Everyman’s Lament

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On March 27, we read through the longest poem contained in Lamentations – chapter 3 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the link below:

Near the end of the 15thcentury an unknown author wrote a play in either Dutch or English entitled Everyman.  That play begins with God sending Death to visit a character named Everyman in order to tell him that it was time to make an account of his life before God. Everyman panics, and asks for more time, but Death refuses to add even a single day.  However, Death does allow Everyman the opportunity to find a companion to accompany him to the grave.

Everyman rushes to find company, but Fellowship and Family refuse to travel. Goods says that she cannot come – nor will Beauty, Strength, Wits, or anyone else.  Finally, Good Deeds says she’d like to come along, but is too weak for the journey because Everyman has not been attentive to her during his lifetime. Everyman eventually realizes through this pilgrimage that each of us is essentially alone at the hour of our death and we have nothing but our good deeds to accompany us to the grave.

Everyman is an example of what we have come to know as a “morality play” – a production that is designed to increase personal understanding of the faith and to promote faithful living and a just society.

I bring Everyman to mind this evening because in some ways, this is what we find in the poem of Lamentations 3.  Just as with the previous two poems in this book, chapter 3 is an acrostic poem written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. However you will notice some key differences between this work and those that precede it.

Whereas chapters 1 and 2 consist of 22 verses, each of which starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, chapter 3 is the most complicated poem in the book.  There are three verses for each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and it doesn’t even mention the destruction of the city. Rather, there is a response to the event.  Another significant difference is that this poem begins in the first person, rather than switching voices halfway through. Finally, the narrator is most decidedly a male voice who speaks in contrast to the feminine voice assigned to Jerusalem in chapters 1 and 2.  Look with me at the first six stanzas of this poem:

1I am someone who saw the suffering caused by God’s angry rod.
He drove me away, forced me to walk in darkness, not light.
He turned his hand even against me, over and over again, all day long.

He wore out my flesh and my skin; he broke my bones.
He besieged me, surrounding me with bitterness and weariness.
He made me live in dark places like those who’ve been dead a long time.

He walled me in so I couldn’t escape; he made my chains heavy.
Even though I call out and cry for help, he silences my prayer.
He walled in my paths with stonework; he made my routes crooked.

10 He is a bear lurking for me, a lion in hiding.
11 He took me from my path and tore me apart; he made me desolate.
12 He drew back his bow, made me a shooting target for arrows.

13 He shot the arrows of his quiver into my inside parts.
14 I have become a joke to all my people, the object of their song of ridicule all day long.
15 He saturated me with grief, made me choke on bitterness.

16 He crushed my teeth into the gravel; he pressed me down into the ashes.
17 I’ve rejected peace; I’ve forgotten what is good.
18 I thought: My future is gone, as well as my hope from the Lord.

This lone male voice is, truly, an Everyman.  Did you hear in this long reflection that once again, God is named as the source of the narrator’s pain?  This is a continuation of themes developed in the first two poems – God is angry, God has done this.  Here, the effect of God’s anger is personalized – because our narrator – Everyman – has been humbled.  His weakness and frailty and even impotence is on display; he is vulnerable.

What is interesting is that verse 18 marks the ending of the accusations about God’s role in the story.  The remainder of this poem, and, by and large, the rest of the book, will focus on the response to the situation that has developed.

Let’s turn our attention to what happens after the narrator finds himself exposed and vulnerable:

19 The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.
20 I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
21 I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.

22 Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended;  certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
23 They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
24 I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

25 The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him.
26 It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance.
27 It’s good for a man to carry a yoke in his youth.

28 He should sit alone and be silent when God lays it on him.
29 He should put his mouth in the dirt—perhaps there is hope.
30 He should offer his cheek for a blow; he should be filled with shame.

The response to having been humbled, or brought low, or made aware is to seek to remind himself of what he has known to be true.  He anchors himself in what God has revealed about God’s self, which is most simply and appropriately described as “faithful love”. In spite of his own experience; in spite of his own pain, he disciplines himself to remember that his current situation is neither reflective of the original intent nor a universal condition. So that personal recollection leads him to the next part of the poem:

31 My Lord definitely won’t reject forever.
32 Although he has caused grief, he will show compassion in measure with his covenant loyalty.
33 He definitely doesn’t enjoy affliction, making humans suffer.

34 Now crushing underfoot all the earth’s prisoners,
35     denying someone justice before the Most High,
36     subverting a person’s lawsuit—doesn’t my Lord see all this?

37 Who ever spoke and it happened if my Lord hadn’t commanded the same?
38 From the mouth of the Most High evil things don’t come, but rather good!
39 Why then does any living person complain; why should anyone complain about their sins?

The stanzas that make up verses 31-39 contain an extended section of teaching and theological reflection.  In the margins of my bible I have written “who is the author trying to convince here?” Is he talking, as most preachers do, to himself? Is he lobbying a group of hearers who have suffered similarly? Or is he speaking to some disinterested bystanders or even to those who have attacked his home?

No matter his intended audience, he gets himself so worked up that the voice of the text shifts slightly.  Notice how the next few stanzas adopt a first person plural:

40 We must search and examine our ways; we must return to the Lord.
41 We should lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven.
42 We are the ones who did wrong; we rebelled. But you, God, have not forgiven.

43 You wrapped yourself up in wrath and hunted us; you killed, showing no compassion.
44 You wrapped yourself up in a cloud; prayers can’t make it through!
45 You made us trash and garbage in front of all other people.

46 All our enemies have opened their mouths against us.
47 Terror and trap have come upon us, catastrophe and collapse!
48 Streams of water pour from my eyes because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.

Do you see what has happened here? His personal reflection on the situation and subsequent theological exploration have led him to a rallying cry for action! He begins with confession – what the community did.  And that leads to a lament – a statement of truth and a recognition that the world is currently characterized by chaos and pain.

That is continued in the next two stanzas:

49 My eyes flow and don’t stop. There is no relief
50     until the Lord looks down from the heavens and notices.
51 My eyes hurt me because of what’s happened to my city’s daughters.

52 My enemies hunted me down like a bird, relentlessly, for no reason.
53 They caught me alive in a pit and threw stones at me;
54     water flowed over my head. I thought: I’m finished.

This, beloved, is what lamentation can and should look like. The speaker, regaining his sense of vulnerability and brokenness says simply, “There is no relief…I’m finished…”

The sense of active lament is intensified in the next few stanzas:

55 I call on your name, Lord, from the depths of the pit.
56 Hear my voice. Don’t close your ear to my need for relief, to my cry for help.
57 Come near to me on the day I call to you. Say to me, “Don’t be afraid.”

58 My Lord! Plead my desperate case; redeem my life.
59 Lord, look at my mistreatment; judge my cause.
60 Look at all of my enemies’ vengeance, all of their scheming against me.

61 Hear their jeering, Lord, all of their scheming against me,
62     the speech of those who rise up against me, their incessant gossiping about me.
63 Whether sitting or standing, look at how I am the object of their song of ridicule.

Notice the verbs: the posture of lament has stirred the spirit of the speaker to request that God move – now. Hear.  Come.  Speak. Save. Redeem.  Look. Judge.  The speaker who began this poem by blaming God for the pain that he himself is experiencing is now recognizing that God alone is the source of help and strength and, above all, justice and reconciliation.

The poem ends with what we might call “imprecatory” verses.  This is a particular style of prayer in which the one leading the prayer invites, asks, or begs God to bring pain or misery into the life of another.  It is a prayer for the destruction of an enemy.  Listen:

64 Pay them back fully, Lord, according to what they have done.
65 Give them a tortured mind—put your curse on them!
66 Angrily hunt them down; wipe them out from under the Lord’s heaven.

To our ears, imprecatory verses are difficult to hear – I hope because we understand a little better the divine intent as expressed by Jesus as he ties the forgiveness we receive from God with our willingness to extend that forgiveness to those who have wronged us.  It is clear that this prayer ends with a plea for punishment of those who have brought pain.  We should note, though, that it remains a plea for Godto act, rather than a call for some within the community rise up and seek revenge.

The poem ends with the narrator giving God some free advice – but realizing that this is God’s sphere, and not his own. He places himself firmly under God’s authority and direction even as he honestly cries out from his own pain.

I began this message by referring to the medieval play Everyman.  The final lines of that play are spoken by a “Doctor of Divinity” who is seeking to hammer home the message of that work: that there is nothing to which we can cling in this life that will save us, only the mercy and justice of God.  It is therefore incumbent on every man (and every woman!) to live each day with an awareness of how our behavior is shaped by that mercy and justice.

I conclude this sermon in the same fashion: only instead of warning you about the fleeting nature of pride, possessions, or knowledge, I will remind you that each and every one of us has spent every moment of our lives in a culture that is assumes, in one way or another, that the perspectives, opinions, and experiences that come with “whiteness” are normal and right, and any deviations from those perspectives, opinions, or experiences are wrong or abnormal.

When we breathe air like that, beloved, we become fundamentally misshapen. We lose track of who, and whose, we are; we cannot see our neighbor or ourselves aright.  When we breathe this air too long, we find ourselves seeing “us” and “them”; we see young men in hoodies as “thugs” or we place targets on the backs of law enforcement officers who are genuinely trying to promote justice and serve the common good.  Everyone loses when we accept the notion that whiteness is normative.

