Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Homily: Tuesday in the Fifth Week of Easter [April 22, 2008]

Last Thursday night, in the Shakespeare class I teach this semester, we discussed the great tragedy, King Lear. As is true of many of Shakespeare’s plays, Lear is a tragedy which has been read and performed differently by every generation of critics and directors. The play ends, of course, with both Lear and his one faithful daughter Cordelia dead on the stage. You expect a tragic hero to die, but the Christ-like Cordelia’s death always strikes us as almost unbearably painful. In the Restoration period, Nahum Tate rewrote the play to give it a happy ending: Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar and Cordelia marry and live happily ever after. Tate’s ending dominated the stage until the twentieth century, when King Lear’s deeply tragic worldview appealed again to an audience which had experienced two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb.
Those of you who read Frederick Buechner’s books know that he has a lot to say about the theological power and significance of King Lear. What struck us in the class the other night was something that builds on what Buechner has to say about Lear in a recent book, Speak What We Feel. And that is that the play holds up, toward the end, a radically double vision of life and its possibilities. A gentleman, describing Cordelia’s reactions to news about her father, compares the appearance of her face to “Sunshine and rain at once”. And later on, when Edgar describes his father Gloucester’s death, he says that his “flaw’d heart” “'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, /Burst smilingly.” “Sunshine and rain at once.” “Two extremes of passion, joy and grief.” The sun can shine while it rains. We can feel joy and grief at the same moment. Two things can be true at once.
I suppose that we all know that sunshine and rain, joy and grief can coexist in one person, thought, or moment. What I took away last Thursday, though, had more to do with what we here at Seabury are now experiencing as a faith community. Today, I am meeting with every member of the staff, delivering the hard news to many of them that they won’t have a job here after the school year ends. On Thursday, the board will meet and make some hard decisions about Seabury’s finances and the faculty’s tenure. These are grievous and painful moments, and there is not any reassurance or cliché or bromide that will make them better. So believe me: there is plenty of rain and grief to go around. And yet--
And yet I have seen, over the past several weeks something else—something Shakespeare might call sunshine or joy—at work around here. I’ve seen it in the way the people most at risk and most directly affected by these decisions have been present to each other. I’ve seen it in the spirit of openness, compassion, and support which I have heard expressed toward me as the bearer of this bad news and on behalf of all those whose lives and careers are undergoing such profound upheaval. If I never understood it before, I get it now that sunshine and rain, joy and grief, can both inhabit the same space and experience at the same time. What Seabury is going through is sad beyond belief. And the ways in which people in this community are holding each other up restores whatever part of my faith in human beings I had lost earlier in these months of struggle.
And that, I believe, is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” [John 14.27] What John’s Jesus calls “the world” does not understand “Sunshine and rain at once” or “Two extremes of passion, joy and grief.” The world of John’s Jesus is a happiness world, a world which wants things to be single, crisp, and clean. That world is the world of the binary opposition, the radical dichotomy, of theological dualism. It’s either on/off, dark/light, good/bad, life/death.
But what John’s Jesus calls “the world” does not ever deal quite honestly what you and I and Jesus know about the world as it is. And the world as it is continues to mix what we call opposites in an ongoing flow that produces life in all of its inextricable wonder and weirdness. That is why Jesus can say that he gives us peace not as the world gives. The peace that Jesus gives us is a peace which passes understanding precisely because it is peace that stands at the intersection of joy and pain. The cross is central to our understanding of God because two things can be true at once: love/ hate, death/ life, sorrow/ joy all inhabit the same space and make up what it means to be alive. And a Christian person is one who experiences the peace that Jesus talks about in all the richness of its contradictions ambiguities. That peace is neither ignorance nor apathy. It comes only as one engages life in all of its complicated doubleness.
As Bonnie Perry said to me about all of this last week, “It really sucks!” It really sucks that good people are losing their jobs. It really sucks that a place animated by a 150-year tradition of faith and excellence and scholarship and ministry is having to re-think and reorganize itself because of the current financial realities of theological education and the Episcopal Church. There may be sunshine in this rainstorm, and there is abundant joy amidst all this grief. But before I can see the sun or experience the joy, I need to live into the depth of what losing these people and this place is finally all about.

By the end of King Lear, Edgar we have lived through three hours of horrible human treachery combined with unimaginable human grace. At the very close of the play, Edgar (the betrayed yet faithful son who masqueraded as Poor Tom and sacrificially accompanied his father Gloucester after he was blinded) moves to the center of the stage and says these surprisingly modern lines about all of the tragic yet joyous doubleness that has transpired on the stage:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

I doubt if William Shakespeare ever did CPE, but he knew something about human beings and our need to be present to how what is happening actually affects us. The lamenting speaker of the Psalms knew that. Job knew that. Jesus knows that. There will be time to talk of Seabury’s future as it begins to unfold. But right now: it really sucks. It is not only o.k. to feel that. It is o.k. to say it.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Amen.

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