Wait, and Rise Up, Soon and Very Soon, and Right Now.
With a glint of good-natured mischief in his eyes, I was once told by friend of mine, a man who has been a gift to me in powerful ways, a man who is Jewish, that deep down, I am really Jewish, and he and I both know it.
I smile every time I think of his words, and of him.
Some days, some times more frequently than on other days, I think that Murray might just be right: perhaps I am really Jewish.
I began our seminary class session on Good Friday with this excruciating passage from Elie Wiesel’s Night.
“One day as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Applepaltz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains – and, among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel. The SS seem more preoccupied, more worried than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows. This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as an executioner. Three SS took his place. The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks. ‘Long live liberty!’ Shouted the two men. But the boy was silent. ‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon the sun was setting. ‘Caps off!’ Screamed the Lagerälteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping. ‘Cover your heads!’ Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving; the child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is he? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…'”
I‘d like to say that it’s an unimaginable atrocity, except someone did imagine it, and created the mechanisms, not to mention the culture, that allowed it.
Because it’s such a painfully Jewish experience, I am always uncomfortable imposing Christian imagery to this wrenching story of Wiesel’s—the forward to my edition of the book written by a Christian theologian notwithstanding!
But the thing of it is, the question, “Where is God?” is asked by anyone who suffers, anyone who grieves, anyone who feels impossible guilt, anyone who is weighted down by shame, or guilt, or despair.
It’s a Jewish question, earned because of centuries of persecution, and it’s a human question, asked by anyone who feels abandoned.
Jews, of course, Jews know how to ask questions of God.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That was Jesus the Jew calling it out.
Christians aren’t quite sure how to ask questions with as much heft as that, because we fear, I think, that we are showing doubt, and doubt, we fear, must be a sign of disbelief, and what if our doubts actually lead to disbelief, and then what if we die, well…then what?
Elie Wiesel wrote another piece, a newspaper article in 2000, which I have on my study wall at home. It’s auf Deutsch, because it appeared in the German newspaper Die Zeit. For those who can read German, you can find it here.
The theme of the article is “I Have a Dream.” It was a series in which various people known for one thing or another were invited to reflect on those words.
Wiesel wrote about some of his dreams, and how, while in the camps, he would dream of his younger years, before the “Reign of the Night,” times which were filled with joy and innocence.
But then he wrote this:
“Zurzeit träume ich nicht mehr vom Messias. Er besucht meine Träume nicht mehr. Er kam nicht, als er erwartet wurde. Also hat er Verspätung. Macht nichts, der Jude in mir wartet weiter auf ihn.”
”These days I don’t dream any more of the Messiah. He doesn’t visit my dreams any more. He didn’t come when he was expected. Fine. Something must have held him up. He’s late. Doesn’t matter. The Jew in me will continue to wait for him.”
I’ve often said that before I’d suffered, I loved the tune “Soon and Very Soon.” “Soon and very soon, we’re gonna see the King.”
There’s no more crying there, no more dying there.
I do love the tune. I dare anyone to not find oneself tapping their foot, or humming it even hours after they’ve heard it.
But after some suffering hit me, I found myself mulling, “What does ‘soon,’ mean, exactly?”
It’s been a spell since Jesus was here, and I’m beginning to be curious about the actual metric by which we measure ‘soon.’
Soon in dog years?
Soon as in a meta-view of history?
Because sometimes, in the midst of suffering, soon feels like an eternity.
A lot of Scheisse has happened since the first century, that is.
Heck, even last week’s news told of a lot of Scheisse that has happened.
Think of when you have the stomach flu. You feel miserable. And when you hear, “You’ll feel better soon—just a couple of days of this and you’ll be fine.” And you want to die before you slog through two more days of the Uck.
Or when you’ve lost a love, a loved one, a dream, trust: “You’ll get over it soon.”
Or even now, with our social distancing. In the grand scheme of things, we won’t be crouching at our homes for so long.
But in the meantime, we are itching to get out, itching to see family and friends again, itching to have some personal time again, itching to work again, and for some, itching to be safe again, and to be fed again.
Worse, because we don’t know when all those moments will come to pass, the indefinite nature of our waiting seems endless.
The lifting of the Stay At Home measures can’t come soon enough.
Sometimes, Easter seems like a bit of a play we put on, a passion play, so to speak. We dress up, we say the lines, and then…life goes back to how it was.
Easter doesn’t seem to change much.
Easter doesn’t seem to have changed much.
In fact, looking at Christian history, and world history, it hasn’t changed what it should have.
As my friend Murray asks, “If Jesus is the redeemer, where is the redemption?”
By what metric, actually, do we measure redemption?
