who went before me: a boy about ten years old and an elderly woman, who upon being raised out of the water by our pastor, began speaking in tongues.

Then it was my turn.  Later on, after the service was over, I told my mother it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me.  I could breathe.

[Someone is holding the shirt he wore during his baptism.]

3 roSo as I suggested a moment ago, I can relate to this business of dying with Christ and being raised back to life.  “We too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4).

“Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.”

Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6).

(By the way, if we read that bit about “our old self” being crucified with him in the King James language of “our old man,” the unfortunate question might be put to us, “Has your old man been crucified?”  We might wonder if they’re talking about a husband or a father.)

In any event, according to the apostle, we are no longer enslaved to sin.  We are not under its power.  We need not submit to its power.  But if we are really honest, sometimes we like that power!  When we’re presented with blessing and cursing, life and death, too often we go with the latter.  After all, in the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we sing the prayer, “Take away the love of sinning.”

I’m not sure when it happens, but at some point early in life, we discover manipulating people can be fun!

Something of which Paul assures us is “whoever has died is freed from sin” (v. 7).  That’s a good thing when what we’re considering is this matter of being crucified with Christ.  Of course, whoever dies is freed from a whole lot of stuff!

Paul continues, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (vv. 8-9).  And he finishes that thought in grand fashion: “death no longer has dominion over him.”

“And death shall have no dominion.”  If we have died to sin, what could that mean?

4 ro

Israel Kamudzandu, who teaches at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, comments, “Christians must always remind themselves that our old self, our culture, our rights, our private spaces, and the desires of our flesh were crucified with Jesus Christ. Our daily living must demonstrate our newfound and grace-filled status in Christ.”[1]

Being from Zimbabwe, he puts it on a global scale.  “Sin is like a foreign domination in that it dehumanizes and reduces one to a victim position and some people die as victims because no one is there to rescue them…”

I guess the sentiment expressed by death having no dominion is especially meaningful for us in our strange new world.  It is especially poignant.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how we’ve been given a reset button.  What do we do with it?  Are there new lessons to be learned?  Are there old lessons that need to be re-learned?  The coronavirus has given us a sort of pause, so maybe we can use it to reflect on all that life is.  Quite immediately for us, it is our own life.  How do we embrace life and reject death?

In times like these, time is something that can take on a sense of sameness, of uniformity, maybe even of monotony.  Schedules can go out the window.  For the past few weeks, I have felt like Friday was Saturday.  I’m not really sure why.  One thing I can say is that when I realize it is indeed Friday, I’m relieved I didn’t lose a day!

We can embrace life by keeping our minds active, keeping them challenged.  Take this time to learn a new language; develop your artistic side; read good books; do some writing; do more writing.  (I think I’m preaching to myself on that one.)

Is it too far-fetched to say, by not stretching ourselves, we’re embracing death?  Paul says to us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).  We are called to claim our identity.  As those who have been buried with Christ and raised to new life, we are called to be ourselves.  I find that difficult, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Why is it so hard to be ourselves?

“And death shall have no dominion.”  Following from that, what does have dominion is shalom (שׁלוֺם).  The Hebrew term shalom means far more than what our paltry English word “peace” entails.  It is absolute well-being, perfect harmony, Heaven on Earth!  Shalom reaches to God, embraces the neighbor, permeates our politics, cares for creation.  We find shalom within ourselves.  If we take the pause I mentioned a moment ago, if we’re willing to listen, we hear that silent voice coming from within.

5 ro

We are called to lay aside the foolish facade the world imposes on us.  We learn to stop the incessant posturing, the soul-draining competition that leads to death.  We kill our spirits struggling to prove that we’re good enough, that we’re worthy, that we deserve love.  The one who has defeated death says, “I don’t care about that stuff!  I offer grace abundant, grace superabundant.”

The power of sin, the power of death, would plunge us into the water and hold us down.  We wouldn’t be able to resurface; we wouldn’t be able to see clearly.  We wouldn’t be able to see, even in those we are told to fear and loathe, the face of Jesus Christ.  We wouldn’t be able to see that his grace abounds.

Death shall have no dominion.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2052


keep Herod in Christmas

We’re familiar with the calls to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  Those calls are often spurred by an overemphasis on the jolly old man in the red suit, as well as a certain reindeer with a shiny nose that also happens to be red.  Some people point to more serious concerns, like the commercialization of Christmas, although if we’re honest, the vast majority of us have contributed to the commercialization of Christmas, in one way or another!