I would suggest that the call of God for our congregation, this evening, is to enter into a time of lament.  To recognize in ourselves and our neighbors the destruction that comes

  • when we value one race above another;
  • when we centralize one culture while marginalizing another;
  • when we choose to use our power to extend our own advantage and somehow – knowingly or not – wind up eroding the humanity of those who do not look like us.

Let us enter into a time of prayer, wherein we lay before the Lord our own confession of brokenness and our lament for a world in which the color of a person’s skin seems too often to be more important than the content of that person’s heart and wherein too many of God’s children with brown skin are burying their children and living in fear.  The world should not be this way, beloved.  Let us hear their cry, and add our own to it.  Let us decry and deny the subtle or not-so-subtle racism that wants us to believe that “there are good people on both sides” – as if there can be anything good about a values system that seeks to discredit, disinherit, or destroy the other.

I don’t want to end my message with, or include in my prayers, any words that are imprecatory.  I’m not looking call down fire and brimstone on anyone.  I’m looking for ways to encourage us to live into the Kingdom that we get so worked up about every time we come into this room.  If it matters in this room, then it should matter out there. And if it isn’t showing up out there – then we need to consider how it is we are applying the things we learn while we’re here.  Let us, beloved, stand for this thing that matters.  Let us, beloved, stand with these sisters and brothers who struggle. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Which One Are You?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Third Sunday of Lent (March 24, 2019), we found ourselves waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane with the disciples while Jesus was praying.  What were we waiting for? That depends on how you choose to interpret the verbs here.  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:27-52.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the player below:

I would imagine that everyone in this room has enjoyed looking through old photos with a loved one and one of you is looking with incredulity at the older (and in my case, often grainy) images and saying, “Wow, this is really cool. Which one are you?”  Sometimes, we want to know what our parents or our friends looked like before we knew them.  Sometimes we want to learn more about that loved one – we are saying something like, “Tell me about this, Grampy: how did you fit into what was happening here?”

I find myself asking that same question – of myself – as I read through this chapter.  There are so many people who are mentioned here – Jesus, of course, and Peter, James, John, Judas – not to mention a host of un-named servants and friends and the crowd. Where do I fit in?  Which one am I?  Which one are you?

Well, it depends, I think, on what we think is happening here.  For most of my life, my interpretation of this passage has been based on the translation of Jesus’ prophecy that you heard earlier in verse 27.  The New International Version reports that Jesus declared “You will all fall away…”  A few verses later, Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not…” The New Revised Standard Version words it slightly differently, but with the same effect: Jesus indicates, “You will all become deserters…” and Peter contests by saying, “Even though all become deserters, I will not…”  These translations – justifiable, I think – suggest that the people who have known Jesus the best are about to have the crap scared out of them and run away because they are so frightened.

And, to be honest, if that is the reading – if that is what is happening in this picture, then the disciples are once more the clueless dolts that we have imagined them to be through the years.  Jesus of Nazareth has a great plan, and it will require great bravery, but they can neither understand the plan nor muster the courage and so they fall short.  They run away leaving him to his own devices in his hour of need.

In this reading, Peter in particular is bold in his assertion of loyalty and strength, but terribly weak in practice.  He, along with James and John, is essentially helpless.  They are weak and flawed, especially compared to their friend Jesus, who suffers through what we have come to call “the agony in Gethsemane” all alone.

Judas is singled out as one who is actively and intentionally “falling away” or “deserting”.  So far as we can tell, Judas is the only disciple who is notsleeping, and he is actively undermining Jesus’ plan.

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (self-portrait), Paul Gauguin, 1889.

Have you heard this story before?  Is this how you have read it, too?  Brave Jesus, needing his friends now more than ever, but one of them is an active traitor and the others are shameless cowards in his hour of need. If that’s the case, you are surely not alone.  That is a time-honored way of hearing this story.

But there’s a different reading.  Jesus uses – and then Peter echoes – a very interesting word.  The Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the behavior of his friends is skandalizo.  In that language, a skandalon is a stick that is baited and then put into a trap.  When a careless or unwary animal stumbles upon this treat, the stick moves, the trap springs shut, and the victim is caught.

Jesus uses this word himself in that very difficult teaching back in Mark 9, when he says, “whoever puts a stumbling block (skandalion) in front of one of these little ones… And then again three times later in the same chapter: If your hand (or foot, or eye) offends you (skandalizi), then get rid of it…”

Because of the use of the word skandalonin this passage, and its meaning in those other instances, some translators give a different picture for the prediction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  For instance, the King James Version renders this conversation this way: “And Jesus saith unto them, ‘All ye shall be offended because of me this night…’, but Peter said unto him, ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.’”  The Contemporary English Version reads, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All of you will reject me…’, and Peter spoke up, ‘Even if all the others reject you, I never will!’”

And Eugene Peterson renders it thusly in The Message: “Jesus told them, ‘You’re all going to feel that your world is falling apart and that it’s my fault…’Peter blurted out, “Even if everyone else is ashamed of you when things fall to pieces, I won’t be.”

Now stay with me here, because this is crucial.  If Jesus is predicting that his followers will all lose heart and flee because they are cowards, then our traditional understanding is correct.  But what if he is saying, “Look, you may think that you know me, but you don’t really ‘get’ who I am or what I’m doing yet.  And because you don’t fully understand me, or the Kingdom I’ve proclaimed, then what is going to happen will scandalize you – you will think that I’m wrong.”

If that’s what Jesus is saying in Mark 14, then the behavior of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane is consistent – but in a way that could be perceived as being almost admirable.

Listen: Jesus goes off to pray and becomes, in reality, a sitting duck.  The disciples whom he invites to accompany him choose to catch up on their sleep because they are going to need it.  Someone has got to be ready to defend Jesus, and he has shown no inclination to defend himself.  Praying is all well and good, but if we’re going to be able to help him when the dookey hits the fan, we’re going to need our rest.  There will be important work to be done.  I think that this interpretation might be strengthened by the fact that Jesus recognizes that his friends are falling into old habits, and therefore calls his beloved comrade “Simon” – his old name, rather than “Peter”.

In this understanding of what is happening, then, even Judas gets a little more noble.  In bringing the powers of the Empire and Religion into a direct confrontation with Jesus, perhaps Judas is in his own mind merely calling Jesus’ bluff and telling him it’s time to fish or cut bait.  He’s effectively saying, “Look, you’ve told us that you are the Messiah – we believe that you are the one to deliver Israel. Now’s your chance, Jesus.  Act like a Messiah.  Stand up to Rome and to Religion – or we will all die trying.”

The Kiss of Judas, Giotto (1304-1306)

When Judas gets there, Jesus’ followers begin to act like, well, followers. They defend him.  Someone draws a sword.  Blood flows – the blood of those who have come to arrest Jesus.  And yet as his followers rush to his defense, Jesus forbids it.  Although Matthew and Luke are more explicit in their depiction of this part of the scene, a faithful reading of Mark indicates that Jesus is the one who stops the violence in the Garden.  His followers wantto defend him, they wanthim to stand up for himself, and they wantto stand up for him – and he prevents them from doing so.

Thenthey run away.  If Jesus is going to be saved, then it’s going to be up to people like Peter, James, and John, because (as the disciples must see it) Jesus himself is naïve and clueless.  Although his followers love Jesus, they must think that as noble as he is, simply does not understand how Empires work.

Jesus said that his followers would be scandalized by his behavior.  If we accept the translation of that word as put forward by Peterson and some of his colleagues, then this reading is all about a group of disciples who think that they know better than their master what could and should happen.  In this reading, if Jesus thinks that giving up to Pilate and Herod without a fight is a good idea, then Jesus is sadly mistaken and he’s going to need our help, according to the disciples, to get out of this jam.

So, back to my original question: which one are you?

I guess it depends on which reading, which translation of skandalizo, you prefer.

Today I’m asking myself – and therefore, you as well – are you one who has been scandalized and offended by the Lord?  You can say it, you know.  I think that he’s given us permission here.  Are you someone who has looked Jesus in the eye and said, “Well, that’s an interesting theory, Jesus, but I’m not sure that you really understand how the world works.  Listen, Lord: let me give you a little advice.  Here’s how I think we want to play this thing out…”

Are you someone who has a better plan than Jesus?

What does this passage have to teach me about trusting in God and having faith? What do I need to learn, this Lent, about seeking to listen to and live into this narration about life in the Kingdom of God? What might have happened differently if the disciples had stayed awake and prayed with Jesus?  We will never know.  All we can be sure of is that they came to understand themselves as those who had, in fact, been scandalized by the behavior of their Lord, and it was only in hindsight that they came to see their own behavior and theology as flawed.

So there is a curious little footnote to this story.  Mark ends his account of the struggle in the Garden with an odd description of a nameless kid who is almost caught in the round up but winds up escaping into the night whilst becoming known as the first “streaker” in the Gospels – a scared young man running naked as fast as he can into the darkness.

What is thatabout?  Why does Mark – the author of the shortest Gospel – the “just the facts, Ma’am” kind of writer – why does he go out of his way to tell us this story, when none of the other Gospels thought to include it?

