Divine Maternal Yawp

Psalm 104:34-35, 37 I will sing to [God] as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please [God]; I will rejoice in [God]. Bless [God], O my soul. Hallelujah!

Introduction

In his poem “Song of myself”, Walt Whitman describes sounding his barbaric yawp. He desires to seize his own liberty, to physically and verbally make his presence known as he is without all the confinements of society. Think naked, think boundless, think unrestricted. Think: the noise and sound of frustration and anger in the quest for liberation from condemnation and death—a sound so mighty it feels as if it reached down to the deepest recesses of being.

There’s only one time in my life where I felt the force of my barbaric yawp. It was less about myself and more about the one I wished to save: my daughter Liza (about 2 ½). A beautiful Mother’s Day solicited us out for a hike. Our family and my brother-in-law and sister-in-law decided to visit Potato Rock—a little hike and a picnic. When we got to the mysterious rock, we took a moment to look around and admire the sights. The boys did their thing, I was with my sister-in-law, and Liza was with Daniel and his brother. And then out of the corner of my eye, like a bolt of lightning, Liza sprinted away from Daniel—she’s always been very active and very nimble. She moved fast, and calling her name didn’t work. She kept running. We began to move toward her while calling her name. Still, she didn’t stop. She was heading for the edge and was so far out of our reach by this point I knew we couldn’t physically catch up to her and wouldn’t she just think it was a game?

In a moment of complete desperation, I did the only thing that came to mind. I waved Daniel off and then—with everything inside of me, summoning the strength of every fiber of my being—I hollered: LIZA STOP! The sound was so forceful it forced me to step back; Liza, mid-stride, collapsed in a ball of tears feet away from the edge. She was safe; Daniel made it to her and scooped her up to comfort her, I followed to do the same. Later my sister-in-law looked at me, eyes the size of quarters, where did that sound come from? She asked. I was in shock and filled with adrenalin; I didn’t know, it just came up and out of me.

I refer to that hollering, now, as the maternal yawp sounding from a desperate mom interceding between her beloved child and sure death. This is what love does when it needs to: it hollers so loud everything (even time) stops and space splits; love intercedes with all her force to protect the beloved. For all intents and purposes the maternal yawp is the breath of love breathing the fire of life, like a dragon aiming to save her own, like the roar of a mama lion protecting her young babes, like a mama bear chasing away a threat: do not mess with my cubs.

John 14:8-17

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And as I will ask [Abba God] and [God] will give to you another Intercessor, so that they will be with you into eternity. The spirit of truth, whom the cosmos is not able to receive because it does not experience them and does not know them. You, you know them, they abide with you and will be within you. [1]

(Jn. 14:15-17)

The story opens on Philip requesting from Jesus: show us Abba God and it will help us. Jesus’s responds—which, I can only imagine, carried justified exasperation[2]–and says: muh dude, you’ve been with me this long and you, you don’t see the family resemblance? Jesus then lovingly explains the intimate connection between Abba God and himself: God is in me and I am in God; I speak and do not my own things but what God wants to speak and do. In other words: Philip, you’ve been with God the entire time; God is with you. Jesus exhorts Philip to look at the works and words of Jesus and believe in God’s real presence with him[3] because God is with him, that’s a promise.[4] That promise extends beyond Jesus’s temporal presence with Philip and the disciples.

Referring to his own works and words, Jesus explains that the disciples will do even greater ones. This explanation doesn’t mean the disciples will eclipse the cross and resurrections; it doesn’t mean they’ll do more and better miracles. It means they’ll continue in and with the words and work of Abba God as Jesus did,[5] spreading the work and words of Christ wherever they go.[6] The question remains: How will this be the case?

According to Jesus, it’s simple as asking Jesus for things in Jesus’s name. Jesus promised: I’ll do these things you ask for in order to bring glory to Abba God. The future tense of this moment creates a bit of tension: how will the disciples ask Jesus for things in Jesus’s name if he’s not here? Enter the Intercessor, The Paraclete.[7]

Jesus moves from promising to do whatever the disciples ask in his name to dropping the qualifier of qualifiers. Before the disciples think Jesus and God are their genie in a bottle,[8] Jesus defines love: if you love me you will keep my commandments. This then tempers the idea of “anything” and illuminates “in my name”. In other words: good luck loving me and abiding in my love and then trying to yoke me and Abba God to your selfish and self-centered desires, myths, and systems of death.[9] To ask something of Christ in Christ’s name is to confess a love for and faith in Christ; to love Christ and believe in him is to do his commandments. Thus, the disciples are exhorted to love God and love one another; but, not of their own power and force, but through faith[10] and by the presence of The Intercessor who will come and abide with and within them forever. By faith and love the disciples are anchored to God.

