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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Simplicity

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer on Maundy Thursday, 2015.

In January of 1929, Rube Goldberg, an artist and former engineering student, began contributing satirical cartoons to Collier’s magazine. These cartoons depicted everyday tasks being accomplished through the most complicated means imaginable. You’ve probably seen these drawings: they are commentaries on America’s seemingly boundless faith in technology. Since its first publication, Goldberg’s work has become a cultural touchstone. As early as the 1930s, Merriam-Webster added “Rube Goldberg” to the dictionary, defining it as “accomplishing something simple through complicated means.” Since 1989, engineers have competed in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, in which contestants must build a machine that accomplishes a simple task in at least 20 steps. I wonder, however, how Rube Goldberg would feel about his cultural ubiquity. His cartoons were shaped by an implicit sense that life had become too complicated, that the labor saving devices on which we were becoming increasingly dependent actually prevented us from experiencing the fullness that life has to offer. Goldberg’s drawings exposed the artifice of modern life: the false assumption that our life has meaning because of what we possess.

This evening, we commemorate two acts of Jesus that, unlike the designs of Rube Goldberg, are striking for their simplicity. Indeed, when juxtaposed with the careful Passover instructions articulated in the book of Exodus, the footwashing and the institution of the imagesLord’s Supper are almost laughably straightforward. In both acts, Jesus uses the most basic element imaginable: a pitcher of water, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine. Paul and the other witnesses don’t tell us that there was anything special about these; in fact, the evangelists imply that Jesus used the bread and wine that happened to be left over at the end of dinner. And as Jesus shares the simple elements of bread and wine and water with those gathered around the table, his instructions are equally uncomplicated: “do as I have done for you”; “do this in remembrance of me.” The simplicity is almost comic, and might lead us to wonder why these simple gestures have any power at all.

The narrative context for these two rituals reveals that their simplicity is deceptive. John tells us that Jesus washes the feet of his disciples knowing “that his hour had come to depart from this world.” Paul reminds the Corinthians, as we are reminded every Sunday, that Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples “on the night when he was betrayed.” Both the footwashing and the institution of the Eucharist, in other words, are colored by the fact that Jesus is about to be handed over to suffering and death. More significantly, Jesus shares this simple meal with and washes the feet of the very people who betray, deny, and abandon him. The simplicity of the acts performed by Jesus exposes the artifice of those gathered around the table: the shrewd patience that keeps Judas at the table until the appointed time, the disquiet that leads the disciples to say, “Surely not I, Lord?” when Jesus predicts his betrayal, and perhaps most damning of all, the false confidence that leads Peter to protest, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus spends his last night on earth with a group of people who will fail him at every turn.

It is this context of betrayal and infidelity that gives Jesus’ acts on that last night their true power. Even though Jesus knew that those gathered around the table would soon behave as enemies, Jesus calls them “friends.” When he washes the feet of his disciples, Jesus adopts the role of a servant to those who are not worthy of being served. When he says, “this is my Body,” Jesus gives himself to those who would soon betray, deny, and abandon him. Before his disciples can hand him over to the evil powers of this world, Jesus hands himself over in the forms of bread and wine, and nullifies their betrayal. “By his surrender into the passive forms of food and drink,” writes Rowan Williams, “[Jesus] makes void and powerless the impending betrayal, and, more, makes the betrayers his guests and debtors, making with them the promise of divine fidelity…that cannot be negated by their unfaithfulness.” Jesus affirms that in spite of what they are about to do, the disciples are still part of his family. Even as everything falls apart around him, Jesus reaffirms the enduring faithfulness of God. In the Eucharist, the simple act of sharing a meal becomes an eloquent articulation of God’s love, a love that cannot be overcome by the darkness of human infidelity and violence.

From our historical vantage, it is easy to hear these stories assuming that we would never abandon Jesus during his final hours. We assume that we would stand at the foot of the cross, weeping with his mother and the beloved disciple. Or we would stand with the women of Jerusalem at a respectful distance. We certainly would not betray Jesus into the hands of sinners or deny that we ever knew him. But I wonder: when things start to fall apart in our own lives, when we are faced the loss of everything we possess and hold dear, when we lose our sense that we are in control our lives, are we really able to trust that God’s faithfulness will endure?imgres I’d be willing to wager that there are moments in each of our lives that we have turned away from God: perhaps for convenience, or apathy, or fear, or uncertainty, or perhaps for a thousand other reasons. And yet, we put our trust in a God who gives himself to us in spite of our infidelity. We put our trust in a God whose love cannot be negated by our failure. We put our trust in a God who affirms that our life has meaning even when everything we hold dear has been stripped away. Tonight, we affirm a fundamental truth of the Christian faith: that even when things fall apart, the God made known to us in the bread and wine continues to call us family.

Family

Freedom_from_want_1943-Norman_RockwellAt the beginning of the Second World War, Norman Rockwell created a series of illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post called “The Four Freedoms.”  Three of the original four images are no longer particularly recognizable, but one has stood the test of time.  Though originally created to  support the American war effort, the illustration called “Freedom from Want” has transcended its original purpose and has become an idealized image of American family life.  The illustration depicts a smiling family gathered at a Thanksgiving table and filled with gleeful anticipation as the matriarch sets an absurdly large turkey at the head of the table.  Everyone seems to be happy and there is no evidence of any animosity among the people seated at the table.  Anyone who has ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner with one’s family, however, knows that Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of that meal is far from accurate.  When families get together, the dynamics can be downright destructive.  Family gatherings can be filled with petty jealousies, old grudges, remembered betrayals, and heartbreak.  They can make us wish that we were part of a different family, yet the vast majority of us eventually embrace the fact that we are irrevocably connected to our families.  Our family meals become reminders that our connection to one another transcends all of the jealousies, grudges, and betrayals that break our hearts.

Tonight Christians around the world will observe Maundy Thursday.  It is the night that we remember the example of Jesus’ humility by washing each other’s feet.  It is the night when we recall and celebrate the institution of the Lord’s supper, when Jesus surrendered himself into the bread and wine before he was handed over.  It is the night that we prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death.  Towards the conclusion of tonight’s service, we will hear this prayer:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The implications of this prayer are profound.  Remember that Jesus’ own disciples run away when he is arrested and brought before the authorities.  It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who denies ever knowing him.  It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who hands him over to death.  These were the people who were closest to Jesus, those who could be considered his family, and yet they betrayed him, handed him over to sinners, and allowed him to suffer death upon the cross.  The extraordinary thing is that they remained his family, that Jesus was willing to experience their betrayal, and offered them a forgiving love that passes understanding.

As we participate in the Eucharist this evening, we will participate in a family meal.  It is not the idealized gathering portrayed by Norman Rockwell, but a gathering of sinners, betrayers, and deniers.  It is a gathering of people who harbor petty jealousies and cling to old grudges.  It is a gathering that would break God’s heart.  And yet, we affirm that we are still a part of God’s family, that we are still irrevocably connected to a God who was willing to be betrayed for the sake of those who betrayed him.