Sunday, April 8, 2012

Homily for Good Friday (that I didn't preach)

This was my first attempt at a Good Friday sermon this Holy Week. I trashed it and wrote another. It makes a better blog post than it would have made a sermon.


William Hamilton, theologian, died at the end of February of this year. Hamilton was featured prominently in a 1966 article in Time Magazine. The headline read: “God is Dead.” Reading Hamilton’s obituary, I thought about Friedrich Nietzsche’s Madman as he steps into the market-place and shouts:

“I seek God! I seek God!...Where is God gone?...I mean to tell you! We have killed him,--you and I! We are all his murderers! We are all his murders! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?...Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?--for even gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him. How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife--who will wipe the blood from us?...What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God.”2

Good Fridays invariably turn my thoughts to the death of God. This service, has always felt for me, like a memorial service or a funeral service; as if we have gathered to pay our last respects. I am never really sure if I am preaching a sermon or a eulogy? If I was reading God’s obituary (rather than Hamilton’s), I wonder what it would say. Perhaps it would begin: “The deceased had no universally recognized survivors. His age is also unknown, but he was certainly very old--even ancient. He was known by various names--Allah, Yahweh, Bhagavan, Great Spirit, Ground of all being, Higher Power.”
Most of those whom I know, however, called him God. I say “he and him,” but some of his names and titles were feminine, so even the gender of the deceased is a bit sketchy. The cause of death is also ambiguous, but the most often cited possibility?--a modern form of crucifixion--called scientific objectivity. Recently, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, one and all; had confirmed God’s demise.

His terminal illness was, perhaps, first observed by a physician named Nietzsche, Dr. Friedrich Nietzsche. After first reading Dr. Nietzsche’s prognosis, I had hoped that Dr. Nietzsche was wrong. At times I was encouraged by other physicians--like Dr. Barth, and Dr. Buber. But, Dr. William Hamilton, now himself deceased, assured me that there was no hope for his recovery and that I should prepare for his passing.3 Some (like Dr. Hitchens, Dr. Dawkins, Dr. Dennett, and Dr. Harris) supposed his death was very late in coming.
When, back in 1966, Hamilton pronounced the time of death, many felt that a mistake had been made--some error in the reporting. When reading of Hamilton’s death a few weeks ago, I broke out my scrapbook, and looked at the yellowing headline: “God is Dead.”

I close my eyes and I try to imagine the funeral. I picture myself graveside. The crowd would be small, many would believe the announcement was inaccurate. But, in my mind’s eye, I am there at the graveside. I see the casket. I see the hole--deep and dark. I hear the sobs, mine included, of the small congregation gathered to pay our last respects. I hear the clicks of the rig lowering the coffin into the ground. I feel it hit solid ground. I heard the jangle of the chains pulled from around the casket. I see the shovels, full of dirt, one after another, cover the coffin and fill the hole. I am handed a shovel and I do my share.
When the gravediggers and I heap up a mound of earth on top and cover the mound with sod, I know I should go. Most didn’t stay as long as I have, there by the graveside, but I just couldn’t leave until the very end. I wipe my eyes, one more time, with the handkerchief I hold in my hand, then I fold it and place it in my pocket.

I know that, way back in 1966, Hamilton said that I now live in a post-God world, a world of “humanity come of age.” I know that you and I must work out for ourselves exactly how we will face such a world. But, I must warn you, as one who has been at this for a bit, that just as surely as I am thrown into a state of contemplation upon the death of God each Good Friday--I have, as the years have passed, second thoughts--reservations--as well.

I admit to you that I am haunted by a question: “Could we have buried, instead of God, someone else?” I have this reservation because, you see, nothing changed and I thought I when God died everything should change. Dawkins and Hitchens and company assure me that everything should change. But, I detect no changes.
For instance, I do not feel differently; and I wonder if something must be felt for it to be real. I was raised by Baptists, who were (more often than not) quite certain of God’s presence in their lives and equally certain of their personal awareness of God’s presence. You would think, therefore, that with the passing of God, I would feel different. I don’t. I feel the same in God’s death as I did in his life.

At the time of the death, I remember Billy Graham, now himself deceased, being quoted as saying that the news of God’s death was a surprise to him--he had just spoken with him that morning. Dr. Graham was sure the report of God’s demise was mistaken. He took the lack of change in the way he felt as proof that God had not died. I, however, thought about Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, who talks at length with his dead mother. A mother I might add, that Norman, himself, had killed. Madman, indeed.

