Coming to Terms with Loss

Sermon on Isaiah 55:10-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to this sermon here.

Artwork by Jon Muth

A few weeks ago, on the morning of her third birthday party, my eldest daughter asked me to push her in the swing under the back deck at my in-laws’ house. As she swung back and forth, she asked me to sing a song to her, so I chose one of her favorites: Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Before too long, I began to weep. While this is not all that surprising to anyone who knows me well, it usually takes a little more to make me cry. For some reason, this moment was particularly powerful. It might have been the beautiful way she sang along. It might have been the fact that my little girl is growing up. But I suspect that my emotions actually came from a deeper place. When you get right down to it, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is not just a whimsical children’s song, and it’s certainly not an allegory for drug use, as some have speculated. Ultimately, this song about a boy and his dragon is a profound meditation on loss. Now, I can already imagine some of your objections: “Come on David: not everything is a ‘profound meditation on something.’ Sometimes a song is just a song.” A close examination of the lyrics, however, reveals that there is something deeper happening in the land of Honalee. While the first verses describe Puff and Jackie Paper traveling on a boat with billowed sail and frolicking in the autumn mists, the final verses paint a darker picture: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little girls and boys. Painted wings and giants’ rings make way for other toys. One grey night it happened: Jackie Paper came no more, and Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar…Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave; so Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.” That’s the end of the song. Though the chorus repeats one more time, it’s in the past tense: “Puff, the Magic Dragon lived by the sea.” This whimsical children’s song reveals a stark truth about the human experience: eventually, we will lose everything we have in this life. In the end, there is nothing that will remain.

The easiest way to deal with this realization is simply to deny it. Case in point: when I was a kid, I had a children’s album recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary (it was called Peter, Paul, and Mommy, which I thought was pretty clever at the time). When the folk trio performed “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” they tried to negate any of the song’s unhappy implications by shouting “present tense” during the final chorus. Those listening to this amended version of the song were meant to assume that Puff’s grief over Jackie Paper is momentary. I’ll admit, this approach has an appealing quality. After all, why would we dwell on loss if it’s just going to depress us? Of course, if we simply deny the reality of loss, a time will come when we will be utterly devastated by it: we’ll sustain a life-altering injury, get fired from our dream job, or deal with the death of someone we love. A priest I know once presided at the funeral of a man whose thirty year old grandson wailed, “What am I going to do now” as his grandfather was buried. Though we can’t know what was happening in this young man’s head, I suspect that he had simply denied the reality of loss for his entire life, only to be forced to confront it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

If we choose not to deny the reality of loss, we are faced with a stark choice, one that leads to two utterly distinct ways of experiencing the world. On one hand, recognizing that we will lose everything we have in this life can lead us to ignore the possibility of transcendence, to focus exclusively on the present moment. After all, if nothing will remain, why should we be preoccupied with what will come after us? Obviously, this way of thinking is inherently selfish, but it also has a seductive logic. If I subscribe to this worldview, my life has a clear purpose: to do whatever it takes to satisfy my desires. I don’t have to worry about discerning my vocation or trying to make something of myself; I don’t have to worry about speaking the truth or being honorable; I don’t even have to worry about being faithful to those who depend on me; everything can be subordinated to my immediate needs, because nothing is going to last anyway. It’s the same logic that led the Epicureans to say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” But this approach, if taken to its logical extreme, leads inexorably to nihilism. If everything in life is only useful for satisfying our immediate desires, then nothing actually matters, nothing has value, nothing is worth anything. In this worldview, everything we do is ultimately for naught, a condition that forces us into despair.

On the other hand is the vision of life offered by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was no stranger to loss. He wrote to a people in exile, a people who had been removed from their homeland and isolated from everything they held dear. If anyone had reason to despair, it would have been Isaiah and his people. Yet, time and again, Isaiah refuses to give in to despair and offers his people comfort. We see the reason for the prophet’s confidence in this morning’s reading, when Isaiah gives his people this word from the Lord: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Even in the face of devastating loss, Isaiah trusted that God would keep God’s promises, that God’s word would not return to him empty. This is an astonishing statement, because it so precisely opposes a nihilistic worldview: since God’s word will not return to him empty, everything matters. God neither creates nor redeems in vain. There is nothing and no one that can legitimately be dismissed; our lives have value, even though we know that they will come to an end someday.

Nothing embodies this more clearly than the resurrection. In the resurrection, Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh, was vindicated even after he suffered the loss of everything. In the resurrection, Jesus Christ embodied Isaiah’s prophecy. When we are faced with the reality of of loss, we have two distinct options: we can either give into despair and live as though nothing in our life matters, or we can share in Christ’s victory over death and trust that, in the end, God’s word will not return to him empty.

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One Liners

Sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 and Romans 8:26-39 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr. You can listen to this sermon here.

