Sunday, March 14, 2010

How and Who

How and Who
I have to admit that I’ve dreaded preaching this sermon for about a month now. I have dreaded it ever since I was told by pastor Gregg that I would be preaching on the subject, “Blessed are those who weep.”
At first I was just uncomfortable confronting suffering, loss, weeping, mourning, and tears.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say about these things. I’ve suffered through 4 open-heart surgeries, I’ve felt the loss of leaving loved ones scattered all across the country and the globe as I’ve moved from place to place. I’ve mourned the death of family. I’ve shed my share of tears.
But, I ask, “what can I say from this pulpit that your own tears have not told you?” “What effect can my words have upon your soul that your soul has not already effected in you?”
But that’s not even the whole of it. As Lent came these questions became even more serious.
You see this Lenten season—this season in the church year in which we remember our mortality and our sinfulness, this season in which we talk about being “in the wilderness for 40 days,” has seemed to be just that—a wilderness experience. It seems like everyone I know is “going through some things.” And I had to ask myself, “Can I really say something from this pulpit that is meaningful for people as they weep?”

Still weighed down by these questions I drove back to Philadelphia on Tuesday in order to attend “Preaching with Power.” This is a weeklong event held by my seminary that brings some of the best Black preachers from across the country together to preach.
Dr. Cleophus LaRue—Princeton Theological Seminary’s Professor of Homiletics—that’s the art of preaching—gave a lecture entitled, “Why black preachers still love artful language.”
Being the studious guy that I am I took extensive notes. But there were two things Dr. LaRue said that struck me hard enough that I didn’t need to write them down. These two things seemed important to my struggle to preach on the subject, “Blessed are those who weep.”
The first thing he said that struck me was that “Sermons must take the assembly”—that’s all of you—“more seriously than they take themselves.” “Sermons must take the assembly more seriously than they take themselves.”
The second thing Dr. LaRue said that I found important was, “Preachers call forth a world that doesn’t exist…at least not yet.” “Preachers call forth a world that doesn’t exist…at least not yet.”

And it was because of these two comments on the art of preaching that I chose our lessons from the book of Lamentations and from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Lamentations takes the assembly seriously and Romans calls forth a world that doesn’t exist… at least not yet.

And so let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts are acceptable in your sight Lord God that they might take seriously these present sufferings and weeping. So too LORD may they point us beyond tears, to joy. In the precious name of Jesus. Amen

The book of Lamentations was written as the first response to devastation. Lamentations was written in response to Babylonians destroying the Holy City of Jerusalem. In response to Babylonians knocking down walls, burning the Temple, and destroying houses. In response to the purposeful depopulation of the city through the means of killing the poor and kidnapping the rich.
It was, in a sense, a man made disaster.
We’ve seen the images from Haiti and Chile. Those were natural disasters…devastation by means of earthquake. What the Babylonians had brought to the city of Jerusalem was the equivalent of a human caused earthquake.

And imagine the author. Tradition says he composed the book in the midst of the ashes, and the rubble, and the grief, and the misery of his city ground to bits. Tradition also has it that he wept while writing and the ink ran wet with his tears even as he wrote.
Think of it. He survived the devastation, he wasn’t rich enough to be kidnapped, but wasn’t poor enough to be slaughtered.
Perhaps he was shaken with survivor’s guilt? Perhaps he was rocked by Post-traumatic stress disorder?
And brothers and sisters—there is one more layer of tragedy embedded in this book. This layer of tragedy has been covered up by time and bad translation.
You see the title “Lamentations” is not the title of this book. Or at least it wasn’t the title given to it by the earliest of scribes, neither, I would claim, was it the title given to it by its original author as he wept in the ruins of his wrecked city.
You see the original title of Lamentations was Akah. Now when the Bible was being translated into the Greek they didn’t know how to convey “Akah,” so they translated it as Lamentations. But that’s not what Akah means! (Ask Matt to translate…how)
You see the horror the author is experiencing is so fresh—so present—so real to him that all he can say his Akah! How!
Note that this isn’t a question. It is a sort of verbal punctuation, a spoken exclamation point!
How! How! How!
This word How! Punctuates our tears just as this book HOW! describes the content of our tears.

How! Our tears are loneliness!
How! Our tears are being downtrodden!
How! Our tears are mockery!
How! Our tears are loss!
How! Our tears are being stripped naked.
How! Our tears are worthlessness.
How! Our tears are physical aching! Fire in our bones, a wrung out heart, a churning stomach!
How! Our tears are deception by a lover, abandonment by the faithful, and even by God!
I’m not being melodramatic here! In the moment of crying it is real! How! is what it feels like when we cry. Our tears are real. They’re serious, they express the trouble we’ve seen. They are an admission that sometimes we don’t even have it in us to say, “God is good, all the time.”

