Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A funeral sermon for a man who never existed

This is the sermon I gave on Tuesday for Assembly Two
It’s not every day a pastor is allowed the privilege of using a funeral setting from 19th century Germany, translated by the deceased no less. Likewise, it isn’t every day that such a pointed text as the start of Ecclesiastes is read at a funeral, especially a translation, again, provided by the deceased. But then again it isn’t every day that you bury Willard Getman.
Dr. Getman was born right here in Grand Forks in 1927. At the age of 15 he lied to the army about his age, and before he knew it he was in Europe. He stormed Normandy and saw the horrors of war first hand there. Then he went on to Buchenwald and helped liberate that concentration camp.
Having seen such sights at such a young age Dr. Getman wanted answers to the question of what went wrong? “What” to quote Dr. Getman’s words in the introduction to his first book, “had brought such a lofty nation so low?” To answer this question he stayed in Germany and studied at the Universities of Tubingen and Marburg. Then he came home and he got his Ph.D. in German Literature from UND. He then took a faculty position at there. He met and married Martha and they had three children, Daniel, Amanda, and Ned. As I look at all the folk in the pews here at St. Mark’s today I see younger folk out there, his many adoring students, and older, more prominent people, his Upsilon Nu Delta brothers.
I know Dr. Getman only through you and from the few pages of one of his book that I have read, but what I have heard of him is that he was an introspective man, a pleasure to learn from, loyal to his fraternity, and a dedicated husband and father.
When I read his translation of Ecclesiastes, “A fleeting breath! All is fleeting!” And when I think of his choice of this Biblical book for his funeral I get the impression that he was a man who had seen the depths.
He, like the author of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet, the Preacher—often said to be Solomon, could affirm that there, “is not anything at all new under the sun,” and affirm a static, cyclical world in which all things have happened before, and affirm that we would know this if only the memories of mortals held. Dr. Getman might even describe this situation as some form of ewige Wiederkunft, “perpetual return.” For example, every election season politicians come around promising things, and the next season they come around again with the same promises and pledges. After the atrocities of the Holocaust that Dr. Getman saw we said, “never again,” yet in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and most recently in Darfur that cry is a faint echo. As Solomon writes, “All streamlets flow to the sea, yet where is the sea full?”
I look too at the other readings; ones Martha, Ned, and I picked out to accompany Dr. Getman’s Ecclesiastes. Willard would likely have had some interest in the location of Paul in Acts chapter 17, Athens. But he would have likely grimaced at Paul’s opening line of argumentation, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” For Willard was not very religious. For 34 years he lived next to St. Mark’s, and this is the first time I’ve seen him in church. Perhaps though this is more of an indictment of my evangelism skills than his faithfulness. He hated the ritual and the objects of worship, the “shrines made by man,” as Paul is reported to have described the wide variety of faith expressions in Athens. He felt this emphasis of the material and ideal over the mortal and the moral was what leads to genocide and war.
But within these words in Acts I find a link to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, maybe even an answer to him. The Preacher speaks of the fleeting breath, and Paul speaks of God as the one who gives to all humanity breath and life. Further, the very regularity and sustainability of wind and sea that the Preacher sees as trivializing a person’s three score and ten also speaks to God’s consistency, care, and love of creation.
Finally, in today’s gospel we hear of the sign of Jonah and of the one greater than Solomon who is here, Jesus Christ. And it is entirely appropriate as we mourn the death of Dr. Getman to revel in the mystery of this sign of hope Christ speaks of. “Three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
In these words there is an affirmation of incarnation. Christ Jesus, the God who sustains the world was birthed into existence, like any of us. He faced the depravity and horror of humanity. In Elie Wiesel’s book about his experience in the Holocaust, Night, he writes of being asked, “Where is God?” And finds Himself responding, “On the Scaffolding.” God incarnate cries the cry of dereliction, Gottverlassen, Godforsakeness finding Himself amongst those sunken eyed victims Willard liberated some 60 years ago.
Whether Willard knew it or not God was there for him at his Anfechtung, the affliction of the soul confronted by that which is opposed to God. When his heart broke and his spirit sunk at the sight of man’s inhumanity toward man, God was there.
And God in Christ Jesus faced death like any of us. He went to the heart of the earth, as Willard will today.
Though, we should remember that it is written that Jonah came out of the belly of that whale, and likewise Christ Jesus’ tomb was empty on Sunday morning.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you are awesome. write mine now, k? :)