If anchored to God by the presence of The Intercessor (The Paraclete, The Holy Spirit) then also anchored in truth[11] and divine revolutionary love[12] for the entire cosmos. Those who follow in the love of God by the presence of the interceding spirit of divine love[13] will be those who proclaim the words and do the deeds manifesting the liberation of and justice for the people trapped in suffering and oppression. [14] In other words, the disciples are exhorted to participate in the divine maternal yawp by the power of The Intercessor. Disciples are to use their voices and their bodies to intercede (beyond thoughts and prayers) on behalf of those who are trapped by the myths and lies and the threat of death from human violence and systemic oppression.

Conclusion

In a moment we’ll recite the affirmation of faith. The last portion of the affirmation reflects on the reality and presence of the Spirit, God within us. Some of those lines are: We believe in God within us, the Holy Spirit burning with Pentecostal fire, life giving breath of the Church[15]The past few weeks make these lines feel distant if not like bold lies. How do we utter these words—packed with vibrant and rich, living and active imagery—and then remain silent as God’s beloved children die? If being a Christian means I’m only saved from some mythical conception of hell, then I am most to be pitied because it means that the Spirit of God is incapacitated and limp. It means that word “intercession” only has one passive definition and not also a very active one. Does the Paraclete only comfort me like a lullaby wooing me to sleep? Or is the Spirit of God alive, breathing, burning with Pentecostal fire, exhorting me to be bold and defend life?

As a mom, I can’t sit by; as a Christian, I can’t send my kids and your kids or any kid into the hellscape that is our world without first sounding my maternal divine yawp: STOP! THIS MUST END! I need to either stop praying the third part of the affirmation of faith or I must double down, diving head first into the reality that God charged the church and every Christian to be those who illuminate the darkness, who holler at and silence deadly storms, and who are the live-giving tongues of the Pentecostal fire in this tundra of death.

Today we remember the arrival of God’s Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Intercessor, the one who resided with and within the disciples. This is the same Spirit who resides with and within us. Today we must ask: are we dead or are we alive? If we are dead, then let us confirm the confession that God is dead, too. But if we—those resurrected by God’s life-giving breath into the consuming fire of God’s love—if we are alive then so is God. If so, then let us be alive as the church, let us be a force to be reckoned with interceding for God’s beloved, let us be the church so inspired by God’s passion for the world that we can do no other than sound our divine maternal yawp so loud that terra firma shakes with God’s presence.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed; RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. German: Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964, 1966). 608-609. “The implication behind the reproachful question: τοσοῦτον χρόνον κτλ. is that all fellowship with Jesus loses its significance unless he is recognized as the one whose sole intention is to reveal God, and not to be anything for himself; but it also implies that the possibility of seeing God is inherent in the fellowship with Jesus: ὁ ἑωρακὼς ἐμὲ ἑώρακεν τὸν πατέρα. What need is there for anything further (πῶς σὺ λέγεις κτλ.)?”

[3] Bultmann, John, 609-610. “The man, for whom Jesus has not already become authoritative, so that he could believe his word without question, should look at what his word effects: i.e. he should look at himself. Jesus’ word does not communicate mysteries or dogmas, but discloses a man’s reality. If he tries to understand himself by subjecting his existence to this word, then he will experience the work of the Father on him. The nature of the experience is stated in v. 12: the Father’s work will continue to come to fruition in those who believe in Jesus…”

[4] Bultmann John, 609. “This question is posed by Jesus’ words in v. 10: οὐ πιστεύεις ὅτι ἐγὼ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ἐν ἐμοί ἐστιν; The faith at issue is the faith that man really encounters God in his encounter with Jesus, that Jesus and the Father are one. The formula of reciprocity is again used to describe this unity, but what follows makes it clear that it must be understood in terms of the idea of revelation. In Jesus’ word, the work of the Father is brought to fruition; on his own, and for himself, Jesus is nothing: he is simply and without exception the revelation of the Father, and the words ὁ δὲ (ὁ) ἐν ἐμοὶ μένων give added emphasis to the fact.”

