A Sermon in Three Acts: Of Grief, Of Fear and Of Faith.

Last weekend I preached at St George’s Anglican Church. This is one of Australia’s many churches that use The Lectionary, a three-year plan for each scripture to be read aloud in the public service. Each denomination’s lectionary is slightly different, but most weeks are allocated four scriptures. This is what I was given:

Lamentations 1:1-6

Lamentations 3: 19-26

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

When I got the text message, I shuddered a little – two passages from Lamentations?! These are some heavy going scriptures. Although a preacher doesn’t have to preach from all four, as I thought about it during the week, I realized that there was indeed a deep connection.

So I decided to construct this sermon in three Acts: of Grief, of Fear and of Faith.

Many film writers have used the Three-Act Structure to tell stories. Of course, we don’t experience life as a play. But this is really just an exercise in reflecting upon fundamental human experience in light of the Word of God. In any three-act play, the first act sets the scene. So I will do that here.

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 ACT I – OF GRIEF

Most of the activity in my life at the moment happens under the bed. Let me explain… we live in a terrace house in Annandale that our best friends cut into two. I live in the basement with Tim my husband. In order to make this space work, our bed is on stilts and I sit and work underneath it, on a desk. It also doubles as the closet, which is kind of complicated to explain when I have a Skype appointment.

From under the bed, I encounter the world. I dissertate, and write books and songs. In order to feel some connection to outside, I regularly Facebook stalk.

I have a Facebook friend named Jake Heath. His mother has early onset Dementia, and she has been fading away now for eleven years. He has started to document her life as it is, because that’s all he actually remembers of her. In the last ten years she’s lost the ability to speak, walk, talk, eat solid food or even recognize her family members. She has panic attacks and paranoia. He published some of the events that have structured the last decade of his life in a story called “the long goodbye”. It has been covered by The Huffington Post, the Daily Mail and other papers all over the world. This week, he posted again, and I will read it now:

If you watched the video I posted last night, you’ll want to read this. This time yesterday I had just packed my bags to head down to Batemans Bay. I was trying my hardest not to cry because I knew that if I started that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I knew that trying to drive four hours while having an emotional breakdown wouldn’t be safe. I got here at around 4pm and went straight to the hospital. When I walked in I saw my dad standing over the hospital bed where mum was curled up. She was fast asleep, with tubes hanging out her nose and an IV drip in her arm. He was looking tired and stressed. I choked my tears back and stood there for half an hour or so before dad and I decided to go to the pub.

After all, there was nothing we could do. Mum was warm and comfy, and the hospital informed us that they would call if things took a turn for the worse. She had a fever and had not been able to handle fluids or food for the previous 24 hours. It was finally time to say goodbye. It was time to say farewell to the long goodbye.

After the pub dad and I went home. We watched TV, we had a few laughs, we discussed business – anything except facing the reality that we would be saying goodbye to Jacquie very soon. Went to bed about 1am, but couldn’t sleep, so I woke up exhausted this morning. We made our way to the hospital. I dropped dad off and went and bought us breakfast so that he could have some alone time with her.

… I walked in 15 minutes later with hash browns and coffee to a lot of commotion. “You’ll never believe it Jake…” dad said as I walked in. “She’s done it again.” I looked over the nurse’s shoulder at mum and she was up and active. Dad was feeding her, and she was gurgling with what I imagine was delight at having food. I stood there for a few minutes not knowing how to react. To be honest, I still don’t know how to react. After spending a decade knowing that this time would come, I thought it was finally here.

I knew it would be extremely hard, but I also knew the journey would soon be behind us and we could finally get on with our lives with some sort of closure. So instead of 12 minutes or 12 hours, it might be 12 days. It might be 12 weeks…. Some might say that this is good news, but I don’t think it is. All it means is that the long goodbye is now even longer. It’s like running a marathon and thinking you’re about to cross the line, only to find that the line is nowhere in sight. I thank you for [your many touching messages], but I felt weird ‘liking’ them, so I didn’t. The condolences with early onset dementia are ongoing and still apply, so thank you.

Mum is on her way back from the hospital in an ambulance. When she gets here she’ll go back to her special chair. She’ll get fed and looked after. She’ll continue to barely exist, while we sit here trying our hardest to enjoy life. It’s going to continue being difficult for a while – I truly hope that it’s not too long.
I don’t know what it’s like to watch your mother disappear. But I resonate with Jake’s honesty, and indeed grief, because I think all of us know what it is to lose someone or something that matters to us. And even it’s not this extreme, we all know what it’s like to watch our hopes disappear into a terrible, frightening mess.

This weekend I have spent a number of hours speaking with a family member whose marriage is slipping away in front of their very eyes. It’s barely a year on from the happiest wedding ceremony I’ve ever been to. But the pain between the words they say that gets me, because I love these people. I don’t want them to be packing up each other’s belongings. But neither can back down yet. And so, until there is a glimmer of light, we must live with the grief.

In Lamentations 1 that was read today, the city of Jerusalem sits as a lonely widow, mourning the loss of her relationship. Verse 2 reads,

She weeps bitterly in the night,

with tears on her cheeks;

among all her lovers

she has no one to comfort her;

all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,

they have become her enemies.

It  says that Judah also weeps with loss. The prophet depicts the nation of Israel as ruined by her inability to stay faithful to God.

