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Posts Tagged ‘9/11’

The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 8.

Scriptures: John 11: 1-7, 17-25

For a few years, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was leading a spiritual retreat at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Centre. After the attacks on the towers, the staff of the church provided a place of refuge, safety and comfort for the terrified people who came into the building that day and for the rescue workers in the days afterwards. Archbishop Williams wrote a small book reflecting on the events of that day and the days that followed: Writing in the Dust.

In the introduction to the book, he asks, “After the 11th, what are we prepared to learn?” Ten years later, that questions remains. “Can anything grow through that terrible, terrifying event?” Williams states that he hopes that the answer is “Yes.”

The morning after 9/11, Williams was stopped in the street by a young man who was a pilot and an active Catholic. That young man asked the question that many people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil: “What was God doing when the planes hit the towers?” Williams mumbled something about human freedom. God creates us with free will and does not intervene. God does not just override the choices we make. Living in faith does not mean we escape evil. It means we are given resources to confront it. Through faith, we find a way to suffer, take it forward and then, in God’s own time, to have healed by the grace and mercy of the living God.

Williams knew that whatever he said would be inadequate. Ultimately, he said, this man did not want a theological discussion about free will. This man was a lifelong Christian, committed to a loving and saving God. However, now, for the first time, it had come home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.

Have you been there? If you have not yet, be assured that, the further you go in faith, the more honest you are about life, you will come to a place where God does not do what you want or expect God to do.

That was the hard truth both Martha and Mary faced in this morning’s gospel story. Their brother Lazarus was ill. They sent for their good friend, Jesus, to come to help. But, Jesus did not come. “Lazarus” means “God helps”, except God did not help this family when they need God the most. The writer of the story makes a point of saying that they “dwelt in Bethany”, the “house of affliction”. Their affliction was not just that Lazarus was ill. Their affliction was that the one to whom they looked for help was absent. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus had died. In fact, he had been dead four days.

First Martha, and then Mary, confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The same accusation was in the question that the young Catholic man asked: “Where was God when the planes flew into the towers?” We ask it ourselves: Where is God when children die of starvation in Africa? Where is God when someone we love suffers? Surely, if God is good, God should be there to help. God should fix things.

Much of living in faith is a matter of coming to terms with a God who does not meet our expectations. This God does not show up when we really need God to show up. All of us have some burden of suffering which we bear. There is some deep sorrow that hovers in the background of our days. There is some wound that we carry in our hearts that is in varying stages of being healing or refusing to be healed. Hopes and dreams have been shattered. We worry over our children. You can add to the list.

As Christians we know the promises of our Lord. Just before Jesus died, he promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you. I will ask the Father and he will give you a Comforter to be with forever.” The psalms are full of such promises: God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble.” “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place . . . he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” “I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble.”

Martha knew the promises. She knew the promises that the power of God is stronger than death itself. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again, she can recite them back to him. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

We know the promises but there are times when the promises seem all to lie in the future. They are some future hope we cling to in spite of all the evidence in the present that defies them.

Or, maybe they all lie in the past. They exist as memories of experiences where we did feel the presence of God, bearing us up as on eagles’ wings, holding us in the palm of God’s hands.

We find ourselves living between those memories and that hope and all we really know of God is the emptiness of God’s absence.

This is a difficult place to be. We want to move through it quickly. We want to have confident faith renewed. We want to move beyond the questions and the doubts and the uncertainties; to move into the promised joy and peace; to get on with being productive again. Instead, we are stuck in that in-between place and we cannot move past it.

The Bible knows a lot about such a space. It calls it by many names: wilderness, exile, the Pit. It is “Holy Saturday”, that time between the agony of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening. Life seems suspended.

Rowan Williams calls this empty place, this void, a “breathing space”. He says that what you need to do in such a breathing space is breathe. You are not to get on with some action as you try to persuade yourself that you really are in control of the situation. You are to breathe. You acknowledge your hurt and disappointment and rage and sense of powerlessness. You let go of the expectations that you had of God. You come to terms with this God who has given you this emptiness, this breathing space. As painful as it is, it is a gift that is filled with God’s grace.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus to Martha. Martha replies, “I know the promises. On the last day, in God’s promised future, my brother will be raised up in the resurrection.” Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life. Now. Here. Already.”

Jesus brings resurrection and life into the midst of the emptiness. In the midst of suffering; in the midst of brokenness; in all the little deaths you die throughout your life, God meets you with resurrection power. In Jesus, God enters into the emptiness and makes it part of God’s holy purpose for your life.

Even the emptiness.

You are baptized with suffering. You go down into the waters of suffering. God raises you to new life. What emerges from the waters of such a baptism is not the old self you had before. You can never go back. You will carry the scars for the rest of your life. But a new self is given by God. You are made new.

It takes courage to enter into such a time. it takes courage to give voice to all that is in your heart. That’s why I keep urging you to learn to pray the Psalms. They are written by people, by a community, that has practiced breathing its faith in the void and the emptiness.

The Psalms teach a language that helps you give voice to your anger and your fears, your hurt and your hopes. They lead you through the evil that you suffer with persistence and honesty. They teach you to yield your life to God. They open you to the healing work of God. Ultimately, they teach to you to praise God again.

They teach you to praise God again in a new song. That new song will carry the sorrow you have known but that sorrow will now be gathered into God’s good and holy purposes for you and for the world.

I want you to learn to pray the psalms because they are such a great gift for your spiritual journey. I want you to learn to pray the psalms because we live our faith in a world full of suffering: not just the global suffering we hear on the news but also the suffering in the lives of people you meet day by day. You may not be able to do much to turn the tide, but your vocation as a follower of Jesus Christ is to be with people in the places of their brokenness. Hear their laments. Help them give voice to them. Prayer with them to God because, in the end, it is God with whom we all must deal.

Stand with them as a member of a community of people who, from the days of our baptisms, have practised dying and being raised to new life in Christ. We are learning to let Christ take us, bless us, break our lives open, and give us life anew. Having trusted Christ to do that in our lives, we give our lives into God’s good hands over and over again.

You can help others hear God say to them in their suffering, “Do not be afraid. Nothing in life or in death — not even this terrible thing you are going through — nothing can stop my loving purpose for you.”

That will be a great gift. That will be a good and holy work. For such holy work, God has claimed you as Christ’s own.

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