I preached this sermon on July 27, 2014, at Union Chapel in the Grove, Shelter Island, New York.
Primal Fear, Primal Hope
The Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin
Let us pray:
You are at work in this place, O God, and you are at work in us. You call us to turn our minds and hearts to you, to direct our wills to your will, our voices to your praise. Guide us in joy, that we may worship you not only with words, but with our lives. Amen.
Let me begin by offering a word of thanks to the Trustees of Union Chapel for extending this generous invitation to me to preach this morning. Judith Winship’s call was unexpected and much-appreciated, and I am so pleased to be here today. Only last month, I completed a seven-year call as the Associate Pastor at The First Presbyterian Church in New York City, a ministry that I loved and which I already miss dearly. In the fall I will begin my Clinical Pastoral Education at the NewYork Presbyterian Hospital, but for now, I am enjoying a few months in the role of stay-at-home mom. Many of you will understand me when I say that I often think longingly of my old office, where, as Garrison Keillor might say, “the coffee is always hot and the doors always close.” There have been some, ahem, adjustments… in being around the house more often.
This week, for instance, I encountered the complexing problem of how to write a sermon with a 5 year-old and an almost 3 year-old in our small, Brooklyn apartment. Thankfully, I have a supportive, free-lancing husband, a delightful babysitter and three, yes three, coffee shops within a block of our home.
Yet, I also had to work from home, writing in the bedroom slash office slash music studio with my daughter, Claire, at my side. No matter the enticements from her babysitter or my husband, she could not be lured away from me. Or more, specifically, from my sermon. “Mommy, I want to help you write your sermon,” she said, with her characteristic sincerity. I thanked her and gently promised to hand over my finished draft for her edits if I could have just a few more minutes of quiet. And she nodded her assent, but she pierced me with her big, brown eyes and declared, “That’s OK, Mommy. I have to go and write my sermon now.”
And so, at dinner the other night, we compared notes. She let me go first. I told Claire that I was writing a sermon about a story in the Bible that tells us how God loves us so much that there is nothing in the entire world that can separate us from God’s love, not even death. Claire, you see, has been talking a lot about death and dying recently, a common developmental enterprise for children her age. An elderly woman in our building died a few days ago; and though we did not see the body leave the building, we saw the police cars and ambulance gathered outside, their lights silently flashing. As we walked away, she told me that she never wants to die, and she told me how she sometimes worries that Donny, my husband and her father, is going to die soon because he is so tall (height, according to Claire’s logic, is associated with advanced age- the taller you are, the older you must be).
Even my three year-old gets it, leaning over in his car seat to tell us, as if from nowhere ‘I don’t want to die.’ How does he even know what that means? He doesn’t know, but the fear is instinctive, primal. The fear of being separated from the ones we love; the fear of death as the ultimate separation.
I make the promise to Claire and Henry that every loving parent makes to their child, ‘No one is going to die for a very long time and nothing is going to take me away from you.’ And I know that my promise is not really a promise but a hope- for love to be stronger than any fears that attach themselves to our mortal frames. Our fears are founded. Our hopes, too. And we are pulled between them, between the fear that we will, some way and somehow, be separated and left alone. Deprived of those we love; deprived of God. And the hope that the Spirit will, as Paul promises, help us in our weakness and intercede for us with sighs too deep for words, guiding our prayers and ourselves to God, when we cannot know how to do it for ourselves.
Now, I didn’t share all of this with Claire, not because I didn’t think she would understand but because there is no greater critic than a skeptical 5 year-old. But I shared enough, and I know this because Claire… looked at me, and she thought about what I had said for a long minute, and then she said, “Mommy, I understand. It’s just like the sisters Elsa and Anna in the movie Frozen. Even though Elsa runs away to the North Mountain and builds an ice palace to hide in because she can’t control her powers and keeps turning everything into eternal winter… and even makes a snow monster- Elsa and Anna love each other more than all those scary things and love is the answer. That’s what my sermon is about.” And I said, “Claire- that is a great sermon.”
I conceded victory to my daughter and walked away, chastened by the reminder of how wise children can be, and chastened again for forgetting momentarily that Jesus was the first one to teach me that lesson. And I walked away, wishing that I could just snatch those fears straight out of Claire’s beautiful little head and bury them deep beneath the ground, to shield and protect her from life’s inevitable anguish. Or take a soft cloth and wipe the unspeakable cruelties of the world beaded upon her tender brow.
But, as the theologian Mick Jagger once wrote, We can’t always get what we want.
Or, as the other famous 20th century theologian, Karl Barth[i], once wrote, softening the sharp edges of my grief just a little.
There [can be] …no overlooking or toning down of human suffering in order to offer some more solid consolation. [In his letter to the Romans] Paul does not redress the tribulation of the world by fixing our attention upon the compensating harmony of another world. No careless attitude to present tribulation can stand even before the aching of a tooth, and still less before the brutal realities of birth, sickness, and death, before the iron reality which governs the broad motions of our lives.
