It Just Isn’t Right

The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29) this year.  We considered the interaction that Jesus had with the people of Bethany as described in John 11:1-44, and sought to make sense of the call to unbind Lazarus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

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

Not too long ago (although, to be honest, any time that includes me being out in my car and making visits seems like an awfully long time ago) when the COVID 19 virus was just beginning to hit the USA, I happened to be out, and I happened to be wearing my clerical collar. A woman I’d never seen before stopped me and said, “Excuse me, are you a chaplain?”

I replied that I was a pastor, and asked if I could help.

She looked down, and then engaged my eyes, and as her own eyes filled with tears she said, “I just have a quick question, if that’s OK.”

I assured her that it was more than OK.  She looked toward the doors of the nearby hospital, and continued, “Well, Pastor, it’s just this… I mean, why did God send this?  Why is God doing this? Why must I suffer like this?”

My first response was to scold her (with a smile): “You said a quick question, and I’ve been working an answer to that one for 40 years…”  But then I continued. I must confess that in retrospect, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my off-the-cuff answer, and I wish she were present this morning.

You may not be a pastor, but I suspect that you’ve heard this question in the past couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of those who purport to speak on the Lord’s behalf these days.  Perhaps you’ve run across one of the dozens of news stories reporting that a famous clergyperson has alleged that the Almighty has visited the globe with this virus because God is so angry with humans for one of a dozen reasons.  Interestingly enough, it appears as though these men (and yes, they are mostly men) are pretty well-convinced that God happens to hate all of the same people and things that they hate: those who have sought or provided abortions, sexual and gender minorities (and those who support them), immigrants, environmentalists, or who knows what else?

As if God is known for whom or for what God hates.  As if God’s primary means of self-revelation is to destroy those things that God hates.

I want to distance myself in every possible way – socially, theologically, spiritually – from a theology that is presumptive enough to offer a rationale for this virus based on who or what God hates.  Such conversation is simply incompatible with the Divine love that I see cascading in and through the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Let’s look at the gospel.  This is a well-known story, isn’t it?  What’s happening here?

There has been a death in the village.  And, unfortunately, not just any death, but a tragic death.  Lazarus has died an untimely death.  He has left behind him two sisters – women who were evidently unmarried, and thus dependent on their brother in all sorts of ways.  His sisters are now apparently without their father, without husbands or sons, and now without a brother.  There is no man in their life on whom they can rely to conduct business on their behalf, to protect them, to provide for them in the midst of this society that is incredibly gender-biased and sexist.  The road ahead of Mary and Martha would seem to be filled with one barrier after another now that they are essentially alone.

Recognizing their plight, the village has stopped everything and has gathered in shared grief.  There is a heaviness and a despair that seems to pervade everything.

I find this passage interesting because it not only tells us what’s happening, but it also lets us in on how people are feeling.  There is a lot of emotional language in John 11.  What are people feeling?

Let’s start with the easy one.  Lazarus is, as they say, feeling no pain.  He’s dead.  He’s totally and completely disconnected from the situation. The barrier between Lazarus and everyone else seems impenetrable.  He is wrapped up, bound up, locked up in a grave.

Mary and Martha are, as we have said, stricken with grief.  John says that when Jesus strolled into town they fell at his feet.  They are bound up just as tightly as was Lazarus – only theirs are not graveclothes, but grieving clothes.  They are not only sad, they appear to have some anger:  “If YOU HAD BEEN HERE, Jesus, my brother wouldn’t have died…” Martha and Mary are filled, as we might expect, with intense emotions.

The townspeople – our translation calls them “the Jews” – were also clearly saddened by the loss of Lazarus.  But more than that, they seem to share in the sisters’ frustration and disappointment.  “This man opened the eyes of the blind!  We thought surely he could keep his friend from dying.”  They saw Jesus as a miracle worker – a hero of sorts.  And now, he had not only let his friends down, he had let his public down.  There was not going to be a show, they thought.  Jesus could have done something, but he didn’t. 

Jesus Wept (James Tissot between 1886-1894)

And Jesus himself – how does he feel?  Well, we can start with an easy one.  You may know this story as the answer to a trivia question:  “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?”  The answer is here:  John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”  His friend had died, and he was sad.  This passage speaks to that in several places.  In both verses 33 and 38, we find that Jesus was “deeply moved” in his spirit, and that he was troubled.  There’s a word that’s repeated in each of these verses: embriaomai. It’s a Greek word that initially was used to describe the snorting of horses.  You’ve seen that – when a horse lets out some sort of involuntary snort that, if you’re not paying attention, can really surprise you.  This is what embriaomai was first used to describe, but as time passed the word came to be understood as a deep response to a strong and powerful emotion – a kind of inarticulate groaning or sighing.  And interestingly enough, it carries with it a sense of anger. 

My hunch is that Jesus was frustrated – grieving, saddened, and angry that things were so wrong.  Lazarus’ death was, for Jesus, an intensely personal example of the reason for which he had come into the world: to be the resurrection and the life, that all who believe in him even though they die, they might live.  Jesus had come, according to the gospel, in response to all of the deaths in the world, and now, here, he has to look one particular death square in the eye.

And what does Jesus DO?  There are at least four verbs here worth talking about.  Jesus becomes disturbed or frustrated.  Jesus weeps.  Jesus prays.  And finally, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb and orders him to be unbound.  Jesus brings resurrection to Lazarus, his family, and that community.

Why?

What I’m asking is this: why does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead?  I want to emphasize that he doesn’t do it for the reasons that I would do it.  He doesn’t do it because he loves Lazarus, and he doesn’t do it because he’s worried about what might happen to Mary and Martha without a man around the house.  He doesn’t do it in order to delight his friends and give them some sort of a happy reunion – even though his own emotional connection makes it clear that this would make bring him joy, too.  And he surely doesn’t do it to sell tickets for his upcoming tour, because Jesus knows exactly where his road is leading.