[5] Bultmann, John, 611. “To speak of the disciples’μεἰζονα ἔργα is of course to speak paradoxically; for they are in fact the works of him without whom the disciples can do nothing (15.5). And the juxtaposition of that promise with the promise that their prayer will be heard, which makes what they do appear as something given (v. 13), reminds us at once that all the disciples’ work is rooted in his work, and is in fact his work.”

[6] Bultmann, John, 610-611. “Jesus’ word is word of revelation in continual newness on every occasion when it is present. Only when is effective in this way in the community does Jesus’ work come to its fruition. Thus there is no question here of supplementing or surpassing Jesus’ work in any quantitive way.”

[7] Bultmann, John, 610. “[The promise] also corresponds to the promise of the Paraclete, who is to continue what Jesus had done, and whose work is carried through in the community’s proclamation of the word (15.26f.; 16.4b ff.). The disciples are to regard the taking up of their task—and this is the point here—as the Father’s work. What further need have they then to ask: δεῖξον ἡμῖν τὸν πατἐρα? Indeed, the Father’s work, which began with what Jesus did, is to prove its power more and more in what they do: καὶ μεἰζονα τοὐτων ποιἠσει.”

[8] Cardenal Solentiname 554 “OLIVA: “To ask in his name isn’t to say prayers mentioning his name, like so many who pray and are rich and exploiters. Specifically, here in Nicaragua I think that to ask in his name is not to pray but to act.’”

[9] Bultmann, John, 614. “V. 15: the answer to the question how a relationship of love can be established with the departed Revealer is this: it consists in the disciple fulfilling his commands.”

[10] Bultmann, John, 614. “It is of course natural, following 13.34; 15.12, 17, to think of the command of love, and this is certainly included in the summons to faith, just as 15.9-17 make it equally certain that faith as an abiding in love cannot be a reality without the ἀλλήλους ἀγαπᾶν. However, this side of the matter is not stressed in this context. It is faith that is demanded, demanded of course in the fulness of its significance as existential living.”

[11] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 558. “FELIPE: “Because Christians often have a love that’s just talk, and those who aren’t Christians are the ones that make love a reality they are acting the truth; because even though they don’t talk about love or Christianity or theories of that sort, they’re really the ones that are following the truth, practicing the truth.”

[12] Cardenal Solentiname 558. “GUSTAVO, the Colombian: “I think that truth, the whole truth, is always revolutionary. Then the spirit of truth is something that moves things to change, to cast down the oppressor’s lie, to impose the truth of the oppressed.’”

[13] Bultmann, John, 615. “Thus there is a peculiar paradox inherent in the promise; the word of revelation, which the community is always encountering, is the very word which the community itself utters. It is responsible for the proclamation, and only when it grasps this responsibility does it experience the power of the word as the word of revelation.”

[14] Cardenal Solentiname 558. “I: “In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Yahweh, which is the same as saying the spirit of justice and liberation. He’s the one who spoke through the prophets proclaiming the truth.’”

[15] We use the Ionian Creed

Entering Anew Into Divine Light

The following is the introductory comment prior to last week’s Ash Wednesday service. I’m sharing here because I want to and who knows…maybe someone would like to read them… *shrugs

***

The Ash Wednesday service bids us to come into the presence of God in a naked way. We enter this moment, this light to be exposed, to see ourselves clearly, to ask hard questions, and to reflect–seriously–on ourselves so that we may confess our captivity and complicity in oppressive systems–systems harming ourselves, each other, and other brothers and sisters throughout the world [and the world itself]. Everything about this service tonight is built with this desire for self-reflection in mind. So, tonight I pray you and I will listen and hear deep in our hearts the words and stories of this service, and come anew to the light of divine love for your health and sanctification.

With Christ, With Others

Sermon on John 2:1-11

Psalm 36:5-7 5 Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep; you save both human and beast, O Lord. How priceless is your love, O God! your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

Introduction

One of the things that has been most on my mind as I’ve walked into 2022 has been the idea and concept of “presence.” I know this is not a new concept; the self-care industry has been talking about this forever. It’s a concept I’ve talked about as a mom, partner, teacher, and priest. So why talk about it again?

Because this year it feels different to me.

Historically, presence was a stillness of the whole person. Body and mind take a rest in a particular moment. A seat. A kneel. A pause. A static moment. And these are all great aspects of the concept of presence and ways I’ve definitely employed the idea in my work/life balance. But what occurred to me recently was the idea of presence in motion and movement. I’ve been thinking about how this idea of presence in motion envelopes my relationship to others and to time. I can define this relationship by asking this question: Can I just be here right now with this person?

