I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger. JOB 19
How many times have I spoken these words as I walked the main aisle of various churches at many different Burials of the blessed Dead. How many times have I watched that peace which passeth understanding rest upon a grieving family as this godly assurance is announced. How many times have I whispered these words to myself both at moments when my cup runneth over as well as those when the well springs are dry as a bone. And how many hundreds of times I have seen God's miracle of redemption accomplished among men and women like you and me: God bringing good out of evil, light out of darkness, joy out of suffering, and life out of death. I know that my Redeemer liveth, and I suspect many of you do as well, notwithstanding the times and the seasons in every and all life when you and I pause and wonder and even question God's ability to accomplish what God promises. I am one who is acutely aware that today is the two-month anniversary of the horrendous attack and ensuing calamity that occurred only two hundred yards from where we gather today; and I am also one who is watching and eagerly waiting for God to work out his redemptive purpose among us -- knowing that such is a process, and never an event: a process requiring time, patience, and a rather huge amount of quiet and reflective prayer.
Nine years ago this weekend as rector of a parish in Houston -- on a Friday November 13th -- I was preparing an adult Sunday school lesson on the subject of prayer, and I was reading one of the finest books I've seen written on the subject: Richard Foster's “Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home”. I was furiously jotting down notes and quips because I had a 5:30 engagement in which I was expected to host a dinner party for 75 of my fellow seminary alumni and their spouses and friends. Right before I walked out the door I made note of the following quotation of Foster, words which turned out to be not only consolation for the moment but prognostication for events which were about to occur: By the authority of almighty God I tear down Satan's strongholds in my life, in the lives of those I love, and in the society in which I live. I take into myself the weapons of truth, righteousness, peace, salvation, the word of God, and prayer. I command every evil influence to leave; I allow evil no point of entry. And I ask for an increase of faith, hope and love so that, by the power of God, I can be a light set on a hill, causing truth and justice to flourish.
So then off to the parish hall then for an evening of education and fellowship with Texans who were alumni and friends of my alma mater, the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. About 7:30 p.m. I happened to answer an unexpected ring of the church phone and was jolted by troublesome words on the other end: "Is this the Rector? Please, please come quickly to the Coulson home on Westview Drive. Their house is one fire, and there may have been foul play, and someone may have died in the fire. You are their friend and rector, please come." Arriving at the house a few minutes later amid news cameras, squad cars, fire trucks, and ambulances, I walked under the police cordon and went directly to the detective in charge. I told him I was the Coulson family's friend and priest, and that if there were any deaths involved in this fire, I was duty bound to enter the home and to offer the final prayers of the Church. He told me that as a police professional in the city of Houston, this was one of the worst situations he had witnessed in 25 years on the force. He then ushered me into a scene that can only be described in terms of what we have witnessing over here at Ground Zero, i.e. another room from hell's pit -- this one replete with not one but five bodies, my friends, my parishioners, all burned beyond recognition: a mother, a father, a daughter and her husband, and another daughter, pregnant, not too far from giving birth. And not only their bodies but the smoking remains of what had been a warm and wonderful and loving home; intense heat, the acrid smell we New Yorkers all know well, and the tell-tale marks of evil we all know only too well. In the middle of that rubble, along with the police detective and a policewoman, I visited each body, knelt and prayed at each one, and commended them to God's abundant love and eternal safekeeping.
I walked away from the holocaust on that awful Friday evening with shaking hands and buckling knees, a mixture of anger and grief, and many verses of Scripture, lines from hymns, and phrases from the Prayer Book -- soul food that floods the mind and encourages the heart when the sky falls and the rug is pulled from beneath. Of course from the Book of Job came these words: "I know that my Redeemer liveth; and that He shall stand on the latter day upon this earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger." From the Prayer Book: "Into paradise may the angels lead thee; and at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem." From the Burial Office: "O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible for the shortness and uncertainty of life..." while we still have time, while we still have each other, while we still can do something about it. You and I know well that the spiritual nourishment pouring forth from the Church's vast reservoir is inestimable at times like these when we are desperate for a word of assurance and strength and comfort.
