Lent 5C. 17 March 2013.
The Very Revd Alexander D. MacPhail
There are things you can say with poetry that you cannot say with prose. That may be obvious, but I mention it because it is a truth that is often overlooked—that how something is communicated is often just as important as what is being said. In fact, sometimes, communication has much more to do with the style or manner of a person's being.
I remember when I was a hospital chaplain, I was told by my supervisor that he had had a chaplain student who got rave reviews from everyone in the hospital. He said everywhere this guy went, people loved him: doctors, nurses, patients, orderlies. It was like the guy walked on water; and they said, "You need to get more chaplains like this guy!" And it confused the supervisor to no end, because when they would sit down together it was plainly obvious that the guy was…well…not really the sharpest knife in the drawer.
So, the supervisor went out and watched how he interacted with people, and came to find out that all he did was sit there, or stand, with a goofy kind of smile on his face and nod his head. And if someone said something meaningful, he'd just change his face a little bit.
The communication was really simple, if you think about what the chaplain was really getting across. He was saying, "I'm here. I like you. Things are gonna be okay." The smile and nodding were real and authentic. And people—especially in desperate situations, like being in a hospital—need to see the smile, and the nod, and feel like it's going to be all right.
Sometimes it seems to cynical people as if that's all that religion is, just a benign, simple smile and nod to what is actually a very complicated life. I know it can feel that way. The great Anglican theologian and parish priest, the Rev. John Stott, said that some folks don't believe because they don't think God or Christianity is big enough to handle what they are going through.
I have to say that I can understand that. But it's not just a question of whether or not the Faith is big enough to accommodate real life experiences—it's about relevance, too. The young man and woman may come from a K-12 background in the church, and head off to the military or college and encounter situations never dreamt of in Sunday school. They may know about Canaanites and Pharisees and the names of the Twelve Apostles, but what does that mean when they're 25 years old and meeting new people out at a bar with friends?
The young couple gets married. All the stories in the Bible about Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Joseph talk of marriage and fidelity and children; but they don't talk about the darker subjects of how commitment and love go through phases of disinterest and disagreement.
The Christian marriage, as we understand it in the Episcopal Church, symbolizes the mystical union that is between Christ and his Church. That the same passionate and all-caring love that Christ has for us, is represented in the love of a husband and wife. But! We who are married know that there are times that that ideal is an impossible standard. Love may remain, but may pass through phases when communication is awkward or impolite.
The young husband and woman move to another city to start a new life. He has a job; she is having their first child. Nothing in the Bible or any religion speaks of the awkwardness of packing boxes, and leaving friends—possibly family. They move into a new area without any of the village structures assumed in first century Palestine. The Bible is silent—seemingly irrelevant.
They join their local parish, or at least—hopefully—visit a church, and there are nice people there. A young new family at a church these days is going to get a lot of attention, and hopes that they'll stay. Let's say they decide to stay. They have the baby. Nothing prepares them for that first year with a baby. The crying, the sleepless nights. Nothing in the Bible or in Christianity talks about the sudden transition from being a couple to being parents. Some people pass through it evenly and elegantly, and adapt to their new roles with peace and joy and love; and some couples struggle with a loss of time to themselves, a loss of freedom to do what they want, and spend money as they'd like, and there is a darkness to that.
The Bible and Christianity are silent. And you come to church and there is Mary and Joseph, Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Moses and Sephora, and not a word about the challenges of being a real family.
At times, it seems as if the Church has reduced the complexity of the human experience to birth, marriage, sickness, and death. And offers us the benign smile and nod of baptism, matrimony, unction, and burial.
I noticed the silence of the Bible for the first time when I was a teenager. There is nothing in the Bible on how to handle the first stirrings of puberty and all the hormonal changes that comes with it. All you get is David and Bathsheba and the sin of lust, and the horror that comes with that, but it doesn't really help you along.
The silence is deafening on all sorts of matters. Handling the situation at work where the person will not listen to you, or believe you. How to be with the person who has a problem with addiction, or even if you yourself are battling addiction. The soldier who comes back from war having seen unimaginable things and can't talk about it—or really anything else—with someone who wasn't there.
There are situations and circumstances, not envisioned by the Bible, but filled with uniquely painful choices. Whether or not to put mother in a nursing home, or take away dad's driver's license, or talk to the parents of a bully, or discipline a child who is not your own. And there is darkness and temptation that can weasel into those decisions.
Bad dreams, nightmares about parents and children, unresolved attachments to former flames, temptation to seemingly innocent circumstances that aren't innocent at all. Darkness. Darkness. And from the Bible, silence. (Pause.)
And please understand that I'm one of the Bible's best friends—we get together almost everyday; and we talk almost all the time. And I love God more than I can possibly say. We go way back. I mean…waaaaay back.
And I think the Bible knows that this is a problem. Seriously. I think the Bible knows that it can come across as a naïve smile and nod to our complicated existence. That's why I said, in the very first sentence, that there are things you can say with poetry that you cannot say with prose.
The fact of the matter is that the Bible becomes more expansive in places where it may even wish to become more specific. And that is because sometimes talking about things with the full force of honesty and insight can be like shining a floodlight on what feels like a very embarrassing place.
The Hebrew people found themselves in exile. It was embarrassing. God had given them the land; and God had taken it away. God did not take away his love or his promises, but—understood biblically—they were being punished.
And so the prophet writes, "Thus says the Lord who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick…"
That might not sound like poetry to you, but it is. Isaiah gives in those few lines a thumbnail version of the Exodus, when God held back the Red Sea for the Hebrew people, and when Pharaoh and his army came after them, God brought the waters back in and drown them all. It's a reminder that God did that.
"Thus says the Lord" who did that, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness…" Do not remember the former things… A new thing springs forth, do you not perceive it?
You can say things with poetry you cannot say with prose.
You cannot sing a happy song to a crying person. Isaiah knew that. The people were crying, and Isaiah reminds them of God's faithfulness then, and pushes that forward to now, and the future.
It's not a simple smile and nod, nor is it a five year plan. It is a reminder that the same God who said "I will be with you" to Moses at the burning bush will continue to be with us.
"Do not consider the former things." What former things? The stuff of the nightmares. The slavery in Egypt. The disobedience in Jerusalem, when the Temple was forming Altars to the Assyrian fertility gods, embarrassing—trying to show Assyria that they're cool with that. Letting people be sold as prostitutes in the Temple to perform ritual acts that I dare not speak of even to this day from the pulpit.
Don't laugh at them. We've got our own stuff, too. All we, like sheep, have gone astray at one time or another. And even when we went astray out of pure honest to goodness ignorance…well… embarrassing, of course. Lamentable. Not our best moment.
But, "do not consider the former things." Let them go. With God, the past only matters if it blesses you with a warning or happiness. But if it only makes you ashamed and fearful…let it go, let it go.
This Faith is not too small for the complexities of life. God is not just some chaplain's weak smile and nod. But you have to let the Holy Spirit and the Bible and all that you have learned about the goodness and faithfulness of God sink into you at least as deeply as your darkness. You have to trust that God can and will be with you, even in the darkness.
You have to come back to Jacob's well without a ladle and without any sign of the Savior's face, and just sit there for a moment. Because, and I know this from my own life, when you ask for a drink from the man who has the living water, he will give it to you.