Monday, February 15, 2010

At the brink of the grave

Sermon February 14 2010
Most of you have heard, by now, the sad news of MLS’s death on Friday morning. It goes without saying that this has been a heart wrenching time for J and J and all of ML’s family and friends; that time of dreadful grace; when our gratitude and our love pours out with our tears and our hugs.

The funeral is scheduled for Tues Feb 23, 11:30

I am very sorry to have to report that another tragedy broke into our community on the same day that ML died: HC’s younger sister R died, quite unexpectedly. She had gone off to work on Friday morning, didn’t feel well, went back home to Sebastopol and went to bed, and apparently did not wake up. The shock to Heather and her family is of course most severe; she was still a young woman in her 40’s; the cause has not yet been determined.

I spent some time with H yesterday; her family was on its way, she is surrounded by good friends and the love of this community. Our blessings and prayers go out to her.

So here we are, appropriately enough, approaching Lent, with Ash Wed coming this Wednesday. It feels to me like we've entered that territory already.

It was, of course, on Ash Wed two years ago that ML received her diagnosis. I will never forget the sight of her, coming in through the side chapel just as we were finishing up the imposition of ashes. She kind of rushed in; DW was with her as she has been every step of the way since. She knelt at the altar rail and looked up at me with a knowing in her eyes that was deep and wild. Then she closed her eyes and I imposed those ashes on her forehead, saying those grave words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” And I thought, “Never have those words been more unnecessary.”

Last Friday, on the morning ML died, I drove down to join the 8 o’clock morning prayer group here gathered around the altar. Everyone there, of course, knew ML well and long and the fresh news of her death hung in the air like smoke.

When we got to the psalm appointed for the day, these were the words we read:
O Lord, my god, my Savior, by day and night I cry to you. Let my prayer enter into your presence; incline your ear to my lamentation. For I am full of trouble; my life is at the brink of the grave.

This psalm, Psalm 88, is a song of despair and mortality; the psalmist goes on at length about the finality of death: he speaks about the depths of the Pit, the dark places, the abyss. God feels very far away in this psalm, and the trials of life feel like punishment: “Your anger weighs upon me heavily, and all your great waves overwhelm me.”

This is also a psalm of questions, not answers:

“Why have you rejected me? Why have you hidden your face from me?” “Do you work wonders for the dead? Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks?”

Some of the questions seem almost sarcastic, or ironic. “Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave?... Will your wonders be known in the dark?”

This, indeed, is a song sung at the brink of the grave.

Sometimes, when our lives feel full of trouble and loneliness, reading psalms like this can be a comfort. It’s comforting to know that we are not the only ones who feel this way. But if we are looking for answers to our bitter questions, psalms like this might not be the best place to go.

It’s like our church in that way. If we’re looking for facile clich├ęs and easy answers, the Episcopal Church is not necessarily a good fit. We are not a church that tends toward strident, simplistic proclamations; we do not pretend that the howling depths of our grief can be answered by a cheerful verse of Scripture quoted out of context.

So many churches seem so determined to run from the ambiguous and, at times, frightening questions; they fill their music with cheerful tunes of praise as if the purpose of a church is to collude with its parishioners in a magnificent denial of death.

Not so the Episcopal Church. But oh, don’t get me wrong: we find our answers, eventually; and then when we find them, we continue to test them; and modify them; and test them some more against our reason, against our Scripture; against the great traditions of our church. When times are good, like everyone else we might forget them, but when the Ash Wednesdays of our life roll around and we find ourselves once again standing at the brink of the grave, the answers we find are solid.

Today, as we do every Sunday just before Lent begins, we hear the story of Jesus on the mountaintop with his favorite disciples; suddenly he is bathed in an unearthly light; and those two figures appear, Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets.

And what do you suppose they are talking about, up there on the mountain top?
Not about the weather, that’s for sure; nor are they singing God’s praises at that moment, as we might expect them to be doing.

No, they are talking about death. Jesus’ death, to be precise.

In the fullness of the glory of the transfiguration, on the top of the mountain with beams of light shooting out like the sun from the face of Jesus, Jesus is talking to these heavenly beings about his death.

Which, of course, his disciples have no interest in hearing about. In fact, they practically slept through the entire experience.

Just eight days earlier, in this same chapter of Luke’s Gospel (ch. 9), Jesus performs the miracle of the loaves and fishes – this amazing miracle, which had come on the heels of the spectacular mission of the twelve, when they went out into the countryside healing the sick and casting out demons. They had just returned from this great success; the air was alive with excitement; the disciples were just beside themselves, giddy with all this new life bursting out all over, the Kingdom of God literally blooming before their eyes in the name of Jesus – and what does Jesus talk to them about?

He sits them down and tells them, plainly, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed....” (Luke 9:22)

Well, talk about a buzz-kill. You can almost hear them wondering, “What is it about this guy – why does he have to talk about death? This is all about life! Healings! Miracles!”

Why do you suppose it is that Jesus himself brings us to the brink of the grave? At his moment of full glory he takes us there – to the cross. Why?

I think it’s so we might finally see what lies beyond the cross.

So we might finally see the truth of what this is; and who we are.

That we are not only made of dust and ashes; we are made of light. If we are dust at all, it is stardust. The grave cannot contain us. We are alive - always and for all time.

Time and again Jesus keeps taking us there. At the height of his glory Jesus shows us his death - so that in the face of our death we will see his glory.

So we will finally get it. So we will see the grave for what it is – a mere hole in the ground that cannot contain us - and so we will see ourselves for what we are.
How else could he make us see, it? You can hear them on the mountaintop, Moses and Elijah, mulling that question over to Jerusalem, and reaching a decision. You will go to Jerusalem. You will stand at the brink of the grave. You will be lifted in weakness and humility high up on the cross and die for all the world to see: so that on the third day, you will be raised in blinding light for all the world to see.

And we, who are witnesses to that glory, are transformed by it.

Just as Moses was transformed by the sight of God on the mountaintop; and his face shone with this uncreated light so that he had to put a veil over his face when he went among his people.

Just as Paul was transformed by this light, but unlike Moses, refused to put a veil on his face; but instead encouraged all of us to bear witness to this light. So that in this 2nd letter to the Corinthians that we read today, way before the gospels were written, Paul writes:

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)

We know this light. We are witnesses to this light. We have seen the face of God. As John’s gospel says, we have seen the light and we testify to the light; and we have become children of this light. We see it in each other; and we are transformed by it.

You know, this congregation is not just some random collection of aging Santa Rosans, complaining to one another about our wrinkles and our wilting bodies. We see past all that! Because we see that light - there, in our eyes; like a light shining with the force of creation itself.

It is the light of Christ, transfigured on the mountaintop; it is the light of Christ, bursting from the grave. Proclaiming to all the world what we know most deeply in our bones: that we are made of this light.

That is why we can talk about death without flinching; because we have seen death defeated.

And so we stand at the brink of Lent; we stand at the brink of the grave; and with one voice we sing alleluia. We join our voices with ages past; with countless generations who have testified to this light; we are connected to them beyond time and space, joining with them and singing alleluia!

Somebody say it with me: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!