The only reasonable explanation that I can see is that this frightened teen is actually Mark himself.  These two brief verses are Mark’s way of saying, “Yeah, I was there too.”

It makes sense. In Acts 12, we read that one of the central locations in Jerusalem for the early Christian movement was in the home of a woman named Mary, who was the mother of a son called John Mark.  It’s entirely possible that this home was the site of the Last Supper on that Maundy Thursday evening.  And if the Supper took place in his own home, it’s easy to imagine this kid hanging around the edges, listening to the men talking and planning and then following them out into the darkness.  When everything goes down, he is overcome with fear and flees into the darkness and back to the safety of his own home.

Friends, I want you to remember what we said about Mark’s Gospel way back in 2017.  The second Gospel was written, we said, to encourage the young church in Rome.  That community was being persecuted and victimized and attacked, and they wanted to know where was Jesus in the midst of all this.  Mark’s account, written to these people, is that Jesus can be trusted. That Jesus promises to be present in the midst of all the pain, all the injustice, all the persecution.  The second Gospel was written to help a specific community see that the Kingdom is real and powerful and worthwhile.

And in this little footnote, Mark, the teller of the story, is able to say, “Listen, friends: I’ve been there.  You need to know that I didn’t always ‘get’ him either.  I’ve been scandalized.  I’ve been offended.  I’ve been afraid and I’ve been ashamed.  But I’m telling you that Jesus is the real deal.  You can trust him.  As you live and move and seek to get through the days and nights in Nero’s Rome, don’t give up.  Never forget that the ways of the Empire are notthe ways of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. Remember that the values of the Messiah are not always celebrated by the Emperor.

I would suggest that the author of the second Gospel uses this story, in part, to help his first hearers – and us – to focus on the admonition that Jesus offered his friends in verse 38: “Keep awake, and pray…”  Those are two of the most important aspects of being a disciple, I think. The commands in the Garden are virtually identical to the summation that Jesus gave in Mark 13 – the longest teaching passage in this Gospel: “What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake”.

This, beloved, is the task and the purpose of Lent.  To set aside some extra time, to seek to apply some special discipline, to put ourselves in a place where we are able and willing to do just that – to watch and to pray.  To look for and point out signs of the Kingdom that is present among us even now. To hold onto the promise when it seems as though that Kingdom is incredibly far-off. The first 13 chapters of Mark give us a vision, a foretaste, a hope for the Kingdom.  Mark uses them to help us be attentive to a Messiah who cares about injustice, and who offers us viable strategies to come together and live into that kind of community.

And this passage is given to help us remember that nobody – even first disciples and Gospel writers – gets it right all the time.  We are called to live as a community of grace, humility, forgiveness, hope, and sacrifice.  Those are not values that always sell well in the Empire – but they are the ones that will shape us into the likeness of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Lament Means Hearing, Telling, and Living With the Truth

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On March 20, we explored some of the history behind the compositions as well as the poem contained in Lamentations 2 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  We are trying to learn that.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the link below:

As we re-enter the world of Lamentations, let me invite you to recall some of what we said last week about this beautiful little book.

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez, 1867

First, we need to recall that this “book” is actually a pamphlet of five complete poems that came out of the experience of those who survived the worst day ever in 6thcentury BC Judah.

In 586 BCE Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar completed his siege and conquest of Jerusalem, laying waste the town, destroying the temple, and taking captive the educated elite of the nation.

Not just a city, but a culture and a people lay in ruins.  People do not know how they will survive in the face of the loss, not just of property and life, but of meaning and purpose and, in a very real way, history itself.

You may recall that the “book” of Lamentations is actually a series of five carefully constructed poems.  Each of the chapters in our English Bibles contains one of the five poems of Lamentations. Like Lamentations 1, chapter 2 is an acrostic poem – that is to say, it follows a pattern based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The first letter of verse one is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – aleph.  The first letter of verse two is the second letter: beth.  Likewise, the first letter of verse three is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet: gimel.

If you were here last week you’ll recall that Lamentations 1 was divided into two parts.  It began with a description of Jerusalem as a woman – a “fallen” woman, if you will – someone who was vulnerable but whose underpinnings had been pulled out from beneath her.  She has been violated by, or at least abandoned by those who should have who promised to protect and comfort her. About halfway through the chapter, though, the voice of the poem changes from being adescriptionof suffering to being a personal narrationof suffering.  Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to notice the condition of the city – not because anyone expected God to fix it, but rather so that God will not forget to punish anyone else who may have been guilty of the same things that Jerusalem did. It’s kind of like when you punish one child, and while that child does not deny the wrongdoing, the child is eager for you to mete out the same punishment to the other kids.

Let us now turn our attention to the poem in chapter 2.  Listen first to the Word as found in verses 1 – 10:

1 Oh, no!
In anger, my Lord put Daughter Zion under a cloud;
he threw Israel’s glory from heaven down to earth.
On that day of wrath, he didn’t consider his own footstool.

Showing no compassion, my Lord devoured each of Jacob’s meadows;
in his wrath he tore down the walled cities of Daughter Judah.
The kingdom and its officials, he forced to the ground, shamed.

In his burning rage, he cut off each of Israel’s horns;
right in front of the enemy, he withdrew his strong hand;
he burned against Jacob like a flaming fire that ate up everything nearby.

He bent his bow as an enemy would; his strong hand was poised like an adversary.
He killed every precious thing in sight;
he poured out his wrath like fire on Daughter Zion’s tent.

My Lord has become like an enemy. He devoured Israel;
he devoured all her palaces; he made ruins of her city walls.
In Daughter Judah he multiplied mourning along with more mourning!

He wrecked his own booth like a garden; he destroyed his place for festivals.
The Lord made Zion forget both festival and sabbath;
in his fierce rage, he scorned both monarch and priest.

My Lord rejected his altar, he abandoned his sanctuary;
he handed Zion’s palace walls over to enemies.
They shouted in the Lord’s own house as if it were a festival day.

The Lord planned to destroy Daughter Zion’s wall.
He stretched out a measuring line, didn’t stop himself from devouring.
He made barricades and walls wither—together they wasted away.

Zion’s gates sank into the ground; he broke and shattered her bars;
her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction!
Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord.

10 Daughter Zion’s elders sit on the ground and mourn.
They throw dust on their heads; they put on mourning clothes.
Jerusalem’s young women bow their heads all the way to the ground.

In some ways, the narration here sounds like the beginning of chapter 1. There is an observation provided by an omniscient narrator – someone is describing what has happened.  But note that the tone of this poem is much darker, and much more explicit than the previous work.  In chapter 1, there is the suggestion that although Jerusalem has suffered at the hands of her enemies, fundamental cause for the suffering of God’s people is actually the Lord – God’s very own self.

Here in chapter 2, there is no mere suggestion of that.  It is an outright statement of fact:  The Lord has thrown down, devoured, torn down, cut off, burned, killed… and most personally, perhaps, consider verse 7: the Lord has rejected his own altar; he has abandoned the sanctuary, he has handed over the walls of the palace to the adversary.  There is no defense made for God’s behavior here – in fact, there is only a description.  “This is what happened” (chapter 1); “God did this” (chapter 2). The hearers are not aware of any reason as to why Jerusalem would be receiving this kind of treatment from the Divine hand.

Another similarity to chapter 1 is that the voice changes in the middle of this poem, too.  Just like in the previous chapter, the poem shifts dramatically in the middle.  The pronouns shift, and we once again find ourselves hearing first-person testimony.  Listen:

11 My eyes are worn out from weeping; my stomach is churning.
My insides are poured on the ground because the daughter of my people is shattered, because children and babies are fainting in the city streets.

12 They say to their mothers, “Where are grain and wine?”
while fainting like the wounded in the city streets,
while their lives are draining away at their own mothers’ breasts.

13 What can I testify about you, Daughter Jerusalem? To what could I compare you?
With what could I equate you? How can I comfort you, young woman Daughter Zion? Your hurt is as vast as the sea. Who can heal you?

In chapter 1, the poet chose the voice of the first person so that we could hear the suffering from the experience of the one who has suffered. Here, however, the first person continues to speak of suffering as though it is happening to someone else. It’s still horrible – but this is not a complaint – it’s a statement about what is being observed.

As I read these verses, and I saw the incredulity in them, I was reminded of the radio news on May 6, 1937 when a WLS broadcaster named Herb Morrison was narrating the momentous arrival of the pride of the German Airfleet, the Hindenburg, to a mooring station in New Jersey.  Just as the blimp arrives, there is a deadly accident and the newsman is overcome.  I’d like to invite you to watch this short clip, but remember that there was no television news at that time – this is Morrison’s audio matched to a film that was taken on the same day.

Did you hear that?  He is a person, narrating what he sees – and he is overcome by it.  In a sense, it’s not happening to him – but consider that phrase that has become a part of our culture: “Oh, the humanity!” He says “I have to stop now – I cannot speak…” He cannot believe his own eyes, and yet he is compelled to describe it.

That is the tone, I believe, of the middle part of chapter 2.  Someone is walking the reader through an experience for which one does not, and should not, have words.  It is horrible.  It is the worst.

