06 April 2010

The Resurrection

Oh, the rush with which the forgotten mind awakens
Under the day a well of dark where color dwells
Until it learns the art of light and can reveal,
In neglected things, the freshness thought darkens.

With grey mastery distance starts to blur the horror.
Already the days begin to set around the loss.
The after-silence of his death becomes porous
To the gossip of regret that follows failure.

Through the cold, quiet nighttime of the grave underground,
The earth concentrated on him with complete longing
Until his sleep could recall the dark from beyond
To enfold memory lost in the requiem of mind.

The moon stirs a wave of brightening in the stone.
He rises clothed in the young colours of dawn.

"The Resurrection" © John O’Donohue. All rights reserved
From the collection "Rosary Sonnets" in John O'Donohue's larger collection, Connemara Blues

image used by permission, Digitial Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Emory University

02 April 2010

The Crucifixion

When at last it comes, it comes in silence;
With no thought for the one to whom it comes,
Or how a heart grieves itself and loved ones
With that last glimpse from its fading presence.

Yet it is intimate, the act of death,
To be so chosen, exposed and taken.
Nowhere untouched. But death wants you broken.
The soldiers must wait ages for your last breath.

With all the bright words, you are found out too,
In agony and terror in vaulted air,
Your mind bleached white by a wind from nowhere
That has waited years for one strike at you.

A slanted rain cuts across the black day.
It turns stones crimson where the cross is laid.

The Crucifixion © John O’Donohue. All rights reserved
From the collection "Rosary Sonnets" in John O'Donohue's larger collection, Connemara Blues
Image used by permission, Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Emory University

01 April 2010

The Agony in the Garden

Whatever veil of mercy shrouds the dark
Wound that stops weeping in no one, cannot
Stop the torrent of night when it buries thought
And heart beneath the black tears of the earth.

Through scragged bush the moon discovers his face,
Dazed inside the sound of Gethsemane,
Subsiding under the weight of silence
That entombs the cry of his terrified prayer.

What light could endure the dark he entered?
The void that turns the mind into a ruin
          Haunted by the tattered screechng of birds
Who nest deep in hunger that mocks all care.

Still he somehow stands in that nothingness;
Raising the chalice of kindness to bless.

The Agony in the Garden © John O’Donohue. All rights reserved (www.johnodonohue.com)
From the collection "Rosary Sonnets" in John O'Donohue's larger collection, Connemara Blues
Image used by permission from The Digitial Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library

18 March 2010

A Sermon for Holy Saturday

This semester, I'm taking a course entitled "Preaching about Death."  It's a charming class, as I'm sure you can tell by its title. Charming and fascinating.  As part of the class, we have to write sermons on different death related topics.  Most recently, we had to write a sermon for a death-related event in the church year--Good Friday, Easter, All Saints Day, Maundy Thursday, and so on.  

I chose to write a sermon for Holy Saturday. I've never actually been to a Holy Saturday service (not to be confused with Easter Vigil services which occur late that same night).  In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard a sermon preached on this passage--the story of Jesus' burial. As you read, be mindful that this sermon would be one of many preached during Holy Week beginning with one on Palm Sunday journeying through the Last Supper and to the Cross and ending with the Resurrection.  Here's what I came up with for one of the in between days--one of the days when we have to wait.

To Sit and Wait
John 19: 38-42

What a week. Six days ago we were on a high.  We sang songs of Hosanna. We saw the prophecies fulfilled. The words of the Psalmist were shouted by the people of Jerusalem: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” This past Thursday we heard the stories of the last days of Jesus read to us. We listened to him instruct his disciples (and so us) to love one another. We broke bread together, shared the cup, and watched as the symbols of our faith were stripped away from this sacred space.

The next day we returned and listened as our worst fears were confirmed.  Jesus was crucified. We sat together in silence, then ate in silence--everyone feeling like they should say something, no one knowing quite what to say.

And today, we find ourselves gathered here again--not exactly sure why we returned to this space, but positive it needed to be done.

Today is one of the hollow days of Holy Week.  A day where there isn’t much to be said or to be done other than to sit and keep watch.  This is a common theme during the church year, particularly during seasons of preparation.  As we look toward coming events, we are often exhorted to keep watch.  It’s a central theme of Advent, and today we find ourselves reminded to do it again. 

The season of Lent, like Advent, is not just a season of preparation, but also of waiting. Specifically, it’s a season of waiting for new life, of hoping for the resurrection, and of longing for redemption.  But before any of that can happen, we must wait.  And during Lent, our waiting isn’t filled with joyful anticipation, but with mourning.