Jesus is clear: he raises Lazarus for the exact same reason that he healed the blind man in the reading we shared last Sunday.  “Didn’t I tell you, Martha, that if you believed you would SEE THE GLORY OF GOD?”    Why does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead?  So that people would believe that Jesus was sent from God. So that people would pay attention to him, not as some sort of a miracle worker or magician (“for my next trick…”) – but so that people would know that God had not forgotten the promise to send a deliverer, a redeemer, a savior.

Another question: what’s the good news for us here?  What do we learn, where can we grow, from participating in this scripture today?

I, for one, am fascinated by the frustration and anger and weeping of Jesus. That involuntary “arghhhhhh” that he lets out before he bursts into tears.  What is this about?  I mean, Jesus knew that he could raise Lazarus.

This is what it reminded me of.  What was Jesus’ job, do you think, before he started his ministry?  Well, most translations tell us that his dad, Joseph, was a carpenter.  The Greek word for that, tekton, is a little broader.  A tekton is someone who makes things.  In that part of the world, most of the making was done with stone – wood was in relatively short supply. 

At any rate, Jesus, presumably, went into the family business as a young adult.  So what did he do?  He made things.  He put things together.

Did you ever make something, and it turned out just right?  You assembled it, glued it, stained it, whatever, and it was just perfect.  It worked beautifully.  And then someone did something to mess it up.  Maybe you made the perfect birthday cake and you put it on the counter and the next person into the kitchen opened a cupboard and knocked the salt and pepper shakers right into the middle of your cake. Maybe you just finished shoveling the walk and clearing a path out and here comes the plow BOOM covering your entryway with three feet of snow and ice.  Maybe you just finished the perfect term paper on the computer but before you hit the “save” button, your sister decides that she needs to download an entire season of her favorite show at the same time that your dad is streaming a work call…and the internet fails.  What is your response in these situations? Arghhhhh! Embriaomai!!! 

Do you remember how John’s gospel opens?  How he talks about Jesus?  “He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  Do you see!  Jesus wasn’t just Lazarus’ friend – he was Lazarus’ maker!  And something had messed up his Lazarus!  Doesn’t that just tick you off when you go to all the trouble of creating a universe and making people and calling them your own special children and then someone goes and screws it up!  Man, I hate that!  And clearly, Jesus did too.

Beloved, the good news of the gospel is this: Jesus reveals the heart of God as he is frustrated and saddened by things that don’t work right.  What does that mean?  It means when Jesus see you weeping at the grave of one that you thought you could not live without, embriaomai!  When Jesus sees people fighting for breath on respirators, embriaomai! When Jesus  sees his beloved children, created for joy and generosity descending into hoarding and pettiness, embriaomai!

Beloved, we can and we will see the Glory of God.  Not because of our denomination, or ethnicity, or citizenship.  We will not, most likely, see the glory of God when everything in our lives works out just perfectly.  I am here to say that we are more likely to see the glory of God when we encounter the God who loves us enough to weep over the imperfections and the broken places of our lives.  The God who groans when he sees how stained we are with sin and how deeply the pain of the world has infected us.

So to you, un-named woman I met on the street: you know there is much in your life that is broken.  There are barriers between where you are now and God’s intentions for your life.  You may be held down by grief, you or someone you love may be trapped in a body that doesn’t work the way you wish it did, you may be watching a relationship you have cared about deeply wither away. Embriaomai!  That hurts!

People of God, wherever you are, will you join me in holding onto the truth that there is nothing in your life that is so broken that God cannot make you whole and use you to display God’s glory to the world around you?  Will you join me in proclaiming to the world that the grief and pain that so often enters our lives is not the final word?

The news today is not that God is so angry that the best idea God has is to send a virus that causes fear and indiscriminate death. That is a lie.  The news today is that wherever you are in the midst of this pandemic, you are not alone.  Yes, I know, you may feel alone.  You may be locked in your home, or even worse, a hospital bed.  You may be craving human contact and a return to whatever “normalcy” looks like for you.  The good news is that at this moment, God is present to and with you in the person of Jesus.   

This is what I want to do to end this sermon.  I want to pray that we might in fact find some display of God’s glory in the face of grief and barriers. Beloved people of God, today let me encourage you to give your God the embriaomai places of your life.  Ask God to unbind him.  To unbind her.  To unbind you.  And let us, today, look for the glory of God.  And let us pray that we might believe it when we see it and even that we might be instruments of its appearing in our world.

Thanks be to God for the promise that no binding is eternal.  Amen.

If you’d like, you can watch the entire worship service on YouTube!  See the link below or paste this link https://youtu.be/A5GNldxpujc into your browser window.   

There He Goes Again!

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights ended 2019, as did much of the rest of the church of Jesus Christ, by hearing the awful news of the “slaughter of the innocents” as described in Matthew 2:13-23.  The second reading was Hebrews 2:10-18.  

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

Well, you almost made it.  Almost, but not quite.  You did very well, I must say.  You’ve survived the gauntlet of Christmas.  For some of you, it was tough, I know.  You didn’t know how you’d get through – it was so foggy, and there was so much going on, it seems.  Maybe you had some time with friends.  I suspect you spent some time alone.  And perhaps you managed to temper, for the most part, your great expectations for the entire holiday season.  And even if you can’t say you can say had a great Christmas, you made it.  And now you duck in here to close out the year, you come to church looking for a little peace and quiet, one last shot at “good will toward men,” and perhaps a couple of carols, and the preacher goes a pulls something like this.

Pulpit image in the Cathedral of Pisa, Italy, carved by Giovanni Pisano 1302-1311.