But still, there is no clue as to why this is happening.  That comes to us in the next few verses.  Listen:

14 Your prophets gave you worthless and empty visions.
They didn’t reveal your sin so as to prevent your captivity.
Instead, they showed you worthless and incorrect prophecies.

15 All who pass by on the road clap their hands about you;
they whistle, shaking their heads at Daughter Jerusalem:
“Could this be the city called Perfect Beauty, the Joy of All the Earth?”

16 All your enemies open wide their mouths against you;
they whistle, grinding their teeth. They say, “We have devoured!
This is definitely the day we’ve been waiting for. We’ve seen it come to pass.”

17 The Lord did what he had planned. He accomplished the word
that he had commanded long ago. He ripped down, showing no compassion.
He made the enemy rejoice over you; he raised up your adversaries’ horn.

Do you see? The reason for this punishment, according to the theology of Lamentations 2, is that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were paying attention to the wrong things.  They listened to the false prophets, and in so doing refused to address – they were unable to address –  their real brokenness.  God, in God’s wisdom, gave the people brokenness – God gave them what they asked for.

Here is something I have wondered in recent days: why is so much of America fascinated with, and incredibly resentful of, people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlan?  I mean, these two celebrities only want what literally everyone else on the planet wants: they want life for their kids to go well.  They want the best for their kids.  Yeah, they bribed college admissions officers to let their kids in, but hey – they just want these young people to be happy, right?  Doesn’t everyone?

And you say, “Sure, Dave – we all want our kids to be happy.  But for crying out loud, they broke the rules. They sought an unfair advantage for their children.  They chose the wrong narrative for their families, Dave.  They listened to false prophets.”

Allegheny County, PA, School District Map

Maybe.  But let me push back on that a little bit. And be aware, friends – I’m talking to me, not just you. When people in the United States choose to buy their own homes, what is one of the key factors in that decision: the school district.  If you want your kids to do well, you scrimp and you save and you get yourself a place out in Robinson, or even better, Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair.  Sure, homes cost a little more there, but that means that the tax base is deeper and that means that the income stream for the schools is more reliable and that means that in addition to better academics, your child will have access to enhanced opportunities like music, athletics, theater and other extra-curriculars. People who canget out to a great school district for their kids do.  But what about the rest of the folks?  The poor? The renters? By and large, the story in every state in the USA is the same: the folks in the city are stuck with failing public schools and in spite of the fact that they are paying property taxes in one way or another, their best options are often some sort of parochial or charter schools.

This is what I mean: right now, half of America is losing their minds because a few wealthy parents are apparently circumventing the rules of our existing social contract.  “Shame, shame, shame!” we cry.

Yet not many of these same people are outraged by a system that fails most of the parents and most of the students most of the time.

What I’m suggesting is that it is not just ancient Jews who have listened to false prophets.  We have had truth-tellers who have brought messages to us about racial reconciliation, or the environment, or the public good and politics – but we’ve disliked and therefore disregarded their messages.  We’ve chosen – dare I say it – we have chosen “fake news” – because it just helps us sleep better with the people that we’ve become.

Well sooner or later, the dam will burst and all hell will break loose. What do we do when that happens?

Lamentations 2 ends with the first real imperative of either poem.  An imperative is an “action” word – a command. Listen:

18 Cry out to my Lord from the heart, you wall of Daughter Zion;
make your tears run down like a flood all day and night.
Don’t relax at all; don’t rest your eyes a moment.

19 Get up and cry out at nighttime, at the start of the night shift; pour out your heart before my Lord like water.
Lift your hands up to him for the life of your children—
the ones who are fainting from hunger on every street corner.

When your world falls apart – cry out! Make your tears run!  Get up and cry out! Lift your hands up to him…

In other words – the author of this poem is instructing those of us who have listened to false prophets for too long to, well, engage in a period of lamentation.  To utter to God that which is broken.  And then the poem concludes with a strategy for that Lamentation:

20 Lord, look and see to whom you have done this!
Should women eat their own offspring, their own beautiful babies?
Should priest and prophet be killed in my Lord’s own sanctuary?

21 Young and old alike lie on the ground in the streets;
my young women and young men fall dead by the sword.
On the day of your anger, you killed; you slaughtered, showing no compassion.

22 You invited—as if to a festival!—terrors from every side.
On the day of the Lord’s anger, no one escaped, not one survived.
The children that I nurtured, that I raised myself, my enemy finished them off.

In modeling lament as a spiritual practice, the poet here implores God’s people to confront God with God’s own behavior, and to ask God to act in a way that is consisted with God’s nature.  Don’t pretend that this evil does not exist – rather, turn to God and name it and invite God to bring about a reality that is consistent with his purposes.

This is a hard word for us, because we would rather hear the false prophets – the cheerful news.  We love having the ability to change the channel!  But when the terror strikes, this Lenten season, my friends, let me encourage you to dwell with the things that are hard for a moment or two longer. And question the things that you hear – the prophecies that “everybody knows” to be true.

Look for the place in your life and in our world that seem to be out of whack with God’s intentions, and lay them before the Lord in a time of lament. Lift up that which some might hesitate to speak, and in so doing, make your lament a prayer.

We mentioned last week that there is not a lot of overt “good news” in the book of Lamentations.  This chapter ends with a woman holding her dead children, saying “God did this.” But I want to remind you that Lamentations did not spring up from nowhere – it was crafted by a community who had lived through the worst and survived.  They learned in the midst of that survival the strategy of lament – of coming before God and saying, “I know that we have not gotten this right!”

The fact that a community survived – that a community was left to give voice to a communal lament – is in itself good news.  That is the thing to which we may cling this evening.

In the name of the One who was, who is, and who is to come, Amen.

What Keeps Us The Way We Are

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Second Sunday of Lent (March 17, 2019), we had the opportunity to consider the “signature rites” of the Presbyterian Church.  Mark’s account of the Last Supper, as found in Mark 14:12-26, was our Gospel reading.  As it happened, we also celebrated the baptism of a beautiful young boy named Jonah.  We considered the importance of these practices in forming us as a community of faith.

To hear (most of) this sermon as preached in worship please visit the media player below:

 

When I preached this sermon in worship, I opened with an illustration from my college days that I thought would provide an opening to the scripture for the people in the room. I thought twice about using it, because I wasn’t sure that it had “aged” well, or that it would be as helpful as I wanted it to be.  I should have thought three times.  I used it, and I wish that I hadn’t.  If you were present for worship, and found that illustration to be troubling or unwise, please know that we agree on that.  I regret using it, and will not compound the error by publishing it here. What follows is an abbreviated version of the sermon, which I think is better than the original. 

I wonder: are there things that we do that help keep us the way that we are?  Of course.

Every Christmas Eve, the community is invited to my home to share in a big pot of oyster stew.  Can I tell you something? My wife doesn’t like oysters.  Not even a little.  But for nearly four decades, she has helped me to prepare this meal because, well, it’s what Carvers do.  My parents did it before me, and it reminds me – especially on Christmas – that the most important presents cannot be wrapped and hidden under a tree.

Similarly, Dan and Trish Barry gather their family up at their cabin the night before the opening day of trout season.  If you asked them what they were doing, they might tell you that they’re catching fish, but if you hear them talk about it long enough, you know that the trout are a small part of what is actually happening. It’s a lot more about family, and stories, and spending time unplugged.

Many of you could point to various practices that your family employs to shape and inform who you are.  You do something because you want to remember where you came from, and you want to share that with people who haven’t been in the room as long as you have.

The Last Supper, Sieger Köder (German, d. 2015). I love how in this portrayal the view is from the perspective of Jesus.

For Christians, the sacraments of baptism and communion fill this function.  These rituals and habits are at the core of what it means to us to live in and practice our faith together.  Today, as we have the portion of Mark’s Gospel that relates the establishment of the Lord’s Supper and then move into sharing the sacrament of baptism with little Jonah and his family, it seems to make sense to reflect on these practices.

And, since Mark has been the focus of our study for more than a year, we’ll look particularly at some of the emphases that he places on the Lord’s Supper.

First, I should say that there is some controversy as to on which particular day all of this happened.  Mark, Matthew, and Luke all tell us that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his followers, and then was killed the next day.  John, on the other hand, says that he ate a meal the day before the Passover with his disciples and was killed himself on Passover. There are some fine, but important, points to be made as we consider whether Jesus was giving his disciples this meal as a means to transform the Passover or whether he himself became the new Passover lamb.  And as rich as that discussion might be, we’re not going to have it today.  We’ll simply affirm that the Gospels are unanimous in their assertion that Jesus died during the holiest time of the year, a time that was informed by the memory and celebration of the liberation of God’s people. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and all of the disciples would have said that Jesus took a long-standing practice – the Passover meal – and he infused it with new meaning and purpose at the hour of his death.

In leaving this meal for his community, Jesus left clues that the new community would not be identical to the old.  For instance, in verse 13 of today’s reading, the disciples are told that they should look for a man carrying a jar of water.  To us, that sounds like pretty standard old-timey Bible stuff.  But to those men, the idea of finding a man doing woman’s work like that must have stuck out.  I’m suggesting that it’s intentional – a way of indicating that life in the Kingdom invites us to different understandings of people and their gifts and their roles. The Kingdom calls us to consider new patterns of relationships.

