“A Singing Stream”

Ever since my father passed away a little over a month ago, God will give me something–even if it is only a sliver of a scripture or a line from song–to hold on to for hope and healing.  Poetry, the Psalms, and hymns have been my greatest source of encouragement.  In many ways, these resources have been my prayers during a time in which I have no words to pray on my own.

Oddly enough (be it coincidence or divine timing), a couple of weeks ago I received a box of poetry from a resident at a retirement home in which I am chaplain.  One poem in a book entitle Best Loved Unity Poems provided a wonderful and rich resource for me to lean on during my time of grieving.

It is by Bonnie Day, the title is “A Singing Stream”:

babStill waters have leisure to ponder;
Still waters reflect the sky;
Like tranquil mirrors for cloudlets,
Placid and calm they lie.

But placid waters are voiceless;
Only the stream that flows
Over a rough and stony bed
Sings a song as it goes

So what though the channel I travel
Be narrow, rugged, and long,

If rocks, and roots, and rapids
Be met and passed in song?

Spending Time with Jeremiah in the midst of tragedy

jeremiahJoe LaGuardia preached this sermon on Sunday, August 25, 2013, upon his return to the pulpit following the tragic death of his father.

Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-8; Psalm 71:1-6

I.

I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with Jeremiah these past couple of days.  I didn’t mean to.  I would have preferred spending time with someone else, like King David or Solomon.  Or, better yet, Jacob. Now that guy knows how to throw a party.

But its just Jeremiah for me.  You know him.  He’s the prophet whom God called to declare judgment upon Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, around 600 BC.  He’s the prophet who faced traumatic adversity, house arrest, and exile.

This is the prophet whose life was so difficult, he is known as the “Weeping Prophet.”  He is credited with authoring an entire book in the Bible about grief—Lamentations—and gave voice to those who lost land, friends, and loved ones to evil, violence, or war.

I had to hang out with Jeremiah because that’s how God works sometimes.  You see, I don’t always choose what I preach on.  If I had my choice, you’d hear lots of sermons from the Gospel of Luke or Acts or something easy.

Instead, I use the lectionary—a group of Bible verses put together by the major denominations in order to help preachers teach through the entire Bible in a 3-year cycle.  Each Sunday includes scripture lessons from one of the Gospels, the Psalms, the Old Testament, and from the Epistles.  So every month, when I submit my preaching plan to the worship committee, I usually choose from one of these scripture lessons.

It was a little over a month ago that I submitted this Sunday’s scriptures texts:  Jeremiah 1 and Psalm 71.

You have on the one hand a psalm that balances hope and grief by an elderly poet who begs God to save him from his enemies and the evils that exist in a broken world; and, on the other hand, a prophet whose message is so hurtful to God’s people that his heart breaks for the world, and no cistern can contain his tears.

I’m not sure how I would have preached these lessons a month ago.  I’m never really sure what sermon God will bring from week to week.  I still don’t know exactly what or how to preach right now.

I’ve given a lot of thought about all the things I could say today.  I considered, for instance, echoing a sermon of one of my old preaching professors, John Claypool, who preached an award-winning sermon his first time back in the pulpit after the death of his young daughter.

He preached a message of heartache, but also of hope.  He compared his own journey as a father to that of Abraham, the Bible character who was once asked by God to sacrifice his own son.  The only difference, Claypool said, was that Abraham got to come down that mountain with his child still alive.  Claypool concluded: “Nevertheless, although I came down from that mountain empty-handed, I remember that each day with my child was a gift, each breath a work of God’s art.”

I also considered preaching a sermon similar to that by preacher, William Sloan Coffin, who also preached a memorable sermon after the loss of his son in a fatal car accident.  His message, also very poignant and stirring, was redeeming and filled with hope and a vision for a bright future.  He said that the moment his son died, it was God’s heart that was the first to break.

And, yet, after reflecting on these sermons, I couldn’t find any words that came easily or naturally—at least on paper—for this morning.   And simply repeating those sermons would not have been very truthful or authentic.

Instead, I decided that I would just share with you how my time with Jeremiah went this past week.

II.

Jeremiah and I sat down together on Friday night.  Within a few minutes of getting acquainted, he told me about his calling from God.

God called him when he was very young, you know.  And, like Moses, Jeremiah felt ill-prepared to carry the burden of God’s Word to a people who already had trouble listening to God in the first place.  “I didn’t even know how to speak,” he told me, “I was so scared.”

