Before I became Catholic, I was a Presbyterian, and before that, a Baptist. But after 40 years, I grew tired of Protestants, tired of their protesting, tired of their reforming, tired of myself and my own small wit trying to make the whole conflagration cool enough for the privilege of my presence. So I gave up and turned to the Mother Church where I now sit in the pew, kneel at the altar, eat the body, drink the blood, confess my sins twice a year and call it good. I can’t make the Church better with my lying, cheating self, so I hope to be made better by Her. So far, I’m not sure it’s working.
One of the things I grew to loathe about Protestant churches is the sermon. A 30, 40 sometimes 60 minute long exercise in self-important blathering on the part of someone who thinks his thoughts are original because he went to seminary. Catholic priests don’t really preach. They give a homily that, even if they’re long-winded, lasts 10 minutes. Then it’s on to the main thing. The Supper. The Last One. Every mass is a recounting of those three crucial days we Christians celebrate big at Easter time – A little dinner with friends, a little death by frenemies, a little taste of the glorious resurrection. Afterward it’s a bottle of wine and a Sunday ham, and we’re off to Monday to start it all over again. Frankly, this is why I like being Catholic. Just get to it, you know? Keep it moving. Life is short and donuts are waiting on the patio.
One sermon, though, before my Catholic conversion, almost permanently secured my spot in the protestant pews of Church-dom. It was the best sermon I ever heard.
It is January 2005, maybe a week after the Indian Ocean tsunami that wiped out more than 250,000 people at once. Everyone everywhere is undone, and all the big questions are colliding in everyone’s heads like plastic bottles in a furious, littered sea. How could this happen? How could God let it? Did God let it? Is God powerless to stop it? Is there a God at all, because if there is, he clearly lost his nerve some time before the turn of the 21st century or he surely would’ve prevented it, right? When questions with no answers like these get bandied about, sooner or later someone gets blamed – usually George W. Bush. But the fine churchgoers at Bel Air Presbyterian aren’t big on Bush bashing, and they haven’t as yet concluded that there is no God. They do wonder in earnest, however, how their loving, peaceful Deity could allow to happen such a horrific thing, with such horrific death on such a horrific scale.
“Why?” is the question on everyone’s mind as they await the beloved Protestant sermon from their beloved Protestant pastor. Though a visitor here, I want an answer too, as I’m no longer inclined to blame Bush for the world’s woes, yet not cynical enough to conclude there is no God. “Why?” indeed.
Pastor Brewer reads from Luke 3, a New Testament scripture quite unpopular amongst warm fuzzy Christians. To paraphrase: Some folks are inquiring after Jesus as to why a group of regular ol’ people minding their own business sweeping their dirt floors just got rounded up and pounded to death. An appropriate scripture for the day, I’m thinking. The people asking the question in this passage are religious and expect to hear Jesus say something like “Well, they were taken out because they have offended God! They’re getting what they deserve! They’re paying for their sins! But Jesus answers with just one word: “Repent.”
Oh he’s a sly one, that Jesus.
“Repent” repeats the pastor. I sink my head into my hands. Here we go. Here we go with the proselytizing. I can sort of take it from Jesus, but not from some modern day, BBQ-bellied pastor in a Hawaiian shirt. The Bible lays unopened on the pew beside me, next to it a short pencil with no eraser, the kind I used to scribble with as a kid as I listened to my daddy preach The Gospel all those years ago. A plastic communion “shot” glass lies empty on the floor at my feet, likely missed by an usher from the 8 am service.
“I don’t mean to sound callous,” says the preacher “and I know you all are looking for an answer. You want to know “why,” but I think we’re asking the wrong question,” he says. “Did you know that more than 150,000 people die in the world – every day? I hate to break it to you, but we’re all going to die. Some sooner, some later. The question is not “why?” but “are you ready?“
He does not launch into any kind of accept-Jesus-in-your-heart-or-burn-in-hell altar call. I think maybe this particular protestant preacher may actually, in good evangelical spirit, be talking to the cynics in the crowd, who upon hearing such Christian-ese would just walk out the door. Cynics like me.
“Kay”, I hear someone say from the pulpit, I swear I do, as a fog comes over the sanctuary and razor-sharp clarity steals my breath. “Do the people you love know you love them? Have you forgiven your parents? Your friends? The lovers who used you, scorned you, left you? Have you made amends for all the shit you pulled? Did you say thank you for the sunrise this morning? For your double espresso and your organic half and half? For your marvelous daughter and your steadfast husband? Did you tell the truth when you wrote those poems, or were you just looking to please everyone? Because if you haven’t and if you didn’t, and if you were, I suggest you get a move on and make it right, because you’re gonna die one day. Maybe soon. Maybe today. And to go to your grave with the people you love wondering if you really loved them, while still holding those grudges tight in your fist… To go to your grave with your truth untold, well that’s a particular kind of hell for you and everyone who loves you, now isn’t it?”
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” begins the Doxology. The plate is passed as a wave of sorrow crashes over me and sun light from the north window clears the fog from my brain. Everyone stands for the Mandate; heads are bowed for the Benediction. It isn’t until the sanctuary is empty that I feel Tim pulling at my arm. “Come on” he says. “We have to go get Esther.” I walk down the steps and out of the sanctuary without a word, my eyes wide open like glass, my heart torn asunder for the monstrous love I’ve left unspoken, and for the vast love murdered and maimed by a deep, cruel, disinterested sea half a world away, sunk in finality at the floor of the Indian Ocean.
Yep. That was the best sermon I ever heard. I don’t much ask “why?” anymore when something awful happens in the world. I light a candle for the dead and the mourning, and wonder, when it’s my turn, if I’ll be ready.