1 mt I’ve never heard anyone argue that we should keep Herod in Christmas.  I guess that’s to be expected.  Herod, who serves at the leisure of the Roman Empire, is just another insecure tyrant who rules with an iron fist.  What business does he have with Christmas?  Actually, as we see in our gospel reading in Matthew, Herod has quite a bit to do with Christmas.

This is the story of what the church has come to call the Holy Innocents.  We just celebrated their feast day.  They are the little boys in and around Bethlehem that Herod, in his paranoid fear and rage, ordered to be (euphemistically speaking) taken out.  This follows the visit of the Magi earlier in the chapter, which is the story for Epiphany.

(Their visit is believed to have come roughly two years after the birth of Jesus, but the date of the feast of the Holy Innocents provides the connection to Christmas—well, that and the meaning of the event!)

Anyway, Herod learns of these dignitaries from the East, who claim to have seen a star of great importance.  They’ve been talking about a child who has been born King of the Jews.  That kind of talk terrifies Herod.  He doesn’t need the Romans hearing about this.  All of Jerusalem is in an uproar.  So he arranges a secret interview with the Magi.  He tells them that when they find the young king, let him know about it.  Herod says, with all the sincerity he can muster, “so that I too may go and honor him” (v. 8, Common English Bible).

As it turns out, they are warned in a dream to return home by a different route, completely bypassing Herod.  This is what’s behind verse 16: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated.”  Make a fool of me, will they?  I’ll show them!

Herod employs the “sledgehammer to swat a fly” approach.  The numbers are hard to calculate, but probably twenty or thirty innocent families are victimized by his cruelty.

Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned keeping Herod in Christmas.  I asked: what does he have to do with Christmas?  Jesus is born into a violent world.  His homeland is under military rule.  Many Roman provinces aren’t the headache that Judea is.  They don’t constantly stir up rebellion.

2 mt

The main reason the Romans even bother with it is its strategic location—the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  For centuries, the Promised Land has been a blessing and a curse; conquerors simply use it as a highway, heading toward more attractive destinations.

So it’s entirely appropriate for Herod, and his assassins, to be part of the Christmas story.  We’re told that “we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharaoh to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes.  Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and it is very likely that these were known to Matthew in composing the story.”[1]  So Herod is the new Pharaoh, and Jesus is the new Moses.

Angels seem to speak in dreams to Joseph on a frequent basis.  An angel warns him of Herod’s plan.  As a result, he “got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”  Matthew adds, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (vv. 14-15).

The Holy Family shares the fate of so many in our world today.  Bill Long describes it this way: “the Savior of the world…was none other than a displaced person, a refugee, whose parents fled for their lives because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution,’ to use the language of…21st century asylum law.”[2]

He draws out the image even more.  “Matthew uses the same verb several times to stress the fear felt by people—[αναχωρεω, anachōreō].  Though it literally means simply ‘to withdraw,’ in the context of Matthew it [also] carries with it the notion of fleeing for one’s life.  The wise men fled.  Jesus’ family fled…  It has a haunting similarity to life in the 21st century.”  It has a haunting similarity to our own country.

Jesus is not only the new Moses; though he’s a refugee, some would also use the unfortunate term “illegal alien”!  And according to Luke, the family is also poor.  When Mary undergoes the purification ritual after Jesus’ birth, she and Joseph make their offering by using a provision designed for the poor: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24, Lv 12:8).

3 mtI hope no one will think of me as morbid in pointing out the fear that is built into Christmas.  It’s right there in the Bible.  In fact, the second day of Christmas, December 26, is the feast of St. Stephen.  In the book of Acts, he’s the first Christian to be martyred.

Regarding the atmosphere of fear, we’re reminded that there is “a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not [simply] because Jesus…went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers.”[3]  As Christians, our lives, our lives of grace, must also dodge between the powers.

Those powers can be represented by Herod—and the Herods of our day—those insecure tyrants.  Those Herods, those new Pharaohs, inhabit the political world in which people, especially children, are turned into refugees and trapped in poverty.  But those powers can be other types of Herods, such as insecure tyrants who seem bent on wreaking havoc in the family!

I like the way Caryll Houselander describes the Holy Innocents.[4]

“Baptized in blood, those little children were among the first comers to heaven.  Fittingly they, with their tiny King, are the founders of the Kingdom of Children.  We celebrate their feast with joy; it is the most lyrical in the year.  They reach down their small hands to comfort every father or mother bereaved of a child.  They are the first who have proved that the Passion of the Christ can be lived in a tiny span by little ones...

“Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ.  Any Child might be Christ!—the fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact of the modern world.”