Not long before she died, Joan Rivers was featured in a documentary called A Piece of Work. In one of the best scenes, the legendary comedian thumbs through a silver file cabinet, the kind libraries once used for card catalogs. Instead of book titles organized according to the Dewey Decimal system, these drawers contained thousands of jokes organized under labels such as “Pets,” “Politically Incorrect,” “New York,” and “No Self Worth.” This scene is compelling because it reveals that Rivers was among the last of a dying breed: the comedian who actually told jokes. Most comedians these days tend toward observational humor; they tell long stories that build to a satisfying climax. Joan Rivers, however, preferred the zinger. She was part of a collective of one-liner specialists that included Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and, of course, Henny Youngman. According to his obituary, Youngman was “the most rapid-fire of rapid-fire comics. He could tell six, seven, sometimes even eight or more jokes a minute…Rarely if ever did a joke last more than 24 seconds.” Part of what makes one-liners irresistible is the fact that they are ruthless: you either get them or you don’t. There is no time to explain the joke or provide context or apologize when people are offended or even give people time to recover when they are laughing too hard. The effect of this pace is that the jokes themselves become less important than broader vision they represent: in comedy, nothing is off limits. While this broader vision may seem cynical, it is actually borne from a deep sense that everything in life, good or bad, is worth experiencing. At a dinner where Henny Youngman received an award in 1987, Whoopi Goldberg summarized the rapid-fire comic’s posture toward the world when she said that Youngman’s ability to make people laugh “gives us greater understanding of who we are, what we want, and how we stand with the world.”

In this morning’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, we see Jesus engaging in his own version of rapid-fire comedy, in the form of some the New Testament’s most fast-paced teaching. In the space of just a few verses, Jesus tells five parables, none of which are longer than a sentence or two. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, to yeast, to treasure in a field, to a merchant in search of pearls, and to a net thrown into the sea. Though the pace is not quite six parables a minute, it certainly feels close. Like the zingers of Joan Rivers and Henny Youngman, these parables throw us off balance. Jesus doesn’t wait to see if we understand what he means when he says “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field” before he moves on to the next parable. This is probably by design. We often make the crucial mistake of reading the parables of Jesus as allegories: we try to figure out who the various characters in the story are supposed to be. We saw Matthew himself do this in last week’s gospel lesson, when he explained “the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom,” you get the idea. The problem with this approach is that it misses the point of what the parables of Jesus are supposed to accomplish. By offering a series of clipped, seemingly unrelated parables in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus completely short-circuits our ability to allegorize them. It’s nonsensical and probably impossible to determine what the yeast represents or who the merchant in search of fine pearls is supposed to be. The pace of these parables helps us remember that they are not allegorical stories that describe the world as it is; they are lenses through which we can see the world in an entirely new way. Like the jokes of rapid-fire comedians, Jesus tells these parables in service of a broader vision.

If we slow down for just a moment, it is clear that the overall purpose of these parables is to challenge the way we understand the kingdom of heaven. For Jesus’ original audience, “kingdom of heaven” was a shorthand way of referring to the time when God would establish justice and, perhaps more importantly, wreak bitter vengeance on the enemies of God’s people. It was a term that allowed an oppressed people to fantasize that their oppressors would someday get their comeuppance. Of course, those political dimensions have faded over the centuries. For us, “kingdom of heaven” has simply become a synonym for “the afterlife,” which means it’s not a matter of much concern to us on a day to day basis. The series of parables we heard this morning challenges both of these views. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is neither a political revenge fantasy nor a place we go when we die. Indeed, for all of their muddled imagery, these parables present a consistent theme: the kingdom of heaven is already among us. Now, given this message, it can be tempting to fall into the same trap as Pangloss in Candide: blithely claiming that is really is “the best of all possible worlds” despite all evidence to the contrary. This, however, is not what Jesus saying. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is a truth hidden at the very heart of creation, buried deep within the muck and mire of human misery. Ultimately, the kingdom of heaven is a posture towards the world, a fundamental recognition that, even in the face of degradation and death, the grace of God abides: and that through God’s grace things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new.

There is perhaps no one who articulates this posture more eloquently than St. Paul, when he writes: “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.” In this remarkable passage, Paul captures the essence of what Jesus was referring to when he described the kingdom of heaven: it is a perspective on the world informed an unshakeable trust in God’s grace. It’s worth noting that this trust is not automatic. Paul himself explains that had been convinced of the power of God’s love. This is significant for those of us who seek the kingdom of heaven in a skeptical age. I have known people who told me they had to be utterly confident in the promises of God before they could even attempt to be faithful. Paul, however, implies that his confidence in God’s grace was the result of discernment. Even for Paul, the kingdom of heaven was not revealed all at once. The kingdom of heaven is revealed gradually, in the moments that we choose hope over fear, forgiveness over retribution, and joy over despair. Ultimately, it is these glimpses of the kingdom of heaven that help us understand who we truly are and how we are meant to stand with world.