This story of Jesus’ burial is found in all of the gospels. In each telling, we see Joseph of Arimethea, considered by many to be a member of the Sandhedrin (the group of powerful Jews who were influential in Jesus’ death), receive permission to take Jesus’ body and place him in a tomb.  In all the stories, the stage is set at the start of Passover, a central holiday in the Jewish tradition that focuses on the story of the Exodus. 

One element the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tell us, that John is missing is the presence of the women.  They aren’t central to this story, but they are crucial in their actions.  They follow Jesus’ body to the tomb, and they wait.

The Markan account is sure to tell us that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus saw the body in the tomb. This, of course, is a necessary literary element.  Ensuring that the women saw Jesus in the tomb makes their coming claim of the Resurrection more viable. What they once saw was no longer.

Luke, always the historian, expands upon Marks version, adding that after the women saw Jesus in the tomb, “they returned, and prepared the spices and ointments.”

But Matthew offers us a different detail.  The author of Matthew tells us that after Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a rock in front of the tomb and left, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb."

Sitting.  Waiting.  So often, when we are met with death, we find ourselves sitting and waiting.  For some families, death is a welcome relief from hours and hours of sitting and waiting for the inevitable to come. For others, death is so sudden that it doesn’t seem like there is anything to do but sit and wait for the reality to sink in.

The women in our story seem to realize this: that after everything that had happened, there was nothing left to do but to sit and wait.  Surely, it was difficult--difficult to see years of miracles and healings and teachings sealed in a tomb. 

Even in death, however, we find a model for how to live in the Gospel. Namely, we are called to sit, to wait, and to keep watch.  We aren’t told what these two Mary’s were thinking.  We don’t know whether they were weeping or whether their tears had dried hours ago. We aren’t told if they spoke to one another, remembering the good days, or if they sat in silence, mourning.  We are simply told that they are sitting across from the tomb. 

It seems to me that we rush death when it occurs.  Official periods of mourning have shrunk from potentially years to perhaps a day or two off from work.  We might send flowers or a card if someone close to us dies.  But, convinced that life goes on for the rest of us, we hardly pause for the dead. Maybe we can make it to visitation tomorrow night--if I don’t have to pick Tim up from soccer practice.  I want to go to the funeral, but I’ve got a meeting I just can’t miss.

Mary and Mary were faced with a similar quandary.  They had spent the day at the execution site, their hope that Jesus might live slowly turning to a hope that the mercy of death might come quickly.  Sundown was approaching, and with it the Sabbath.

The Day of Preparation in the Jewish tradition is the time to make sure that all the chores and tasks that need to be completed for the Sabbath are done. The strict rules of Judaism concerning labor on the day prescribed to be one of rest made the day before the Sabbath critical.  There was bread to bake, houses to clean, goods to purchase.  Anything not completed by sundown would have to wait until after Sabbath. 

To put it another way, these women had things to do.  They needed to go get the groceries, needed to vacuum before the family came over. They needed to make sure the kids were all cleaned up and all the food was cooked.

But instead of running to do these chores, they sat and waited. Were they destroyed by what had just happened? Perhaps.  Were the disappointed? Probably. Were they lost? Absolutely. 

It certainly would’ve been easy to rush back into a routine. There’s comfort in routine, in knowing what’s next, in accomplishing something you set off to do. They certainly had plenty to do, and the rhythm of the life they knew before surely would’ve provided some reassuring structure. 

But they didn’t leave. Not just yet.  Instead, they sat and waited and kept watch. 

Maybe they were waiting on the Resurrection, Jesus’ words of return echoing in their minds.  Perhaps they were so devastated that they simply didn’t know what else to do. Or maybe they knew they had to be there, that as long as they stayed the reality of what happened simply wouldn’t be true. But the fact remains, they sat and the waited.

John O’Donohue, author, poet and spiritualist, writes in his book Anam Cara that “it takes a good while to really die.” He relates an Irish mourning tradition called the Caoineadh.  He explains that “One of the lovely things about the Irish tradition is its great hospitality to death. When someone in the village dies, everyone goes to the funeral...All the neighbors gather around to support the family and to help them. It is a lovely gift. When you are really desperate and lonely, you need neighbors to help you,support you and bring you through that broken time.”

Despite our desire for solitude during the painful times and emotions surrounding the death of a loved one, it is important for us to be gathered in community. The women waited at the tomb together. This is important to us as a community of faith because our memories of a person who had died are not solely individual.  We share corporate memories as well.  We remember the ways that person has influenced the life of the community, their contributions and gifts.

