A Sermon preached by The Reverend Christopher L. Webber on the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, October 27, 2010
My wife died two years ago today.
I didn’t have that in mind when we made the schedule for this month. But when I remembered the date, I thought, Why not? I’m a preacher and I cope by preaching. It’s the way I’ve been given to work things through. And not alone, but together with a congregation, with you. You can help.
You know how sometimes you need to talk things out, not just think about it, but talk it out with someone else? Clergy get to do that sometimes with a congregation – not, I hope, dumping my issues on you but trying to find ways of saying things, of seeing things that may help all of us.
To preach today makes me do some thinking and that’s always good. I hope it will be good for you to do some thinking also. Not every sermon asks you to do that. I was thinking about today last week, last Sunday morning, as Beth talked about the joy of her son’s wedding the week before. And weddings are joyous occasions. But in the Episcopal Church at least they are realistic. The Prayer Book provides vows that are starkly realistic: I John take you Mary / to have and to hold / for better for worse / for richer for poorer / in sickness and in health / til death us do part. The promise is not “for better or worse,” not maybe one, maybe the other, but both: for better / for worse. There will be both. In this church at least, we sign up for both, for the real world, “til death us do part.”
Just out of curiosity, I went on line and found a site that helps you write your own wedding vows. It did note that you may not get to do that. Some churches and clergy, it said, insist on the traditional language. But if you get lucky and a chance to write your own, it provided 15 or 20 samples for guidance. Here’s one: “I promise to always remember that laughter is life’s sweetest creation, and I will never stop laughing with you.” I think I can overlook the split infinitive, but you should never promise to keep laughing. There will be days – there will be days – when laughing would not be appropriate
Not one sample vow mentioned death. Not one. But if you have a good marriage, death will be part of it. It happens. A bad marriage may end sooner, but every marriage has an end. Death happens.
Now we don’t come here to be morbid – and I’m moving on. But we do come here on serious business: to share a death, to drink the shed blood. There’s joy here, of course, lots of joy, but there is an end to this life sooner or later, and only the church, I believe, gives us a way to face that. So we are being realistic. We’re facing facts. Nobody lives for ever. Not in this world anyway.
Now Jeremiah is grappling with all that in the first reading. I always look at the readings first. I may not start the sermon from the readings, but I start my thinking there and it turned out that that’s where Jeremiah was also. That happens. The lessons speak to us if we’re ready to listen. They have messages for us. And they invite us in to a dialog. I go to the readings with questions: Here’s where I am; what do you say to that? I found Jeremiah working through similar issues to mine: the pain of absence; the need for God, and the absence of God, a God who seems so often not to be there when needed.
Jeremiah challenges God for an explanation:
“Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.”
Jeremiah is challenging God: “think of your reputation. God. What will people say if you dessert us?” The technical term for that is “chutzpah.” But Jeremiah’s in agony; he wants help and he wants it now. “Be here for me in my need; don’t forsake me.” Elsewhere in the Bible, Isaiah put it differently: “Truly You are a God who hide yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” Where are you, O God, when we need you?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who was killed by the Nazis had an answer for that. He wrote once to someone bereaved:
“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold on and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”
I give that statement often to people bereaved. I’ve been thinking about it myself these last two years. Can you just close the door on sixty years and move on? I don’t think so. But just as one we love can be there in the absence, in what we feel – experience – as absence, so is God there for us in the darkness as well as the light – and maybe more truly present in the darkness
The great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul.” “Although it is night, I know there is nothing else so beautiful, earth and heaven find constant refreshment there. Although it is night, there are no clouds to conceal its clarity, and from it comes the light by which alone we can see. This is the living fountain and the bread of life, I see it clearly, although it is night.”
The great Welsh poet R S Thomas wrote something similar when he said:
“God is that great absence
In our lives,
the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find.
He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
But is it an absence or simply a presence we are too small to hold, too blind to recognize? Gilbert Murray, the great Classics scholar who died in 1957 once wrote, “We are surrounded by unknown forces of infinite extent – the essence of religion is the consciousness of vast unknowns – To be cocksure is to be without religion.”
To acknowledge our ignorance is the first step toward faith. I sometimes think that we use incense in worship to create what a great medieval mystic called “the cloud of unknowing” – it’s the cloud that Moses entered on Mt Sinai, the cloud that overshadowed Jesus at the Transfiguration, the cloud out of which God speaks, but remains never clearly seen.
I remember passing a church in Australia one day that had a big sign out front that said, “You have questions? We have answers.” I wouldn’t go there myself. If they have the answers, they aren’t asking the right questions. I want to go where the questions are acknowledged, where I am encouraged to think for myself, where I can find fellow seekers, but also a rich tradition of answers – not simple answers to all questions, but answers that have helped others and may help me. Jeremiah wrote – we read it this morning – “Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.” It is you who are there when we are too blinded by grief to see.
Hold onto the absence. Hold onto the pain. Hold onto the God who is able to accept our doubts and our questions and wait for us to come, to come to him with all our questions and doubts and to find there in the darkness and the cloud the strength that only God can give.