Looking ahead just a bit, I am intrigued by Jesus' promise as outlined in next Sunday's Gospel lesson -- a message to those who follow in his steps during times of persecution and suffering. He says, But not a hair of your head will perish. Our Lord's words notwithstanding, not one hair was to be seen among the remains in the scene I witnessed. The heads of these dear people were completely singed away, and I had an extremely difficult time believing and comprehending what I was seeing. Because of all the families in this world, I couldn't imagine such a thing happening to this particular family: these were bastions of the church, backbones of the congregation, people who were there every time the door opened with warm hearts and willing hands, indeed the kind of people rectors want there every time the door opens. This was a family who devoted themselves to all the things that I value as right and good and honorable and godly. But here in such an unlikely place, among totally unsuspecting people, the unimaginable occurred -- and their violent deaths really shook me to my core; and not only me, but more than a few others. Of course this was Job's plight. Job was also a man who was said to be "blameless and upright." A man "who feared God and shunned evil" and as unlikely as is imaginable every single aspect of his life eventually collapsed in a dreadful series of horrors, and all was lost. There were undoubtedly more than a few of his friends who could not imagine such a thing, could not comprehend what in the world could have happened to this man, this bastion of righteousness, this man who lived every bit the right way. Needless to say, there are times -- don't you and I know it for sure -- when everything collapses, and we have nothing left to hang on to but God himself. All our theology and all of our experience are simply insufficient to understand and explain what is insoluble and inexplicable. While such is needless to say to people of faith, we still can say, in fact we must say on occasions such as theses: I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
The mass funeral for these murdered victims and former parishioners of mine occurred on the Monday following, nine years ago tomorrow as my memory is eager to remind me. There were over one thousand people present at the funeral, many television cameras from local television stations and even one from ABC, and of course a great outpouring of grief and bewilderment. The night before the funeral I received a call from the police, telling me that a murder suspect had been tagged, and that I should be on alert because he was a member of my congregation. Even though though they didn't tell me for sure, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt where suspicions were focused. The fear I felt at that moment was so paralyzing that I could hardly hear what he was saying to me. And it so frightened me, I chose not even to tell my wife. The police told me that the murderer would be at the funeral and that plain-clothed, armed agents would be spread throughout the congregation in case there was any indication of incident. During the funeral I managed to lead the worship and do it well, all the while keeping a close watch on the murder suspect and his behavior. When he came to the altar rail for holy communion, I thought about the Church as a a living embodiment of symbol -- that which coheres and brings together; and then about him as a living reminder of the diabol -- that which tears apart and rips asunder. The murderer happened to be the oldest child of the family, the son, the brother, the brother-in-law, a young man who had been active throughout his youth in that congregation. I recall asking myself the same sort of silly questions that have arisen in me these pasts two months of soul struggle: aren't we supposed to be impervious to these kinds of atrocities? Aren't you and I, in these middle class communities where we live, immune to demonic forces such as these? Isn't there something we can do to insure that harm's way doesn't intersect with our way? And isn't this the kind of thing that happens to other people, everywhere else -- over there somewhere -- and very and far from here?
On the Sunday following the deaths, I preached impassionedly about the event, and I urged the congregation to stay very close to one another, as only a Christian community can do when the chips are down and the fever of life is at high pitch. I said to them, as I will say to you this morning, it is extremely important in this new phase of American life that we break through the denial that oppresses us and shields us from truth; that we come to terms as squarely as we can with the notion that we are called upon to battle with enormously dark powers and principalities who will try to do their worst, most especially in those places where the presence and love of God is the strongest. But we need also recognize (as we have certainly been doing in this church house!) that nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord: Neither height, nor depth, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come... nothing in all creation can separate us, keep us away from, alienate us from the suffering Love of God made abundantly clear and available in our crucified Lord Jesus.
"I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand upon the earth, and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger, an alien, an outsider." Job lived through his own personal hell and for him to make such a statement there must have been that peace which passes understanding in his heart as he witnessed God transforming the very worst forms of suffering into instruments of peace, vehicles of grace, and channels of love. That's the nature of redemption; that is what God does. I share this Houston memory with you today because it is an important anniversary of something that happened to me nine years ago -- something that has changed my life in dramatic ways; and because today is an anniversary of something that happened to all of us just two months ago; and because today is Veteran's Day -- a day in which we remember those fellow-countrymen and women who made no peace with oppression; and because today I want all of us to live in a state of preparedness for whatever life might bring us -- to be gifted with the peace that comes through faith, especially at those moments when the sky falls, and dark clouds chase us down the streets, and we find ourselves just a cat's whisker away from meeting our Maker. At times you and I have become so frighteningly callous, if not downright lazy, about the basics of spiritual living -- saying our prayers, reading the Scripture, breaking bread as community on Sunday morning, fellowshipping with each other. At times we have become so slothfully indifferent toward evil and its monstrous power to harm and destroy the things and the people we love. At times our religion has become domesticated and tame, our spirituality vapid and empty, our church just one more commodity in a buyer's market of techniques and gimmicks designed to help us feel better. These atrocities, and all atrocities, if they contain the seeds of redemption and if they "work for the good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose", will shake us back to our senses, drive us to our knees in supplication, break through the denial that keeps truth at bay, and bring us face to face with the Redeemer whose work is bringing good out of evil, life out of death, joy out of suffering.
I end this sermon with a prayer from our Burial liturgy -- a prayer I always use at the funerals where I officiate. I use it because it sharpens awareness, provides solace, and places us squarely in God's good and loving hands both on this side of the veil and in that life which is to come. Of all the prayers in our tradition, this one reverberates with an urgency that should shake all of us to action:
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord." (BCP, p. 489)
This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist at Trinity Church on November 11, 2001. Dr. Hoke is Executive Assistant to the Rector of Trinity Parish.
Posted November 17, 2001