There is the reality that we can’t embrace the joy of Christmas while ignoring the suffering that goes with it.  Matthew quotes Jeremiah (31:15), “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v. 18).  The prophet, who lived during the Babylonian exile, is referring to Ramah, a sort of transit point, where the Babylonians gathered captives for sending into exile.  Rachel symbolizes the grief over the generations for all of the lost children.

4 mt

Clearly, I think we’re all aware of how Christmas stirs up a mixture of feelings.  While being bathed—beginning in November!—with festoons and wishes of a “holly jolly Christmas,” this time of year is also one of depression.  That’s the idea behind Blue Christmas, a worship service which often happens during the winter solstice, the longest night.

It is a recognition of the grief that Christmas brings with it.  It could be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship—there can be many different kinds of losses.  We all have mini-deaths in our lives.

Thankfully, our story does not end with Herod.  Joseph has another dream of divine origin, letting him know Herod and his crew are dead and gone.  However, Herod’s son has taken the reins, so Bethlehem still isn’t safe.  Joseph has one more dream, directing him to his new destination, Galilee.  The family settles in Nazareth.

So, our story does not end with Herod.  Still, do we in any way reflect the spirit of Herod?

Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to change and become like children (18:3).  We easily fall prey to imitating the insanity of Herod.  We crush the child within us, the part which carries the wholly innocent spirit that is open to wonder, open to joyous creativity—believing that anything is possible.  We can crush the child within each other, within our society, and God forbid, within the church.  (Maybe especially within the church!)

Knowing who and what Herod is, why indeed should we seek to keep him in Christmas?  Is it enough to know he’s already there?  Is it enough to stand with our sisters and brothers for whom this time is a struggle?  Is it enough to remember the children for whom our world is a struggle?  Perhaps.

5 mt

But thanks be to God, those little children, those Holy Innocents, keep witnessing, though their time was short.  They are constantly reborn in us.  Maybe that’s a lesson from Christmas, the little child who is born for all of us.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[2] www.drbilllong.com/LectionaryIII/Matt2.html

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[4] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 109-110.


remove the shroud

The Lord “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (vv. 7-8a).  I sometimes use that scripture from Isaiah 25 in funeral services.  I just love that imagery.  The Lord will rip the shroud of doom and despair off and tear it into little pieces.  (Or maybe it can be reworked and turned into fine clothing!)

1 easter

That picture of death and life is so fitting for today—that is, this very day and also these days.

We can compare that shroud to the funeral pall which is often placed on coffins.  On a side note, our Book of Common Worship says this about funerals, “When the body is present, the coffin should be closed before the service begins.  It may be covered with a white funeral pall.”[1]  That’s in the section called, “The Funeral: A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”  For a Christian, oddly (or appropriately) enough, the ultimate focus isn’t on the departed, but on the risen One.  That’s the theology behind it.

And isn’t that the story of Easter itself?  It’s no longer the departed, but the resurrected.

Still, we need to back up.  We can’t have all of that shredding of shrouds without knowing where the deathly despair came from in the first place.  At the start of the chapter, the prophet is praising the Lord, saying, “you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt” (v. 2).  The Lord has come to their rescue.  The city symbolizing their enemies has been destroyed.  Throughout so much of the Old Testament, that city is Babylon.

In its day, Babylon was a true superpower.  It was unparalleled in economic and military might.  It was the icon of beauty.  It was the envy of all people, both near and far.  It was the city.  Reflecting on its collapse, one writer puts it this way: “The World Capital Falls.”[2]  Throughout history, many world capitals have risen and fallen.

2 easterThe tide turns in dramatic fashion.  Now “strong peoples will glorify [God]; cities of ruthless nations will fear [the Lord]” (v. 3).  Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “Superpowers will see it and honor you, brutal oppressors bow in worshipful reverence.”  The Lord has protected the poor from rain of tempest and reign of terror.

The scales are balanced, and all nations are invited to the mountain of God.  A dinner bell like none other is being rung.  Everyone receives the RSVP to the banquet of the ages.  Again, Peterson: “A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts” (v. 6).

And then, there’s the main event.  The shroud, the sheet, the veil that has blanketed the world with devastation and desolation is torn away.  Tears of anguish and agony are wiped away.  Death is forever defeated.  It is time for resurrection.  It’s time to remove the shroud.

Remember Jesus with Lazarus.  Jesus summons him to come out of the cave which is his tomb.  Amid the gasping of onlookers, Jesus directs them to the grave clothes of Lazarus.  He tells them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn 11:44).  Remove the shroud.

Can we think of ways in which nations and populations today exist under that sheet, that blanket of gloom and darkness?  Can we think of veils that need to be removed?

How about we as individuals?  Can we imagine our own coverings, our own curtains that need to be pulled?