Tears are serious. Tears are also universal.
What do I mean by that? Let me tell you a story:
There was once a woman whose son had died. She mourned him deeply. She wailed and wept, she threw herself onto his grave. She became obsessed with her dearly departed son. She stopped eating and couldn’t get out of bed.

So one day her neighbors came to her and told her of a wise man who lived one town over. “Maybe he can make things better,” they said.
And so the woman caught the next Greyhound bus and went to the next town over and she found the wise man.
“What can I do to bring back my son? What can I do to get over his death?” she asked.
“Here,” he said, handing her a cup, “fill this with wine from a household where no one has cried in sorrow.”
And so she started out right away, going from house to house, asking if they had experienced sorrow.
“We are still mourning our Father,” one said.
“I was left at the altar and live alone,” said another.
“I’ve committed terrible sins,” said still another.
And after she’d went from house to house, town to town, city to city, she finally saw that there is no household empty of tears—no person without pain.

But I would take this story a little farther. Well, actually Paul takes this story a little farther.
In today’s reading from Romans the Apostle Paul describes creation herself groaning-weeping-crying. Creation cries because it knows the way things are supposed to be, and yet they aren’t that way. Creation knows death and war, sin and separation—all the ills of the world—are unnatural and so she weeps. Creation herself exclaims “How!”

Tears are no laughing matter. Nothing to sneeze at. Nothing to just (sign) brush off. Our tears are not ours alone, for all cry with the same passion and pain. For that matter the world itself weeps.
Yet today Jesus says, “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.”
Creation is crying, humanity is wailing, I am mourning—yet Christ calls this blessed!
How! How?
When we look around at what else Jesus says we can see that, “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh and woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep,” is part of a larger program of Jesus. The Kingdom of God program. The firsting the last and lasting the first program.
Yes, this is what we call theology of the cross. This is finding God in the last place you would look. This is a solid statement that God is with the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, and yes the weeping.
But like the author of the book formerly known as Lamentations—the book of How—I ask How! how! How?
How are those who weep now blessed?

It could be that you need the bad to appreciate the good. You can only see the stars at night, you can only read the letters on a page if there are blank spaces around it.

It could be as simple as “there is a time for weeping and a time for laughing.” Our emotions and our life situations are transient and temporary. If things are going poorly, blessed are you because they will get better. If things are going well, woe to you because the other foot is about to drop.
It could be that the seeds of despair grow into the heights of beauty and greatness. That pressure produces pearls. There are after all plenty of examples of this. Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while mourning the death of his son Willie and Beethoven wrote some of his best music while deaf.

And all of these are blessing to those who weep. But to my ear none of them transform the moment—none of them “call forth a world that does not exist…at least not yet.” None of them transform How!
And that’s why I turn to Romans. It tells us things too deep for us to perceive and too high for us to hear. Paul writes of the inner workings and logic of the universe itself! Paul “calls forth a world that does not exist…at least not yet.”
Paul tells us that we all jointly suffer—that none can see the sensibility of our suffering and so we step out on hope—we look beyond ourselves and what is. We peer forward into the future and into the invisible face of God.
You see Paul shifts the focus of our suffering from how! to who! From how to who!
How is suffering, but the who is God! The who is God!
We are blessed in our weeping because we are grounded in hope that God is for us.
Hope that despite suffering God groans through the Spirit and is birthing out of this messy life a wide and deep family.
And hope in the unseen workings of God gives us joy.
Now Joy is not happiness. It is not a sloppy emotion. Joy is an inner-equilibrium. A sold stone on sinking sand, good suspension system on a slippery road.
You can have joy while weeping and have joy while laughing. You can have joy in the ashes of Jerusalem and Joy this morning at church. Joy in prison, alone. Joy in a crowd of people, at a party. Joy at a wedding and joy at a funeral.
We can have joy because we know who holds tomorrow.
Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
Who Death? Who Life? Who Angels? Who Rulers? Who Things that are? Who Things to come? Who powers? Who heights? Who depths? Who anything in all of creation?
No nothing! Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand; but I know WHO holds tomorrow, and I know WHO holds my hand! (415)


Chris Duckworth said...

Andy Root (Youth Ministry prof at Luther) quotes Bonhoeffer in saying that the "how" questions try to get at understanding, whereas the "who" questions draw us into relationship. "How" might help us intellectually understand the incarnation; "who" questions lead us to encounter the living Christ. The book, "Relationships Unfiltered" is in my office, along with his bigger "Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry." They are both excellent.

Fenix said...
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