Losing My Religion
This week’s sermon was scheduled to be part of a celebration service in which First Presbyterian Church in Cohutta marked several significant milestones in the life of the congregation: retirements, graduations, a birth. However, at the beginning of the week, a member of the congregation died, and the celebration was delayed for a time when folks feel more like celebrating. And then the attacks in Beruit and Paris happened. For many of us, it feels like our world is coming apart at the seams whether that is because our individual lives are upside down or because we can’t see our way to a world in which we feel safe and secure. I, for one, am finding great comfort in the lectionary passages assigned for this Sunday. I hope the words that follow can help you find comfort and hope as well.
1 Sameul 1:4-20
Today was supposed to be a celebration. Weeks ago, you decided there were some moments of goodness and grace you wanted to mark with a feast day, prayers of thanksgiving, and a party honoring people you love, their hard work and accomplishments, and the goodness of God in their lives. And then Ben died. All of us are grieving. All of us are wondering why this good man is gone too soon and why his wife and daughters are left to figure out the future without him. In an instant, everything changed for the Manis family this week. Everything they have trusted and known to be true for a lifetime, has been challenged, rearranged, overturned. Then, as we have listened to the news reports from Paris, we are again undone. Young adults at a concert dancing. Shoppers. Soccer fans. Couples enjoying dinner at a sidewalk cafe. Lives are turned upside down in an instant as we come face to face with yet another senseless act of terror.
And none of us feels like eating.
Hannah didn’t feel like eating either. Not because her world had suddenly been undone but because years of taunting by her sister-wife underscored the month-after-month disappointment in her body’s failure to produce the one thing she wanted in the world: a child. An adoring husband couldn’t fill the hole in her soul any more than extra helpings at the annual feast meal could fill her empty womb. A shell of a woman, she excused herself from the table where no one understood her grief and made her way to the sanctuary to lay herself bare before her Maker. The words she offered were private pleadings between herself and God alone. The story says she tendered silent petitions, moving only her lips, but she offered them with such abandon the bleary-eyed priest thought she was drunk from the party. After she convinced him that he hadn’t witnessed the drunken ramblings of a crazy woman but the sober-headed pleadings of someone who’s soul has been ripped in two, he pronounced over her this anemic blessing that rather than bringing Hannah holy comfort further betrayed his cluelessness. The priest, like the rest of the people around her, knew nothing of the dark night of her soul.
You are a wholly different sort of priesthood because today you have opted pay attention to grief. . .
to give honor to the fact that we – and our friends – have had the rug jerked out from under us,
to proclaim that in this sanctuary it is safe to pray gut-wrenching prayers,
to plead with God,
to lay it all bare.
And for that we can all be grateful.
From the cosmic to the deeply personal, today’s stories from Scripture tell us what we already know. Things fall apart. In the midst of this beautiful world full of color and light, there is loss, decay, disappointment, fear, hopelessness. Whether it is a sudden upheaval or collapse as Jesus describes will come for the disciples, or death by a thousand paper cuts as was the case for Hannah, there will come a moment for each of us – or several moments for many of us – in which we are shaken to the core, left groping in the dark with no idea where to plant our feet, place our trust, or lodge our hope.
I have a friend who works as a physical therapist at the Veterans’ Hospital in Augusta. Melanie treats wounded warriors whose injuries reach their spinal cords. Every day, her task is to help someone who has lost the use of his limbs conquer the ordinary challenges of eating a meal and getting dressed. Stripped of everything down to the basic ability to brush your own teeth, these men and women have truly had their lives rearranged – permanently. Having to relearn how to tie your shoes necessarily means having to relearn who is in charge in this world and, if nothing else, makes quite clear that it is not you. It is a sort of reckoning most of us will work to avoid at all costs, even when our opportunities to wrestle with the ground of our being come with less permanent or universal changes to the bodies we inhabit. Some scholars refer to the passage in Mark’s gospel as the “Little Apocalypse,” small as it compares to the visions of Daniel and John in the Bible’s last book. But no apocalypse feels small when you are in the middle of it. No crisis of faith is ordinary when it is yours. It’s not small – and no matter how many others have been where you are before you – and made it through they will be happy to tell you – it is a moment of deep darkness and profound loneliness when you have to answer questions you thought were settled.
Who am I? Why am I here? In what do I place my trust? How will I go on? How will I be remembered? How can I face myself in the mirror- or look my children – or my parents – or my spouse in the eye? What am I going to do next?
These are apocalyptic questions – not because an apocalypse is a fire and brimstone, dragon-slaying, ultimate battle of good versus evil – because an apocalypse isn’t wars and rumors of wars – but the revealing, unveiling, truth-telling that comes in the middle and at the end of such times of trial. Daniel, Mark, and John wrote their stories of ultimate reckoning not to scare the bejeezus out of us and keep us on our toes always afraid we will be caught indecently exposed – but to speak a word of comfort to us when our worlds have been upended. The caution comes because these moments leave us incredibly vulnerable. When we are desperate to hope again, it’s easy to latch on to the wrong things and their promises to save us. Or, convinced we can trust no one ever again, we may double down on our own efforts and dig deep into our own well of certainty. But it won’t work. No matter how hard we try, ultimately, we come up short. Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich writes in Revelations of Divine Love, “Only in the falling apart of your own foundation can you experience God as your total foundation and your real foundation.”
The opportunity that comes to us in crisis, in grief, in pain is the opportunity to allow all of our false notions of self and security to crumble so that God can begin the good, and holy, and hard work of birthing something new in us – a whole new way of being in us. This moment is so sacred – so valuable to God – that God is even willing to allow us to lose our religion so it can happen. The disciples were awe-struck by the grand Temple in Jerusalem. And Jesus says – almost as if by matter of course – That??? It’s coming down. But don’t worry. When it does, God is doing something new. God is putting the law and the gospel in our hearts – deep inside of us in a way that was never possible when we relied on priests and temples and rituals and sacrifice to relate to the Holy One. God is going to be in us in a new and powerful way that no longer needs the things that propped up our faith once before.
James Finley, psychologist and former monk who studied with Thomas Merton, writes that what we come to see and know – what is revealed – in our own little apocalypses is the “absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things.” When we find our grounding in this ultimate truth “then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love.”[i] It is a gift I’m not even sure we would know to ask for had our souls not been stripped bare.
Things fall apart. They do. We do.
And when they do and when we do, God is already at work doing a new work in our souls even though we can’t yet see it. We can watch for it. We can encourage one another and hold one another. We can trust in it and say with the psalmist,
Keep me safe, O God.
I’ve run for dear life to you.
I say to God, “Be my Lord!”
Without you nothing makes sense.
May it ever be so.
With you and with me.
[i] James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013).