Rejoice is the last word and can be spoken only after the first word. The sheltering word can be spoken only after the word that leaves us without a roof over our heads, the answering word only after the word it answers. The pressure on the preacher, of course, is to speak just the answer. The answer is what people have come to hear and what he has also come to hear, preaching always as much to himself as to anybody, to keep his spirits up. Transcendental meditation is an answer, and the Democratic party is an answer, or the Republican party, and acupuncture and acupressure are answers, and so are natural foods, yogurt, and brown rice.
Yoga is an answer and transactional analysis and jogging. The pressure on the preacher is to promote the Gospel, to sell Christ as an answer that outshines all the other answers by talking up the shining side, by calling even the day of his death Good Friday when if it was good, it was good only after it was bad, the worst of all Fridays. The pressure is to be a public relations man, and why not, only not to the neglect of private relations, the relations especially of a man with God and with God less as a presence much of the time than as an absence, an empty place where grace and peace belong.
The preacher has to be willing to speak as tragic a word as Jesus speaks, which is the word that even if all the problems that can be solved are solved—poverty, war, ignorance, injustice, disease—and even if all the answers the world can give are proved each in its own way workable, even so man labors and is heavy laden in his helplessness; poor naked wretch that bides the pelting of the storm that is no less pitiless for all the preaching of all the preachers.
When they brought Jesus to the place where his dead friend lay, Jesus wept. It is very easy to sentimentalize the scene and very tempting because to sentimentalize something is to look only at the emotion in it and at the emotion it stirs in us rather than at the reality of it, which we are always tempted not to look at because reality, truth, silence are all what we are not much good at and avoid when we can.
To sentimentalize something is to savor rather than to suffer the sadness of it, is to sigh over the prettiness of it rather than to tremble at the beauty of it, which may make fearsome demands of us or pose fearsome threats. Not just as preachers but as Christians in general we are The Gospel as Tragedy 37 particularly given to sentimentalizing our faith as much of Christian art and Christian preaching bear witness—the sermon as tearjerker, the Gospel an urn of long-stemmed roses and baby's breath to brighten up the front of the church, Jesus as Gregory Peck.
But here standing beside the dead body of his dead friend he is not Gregory Peck. He has no form or comeliness about him that we should desire him, and as one from whom men hide their faces we turn from him. To see a man weep is not a comely sight, especially this man whom we want to be stronger and braver than a man, and the impulse is to turn from him as we turn from anybody who weeps because the sight of real tears, painful and disfiguring, forces us to look to their source where we do not choose to look because where his tears come from, our tears also come from. Why does he weep? The narrative tells us that the people standing around him said that it was because he loved Lazarus, and it is not hard to believe that that was part of it.
Lazarus is the only friend the Gospels name who does not seem to have been a disciple especially but just a friend, somebody he didn't have to be the messiah with maybe but could just be himself with, somebody to have a drink with once in a while, to tell what it was like to be himself. Lazarus was his friend, and he loved him, so now that he was dead, Jesus wept—wept for his friend and wept for himself who would have to face the music from now on without his friend. That is the way that some of the ones who were there explained the tears they saw rolling down, but others implied a different explanation, and we must listen especially to them.
They said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this many from dying? If he really was the resurrection and the life, wasn't there something he could have done to keep alive this one man's life? If God was really in him, he and the Father one as he had said, wasn't there something that God could have done? Both of the dead man's sisters had said the same thing to him when he first arrived. The blunt fact of it was that he had not been there, and their brother had died. The blunt answer to the question, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?
He could not. And there was something else that was blunter still—that the God who was in him apparently could not keep the man from dying either, or if could not is not a verb that you can make God the subject of, then would not or at least did not.
The man died. Jesus wept.
And he wept not just out of love and loss, presumably, but as one acquainted with a still deeper grief, which one can imagine was grief both at his own failure to save the life of Lazarus and also at the failure in some measure of his own life and of the kingdom he preached, grief both at his own absence when Lazarus needed him and at God's absence. Later in the garden where it was his own death he had to sweat out, we are told he sweated blood. He said, "Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me" Luke , and the cup was not removed from him presumably because the Father was not willing to remove it, and one suspects that the unwillingness of the Father may have been harder for Jesus to choke down than the cup itself was.
Later it was harder still.
