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“Mama, Are We Going to Sing?”

May 11, 2015

“‘Mama, Are We Going to Sing?’” 1 John 5:1-6 © 5.10.15 Easter 6B (Mother’s Day) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

During the dark days of World War II, a young Dutchman named Christiaan Beker lay in a hospital bed in Berlin. Death was close at hand. Enslaved by the Nazis and forced to work in a U-boat factory, he had contracted typhus. Chris was sent to the infirmary of the labor camp, but there was no doctor there, only an attendant. Moved finally to a hospital, the Dutchman received care. But he was thrown out on the street in his pajamas when his bed was needed for a German soldier. Somehow he made his way back to the factory, but he found that the whole complex had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombs. So he was left with nothing. His captors sent him to yet another camp, where he collapsed. He was finally transferred to a hospital by some foreign workers.

One day a Polish boy was put in the bed next to Beker’s. Beaten senseless by the Germans for picking up a cigarette butt, the young man could barely mumble. He died three days later. A biographer of Beker’s comments: “Chris had never before been face-to-face with such brutally inhuman cruelty; its effect was staggering….It was then, while lying beside the wasted body of a Polish boy murdered for less than no reason at all, that Chris determined to become a theologian.”

The writer continues: “But it was not clear that Chris himself would live. Convinced finally that he would not, he made his way to the window to see how he would die. The night sky itself was a conflagration, bombs exploding and buildings consumed in flames. Sick with typhus and viewing the apocalypse, Chris confessed that ‘only God is real’” (Ben Ollenburger, “Suffering and Hope,” Theology Today, October 1987: 357).

Johan Christiaan Beker became one of the world’s foremost biblical theologians, eventually teaching at Princeton Seminary. His book Paul the Apostle, written in 1980, is probably one of the top ten works to influence my theological development. Reflecting on the experiences of his life, he once wrote: “A biblical theology of hope views the present power of death in terms of its empty future and therefore in the knowledge of its sure defeat.” (For a brief summary of Beker’s life and work, see the memorial tribute at http://journals.ptsem.edu/id/PSB2000211/dmd010.)

For this man who came through the terrifying ordeal of war to affirm his hope in God’s reality and God’s triumph, death was very real and present. And so it was for Professor Theron Nease or T. Nease, as he was known. Nease taught pastoral care at my alma mater Columbia Seminary for years. In 1982, he was diagnosed with cancer. Treatments eventually sent the disease into remission. As a kind of service of thanksgiving, Nease participated in a big running event in Atlanta called the Peachtree Road Race, and discovered running as a way to celebrate life. But even more important to Nease than running was playing the piano. He always wanted an ebony Steinway grand and decided to purchase one. In a seminary publication, he once said “‘Everyone ought to have one thing they do only unto God. I teach at Columbia Seminary because that’s my calling. I preach at Forest Park Presbyterian because I have a love affair with a congregation. I counsel people because that’s part of my ministry. But I play piano only unto God. It serves no utilitarian purpose.’”

Asked about the future, Nease responded: “‘There’s a Stage 4 tumor in the lymph glands and in the bone. I don’t know what’s out there, but I intend for my future to be like I am now…. I intend to praise God and kick up my heels.’” Nease eventually succumbed to the cancer, but in the meantime, he said he felt more alive even with the disease than he had to that point.

Rewind to WWII, this time in Austria and a young boy named Helmut, the son of a minister. He tells his story: “I remember one Christmas Eve…. My father was away, taking care of parishioners. But my mother gathered us around her for our celebration, to read the Christmas story and to pray.

“As we did those things we could hear the soldiers outside our windows, marching in the streets, enforcing the curfew and the orders forbidding religious celebrations. We were very quiet.

“During the reading and praying, I kept wondering what Mama would do about the music. All of us children knew how important music was to Mama. Poor as we were, we had a piano that was used for house services: when Papa preached, Mama played. Most of all, she loved the Christmas music.

“But if she played and all of us sang, it would be so much louder than praying. Surely the soldiers would hear if we sang.

“When we finished our reading and prayers, one of the smaller children said: ‘Mama, are we going to sing?’

“Without a moment’s hesitation, Mama answered: ‘Tonight we celebrate the coming of the Christ child into the world. He came that we might never be afraid anymore. Of course we are going to sing.’ So she gathered her brood about her, and we sang, ‘O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem’” (told by the writer Sally Geis).