Then God gave him the plan of what was to be said, “I appoint you over the nations: to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.  For that, they—all of them, the kings, the princes, even your own family–will be against you, Jeremiah.  They will fight you, but do not fear, for I am with you to deliver you.”

Jeremiah also told me about the long days of preaching: the oracles and the message of judgments that he had to give to hostile crowds.  He told me about his eventual house arrest, about how he lost his land due to that very message.

He told me about how he, too, went into exile when the Babylonians finally invaded Judah, and how he wept.  Oh, did he weep:

“My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!,” He said,
“Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly.”

I realized at that moment, as I passed a Kleenex to Jeremiah, that I was not alone in my own pain and grief.

III.

Between tears and the blowing of noses, Jeremiah told me that it got so bad, he had to speak God’s message, going from prose and poetry and back again.  He spoke in prose when things made sense and the world became a little bit more clear and orderly, and he had to speak poetry when things got so dark that no normal speech would do.

I knew what Jeremiah was getting at: He was trying to describe what its like to walk that fine line between clarity and chaos: It’s when the chaos comes that our prose-world comes to an end.

Its what one theologian called “narrative wreckage.”

“Narrative wreckage” happens when someone’s grief and despair becomes so bad and catastrophe so great, silence and speechlessness and sound itself ceases to exist.  The narrative a person lives by, a narrative that helps make sense of the world, no longer works and is dismantled by tragedy.  Until, eventually, poetry erupts in its place and gives birth to something new, something unheard of, something that gives a voice to a voiceless, speech-crushing situation.

It was at that point of my time with Jeremiah that I now needed a Kleenex; and while I dabbed my eyes for the thousandth time, he continued his testimony:

“But there was hope,” Jeremiah told me, “Remember, now, Joe, my words were also meant to plant and to build, even if it came in the form of lamentation and poetry.  Sure the trees would be razed and the evil thick, the grass charred to ash, but we would all plant something new, even if it was not as familiar, even if there was something missing from our lives.”

I took a minute to blow my own nose, to wipe one more tear; and Jeremiah went on to tell me about his poetry of consolations that came later in his life, the ones that you find around the 30th chapter of his book.  It was then that God said to Jeremiah and Judah, “Again I will build you, and you shall be built.”

“Oh there will be tears, but there will be joy too”, Jeremiah told me.  “Hey, remember when I said,  ‘With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water?’  It’s like that 23rd Psalm you’re always quoting to people at funerals, the one in which God says he would lead us, all of us, beside still, soothing waters.”

After that, we—Jeremiah and I—sat together in silence for a few minutes longer.  I must admit, it was an overwhelming silence, and Kristina noticed from the other side of the room where she was working on the computer.  She came over and sat with me and hugged me.  She didn’t say anything, didn’t need to say anything.  I think she might have grabbed a Kleenex of her own.

IV.

That night and the day after that, Jeremiah’s testimony kept resonating with me, and I realized we were not very different from one another.

God put him into a position he didn’t want to be in.  I could relate.

He had to come to a point in his relationship with God in which words—prose at least—became useless, “narrative wreckage”… Check!

Jeremiah had to find some redemption somewhere in the whole mess….

…And it’s there, at that point, that my own story starts to veer away from Jeremiah’s.  Whereas he had words to describe what God was doing in his life, what God was doing for all Israel—the larger vision related to God’s redemption and purpose–I still find myself struggling and wrestling and at a loss for words.

Whereas Jeremiah could rest assured that God was there for him, I still have trouble finding consolation in a gospel I was so sure would bring hope in my life no matter what happened to me.

And, unlike Jeremiah, I have to sit and do things that I’m still not comfortable doing, at least for now:

…Like trusting in a God who, according to Psalm 71, is a “rock” for us.  I think I have trouble calling God my “rock” right now because there was someone else who held the title of being my “rock” before three weeks ago.

…Like forgiving my enemies, which Jesus asks all of us to do.   Last week, I had a conversation with a good friend who was asked to forgive his estranged father when his father came to his home unannounced and apologized for the past.  My friend thought of my own father and how life is too short to hold grudges, so he forgave him.  He didn’t want to forgive his dad, but he did it because Jesus told him too.

…Like going to God in prayer.  Jeremiah had a powerful and honest prayer life.  I’m not there yet, getting there, but not quite.  The only way I know how to pray right now is by singing hymns and writing an occasional Facebook status.

…Like proclaiming words of consolation.  I’m sure I’ll get there some day because I’ve seen so many people in this church who have known loss and grief intimately who have managed to write new songs of hope in their hearts, who’ve crafted and created amazing words of consolation for others who also faced grief.     …I’ll get there some day, but I’m not rushing it.

