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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Embracing Our Tears: A Sermon

Embracing Our Tears
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 1st, 2009
All Saints’ Day

Isaiah 25:6-9
John 11:32-44

Today is All Saints’ Day.

We will take some time today in community, among friends, to remember and honor those who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.

Remembering those who are not with us brings tears.

This is the season of Autumn. The changing and falling leaves remind us that life is as precious and short as a season. The via negativa or the way of letting go is the spiritual path of being conscious of change.

There is a prayer written in our Book of Common Worship that I almost always read whenever I am asked to lead a funeral or memorial service. I had the honor of officiating at the memorial service for Nancy Odendhal this past week, so this prayer is fresh in my mind. The words are traditional, haunting, and honest.

Eternal God,
We acknowledge the uncertainty of our life on earth.
We are given a mere handful of days,
and our span of life seems nothing in your sight.
All flesh is as grass:
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers the flower fades,
but your word will stand forever;
in this is our hope, for you are our God.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death,
you are with us.

Oh Lord, let us know our end,
and the number of our days,
that we may learn how fleeting life is.
Turn your ear to our cry, and hear our prayers.
Do not be silent at our tears,
for we live as strangers before you,
wandering pilgrims as all our ancestors were.
But you are the same,
and your years shall have no end.
Amen

I am not as sure as I thought I once was about who “God” is in that prayer. I have no idea what it might mean to “have no end.” It is not likely that a supernatural divine being is moving in and out of our lives, pulling strings here and there.

Yet I do resonate with the lonely plea to whoever might listen: “Do not be silent at our tears.”
And I recognize that the beauty of life will fade like a summer flower.
Like grass that withers, so withers all of our presumption.

It is beautiful poetry. It is the poetry of letting go and acknowledging our limits.
It is the poetry of loss.
It is the poetry of tears.

The ancestors or the saints (in the Protestant tradition everyone gets to be a saint, even the sinners) are always telling us: “Listen: one day you are going to end up just like us.” The job of the dead is to remind the living that even though we do not know the number of our days, they are numbered.

The job of the living is to honor the dead by not allowing one beautiful flower to go unnoticed.
We honor the dead by not letting life slip by.
We honor the dead through peals of laughter.
We honor the dead by embracing our tears and one another’s tears.
We honor the dead by fighting for what is beautiful.

The gospels catch Jesus crying twice. Once when he weeps over Jerusalem and once when he weeps for his friend Lazarus. These glimpses of Jesus’ tears are the gospels’ way of telling us that tears are sacred. Weeping is a holy act. We are called to be men and women of sorrow, warriors of sorrow, like Jesus was.

Matthew Fox in his important book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine writes about the warrior metaphor. We need to call forth the inner warrior. We aren’t talking about soldiers and we certainly aren’t talking about mercenaries. We aren’t talking about violence at all. We are talking about strength shaped by sorrow.

We need to find the inner warrior that was manifest in Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks, warrior women twice oppressed by gender and race, but whose sorrows strengthened them in the fight for equality. The warrior was manifest in Harvey Milk, who at the time he was city supervisor in San Francisco, had achieved the highest public office for an openly gay man.

“You gotta give ‘em hope!” was his cry.

He was assassinated while in office. But even in his death he gave us hope.

Sometimes that is what happens to warriors.

Sister Dorothy Stang was a defender of the Amazonian rainforest and of the local people who were persecuted by illegal loggers and landowners. She was assassinated in Brazil in 2005 because of her faithful resistance to the exploitation of people and land.

They are saints, warriors and heroes. We honor them today.

Matthew Fox writes of warriors:
Often, to be a warrior, we must let go of our privileged status in life, no matter how hard-won. Putting aside the cloaks of accomplishment, one strips to what Howard Thurman called “the literal substance of oneself before God,” and one goes into darkness quite alone and vulnerable. That too is part of the way of the warrior. There are no guarantees that at the other end one will emerge as the same person or fit to play the same role in society ever again. One becomes the Via Negativa. Friends and relationships, achievements and titles, salaries and retirement plans, may all be left aside. We may be asked to live out the principle that, as Eckhart said, “all we have in life is on loan.” Life itself is on loan and all our relationships in it. A loan is temporary. The warrior knows about death, does not deny mortality but carries it like a shield, a guard by which to defend self and others. Knowing one’s mortality urges one to live fully now and defend what is beautiful now, not tomorrow. The warrior does not wait to live, does not put off living and loving and defending and creating for another day. The loan will come due, so make your opportunity today. P. 94.
In the reading from Isaiah, our ancestors confidently repeat the promise that one day God will wipe away tears. This is the ancient way of saying that sadness doesn’t have the last word. The Via Negativa is not sadism or nihilism or the glorification of pain and suffering. We embrace the tears and the darkness so we can move through them and discover the creativity we need for transformation.

Grief if not tended becomes depression. But if we can embrace it, feel it, be honest with it and weep through it, it can become compassion. And that is what a warrior is made of. We need warriors who can feel the pain of polluted streams, of blown up mountains, and burned out habitats. We need warriors who can weep over Earth as Jesus wept over Jerusalem and as he wept with Mary and Martha over Lazarus.

Then as the prophet Isaiah writes, God wipes away the tears, fills our emptied, cried out, ripped out, burned out, blown up vessels of our souls with the light of creativity.

Like Jesus who calls the dead Lazarus to come forth, we are to call out to a humanity that has been deadened, numbed, wrapped in plastic and laid in a tomb. We, warriors, need to call out to humanity to come alive.

Come forth! Unbind yourself! Go! Let us make a sustainable and just life for our children and for our grandchildren.


This is not someone else’s calling. It is ours. This isn’t our job tomorrow. It is today.

I read this poem at Nancy Odendhal’s service. Nancy was a warrior by the way. She was a warrior for Earth and a warrior for her friends.

This is Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes:”
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
The ancestors, the saints, the dead, the cloud of witnesses, our loved ones who we miss dearly are rooting for us.

They are reminding us that our days are numbered.

No matter where we are on life’s time-line, if we have breath, there is something we yet can do:

One more flower to smell,
One more story to tell,
One more cheer to yell,
One more polluter to give hell,

There is time and a way to take the world into our arms.
Amen.
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