What kind of gospel reading is this, anyway?  You’d think that once — just once, we could come into church and not have somebody bleeding all over the carpet.  What is it with this place, anyway?  Why is it that every time we open the Bible, somebody’s dying, somebody’s smiting, or somebody’s getting smitten?

And while I’m at it, this is some God, too.  It wasn’t a month ago that we opened the scriptures and found Mary singing the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly;  He has filled the hungry with good things.”  We sang with her on December 15: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the world is about to turn!”  Were you here? Isn’t that an amazing song, and a better word from the Lord?

Massacre of the Innocents, León Cognlet (1824)

So excuse me for asking, but is this the same God?  Mary, are you sure?  Who is going to tell that to those mothers in Bethlehem?  Who was on duty in heaven the day that old Herod went through Bethlehem and killed all those kids?

What about the pictures on the front of all those Christmas cards?  What about GENTLE JESUS MEEK AND MILD?

I’ve got to tell you, this is a hard text for me to listen to this week.  For a long time now, I’ve been aware that the Christmas story ends with this reading.  For weeks, I’ve been walking around it, sticking it here, probing it there.  For the most part, it’s defied me.  I come into my devotional time and it sits there and laughs at me.  “All right preacher, what will you do with me????”

I have not been able to escape from the wailing of those mothers.  Everywhere I go, I hear that loud lamentation — during dinner, walking through the Heights, in the hospital, watching the news, at the Funeral home, laying in bed trying to get some sleep.  Everywhere I look, I see the mothers and I hear their wailing.  I ask myself, didn’t Jesus come to bring hope?  To share joy?  How is it, then, that this first Christmas has cost the town of Bethlehem so dearly?

Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1566). The artist re-imagines the scene depicting an attack on Flemish families by Spanish soldiers and German mercenaries in the Eighty Years’ War.

And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if somehow I could leapfrog to the end of the story and see Jesus trashing Herod soundly.  But you know what happens — they get Jesus, too.  Mary’s voice is added to the chorus of mothers weeping for their children.  And as far as I can tell, the innocents keep getting slaughtered.  There’s Jesus, yes.  But don’t forget Stephen.  Paul.  Joan of Arc.  Dietrich Bonhoffer.  Martin Luther King.  The children from Sandy Hook School.  Millions of other women and men and children — all killed.  It sure is a funny way to bring in a kingdom.

So I sat, and I glared at the text.  Suddenly, it came to me.  Why don’t I skip this one?  Preach out of something else, Dave!  Forget about all that gory stuff.  My fingers fairly flew as I rifled the pages from Matthew to Revelation.  But the story stayed with me.

And then it hit me.  The news in Matthew’s story is not that some cut-throat dictator had a couple of dozen babies killed in a fit of jealous rage.  Heck, Herod was a thug through and through – he had killed 300 of his court officers.  He had iced his own wife and three of his sons.  In his dying breath, he arranged for the killing of all the leading citizens of Jerusalem.  No, it’s no great surprise that tinhorn power-mongers get violent.

Here’s what is news:  that God cares about those babies that died.  And God cares about Paul, and Joan, and Martin, too.  And God cares about children stuck in cages and South Sudanese whose lives are imperiled every day.  You heard it in the reading from the epistle: Hebrews tells us that because of his own sufferings, Jesus is able to remember yours and mine, and that he is able to help us bear the load of grief.  The news in this story is that God knows where you and I hurt.

Dove of the Holy Spirit, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican)

Jean Vanier, in his wonderful little book From Brokenness to Community , describes how our discovery of our own pain can lead us to God.  “The cry makes us touch our inner pain.  We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us . . . It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God.  And then we meet the ‘Paraclete’ whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send to us.”[1] We often translate “paraclete” as the comforter, or the Holy Spirit, but Vanier points out that it literally means “the one who answers the cry.”  He suggests that it is not possible for us to receive the Holy Spirit unless we cry out, and unless that cry comes from the awareness of our own brokenness and pain.

And that’s a dilemma for us.  How is it that we cry?  And how is it that we are heard?  And why is it that there is often such a long time between the cry and the recognition of its being heard?  There are so many ways to look at this.

I am, to many of you anyway, a friend.  I am your brother in Christ.  And in the context of that relationship, I am one who cries out.  You have helped me to find the broken places in my own life and to raise them, sometimes with cracking voice, to God.  Many of you in this room have pointed me toward hope when I wasn’t sure where to look.

And I am a pastor to you as well.  It has been my privilege to cry with you, to struggle with you, to wait with you as together we look for meaning in the face of suffering.  You have invited me into deep, sometimes dark, sometimes frightening places in your world and asked me to stand with you while something unimaginable was happening.

But this day I am also a preacher, and I have the honor of announcing that in the end, cries are heard and comfort is felt.  The hard part is, that sense of peace can only come after the shock is gone, after the sobbing has muted, after the wrestling match with God is over.  Perhaps you have heard of a young man who received substantial injuries in the Civil War.  For the rest of his life, he cried to God, asking to know where God was in the midst of his pain.  At the end of his struggling, he is said to have penned these lines:

I asked for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I have received nothing I asked for, and yet everything that I hoped for.

My prayer is answered.

Where are your deep aches this day?  A dream unfulfilled?  A cancer-ravaged friend?  A vacant chair at the breakfast table?  A lost job?  A broken marriage?  Welcome to the family, dear friend.  Your cries have been heard, and they are remembered.  And you can be re-membered.  I like that word: re-membered.  Often, we use it as the opposite of “forgotten”.  We say, “Oh, no! It’s your birthday! I forgot! I can’t believe I didn’t remember.”  But it’s also the opposite of another word: dismember.  When we dis-member something or someone, we take it apart, often with violence, hatred, or evil.  Dis-membering is cruel and gruesome.  We have, some of us, been dis-membered in a metaphorical sense; we have had bits of ourselves hacked off or plucked out or walk away.  But as your pastor, I am here to tell you that those who have been dis-membered will be re-membered.  What has been lost will be found, and what has been cut off will be restored.

