I go to Church a lot. I'm an Episcopalian (formerly a catholicish Methodist, turned MCCer) . I'm also an aspiring Priest and Anthropologist( of the socio-cultural variety). Also, I'm a gay with a wonderful Boyfriend. This blog will likely be a combination of churchy things, anthropology, and things I find amusing. Please forgive my grammar and style, because most of my writing on here is stream of consciousness. I don't argue.
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Ruth Ferguson Christ Church, Rochester, New York April 1st, 2012 Palm Sunday
One of the most wrenching experiences I have had as a priest was a conversation with a woman whose teen-aged son was dying a slow death. He had been in the passenger seat when his friend took a left turn into the path of an oncoming truck. “Whatever you say to me,” she warned, “don’t you dare tell me that this is part of God’s plan. Don’t even tell me his suffering will be washed over in Heaven, because we are not in heaven right now – he is not in heaven – we are in agony. He is in agony. Don’t tell me that God is in charge and we will be ok – he is not ok.” She did not speak of her child’s suffering in the singular, but always included the plural first: “we are not in heaven, he is not in heave. We are in agony, he is in agony.” At some point in the conversation, she removed her cross necklace, and said “Here you take this,” and, even though I was sitting with her, she got up and went over to my desk, opened her fist and slammed it down. “Here. I don’t know what to do with this anymore. I am not going to stand at his death bed and wear this while God takes him away from me.” She stood over it for a moment and said something to the effect of: “And don’t tell me God knows what it’s like to lose a child. His story is not my story.” And then she left.
In The Brothers K, Ivan challenges his priestly brother Alyosha, on the question of the suffering, especially the suffering of children. He recalls to his brother the story of a general who set his hunting dogs on a boy of eight – had them tear him apart in front of his mother, and rebukes Alyosha for the God he worships, the God whose promise of heaven desecrates the reality of human suffering in the present, and argues that the promise of universal harmony robs us of the more real sanctity of a suffering child. “Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming!” he says, “ I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child..”
How do we answer Ivan? What do we say to the teen ager’s mother who, in fact, never wanted her cross back? (Her husband, in fact, came for it one day). What should they have said to Mary, other than “a sword will pierce your own soul, also?” Or to Jesus, for that matter, who seems only to have asked that, in the end, they stay awake with him (which they didn’t). In all of his ministry, Jesus never seemed to address the problem of suffering, or death (and they are not always the same). At least, not theologically, or in any kind of teaching. He alleviated suffering where he could, he prayed with people, he showed immense compassion, and then suffered and died like everyone else. Well, maybe. He suffered more than some have, and less than some have: there are, sadly, worse ways to go than crucifixion. Well, maybe. I suppose for God incarnate to feel forsaken by God might be something we can’t fathom. That’s the thing about the passion. It is God’s death as well as Jesus’. We know about human suffering, but what really do we know about God’s? It is easier because he’s God? Or worse, more intense, because he’s God?
Today, we being the death march. Jesus’ death march. God’s death march. Much has been said about Palm Sunday and its absurd, even comic nature: Zechariah has given us a king on an ass. Theologians and even the painter Rounault have given us Christ the Clown. Paul has given us a God whose wisdom is foolishness, whose Christ is a stumbling block that renders all who follow him fools for Christ. On this day, there will be references in churches across the country to April Fool’s Day, and how theologically appropriate it is that we fools for Christ shout hosanna as well follow our peasant king riding an ass. And it is appropriate. But let us get lost in neither the poetic absurdity nor the theological novelty of this day and all its images, and remember that Jesus entered into Jerusalem weeping on that donkey. Real tears, real, -here-on-this-earth-human tears: much like the tears Dostoevsky and literary greats have described, much like the tears of the woman who slammed her cross on my desk and the tears of the father who came back for it. In the end, they buried their son with her cross in his hand. I didn’t know how to interpret that gesture, and didn’t know how to ask. Did they, in the end, suspect that God’s story WAS their story? Because this is God’s death march, because God is all in all, we walk alongside so many others in the dark march of holy week. It is not Easter. We dare not say a word about resurrection. It is not that we need to join Ivan in renouncing the higher harmony of the Easter Kingdom, but in this hour and in the week to come, we are to walk in solidarity with the ones who are tortured, the ones who are dying, the ones whose tears are yet to be redeemed in God’s heaven. We are to look upon our king’s own tear streaked face as he rides toward us and let our hosannas give way to silence and solidarity, for we must accept that the tears of God, then as now, are incomprehensible to us.
I was was there when she preached this sermon, and it was very powerful. I regularly think of this sermon, but still don’t know how to fully react.