I asked Banu if she had a death shroud which needed to be removed.  She didn’t take very long in answering.  She said it was her need to control.  I wondered how that could be called death for her.  Her response was, “It raises my blood pressure!”  There are several layers of meaning in that!

What about me?  What death shroud do I need to have removed?  Probably quite a few!  One thing I definitely can put my finger on is my tendency to too often be indecisive.  I need more facts; I need to explore more avenues to follow.  It really can be a shroud, a veil, something that obscures.

I tell you, I know how to overcome it; although, I’m not sure how to proceed!

Half-joking aside, we can see the shroud, the veil covering the nations, as something that blinds faith.  It prevents us from seeing through the eyes of faith.  When we look upon our world, seeing through the eyes of faith doesn’t seem to make sense.  It seems like we’re believing in fairy tales.  We’re not dealing with the hard facts of the day.  And this resurrection business: it’s just a load of hogwash.  When someone or something is dead, it’s just dead.  Case closed.

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“Not so fast!” says St. Paul.

So we come to chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthians—the chapter on resurrection.  He issues a reminder to them.  And here it is.  “I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain” (vv. 1-2).

They, and we, can be blinded by faltering faith.

Having said that, I need to interject something.  It is normal to doubt.  The faith we are called to is not blind faith.  In Mark 12:30, Jesus tells us to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  To love God with all our mind can’t be done with a closed mind.  It is fine—and necessary—to ask questions.  It’s necessary to ask hard questions.

Now, having said that, Paul reminds the church how they stand in the gospel, in the good news.

I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “Standing on the Promises.”  Here’s the first verse: “Standing on the promises of Christ my King, / Thro’ eternal ages let His praises ring; / Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing, / Standing on the promises of God.”

And now the refrain: “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior / Standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”

When we are standing, when we take our stand, we have a firm foundation.  We rely on the one who, as we saw earlier, protects in the midst of “rain of tempest and reign of terror.”

What is the promise in which they stand?  Paul hands on what he has received, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (vv. 4-5).  That is the gospel in miniature, the gospel in a nutshell.  He is encouraging them in a faith that brings light, that opens eyes, that removes the veil.

What is the death shroud the apostle needs to remove?  He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he does point out his need for self-effacement, his need to move past self-promotion.  And he seems to take that pretty seriously, because he refers to himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle” (v. 9).

It’s really important for him to acknowledge his past, to not look for excuses or say someone else made him do it.  Paul admits he went ballistic in tormenting the church.  He “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [committing] them to prison” (Ac 8:3).  He was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9:1).

He was on his way to Damascus to nab some more disciples on that fateful day when a light from heaven changed his life.  That light took away his vision for three days.  When the disciple Ananias prayed for him, the shroud was lifted.  Paul had been blind—blind in so many ways.

At the beginning, I mentioned the picture of death and life and how it’s fitting for today.  In many ways, we as a culture worship death.  We ignore calls for justice; we pollute God’s good creation; we choose war over peace; we hold grudges, choking the life we could share; we fail to give those struggling with their demons the good news that they are forgiven—they are forgiven by God, through Jesus Christ.  I’ll grant you, that’s not the most affirming laundry list we could come up with!

In the life of faith, the shroud of gloom and doom and death is lifted.  In his vision, Isaiah powerfully speaks of how it covers the whole earth, that is, until God rips it apart!  We think of how we as individuals fit in.  The apostle Paul demonstrates his own life from death.

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Then there is the crowning glory of Easter, its very meaning: the shroud of death which no longer binds Jesus.  The light of Easter chases away the darkness, and we are called to be Easter people.  Our prayer is, “Remove the shroud.”  So I ask again, what coverings, what death shrouds, do we need removed?  With the power of the resurrection, the deathless one, Jesus the Messiah, yanks that sucker off.

 

[1] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 911.

[2] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 196.


eulogize, mourn, and move on

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

1 Dt 34

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on rare occasions, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  That seems pretty harsh!  It sounds like Moses is being tantalized.  Look, but don’t touch!  It’s like a thirsty dog tied to a leash, with its tongue hanging out, and there’s a bowl of water just out of reach.

There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land, and we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”

No one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.  If you say, “I pride myself on my humility; in fact, I am the humblest person you will ever meet,” then clearly you are not!

2 Dt 34All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but instead he again whacks it with a club, and water flows out.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it, bub!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed! 

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson, who is a political theologian, says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would usually be someone with a long tenure.  His or her pastorate is often considered to be one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.  And I suppose, different people might have different BFPs.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past in a congregation are not always good ones!  There are some people who go the other way: folks who are not so enamored with days gone by and with the pastor who is held in such high esteem.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

3 Dt 34Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is a fresh approach to an old dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, or a beloved former pastor, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.  It is entirely appropriate and necessary to celebrate who the person himself or herself has been.

