Sunday, October 26, 2008

Life before and after the comma - A sermon preached at the memorial service for deceased members of the Harvard College Class of 1978 - Oct. 11, 2008

Once more the alumni office and its minions have worked their magic. “Fair Harvard, we join in thy jubilee throng, and with blessings surrender thee o’er,” although our blessings are not what they were before the Dow dropped below 9,000.  Harvard welcomes back its scattered sons and daughters to enjoy its hospitality; to see old friends; make new ones; to laugh or cry or blush as we remember how impossibly young we were when Derek Bok was president of Harvard; Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter occupied the White House and Peter Gomes had a mustache. 

Once again the Yard is thrown open to us, and we can enjoy the haute cuisine of the Houses, the evening at the Pops, the pomp of graduation. No, that’s not right, is it? What’s wrong with this picture? This reunion is in the fall, not the spring; there’s no evening at the Pops; and we’ve been banished from the Yard. Something is different this time. We seem to have been demoted. It appears that once our 25th reunion passes we are no longer the darlings of the Alumni and Development offices. We are past our prime; over the hill; or (in the famous words of Tom Lehrer) “sliding down the razor blade of life.”

 But isn’t that simply a fact of life that we must all accept? Not all the botox, skin peels, knee and hip replacements, Rogaine, scalp plugs, gym memberships nor any of the infinite number of products guaranteed to restore youth or slow aging will long hide or delay the fact that “earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away. Change and decay in all around I see…” Or to borrow a song from that OTHER university: “we will pass and be forgotten like the rest.” 

And if we HAD forgotten any of those things, today’s solemn task would have reminded us. Amid the laughter and nostalgia, before the symposia and the football game, we pause to remember a Superior Court judge who also wrote book reviews for his local newspaper; a Rhodes Scholar who took time from his career as a lawyer to serve on numerous community boards; a computer scientist whose love of flying led him to develop cutting edge software for the aviation industry; and each of the others – a husband, wife, or partner; father or mother; sister or brother; whose passing leaves an emptiness and grief that, in time, will become less painful but will never completely heal. 

This memorial service inserts a note of reality into our reunion festivities. It puts a comma between the visit to classmate Governor Deval Patrick at the Statehouse and the symposium featuring classmate Governor Deval Patrick following the service. Without this pause, this comma, if you will, we would rush through our reunion and not remember the classmates who have gone before us. More importantly, we might not stop to think that one day our names, too, will be read out at this service.

 Punctuation is as important in life as it is in the written word. We all enjoy the exclamation marks: weddings, the birth of a child, the achievement of partnership in the firm or tenure, making it to the top of the mountain (either literal or metaphorical). And we all endure the question marks: the death of  loved ones, the loss of a job, the end of a marriage or love not returned. But I’m inclined to believe that the comma is the most important punctuation mark in life’s story. It invites us to slow down, pay attention, look around, and perhaps re-orient ourselves.

 In the play Wit elderly English professor, Evelyn Ashford, underscores the importance of punctuation when she criticizes her student Vivian, the play’s central character, for having used a poorly edited version of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets as the basis for an essay. “The last line should read, ‘Death’ comma ‘thou shalt die.’ Only a comma separates life and life everlasting.”

 On this day and in this place we may all be wondering if Dr. Ashford was correct. Is death a comma or a period? And if it is a comma, what comes after? Surely religion has the answer, because, after all, isn’t religion mostly concerned with what happens after the comma, with “life everlasting” rather than life in this world? 

In my opinion, that is the most common mistake that people make about religion – to believe that it is more concerned with what happens after the comma than with what happens before it, with life in the next world than with life in this world. 

We do well to remember and honor our classmates who have gone before us, who await us at the final reunion of the Class of 1978. But we do better to honor them by living our lives fully and energetically, by being as engaged in this world as possible.

 The following words, read at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, seem especially apt to me:


If I should die and leave you here awhile, 
Be not like others, sore undone, who keep 
Long vigils by the silent dust, and weep. 
For my sake - turn again to life and smile, 
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do 
Something to comfort other hearts than thine. 
Complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine 
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.

 Think of these reunions as great punctuation marks, commas in our own personal narratives. They give us a chance to pause, remember, and reflect about who we were thirty years ago, about who and what we hoped we might become and perhaps, even who we still might be.

 In reading our Thirtieth Class Report I was struck frequently by the number of you who have already experienced life after death. I mean, how many of you have found that life goes on after the death of a parent, a spouse, or even a child; how many of you have found new love after divorce; how many have found a new and more meaningful career after the loss of a job or after your old career had grown stale and had become dull and tedious, and how often the new career involves giving a significant amount of your time, energy, and financial resources to a cause greater than yourselves: to helping the hungry and homeless or seeking solutions to the global environmental crisis.

 My religion has a name for the new life that begins when the old one has died: we call it resurrection. Resurrection can happen any time. The only prerequisite is that first we must die. The death may be literal or it may be one of the thousand ways that we die throughout our lives.