I think about this question a lot as I walk with Liza two miles to school and then again on our way home in the afternoon. There are times the two miles feels massive…about 40 minutes of time. In a society that demands me to validate each and every minute and submit my time sheet of productivity, it is hard to realize 80 minutes of the day are me, just walking with my daughter. But here I am, walking 80 minutes with my daughter at least 4 days a week. There are mornings where I’m consumed about the time it’ll take me to walk back before I can get to work on various projects—the stress about what needs to be done builds. There have been mornings with the temperature low that the many, many steps—comprising “there and back again” a Larkin tale—feel daunting, and I long for yesteryear when school was just down stairs.

And lately the question—Can I just be here right now with this person?—has grown louder and louder. Can I walk in this moment with Liza without thinking of what is ahead of me and what is behind? Can I just walk, one foot in front of the other, one minute at a time, not rushing and not dragging and not internally complaining? Can I just be here right now in this moment and activity with this person? Can I forget about the time and the distance and just be here, walking with this beloved?

John 2:1-11

Now there were placed there six water pots made of stone each holding a two or three anaphoras [8.75 liters]—in accordance with the purification of the Jews. Jesus said to [the servants], “Fill the water pots.” And they filled them to the brim. And Jesus said to them, “Now draw out and bring forth to the master of the feast.” And they brought [it] forth. Now as the master of the feast tasted the water having become wine …[1]

John 2:6-9a

Jesus is physically and emotionally present at this wedding in Cana. He’s not aloof and above such a scene. One might assume that wine running out at a celebration would be exactly what the Son of God would and should prefer. Aren’t we too holy for such potentially ruckus camaraderie? Apparently: No, we’re not. Instead of informing the servants that water will be just fine because *casually gestures around the room* Jesus adds to the distribution of wine (a lot! 3 anaphoras was about 30 liters, and there were six of these vessels!). Jesus allows the party to go on. In this I hear a question…Why?

An ordinary wedding in Cana is certainly not the place for one’s first miracle. It’s by all definitions very, very ordinary. Yes, weddings can be fun and great, but if you think about it they’re rather common place. (We all breathe a sigh of relief when we finally leave “wedding season” of adult hood.) John the Elder records this story because it’s Jesus’s first publicly performed miracle. But it’s not that extra-ordinary. The miracle here is merely the transition—the transubstantiation—of water into wine. Water, by the word of Christ, becomes wine. That is what happens here. Nothing more; nothing less. For the man Jesus who is the Christ, who is God, this is nothing. Yet it’s here in this very basic act of turning water into wine where Jesus reveals the glory of God.[2] And this is the point.

What is the glory of God being revealed? It is not merely in the water turned wine, but the essence of the why: God’s love for God’s people manifested here at this wedding, in this revelry, in this way, by the presence of Jesus. What John the Elder highlights for his reader (both then and now) is that the gift being given isn’t the wine, but the very real and whole presence of Jesus himself, God of very God, the bread and wine of life.[3] Jesus isn’t just present in a spiritual way in this story. Rather, Jesus is actively present in the lives of all the people invited into this celebration of union and life. A reflection of what comes in the great celebration of the union of God and God’s people. The very celebration started the moment Mary pushed and the angels heralded the shepherds.

Conclusion

A story about a miracle at a celebration revealing the glory of God, which is God’s love for God’s people, has really big ramifications for our lives. This isn’t merely a story that we look in upon, but one into which we are invited. We are called in as guests, with Jesus, to this wedding to see, hear, and experience the joy of new and best wine being revealed at the end of the celebration. We are asked to see Jesus present with these people, and imagine and be reminded that Jesus is with us, too.

You, by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, walk with God in Christ. Every moment. God is not hiding from you as if you have to hunt and seek for God. You are in Christ (a location) by faith. And the last I checked, it is really hard not to be where you are. You are always here; you are always in and with Christ.The love of God comes to you, reveals to you God’s love for you,[4] enfolds you, wraps you up in the swaddling clothes of love, and you are held in the arms of God. We are in Christ’s presence and with Christ. And Christ is in us by the power of the Spirit and with us by the same power.

