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Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2010
A few years ago, I read a book by Martin Marty called "A Cry of Absence." He opened with this observation:
Winter is a season of the heart as much as it is a season in the weather. John Crowe Ransom connected the two kinds of winter:
Two evils, monstrous either one apart,
Possessed me, and were long and loath at going
A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart,
And in the woods the furious winter blowing 1.
Tonight, thanks to the Psalms, we are invited to consider the cry of Absence as a season of the heart.
One of the things I love about the book of Psalms is that they are very honest and real when it comes to the spiritual/personal emotions. From –
I was glad when they said to me, let us come to the house of the Lord- celebration…
to comfort – "even though I walk through the valley of the shadow, thou art with me"…
to tonight’s passage – despair and lament… a cry of help from the cry of absence: "Out of the depths, I cry to you O Lord, O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications."
This is the cry that comes to us when we feel helpless… when we have lost control… when the bottom has fallen out of our lives… when we wonder if God is there and if God is there… we are pleading for God to listen…
These are the Psalms that make some people feel very uncomfortable because they prefer a summery spirituality. You know what summery spirituality is don’t you? Those are those moments at Montreat or worship or a conference or in contemplative prayer… name your moment we all cherish – when you have those warm feelings of a closeness with God. But if that is all we know about faith, and we aren’t feeling close to God, then we may think something is wrong. Something is wrong with me or with my faith. I may go searching for another one that will give me a warm, fuzzy feeling.
The Psalmist is wiser. The Psalmist knows there are days when you will feel close to God… but there are the other days… those wintry days of the spirit… the days when the cry to God is one of desperation… of absence. Not every day is a summer retreat with God.
The Psalmist tonight is desperate because of some sense of guilt… some sense that they have sinned in a way that God may never be able to forgive… they are pleading for mercy… pleading… do you hear the pleading?
"Out of the depths, I cry to you O Lord, Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!"
If you hear nothing else from the text and the meditation tonight, hear this and hear it clearly. Lamenting is a part of biblical faith. It is faithful to lament. To cry and plead with God. There are times in our lives we should be lamenting… sometimes the lament is the most honest thing we can say and pray to our God. We don’t have to sugarcoat our prayers to God. We don’t have to protect God from our fears and hurts. God knows them anyway!
Sometimes I wish we could give each other more room to lament. But it is hard for us. As a person in my BIND class said – ‘we come to worship to be uplifted and lamenting is hard" I agree. Just check out how many hymns of lament there are in the hymnbook compared to hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
One has to wonder if Presbyterian worship – or most mainline worship – has too narrow an emotional range… if we have room for lament.
A friend of mine tells a funny story of some Presbyterian elders gathering to pray-spontaneously. Many live in fear that the preacher will do this. One February, a bleak, cold, day with freezing rain, after a long week of grey rain…Leslie Tucker (the minister) called on elder Charles R. : "Charles, how about leading us in prayer?" Startled, Charles said, "Okay, Please bow your heads" and then mustering up his best practiced pattern, "O Lord, we thank you for this beautiful day…" The Session broke up in laughter.
God calls for us to be honest. We don’t have to put on a good face for God. Hebrews says even Jesus prays with loud cries and tears before God. If Jesus can pray with cries and tears… and the Psalmist can… why shouldn’t we?
There is a place for lamentation in the Christian faith and this Psalm gives voice to it. And it has for hundreds of years. The lament has given voice to our feelings when we are trapped by guilt or lost in despair… the lament gives voice to our emotions following a tragedy-an earthquake in Haiti… the terminal illness of a friend… loss of a job or home… or family… or the death of a loved one… or even a crisis of faith.
Ash Wednesday is a good night to recover our voice for lament as an act of faith and trust in God. You heard that didn’t you? Lament is an act of faith. Listen to the Psalmist and you will hear the crying and the deep faith of someone who even in the cry of absence, trusts in the loving power of God to redeem and to save.
From the depths, they cry – "but there is forgiveness with thee"…
From the depths, they patiently wait, "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope"…
From the depths, even there, the Psalmist proclaims a statement of faith,
"O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with the Lord, great power to redeem"
I heard a story from the Reverend Peter Gomes that speaks with honesty, humor and faith of our struggles to face the despair of life… to lament… but discovering that it is in despair, faith shows us the way to the one who redeems life.
Gomes was talking about visiting a member of his church in the hospital.
"I had a parishioner dying in the hospital. And when it was clear that the person wasn’t going to recover, no more could be done, the doctors said, "Well, we’ll leave him to you now. To the clergy.." And they went off to fight another battle. Part of me was annoyed by that. I thought, "Cowards. Why don’t you stick around?"
But frankly I was glad to see them go. There was a recognition, almost, that they had finished their function, but we hadn’t finished ours. Thank you, child. That their job was to keep the person here with all the science and the technology we can produce. And when it was clear that the person was going to go away, we were the ones to see that they went. Conductors, as it were.
And the doctors resent the fact that they’re leaving in defeat, because death is a defeat for them. So they have to go off and save somebody else. They don’t want to be around for the moment of expiration. [They don’t want to be around to face the tears or lament.]
One of the most important things you can do is to be with someone when they die. And the doctors don’t like it, so off they go. My work is to make the movement from this life to the next one as graceful and easy as possible. Leaving is not like that. Like pulling a switch. And I don’t know this from my own experience, obviously. But I think that one of the great fears that the dying have is that they’re leaving everything they know and they’re going into some terrible void. Doesn’t have to hurt, just nothingness. And one of the things that the minister or the priest can do is to say, "You are known. Not just by us here, but you are surrounded by people who love you and know you. And you’re going to the one who created you, loves you and knows you. So, "Go in peace." "Relax"
Well, I don’t ever say "relax". But I do try to create the notion that we know what we’re talking about. And you’ll soon find out. And it is a good thing.
And then the person leaves. And then the hard part is dealing with the people who are left around the bedside. Because inevitably there’s the sense that "We failed. We haven’t done what we’re supposed to do."
And at the gravesite, I read the prayer book offers. "I am the resurrection and the life." All that stuff. "Here on earth have we no continuing place. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This is it folks." Well, I don’t really say it that way. But I insist that the coffin be lowered away in the presence of everybody there. I insist that you see the coffin go- down-into-the-ground. You-need-to-know-that-this-is-a- form- of finality. And my little homily is something like, "All that is mortal about brother or sister is in this box. And it’s going down into the ground. And we cast ashes and dirt into here reminding us that this is where it all came from. And we will not meet again under these circumstances. So cherish the moment." I do say that. I say, "Cherish the moment." 2.
Do you know what I like about that story? It is painfully honest about life and death while making a bold witness to the hope of faith. Gomes speaks of things we have a hard time saying out loud… and he speaks to the fears, the despair, the cry of absence itself. He speaks with honesty, humility and with faith.
With lots of faith… with faith that says something like what you are going to hear in a few minutes when ashes are placed on your forehead:
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return
BUT… and this is an important "but"
The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever"
So cherish the moment… the gift of life itself… and cherish the faith… that has room for lament… a lament grounded in hope… Cherish the faith of the psalmist who is able to pray: "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord…O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem" Amen
1. A Cry of Absence by Martin Marty p 1
2. Story from a transcript in 2009 of Bill Moyers Journal. Actress Deavere Smith playing the part of Gomes.