 Perhaps we would fear death less if we made its acquaintance, if we realized that it visits us not once but many times, and that it is death that makes life infinitely precious. It is the very shortness and finitude of life that makes us cherish it and find it meaningful. Treasure every moment with the people you love because we are given such a small handful of them. Take full advantage of this reunion, this comma in life’s narrative. Laugh and perhaps even cry with old friends; make new ones; dive headlong into a pile of leaves in Harvard Yard.

 So, is death a comma rather than a period? Does only a comma separate life from life everlasting? I suspect that is a question we must each answer for ourselves. But I want to suggest that you will find the answer (or find that the question becomes irrelevant) if you follow poet Wendell Berry’s advice and begin right now to “practice resurrection:”

 every day do something

that won't compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

 In one of his parables, Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard points out that a student is allotted only so much time to complete an exam and whether she uses every minute of the test period or just a small fraction of the time, it makes no difference as long as she is finished before the time expires. But what if life itself is the test? If that is the case, then it would be tragic indeed to be finished with life before life is finished with us.

 But life is not finished with any of us. Whether you believe that only a comma separates life from life everlasting or that death is (as the British say) a “full stop”, we have all the time we need to lead a full and meaningful life. And the forty-seven classmates who have gone before us would surely expect us to do no less than to take up their unfinished tasks, to complete our own unfinished business, to be joyful even though we have considered all the facts.  


Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Language of Heaven - St. Michael and All Angels - Sept. 29, 2008

Texts: Gen. 28.10-17 and Revelation 12.7-12.

When John and I were planning this service I asked him if he wanted it to include a sermon. He said, “Well, if you preach, it probably won’t be too tedious.” With encouragement like that, how could I not preach?

Actually, I was hoping that John would want me to preach this evening, both because it gives me an opportunity to say something about him, his extraordinary musical gifts, and his service to St. Alban’s, and also to say something about music.

However, tonight’s lessons are not about music and musicians but about angels. The collect tells us that God has “ordained and constituted in wonderful order the ministries of mortals and angels” and their function is to “serve and worship” God in heaven and to “help and defend” us on earth. The Old Testament reading is the marvelous and mysterious story of Jacob’s vision of the heavenly escalator upon which angels go to and from heaven and earth. And the New Testament reading is the even more enigmatic story from the Book of Revelation about the archangel Michael defeating Satan.

We know little about angels but from tonight’s collect and reading and also from other Biblical sources we know that angels are first and foremost messengers. Both the Hebrew malach and the Greek angellos mean “messenger” but we translate them as “angel.” Most of the time that angels appear in the Bible they are bearing messages: three angels appear to Abraham to tell him once again that he and Sarah will be the parents of a multitude. And of course, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she will give birth to Jesus.

Apparently, an important function of angels is also to be in some sense God’s “swat team,” leading the fight against evil and defending God’s people.

However, the single most important function of angels is to praise and worship God. Why, we might wonder, does God need or want the constant praise of angelic beings? But that, I think, is the wrong question. I think, rather, that angels, being by their very nature closer to God than we are, cannot help but praise God. Think of our reaction to the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains. How beautiful and majestic we think as we see the sunset pour brilliant colors over the Grand Canyon or the mist that hides the peaks of the Rockies. How much more, then, must angels be overcome by the glory of God?

That, I believe, is why angels are so often portrayed holding and playing musical instruments. Praise invariably involves music because words fail us in the face of beauty of the highest order. Music can convey thoughts and feelings for which we have no words and music can give words power beyond their meaning.

Karl Barth, probably the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, was fascinated by both angels and music. A great fan of Mozart, Barth famously wrote that the angels sing Bach when they praise God but they play Mozart when they are playing for their own amusement. It is also said that toward the end of his life, Barth had his one and only mystical experience when he was attending a performance of some of Mozart’s music and saw the composer sitting on the stage and looking at him. Barth also made the enigmatic remark that Mozart must have been angel.

Why not? If angels are musicians, why can’t musicians be angels? Angels bring us God’s messages for our lives; so do musicians. How often as we listen to music have we felt that it was telling us something, that it communicated something about the majesty of God, about our own need for God, that it told us of the glory and wonder of life on earth, or that it moved us to tears with a message for which not only had no words but no coherent thoughts?

Remember, too, that angels quite often deliver messages that frighten. I think the choir would agree that John frequently delivers messages of that sort!

I don’t want to overstress the connection between angels and musicians, but I believe there is one. One of John Donne’s most famous prayers says that in heaven there is “neither noise nor silence but one equal music.” My personal opinion is that music is the language of heaven because music both orders and enhances our words and thoughts. Music also takes us out of ourselves and binds us together in community. That is obviously the case when we sing together, but I believe it is also the case when we listen to music. An audience or congregation listening to music are caught up together in a common experience.

The prayer for church musicians and artists in the Prayer Book tells us that it is the function of church musicians to “perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and beseeches God grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled.”

Tonight we give thanks not only for the ministries of angels but also for the ministry of John King Carter who has perfected our praises and given us glimpses of divine beauty. May you continue that ministry in your new parish, John.