Another emphasis of Mark is conspicuous by its absence. From what you remember of the Last Supper, what did Jesus say to his disciples after he passed the bread and the cup?  “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Do you remember that?  You do?

That’s funny, because the Gospel of Mark doesn’t remember that. There is no command from Jesus to continue this meal.  Of course, we can say with some certainty that it is implied – Jesus shares the Passover with his disciples; he assumes that as faithful Jews of course they will re-engage with this meal.  But he re-defines the basis of it.  “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  And then look at what he says: “I will not drink it again until the kingdom comes in all its fulness.”  In other words, Jesus assumes that his disciples will remember him.  He’s given them language for that.  Here, he is telling them that he will remember them! It’s not a command – it’s a promise! You are remembered!

And so, every now and then, the body of Christ – the church – trots out the bread and the cup and we give thanks for this promise.  We have communion.

The Last Supper, from Jesus MAFA: Art in the African Christian Tradition

And yet here is a supreme irony: that while for two millennia the followers of Jesus have claimed that these practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are given by the Lord in order to bring about the fullness and unity of the church… we find ourselves arguing about these two things more than just about anything else!  Think about it: in spite of the fact that the word “communion” is literally built around the word “union”, there are few places in our theology that are as fractured as this!

When you go home, google your favorite denomination and the words “full communion”.  You’ll discover that Presbyterians like me claim to be in “full communion” with some of the Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, the Moravians (look it up) and the Reformed Church in America.  The Lutherans, however, have six partners.  The Roman Catholic church, on the other hand, is in full communion with five traditions, all of which have the word “Catholic” in their names.  I suspect that there is nobody in this room who hasn’t been in a church service of one sort or another where communion was being served and been told, “Well, actually, while this is for the whole people of God… you can’t have any…”

This is the meal by which we remember the great truth that Jesus taught us – that all of us are welcome, that each of us has a place – and we interrupt Jesus and say, “Yeah, sure, Lord, we get that… but not HIM, right? I mean, people like HER aren’t supposed to be here, are they?

Here’s another ‘Dave story’: in 1989 I was a Presbyterian Student at a Baptist and Episcopalian seminary who had been hired by the Reformed Church in America to do youth work.  One of my main responsibilities was overseeing a week long experience for young people from all over the country who converged on Rochester NY for a week of service, study, and growth.  One evening, this Presbyterian seminarian took a group of Reformed kids to worship in the local Roman Catholic church.  When it came time for the Eucharist, Father Jim asked me to come up and help distribute the elements.  He invited everyone in the room to share in the sacrament.  It was a true feast of unity.

Afterwards, I found one of the students weeping.  I asked her why, and she said, “Dave, this is the first time in my entire life that I have felt the presence of the Lord in the sacrament.”  And, being a knucklehead, I said, “Great!  That’s fantastic! I’m happy for you!  Why are you crying?”  She continued, “Because in my congregation, the only people who can take communion are the ones who have met with the elders.  And the only time that any of us can take communion anywhere else is when we have permission ahead of time from the elders.  Don’t you get it, Dave?  This is the best moment of my Christian life, and when I get home, I’ll have to tell my dad, the pastor, about it, and the elders will probably discipline me for breaking the rules.”  And then she wasn’t the only one weeping.

The communion that we shared that evening was not “legal” by anyone’s standards.  The Presbyterians would have had a fit if they caught me, a seminarian, up front handing out bread.  The Catholics were totally bent out of shape that the Priest had invited Protestants to share in the Eucharist.  And every Reformed kid there was flouting the rules of their own churches.  Officially speaking, none of those churches would call what we did “communion.”  In practice, however, lives were changed.

That leads me to one more observation about the Lord’s Supper as Mark describes it.  Who was in the room?

Well, we can’t be sure of everyone who was there, but we know for a fact that the twelve were there.  The twelve. All of the disciples.  In fact, Mark goes out of his way to mention that Jesus not only invited Judas to the meal, but shared the meal with him.  It’s clear from the text that Jesus knows who Judas is, what Judas had already done, and Judas is planning… and yet there he is, sharing in this meal with Jesus.

Think about that for a moment.

For two thousand years, Christians have found deep meaning and great inspiration in the memory of this first celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Every Christian tradition remembers that Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and served him the meal.  The events of this chapter are sacred to the memory of every Christian tradition.

But when we get around to sharing this supper with each other, how quick are we to say, “What? You? Here? Not so fast, Bub.  Just step right back there and cool your jets.  We’re not so sure we can let you in.”

And somewhere, someone is saying, “Seriously?  Judas – Judas Iscariot, the person who is guilty of doing the worst thing in the history of things – thatJudas can come, but not me?”

Is that the message that we want to send to the world?

O, beloved church!  On this Lenten Sunday – this Lord’s Day on which we celebrate baptism as a symbol of forgiveness and restoration, and on which we remember the Lord’s Supper as a meal of welcome and inclusivity, let us remember that we have been brought together notby how holy we are, or how correct our theology is, or how blameless our practices have been… Let us affirm and hold fast to the fact that we are broken, lost, flawed people – that we are great sinners in need of a great salvation and lo and behold, we have seen that offered to us – to all of us – in Jesus of Nazareth.

Oh, saints of God in Jesus Christ: on this day – another day following another instance where a man yelling slogans about the supremacy of one race and ideology burst into a worship space seeking to destroy those whom he had determined to be less than worthy, less than deserving, less than human – let us gather around the table and the font in humility, not arrogance, recognizing that the Kingdom of God proclaimed in Mark is not one that is always recognized by or embraced by the world, yet vital to who we are as a church and the Body of Christ.  May we be known, dear ones, not for whom we keep away, nor for that which we hate, but rather as those who are willing to share the welcome and grace that we ourselves have received in unending supply.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

On Your Worst Day

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On March 13, we explored some of the history behind the compositions as well as the poem contained in Lamentations 1 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  We are trying to learn that.

To hear this message as preached on Wednesday March 13, use the media player below:

As we start tonight let me invite you to reflect on this question: if someone squeezed you as flat as a dime and asked you “What is the worst day in your lifetime?”, how might you answer?

Some in our world might say “December 7, 1941” – the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked and World War II began.  I suspect that for many, September 11, 2001 the world became a much different place.  I bet that a few people in the room know what happened on January 28, 1986 – the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded not long after lift-off.  My friend Khadija and her family remember August 29, 2005 as the day that Katrina erased huge swaths of the city of New Orleans. For many in our world, February 26, 2012 or August 9, 2014 are days of incredible pain and loss as we consider the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

These are wildly different experiences, to be sure, but they are all common to at least some, if not all in our culture.  When we say 9/11, people know what we mean.  It is a shared, common event in the American experience.

Many of you have more personal answers to the question as to what is the worst day of your life.  It was the day you were attacked, or the one on which you became a widow.  It was the day you were arrested, or shamed, or found out in some deep brokenness.  You remember the day that your marriage ended, or that the baby died.  It was your worst day.

As you think about those “worst days”, what is our response?  What is the cry of the heart on days like those?

  • Where are you now, God?
  • How could you let this happen, God?
  • Or maybe even, Why did you do this to me, God?

And then later – sometimes much later, we have one more cry: What do I do now, God?

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez, 1867

Look, I can’t speak for anyone in this room, let alone any individual human being in 6thcentury BCE Judah, but I know the answer for the Jewish culture and people of that time.  The worst day in their lifetimes was the fall of Jerusalem – truly a watershed event in the communal experience.

In 589 King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege to the city of Jerusalem.  The longer the blockade lasted, the worse things got inside.  People were short on food, and there were rumors of cannibalism. Finally, in 586 BCE, in the events of a single military operation, everything that we loved was destroyed.  All that we thought we knew to be true was gone.  And the brightest and best of our children, our hope for the future were stolen from us.  This was personified, perhaps, in the experience of King Zedekiah, who was forced to watch the murder of his two sons and then blinded and led, along with the rest of the educated and leadership class, into exile in Babylon.

For those that remained, there was only sorrow and devastation.  The walls of the city were in disrepair.  The Temple had been violated and essentially destroyed.  All around were smoldering ruins and ashes.

From the crucible of this experience we have received one of the Bible’s most remarkable books: Lamentations, the topic our our 2019 Lenten series.

Although authorship of this work has been attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, nobody really knows for certain whose hand (or hands) produced it.  It was certainly someone who lived in Palestine after the worst had occurred.  It carries the testimony of someone who has been forced to deal with the reality of death, of grief, and of the absence of a functional society at any level.

The “book” of Lamentations is actually a series of five carefully constructed poems.  Each of the chapters in our English Bibles contains one of the five poems of Lamentations. Most of these poems are acrostics – that is to say, they follow a pattern based on the letters of the alphabet – the Hebrew alphabet in this case.

For instance, here is an acrostic poem in English:
If Only…
A prayer was held in our nation,
Beauty was seen in more ways than one,
Children who are lost could find their salvation,
Death was a stain and torture was done.

If Only…
Earth was awakened after years of endurance,
Forgotten feelings were rekindled anew,
God was man’s only path and assurance,
Hope was the foundation of the world we knew…[1]

There are 22 verses in Lamentations chapter 1, and the first letter of verse one is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – aleph.  The first letter of verse two is the second letter: beth.  The first letter of verse three is, you guessed it, the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet: gimel.

Think for a moment about how difficult it would be to construct a meaningful poem using this framework.  I know that some of us have tried to write poetry before, and using a structure like this requires discipline, creativity, and thought.  It is thoughtful and imaginative.  A poem like this is edited and re-edited – and it is the result of reflection and contemplation.

My point here is that Lamentations 1 is not a spontaneous utterance that one guy came up with and everyone else said, “Quick – write that down! This stuff is gold!”  Instead, it is the result of a careful and deliberative process.

With all of that in mind, let us consider the text of Lamentations chapter 1.

1 Oh, no!
She sits alone, the city that was once full of people.
Once great among nations, she has become like a widow.
Once a queen over provinces, she has become a slave.

She weeps bitterly in the night, her tears on her cheek.
None of her lovers comfort her.
All her friends lied to her; they have become her enemies.

Judah was exiled after suffering and hard service.
She lives among the nations; she finds no rest.
All who were chasing her caught her—
right in the middle of her distress.

Zion’s roads are in mourning; no one comes to the festivals.
All her gates are deserted. Her priests are groaning,
her young women grieving. She is bitter.

Her adversaries have become rulers; her enemies relax.
Certainly the Lord caused her grief because of her many wrong acts.
Her children have gone away, captive before the enemy.

Daughter Zion lost all her glory.
Her officials are like deer that can’t find pasture.
They have gone away, frail, before the hunter.

While suffering and homeless, Jerusalem remembers all her treasures from days long past.
When her people fell by the enemy’s hand, there was no one to help her.
Enemies saw her, laughed at her defeat.

Jerusalem has sinned greatly; therefore, she’s become a joke.
All who honored her now detest her, for they’ve seen her naked.
Even she groans and turns away.

Her uncleanness shows on her clothing; she didn’t consider what would happen to her.
She’s gone down shockingly; she has no comforter.
“Lord, look at my suffering—the enemy has definitely triumphed!”

10 The enemy grabbed all her treasures.
She watched nations enter her sanctuary—
nations that you, God, commanded: They must not enter your assembly.

11 All her people are groaning, seeking bread.
They give up their most precious things for food to survive.
“Lord, look and take notice: I am most certainly despised.”

What we see here in the first half of the poem is a tremendous suffering and pain described.  Jerusalem is personified as a woman who has experienced tragedy, devastation, and loss.  She is a widow, a fallen queen, a forgotten lover, a wayward daughter, and one who has been violated.  The language is intentional and it is violent.  In fact the words used in verses 8-10 are those often used to describe assault. This is, quite simply, horrible.

The poem shifts dramatically in verse 12.  Instead of hearing a narration about the events of someone else’s life, we now hear testimony from one who has herself suffered greatly.  The suffering and pain is voiced, not merely described.  Listen:

12 Is this nothing to all you who pass by?
Look around: Is there any suffering like the suffering inflicted on me,
the grief that the Lord caused on the day of his fierce anger?

13 From above he sent fire into my bones; he trampled them.
He spread a net for my feet; he forced me backward.
He left me devastated, constantly sick.

14 My steps are being watched; by his hand they are tripped up.
His yoke is on my neck; he makes my strength fail.
My Lord has handed me over to people I can’t resist.

15 My Lord has despised my mighty warriors.
He called a feast for me—in order to crush my young men!
My Lord has stomped on the winepress of the young woman Daughter Judah.

16 Because of all these things I’m crying. My eyes, my own eyes pour water
because a comforter who might encourage me is nowhere near.
My children are destroyed because the enemy was so strong.

17 Zion spreads out her hands; she has no comforter.
The Lord commanded Jacob’s enemies to surround him.
Jerusalem is just a piece of garbage to them.

18 The Lord is right, because I disobeyed his word.
Listen, all you people; look at my suffering.
My young women and young men have gone away as prisoners.

19 I called to my lovers, but they deceived me.
My priests and my elders have perished in the city;
they were looking for food to survive.

20 Pay attention, Lord, for I am in trouble. My stomach is churning;
my heart is pounding inside me because I am so bitter.
In the streets the sword kills; in the house it is like death.

21 People heard that I was groaning, that I had no comforter.
All my enemies heard about my distress; they were thrilled that you had done this.
Bring the day you have announced so they become like me!

22 Let all their evil come before you.
Then injure them like you’ve injured me because of all my wrong acts;
my groans are many, my heart is sick.

In some ways, this is worse – it is harder to hear, at any rate.  When Jerusalem voices those cries, we learn the hard truth: God is not only absent, but in some ways, God is the problem!

Where are you, God? [crickets]

How could you let this happen, God? [because you deserved it].  God wasn’t trying to preventsuffering; in these verses, God is named as the source of the suffering!

I heard language like this when I visited South Sudan in 2015.  After the promise of independence had devolved into the devastation of civil war, I was privileged to make a visit during a relatively peaceful time.  As I heard the people narrate their suffering and pain, I heard time and time again calls for repentance – the predominant theology seemed to be, “Look, God blessed us with freedom and abundance, and we blew it.  We squandered God’s gifts and were left with brokenness and violence and decay.  God is, therefore, punishing us by giving us what we deserve.  We have to return to the Lord in humility if we are ever to know peace.”

I am particularly struck in these passages by the plea for passers-by to notice the situation, to pay attention to the suffering, and to learn from it.

So, where is the good news here?  As we stand on this side of the cross, 2500 years removed from this situation, what can we say about lament and pain?  What can we take away from this text tonight?

I am here to celebrate that this beautiful poem was written, crafted, and edited.  And it is in that editing where I see glimmers of hope – for ancient Judah and for me.

Look with me again at verse 3:

Judah was exiled after suffering and hard service.
She lives among the nations; she finds no rest.
All who were chasing her caught her—
right in the middle of her distress.

The words for “suffering” and “hard service” would have been, for the original hearers of this poem, and can be for us, direct allusions to the captivity that the people of God experienced in Egypt.  Virtually every other time that the word for “hard service” is used in the Old Testament manuscripts, it refers to the experience of Egyptian captives.  For instance, Exodus 1:14 reads They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.”  That word was a buzz-word.  Just as when I say “9/11”, you hear more than the numbers, to an ancient Jew, if you said “hard labor” something would click in the brain.

Furthermore, verses 4, 8, 11, 21, and 22 all contain references to those who suffer as people who are groaning, or sighing.  Again, there is a parallel in the experience in Egypt:

“A long time passed, and the Egyptian king died. The Israelites were still groaning because of their hard work. They cried out, and their cry to be rescued from the hard work rose up to God.” (Exodus 2:23)

Now, there is a key difference here: In the poem of Lamentations, there’s not a happy ending.  In the Exodus story, there was a clear expectation that the Lord heard their cry – and that the Lord would act.  Here in Lamentations 1, God is experienced through the absence of God.  But that’s where the importance of editing comes to play. Those who suffered did not know where or how or when to find God – but those who recorded this story; those who pieced it together letter by letter, verse by verse – did so because they were convinced that God could be found, that God would hear, and that a lament would matter. There is no assurance here – but the language is evocative of something that could sound like hope.  It’s not hope-full, necessarily, but I think it is hope-ish, if that’s a word.

Some days, I think hope-ish is as close as we can get.

Here’s the task for the week.  Take one of these purple sheets.  You’ll see that this is an invitation for you to enter into lament. I’m here to warn you that this is not a practice to which we are accustomed.  When we experience dis-ease or dis-comfort or dis-orientation, we are encouraged to take a pill, to go to therapy, to register for a workshop, or to change the channel.  We are not encouraged to sit with or dwell with our pain.

Do it.

Think of an experience you have of pain, loss, disorientation, or brokenness.  It can be something cultural, in which we all share (such as 9/11) or it can be something personal (such has that terrible thing that happened to you last week or last year).  You have a list of letters.  I’m not asking you to write a poem.  But find some words.  Choose two words that relate to your understanding or experience of that event for each letter (take a pass on Q and X if you need to!) and just write them down. In your searching for words, you will be praying.  You need to dwell with that pain, that ache.  I’m not asking you to write a poem; but I am asking you to stick around in the hard and uncomfortable places in your lives long enough to find some words.  As you do so, you will be lamenting.  And I trust you will sense the Presence of the One who hears our laments.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

On Your Worst Day

Think of an experience you have of pain, loss, disorientation, or brokenness.  It can be something cultural, in which we all share (such as 9/11) or it can be something personal (such has that terrible thing that happened to you last week or last year).  Here is a list of letters.  Choose two words that relate to your understanding or experience of that event for each letter (take a pass on Q and X if you need to!) and just write them down. In your searching for words, you will be praying.  You will be lamenting.  And I trust you will sense the Presence of the One who hears our laments.

A

A

B

B

C

C

D

D

E

E

F

F

G

G

H

H

I

I

J

J

K

K

L

L

M

M

N

N

O

O

P

P

Q

Q

R

R

S

S

T

T

U

U

V

V

W

W

X

X

Y

Y

Z

Z

 

[1]https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/if-only-4

Love Poured Out

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the First Sunday of Lent (March 10, 2019), we heard a scripture containing a story that appears in one way or another in all four Gospels: the anointing of Jesus by a woman at Bethany.  Mark’s version can be found here: Mark 14:1-11.  In addition, we considered the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm.  