By the time he had been hanging there for a while, he had no tears left to weep with and no more sweat, his tongue so dry he could hardly wrap it The Gospel as Tragedy 39 around the words which are among the few he ever spoke that people remembered in the language he spoke them in probably because having once heard them, they could never forget them no matter how hard they tried, and probably they tried hard and often: " M y God, my God, why have y o u — " and then the Aramaic verb from an Arabic root meaning to run out on, leave in the lurch, to be the Hell and gone.
M y God, where the Hell are you, meaning If thou art our Father who art in Heaven, be thou also our Father who art in Hell because Hell is where the action is, where I am and the cross is. It is where the pitiless storm is. It is where men labor and are heavy laden under the burden of their own lives without you.
Where they cut themselves shaving and smoke three packs a day though they know the surgeon general's warning by heart. When the preacher climbs up into his pulpit, switches on the lectern light and spreads out his note cards like a poker hand, maybe even the vacationing sophomore who is there only because somebody dragged him there pricks up his ears for a second or two along with the rest of them because they believe that the man who is standing up there in a black gown with the little smear of styptic pencil on his chin has something that they do not have or at least not in the same way he has it because he is a professional.
He professes and stands for in public what they with varying degrees of conviction or the lack of it subscribe to mainly in private.
Then, beneath even that, it is as if his grief goes so deep that it is for the whole world that Jesus is weeping and the tragedy of the human condition, which is to live in a world where again and again God is not present, at least not in the way and to the degree that man needs him. At the frontiers of the urban: thinking concepts and practices globally — London. Follow us on Instagram - On the Grimsby Live Instagram page we like to feature great pictures from our area - and if you tag us in your posts, we could repost your picture on our page! I felt that his character deserved more and should have had alot more stories in him but his death inspired Raynel to go on. They both still have to face the darkness both of death and of life in a world where God is seen at best only from afar, through a glass darkly; but with their laughter something new breaks into their darkness, something so unexpected and preposterous and glad that they can only laugh at it in astonishment.
He has been to a seminary and studied all that one studies in a seminary. He has a degree to show for it, and beyond the degree he has his ordination and the extraordinary title of reverend, which no matter how well they know him on the golf course or the cocktail-party T E L L I N G T H E T R U T H circuit sets him apart as one to be revered not because of anything he knows or anything he is in himself but because, as an ambassador is revered for the government he represents, he is to be revered for representing Christ.
All of this deepens the silence with which they sit there waiting for him to work a miracle, and the miracle they are waiting for is that he will not just say that God is present, because they have heard it said before and it has made no great and lasting difference to them, will not just speak the word of joy, hope, comedy, because they have heard it spoken before too and have spoken it among themselves, but that he will somehow make it real to them.
They wait for him to make God real to them through the sacrament of words as God is supposed to become real in the sacrament of bread and wine, and there is no place where the preacher is more aware of his own nakedness and helplessness than here in the pulpit as he listens to the silence of their waiting. Poor, bare, forked animal in his cassock with his heart in his mouth if not yet his foot.
What can he say? What word can he speak with power enough to empower them, waiting there?
But let him take heart. He is called not to be an actor, a magician, in the pulpit.
He is called to be himself. He is called to tell the truth as he has experienced it. He is called to be human, to be human, and that is calling enough for any man. If he does not make real to them the human experience of what it is to cry into the storm and receive no answer, to be sick at heart and find no healing, then he becomes the only one there who seems not to have had that experience because most surely under their bonnets and shawls and jackets, under their afros and ponytails, all the others there have had it whether they talk of it or not.
As much as anything else, it is their experience of the absence The Gospel as Tragedy 41 of God that has brought them there in search of his presence, and if the preacher does not speak of that and to that, then he becomes like the captain of a ship who is the only one aboard who either does not know that the waves are twenty feet high and the decks awash or will not face up to it so that anything else he tries to say by way of hope and comfort and empowering becomes suspect on the basis of that one crucial ignorance or disingenuousness or cowardice or reluctance to speak in love any truths but the ones that people love to hear.
The absence of God is not just an idea to conjure with, an emptiness for the preacher to try to furnish, like a house, with chair and sofa, heat and light, to make it livable. The absence of God is just that which is not livable. It is the tears that Jesus wept over Lazarus and the sweat he sweated in the garden and the cry he choked out when his own tongue filled his mouth like a gag. The blackness of the preacher's black gown speaks of the anguish of it. The Bible he preaches out of speaks of it.