But there is a second part to this Irish tradition of mourning.  O’Donohue tells us that the people who gathered, “women mainly,  came in and keened the deceased. It was a kind of high-pitched wailing cry full of incredible loneliness. The narrative of the caoineadh was actually the history of the person’s life as the women had known him.  A sad liturgy, beautifully woven of narrative, was gradually put into the place of the person’s new absence from the world. [It] gathered all the key events of the person’s life. It was certainly heartbreakingly lonely, but it made a hospitable, ritual space for the mourning and sadness of the bereaved family.”

What a beautiful thought, to have friends and neighbors come and sit and wait with you. Your wailing, your crying out, becomes their wailing.  Your grief is theirs. We have some of that still.  I think of every Southern funeral I’ve been to and the feast that is laid out afterward.  I think of my own mother’s funeral, and the swell of support from the Candler community that was evident in the over 50 students who joined us for lunch after the service.

The women at the tomb knew what we all know, that they had to mourn--that sometimes, all you can do it mourn and sit and wait.  And they knew they couldn’t do it alone. This is the model, and indeed the good news, that the Gospel lays before us--that we don’t face death alone, that mourning is part of it all, but that we don’t have to encounter death deserted. Even facing death, we find community.

And so, we find ourselves here, today. Sitting and waiting and mourning.  Hoping against hope that we will wake tomorrow to hear the Good news that Jesus is alive.

But for now, we will sit. For now we wait. For now, we will keep watch. And we will sit and we will wait and we will keep watch together.

17 January 2010

Confused by the Spirit: a sermon for Haiti

Originally preaching on Sunday, January 17 using the Epiphany 2C lectionary readings. The service that had been planned for this Sunday was scrapped the day before in light of the tragedy of Haiti.

Confused by the Spirit

Before I begin, I’d like to present a small disclaimer.  This is in no way the sermon I intended to write.  This service is in no way the service any of the staff intended on having today.  In fact, the title listed is more a reflection of my personal feelings in preparation for this morning than the actual sermon.

But as the reports continued to flood in and the scale of the tragedy in Haiti began to come to light, there was simply no way we could gather today and sing “Joyful, Joyful.”

If you have a TV or a radio, surely you’ve seen or heard of the devastation.  Streets lined with bodies.  Children orphaned. The elderly unable to help themselves.  Destruction at every turn.

Many of you may not realize this,  but I have a brother in Haiti. A brother whom I have not heard from. A brother who worked at one of the resorts that crumbled on Tuesday.

I also have a sister who works in Haiti.  She was one of the UN staff who died.

My mother is there too, still searching the body-lined streets to find her other children. She and my uncle have found a few of them alive, but most are dead.

You see, we all have family in Haiti.  In the gospel of Mark, we are told of a rather tense interaction Jesus has with his followers around the idea of family.1 The story opens with Mary and her other sons standing on the outskirts of the crowd that had gathered around Jesus.  His family sends to him, and the messenger tells Jesus “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

Do you remember Jesus’ reply?  It’s shocking, not at all the good ol’ boy we’ve made Jesus into over the years.  His reply is a simple question: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?”

What? Who are your mother and brothers? Easy--your mother is the one you gave birth to you. And your brothers are her other children.  Right?

Jesus doesn’t seem to think so.  He looks at those who are surrounding him, the ones who have come to hear him speak words of wisdom and of truth. “Here,” he exclaims, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”   Realizing that he’s probably lost some of his followers in this statement, he adds “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

What, then, does it mean to do the will of God?  Despite a myriad of possible answers to this question, there is only one true response. It’s the action that we see prevail time and again in the Bible. It is the theme we see over and over and over again in the Gospels.  Jesus sums it up in his teaching about the two greatest commandments.

In the New Testament canon we are first introduced to these commandments in Matthew.  The writer of the gospel of Matthew tells us that it was the Pharisees who brought about this teaching.  You see, the Pharisees were trying to test Jesus’ knowledge about the law, or Torah.

This particular pharisee, a lawyer, asked him this question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Now a lawyer in Jesus’ day was not a lawyer as we think of them. A Lawyer was someone concerned with the meaning of the law. In a sense, he was a theologian.  The question he asked in no way was a serious one. He starts by addressing Jesus as Teacher, a obvious and insincere shift from Jesus’ believer’s use of Lord.

This conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus is a recurrence of a common theme in Matthew. Once again the Kingdom of God is at odds with the kingdom of religion.

The way the question is phrased is an attempt on behalf of the pharisees to catch Jesus off guard.  Traditional understanding of the law is that all 613 commandments found in the Torah are equal in stature and value.  Asking Jesus to choose one commandment or one kind of commandment over another is essentially trying to ask him a trick question.

Jesus doesn’t skip a beat. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Now this is part of what is known in Judaism as the Shema. This statement of faith is the closest thing to a creedal statement in Jewish tradition. The Shema is spoken upon going to bed and upon waking from sleep.  It is even uttered with one’s last breath.