Christ in Limbo, Fra Angelico (c. 1442)

You know, Matthew is the only gospel to mention the slaughter of the innocents.  Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, to note that when the Gospel writers talk about the resurrection, Matthew is the only one to mention that when Jesus rose, “the tombs also were opened, and the bodies of many of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised … they came out of the tombs and appeared in the holy city” (27:52

Sheesh — there he goes again.  Why is it that I can’t even walk into this place without dead people rising up?  It’s so messy, so confusing all the time.  Why can’t they just stay dead?

No.  Not with Jesus.  The bad news is that we’re all dead or dying in one way or another.  The good news is that Jesus gives us life each day – in spite of the death that we share.

So when you walk into this room, remember, that yes, it is a room of death.  We do wind up bleeding on the carpet a good deal of the time.  But remember, too, that it is a room of resurrection.  The cross is empty and the table is set.  We have the promise of our brother, Jesus, that death is not the end, but rather a gateway to resurrection — for children who die too soon, for saints, for me, and for you.  Do not marvel that we die, or that difficulties come; be grateful that we have lived!  Thanks be to God for the gift of life and the promise of hope to come! Amen.

[1] From Brokenness to Community , Paulist Press, 1992.

Finding Her Voice

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included many of the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  This year’s story was influenced by a number of stories it’s been my privilege to encounter in recent years, and is anchored in the declaration and promises found in Isaiah 40:1-9

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

What’s in a name?  Or, more to my point: what’s in a nickname?  Often a nickname can be ironic, as when the 350 pound security guard is called “Tiny”, or the way that people sometimes call a bald man “Curly.”  A nickname can be cruel or sarcastic, such as when the kid with dental problems gets referred to as “Bucky” all through middle school.  But sometimes, well, they just fit.

That’s how it was for Bertha Evans.  She was named after her grandmother, who lived next door, and even when she was a baby, “little” Bertha was called “Byrdie” so that people knew which Bertha they were talking about.

When someone carries a name like Byrdie, you might think that person is musical.  In this case, you’d be right.  I don’t know this for certain, but it’s been said that Byrdie learned to sing before she could speak.  Growing up, people would say, “Oh, Byrdie, you were born to sing!”  As she matured, she developed a lovely, flowing soprano voice that would put an angel to shame.  Her nickname became even more appropriate when at the age of 24 she married a man named William Finch.  That’s right.  From then on, she was Byrdie Finch.

Now, because she had been born blind, Byrdie didn’t read music in the traditional sense.  However, between recordings and Braille sheet music, there was nothing that she couldn’t tackle vocally.

She sang in a couple of bands when she was younger, and people say that she could have “made it”, but I always had the sense that she wanted to sing mostly because it made her happy, not because she wanted people to clap for her.  In recent decades, she’s sung most frequently in the church choir.  On occasion, she could be counted on to offer the Anthem or “God, Bless America” at a sporting event or parade.

Byrdie would tell you that she had a great life.  Her marriage seemed really healthy; her children were everything she’d hoped that they could be; she had a fulfilling career and great neighbors… Yes, life was just perfect… right up until the point that it wasn’t.

It was a January evening a couple of years ago.  She was heading home from the Arena, where she’d been asked to sing the National Anthems for the hockey game.  A drunk driver T-boned the car in which she was riding, and for a while it seemed as if that would be the end for Byrdie.  She lingered in the ICU for ten days, dealing with broken bones and massive internal injury.  She endured several surgeries in that precarious fortnight.  And then, she emerged from the twilight and regained herself.  The doctors were pleased not only with themselves, but with Byrdie’s recovery.

There was just one thing: while she was in the ICU and enduring those surgeries, they had to put a breathing tube down her throat.  I don’t know if you’ve ever had to have one of those, but I’m here to tell you that as essential as they are at times, they are anything but comfortable.

When Byrdie came out of the ICU and was removed from the respirator, she struggled to speak. The physicians assured her that it was normal, and that there had been a great deal of trauma, and that if she was just patient, everything would work out all right. Well, she tried hard to be patient, but things were most assuredly not all right.  Three weeks after the tube was removed it was all she could do to whisper.  After two months, they did some tests and determined that the intubation had damaged her vocal cords.

By April of that year, Byrdie was pretty much out of the woods in terms of her major injuries.  That allowed her time to undergo a series of surgeries on her vocal cords and voice box in an attempt to restore her speech.  She tolerated those procedures well, and before long she was able to get around much as she had prior to the accident, and was fully independent – or should have been.  The problem was that her frustration with her voice was so significant that it plunged her into a deep depression.  Byrdie could have left the house, and she could have rejoined her social circle, and she could have attended her granddaughter’s preschool graduation – in fact, she could have gone back to much of her own life – but to do most of those things, she had to talk, and there was nothing she disliked more in those days than the sound of her own voice.

As the months went by, that voice regained strength, but it was most definitely not the same.  It seemed to have dropped at least an octave.  People did not recognize her voice: when she she answered the phone, people thought it was her son. She was ashamed and embarrassed.  She spent most of that summer, alone and silent, on her back porch. There, she did a little reading, a little knitting, and a lot of sitting.

In September, her neighbor and friend, Naomi Jones, invited Byrdie to a lecture at the Museum of Natural History.  She wasn’t crazy about it, but Naomi was persistent and without even knowing the topic, Byrdie capitulated and trudged along to the fourth row of a lecture she didn’t want to hear, on a subject she didn’t know, being offered by a scientist she’d never heard of.  Byrdie was, for all intents and purposes, a “captive audience”.  “The things I do for you, Naomi”, she mumbled as she waited for the thing to end.