In a sermon, “On Being a Good Neighbor”, Martin Luther King, Jr., said,

“The ultimate measure of a man [Sic] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”[5]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In being located with and in Christ means that others are there, too. This location of being in Christ is one we share with others. And we are all here in this now in Christ, in this presence being given a present. In Christ we are alleviated of the drudgery of the past and the threat of the future, and we can be here now; we get a present tense not just for us but especially for our sisters and brothers in Christ, those sharing this location. We walk with them, one step at a time, one minute at a time, and we bear with them their burdens, their pains, and their sorrow for they live with us. As Christ resided with those whom he counted as his brothers and sisters according to his flesh, as Christ was present at that wedding, so are we present with others, elevating them, to quote Dr. King, “to a higher and more noble life.” In other words, if “‘Christ is the [person] for others’”, then “the [person] for others is the [person] after God’s heart.”[6]

We, the beloved, are gifted with the revelation that by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit we walk with God in Christ… with God not behind and afraid, but with God. God is with us, all of us, and thus we are called to the other of the beloved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray and RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 1971. 119. “For the Evangelist the meaning of the story is not contained simply in the miraculous event; this, or rather the narrative, is the symbol of something which occurs throughout the whole of Jesus’ ministry, that is, the revelation of the δόξα of Jesus. As understood by the Evangelist this is not the power of the miracle worker, but the divinity of Jesus as the Revealer, and it becomes visible for faith in the reception of χάρις and ἀλήθεια; his revelation of his δόξα is nothing more nor less than his revelation of the ονομα of the Father (17.6).”

[3] Bultmann John 120. “…the Evangelist’s figurative language refers not to any particular gift brought by the Saviour Jesus, but to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as is true of the images of the living water, the bread of life and the light, as well as of the shepherd and the vine; equally the wine refers not to any special gift, but to Jesus’ gift as a whole, to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as he is finally visible after the completion of his work.”

[4] Bultmann John 121. “The story then will teach us that the help for all man’s perplexity is to be found in the miracle of the revelation; but the event of the revelation is independent of human desires and cannot be forcibly brought about by man’s supplication; it comes to pass where and how God wills, and then it surpasses all human expectation.”

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “On Being a Good Neighbor” Strength to Love Minnesapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 26-27

[6] Dorothee Sölle Theology for Skeptics : Reflections on God Trans Joyce L. Irwin. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995. 96. “[Jesus] let this light shine through himself,  he did not hide it in the depths of his soul, he gave it out. He was the man [Sic] for others because he was the man of God and knew himself to be so borne up by God that he did not fall out of God, not even when he felt himself abandoned by God. The old formula ‘true man’ is rendered by Bonhoeffer as ‘man,’ where being ‘true God’ is called by Bonhoeffer simply being there ‘for others,’ because God is for others the God of love. Thus the sentence, ‘Christ is the man for others,’ is the old Christological formula ‘true God and true man’ in contemporary speech which refers to God without using religious formulas. The man for others it’s the man after God’s heart.”

A Unique Draw

Luke 6:20-23 (Homily)

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
(Luke 6:20-23)

I remember clearly the evening we had to break it to our boys that we were leaving Colorado to move here, to Louisiana, for me to take this job. The news of the move swung like a wrecking ball into their lives: everything they had previously known to be regular and normal was now flying through their atmosphere in scattered pieces and shards of what was.

As the news sunk in and the pieces and shards started to hit their ground, their eyes told us we were in for a full blown verbal assault: YOU’RE STUPID! I WISH I WAS NEVER BORN! I HATE YOU SO MUCH! I WISH YOU WERE NEVER BORN! And so on. Doors slammed, immense pain and hatred vented, tears shed, plea bargains offered, more doors slammed.

The pain of our boys hit us hard. Their words seemed endless; their physical anger appeared nearly unrestrainable. But what broke us most was neither their verbal attacks nor the physical tantrums, but that their hearts were broken. They fired their verbal shots, and we only nodded in agreement, “I know. I know, buddy….I know.” Silent nods.

And even though we knew we had to be the strong and steady ones in the equation, we couldn’t help but cry with them. I wiped away the warm tears that broke through to the surface and rolled down my cheeks. I cried because these human being, the ones that my body spent months growing and nourishing, these human beings were in pain and I couldn’t have any other response than to cry with them.

Their pain was my pain; their grief was my grief; their sorrow and mourning was my sorrow and mourning. The only thing I could do then, in that moment, was stand as close as possible and be present, creating space for them to let out the depths of their emotions and take as much of it as I could.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” How are those who weep to laugh? How are those who weep, blessed? Because in the thick of their pain and sorrow and grief, God is with them. Blessedness comes from the presence of God. And the radical aspect of God’s blessedness is that it comes to us not as we are clean, and tidy, and happy, but when we are at the bottom, in the lowness of life, when everything hurts emotionally, mentally, physically because life has dealt us its blows one more time.