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please visit

Do you remember Mad Libs?  The “World’s Greatest Word Game” was invented in 1953 by Leonard Stern and Roger Price. In Mad Libs, one player has a short story with several key words missing. That player asks the other to fill in the missing words, and generally, if there are enough pre-teens involved, it’s a lot of fun.  Let’s try it. [the answers below are those given in worship on 03/10/19)

One day, the    Smith  (last name of someone in the room) family went to church.  They got there at  night   (time of day).  When they saw that    Ethan    and     Aviva   (people in the room) were there too, they said,   YEEET!  (exclamation!).  Pastor Dave preached a sermon that was   1 minute (length of time) long, and it was really  cheerful (adjective).  The music, however, was      red   (adjective).  After church, everyone went to the back of the room where they served      cheese  (noun) and flowers_ (noun) to everyone.

The joy of Mad Libs, of course, is that they are always different.  You can’t come up with the same story more than once, because the people in the room are different.  The outline of the story may stay the same, but each time, the details shift.

I am thinking about Mad Libs today because we have arrived at a portion of Mark’s gospel wherein Mark tells a story about the life of Jesus – and it’s a story that is told, in one way or another, not only by Mark, but by Matthew, Luke, and John. And each of the Gospels uses this incident for slightly different purposes…and in doing so, each author filters the information slightly.

The basic story is this: One day, Jesus went to dinner at the home of ________ (name a friend of Jesus).  This person was a ________ (noun).   While he was there, ________ (person in the room) poured oil on his _______ (body part). _________ (person or people in the room) were irritated by that, saying that it was a waste of money.  Jesus defended the person.  And the writer of the gospel used that incident in Jesus’ life to say _____________ (name a theological point).

I’m not saying that the gospels contradict each other – only that they provide us with different information.  So let’s look at the story in Mark.  Where was the dinner? At Simon’s home.  What do we know about Simon? He was a leper – an outcast.  Who poured oil on Jesus?  An unnamed woman. Where did she pour it? On his head.  Who was irritated? Some people.  What’s the point? She is preparing me for my death. There’s more to it than that, but take a look and see how the other writers treat the same story:

Do you see what I mean? Nobody is saying that Simon couldn’t be both a Pharisee and a Leper; and of course is “some” were irritated, that could mean the disciples, the Pharisees, or Judas, or everyone – there’s nothing contradictory here…it’s just an opportunity for us to hear the different emphases of the gospel writers.

And, since we’re focusing on Mark, let’s take a look at how Mark uses this incident to challenge us.

First, let me point out that this is another example of a “Markan sandwich”.  What I mean is that this is a place where Mark seems to take one idea and interrupt it with something else before finishing the story.  In the meantime, he uses the “filling” to comment on the “bread” and vice versa.

Our reading for today starts off with a story about the people who are Jesus’ enemies.  They want to kill him – but they are afraid, and so they decide that they’re going to have to wait until after the Passover is finished, after the pilgrims leave town, and after all of the reporters from the out of town newspapers have gone back home. His enemies appear, at least for now, powerless.

Then there’s the “filling” of the sandwich – the story of the woman who anoints Jesus – who treats him as anything but an enemy. More about that in a moment.

The “sandwich” ends with the account of Judas, who ought to have been a friend to Jesus, choosing to act with the enemies.  In fact, Judas provides the enemies with such promising intelligence that they revise their plan to wait and decide that they can kill Jesus sooner, rather than later.  So you see the sandwich?  A story about a person who loves and honors Jesus surrounded by stories about people who act with malice towards Jesus.  Whatever the woman does is amplified and intensified when it comes into contrast with the behavior of the religious leaders and Judas, doesn’t it?

So what does she do?  Well, she pours oil on his head.  And this isn’t olive oil, or Vaseline intensive care…this is pure nard – imported from India.  As Mark points out, it wasn’t cheap – three hundred denarii would have been an entire year’s salary for a laborer.

What’s the point of the oil?  You’ve already heard one echo from the Old Testament – David celebrates God’s faithfulness to him as King by saying that even when he is surrounded by enemies, the “oil of blessing” is poured on his head.  Other passages in the Old Testament describe pouring oil on the heads of those whom God had called to be priests as a way of pointing to a special role and special responsibility that belonged to those folks. The Song of Solomon has several passages wherein pouring oil on the head of another is linked to an intense love for that other.  Lastly, oil such as nard was used by those in grief to anoint the dead and prepare them for burial.

Mark uses this incident to point to the fact that a woman whose name and past didn’t matter came to Jesus in love and gave all she had to prepare him for the special role that he was assuming as he looked towards the cross. Jesus is the King in that he ushers in the kingdom of Heaven; he was the ultimate priest, or mediator, or go-between who came to bring God and humans together.  And he is loved.  And the way in which he would express his kingship, his priesthood, and his love was through his death.  Pouring a pound of nard on this man at this time is an exquisite statement of faith about who Jesus was.

And note, too, the way that she performed this act.  If it’s me, and I’ve got an incredibly valuable ointment to share with the Lord, then I take the container and I open it carefully and I veeerrrrrrry gingerly take out this liquid gold.  But what does she do?  She breaks the container – there is no way that she can save this oil, even if she wanted to – because the container won’t hold it any more.  Again, I think that Mark uses that little detail to prepare us for Jesus’ death – just as the woman’s treatment of the container shows us her total commitment to giving her best to Jesus, so Jesus’ bodily death shows us his total commitment to the reconciling work that God has given him to do. For this woman, and for Jesus, there is no going back, and there is no halfway.

When the people in the room challenge this woman and her priorities, Jesus responds simply by saying that from now on, whenever people hear the good news, they will hear about what this woman has done.  This story, he says, will be told in memory of her.  It is a memorial.

Let’s think about memorials for a moment.  If we were to drive four or five hours, we could get to the District of Columbia, where we would be able to see the Washington Monument.  You know it, right?  When this towering beautiful edifice was finished in 1884 it was the tallest building in the world.  And it was built to…to what? To honor George Washington.  It’s there so that we don’t forget that he lived, and what a huge presence he had.  It is, in some ways, a very backward-looking structure – like many monuments are.  They exist to remind us of something that happened, or of a life that was lived.

About 800 miles to the southwest of Washington DC sits the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened just last year. In this 6 acre site, visitors are given the opportunity to see exhibits recalling the worst aspects of our nation’s history of racial inequality.  More than that, though: the memorial thrusts guests into the terrorism that was bred in that climate of inequality and injustice.  The other name for this memorial is “the lynching museum”.

I would suggest that there is a difference between the Washington Monument and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  The first, as I’ve said, points us to a great man, the likes of which we may never see again.  The second, however, calls each of us to remember the lives of those who died because of the ways that our own laws were written and applied.  The first looks back at one man in admiration.  The second invites us to be inspired to the end that we might learn from the failures of the past and work together to build a more hopeful and just future.

When Jesus says that this act is a memorial to the woman, it has to be like the use of that term in the second instance. Mark doesn’t tell us her name.  We don’t know anything about her from Mark – because for Mark, the point is not that once upon a time this amazing woman did something really cool for Jesus.  The point is that every day, ordinary people like you and I have the opportunity to bring our best to the Lord and in pouring that best out before him, acknowledge that he is the king; that he is the way to life.

And maybe you say, “Yeah, sure, Pastor Dave, that sounds great…but the truth is that you and I both know that I don’t have much of a ‘best’ to offer.  Sure, the woman in the Gospel had a pound of nard.  I don’t.  Some people have great gifts of finances, or talent, or energy…but I’m not that person. I don’t have anything worth giving.”

Listen: Jesus didn’t say that everyone has to pour out a year’s salary in perfume.  Why did the woman offer up her nard?  Because that’s what she had.  That was her best.  You have a best.

I know that you don’t have the same energy as the person sitting next to you.  And you don’t have the same financial situation as the person sitting in front of you.  And you don’t have the same family life as the people across the room.  If we think of “best” and think only of quantity – we are in trouble.  Remember the widow from last week?  Her best was two cents.  But it was her best. I know, to me, it suffers in comparison to a year’s worth of salary.  But it made quite an impression on Jesus.

It is not a question of whether or not you have a best – it is a question of how you will choose to allocate the best energy, the best love, the best patience, the best financial choices, the best of your time…Sure, you don’t have as much time as you wish you did.  But you have time.  How will you use it?

And further, it’s not as if you can simply choose to not do anything with whatever you have that is “best”.  Because you will pour it out somewhere.  You may give the best years of your life to the garden, or to the food pantry, or to your children, or to the Steelers.  You may give the best of your income to the tax man, or to the Lord, or to the man who sold you your Maserati, or to the credit card company.

Jesus took his best and poured it out, and brought life eternal and God’s kingdom on earth.  The un-named woman took her best and poured it out and acknowledged Jesus as Lord and King and worthy of ultimate love.  When Jesus’ friend Judas took his love for Jesus and sold that love to the religious leaders, they gave him 30 pieces of silver.  Within a week, he had returned to those leaders and threw the money at their feet, saying he couldn’t live with it.  Then he killed himself, and the money was used to buy a cemetery. You see?  Everybody has a best, and everybody pours out their best.  The question is, what are you doing with your best? Are you pouring it out in love, in faith, in life, in the hopes that the world will change as a result of you giving what God has given you?  Or are you dropping the best that God has given you in places that will ultimately perish?