Look at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  He’s like those folks in AARP commercials!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man, or so the tale is told. 

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires even more praise, even legendary praise. 

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were constantly crying, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is flying the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular song or piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

The Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

4 Dt 34

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

To mourn well means to embrace our inner poverty.

Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, speaks about this inner poverty.[5]

“At the center of our being,” he says, “is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.  It is so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence…  It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  To say the least, it can feel uncomfortable.

Still, remember what I said earlier.  Mourning is not just an emotion.  Of course, we will miss someone beloved who is no longer in our life.  It would be heartless not to!

5 Dt 34
“People frequently overlook [the] need for mourning.” (Stefan Kiechle)

Mourning is more than emotion; it is action.  That’s one reason why the church, in its liturgy each year, relives the life of Jesus.  We relive the passion of the Christ.  We relive the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, the abandonment of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday.  And we relive the Ascension, when Jesus is no longer present in bodily form, but now as the Christ, as Ephesians 1 puts it, “who fills all in all” (v. 23).

So we do indeed move on.  Jesus also says in John 12, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).  If we cling to things that are passing away, then we’re clinging to an illusion.  But if we reject that impulse, we find new life.  That’s why after eulogizing and mourning, there’s the need to move on.

Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  It means the leader is staying in the system.

Despite whatever good intentions might be present, it almost always has a harmful and toxic effect.  If a leader whose time to move on remains involved in the system, the people are left in a kind of limbo; they are denied the chance to properly mourn.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  This obviously doesn’t diminish what Moses has done.  He is remembered as the great liberator and lawgiver.  Still, the people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

6 Dt 34

I think it’s safe to say life itself is always transition.  Everything passes away—even the earth and sky.  Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who orchestrates transition, in the eternal God of Moses and of Jesus and of the church, throughout all the ages.

Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who leads us in eulogizing, mourning, and moving on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.

[5] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 3, section 39, paragraph 8.


matters of death and life

By now, most of you have heard about the seizure which led to my diagnosis of brain cancer.  That was in November 1995.  I had surgery and radiation treatments and was preparing for chemotherapy.

Three months later, in February ’96, Banu and I and a friend of ours were in our apartment.  It was getting a bit late at night.  At some point, our friend had a worried look on her face.  The next thing I knew, EMT personnel were there, asking me if I knew where I was.  It turned out that I had had another seizure.  So back to the hospital.

Like the first time, they gave me some tests, including an MRI scan.  The next day, my doctor came into the room, smiling from ear to ear.  He was positively beaming.  He had good news on what caused my seizure.  They were concerned about regrowth of a tumor, but that’s not what it was.

1 mattersThere’s a scene in the movie Kindergarten Cop which seems oddly appropriate.  Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cop who goes undercover as (guess what?) a kindergarten teacher.  He’s tracking a little boy’s criminal and scary father who’s on the run.

On his first day, the kids are being, well, little kids.  It’s a tough assignment.  Arnold complains, “I have a headache.”  A little boy responds, “It might be a tumor.”  Arnold snaps back, “It’s not a tumor.”  So there’s my doctor (minus my terrible Austrian accent)!

He was happy because I didn’t have a tumor; it was a staph infection.  He was smiling.  This apparently was good news.  I was awaiting a “good news” verdict.  Since it was just an infection, they could give me some medicine, and I’d be home the next day.  Then the doctor said they could operate in the morning.  It seems a staph infection can be pretty serious!

My heart sank.  It wasn’t the second surgery that bothered me so much; it was the realization that this hospital stay would be a lot longer than I had anticipated.  I suddenly felt like a prisoner.  After the doctor left, I told Banu I was glad it wasn’t a tumor, but it still didn’t feel like good news.

We could take my little tale and end it with the smiling doctor and the happy news.  End of story.  Let’s celebrate!  Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story.  Perhaps I was just being a big baby, but I didn’t have a festive feeling.

Now, regarding another story, we’re told it’s “a christianish way of knowing Jesus.”[1]  That’s how Methodist pastor Robb McCoy characterizes “focusing on the happy ending without also seeing the dangerous ramifications of what Jesus accomplished.”

He’s talking about today’s gospel reading in John 11, which following the lectionary, runs from verse 1 to verse 45.  We hear about Lazarus falling ill.  We hear about Jesus’ risky plan to go back to Judea, where he’s a wanted man.  (In fact, they have his picture hanging in the post office.)  We hear about his showing up, knowing that his friend has died.  We hear about Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, venting their anguish at Jesus.  We hear about Jesus himself weeping.  And then we hear Jesus shout, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43).

