Sermon on March 20, 2011, Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan, NYC
Pastor Heidi Neumark
Psalm 121, John 3:1-17
I lift up my eyes to the hills
From where is my help to come?
My help comes from the Lord
The maker of heaven and earth.
This is the psalm designated for this Sunday in many churches around the country and also in Japan.
I wonder what it is like to hear the words of Psalm 121 there?
The Lord will not let your foot be moved.
What does that mean when the earth itself breaks open, solid ground slips away and there is no safe place to stand?
The sun will not strike you by day nor the moon by night,
What does this assurance signify when a tsunami strikes and destroys everything in its path as waves of invisible radiation surge on?
The Lord will preserve you from all evil and will keep your life
What does this mean as children wait for parents who will never run a comb through their hair again?
What does that mean as a tide of bodies washes up on the shore?
This is an important question for us, not only as global citizens who feel for a distant nation brought close through technology… not only as Christians with a wide understanding of who is our neighbor, but also as people who themselves strain for holy meaning.
There are tsunamis that strike much closer to home with their sweeping losses. There are tremors and quakes that break open our hearts and our lives. And then there is the increasingly ominous threat of radiation. There has been an all out effort to stay the leakage. People praying, hoping and working to avoid the worst. And yet, it just keeps getting worse. Like a progressive disease that does not respond to treatment. That progresses relentlessly on despite everything we try to stop it. Like consequences unleashed by a single act where one thing leads to another and another, a worst case scenario unfolding beyond our control. We don’t have to be in Japan to wonder how the promises of our psalm speak to our lives in moments like this.
It is always comforting when faced with someone else’s disaster to think how we could avoid it. Follow these rules and we will be spared. But from what I understand, Japan had the resources and the wisdom to do so many, many things right. And still, it was not enough. A high sea wall was built. But it was not enough. Why? If God is watching over everything, if God is our shade at our right hand, why does God allow such horrors and a long list of others, to take place?
Here’s my answer. I don’t know. I have heard numerous explanations or attempts at explanations and I find none of them to be satisfying. Last Sunday, we had the story of Adam and Eve, an ancient Biblical story intended not as history but as a theological explanation of the entrance of sin into the world that connects human disobedience to the undoing of all creation. And yet, Adam and Eve ate a piece of forbidden fruit in what is now Iraq thousands of years ago and that is somehow the cause of thousands of lives lost in Japan? It’s something to reflect on, but for me, it provides no satisfactory answer to the problem of evil or of very bad things happening and I will not offer to you what does not serve me. It would be like going downstairs after worship and filling my cup with coffee and then adding some milk, because I like milk with my coffee, and taking a sip and discovering that the milk is sour. Would I then pass that milk on to you? I would not. And so I will not pass on explanations that turn sour in my own soul.
So where does that leave us with Psalm 121? Is there comfort there for those dying at this very moment? Is there hope there for those who have lost the people dearest to their hearts? Is there meaning for those with no idea how to rebuild their shattered world? For you? For me?
There is a sense in the psalm that the psalmist does experience God as being very close, very present, very involved to the point that his every footstep is noted by God who is watching, protecting and caring. How does that translate to our reality?
I’d like you to consider with me a few examples. The first is a scene from the movie Titanic. The great ship has struck the iceberg, water is pouring in, the ship is going down and many will drown. Some lucky few however, will have seats on the lifeboats. One of them is Rose. She’s taken leave of Jack, the love of her life, the man who has saved her from a life of living death and set her free to be more authentically herself. Jack remains on board with those who face a certain watery grave, while Rose is now seated in the lifeboat, with those who will be rescued. But wait, just before the lifeboat drifts away from the ship, Rose leaps up and begins to drag herself up the rope back to the ship in search of Jack. She is compelled to be with him to the end, even if it means that they will both die. She cannot bear to leave him to die alone. The Titanic is probably one of Hollywood’s biggest tearjerkers of all time. But still, there is something about that scene that strikes a chord of truth. Love does not want to leave the beloved to suffer alone.
I’ve been doing a lot of non-fiction reading about the Holocaust as part of my family research. Ben Fondane was a Jewish poet who was arrested by the Gestapo in May of 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. He was lucky in being approved for release because of the intervention of his non-Jewish wife and several friends, but his sister had been arrested too. Fondane refused to leave her alone in Auschwitz and so he died in the gas chamber. There are other similar stories of people who felt compelled to follow their loved one into a literal hell rather than leave them to suffer hell alone. Love is like that.
The Titanic is fiction and I was not alive during the 2nd world war. But I do know Tom and Sue. Tom was my very first intern 26 years ago. A month before he and his wife Sue were going to move to the Bronx for Tom to begin internship, their baby was born, their firstborn child, Jacob. Jacob was born with multiple birth defects and it was soon clear that despite the best medical care available - and both Tom and Sue’s fathers were well known surgeons in top Philadelphia hospitals - and despite relentless prayers, Jacob was not getting better and was not going to get better. I went to Philadelphia to visit the family in the hospital. Jacob was dying and Tom and Sue were not going to allow Jacob to leave this life apart from their loving arms. They took turns at night so that at least one of them was up cradling Jacob, singing to him. Loving him. Behold the keeper of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Tom and Sue did not slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you. The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
Tom and Sue kept watch. Day and night. Jacob’s tiny fingers curled around their own.
My point is that if human love cannot help but seek the side of a beloved in the face of death and disaster, do we imagine God’s love, the source of all love, to be any less compelled? We are on our way to Holy Week. The final week of Jesus’ life on earth.
He Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell. In the Apostles Creed we confess that Jesus descended into hell. What does that mean? As you might imagine, there are many different ideas about that. One belief held by many early Christians is that between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus went to hell, compelled by unreasonable love to seek out those who found themselves there, Jesus on a mission to liberate those held captive by Satan. He descended into hell. Like Ben Fondane who could not bear to leave his sister and chose Auschwitz over freedom. He descended into hell.
Psalm 121 affirms that God does not abandon those God loves and our gospel reaffirms this promise. For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. But what of those who do not believe in Jesus? The two major religions of Japan are Shinto and Bhuddism. The gospel does not speak of Shinto and Bhuddism. It does however speak of love, love far greater and grander than our puny minds can conceive.
That was the problem of Nicodemos. When Jesus speaks to him about
being born from above, he fixates on biology. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb? But life is more than biology. The post-modern world says no. Look around. This is it. This is all there is. We dare to disagree. We say with the psalm that God will watch over your going out and your coming in.
We see a lot of going out, but our lives are transformed by the hope of the coming in. The hope that our going out from this life is followed by our coming in to the place where God will wipe every tear from every eye and death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
Tom and Sue have 3 more children, but there is a photo of Jacob on the mantel and there is hope and there is faith that Jacob has been born from above, that Jacob has come in to a new world that eyes have not seen awaiting a joyous reunion that our puny minds can hope for but not conceive.
Life is more than biology. The post-modern world says no. We dare to disagree. We cannot describe it any more than Nicodemos can. Even Jesus is vague. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
In any case, there’s more to life than meets the eye. When all that meets the eye is devastation, its good to remember that. And for those who stand and wonder “from where is my help to come?” In the end, the answer to that question is God. But for now, as long as we remain in this world, there is another answer too. St. Teresa of Avila put it well:Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.