March 13th, 2016
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about this, so let me just say it straight out: I had a great time in Hawaii. We stayed the whole time in Honolulu, at my uncle and aunt’s home. This is the second time Clare and I have done this, but we’ve been planning for it—the last time we were there, about three years ago, we spent a lot of time driving around the island with my cousin and her boyfriend, and as we sat on the plane coming home, Clare and I said, “Well, we better start saving now, because it looks like Meghann and Charlie are going to get married. And if they’re going to get married, they’re going to get married in Hawaii.” And lo, our prophecy came to pass, and at a wonderful lawn ceremony, Meghann and Charlie made vows, kissed, and then we all watched as her brother sang a song her father had written for his dance with her, and we all cried. It was the perfect Hawaiian experience, in my opinion, complete with the mysterious case of the missing ukelele, which, as far as I know, has yet to be found.
So, it can take a while to come to understand that Hawaii is a beautiful but absolutely normal place, with perhaps even more of it’s share of tragedy than other places. Hawaii is far away, as I mentioned, and people move to Hawaii like the move to New York, with big dreams and little money, and they soon discover that it is expensive, and unlike New York, you can’t drive out. Wherever you are, the Pacific is less than an hour away, ready to swallow you up. There’s just so much room and opportunity. And if you go driving along, you can see the poverty of the islands. And if you spend any time with your back to the glory of Waikiki and your face toward the laundry rooms and kitchens of the hotels, you’ll begin to feel the slick underbelly and history of Hawaii—you’ll see T-shirts that say, “American by force” and “Howlie go home.” Howlie, of course, is a word that comes from the Hawaiian word ‘haole’, which means stranger or foreigner, like mzungu in Swahili. It’s a state, but the colonial conquesting past of America is a little more real there, even if the natural beauty is almost unparalleled. So, on one drive, you can look to your left and see the pacific crashing on the beach,and to your right, the walls that cover up the poor.
So, Oahu is an island like Manhattan, I guess you could say—the glory of its present is evident everywhere you look, but the glories of the past are now hidden, just as the pain of the past and the pain of the present are often hidden. I’ll never forget reading Between the World and Me and thinking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thoughts when he saw September 11th—he thought that New York City was the place where thousands of his ancestors had been trawled from ships, severed from their families, whipped, and sold down into bondage in the south. So history is all around us here, too, as murky and dark as any other place, and for those of you have come to New York from somewhere else, you probably also remember the way New York bent your mind when you first encountered it, how you first felt its crushing density and the buzz of its streets. And maybe, as you continued to live here, you became aware of the sorrow and the love that has built this city, and indeed that has built all of human life, everywhere human beings have built and cooked and sang and killed.
Sorrow and love—I think that’s what Mary felt as she opened her jar of perfume and poured the whole pound of it over Jesus’ feet. I want you to think about how much you earn for a days’ worth of work, and multiply that by 300, if Judas’ reckoning is right. 300 hundred days worth of work, poured on the feet of Jesus, and Mary wipes the feet with her hair, and the whole house is heavy with its smell. In anointing Jesus, Mary in a way anoints the whole household, all who were gathered. It is a sign of love, of course—what else could lead you to take decades’ worth of savings and dump it out, all at once, on one person? Sorrow could. Sorrow at the death of someone you love. And when we feel the meeting of sorrow and love, we will do almost anything, pay almost any price, because these are passions that engulf us, take us to places we don’t even know we want to go.
You can hear this all over our radio stations, in our theaters, in the literature we treasure. And in our Hymn of the Day you’ll hear good old Isaac Watts, one the great hymnists, point to Jesus and say, “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down./ Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?”
Mr. Watts postulates a good question: we see the meeting of sorrow and love everyday, if we pay attention. You’ll see people kissing just outside the divorce lawyer’s office. But the miracle of the crucifixion is that we see the sorrow and love of God meeting us. Mary anoints Jesus for his burial, but she does not know that he will rise from death, the perfume she poured perhaps still lingering about his feet. And perhaps she doesn’t quite yet understand the sorrow and love that pour from God’s own heart into this world.
Paul’s passage from Philippians should be read fiercely and passionately. There’s a word in the Greek that’s translated as rubbish, but it really means—well, it’s far too impolite a word to say in the pulpit, although preachers have though it from time to time. But look closely and sorrow and love are all over this passage—“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.” Paul, you’ll note, had no problems saying that under the law he was blameless, as zealous for the right as anyone can claim. But, despite the excellence of his life—“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may be able to obtain the resurrection from the dead.”
There love of Christ is of surpassing value. I love this word, ‘surpass’. It means that it goes farther, it extends wider, deeper, broader. All of our cities and our histories, all our sorrow and our loves, knowing Christ Jesus surpasses them all. No wonder Mary knelt down and untied her hair and poured perfume on the feet of Jesus. His love and his sorrow are worth any amount of money—indeed, to share in his love and his sorrow, all other things count as rubbish.
All our nation’s islands, from Long Island to Oahu, are testaments to greed and sacrifice and love and perseverance. But the history of our people, marked as it is by the mad scramble of human desires clashing against one another, is also the history of God’s own love and sorrow, meeting us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God loved us so much that God freely chose to endure the sorrow of death as one of us, so that God could love us into resurrected life. God sees what we can see of this world, and yet God can see the sorrow of the world more deeply, God can feel the sorrow of this world more keenly, than any of the suffering people that flicker upon the Earth. And so God’s love meets this sorrow, in this man Jesus, who we anoint for burial, and who opens his heart of compassion, to crown us with eternal love and life. And so when Paul says that he wants to know this love of God, he is talking of a love that surpasses all the loves of our lives, all our passion—he is talking about the passion of God.
Jesus is where the sorrow of the world and love of God meet. The cross is the still point in the swirl of our existence, the resurrection the word that orders the tumulting void of our lives. Groups of people—Republicans, Democrats, business, labor, church people and non-church people—even now mark this world with their missions and desires, hoping that whatever they build will be good and last. But none of what we make is worth the surpassing value of being know by Christ Jesus, who calls us away from our fever dreams into the stillness of the cross, and the song of resurrection. Amen.