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Dean Joseph Britton
Berkeley Divinity School at Yale
May 21, 2005

Commencement Evensong

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

At last year's commencement evensong, I posed to the graduating class the question, “You aren't still on some kind of a journey, are you?” I should like this evening to pose a similarly provocative question to this year's graduating class: “For what are you willing to weep?”

This item from a recent New York Times: “Deep in the swamp, a woodpecker thought extinct lives.” It seems that two ornithologists, comparing notes from a trip through the bayou of Brinkley, Arkansas, suddenly realized that they had both spotted an ivory bill woodpecker, which was last sighted in 1944, and known because of its magnificent size and coloring as the Lord God bird. “When they wrote down their notes independently and compared them,” The Times reports, “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Harrison were so struck by the reality of the discovery that Mr. Harrison began sobbing, repeating, ‘I saw an ivory bill.'”

And so we come to our question: for what will you weep? As you leave this place and go about the work that you have been prepared to do, what is it that will bring you to tears, as the two ornithologists were brought to tears by the rediscovery of the ivory bill woodpecker? In short, what will really matter to you?

Some answers to that question are not hard to predict. You will from time to time find yourself in pastoral situations of such great sadness that they will cause you to cry: a child's mother killed in a car accident, a beloved parishioner dead of old age but already much missed, a home broken by violence. And you will encounter wonderful moments as well that will cause you to weep for joy: a wedding between two childhood sweethearts, or the high school graduation of the kids in the youth group, or a celebration of fifty years of friendship between two committed partners. There will also be tears of frustration, when you are soundly put down for a sermon on which you had worked so hard, or when no one shows up to help at the soup kitchen, or when someone whom you had thought to be trustworthy turns out to be a con.

But the question I want to ask is a more profound one: is there a place deep inside you where you have caught a glimpse of the sheer wonder and goodness and graciousness of God, so that when something puts you in touch with that place, it causes you to weep out of joy and wonder? Where is that private place hidden within you, where you have seen and known the glory of the Lord, and have been moved to tears of ecstasy by the beauty of it? This is not a general ordination examination question; nor is it likely to come up in a clinical pastoral education verbatim; and it's not even something a bishop or Commission on Ministry is likely to ask of you. Yet ultimately it's the only question that counts: have you been touched by God's love deeply enough that you can bear witness to it to others?

We heard tonight the story of Lazarus from John's gospel; how Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend. I have always loved that shortest of all Bible verses, “Jesus wept.” In Baptist Sunday School it was part of the Bible trivia that we learned by heart. “The shortest verse in the Bible,” we dutifully memorized, “is John 11:35, ‘Jesus wept.'” (We also learned, by the way, that the first tennis match is recorded in Genesis—remember how Joseph served in Pharaoh's court—and did you know that the disciples drove a Honda, for as it is written, “they were all in one Accord”—but I digress.) Back to “Jesus wept.” The beauty of this verse is that it brings into high relief both the intense humanity of Jesus' grief, and at the same time the extraordinary sympathy of his divine love. Think of how much at pains John's text is to call our attention to the depth of Jesus' feeling: when he is first told of Lazarus' illness by his two sisters, Martha and Mary, they break the news to Jesus by saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Then, by way of underscoring the intimacy of Jesus' relationship to this family, the narrator himself tells us, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” And so when Jesus finally makes his way to Bethany, and sees Mary and her companions grieving the loss of her brother, he is, we are told, “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” And then his tears flow. Jesus weeps. But that is not the last we hear of Jesus' tears, for moments later, when he actually arrives at the tomb, he is once again “deeply moved,” and out of the depth of that emotion comes his overwhelmingly imposing command, “Lazarus, come out.”

The fascinating thing about this story is how many reasons the text suggests for Jesus' tears: at one level, they seem to be simple tears of grief at the death of a beloved friend. But at another level there also seem to be hints that his tears are tears of frustration: after all, despite the fact that Martha calls Jesus the Christ, she still seems unable to put her full trust in him to save her brother. And Mary seems almost accusatory when Jesus reaches her house: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Source of frustration indeed! Yet at still another level, Jesus' tears also seem to be tears of joy, for he alone senses the true fullness of the moment as he approaches Lazarus' tomb.

But if we only hear in this story a parallel between Jesus' tears and our own reasons for weeping—whether they be out of grief, or frustration, or joy—then we will have missed what seems to me to be the larger point: we must also be able to weep out of a deep and ineffably profound gratitude to God that, as Julian of Norwich put it, “we have so truly been in God's prevision loved and known in his endless purpose from without beginning.” This is a deep emotion of wonder that is ultimately indescribable, beyond the power of words to convey. It's the depth of mystery in Bach's St. Anne fugue, played as tonight's prelude. It's the aching longing of Mozart's Requiem. It's the vast landscape of the American West. It's whatever speaks to you of the overpowering mystery of the love that God has for us, which is the foundation of everything that is. Jesus' tears at Lazarus' tomb are not just expressive of the predictable emotions of grief and frustration and joy: they also well up out of his personal intimacy with God's love, and his confidence that the dead Lazarus himself will himself become the sign of this love.

It was Gregory Nazianzus who spoke of a baptism of tears as the culmination of the several baptismal patterns found in scripture. The baptism of tears, says Gregory, is the most “laborious,” for it is “received by him who washes his bed every night and his couch with tears.” These are the tears of the repentant sinner, who both mourns the fact of his or her own sin, yet also experiences the overwhelming gift of mercy and forgiveness. This is the baptism of tearful wonderment, to which the Exsultet of Easter Eve alludes when it says, “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.” One can hardly stand to think of a love “so deep, so broad, so high, so passing thought and fantasy, that God, the Son of God, should take our mortal form for mortals' sake.” And so our question for this evening reasserts itself: is such a love as this a gift for which you will weep? Have you, like Lazarus, been called out of the tomb?

Now you may find it a bit peculiar, perhaps even slightly unsuitable, that on such a celebratory occasion as this commencement evensong, I should appeal to the idea of tears. But my point in doing so is this: when all is said and done, the theological formation which this school has given you, if it has done its job, should at the very least have evoked at the very core of your being a confidence in God's love for you, and for every human being (like that of Jesus standing at Lazarus' tomb), that is so profound, so true, so real, so lively (as Cranmer would say), that it moves you to tears to think of it. Only such a deep-seated, passionate awareness of God's love will keep you going when your body is bone tired and your spirit bone dry; only that deep personal experience of the reality of God's love will make all the other tears of grief and frustration and joy worth it. Know that in serving Christ you bear witness to love, the ultimate reality, and be willing to let yourself give in to the experience of this love as being of such ineffable beauty that it brings willing tears of anguished wonder to your eyes.

Do you remember how we prayed for this very gift a few moments ago in the sermon hymn? Let me pray it again with you:

Come down, O Love divine, seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near, shine ever on my sight,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace, till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling. Amen.