Now, cue the heart-rending, achingly beautiful music as the miracle of miracles occurs.  Lazarus walks from the tomb, risen from the dead.

2 matters
So, there’s the end of the story.  That’s where our lectionary reading ends.  Get ready for a homecoming party like never before seen in history.  You know, some people are welcomed after traveling from the other side of the world.  How about a welcome after traveling from the other side?

Well, if you read the entire chapter, you can tell that’s not the end of the story.  I’m using one verse of the lectionary text and continuing with the other side of the story.  I appreciate the lectionary.  It forces us to scriptures that we ordinarily might ignore.  But I’ve also aired my complaints about it.  Sometimes good stuff gets left out!

That hasn’t escaped the attention of Rev. McCoy, who comments on ending the reading at verse 45.  “It doesn’t just cut off the story before it gets interesting, it cuts off the story before the most important part is revealed…  [T]he story of Lazarus is not so much about the power of Jesus.  The story of Lazarus is about how people react to this miracle.”

“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (v. 45).  To be honest, I’m not sure what my reaction would be.  Seeing someone that you knew for a fact had been four days’ dead just walk out of the tomb—what do you do with that?  It is a matter of death leading to life.  So for the folks on the scene, being witnesses to that elicits a major awakening of faith.

So how about that party?  We’re going to have a toast to Lazarus and, of course, to Jesus!  Everyone’s coming.  “But some of them…”  Hold on, it doesn’t look like everybody’s in a mood for merry-making.

“But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done” (v. 46).  Seeing the love Jesus has for Lazarus, and seeing the loving power he exhibits on his behalf, many of the onlookers come to believe in Jesus.  They come to believe that he is the Messiah, even if it defies their expectations of what the Messiah should be.  But not all of them believe.

The opposite of love is fear.  Fear is what drives them to the Pharisees.  Maybe they fear what Jesus has done and who he is.  Maybe they think he’s a deceiver.  Maybe they want to stay on the good side of the Pharisees.  In any event, this is a key turning point in the ministry of Jesus.

(A couple of quick notes.  Regarding the Pharisees: they’re usually portrayed as bad guys in the New Testament.  They actually were defenders of the Jewish people in the face of outsiders who wanted to oppress them—including the Romans.  And regarding John’s use of the term “Jews,” context is necessary.  In his time, the church is indeed being persecuted by certain Jewish elements.  Still, the Greek word used (ιουδαιος, ioudaios) might be better translated as “Judeans.”  The use of the word “Jews” has led to centuries of persecution by Christians!)

How do the Pharisees respond to the news of Jesus’ miracle?  They and the chief priests call a meeting of the council, the Sanhedrin.  They acknowledge, “This man is performing many signs” (v. 47).  However, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (v. 48).

3 matters

They are well aware that Jesus is using the power of life against the power of death.  In their heart of hearts, they know that.  Still, just like the people who brought word of him to them, they also are acting from a place of fear.  McCoy says, “They feared Jesus because his was a power they could not abide.  They feared Jesus because he was threatening their way of life.  He was threatening their comfort, their position, and ultimately their power.”

Therefore, the choice is made.  Jesus must die.  Caiaphas, the high priest, chides them.  He warns them against any possible indecision.  “You know nothing at all!” he gripes.  “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (vv. 49-50).

Caiaphas is speaking at the practical, political level.  Why not sacrifice one person if it keeps the Romans from lowering the boom?  Unknown to him, God has other ideas in mind.  St. John says by virtue of his position as high priest, Caiaphas is giving voice to divine will.  Yes, Jesus will die for the nation, and the people of God everywhere will find, in that death, unity.

Caiaphas and his friends are sure of something.  Jesus is dangerous.  Even Lazarus is dangerous.  In chapter 12, he also is targeted for termination.  He is living, breathing evidence of what Jesus has done.  Because of him, even more people are turning to Jesus.  This fellow who walked out of the tomb needs to go right back.  He needs to take a dirt nap!

After the Lazarus event, nothing can be the same.

Sad to say, one thing these fellows have learned from the Roman Empire is the power of death, the power of the grave.  They better not play cards with Jesus, because he will say, “I see your power of the grave, and I raise you a resurrection.”

It does seem like death can silence life.  Don’t we see that everywhere?  That’s what the enemies of Jesus are counting on.  And they get their wish.  The life of Jesus is snuffed out.  He’s as dead as dead can be.  It’s his turn to take a dirt nap.  But somebody wakes him up!