I started this sermon with a Mad Lib.  It seems to me that every day, you and I are given the chance to fill in a lot of the blanks.  Sure, some of the story is already written for us.  But there’s plenty of opportunity for you and me to choose the route that the story takes.  How will you write yours?  What will you do with the best that you have?

My hope is that you and I will choose to live as memorials that point others to the love and friendship that is found in Jesus Christ – that the choices we make with the resources we have will be full of life and wisdom and faith and hope.  In the name of the one who was, and who is, and who is to come, Amen.

You Call This GOOD News?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019), brought us to reflect on the scripture that contains the longest teaching passage (and Jesus’ ‘farewell address’ to his followers) in that Gospel: Mark 13.  This was a timely reminder of our own mortality and the hope that we can share.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

Titus Destroying Jerusalem, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1846

Some of you will remember my friend Ann, who lived to be nearly 101.  In the last few years of her life, this was her favorite text.  Every time we were together, she asked me to read the Gospel account of the day that Jesus left the temple and started to talk about the things that were going to happen before “the end of the world”.  And here’s the interesting thing: as I read it, she literally winced. This passage scared her to death. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What do we do with this chapter?  One writer has said that Mark 13 is “a happy hunting ground for persons fascinated by the end of the world” that “figures prominently in books by doomsayers and in sermons by evangelists more interested in the next world than in this one. On the other hand, this chapter is largely ignored by pragmatists, activists, believers in progress, and all who dismiss preoccupation with the end of the world as a juvenile state of human development or an aberration of unbalanced minds.”[1]  Um, yeah. Tell us how you really feel, professor…

How do you hear Mark 13?  Does God’s word come to us through these verses?

Let’s take a look at some clues within the text itself.  Some of you are old enough to remember that when we started this sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, I said that one of the key features of this work was the fact there aren’t many long teaching passages here – it’s mostly what Jesus did. Well, chapter 13 contains the longest speech in the Gospel. And so Mark, writing to believers in Rome in the middle of the first century, decided that, of all the teachings Jesus gave – more than his community needed to hear the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the Good Samaritan – they needed to hear thisteaching.  Hmmmm. We ought to pay attention.

Flevit Super Illam, Enrique Simonet, 1892

As the longest speech in the Gospel, it’s also Jesus’ “farewell” address to his followers in Mark.  Who is there on the hillside to hear it? Peter, Andrew, James, and John. According to Mark 1, who were Jesus’ first followers? Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  The four who have followed him, however imperfectly these last three years, are getting their final instructions.

In the Gospel of John, the “farewell speech” from Jesus is the wonderful encouragement, in chapters 13 – 17, to love one another.  In Matthew and Luke, there is the command to go and minister in Jesus’ name and in particular to include the Gentile community in baptism, teaching, and service. What’s the point of Mark 13?

Wars, and famines, and quakes…oh my!  Persecution, and idolatry, and suffering…oh my!  Those scenarios are all included, but they are not the prime object of Jesus’ concern in Mark 13.  In reality, most of Mark’s original readers were familiar with events like this. Remember, one of the reasons that Mark wrote the gospel was because the followers of Jesus in first century Rome were experiencing persecution and betrayal and suffering and death.  They had lived through the great famine during the reign of Claudius (also mentioned in Acts 11).  In 60 AD the Roman colony of Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake. In 70 AD the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the town. In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii.

Wars, earthquakes, and persecution are not Jesus’ focus in Mark 13. They are the backdrop for what Jesus is saying.  I’d like to suggest that the main emphasis in Mark 13 is not the sound and light show that may or may not be going on at any given moment, but rather the promise that all of these things in history have an end.  That history itself has a direction.  The good news of the Gospel, here in Mark 13, is that at some point, Jesus the Christ will return to earth, and the Kingdom of God – the very topic of the Gospel of Mark – will be experienced in all its fulness.

And if that’s true – if Jesus is right about the fact that he is coming back – then it is in everyone’s best interest to be attentive.  It’s a small wonder, then, that throughout this chapter, Jesus warns his friends to be alert.  Various Bibles translate these imperatives differently, but at least eight times in the chapter we are warned to “take heed” or “beware” or “watch” or “stay awake”.

Can you see?  Could it be that this chapter is Mark’s bit of good news to a community that has struggled to keep the faith in the midst of persecution.  Almost everyone that Mark knows has experienced Jesus only as one who is absent – someone who was here, but who has now ascended – who has left the physical earth.  What is crystal clear about this passage is the notion that this Jesus – from whom we are currently separated – is going to return, and at that time, we will be fully present to him and to each other.

Some of us, it seems, will be here on earth, alive and well, when Jesus returns.  Many of us, of course, will have died.  No matter – in life and in death, we are his, and we will be with him.

It’s not too hard to get into a rip-roaring discussion on “the end of the world”.  Just throw out a few comments about wars and earthquakes and fireballs and before too long you can have people engaged and agitated. We talk about it as if it might or might not happen.

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, c. 1536

Listen, beloved, the reality is this: the world will end, and it will end, all probability, sooner for me than it will for most of you in this room. But whether Jesus returns in bodily form during my lifetime or not, I can say with absolute certainty that I am dying, and that dying will be, for me, the end of this world. In that sense, every day is Ash Wednesday.

And my sense is that whereas I can usually scare up a pretty good conversation about the destruction of the cosmos and the signs and portents that Jesus seems to indicate here, it’s hard to have a serious conversation about our own deaths – even though, as I have said, it’s one thing of which we can be absolutely certain.

How are you preparing for your demise?  Does it scare you?  Jesus, anticipating his own death and talking to the disciples about what his followers might expect, stresses the fact that there is more to our lives and our deaths than we can see.  He surely doesn’t minimize the fact that the path can be difficult – but he does emphasize the truth that there is more to our endings than meets the eye.

Many of you will recognize the name of Lewis Carroll as the author of such wonderful children’s books as Alice in Wonderland.   Maybe you will know that Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and that he trained for the ministry and served as a deacon in the church for his entire life.  If you are familiar with Alice in Wonderland, you may know that it contains a wonderful statement of faith in which we are invited to consider our ability to live freely knowing that our deaths are only a part of the story.  Listen for the words of “The Lobster Quadrille” – and I will tell you that a “quadrille” is a formal dance wherein 8 people interact – much like square dancing.

The Lobster Quadrille, Charles Folkard, 1921

“Will you walk a little faster?”

Said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us,

Treading on my tail.”

See how eagerly the lobsters

And the turtles all advance!

They are waiting on the shingle –

Will you come and join the dance?

So, will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

“You can really have no notion

How delightful it will be

When they take us up and throw us,

With the lobsters, out to sea!”

But the snail replied, “Too far, too far!”

And gave a look askance –

Said he thanked the whiting kindly,

But he would not join the dance.

So, would not, could not, would not,

Could not, would not join the dance.

Would not, could not, would not,

Could not, could not join the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?”

His scaly friend replied,

“There is another shore, you know,

Upon the other side.

The further off from England

The nearer is to France –

Then turn not pale, beloved snail,

But come and join the dance.

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?[2]

The Good News of the Gospel is well-presented by Carroll – that there are two shores – one that we can see, and one that we know only through faith.  And the more we insist on staying close and connected to the one, the less we’ll be able to participate in the reality of the other.  We can face our own deaths without fear, knowing that the dance continues with structure, meaning, and purpose.

This doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and say that this life, and our impending deaths, don’t matter.  Far from it.  Jesus is clear in his farewell discourse that those of us who follow him are called to run the race as far as we are able, and to keep the course as best we can.  We are called to keep doing what he has left for us to do as well as we can for as long as we have.

Beloved, we don’t know – Jesus said that he didn’t know – when our experience of this life will end. We can have faith in the one who went for us as the ultimate sacrifice for sin and who has gone ahead of us and who has promised to return for us.  With the first-century Romans who heard Mark’s gospel and were sustained by it…with the monks in the middle ages who were convinced that civilization was collapsing all around them…with slaves who were carried to the Americas 400 years ago this year, and who were forced to live in inhuman conditions…with believers in countries around the world that have lived under persecution of other religions or the state… with the church of every age and every time, we can live expectantly –as though life is a dance – because Jesus has proven himself trustworthy. We can live hopefully, and look for signs and evidences of resurrection and life in the world each day.  We can live as those who find consolation, because we know that the griefs we bear will not last forever.  And most importantly, we can continue to invest our lives in God’s purposes, because although we cannot control earthquakes or wars or famines or floods, we can control our resolve to be his people.

I know, you have had people look at you in church and say, “Stay awake!”  But this time, it’s not your mother who is telling you.  It’s not the preacher.  It’s Jesus. And I think he means it.  The end is near.  We’ll get through it.  But until we get there, let’s stay awake, and let’s stay together.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] LaMar Williamson, Interpretation Commentary on Mark (John Knox, 1983) pp. 235-236.

[2] Alice in Wonderland, chapter 11 <http://www.authorama.com/book/alice-in-wonderland.html&gt;