I have such great respect for Murray, and for the Jewish tradition, and believe that on any given day Murray is actually quite right, and not just about me being perhaps a smidgen Jewish, but about the Jewish faith, and I have no doubt that my Jewish sisters and brothers are beloved children of God, abandoned perhaps by Christians on more than one horrible occasion, but never by God.
The need to even name such a truth is a sign of the legacy of the toxicity and arrogance of Christian exceptionalism.
So to these faithful people who are still waiting for the Messiah, I am with you up through Good Friday and through Holy Saturday, and stalwartly so.
But the Christian in me still hopes in Easter.
This crazy story, this tale of a man who embraced the least of these, who hung out with “shepherds and street people, hookers and bums,” who raised glasses of the best wine and shared food with any he could, who healed and forgave and called out the powerful and decried the hypocrisy of the religious and political leaders, but who loved his Jewish tradition mightily, and saw himself as faithful to it, and who was killed because of his fidelity of a vision of justice and equity and mercy and wholeness, this entire shebang has a grip on me like no other.
I understand the fear of those who wanted to be loyal to him, but were not.
I understand the eventual betrayal of those who loved him, and who did love him, but were still bound by self-protection.
I understand the grief that was felt by those who betrayed him, and by those, like the women, who did not.
I understand the uncertainty that filled their very bones, now that everything that they had thought to be true about Jesus and about themselves was apparently not.
And I understand the joy when they realized that they were right, but not at all in the way they thought they were.
Their betrayal and grief and uncertainty were real, that is.
But I can’t help but believing that resurrection is real-er.
There is no doubt that things are not as they should be.
And there is no doubt that they are not as God thinks they should be: we have a long scriptural tradition that tells us that God’s vision for the world is very much what the world is not.
But the resurrection gives us a revelation not just of what God’s vision is, but our invitation to be part of it, an invitation that we all too often refuse because we are afraid: we are afraid of the implications of our loyalty, of the implications of our betrayal, of the implications of our grief, of the implications of our disoriented sense of what is real, and what is not, of the implications of faithful living which could, and if we do it right almost certainly, will lead to our death in one form or another.
That is, the resurrection informs us that God’s vision for us, God’s agenda for us, God’s invitation to us is life, and that anything that stands in the way of it no longer is ultimate.
Life is more powerful than death.
Now that we know that death doesn’t win, that is, there is more to do with our lives than preserve them.
This morning, I told my son Karl that he reminds me of Easter all the time: he was supposed to die, I said.
And then Karl grinned, and said, in his slow, determined speech, “But I didn’t!“ and then went straight to his favorite Monty Python line, “I’m not dead yet!”
I just about died right then and there, by way of grateful laughter for my son.
I don’t know when God’s reign in its fullness will come.
But I have come to see resurrection, this defiant rejection of death and grief and despair, take place in real time, ‘joyful defiance,’ as I have come to call it, or ‘tangible Easter’ again and again and again and again.
And what has gotten me through the darkest of days are questions…and answers…born out of the cross and born out of the resurrection.
“Why have you forsaken me?” I have cried.
“I have not,” God’s replied.
“Where is God?” I have cried.
”I’m right here,” God’s replied.
And when I see death come my way, or in the way of those who deserve no harm, by way of actual death, or fear, or fatigue, or illness, or injuries, or injustice, or even just the taxing encounters of pettiness or the exhausting realities of adulting or the ridiculousness of the power plays of those who hold temporary political power, I rise up.
I rise up, I do.
I rise up, because I see death trying to tell me that it is coming for me, and that I should succumb to its power, and that torques me off.
It torques me off because death is not the way of God.
I know this, because if it were, Jesus would still be dead.
It torques me off because it lies, manipulatively telling me that I shouldn’t own my grief, own my loss, own my fear, because to do so is to admit weakness and doubt in God.
I know this, because Jesus cried out from the cross, and lived to see another day.
It torques me off because I can see how death entices me to tremble.
But I know that there is nothing I need to ultimately fear anymore, especially death, because Jesus is risen.
It torques me off because death shows its power, and says that there is no way for righteousness to win.
But I know that that’s exactly how death gains its power, but that in fact, it’s already lost it.
It torques me off because death has already taken so much, and I refuse to cede death another win.
In the name of God, and God help me, I will not give it that satisfaction.
I know that death has a word, but is no longer the last one.
I am freed, that is, to give death the raspberries, and carry on.
It is true that I may, on any given day, have a Jew in me, die Jüdin die immer noch auf den Messias warte.
And it is true that on any given day, I may not know what “Soon and Very Soon” means, and I am not entirely sure that God does either.
But I do know what hope means.
And I do know what defiance means.
And I do know what resurrection means.
It means that death is real.
And in spite, and to spite that truth, Life. Is. Real-er.
Doch, doch, und immer Doch!