Taking a break from the podcasts that I had lined up to make the long drive from Abilene to Tennessee to see my family for my first Christmas break from the GST, I keyed into a local radio station, but rather than some popular song that I immediately recognized, the voice coming through the speakers was shaky. Shaky not with a lack of confidence, but one of confusion and full of stunned fear and anger. I don’t remember the exact words of the small-town-DJ-turned-national-news reporter, but I remember the experience of hearing that 20 first grade children had been shot, as well as several teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. With the constant flow of news and information that comes into our lives, it is not often that we are entirely surprised by horrific news, but on that stretch of Interstate 40, I was stunned. My little white car filled with fear and a painful sense of isolation as I grasped for what words I might utter in prayer to God in the face of such horrific violence. At the time, my tearful silence was my prayer, and as school shootings have continued to happen at an alarming rate, I have developed a rhythm of prayer that I pray after any such event.
In fact, I keep one of my ribbon bookmarks set to page 492 in the Book of Common Prayer, because it is there, near the beginning of our burial rite that I find the only words that I can bare to utter to God in the face of such violence and evil, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death”. It is only these words that give any testament to the truth of the hope of the resurrection that I believe to be true after another mass shooting, or after another Black life is taken in police violence, or after another unfathomable natural disaster. It is only these words that give rise to the light that I believe is always present; in no small part these words begin to shape my prayer because they firmly plant themselves in the midst of our shared overwhelming grief.
This has become the rhythm of my prayer because it reminds me of the hope of the resurrection, which seems most present in my life when I have commended into the next world the body of a sibling in Christ, or the as the Burial liturgy continues, “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” Perhaps the hope of resurrection seems more present in these thin moments because it is here, in our unmeasurable, unfathomable grief that we stand in the presence of death. The hope of the resurrection is always true and is always present, but it is so important to remember that when we think about how this hope might guide us in this world that the unrelenting hope of the resurrection really only exists in the presence of death. Death is the only place where the resurrection is needed; Easter morning never comes without Good Friday.
This might be easy to remember in the weary walk of Holy Week, but in the middle of September as the trio of a global pandemic, the long-overdue national reckoning with systemic racism, and as the upcoming election rages across our screens? It can be hard to remember that it is in death that the fullness of the resurrection, and all of the hope therein, it is only in death that this is most fully felt. As a priest, I get to experience this at every funeral in which I preside, but equally powerful is when our hearts are drawn to the ways in which death in present in our everyday lives as well.
Because for me, the refrain of “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death” is less about deliverance from eternal damnation, and more about deliverance from the deep darkness of despair that I have felt after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The refrain has hit after Sandy Hook and the Pulse nightclub, and other unspeakable tragedies. The refrain has come to mind when people I love rail into each other because of their political posts and opinions. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death. Deliver us not.
Because while that thin space between this world and the next is always something of which to be mindful, it is equally important to remember that the wages of sin is death. It’s these sins that fill our lives that cause lots of little deaths; death of hope, death of compassion, death of kindness that threaten to pull us into the bitterness of eternal death. The whirlpool of the bitterness of eternal death is so powerful, and as the beginning of this prayer from our burial liturgy begins, “in the midst of life we are in death.” It is so significant that in the wake of its power, it can be difficult to remember that the only thing more powerful that the ebb and flow of the despair of sin is the hope of the resurrection.
Throughout my short vocational ministry, the amount of times that I have had the pleasure and the pain of reminding members of God’s church that sin is present, that sin is part of our lives and is foundational in these deaths that threaten to pull us into the bitterness of eternal death has been more abundant than I could have possibly imagined. And it’s been this thread, this refrain, this prayer from our burial liturgy that has held it all together. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior. This prayer has been the foundation because it helps me to stand in the unfathomable grief over how we treat each other and the world and ourselves, yet calls me to the hope of something greater.
It is very hard to be a person these days and not let the despair creep in; there is so much to grieve in our world. And it doesn’t take a long look at our society to the ways in which sin is always at play; from denigrating our fellow humans to God’s creation to the exploitation of those who are oppressed. And our prayers can, and should, range from celebrating and delighting in the gifts that God has given us and all the ways in which we are privileged enough to follow God’s calling upon our lives to confessing and repenting of our collective and individual sins. But I know that in seasons like the one that we are currently in, I am eternally grateful for prayers like this one from our Burial rite that gives language to the pain of our current reality, yet refuses to let us stay there. Because it is only unrelenting hope of the resurrection of the Holy God, of the Holy and Mighty, of the Holy and merciful Savior that will deliver us from the bitterness of eternal death. Amen.
A sermon delivered to the Graduate Chapel at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, TX via Zoom on September 23, 2020.