Thursday, July 2, 2009

So Many Deaths, So Much Life

Readings for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 30; II Corinthians 8:7-15; and Mark 5:21-43

I was away, last weekend. Maybe some of you were, too.

A week ago yesterday, I officiated at the wedding of Josh and Maggie, Williams alums whose 13-year steady relationship brought them at last to the altar. Josh was much a part of us during his college years, and his Dad, Jack, was Curate here in the long-ago, so St. John’s has had a strong trace of parental DNA, important to Josh in the aftermath of a deadly auto accident some twenty years ago that claimed the lives of his Mom, Nancy, and his Dad, and very nearly claimed Josh’s life as well.

It was here that Josh first sat down at an organ console. He’s now a graduate of Longy Conservatory, is a church organist and performs in the Boston area.

It wasn’t at this altar that he and Maggie exchanged their vows, but outdoors before a stone slab near the spillway at Bement Camp, summer home to Josh’s family for three generations. The decision was made earlier this year to close Bement—too few campers, too much deferred maintenance, no economic stimulus grants for church camps—so this final event on the shore of Jones Pond gave the Josh’s family a weekend double-header, eagerly celebrating his and Maggie’s union and tenderly celebrating their many memories and life-legacies from Bement.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…”

Since Easter, there have been many deaths in my world. Perhaps you can say the same. Losses in our parish community, including Earl Smith and Nan Alberti, require us to both celebrate their new life and miss their old ways of being with us. Losses in my family include Linda, Diana’s younger cousin, dying unexpectedly, and Jessie, my much older cousin, completing her long life much as expected. Deaths in our diocese recently have sent me to requiem celebrations in Holyoke for The Rev. Gollie Root, and in South Barre for Robin Smith, lay vicar. And in our community, Donny Westall’s sudden death came on the heels of a weekend that saw at least three memorial gatherings in Williamstown.

While my own tastes in music and entertainment suggest that I won’t feel as deeply as many the impact of the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, I know we all realize the shock that comes with the loss of an iconic figure. For us, fifty is young. Sixty is young. And it’s painful to witness the silencing of a bright talent like Michael’s, and the loss of such beauty and charm as Farrah’s Celebrity is no protection against cancer or heart disease, gives no exemption from the limitations of human life.

We’re approaching our scriptures today dented by deaths, and needing the Spirit of God to mend us in heart and will. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD…in your word is my hope.” The psalmist speaks to our condition.

Our first reading, from the Hebrew Bible, has young David standing in the wreckage of his costly defeat of Israel’s enemy. His own star has risen, but at the expense of two celebrities, King Saul and his son Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen!” we hear David lament. And it’s over Jonathan that his heart is broken: “my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” There would be many women in David’s life, but only one Jonathan.

So what does David do, as the kingdom passes into his hands? He sings. He intones his own lamentation over Saul and Jonathan, celebrating what each accomplished in life, as if gathering up and treasuring every drop of their life’s blood. And he caused the people to sing, not a familiar song from the old hymnal, but he taught them a new song, the Song of the Bow (Jonathan’s preferred weapon of war was the bow), a song long lost but in its time it did its job, to keep Israel from forgetting her precious dead, to keep naming Saul and Jonathan and all they accomplished.

In this story, I hear the Spirit telling us not to be so busy that we forget to sing, to remember, to celebrate the fullness of life we see in our precious dead.

As I look at our portion from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, I believe I see a good stewardship sermon. Remember that what gave the first Christians their reputation was the compassionate care they gave to all who were within their reach. In that brutal first century, generosity like theirs showed what genuine love looks like, making sure the widows are fed and the orphans sheltered. In some places, Christians sold their private property and lived with all things shared in common. They answered the needs of their time by grassroots initiatives in the name of the risen Jesus, and so they advanced his message as eloquently by their deeds as by their preaching.

Here in today’s passage Paul encourages a churchwide collection of money to relieve the Christian community in Jerusalem, fallen on hard times. And where I hear the Spirit drawing my attention is where Paul teaches the principle of proportional giving: “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what you have—not according to what you do not have.”

I hear the Spirit urging us in our grieving to do more than count our losses. Keep paying attention to what you have, coaches the Spirit of God. There is the glass half full, the balance that will turn us to the question that deaths keep pushing us to answer: How will you live your life now? As old familiar supports are taken away, how will you stand and move? What matters most to you now, and what step today keeps you moving forward?

As usual, the Gospel comes through in spades. Here is Jesus in his public ministry, traveling from one community to the next. Does he still have a schedule in mind, or has he discovered by now that any plan will be interrupted by reality?

Here, it is a synagogue official named Jairus whose heart is being torn open by his daughter’s slipping towards death. Jesus leaves his engagement with the crowd and goes with Jairus. Many of the crowd follow them.

Then even his interruption is interrupted. In the press of people, a woman has recognized her moment of opportunity to reach out and touch the clothes of Jesus so that her chronic bleeding might stop.

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last Tuesday, Diana and I went to the exhibit of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. There we saw a painting of this very moment. Jesus has turned to respond to her touch. She is stunned to have drawn his attention. A man from the crowd recoils from her impurity.

“This scene has recently been identified as the healing of the woman with an issue of blood,” said the legend on the wall. I wondered how they’d identified it for five centuries before. Could it have been misread as the woman caught in adultery? That fellow to her right couldn’t look more judgmental, ready to do away with her.

The painting was not of that moment, but of this: a freeze-frame moment not of what the Greeks called “chronos”, the ticking of the clock, but of what they called “kairos”, the timeless divine breaking into the ordinary, the Spirit revealing itself in mundane flesh.

The woman touches, Jesus turns and searches her out. She shrinks back but then comes to him in fear and trembling, falls down before him, and tells him the whole truth.
How long does this take? How much time does it take her to tell him her whole truth? This is an eternal moment, a miracle in “kairos” time, this interruption in the plans of Jesus and Jairus.

The woman settled for collateral blessing, a walk-by healing would do. As a woman, she wasn’t free to approach him openly. She wasn’t allowed to find her voice and present her need. In that world, no woman could touch a man to whom she’s not related. By ancient law, a woman with a flow of blood could not touch anyone without making them impure, unfit to appear in the temple.

But Jesus expects a full encounter with her. To him, it is not enough that she brush up against him. Once she openly approaches him, he assures her that her faith is powerful, that God has been in this encounter, and that she and God together will accomplish healing.

Instantly some of Jairus’s friends come with news that his daughter has died.

Can you hear the crowd muttering criticisms? “He waited too long!” “He gives all that time to a sick woman and makes a leader of the synagogue wait?” “He should never have stopped.”

“Do not fear, only believe.” These are his only words to Jairus and everyone else nearby.

They’re aimed also at me and you, who grieve. Do not fear these many deaths we must walk through, that come to us as interruptions of “chronos” life. It is there that he will meet us in “kairos” moments, even when all we know to do is reach for him. But he has in mind more than a casual pass-by. He has in mind encountering us fully. He has in mind our rebirth to life, the new life he midwifes for Jairus’s daughter. He intends to whet our appetites for more “kairos” moments, preparing us for life that exceeds this life. He wants to wake us up from the stupor of our losses to rise to our feet in faith.