For Chris Beker, T. Nease, that brave and defiant Austrian mother, and for scores of others you and I have known and know today, death was and is very real and present. Indeed, you and I feel and witness its reality daily. We know the litany of woes so well there is no need to repeat them this morning. We live in a world where death reigns, where our practices and preferences and attitudes betray our allegiance to death and brokenness at every turn, where we are subject to and reminded of its power in everything from everyday disappointments to pain in our relationships and bodies to the heart-breaking news that assaults us from TV and the Internet.

The author of First John was no more a stranger to such deforming and destructive forces than theologians or an Austrian mother and her children or any of us. Yet it was precisely in the midst of the struggle against such foes that he made a startling statement. He claimed victory through faith that overcomes the world!

It’s no accident that this writer we know as “the Elder” then goes on to assert that the one who overcomes the world is the very one who believes Jesus is the Son of God. He means that it is the historical Jesus—the one who lived and ate with sinners, who became hungry and tired, who died on the cross—it is this one who reveals God. Against his opponents, the Elder insists that it is the very one who died that is the Christ, the Son of God. He came by “water and blood.” In other words, he was born. And he died. This Jesus is the object of faith that overcomes.

Here, then, is the key to overcoming the world. The great author Walker Percy once said that to live well you have to talk about death. It’s in facing the enemy head-on, in looking death in the eye and saying “I know your name,” by engaging the world with its risk and its problems, entering its life, in these ways victory will be ours.

A number of years ago, the spiritual director Mary Lou Howson suggested that God, like a mother who voluntarily submits to the rhythms of the new life trying to be born, chooses to give of God’s own being in order that humanity may have life abundant. Power is then revealed to be not domination, but meekness and servanthood which nourish and give dignity to both giver and receiver. Howson noted: “Ours is a God who for our sake is willing to be vulnerable. God created us free so that we might love freely and reflect God’s very essence. In doing this, God risked our disobedience and the expansion of evil.

“And because evil spread, God became a human being, vulnerable to all we suffer to show us once again that servanthood and meekness are the source of life. Indeed, the crucifixion and resurrection demonstrate starkly and clearly that the mastery and control we think are the essence of power can only bring death. God’s way of patient, self-giving love offers life, and ultimately triumphs over coercive power” (“The Femininity of God and the Power of Meekness,” The Christian Century, 11/6/85: 992-93).

What was a radical image in the 1980s has since become rather common, so much so that some have complained that female theologians should “quit already with the childbirth metaphors” (quoted by Katherine Willis Pershey, http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2015-04/wearing-god-lauren-f-winner. But Professor Lauren Winner, like Howson, refuses to let them go, since they are so powerful. In her book Wearing God, she talks about Second Isaiah’s image of God as a woman in labor, where God says about the birthing of the new creation: “…I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:14b). Winner writes: “The image of God as a laboring woman puts together strength and vulnerability in a way that tells us something about God and how God works. The point is not just that God is vulnerable, although that itself is startling. The point is that in the struggles of labor, we can learn what strength is. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, then strength is not about refusing to cry or denying pain. Strength is not about being in charge, or being independent, or being dignified. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, then strength entails enduring, receiving help and support, being open to pain and risk. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, strength entails entrusting yourself (to medicine, or to the wisdom of your own body, or to the guidance of someone who is there in the room with you). Strength even entails giving yourself over to the possibility of death.” She goes on to help us recover the reality of the crucifixion by linking it with the image of God in labor: “The Crucifixion has become so sanitized in my mind, so normalized and familiar, that thinking of it does not really produce much reaction at all, because I, along with much of the church, have turned a bloody state punishment into nothing more or less than tidy doctrine. Perhaps God as a woman in travail can remind me of God’s vulnerability, and the centrality of that vulnerability for my relationship with that God” (“Divine Contractions,” The Christian Century, March 18, 2015:34,35; http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-02/divine-contractions).

In Jesus who gave up himself freely to suffer death, yet was raised, God has overcome every power that would hurt, divide or destroy us. God’s way of patient, self-giving, life-bestowing love ultimately triumphs. Maybe that’s what Jesus knew on his last night with his disciples. He told them: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV). It’s not how much faith we have. It’s in whom we have that faith as we face the worst the world can do.

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed the words of the morning’s text and of that old African-American spiritual that took its title from the Bible. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize, King said: “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaimed the rule of the land. ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that we shall overcome!” (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance.html)

Such a vision does not belong exclusively to those who think the big theological thoughts, who stir the soul of a nation or who die for a cause. It is or can be ours as well. For we trust in the same faithful God as our Lord and the author of First John, the same trustworthy Sovereign known by Chris Beker, T. Nease, Helmut and his mother, and Martin Luther King. I mean the God who in the resurrection of Christ overcame the worst the world could do.

“Mama, are we going to sing?”

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