Last week was the funeral of a young man in our parish who died unexpectedly and tragically at 26. This reflection is addressed to his parents and brothers, and the very large crowd of young people, friends, family and congregation members that knew and loved him. The texts the family had chosen are Isaiah 40:28-31 (They will mount up on wings like eagles), Psalm 23 (The LORD is my shepherd), 1 Peter 1:3-9 (He has given us a new birth into a living hope), and John 14:1-6 (In my Father’s house are many rooms). I wrote a reflection on that day at my blog of more or less daily reflections: “Watching for the Morning”.
Rick and Elizabeth, Grant and Reed, you know our hearts break for you and for Cameron. This is a tragedy with no end to the emotions we feel.
I love the texts you have chosen. They are full of hope and promise. They speak the promise that God will not abandon us. They remind us that God is able to supply all our needs, that God has an “estate” large enough to welcome a world full of life’s refugees. They confide that God is with us to lead us through these dark valleys, and that the Lord God, creator of all, lifts up the weary and gives power to the faint.
They are great and comforting texts. But the text I want to read is from the book of Lamentations. It is a great cry of pain and sorrow and anger and regret, with accusations at God and painful, painful questions.
Or I want to read that great cry of despair from Psalm 130. “Out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord. Lord hear my voice. Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.”
There are lots of psalms in the scriptures that are like our psalm today: confidant expressions of God’s goodness. But there are others that are vivid cries of pain – and some, full of rage against the sorrows of the world.
And then there are those words like those of Job. Job who has lost everything: his sons and daughters, his flocks and fields, his own health. He is left sitting in dust and ashes, scraping the sores on his body with a shard of broken pottery. For seven days his friends come and sit with him in the dust. It is one of the most moving gestures in the scriptures. They come and sit in silence with him.
But then they open their darn mouths. Then they start giving him pat religious answers, trite words that try to compress his suffering into simplistic and conventional pieties.
But Job will have none of it. He fights off his friends, and cries out against heaven, demanding that God come and give him and answer.
But there is no answer.
God does come. In the end, God comes. And God speaks to him out of the whirlwind, that swirling mass of dust and cloud that carried Elijah to the heavens in the chariots of fire.
God comes to Job, but God doesn’t explain anything. God doesn’t say why. God offers no answer to life’s sorrows. God doesn’t promise things will get better. God certainly doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, all your children are with me in heaven.” God simply confronts Job with the mystery.
Job would question God, but in the end is it God who questions Job:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5Who determined its measurements – surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
8“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
9when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
11and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
It is beautiful poetry – but it is a kind of pounding, relentless reminder that God is God and we are not.
Have you given orders to the morning
or show the dawn its place? …
31“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
or loose the cords of Orion? …
“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer? …
19“Do you give the horse its might? …
“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings toward the south? …
27Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes its nest on high? …
And in the end Job can only acknowledge he does not know.
There are no answers. There is only the pain of our grief and all the complicated emotions it brings. There is only the great mystery of God, the unfathomable mystery of that hidden power and presence that lies at the heart of all things.
There is a great allure in the cheap and easy answers. But they do not satisfy. They bring no comfort to the soul. They can cover over our grief, but they cannot heal it. They can mask our sorrow, but not bear it away. It is better to stand before the mystery. We cannot comprehend the sea. We cannot comprehend the stars. We cannot comprehend the mystery of the eternal.
But there is something in Jesus that we do not find in the book of Job. This child of Mary who is the incarnation of God’s message to us – this Jesus who is the human face of God, the living presence of the eternal – this Jesus who heals the sick and frees the bound and announces the dawning reign of God – this Jesus is God come to us, the mystery of the universe sitting with us in the dust.
He is the friend Job’s friends could not be. He is the friend who does not give cheap answers, but simply calls us into the mystery of loving one another.
In Cameron’s death, we still have the choice whether to turn inward in our grief, or to love one another. In every sorrow, in every tragedy, in every moment of life we have the choice to turn inward or to be called outward into compassion, kindness, mercy, justice, truth and love.
God doesn’t give us any answers, but God is not silent. God speaks a word of eternal peace and calls us to live his peace. God speaks a word of love and calls us into love.
But there is more to the mystery of God than the majesty that Job cannot comprehend, or the eternal love that is manifest in Jesus. The eternal heart of the universe comes to us in this Jesus of Nazareth. And then this incarnation of the voice of God, this human face of the divine, is arrested, tortured, and slain.
But death does not conquer him. The grave cannot hold him.
Whatever else that Jesus’ tragic death means, it means this: that God has shared our sorrow. He has shouldered all the tragedy and grief and conflict of our troubled and torn human existence. He has tasted life’s bitter tears. He has known betrayal. He has known grief. He has cried out those famous words of the psalm “Eloi, eloi, lema sabbacthani”: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.”
And he has known death. He has gone down to the realm of the dead, that yawning maw of the grave that awaits us all.
And then he came back.
He came back. Or, more accurately, he was brought back. God reached into the realm of the dead and dragged him back into the realm of the living. Only it wasn’t really back into the realm of the living – it wasn’t like Jesus raising Lazarus who would some day face death again – God dragged Jesus forward into the realm of perfect life.
Whatever that means, it means certainly this: that God reigns even over death. Our enemy has no final power to separate us from the life God intends for us and for all creation.
I have to tell you, I like that image of God dragging Cameron into the realm of perfect life. I remember Cameron’s provocative, challenging, questioning, sometimes defiant, attitude in catechism. I suspect he won’t go gracefully into the light. But God will drag him there. Into that life that the prophets can only describe in language like swords being beaten into plowshares and the lion lying down with the lamb. The life that the book of Revelation describes as a glorious city with gates that never need close – for there is no longer any enemy to fear – in a realm that needs no sun because God shines in the midst of her, and a city that needs no temple, because God dwells with us.
There are no simple pious answers. There is only the mystery of God who created the universe. The mystery of a God who shares completely our sorrows. And the mystery of God’s determination to drag us all into a true and enduring and transformative life where every wound is healed and every life made whole.
So here we are this morning, before the mystery of the whirlwind. But we have seen the chariots of fire. We have seen the promise of life. And in that promise we put our trust.