In the Markan account of this story, we hear the whole of the Shema as the first commandment: Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Jesus knows of its importance, and offers it as the most important commandment, but then he adds his own explaining that “the second is like it.” Jesus isn’t suggesting here that the second is similar to the first in meaning. Rather, he is emphasizing its equal importance. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For Jesus the love of one’s neighbor is inseparable from the great command to love God.  One professor writes “To love God is to love one’s neighbor, and to love one’s neighbor is to love God.”

Jesus isn’t finished quite yet. Just to hammer home his point, he adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”6 Essentially, love God and love others. The rest is commentary.

So, if we are to be family in Christ, then we should do God’s will. And from what we just discussed, it seems like a pretty fair statement to say that God’s will is for us to love God and for us to love one another.
But what does that look like? This is our true challenge: what does love look like? What does love of God and love of neighbor look like? Notice what Jesus doesn’t talk about. Jesus doesn’t seem to believe that our job is to judge our neighbor or blame them for their misfortunes.  He doesn’t even seem particularly concerned with their past. Time and again, we hear stories of Jesus calling people from their tragic past into a hope filled future.

So how, then, do we figure out what love looks like? Lucky for us, we’ve got a whole book of clues.

As we read the pages of the Bible, we are presented with answer after answer to this question.  The reading from Isaiah that we heard this morning is one answer: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”7 We flip to Micah: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”8 The psalms speak of love as refuge and shelter: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”   

We flip to the New Testament and find Jesus’ words reminding us of what our call to love means.  Every time we face a tragedy, these words are at once words of comfort and words of action.  Hear these words:

Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
    “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
    “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
    “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
    “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God
    “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 It seems to me that almost every time we hear these words spoken we dismiss them as some sort of hippie speak.  We live in a world of concrete success.  Spiritual things are rarely touted as markers of success.  Rather, we look to salaries and bonuses and cars and houses and trips.  But we look at these teachings, the beatitudes, and hear nothing about split-levels and Mercedes.

Then we hear these words in the midst of crisis and they take on whole new meaning.  What does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” Could it mean being so broken by the devastation around you that all you can do is fall on your knees and wail? What does it mean to mourn when a whole society has been torn apart? What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be a peacemaker in a country not ripped apart by war, but by brute natural force?

Hidden in these words of comfort are words of action. They are statements that urge us to be a merciful people convinced of the importance of peacemaking. They are statements that not only affirm the hardship of life, but call us to respond to them.

But there are also more direct calls to action.  Take the story of Jesus teaching his disciples about the return of “the Son of Man.” As part of this teaching, he tells us that the sheep will be at his right had and the goats at his left. He explains that those at his right hand are blessed by his Father. Why?  “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

The righteous, confused, ask him “When did we do any of these.”  And the king will reply “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

These aren’t menacing instructions. If anything they are empowering. Often God’s greatest commandment: to Love God and your neighbors is intimidating.  Exactly how can we ever repay the love God has shown us.  The short answer is: we can’t. But we can try.  And Jesus gives us a starting place.

How can we repay that love? We can feed those who are hungry. We can care for the sick. We clothe the naked. We can lift up the downtrodden. We can be merciful. We can be a refuge. We can love kindness.  We can work for justice. We can shout of love and truth and hope from the mountaintops.

Yes, it is a daunting task. But Paul reminds us that we are equipped for the job. The words from his first letter to the church in Corinth which we heard earlier remind us that we share a variety of gifts all inspired by the one Spirit. In times of need or distress, we can claim these gifts and use them to lift up a world which is broken and hurting and in desperate need of help.

You see, the Good News here, is not just some heady theological notion that Jesus came to save the whole world. The Good News is that we are equipped to aid in this salvation.  I’m not talking about bringing people to Christ. While that is a good and worthy endeavor, its not what is needed here and now.

Our call today, in the midst of this crisis, is to be the hands of Christ in this world--to not remain silent when hatred is spewed about reasons for this catastrophe. To send aid--to send as much aid as we can as fast as we can. To pray, to pray hard, and hope against hope that more living are found. To hold the families who’ve lost loved ones in our hearts and lift them in God’s grace. To remind ourselves that God has indeed been our help in ages past and is our sure and confident hope in the days to come. To look toward the day with our faith may become sight and all will be made well.

Friends, can you see it? Can you see our call to be the light of Christ in this situation? Can you see our call beyond the politics of money and government to help those in need?  Can you look at the people in Haiti and claim them as your own family?

 For in Christ, we each have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and children and god-daughters and nephews to call our own. What will you do to help them?