Passerculus sandwichensis – Savannah Sparrow

Except something caught her ear.  The presenter was a young researcher from a Canadian university who was reporting on some field work he’d done recently.  His team visited a secluded island on the Canadian coast with the aim of determining whether it was possible to teach adult songbirds a new “language”.  He presented a lot of complicated methodology and science, but the thing that fascinated the folks at the Audubon Society was this: a significant percentage of adult savannah sparrows successfully learned “new” mating calls over the course of a summer. The ornithologists played recordings of a different population of this species over and over and lo and behold, the local birds started picking up on the new tunes.[1]

When the lecture had finished, the researcher seemed quite pleased with himself, Naomi felt a burst of accomplishment at having coaxed Byrdie out of her back yard, and Byrdie, well, Byrdie was quiet… which was nothing really new.

Here’s what I do know: that three weeks after the lecture, the new choir director called Byrdie and invited her to choir practice.  She laughed at him and then hung up.  A few days later, the pastor called.  “Byrdie, be honest.  You have a voice.  It’s not the voice you’ve always had, and it’s going to take some practice – but we both know that you’ve forgotten more about music than any of the rest of that bunch will ever learn.”  There was a pause, and the pastor added, “And besides… I know how much you love Handel’s Messiah.”

Oh.  Messiah.

If you had ever heard Byrdie sing, you would have thought that the soprano part of Messiah had been written with her in mind.  I mean, when Byrdie sang out recitatives like “and lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them” and “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God…”, well, no matter who you were you were ready to launch into the chorus of “Glory to God!”  In that community, Byrdie Finch was synonymous with Messiah.  And now someone else was going to voice the angel.  It was more than she could bear.  However, she agreed to attend the practice, and offered to do what she could to coach the soprano section, but she knew that she’d be unable to sing a note.

When the evening of the rehearsal came, however, the choir faced an unexpected challenge.  Due to the fact that several members had gone off to college, one had moved, and another had a nasty cold, there was not a single alto in attendance at choir practice.

Did Byrdie remember the lecture about the savannah sparrows?  Did Naomi nudge her? I don’t know.  But I do know that Byrdie didn’t leave, and that she said that if she could get her new voice box to cooperate, she’d try to sight read the alto line.  And so the rehearsal began.

The tenors started, as always, by singing about God’s comfort, and about valleys being exalted.  About halfway through that piece, it occurred to Byrdie that the first time the altos sang anything in the entire Messiah was when they, and they alone, would announce “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…”  When that piece starts, there is no chorus to hide behind, and no heavy instrumentation to lean on – just the pure tones of the alto voice – a voice that Byrdie wasn’t sure that she had.  And in her anxiety, she requested that they skip that number for the first rehearsal.  And, as it turns out, for the second.

But here is what happened: as each rehearsal began, she listened to the tenor.  I mean to tell you, she listened.  Even for a person like Byrdie, for whom listening was a lifeline on a minute-by-minute basis – she listened to the words of the tenor.  And she heard.

Byrdie heard in those ancient words that God’s desire is that creation be comforted.  She heard, as if for the first time, that reconciliation was at hand.  She knew that voice crying in the wilderness, and she dreamed of mountains being made low, valleys that were exalted, and rough places that were made plain.

The words stuck with her – a voice, crying in the wilderness.  She thought about the immense and intense work and effort of reconciliation and healing.  She went back and she read and re-read Isaiah and came to understand that the line to be voiced first by the alto about the glory of the Lord being revealed could only be heard after the tenor sang of the years of suffering and estrangement and pain and injury and loss.

Sitting in the upstairs choir room listening to her old friends do their level best to master one of the greatest musical scores of any age, Byrdie finally grasped this truth: that the glory of the Lord is revealed to people who have lost – and then found – everything.

For her entire life, Byrdie had been in such a hurry to be the angel singing of glad tidings that she had missed out on the fact that valleys were not exalted in a day and mountains were not brought low overnight.  After her accident, and after losing her voice, and after losing herself… she knew the truth she had always known, but she somehow understood it more deeply – that in the midst of great loss and pain to the point of being incapacitated – at that time, and to those people would the glory of the Lord be revealed.

She had known the lyrics since she could read: “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together – for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”

And in that room, she finally knew the score.  All flesh shall see it together.  Don’t think that line was lost on Byrdie Finch, either.

And so for the rest of the Fall, Byrdie continued to spend time on her back porch.  Only now instead of knitting, she had her tablet out, and she was listening to, and then singing along with, some YouTube videos that featured the Alto parts for Handel’s Messiah.  She found that as her familiarity with the part grew, her voice sounded less grating.  She began to talk more, and even laugh. She read stories to her grandchildren again, and found that she was even looking forward to choir practice.

On the last Sunday of Advent that year, Byrdie Finch walked with the choir, as usual, to the front of the sanctuary.  And for the first time ever, she sat to the far rightof the chancel – where altos sit.

And after the plaintive wailing of the tenor, the crying in the wilderness, and the promise that literally moves heaven and earth, Byrdie sang out in an alto voice the words she had come to love.  And what the altos started, the choir finished – adriving chorus in ¾ time, written in A major with an Allegro tempo, announcing the coming glory of the Lord.

A few moments later, Byrdie took the congregation to new places with a solo they had never heard her sing before: “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, lift up thy voice with strength: lift it up, be not afraid: say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”

Because Byrdie knew.  She had lived through the exile, borne witness to the glory of the Lord, and knew that she could, without fear, lift up her voice with strength and even encourage others to do the same.

And you might think that is the end of this story, and it might be an appropriate place for me to stop.

Except for this: you see, Byrdie retired earlier this year. Like a lot of folks in their sixties, she thought that she’d find all sorts of things to do.  She read.  She puttered around the house.  She played with the grandkids.  And she loved all of those things.  But she wanted something else.  Something more.

