The Fragrance of Impermanence

A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota

by Craig Lemming

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Old Testament Lesson: Daniel 12:1-3
Epistle: Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Gospel: Mark 13:1-8

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of life.
Amen.

I am very grateful for the invitation to preach this morning’s sermon. My name is Craig Lemming, Compline Coordinator, Tenor in the Choir, and Transitional Deacon completing my internship here at St. John’s in formation for the Priesthood. As some of you may remember I completed my Clinical Pastoral Education Unit as a full-time Chaplain at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis last summer. As I was preparing today’s sermon, a fond memory came flooding back. Early on, during my time at Abbott, my Chaplain supervisor had noticed that I always carried my Book of Common Prayer with me on rounds. At the time I thought, “Well, of course I do! all of the most exquisitely written prayers, some of the most beautifully crafted liturgies, the Psalms, and even the Catechism (for those sticky conversations about doctrine), are all right here at my fingertips.” In the words of Sister Monica Joan from the TV Series Call the Midwife, “The Liturgy is of comfort to the disarrayed mind. We need not choose our thoughts; the words are aligned, like a rope for us to cling to.”[i] As an inexperienced Chaplain, I thought that the BCP was some sort of Holy talisman with the aid of which almost any pastoral emergency could be dealt with elegantly, with dignity, decorum, and dare I say it – panache. Thankfully, my Chaplain supervisor would have none of it. She challenged me to leave my Prayer Book in the office, and to pray extemporaneously with patients.

After our meeting ended, leaving my BCP behind, I returned to the Oncology Unit where spiritual care had been requested by a woman who was deeply distressed. Not only did she discover that she had cancer, but the doctors believed Judy only had a few months left to live. I sat with and listened to Judy for most of that afternoon. At one point Judy asked if I would please read her my favorite Psalm. “Ah ha!” I thought, “Take that, Chaplain Supervisor! If I didn’t have my Book of Common Prayer (the smaller, spare copy I kept tucked in my pocket for emergencies such as these) I would have never been able to recite Psalm 139 for Judy!” As I read the Psalm, Judy gazed out of her window at a cold front sweeping dramatically across the gray-green sky. As the thunder[ii] pealed, her eyes filled with tears. Weeping she reached out to me with both hands. I closed the Prayer Book and gave Judy my hands. She looked at me, and pleaded, “Please, Craig, pray for me.” God works in mysterious ways. God also has jokes, because Judy was clinging so very tightly to both of my hands that there was absolutely no way I could possibly select the perfect prayer from the closed Prayer Book which lay between us. My hands were literally tied. I was forced to pray extemporaneously with Judy. Was my first impromptu prayer as elegant as anything composed by Thomas Cranmer? Of course not. My improvised prayer was gritty. It was genuine. It was heartfelt. It named the beauty and the tragedy of Judy’s struggle and wove in everything Judy loved in this world: canning the peaches from her garden, the embrace of her beloved children, her daily ritual of walking her dog, everything she loved and everything with which Judy made meaning of her existence became the fabric of the humble prayer I offered. I had to let go of the Book of Common Prayer to know what prayer really means.

In his essay titled “Nimble Believing,” poet Christian Wiman writes, “In the end the very things that have led us to God are the things that we must sacrifice… In the end these gifts must be given entirely away, that we may be light enough for this last passage.”[iii]

How does all of this relate to today’s Gospel? For that, we must go back to about 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus; to The Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, which resulted in the complete destruction of The Temple: a calamity so cataclysmic it is impossible to imagine. According to Josephus, 1.1 million men, women, and children were massacred and 97,000 were captured and enslaved by the Roman Empire.[iv] This catastrophic apocalypse was placed in Jesus’ mouth in today’s Gospel.[v] As he exits the Temple with his disciples, Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The Temple: that ultimate symbol of faith, a place of sanctuary, a place of identity, a place of Ultimate Concern. The devastating loss of The Temple for Jews and Jewish Christians is unfathomable. This Gospel passage forces us to come to terms with whether we can let go of “the very things that have led us to God.” This is a struggle. To acknowledge our loss of those things which are dearest to us takes courage. To sit with the despair we experience in the midst of crippling loss requires resilience. It is what philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called the “Pessimism of Strength” which is life-affirming precisely because it confronts the tragic and traumatic realties of human existence in order to re-evaluate all of our values and by so doing we create new ones.[vi] Like the Book of Daniel or the Gospel of Mark heard today, radical truth-telling in the face of overwhelming, life-threatening, empirical powers, is to wholeheartedly lament our tragedies in order to struggle on with a more authentic form of genuine hope which is steeped in acknowledged despair. In a culture filled with cheap hope and a nauseating ubiquity of shallow consumerism – yes, we are already being bombarded by Capitalism’s “White Christmas” and we haven’t even entered the season of Advent yet – how can we re-evaluate the meaning of our existence and retrieve genuine hope? How do we stand in solidarity with those in Nairobi, Syria, Beirut, Baghdad, and now Paris who are left struggling to make sense of their new realities today after the horrors of recent attacks? We struggle with this. And then we remember The Book of Common Prayer.

