October 8 Sermon by the Rev. Dr. William Seth Adams

Blessed be the Name of God

            I have been preaching in the midst of the Church’s liturgy for over 50 years.  I used to save all of my sermons but the pile of paper simply got out of hand, so I had to let them go.  Oh, I still have a collection of paper but it has been disciplined over time.

            I suspect that if I went back through what I have, I would not discover in any of those sermon texts, a combination of scripture, on the one hand, and circumstance, on the other, like we have this morning.  For me, the collusion of context and gospel reading is quite disturbing.  I should explain.

            Last week, we and the rest of the world were shown yet another expression of human depravity.  A man shot at random from a hotel window and killed 58 people, people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas.  Beyond that, some 500 people in addition were injured.  The man had stockpiled numberless weapons, amended them so they would fire more rapidly, and when his heartless work was done, he killed himself. 

            All week long, we have read about this dreadful event; we have prayed about it.  In our case, our older son works in Las Vegas and we shuddered at the prospect of his being harmed.  He was not. 

How many people are grieving and will be grieving for how long?  Yet another mass killing in the nation that once upon a time we thought was safe, a good place to be.  Yet now, killings, by one means or another, are part of the daily news, part of what there is to talk about.  “Did you read about the killings yesterday?” we might ask over coffee.  “Please pass the cream.” That seems the context we now live in and the weeping continues. 

So context:  58 people killed, murdered in Las Vegas . 

In the Scriptures this morning, we hear Jesus telling yet another tale about a vineyard.  In the midst of the story, we hear the ruthless tenants of the owner’s vineyard say to themselves, “’This is the heir; come, let us kill [the son] and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” “[Then Jesus asked his hearers] Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death…” [Matthew 21.38b-41a]

Of this reading from Scripture we may well ask, “How many killings so far?”  Oh, and remember, earlier in the parable, these wretched tenants also killed some number of slaves whom the owner had sent to collect his produce.

I know that Matthew tells this tale because it makes a useful point for him about who are the good guys and who are otherwise, but for me, this week, it’s hard to read this story as anything other than another news report about our apparently human and perhaps natural inclination to kill each other.  In our context, this observation about killings seems inescapable.

Given this understanding, I can’t help but wonder, in these parables of the vineyard, how does the landowner view all this?  If one imagines, as it is easy to do, that the landowner analogously is God, then what take would this particular landowner have on the actions perpetrated by the tenants, whomever they may be understood to be?  What would God think? 

This question leads me to the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, priest and poet, dead now since September of 2000.  In his poem “Making,” and speaking in the voice of the Creator, Thomas wrote:

And having built it

I set about furnishing it

To my taste: first moss, then grass

Annually renewed, and animals

To divert me: faces stared in

From the wild.  I thought up the flowers

Then birds. I found the bacteria

Sheltering in primordial

Darkness and called them forth

To the light. Quickly the earth

Teemed.  Yet still an absence

Disturbed me. I slept and dreamed

Of a likeness, fashioning it,

When I woke, to a slow

Music: in love with it

For itself, giving it freedom

To love me: risking the disappointment.

                        [Completed Poems, 1993. P. 221]

 

Here is where my heart and mind landed as I addressed our context and what I found haunting me from the gospel reading.  God, the creator of all there is, admitting the risk of disappointment.  Created in God’s own likeness, given freedom to love in return, “risking the disappointment.”

            I began writing this sermon on St. Francis’ Day, last Wednesday, October 4.  I continued writing on the next day, Thursday October 5, the birthday of one of Francis’s companions, someone I called ‘St. Rilla’ is a birthday greeting.  Gentle souls, Francis and Rilla, spiritual friends to us and to many.  Rilla of course will leave her own legacy in time, and we are part of that legacy, but Francis, what of his legacy in a killing time?

            Many years ago, I read Nikos Kazantzakis’ St. Francis.  You will know Kazantzakis from such writings as Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ.  If you know the fiery and tempestuous  nature of these stories, and their author, it may come as a surprise to know of Kazantzakis’ interest in Francis and the rendering of his life.

            In this accounting, we learn of the Francis we know—committed to poverty, mindful of creation, a blessing to his companions—this is all there.  But a richer picture of Francis, as given to us here, reveals a temperament, an energy, a disposition of the heart whose intensity we would not at first imagine.  If we simply imagine that Francis spent all his time feeding birds and being adored by sheep and deer, then Kazantzakis’ rendition of his life will be properly startling.

            As I have pondered the disappointment of God, I have had this Francis as my companion, Francis the revolutionary, the godly pauper, the one certain of the goodness of both God and creation.  Happily, Francis has tempered my darkness some but sharpened my conviction about the depth and painfulness of the disappointment of God.

            When I began university, my most influential class was first year philosophy.  I even remember, even now after almost 60 years, the name of my professor, Hugh Caldwell.  It was at his guidance that I and my classmates met the Existentialists.  For many of my generation and my temperament and susceptibility, that introduction was quite influential, and likely, in my case, durable.  Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” and most central, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, yes, most central, Dostoyevsky.

            The mood or texture of this influence, this existential influence, is captured by the opening paragraph in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.  The speaker says, “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.” Later he says, “…My liver is bad, well then,--let it get worse.” You see the tone here, the texture, the “feel.” It was not made into a musical!

            Dark stuff, to be sure, complicated and not sunny at all.   And, I admit, influential on vulnerable and sensitive young minds.  I can’t really say how much of my life’s outlook was determine by that period of study, but I remain convinced that at the bottom of the heart of God, there is more sorrow than joy.

            All this is to report the impact on the preacher’s outlook of 58 murders by gunshot and the uncounted killings recorded in our gospel reading this morning, the aggregate of which must surely be a disappointment to God.

            But, then, I ask myself, “What have I for you?”  I am the preacher after all. I am to provide you with nourishment for your life of faith.  What of that?  Well, ironically, let me offer you what we hear, you and I, at a funeral.  That is to say, Bill Howes’ funeral yesterday has given us what I simply could not find otherwise through the week.  Some light, some hope, some greater clarity about God’s disposition.

            It is ironic to me that the Burial Rite in the Prayer Book makes preaching at a funeral optional.  How can that be?  Funerals and weddings are occasions when the public comes to church.  When better to proclaim what we know to be true?

            So it was yesterday.  The public was here, and the necessary word was   spoken. By the actions of God, death has lost the final word.  Yes, we die but in that death, we do not lose God.  God’s companionship continues until the end of all things. 

            It is certainly true that we have lost the companionship of Bill Howes, as we have lost the companionship of anyone who has died.  We have lost their touch, the sound of their voice, their graces and their idiosyncrasies. That is true.  But we dare not say they are lost as if lost to God.  “I have lost my car keys!”  “I have lost that phone number!”  Bill Howes has not been misplaced or forgotten by God.  Please, then, don’t say, “We have lost Bill Howes.”  He is not lost.  In the economy of God, Bill has his place, just as we have ours.  Nothing is lost to God, disappointed or not.

            So, Dear Ones, here it is. Yesterday’s funeral gives us words for today, words that propose light over darkness, life over death, no matter what.  The 58 lives taken in Las Vegas and those killed in our narrative this morning, they are dead but not lost to God.  I am persuaded that God is greatly disappointed, even sorrowful, but I am equally persuaded that God’s disposition to save and to gather up is even more present, more powerful, more active.

            I thank God for that, and trust that we all, living and dead, can rest in peace.

Blessed be the Name of God