So now she volunteers twice a week.  Byrdie Finch is a docent at the Aviary – one of those lovely people who greet you, who help you to learn something about a particular bird or perhaps locate a species if you’re in one of the large rooms.

You might be surprised to find a blind person guiding a bunch of birdwatchers. Some of them sure are – and others have no idea that she can’t actually see what she’s talking about.  Someone will say, “But where are the blue-bellied rollers?”, and Byrdie will listen, and then point in the direction of those gorgeous creatures.  Photos will be snapped, children amused, and tours will continue.

And every now and then someone will see her name tag and say something like, “Byrdie Finch eh?  Wow, you were born for this!”

“I don’t know whether I was born to do this or not,” is her standard reply.  “But I know that I can, and I will gladly do it today.”

After everything, Byrdie Finch has learned to find and to point others toward beauty and comfort.  She never dreamed she’d be singing alto or spotting birds, but in the midst of the valleys and the mountains the glory of the Lord was revealed to her and through her.  And after traveling through all the valleys and the mountains, Byrdie Finch learned a new song. My hunch is, so can you. So can we all.  Thanks be to God whose glory is revealed!  Amen.

Listen to the Glory of the Lord as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir…

[1] So this really is a thing: you can learn about it here: https://www.audubon.org/news/an-experiment-teach-sparrows-new-songs-proved-wild-success

Watch and Hope

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

I started thinking about the idea of a Sabbatical experience two years ago.  I began the work of planning it about 11 months ago.  I got really serious about six months ago, and designed our route, signed the contracts for our RV and began to book campsites.  One of the interesting features about our travel schedule is that it requires us to cross the Continental Divide at least two times. A continental divide is a line of demarcation indicating where water will flow across a continent – it’s a division where the precipitation that falls on one side of the line winds up in one ocean (say, the Pacific Ocean) or another (say, the Atlantic Ocean).  For most of the United States, that divide runs along the crest of the Rocky Mountains.

Which means that back in November when I was planning this route, I drew up a route that would have us ascending the mountains at least twice as we began and will end this sojourn in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I consulted all the best guides; I did my research, and the itinerary I drew up called for us to leave the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of June 26 and drive up and over the crest of the divide and exit the western gate of the park. It made sense.  It was a lot of driving to get from the eastern gate of the Rocky Mountains to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah in one day, but it was only about 300 miles.  I could do it.

Except for the fact that it snowed like crazy in the Rocky Mountains the weekend prior to our arrival. We showed up at the east gate and were informed that the Trail Ridge Road – the only road connecting east and west in the park – was impassable due to a heavy snow accumulation.  This route, rising to 12,183 feet (3713 meters), is the highest continuous paved highway in the USA.

The Trail Ridge Road as it looked on days 1 and 2 of our Rocky Mountain Adventure…

Well, doesn’t that just beat all?  I’m in the tail end of a well-planned and meticulously organized travel plan, and the ONE ROAD I absolutely need is closed.  I stood in line at the Park Ranger’s desk and asked about the likelihood of the road opening up in time for me to make the rest of my journey.  Believe it or not, he seemed unimpressed with my meticulous planning.  Even after I explained that I was The Reverend Dave Carver and I had a tight program to keep, he pretty much said, “Well, let’s keep your eyes on the sign boards and hope.”

All of my plans for this trip had boiled down to whether the weather would clear and the crews would be able to dig out the road.  There was nothing I could do but to watch and hope.

As I did, I thought about a dear friend of mine who is engaged in the fight of her life with a deadly illness. She could tell me something about having plans interrupted by icy blasts and drifts that make progress seem unattainable.  I thought about another friend, whose dreams for the future seemed to disappear when her child died.  I remembered my own condition in the months leading up to this journey – some of the situations over which I have felt powerless to change and yet over which I worried a great deal.  As I considered the foolishness of my complaining about the weather, I was driven to prayer for those whose only options all day are to watch, and hope, and pray.

It was not the spiritual discipline I’d planned for myself this week of Sabbatical, but it was an important and holy work nonetheless.  We stayed in the area of the park that was accessible to us, and then less than 24 hours before I “needed it”, the road was indeed opened.  As silly as that may sound, it gave me hope for those situations that I named above.  I want to sing to my friends, “There is a way through!”  It may seem impassible or impossible now, but sometimes watching and hoping and praying lead us to a new experience of, and gratitude for, the journey.

Some of the drifts seemed to be fifteen feet high – on June 26th!!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not equating my ability to drive a powerful vehicle on a mountain road with someone else’s battle with a deadly illness or the depths of grief.  I’m saying that my circumstances led me to a deeper awareness of the situations in which my friends have found themselves, and for that I’m most grateful.

I made it to the top of the Rockies this morning – it was hard to breathe, and the snow was deep.  As we wandered into a section of tundra atop the mountain, I recalled a poem that has meant a great deal to me in times where I wondered whether my plans were all shot to hell.  It’s called “Resurrection”, and it’s written by Mary Ann Bernard.  It reads as follows:

Long, long, long ago;
Way before this winter’s snow
First fell upon these weathered fields;
I used to sit and watch and feel
And dream of how the spring would be,
When through the winter’s stormy sea
She’d raise her green and growing head,
Her warmth would resurrect the dead.

Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow.  The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and far within.

Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold.  I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and from the dark, cold, grime
A flower comes.  It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.

Flowers of many types were already bursting through the tundra atop the mountains…

Most of you are reading this in the summertime.  I invite you to think about those of your friends who are snowed under today, and find a way to watch, hope, and pray for them.

 

I’m not the only one who felt good about making it to the top of the Continental Divide today!

Mule Deer are plentiful in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

We saw a number of moose today, including this cow and calf.