One of my favorite Collects includes this phrase: “let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection.”[vii] This Collect has been prayed at the ordinations of innumerable Bishops, Deacons, and Priests; on countless Good Fridays and Easter Vigils, and I love it because it captures what being a Christian means. As we heard in Jered’s powerful sermon last Sunday, God overturns the status quo, and puts it the right side up. Christ’s solidarity is with the widow, the poor, the stranger, the outcast, the immigrant, the orphan[viii] – everyone that has been cast down, by God’s grace, is being raised up.

Yes – impermanence haunts us: the impermanence of the seasons; the impermanence of relationships; the impermanence of grief and joy; the impermanence of life. In his Sonnets to Orpheus, poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes:

Ah, the knowledge of impermanence
that haunts our days
is their very fragrance.
[ix]

This fragrance of impermanence imbues the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel who comforts us saying, “do not be alarmed; this must take place… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Like Monsieur Bertrand Bourgeois, as reported in the New York Times,[x] felt drawn to go fishing in Paris yesterday out of a sense of solidarity with the victims of violence, cast his fishing line into the Seine and said “something in me felt like it was important to be here, to say ‘still alive.’” These are the birth pangs of new life. We, as Christians, believe this new and unending life is Christ, who makes all things new.[xi]

Judy, Bertrand Bourgeois, and countless others teach us lessons about existence. Leonardo da Vinci said “Wisdom is the daughter of experience.” Accompanying someone, whose entire life is crumbling, through the hard process of re-evaluating the meaning of their life is to witness lived wisdom. The inconsolable ones, hammering together new pairs of wings[xii] out of the debris of their shattered lives, are the ones The Book of Daniel names today: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”[xiii] We only have each other. To make meaning of our existence is to give ourselves entirely away as gifts to one other. In the simple words of E.M. Forster’s epigraph to his greatest novel, Howard’s End, the key to our shared existence is to “Only connect…”[xiv] This is why today’s Epistle admonishes us “to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together… encouraging one another.”[xv]

Episcopalian Ethicist Willis Jenkins writes, “Humans are ‘liturgical animals,’ whose imagination of what to love and how to desire it is learned through embodied performances.”[xvi] We gather together to hear Holy Scripture throughout the week, to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,”[xvii] and we celebrate Holy Eucharist together every week precisely because we are indeed liturgical creatures learning what to love and how to desire it as living members of the Body of Christ. In the words again of Rilke, “As the bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest of all things and build Him.”[xviii] We are the fragrance of Christ;[xix] living members of Christ’s Church; agents of hope and healing. We restore brokenness to wholeness by giving our gifts entirely away so that things which were being cast down can be raised up, and things which had grown old can be made new.

I leave you with the words of the Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”[xx]
Amen.

[i] Thomas, Heidi, et al. Call the Midwife. Season Three, Episode 8. London: The British Broadcasting Corporation, 2012.

[ii] T.S. Eliot’s poem “What the Thunder Said” from The Wasteland (1922) gave me much to ponder when I reflected on Judy’s reaction to the sound of the peal of thunder that afternoon.

[iii] Wiman, Christian. “Nimble Believing.” In A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith. Edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler. North Adams, Mass: Tupelo Press, 2012, 254.

[iv] Josephus, The Wars of the Jews VI.9.3.

[v] Mark 13:1-8

[vi] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, 528.

[viii] Isaiah 12:1-13, 16-17

[ix] Rilke, Rainer Maria, and Anita Barrows and JoAnna Macy. In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005, 11.

[x] Nossiter, Adam, Aurelien Breeden, and Nicola Clark. “Paris Attacks Were an ‘Act of War’ by ISIS, Hollande Says.” The New York Times. November 14, 2015. Accessed November 14, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/world/europe/paris-terrorist-attacks.html

[xi] Revelation 21:5

[xii] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner.

[xiii] Daniel 12:3

[xiv] Forster, E. M. Howard’s End. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002, 1.

[xv] Hebrews 10:24-25

[xvi] Jenkins, Willis. The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013, 309.

[xvii] The Book of Common Prayer, 236.

[xviii] Rilke, Rainer Maria and Stephen Mitchell. Letters to a Young Poet. New York: Modern Library, 2001, 62.

[xix]2 Corinthians 2:15-17

[xx] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” in Gerard Manly Hopkins Poems and Prose, ed. W.H. Gardner. London: Penguin Classics, 1985, 24.

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