[Paul] undertakes to console the Christians who are set in the midst of so great [a] tribulation: he speaks as one who has himself suffered and is confident of what he has to say… [H]e turns his back on this world and confronts the coming revelation, beholding the earth, rid of all misery and disappointment, filled with radiant happiness… He contracts the suffering of the world into a single drop and a tiny spark, [while] expanding its glory into a mighty ocean and a blaze of fire…
Denying suffering and running from our fears are tactics both careless and insufficient. Hope, we learn, does not disappear our suffering. But it can free us from our fear with its vision of God’s promise.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her most recent book, Learning to Walk in the Dark[ii], would describe our task thusly… facing the dark and learning to walk in it, not toward the goal of finding light necessarily, but to uncover the gifts that the dark has to offer. Like a spiritual spelunker, or a theological Indiana Jones, Taylor spends endless nights under the moonlit and moonless sky above her North Georgia farm. She dines at a restaurant that serves its meal in complete darkness. She follows a retired pastor and his wife into the caves of West Virginia. She contemplates John of the Cross and other Christian mystics, for whom darkness and suffering offered vital access to the heart of God. She plumbs the depths of theology, psychology, and medicine, seeking to discover the key to her own fear of the dark and uncover its secret gifts.
In her words,
A few months into studying the dark, I found a book called Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, a psychotherapist with thirty years’ experience. Ten years into her vocation, Greenspan says, her first child, Aaron, died two months after he was born without ever leaving the hospital. Like any parent struck down by such loss, she woke up every morning in the salt sea of grief and went to bed in it every night, doing her best to keep her head above water in between. This went on for weeks, then months, during which time she could not help but notice how uncomfortable her grief was making those around her, especially when it did not dry up on schedule…
Some of us, Taylor writes, have… gotten the message that if we cannot [grieve] on schedule, we may not have enough faith in God. If we had enough, we would be able to banish the dark angels from our beds, replacing them with the light angels of belief, trust, and praise.
Our faith cannot banish these things, just like we cannot flip a switch to dispel the dark if there is no bulb. And purity of faith does not translate into ease of life. Jesus taught us that. So did his disciples, when they ran away after his crucifixion and returned to lives of relative comfort at the cost of their soul’s longing. Pain hurts; danger is real. Suffering cares not for piety and righteousness. There is no overlooking or toning down suffering- not the death of a child or the end of a job or divorce or cancer or unaccompanied minors fleeing violence or passenger jets shot down by missiles.
But! Paul says. But… We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. We, as the early church in Rome, struggling against persecution and perils both concrete and spiritual. We, now, in these pews, struggling with our own indices of individual and collective suffering. We believe, we trust, we set our heart upon the promise that God’s divine purpose for Creation cannot be derailed.
How? Because God transforms suffering- not by making suffering a lesson or the means to an end, but by revealing Christ in the midst of it. “If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point,” Barth says, there we will find Christ Jesus our Lord. That Christ is there, in our wounded-ness, means that God is for us. God transforms our suffering by staking a claim in the blue-black darkness and promising to never stand down or walk away. And if God is with us, who, then, can be against us?
I want Claire to understand this about God. Not only that God is at her side at all times and under all circumstances. But that God has given her the gift of freedom from her fear. Like her heroines, Elsa and Anna, who refused to let snow or ice or evil princes or ugly snow monsters stand in the way of the hope that was theirs to claim, I want Claire to be bold, to know herself as a conqueror, heroine, princess, disciple, standing beside God in the sure promise that she is not alone and never will be. I don’t want her to know peril, but that’s not mine to grant. But I can, at least, hope she knows that the tribulations of this world have already experienced defeat. And maybe, maybe if we have all done our jobs well as a community of faith in fulfilling our baptismal vows to teach the newly baptized about the God who is for us, through Christ and with the Spirit’s intercession, Claire and Henry and every child of this congregation, and ourselves, too, because we were once children, might be bold to stand against the powers and principalities, because our fear, though founded, is already conquered.
Paul’s words are words to live by- words to set beside the baptismal font when we make promises for ourselves and promises on behalf of our children. And Paul’s words are words to die by- words to claim when we bear witness to the resurrection on behalf of ones we love, and even for ourselves.
The great uncle of a dear friend passed away last week, peacefully, in his sleep, less than a year after his longtime partner. My friend wrote to those of us who love her,
Many thanks to everyone who has been in touch since we got the news that my great-uncle Don had passed away, or as we say down here [in the South], been promoted to the church triumphant. A memorial service will be held on Sunday. All are welcome in body or spirit as we sing him to heaven.
“We wait,” Barth says, “but, because we wait upon God, our waiting is not in vain. We look out: but, because we have first been observed, we do not look out into the void. We speak: but, because there emerges in our speech that which cannot be uttered, we do not idly prattle. And so also we pray: because the Spirit makes intercession for us with [sighs too deep for words]…”
And the sufferings of the world will contract into a single drop and a tiny spark, and the glory of Creation, fulfilled through God’s good purpose, will expand into a mighty ocean and a blaze of fire.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And so even at the grave we will make our song: Alleluia alleluia, alleluia. Amen.
© Sarah McCaslin, 2014
[i] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968).
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014).