Our friend Rev. McCoy issues a warning.  Just as the chief priests were wrong to think that death could imprison Jesus, we are wrong—we are being christianish—“if we think that the power of Jesus is something that shouldn’t be feared.”  It’s a mistake if we too easily dismiss it.

Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out.”  McCoy continues, “Church, Come out!  Come out of your comfort zone.  Come out of your fortress.  Come out of your ‘good old days.’  Come out of your sin.  Come out of the lies that tell us how to succeed, consume, spend, buy, then donate and be happy…  Come out of your slumber, and go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

How many of us have been inspired by a book or a movie or music but didn’t let it affect how we live?  What happens when we stop the story before we’re called to act?

4 matters

We do need to pray for courage, for bravery, but without giving in to bravado, to arrogance.  After all, Jesus knew when it was time to get the heck out of Dodge, and he spent some time in a “region near the wilderness,” remaining “there with the disciples” (v. 54).

Still, there is a time to come out, to come out of our fortresses.  We all hit high notes in our stories, but we must remember that our stories continue.  In these matters of death and life, the road is not always easy.  For some, it is rarely easy.  Still, know that we have a risen Savior who has gone through the worst of experience and remains faithful to us.  Our Savior defeats death and holds us in life.

 

[1] fatpastor.me/2011/04/08/lazarus-miracle-and-motive


gospel in the dark

How about Psalm 88 as a way to lift your spirits?  And then there’s John 11:35, “Jesus began to weep.”  Or as it’s more commonly rendered in the King James and other versions: “Jesus wept.”  After the scripture readings, saying, “This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God,” might feel pretty strange!

There’s a song that is not in the blue hymnal which we use (The Presbyterian Hymnal), but it is in the older red hymnal (The Hymnbook).  It’s “Be Still, My Soul.”  It’s set to the wonderful tune, “Finlandia.”  The hymnal includes three verses, but it doesn’t have this one:

“Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, / And all is darkened in the vale of tears, / Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart, / Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears. / Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay / From His own fullness all He takes away.”[1]

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, and all is darkened in the vale of tears.  What a beautiful and haunting image: “the vale of tears,” the valley of tears.  It’s a somber description of our life in this mortal coil.  It’s omission from the hymnbook is a commentary on how we often reshape our singing and liturgy to avoid awkwardly acknowledging certain topics.

1 lamentStill, I think that song would be loved by those who are into Goth music!

There’s a prayer website called Sacred Space.  Among the things they post are thoughts for the week, things to help guide prayer.  I made a note of something that appeared some time ago.  It dealt with a topic that is one of those uncomfortable subjects: death.  (At least, in my experience, when I’ve gone to parties, it’s not often a topic of conversation!)

According to the prayer guide, “Of the many ways to die alone, the most comfortless and solitary is when family and friends conspire to deny the approach of death.  They may feel, ‘I couldn’t take away her hope.’  But without acceptance of the truth, they remove the possibility of spiritual companionship at the end.”[2]

We’re told that in his book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland “remembers with regret how the family conspired to avoid the truth when his beloved Aunt Rose was dying.  ‘We knew—she knew—we knew she knew—she knew we knew—and none of us would talk about it when we were all together.  We kept up the charade to the end.  Aunt Rose was deprived, and so were we, of the coming together that should have been, when we might finally tell her what her life had given us.  In this sense, my Aunt Rose died alone.’”

I think there’s a parallel between how we often speak of death, and in a broader sense, of lamentation, expression of grief, in general.

2 lament

[The above image is from diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54142, “Angel of Grief.”]

That’s also seen in the worship of the church.  I just mentioned how we try to avoid those unpleasant realities in our hymns and liturgies.  The folks who put the lectionary together tended to leave out the problematic, uncomfortable verses.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Stuff like, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” and “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (Ep 6:5, 1 Tm 2:12).  Admittedly, those need some big time work done to them!

Another good case is the story in 1 Kings 3, where it talks about Solomon’s dream, in which he asks God for wisdom (vv. 3-14).  God congratulates him for not asking that his enemies be killed or that he be made a wealthy man.

What conveniently gets skipped over is Solomon’s marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter to form an alliance with Egypt.  My guess is that’s one of those awkward subjects!

In the same way, there are certain psalms that appear nowhere in our lectionary.  Hint: Psalm 88 is one of them.  After listening to that litany of doom and gloom, maybe we can see why it got left out.

Still, one of the most treasured psalms, Psalm 22, is filled with anguish.  Jesus on the cross screams out its beginning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But it does have notes of hope, and by the time we get to the end, the psalmist announces, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vv. 30-31).