V.

So, Jeremiah and I, we have a lot in common.  He has been a good friend this past week, and he has shown me how to put some things into words.  He’s also shown me some things I need to work on.

He taught me that even though all of us have similar experiences in the midst of grief, our own individual journeys of lament, and prayer, and of processing our sense of sorrow is uniquely different.

But that’s how God works, you know.  God is like that—He puts people in your life and scripture lessons in your heart.  He gives you songs to sing (or at least poetry that can break through the silence).  He gives you psalms that hobble between hope and despair because it’s only human to do so.  God does these and other things because God is in the business of bending our will to His own.  It hurts some times, but it happens one way or another.  It’s like what biblical scholar David Peterson once wrote:  “It’s when the room is at its darkest that the mere lighting of a candle will turn every head.”

For me, the darkness still lingers.  It is still here, but so also is Jeremiah and Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit, and you, my church family.  So is the old dude who wrote Psalm 71, and my Kleenex—that’s here too.  And that will have to do for now.  It will just have to do.

“So Send I You”: An Easter Sermon

(Sermon preached on March 31, 2013.  Text: John 20:1, 19-23.)

staircaseOn the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary went to the tomb and found it empty. (John 20:1)

I.

Preaching on Easter Sunday is difficult for us pastors.  Sure, we’re excited about the occasion; we like to see the sanctuary swelling with great attendance, and we like to see family and friends visiting from out of town.  But the Scripture text is always the same.  Every year.  There is not much room for diversion and we can’t very well preach on anything we want.  People dress in their Easter best to hear a good Easter sermon.

Martin Copenhaven, a veteran pastor and popular author, is one of the few lucky pastors who still finds something new to preach even after pastoring the same church for over 18 years.  John Buchanon, another pastor and editor of the The Christian Century, is not so hopeful and positive.  Ethicist Reinhold Neibhur once confessed that he visited a church on Easter Sunday that had the least amount of preaching because no pastor, he argued, was up to the task of speaking to such weighty matters.

I must admit that I too feel that I’m not up to the task.  I feel that I am still in the dark many an Easter Sunday.  I have trouble finding new things to talk about.  But, then again, it’s in the dark where a lot of things take place:

  • It was in the dark of wilderness that Jesus was tempted and learned that no one lives by bread alone, but by the very words of God.
  • It was in the dark that Jesus gave his final breath: “From noon on,” Matthew wrote in his gospel, “darkness came over the whole land.”
  • The resurrection occurs in darkness.  Those of us who gathered in the wee hours of the mourning for sunrise service were too late.  Jesus already came like–you guessed it–“a thief in the night.”

II.

But, you know, I’m not the only one in the dark around here.  I have a feeling that many of you are in the dark too.  In fact, many people come here every week precisely because they’re in the dark.  It’s like when I hear people complain that churches are full of hypocrites.  Of course there are hypocrites in the church, dummy!  Why else go to church than to know that the only way to be saved from hypocrisy is found right here in this place, at the foot of this cross?

It’s because we’re in the dark that we come like King Zedekiah coming to Jeremiah at night, wondering, “Is there a word from the Lord?”  Or the Reverend Nicodemus sneaking away to visit Jesus in the cover of darkness to ask how he can be saved.  Or like Pharaoh, who comes to Moses after nightfall to ask for a blessing.

By being in the dark and owning up to our sin or our regrets or our hypocrisy, we become just like Jesus’ disciples on Easter day: We are nowhere to be found, locked in some room scared to death.  We fear the darkness and emptiness; but, we start in darkness before we move towards the light!

III.

John’s Easter story in chapter 20 is appropriate for those of us stumbling in the dark because the story doesn’t begin in glory or in the midst of Alleluias or hosannas.  Rather, according to verse 1, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb “while it was still dark” to finish the burial rituals left undone from two days ago.

She came, according to local pastor Bill Self, like a sorry intern sent to clean up campaign headquarters after her boss lost the big election the night before.

So, here we have Mary at the tomb while it was dark and, upon finding the tomb empty, expected the worst.  She went to get Peter and another disciple, and they come to the tomb.  Same thing: They expected the worst and they headed back home, shoulders slumped ever lower, and went back to bed.

Mary remained there, however, and she wept.  Unlike Peter, she was not afraid of the dark or emptiness.  As a person who once had 7 demons in her, she knew a thing or two about darkness.