The pika is a small mammal about the size of a large chipmunk – it’s called “the farmer of the tundra” for its habit of storing seeds under rocks.

Adams Falls, on the west side of the park.

At Bear Lake, on the eastern side.

Wilson’s Warbler

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

After we had made it over the mountains and down the other side, there was still one threat to my plans: this five foot Prairie Rattlesnake. Now, to be fair, I had a 4,000 pound vehicle, and all he had was a really snazzy rattle and a little venom. We called it a draw and let each other pass…

An Elegy For The World

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 April 3, we read Lamentations 4 (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 sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Walt Whitman was moved to compose one of the most famous poems in the English language: ‘O Captain! My Captain!”  That work is fairly short – 3 stanzas of 8 lines each, and the last line in each stanza reads, “fallen, cold and dead.”

Whitman’s poem is an elegy – a work that is written in order to express some corporate grief and lament; to celebrate the memory of one who had a deep impact, and to provide some assurance that even though the subject of the verse (in this case, Abraham Lincoln) is dead, the world will remember that one’s presence and will be better because of that presence.

As we turn our attention to Lamentations 4, I’d like to suggest that this work functions as an elegy in the midst of a book of poetry that was written to help a community deal with tragedy.  Like the previous three poems in Lamentations, chapter 4 is an acrostic. There are 22 verses, and each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our text for this evening, however, differs slightly from the other three in that it is not as full of emotion as the others. In fact, Lamentations 4 contains a number of phrases that suggest that there is a numbness or a remoteness that is used to describe the suffering that has occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

As we continue to seek to be a community that learns from and about the practice of lament, let us consider that poem now.  It begins with a single word: in our current text it is translated as “Oh!”; it could also be read as “How?”

Oh, no!
Gold is tarnished; even the purest gold is changed.
Sacred jewels are scattered on every street corner.

The same word is used to begin the poems of Lamentations 1 and 2.  It conveys a sense of woe, and intimates that the world has changed drastically.  In fact, as the opening stanza reveals, the world is vastly different – values have changed to the extent that pure gold is worthless and sacred jewels are laying around on the streets.  The elegy deepens in the next three stanzas:

Zion’s precious children, once valued as pure gold—
oh no!—now they are worth no more than clay pots made by a potter.

Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young.
But the daughter of my people has become cruel, like desert ostriches.

The baby’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth, thirsty.
Children ask for bread, beg for it—but there is no bread.

Here is a lament for the children of Zion.  They were once considered to be treasures worth their weight in gold, but they now are dying faster than they can be buried.  Why do they suffer? Because famine has filled the land. Look at the next six stanzas as they offer a description:

Those who once ate gourmet food now tremble in the streets.
Those who wore the finest purple clothes now cling to piles of garbage.

Greater was the punishment of the daughter of my people than Sodom’s penalty, which was quickly overthrown without any hand-wringing.

Her nazirites were purer than snow; they were more dazzling than milk.
Their limbs were redder than coral; their bodies were sapphire.

But their appearance grew darker than soot; they weren’t recognized in the streets. Their skin shriveled on their bones; it became dry like wood.

Things were better for those stabbed by the sword than for those stabbed by famine—
those who bled away, pierced, lacking food from the field.

The hands of loving women boiled their own children
to become their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

The suffering of the hungry is so great, according to the narrator, that it would have been better for them to have died in the original attack.  In addition to the children’s deaths, the community laments the destruction of every echelon of society.  Even the wealthy, who are often spared the ravages of conflict and trauma, find that they have nothing to eat; there is even a suggestion that cannibalism is rampant.

Earlier this evening I mentioned that this poem could be considered an elegy. As we read the first 10 verses of Lamentations 4, I note the sad truth that the events described here could have happened anywhere.  We know, because we’ve been here for three weeks already, that this poem is in response to a particular tragedy – the siege and defeat of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But I have seen the deaths of children and the trauma of famine far too often in my own lifetime.  As horrible as the events described are, one of the things that makes it even worse is that such atrocities have seemingly become everyday realities in the life of a particular community.  The general lament of the first ten stanzas of this poem becomes a little more specific in the next six. Listen:

The Lord let loose his fury; he poured out his fierce anger.
He started a fire in Zion; it licked up its foundations.

The earth’s rulers didn’t believe it—neither did any who inhabit the world— that either enemy or adversary could enter Jerusalem’s gates.

It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities,
those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.

People wandered blindly in the streets, polluted with blood.
No one would even touch their clothing.

“Go away! Unclean!” was shouted at them, “Go away! Away! Don’t touch!”
So they fled and wandered around. The nations said, “They can’t stay here anymore.”

It was the Lord’s presence that scattered them; he no longer notices them. They didn’t honor the priests’ presence; they didn’t favor the elders.

Do you see that the narrative now gains a particular context.  Although these things could have happened in a number of places, they actually occurred right here in Jerusalem.

In some ways, the opening verses of this poem remind me of a twelve-step meeting.  Everyone has gathered because of a general condition.  This building is full on Monday evenings because there are a number of people with substance abuse issues – that’s a common theme to their lives. Yet each meeting occasions the telling of a particular story: it’s as if each gathering begins with an acknowledgement that alcohol and drugs bring pain and grief in general, and then we are directed to look at a particular case in which that has been true.  In the same way, while the suffering of children and death from famine occur in many ways around the globe, this is the story behind these particular deaths, and this particular pain.  Even though the voice continues to be one of narration from a third-party perspective, it is a particular scenario that is described.

As we lean into the next four stanzas, listen for the change in the voice of the poet:

Our eyes continually failed, looking for some help, but for nothing. From our watchtower we watched for a nation that doesn’t save.

Our steps were tracked; we could no longer walk in our streets. Our end had drawn near; our days were done—our end had definitely come.