The prophets and the psalms all speak of the one who is not there when he is most needed, not to mention Noah and Abraham, Gideon, Barak, Samson and David, and the rest of them who, if they did not speak of their anguish, carried it around in their hearts and grew whiskers and wore robes and armor and ephods and stovepipe hats to help conceal it even from themselves because, as the author of Hebrews strips them and all of us bare by putting it, "They all died without having received what was promised" Heb.
He says, "Seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear" Matt.
He says, " W h y does this generation seek a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation" Matt. He says. He speaks about it, and perhaps that is much of why, although we have not followed him very well these past two thousand years or so, we have never quite been able to stop listening to him. We listen almost in spite of ourselves when he tells us the ship is sinking with all hands aboard. All of you labor and are heavy laden, he says. It is an appalling thing to tell us when we are trying so hard to pretend that it is not so, just as it is appalling to tell even the young and beautiful and full of hope that the poor naked wretches of the world are themselves.
But even as we are appalled, we listen because we know that he knows the worst as well as we do. Kilroy has been there before us. The old ones and the young one. The smart ones and the dumb ones. The lucky and the unlucky. The eggheads and potheads, the Gay Libs and Hard Hats. They all listen as they may listen even to the preacher if he will take the chance himself of being embarrassing, appalling us by exposing the nakedness of the poor naked wretches and his own nakedness. The world hides God from us, or we hide The Gospel as Tragedy 43 ourselves from God, or for reasons of his own God hides himself from us, but however you account for it, he is often more conspicuous by his absence than by his presence, and his absence is much of what we labor under and are heavy laden by.
Just as sacramental theology speaks of a doctrine of the Real Presence, maybe it should speak also of a doctrine of the Real Absence because absence can be sacramental, too, a door left open, a chamber of the heart kept ready and waiting. It is out of the whirlwind that Job first hears God say "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge" Job It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present, and it is not just the whirlwind that stands for his absence, not just the storm and chaos of the world that knocks into a cocked hat all man's attempts to find God in the world, but God is absent also from all Job's words about God, and from the words of his comforters, because they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order, as the best answer man can give to the problem of his life.
God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself.
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There is also Elijah. Jezebel, the queen, dynamites the holy places and guns down the prophets until Elijah is the only one left with no more reason to believe that God will intervene on his behalf than he did on behalf of the others. So he hides out in the wilderness, and once again there is the great storm to whose blast Elijah is as naked as the rest of them, and God is not present in the storm, not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, and it is his not being present that makes the storm unendurable or that is the T E L L I N G T H E T R U T H storm because the eye of the storm is God's eye, the stillness and emptiness at the center of the storm is the voice he speaks with, the still, small voice you have to strain to hear.
It is the same storm that Lear rages against, of course, with his "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! It is enough to drive a man mad as Lear and the prophets were all mad. Both the inner world and the outer world are threatened beyond enduring.
There would be a strong argument for saying that much of the most powerful preaching of our time is the preaching of the poets, playwrights, novelists because it is often they better than the rest of us who speak with awful honesty about the absence of God in the world and about the storm of his absence, both without and within, which, because it is unendurable, unlivable, drives us to look to the eye of the storm.
I think of King Lear especially with its tragic vision of a world in which the good and the bad alike go down to dusty and, it would seem, equally meaningless death with no God to intervene on their behalf, and yet with its vision of a world in which the naked and helpless ones, the victims and fools, become at least truly alive before they die and thus touch however briefly on something that lies beyond the power of death.
It is the worldly ones, the ones wise as the world understands wisdom and strong in the way the world understands strength, who are utterly doomed. This is so much the central paradox of Lear that the whole play can be read as a gloss if not a homily on that passage in First Corinthians where Paul expresses the same paradox in almost the same terms by writing, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to The Gospel as Tragedy 45 bring to nothing things that are" 1 Cor. I think of Dostoevski in The Brothers Karamazov when the body of Alyosha's beloved Father Zossima begins to stink in death instead of giving off fragrance as the dead body of a saint is supposed to, and at the very moment where Alyosha sees the world most abandoned by God, he suddenly finds the world so aflame with God that he rushes out of the chapel where the body lies and kisses the earth as the shaggy face of the world where God, in spite of and in the midst of everything, is.
I think of Herman Melville's Moby Dick where in his sermon on the Book of Jonah Father Mapple charges all preachers not to shrink from facing for themselves and proclaiming the dark side of truth as Alyosha was forced by the stench of death to face it by saying: Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty.