Preaching at Saint Mark’s Church
11 November 2018
St. John 15:9-17
A Sermon that was preached at a Requiem Mass celebrated at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California on 11 November 2018. Several people asked me to publish the sermon, and I do so here.
Subscribing to the New York Review of Books is a dangerous thing to do. Upon seeing a review or advertisement for certain books, I am likely to go on-line and order a copy. Recently I purchased and then avidly read Bill Goldstein’s fascinating book, The World Broke in Two, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature. In it he painstakingly describes the difficulties that these four authors had immediately following the Great War, and how they wrestled with their own sense of self in the face of a new world. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s character Mrs. Dalloway can put it best for us.
“Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”
The threat of death seemed to overwhelm these authors, as well it might for they were not only threatened by eventual death, and an odd collection of maladies and illnesses but by the war itself. As Mrs. Dalloway evolves over time into the character that questions her own life and well-being, another character, a survivor of the war, Septimus, reaches for his own death accomplished in a suicide. Death and change were all about them, and the world that they thought they knew was gone. This is no surprise to us especially if we watched the Downton Abbey episodes which bring some of this to life.
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where on 22 May 1957, around 11:50 a.m. a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped on the outskirts of Kirtland Air Force Base which lay at the southeastern edge of the city.It could have ruined my whole day! We weren’t to find out about this until some three decades later, and that’s the funny thing about the world we live in. In Matthew 24:6 Jesus reminds us that we shall hear of “wars and rumors of wars.” But it is not just the wars – have we ever truly lived in peace? It is the consequences of our constantly battling one against another. It is the constant realization that we live at death’s edge. We numb that knowledge with forgetfulness.
Once when driving north of Strasbourg, France to look at the pottery makers in Soufflenheim, and Boetschdorf, we headed east intending to cross the Rhine and enter Germany to see family. Arthur remarked as we left Boetschdorf, “Michael, the churches around here are all new – I wonder why?” As the words left his mouth we looked to our left as we crossed by the bombed-out bunkers of the Maginot Line. “Oh!”, Arthur said. So much is forgotten or willfully left behind. My parents were raised in German speaking households and schooled in their early years in German as well. In the same period that T.S. Eliot was leaving St. Louis and establishing himself in England, my mother and father’s families were quietly leaving German behind, a consequence of the war. Sometimes things are left behind because we do not want to deal with them. In 1958, I walked home from Grace School in a rage. When I got home, I wondered to my mother why I was just finding out about the internment of Japanese people on the west coast. “It was wartime”, she replied – and that was that.
A final story – and my apologies for besieging you with these personal memories, I’m hoping that it will stimulate your own. My daughter spent some time in Frankfurt, brushing up on her German for her Ph.D. in Spanish. We had all just become reacquainted with family in Germany and were fascinated to get to know them better. Anna was invited over to meet and have lunch with Emme Hiller Zeyfang, a cousin. After lunch she suggested that they look at family pictures – and there it was – Uncle so and so in his Luftwaffe uniform, and there was Cousin so and so in his Hitlerjugend outfit. Anna was stunned and didn’t comment. Much later when we discussed this I responded much as Pogo did, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
I hope that you are in a flood of memory, remembrances are proper on this day. Remembrance and Thanksgiving are proper on this day for all those who offered up themselves through what seems the constant warfare in our time. It doesn’t seem to be going away, and thus it is proper to remember, give thanks, and confess – for we have caused others ill, as they have caused us ill. I am mindful of the Confession of Sin in the liturgical materials from Enriching our Worship.
“We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.”
It is not simple having this Remembrance Sunday, for we need to remember ourselves as well. I’m going to close this section with some lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
“Fear in a handful of dust.” Often that is all that remains, but Isaiah would have us see otherwise, and Jesus would have us look elsewhere. Here is where I need to preach the Gospel to our memories, to our remembrance of those gone, to our guilt and to our despair. Isaiah bids us come up to the mountain, and not just any mountain, but the mountain that is the Lord’s abode. Why should we go there – or better – why should we come here and observe this day? Isaiah answers our question, “That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths”.Isaiah seems to challenge our despair with the hopefulness of peacemaking and life itself. And Jesus urges us to replace our dis-ease, our distrust, and our despair with love. He also reminds us what that love is built and made of. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”And there we have it as simply as it can be stated over against the whirlwind of our memory and our loss.
Perhaps we need to give thanks to God not only for the women and men who have fought for us, and kept us in freedom, but also for the women and men who have told our stories, written our songs and elegies, painted our visions, and sculpted our form. We all contribute to our story, our confession, and our song. It’s best to close with the ending line of the confession:
“Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may abide in your love and serve only your will. Amen.”
 Goldstein, B. (2017) The World Broke in Two; Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, Henry Holt and Co., New York, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid, Location 15616
 Les Alders’ article in the Albuquerque Tribune, 20 January 1994, http://www.hkhinc.com/newmexico/albuquerque/doomsday/
 Church Publishing, (1998), Enriching Our Worship 1: Morning and Evening Prayer, The Great Litany, and The Holy Eucharist, Church Publishing, New York, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 962.
 Eliot. T. (1922), The Waste Land – Classic Illustrated Edition, Heritage Illustrated Publishing, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location: 30-31.
 Isaiah 2:3b.
 John 15:12-13.
 Church Publishing, Op cit., Kindle Location 965.