Our hunters were faster than airborne eagles.
They chased us up the mountains; they ambushed us in the wilderness.

The Lord’s chosen one, the very breath in our lungs, was caught in their traps— the one we used to talk about, saying, “Under his protection we will live among the nations.”

Did you hear that? Instead of being a dispassionate narrator using the third person voice (they, them, theirs), now we hear from those who have suffered:  oureyes failed, our days were done, they chased us; weused to talk…

When this happens, the reader’s participation in the poem moves from hearing a description of events that took place to a retelling of the horrors that happened to us.  Have you ever noticed that retelling a story of horror and grief is a way not only of reliving the trauma, but of sharing, interpreting or understanding it.  The poet is saying, “Look, not only did this terrible thing happen – but it happened here!  To us!”

Some of you know that a friend of mine died violently some time ago. When I first discovered what had happened, I didn’t have words for it.  I was horrified and wounded.  And yet as time went on, I found myself needing to find some way to speak that story to some other friends. I even took a couple of them to the place where it had happened – because I found that sharing the story in this way allowed me to have some measure of control over the pain and disorientation that had come into my life.  I know that some of you have been in that situation, too – you have needed to tell someone else about the difficulties you’ve lived through, or the terrible thing that has happened.  I believe that’s what’s going on in these verses of the poem – that the use of the first person adds a voice of intimacy to the narration and makes the pain share-able in the community.

Chapter 4 ends with two short stanzas in which the tone shifts one more time:

Rejoice and be happy, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz.
But this cup will pass over to you too. You will get drunk on it. You will be stripped naked.

Your punishment is over, Daughter Zion; God won’t expose you anymore.
But he will attend to your punishment, Daughter Edom; he will expose your sins.

The poet ends with a warning to those who live in neighboring communities: “Listen, friends, you can be happy that this hasn’t happened to you yet, but be aware that it is coming toward you.  And Jerusalem, or Zion – while you have been crushed, you can be thankful for the fact that your worst is already past.

As we contemplate this poem in the first part of the 21stcentury, what are to do with it?  I mean, it’s a horrible sequence of events, all right, but what are the imperatives for us? What is our take-away?

I’d suggest that this poem, perhaps even more than any of the previous three, opens up for us the language of lament in the face of atrocity.  As I mentioned, the general language and the detached voice that comes in the first half of the poem in particular allows us to find a voice that elegizes the horrible things that we encounter.

About fifteen years ago there was a horrific famine that struck the land of Malawi. I went with a team of other Christian leaders and we took stock of the effects of the damage and we sat with those who had been afflicted. One young pastor with whom I met was called Abusa Dennis.  He was in a remote region of the nation, and I asked him, “Dennis, look: is all of this making a difference?  I mean, we’re coming here and we’re trying, but is the suffering reduced at all?”  And right away, he took my hand and he said, “Abusa Dave, it is!  A year ago this time, I was conducting 8 or 9 funerals a week, and they were mostly for children.  It was horrible. But now, I’m only preaching 2 or 3 a week and it’s mostly for old people.”  I had to stop and weep at the thought of doing “only” three funerals a week, and I wondered how I might survive in a community wherein I was burying a child every single day.

These verses may offer you some vocabulary as you name and lament that which is broken in our world.  Look at these verses, and consider what you know about the realities of the Holocaust, or the plight of refugees around the world right now.  Read through them again, slowly, and allow your mind and your heart to summon up images of those who have been slaughtered in schools or places of worship around the world in recent months and years.

Although this lament is written in response to a particular set of tragedies that befell a specific community a long time ago, can you find that some of this language makes your lament a little deeper?  Can you see a connection?  That’s what elegies are for – to help bring people together in times of pain and loss and grief.

But consider this, beloved, and do not lose sight of it.  Remember how the book of Lamentations came to be, and in particular how chapter 4 reached our ears: this is a narrative written by someone who survived.  While many perished, the author did not.  That means something.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is a striking memoir by Frank McCourt entitled Angela’s Ashes.  It is a vivid first-person narrative that begins this way: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.. . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters…”

Page after page finds young Frankie narrating the horrors of his childhood – the deaths of his siblings, the pain of his father’s alcoholism, the grip that depression had on his mother…  As I read that book, I had to keep reminding myself, “Look – he’s telling the story.  HE lived.  It’s horrible, but hegot through it.”  A memoir is like that, isn’t it?  You know that in order to have written the story, the author had to live.  It’s difficult to read, but as you are reading it you can remember that somehow the person passed through the trial.

One of the core lessons of Lamentations 4 is that somehow, the community survived.  In the context of being a community that did survive, they had to learn how to become a resource to others who were in pain.  Those who suffer greatly are, in some ways, able to be more deeply attentive to the needs of others in the wider world. While not advocating increased suffering, the authors of this work would no doubt hold fast to the truth that someone who has lived through a great tragedy, someone who has been shaped by a difficult story, now has the opportunity or maybe even the responsibility to stand with others who find themselves in the midst of great pain.

It was for this reason that a week ago Friday I went to the Islamic Center and found myself standing with dozens of Jews who were handing out roses to Muslim worshipers reeling from the pain of the shooting in New Zealand.  Because the Jews had felt the pain in the Tree of Life slaughter here in Pittsburgh, they found it important to stand with the Muslims in their time of pain. Some of you have known the difficulty of, say, miscarriage; when you find a friend experiencing that loss now, it’s important for you to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”

Beloved, the suffering you have experienced and witnessed has shaped your life. And yet, here you are.  You are a survivor.  You and I have survived different things, to be sure, but do not forget that you are changed because of the pain that you have seen, known, and carried.  This Lent, may we remember that pain, and be motivated by the memory of such suffering to share in the plight of those around us in our families, our community, and our world.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of lament and elegy, 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.

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;