Our God doesn’t shy away from the radical pain and hurt and suffering and sorrow and grief of the human life. Just the opposite.  “For [God] knows how we were made,” writes the Psalmist. “[God] remembers that we are dust.” Our God is a God “whose property is always have mercy,” to have mercy especially when and where all hope seems lost. And God’s mercy is expressed in that God entered into our humanity and suffered under that weight by being born, living, sorrowing, and suffering pain even death on the cross.

Our suffering and grief and mourning has a unique way of drawing us to this God who is love, who is not far off when we are at our saddest, our angriest, but who has come close—Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us!  Suffering has a unique way of drawing us to the Suffering God who suffered for us on the cross, who was raised from the dead, and who has declared that the suffering of this life will not last forever, that the suffering of this life does not have the final word, because God has conquered it. 

Your suffering, your sorrow, your grief, and your pain are not indicative that God has turned his face from you; He hasn’t, you have not been abandoned. It’s just the opposite: He loves you so very, very, very much; so much so he has laid down His life for you because he hears your cries, because God knows. And God’s not mad if you are ticked and angry, sad and grieved.

Any notion that you would bear any sort of curse for being upset with the trauma life can bring, is a lie. If I could bear the anger of my sons, how much more can God—the one whole loves the beloved fully and completely, better than any earthly mother and father—how much more can this God bear your pain and suffering and anger and grief?

Blessed are you who mourn because the God of the universe is with you, has taken on your plight. Blessed are you because there is no dark night of the soul that is too dark to cloak you from God’s eye; there is no pain so great that would cause Christ to just shrug his shoulders and yawn; there is no sorrow so deep that would cause your pain to be outside of God’s knowledge.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:34-39).

Blessed are you who mourn, grief, sorrow, who are angry and upset, for God is present with you.

“God is in the Gallows; God is in the Rubble”

Luke 2:8-20 and 9/11 (Homily)

The following is the homily I delivered in remembrance of 9/11 at the school where I’m a teaching chaplain. It was written last minute because that morning I felt powerfully in my mind and heart to ask the person who was slotted to preach that day to let me do it instead. Here is what I felt called to share…

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8-20)

 

On September 11th, 2001, I walked from the subway station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located just a mile from the station in midtown, Manhattan, just outside of Rockefeller plaza, at 53rd and 5th avenue. The air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. The day was perfect. I didn’t expect that moments later while sitting at my desk I’d be told that a massive passenger plane had flown into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like into.” Was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible?

We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings take over the bright blue sky. And as we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the south tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were dismissed from our jobs and set free into the streets of New York City to find our ways to home? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could come in or leave.

It took me a while before I was able to fight my way over to my big brother’s apartment building, where, when I entered, the door man took one look at me and said, before I could say anything, “He’s waiting for you upstairs. Go!”

By a little after noon, Manhattan had quieted completely. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big one was silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed by, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to ground zero. I could and did walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’ve ever been able to do such a thing.

Manhattan and the immediate surrounding areas would never be the same. You can’t go back to “normal” because we were consistently reminded of the horror and tragedy as we walked by walls, bus-stands, bulletin boards, that were plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried.

I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me for a bit there, God was dead or at least appeared to be.

All of the events of tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering that happens to us individually and collectively draws up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind the desperate questions of why? And where were you? And, Where are you God? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where was God on 9/11?

I’ve spent the majority of my academic life in the pursuit of that question: where is God when we suffer? Where is the comfort in divine silence? And there are times like 9/11/2001 where I come up silent myself. The only I answer I have are the tears I shed because suffering is real and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving?

But there are times when I see so clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has but a last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows; God is in the rubble.

God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quack. And the only reason why I can say this is because Jesus the Christ lay in a manger and the dirty outcast shepherds came and dwelt with God as dirty outcast shepherds. This God, wrapped in swaddling clothes, came to be with us in our suffering as humans. Jesus suffered and died and was raised on the third day to give us hope in solidarity with us. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. Did you know that this is possibly the most unique thing about the proclamation of the Gospel: our God dwells among the suffering as the Suffering God?

And God does indeed dwell amongst those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is in the midst of God’s people as we gather together, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines formed of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact shared in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed yes, but, more: when they showed up.

God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.

Praise be to God. Amen.