3 lamentSurely Psalm 88 follows the same path.  It’s in the Bible; shouldn’t it also wind up as praise?  Verse 1 says, “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you” (GNB).  Surely by the time we’re finished, we’ve worked out some kind of resolution.

Here’s how it ends in the NRSV: “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (v. 18).  That doesn’t sound very much like praise.

I think some of the other translations sound even less like praise.  Here’s the NIV: “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”  I think the New Jerusalem Bible is even gloomier: “You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark.”

“All that I know is the dark.”  Friends, this is some serious lamentation!  We are looking at the only psalm without a single note of blessing.  It’s the only psalm in the Bible without one word of hope.

There’s something we need to realize about this ancient poet.  When we read these words from so long ago, we have to keep something in mind.  This is a person of faith.  This is not the work of someone engaged in ridiculing or mocking.  Psalm 88’s first three words in Hebrew are translated into English as “Yahweh [Lord], God of my salvation.”[3]

Even though our psalm has no breath of blessing, it is still praise.  It is dark praise, and that makes us uncomfortable.

4 lamentDominique Gilliard is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church; he’s the executive pastor of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland.  He wrote an article called “Reclaiming the Power of Lament.”[4]  It is a revelation.  It is a challenge.  And I think it’s a perfect meditation for the Lenten season.

“Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith.”  That goes along with our reluctance to even mention it.  Still, scripture is filled to the brim with lamentation.  Here’s just a taste: the book of Lamentations (of course), the book of Job, a huge number of the Psalms, Paul’s grief about his thorn in the flesh, and again, Jesus’ weeping.

Gilliard speaks about tragedies in our nation.  Among others, he mentions Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston.  The hits just keep on coming—and that’s not counting disasters all over the world.  They just wash over us until we can’t keep track.  In response to that, he says, “Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down…  Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world…  Lamentation begets revelation…  It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world.”

Here’s something I find fascinating and challenging.  “To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”  We lose touch with what makes us human.

5 lament

[A man in Ferguson, Missouri, holds on to a fence on August 15, 2014, at the site of a convenience store destroyed during rioting after the shooting death of Michael Brown by police.  Bigstock/Gino Santa Maria]

We don’t have to look very far for something to lament.  There is much in our lives to provide reason for mourning.  But we need not yield to despair.

Our friend Dominique hits on something.  “When faithfully engaged and authentically enacted, lamentation keeps us accountable to our baptismal vows.  It reminds us of our need for God, one another, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”

Our baptismal vows!  When the sacrament is celebrated, we “as members of the church of Jesus Christ,” are asked to “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those being baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”  We vow to be accountable to each other, to watch out for each other, as we walk the journey of faith.

Blest be the tie that binds.  “We share our mutual woes, / Our mutual burdens bear, / And often for each other flows / The sympathizing tear.”

And what about Jesus when he weeps?  Is he putting on a show?  Surely his understanding that he can raise Lazarus from the dead would prevent the need for tears.  Does he weep with empathy for Mary and Martha, because they are weeping?  Here’s my guess.  Even though he knows he will raise Lazarus, he still feels the pain himself.  After all, he is human!

If we also acknowledge that Jesus is the image, the icon, of God, that also says something.  Do we think of lamenting, of grieving, as weakness?  If so, so be it.  God laments.  At the end of the day, maybe that’s enough.  God’s weakness is greater than all the strength we can muster.  The weakness of God serves as a model for us.

Lent reminds us that we must pass through the valley of tears before we arrive at the resurrection.  We do not honor each other by ignoring the reality of lament.

In the book, Uncommon Gratitude, Joan Chittister says, “Darkness deserves gratitude.  It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.”[5]

Think of the hymn, “Abide with Me.”  It’s listed in the section of our [Presbyterian] hymnal called “Evening Hymns.”  I imagine that’s due to the first lines.  “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.  The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!”  The hymn speaks of things in our lives which pass away.  But unlike our psalm, it ends on a strong note of praise and affirmation.

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: / Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; / In life, in death, O Lord, / abide with me.”

As incredible as it is, deep in the depths of that darkness, there is gospel.  At the bottom of the bottomless pit, there is good news.  Even there (perhaps especially there), Christ reigns in victory.  There is gospel in the dark.

 

[1] library.timelesstruths.org/music/Be_Still_My_Soul

[2] sacredspace.ie (26 Sep-2 Oct 2010)

[3] יהוה אלהי ישועתי (salvation-of-me, God-of, Yahweh)

[4] www.faithandleadership.com/dominique-d-gilliard-reclaiming-power-lament

[5] www.friendsofsilence.net/quote/2012/10/darkness-deserves-gratitude