And therefore God leaves as hurt lovers will do, and Israel is left as a nation to itself. The situation has become more and more toxic, and Zion is silent. There are no festivals or visitors, it is a complete wasteland. Instead, the evil inside her has taken over, and to intents and purposes, it looks like they have won. She is destroyed by them.

The only way for the city again fill with dancing is for Jerusalem to call her lover home and to make amends. But yet she does not, she cannot, she will not.

Under the bed this week, I also encountered Australian politics – or more accurately “the social exclusion of Aboriginal disadvantage” – which structures my research into the intersection of Aboriginal Christianity and The Dreaming. This week, yet another Aboriginal man died in custody. But this time it all played out on my Facebook feed in real time – finding out something had gone awry in the prison, and a call to prayer. Then a heartbreaking final post commemorating his life. A brother, killed while incarcerated by the state. And I thought about the things that we just haven’t done as a nation. The 339 recommendations from the Royal Inquiry into Deaths in Custody that still lie unimplemented.

…. when things are left to themselves, well, it results in entropy. I’m no hard scientist but I feel this lack of order; a gradual decline into disorder in so many parts of my world. It’s like a rot that gets into the fabric of my heart and mind, and it pushes me from life and the Spirit of God.

I don’t think that’s just me. It’s now a cliché, spoken so many times “If God were real then… “ and the things we list after those five words are so meaningful to us. There’s just so much common humanity in those statement.

We cannot protect those we love from death. And yet, so fearful about experiencing this deep grief, we can also spiral ourselves into experiencing the very things that we fear the most.

Which is where the curtain closes and reopens upon Act II, and all the complexities of this story.

ACT II – OF FEAR

The theologian Walter Wink says, “So many people, if the truth were known, live their lives on two levels. The principles they fight about are often at odds with the complicated and often frustrated lives they live. This is why there is so much intensity.”

We find this intensity in another of today’s readings.  After Paul’s release from prison in Rome and his fourth missionary journey, he was again imprisoned under Emperor Nero. During this time he wrote his second letter to Timothy. In contrast to his imprisonment in which he had lived in a “rented house,” he now languished in a cold dungeon chained like a common criminal. Paul knew at this point that his work was done and that his life was nearly at an end.

From this dungeon he proclaims out the words we read in 2 Timothy today, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

That seems quite complicated.

I can only call it a paradox. If I got to watch more science fiction movies under my bed, I would perhaps be better able to describe how the two realities exist together, and that at any one point in time, we can operate in either realm. There is a red pill and there is a blue pill. We can and do in fact make our very deepest fears come true. And similarly, we can choose to move towards something else, the “deeper magic” that Aslan speaks of in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

So, how do we move ourselves from one realm to another? …. Well, as a songwriter, I listen for the narrative arc begin to shift within the lyrical progression. And, in verse 22 of Lamentations 3 it does. In the midst of the lament, comes the turn.

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

Although Israel has been turned away, even still, yet Israel’s soul may hope in God.

This is a hesitant, faltering step of faith. It is a incomplete move. But it is indeed faith, as it is “the evidence of things hoped for, and the assurance of the things unseen”.

This narrative turn continues throughout all of scripture. In fact, it is unmistakable as the story of the people of God.

You see, The Bible does not offer people of faith a promise that we will be inoculated from the entropy of the world. Instead, God offers us Himself. But yet, we too often wait in our pain, in our shame, in our failings and our shame, before we take the narrative turn and move towards the Creator of the systems.

 ACT III – OF FAITH

And this leads us into Acts III, the scene of faith. The final scene of a story, is usually the confrontation that brings everything to a finale. In the Timothy passage Paul also writes,

This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

This points towards the conclusion of this conflict, which ended with Christ upon the cross. So in verse 8 Paul appeals Timothy his protégé,

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.

Paul writes this because within the Christian understanding, all the cosmic powers of the world were stopped in their tracks as God hung in shame upon the cross and offered what Walter Wink calls “the third way.” This was the end of the retributive cycles.

And thus Jesus, when he was with the disciples, points towards this potential, the power of the seed as a metaphor for faith. In Luke 17: 5-6,

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Traditionally, this verse has been preached in two ways. Many of the Pentecostal preachers I grew up with, they wanted a “power encounter” in which the powers of this world were shamed into submission to Christ’s witness through healings, and the many other miracles that were to take place among the people of God.

I certainly believe in miracles. I do believe that God can indeed heal. I believe that we should indeed pray for healing, for change, for the Creator to break open the systems of the world in the here and the now.

But the greatest miracle of all is that we are no longer beholden to these systems, but can choose a new way thanks to the cross.

As Walter Wink states, “the ‘peace’ the gospel brings is never the absence of conflict, but an ineffable divine reassurance within the heart of conflict; a peace that surpasses understanding.”

I cannot speak for my friend Jake, or to how his long goodbye has affected his faith.

But from the biblical text, God shows us that he does not draw away while we grieve. In fact, he draws near, to indeed experience the very pain of it with us. And, because God draws near to Creation, the promise is that the world and all its death and destruction will be made again new. Renewed.

And thus, the curtain falls upon the world each night we can believe that tomorrow can bring something new, something redemptive, and that we do indeed have hope.

And that is what faith is all about. Not waiting for a quick fix so that we can cope. It is about living life, and life in all its abundance.

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