Finally, angels appeared and asked, “Why are you weeping?”  Then Jesus appeared and repeated the question.  Mary, still enshrouded in darkness, didn’t recognize him and mistook him as the gardener.

Jesus called her name–light pierced the darkness!–and she recognized him.  They embrace, and he told her not to hold on, that his work was far from finished.  She ran and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”

Interesting, this scripture is:  It’s not until nightfall–darkness–that Jesus appeared to the disciples for the first time on Easter with “peace” and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is in the midst of this dark that we are reminded how John’s Gospel begins in the first place:  “The light pierces the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

The Easter story moves quickly from here like a good action movie:  Next, we get the story of Thomas, himself in the dark and wanting proof.  Then Jesus disappeared for a while.  He left the disciples clueless, and the disciples went back to doing what’s familiar–they go fishing.

They fished all day long, and scripture tells us: “But that night, they caught nothing.”  Then: daybreak! (John 21:4)  Jesus appeared to them a third time, the disciples caught fish, Jesus made breakfast, they shared communion and–boom!– light pierced the darkness yet again, they recognized Jesus.

Jesus asked Peter over breakfast (three times): “Do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter responded, “You know I love you.”

“Then feed my sheep.”  To the rest of the disciples, Jesus added, “Follow me.”

It was a second commissioning because it was back on Easter that Jesus commanded them:  “Just as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

IV.

Once again, with a “feed my sheep!” Jesus pierces the darkness, and our own darkness too.  Will Willimon, in the devotional Disciplines 2013, puts it this way:

“Here in the darkness, we are witnessing the birth of the church, a group of half-understanding, often cowardly, people trying but not always succeeding to follow Jesus…down a path few of us really want to go.”

The difficulty of coming up with an Easter sermon simply reminds us that even after all these thousands of years–even after Jesus has appeared in our lives so many times–that we, too, still get stuck in the dark.

And darkness surrounds us.  There is…

  • Exploitation and mass consumerism consuming us in its slick blackness.
  • Broken tax codes that leave too many in the darkness of inequality and injustice.
  • War and violence that brings its deathly shadow to too many lands.
  • Poverty and hunger that creates dark in the pit of the stomach.
  • Cancer and grief and illness–a darkness that lingers and lingers and lingers…

We, like the disciples, continue to stumble in darkness, and we need Jesus’ light yet again to pierce it, to war against it, to remind us that we are not in the dark and empty space all alone.  We need bread broken, the taste of juice whetting our lips to awaken us from our slumber.

And we still have Jesus asking us–not once, not three times, but over and over and over again:  “Do you love me?”

“Yes, Jesus, we do!”

“Then feed my sheep!  Just as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

“But how Jesus?  It’s too dark?  We can’t see in front of our very eyes!”

V.

By walking through the Easter story, we walk with Mary and the disciples through these three movements:

  1. We start in the grief and sorrow and dark of Good Friday.
  2. We move to discovery and experience of Easter morning.
  3. And, after that, we repeat communion and get Jesus’ repetitive but never redundant commissioning.

It’s a movement we do continually because we will always stumble, but even in the darkest hour, light pierces our darkness yet again!

VI.

In a recent article in Desert Spirituality, occupational therapist, Mary Gilligan, tells a story of a time she was hospitalized for a serious illness.  She couldn’t eat for days other than those lousy ice chips–you know what I’m talking about.  Between her hunger and the medication, she experienced hallucinations and bad dreams.

She tried to pray, but no words–not even the “Hail Marys” she knew as a Catholic–brought her comfort.  She drifted in and out of consciousness, the pain was excruciating.  Then, one day, she had a vision:

She found herself at the bottom of a spiral staircase in darkness.  With just enough strength to take it one step at a time, she began to ascend.  Each step brought her closer to the light until, finally–like a child with a father–she saw herself crawling in Jesus’ lap.*

She held her hand.  She rubbed her head.  She spoke words of comfort to her:

“There will be a long journey ahead, but I will be with you every step of the way.”

Reminds me of the hymn we sang this morning, “Because He Lives”:

“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.  Because He lives, all fear is gone..”

It was in a similar place of darkness–in fear, behind locked doors–that Jesus gave the disciples strength to take their first step towards the light.  That is the same strength Jesus gives us today.  It’s not much–only a “Peace be with you”–but it’s enough for today…and tomorrow.

“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus tells us as he pierces our darkness, “So send I you.”

It’s when we see and experience the light that we find ourselves running like Mary with a simple message, “I have seen the Lord!”

Amen and amen.