Does the fact that I presently do not hear the wave lengths of WHAS or WFPL mean that their transmission has ceased? If those attending the Lady Gaga concert fail to fully appreciate Beethoven’s Ninth, does it mean that great music is diminished? If I fail to appreciate the beauty of a rose, has the rose lost some of its beauty? Does my experience of something or failure to experience something establish either its existence or its non-existence? I ask this because, I suspect that it may mean that the God we buried may or may not be God because I do or do not feel his presence.

Dr. Graham, way back when, was certain--but I am full of uncertainty. Must one be certain? I find myself with a searching doubt, looking to believe.

Likewise, the fact that I don’t feel blessed assurance--may not mean that God is dead. We could have buried either a live God or a dead impostor--and I wouldn’t know or feel the difference.
Further, amongst my “second thoughts” is the gnawing suspicion that God’s absence might just be God’s presence. Again, I feel the same as before. And I am told that I should feel different. I have heard people sing of talking with him and walking with him and telling him they were his own.

After being at God’s graveside--I am now wondering why I ever thought God was that kind of god. Such a god sounds more like my need for a prop to a sagging spirit, a shoulder on which to cry, a projection of personal fear--not the Absolute, the Ground of All Being, the Ultimate Reality.
On this day, of all days, I cannot help but think about the words of the man, who according to two of his biographers, said in his dying gasp on a Roman cross, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” To him, God’s absence was his personal “My”--a curious kind of presence.

Job said, “When I go forward, God is not there; backward, and I cannot perceive him; when on the left I seek him, I cannot find him, when I turn to the right, I cannot see him.” Job complained: “God passes me by, and I see him not; he moves on; I do not perceive him.” Maybe Isaiah was right, maybe God really is “a God who hidest thy self.”

So, you can see why I am having second thoughts, why I am wondering if God’s absence proves God’s death. Perhaps, God’s character, God’s nature is God’s absence. If so, to identify his absence with his passing would be a terrible error.
You see, each and every Good Friday, I am forced to re-think the basic nature of faith in God. From childhood I was taught that God’s existence was a foregone conclusion which no one with any degree of intelligence and respectability would question. Faith in God meant, then, mere acceptance of an established sociological fact. Faith was an intellectual assent to a fait accompli. Faith was the easy opening of the heart to that which was pressing for entrance from every side.

Again, I struggle. Faith for me was never that easy. And again, I don’t feel any different in this regard since God’s death. And if God’s presence is his absence, then faith in God may be a radical leap into an unknown, not an easy and simple acceptance.
Again, I recall the words of the man from Nazareth. He said to his disciples, who had demanded tangible evidence for faith, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Could it be that genuine faith believes in spite of a lack of evidence? Perhaps faith is swimming in a sea of doubt. Perhaps faith is not the absence of doubt but rather its absorption. Perhaps genuine faith is only possible after God has died, when God is no longer pressing in on me, perhaps then, and only then, can I exercise faith. Perhaps for there to be an Easter, there must be a Good Friday.

This is not, I remind you, my first Good Friday. I have been here before. I know how the story ends--and its ending is disturbing. In a few days we will be recalling the the story of two despondent men, returning to their hometown of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, discussing the death and burial of a man from Nazareth. Their hope had died with him. But before they reached their home to begin living in this hopeless world, ruled by cruelty and intrigue, the man whose death they had been discussing mysteriously began to walk and talk with them, later even ate with them. They became firmly convinced, so much so that they immediately carried the news back to Jerusalem that this dead man was not dead after all.

The story is unsettling for me on Good Friday. For I wonder, even if I did bury the real God--and I don’t know whether I did or not--I wonder if God is gone forever.

On Good Fridays (and a few other days) I can clearly hear the howling of the strong wind, bending over the trees and roaring “God is dead.” But, but, I also hear the faint hum of a tiny insect, buzzing around my ear, exclaiming “He’ll be back.”


1 Karen Joines, my college Hebrew, Archaeology, and Old Testament professor, once preached a sermon called “Thoughts on the Death of God.” This sermon is a homage to his. His sermon was preached in the context of the “Death of God’ theology of the 1960’s. Mine, obviously, has a different context and a different audience in mind.

2 The Gay Science (German: Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), section 108 (New Struggles), in section 125 (The Madman), and for a third time in section 343 (The Meaning of our Cheerfulness). It is also found in Nietzsche's classic work Thus Spake Zarathustra (Deutsch: Also sprach Zarathustra), which is most responsible for popularizing the phrase.

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