SERMON PREACHED ATNAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
ORDINARY SUNDAY 16
(9th August) 2015
Readings:2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
It was a freezing cold night, sub-zero in the town in which I was living, when the phone rang. Could I come up to the Emergency Department immediately? Such calls are rare these days in clergy life, and this was more than twenty years ago. It is though a night that I will never forget. The nurses met me at the ward entrance. A young mother, expecting healthy triplets, had contracted listeriosis, food poisoning, close to the completion of gestation. The three infants, previously healthy and viable, had died in utero. There are no words for the grief I encountered that night.
I speak cautiously, pray God. Amongst us there will be some of you, and some among those who you love, who have faced the brutal reversal of outliving a child. There are no words. My own extended family has known the grief, and there are in any case, if grief can be measured on a Richter scale of sorts, the comparable if lesser griefs of children and loved ones effectively torn form the heart through marital breakdown or sometimes just the vicissitudes of the tyranny of distance. “Shall I ever see, hold, hear this child again?” may be slightly easier than the heart cry of David, “I shall never see, hold, hear this child again,” but it too is a cry that in Hebrew terms is wrung from the viscera of the human soul. “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” I have no doubt that words close to those were etched into the soul of that young mother that bitter winter’s night, as together we cried, and stuttered prayers, and tried to find Christlight in the literal and metaphorical dark. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
I am not a social worker, nor called to be one. I was staggered at a clergy meeting once when I heard a group of priests discuss their role as ordained persons without once making reference to the great sacraments of resurrection hope that we are commissioned to bear with and within us from the moment our ordaining bishops place their hands upon us. We all, as Christians, are priests, though some of us are called to bear that extra signage of presbuteral priesthood, a reminder to us all of the priesthood of Christ who takes human suffering into the heart of God, and who brings divine forgiveness and hope deep into the heart of human suffering. I was not a social worker that winter’s night in rural New South Wales, nor was I called to the hospital to be one. I was called there to bring some hope that was greater than the stark reality of three tiny, stillborn but otherwise viable babies.
Did I achieve anything that night? I’ll never know. The young woman was from a town 300 kms away, and the follow-up in resurrection-breathing fell to one of my most gifted colleagues. I know he spent many months whispering not words of social work, though they too may help, but words of resurrection hope into the world of that young woman and her partner. I moved from the region soon after, and never heard the end of the story, not least because I’m sure it has not ended yet, two decades later. I’m sure that that to me nameless woman somewhere still inevitably grieves those three missing babies in her life. I’m sure she will until that great moment that the disciples came to believe in, that moment of eternal joy when the new heavens and the new earth are unfolded, and we step back into connection with all who we have loved and lost.
Because the scriptures, Hebrew and Christian alike, are adamant that this is where the sometimes abstract world of faith-speak connects with the all too concrete realm of human experience. As David cries out in that almost most poignant of all scriptural heart-cries he cries out in a voice that any one of us might have wrenched from our guts on any day. It is the cry of a parent or a partner who receives a police officer’s knock at the door. It is the cry of the patient who hears the strained words of their doctor. Globally it is the cry of the desperate refugees who are turned away by the Australian or British or US government, or conveniently ignored by the New Zealand government, or who reach the comparative safety of the Turkish border or Italian coastline only to count the cost of those who are left behind.
Yet that cry of David is not the end of the story. It is too often the end of the dark movies and novels that are the expression of the mood of a post-holocaust, post-Hiroshima world that has for various reasons deserted hope (I think of my tragic all-time favourite, The Unbearable Lightness of Being). But Christianity in all its foolishness rumours a different ending. I suggested that the cry of King David as he laments his third born son is “that almost most poignant of all scriptural heart-cries.” The cry of dereliction of Christ on the cross, the heart-cry of Jesus on the cross, is greater. We can of course all play academic games in which we point out that those words from Psalm 22, still perhaps best rendered as “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” were placed into the mouth of Jesus by the early church and the gospel writers. Fiddle-sticks, I suggest. For the practice of lament, of crying out to God with the deepest of human anguish (even psalm 137 verse 9’s obscene anguish) dwells at the heart (the Hebrews would say bowel) of relationship between God and God’s people, and the heart of the Messiah.
To steal that hope from the witness of the Christian community, presumably out of a misguided desire to make Christianity more comprehensible to a post-Enlightenment world, is both larceny (theft) and one of the greatest enactments of that fourth of the Ten Commandments, “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” To stand at the hospital bed of my grieving mother of triplets with nothing more to say than what a social worker or a psychologist might say, however profound their work might be, and however bumbling my efforts might be, is to sell the gospel short. To say or believe nothing more than a social worker or a psychologist is not to proclaim the Living Word of the fourth gospel, but a truncated word of humanism, however noble the particular stream of humanism might be, and many are.
By the end of the nineteenth century Enlightened Christianity had placidly done away with radical and other-wordly words of hope and its prickly counterpart, judgement. We may speak of judgement another time, except for now to say it is a doctrine badly represented and mistreated, but a doctrine too that is jettisoned at peril. But by the end of the nineteenth century Enlightened Christianity had only platitudes about the brotherhood (sic!) of Man (sic!) and the Fatherhood (sic!) of God to utter. We stand in a similar quagmire today, embracing either a self-satisfied and sometimes hedonistic liberalism or a self-righteous fundamentalist judgmentalism.
If our Christianity is no more than an aesthetic of niceness in every facet of cathedral life then we have nothing to say to the weeping David as he cradles Absalom (not, you will recall, his first child to die) or to say to the mother who clutches three still-born infants. If though our gospel is based on our daily, weekly, over and again encounter with the God in Christ who in Godself cries out “My God my God, why have you forsaken me,” if that is the case then our God can turn every pain-filled lament into hope. Our God can and does turn ashes into beauty, Good Friday into Easter, David’s cry into the hope of resurrection (which evolves long after David’s journey, but God is a timey-wimey God). Our God can and does turn your life and mine and the lives of those we love into the dance of eternity.
That is the gospel we share if we are indeed a resurrection people, unfettered by the small perspectives of science and the intellect or the limitations of a mere aesthetic faith. That is the God of the Cross and Easter, the God who transforms the lament of David and the psalmist (who may be different!) and the mother of triplets and you and me and even Godself on the Cross into the joyful, angel-thrilling dance of the eternity that is God’s and yours and mine.
It is to that God we will shortly sing (with our hearts) “Blessing and honour and glory and power (though In Aotearoa we seem scared of that last noun) are yours, now and for ever …