Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached on April 21, 2013, at St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Mass. The service was in memory of Armenian genocide martyrs.
It was years after his body was in the grave before she wrote the words down.
Marie Howe’s brother died in 1989, but it took years to write the words. It wasn’t far from here -- just over the town line in Cambridge -- that Marie Howe had to wake up, brush her hair, and walk out the door of the apartment into that bright, clear New England sun after her brother died of AIDS.
When she finally wrote down her experience, she wrote a poem in the form of a letter to her brother:
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably
fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes
have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here, and
I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street,
the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my
wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called
Her poem goes on …
This is what the living do.
Many among us have been entombed this week: shut in our houses in Watertown and beyond, encased in grief and fear. Many are bound in their sleeplessness. Many were held fast by their work at a critical time -- those who patrolled our streets, tended the wounded, guarded our safety, cared for our children, stayed up for 26 hours straight to report the news.
We have been bound up, locked down, sheltered-in-place, held by this strange, harrowing series of events. We have been wrapped tight in our burial shrouds.
In the days after the Easter resurrection of Christ, the disciples finally left that stuffy apartment in Jerusalem where they had been bound by fear and dread, where they had run out of milk and toilet paper. They venture outside, into a world utterly changed.
The sun seems brighter, but harsher. The roads seem busier, but scarier. And they did what the living do. They walk along the road to Emmaus. They go fishing. They sit down for breakfast and try to comprehend their new reality.
This is what we Christians do. We are a people of the resurrection. We are a people of Christ’s resurrection, and we cling to the promise that we will be resurrected, too.
We know that no grave can hold our bodies down. We’ve been here before. We know that story of a week that begins with a parade and ends with death. We know that buried hallelujahs will eventually rise. We know that the curtain will open again to reveal to us the altar and the bread of heaven. We are the people who say death does not have the final say.
You heard it in the Gospel lesson this morning from St. John. Jesus says to them, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out -- those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (NRSV)
We, who have been waiting in our houses watching the clocks tick away, are waiting to hear his voice. We are straining our ears that are burned with the sounds of sirens to hear the voice of God declare for us release.
We are the disciples who leave our apartments in Jerusalem after the shelter-in-place order is lifted. This is the practice of our resurrection. And even if you don’t feel it now, even if you don’t believe it now, this is what the living do.
In the hours we were bound to stay inside, huddled around the television or the computer screen, strict New England winter gave way to spring. While we were indoors, the early leaves came out on the trees. We step outside with the sky “a deep, headstrong blue,” to go to church, to drive to the grocery store, to go to school or work.
This is what the living do.
And this is what your church did. In the midst of the chaos of Friday, Father Arakel came to the church. He unlocked the thick wooden doors. He escorted the police in to inspect the church, to ensure that this sanctuary was still a place of peace. Your church. Your strong Armenian coffee powered the police who rested in your parish hall chairs. Your electrical outlets powered the phones of the first responders who texted back home to worried families.
This place was a sanctuary not just to you who worship here today but to those who patrolled our streets just 48 hours ago. This is the practice of resurrection.
This is what the living do -- the mundane, the ordinary acts of living that defy that which would entomb us. This is what the Armenian genocide survivors did. They crawled from their tombs and rebuilt lives, alive but utterly changed. Their faith was an act of defiance. The raising of children, the singing of the liturgy, the baking of choreg [bread].
This is what the living do.
This is what the living do to stay living after facing so much death. This is why we remember their names and their faith so that we might be alive, too.
So this is what we do. We come to church. We walk outside. We practice normalcy knowing that it is not. You may not feel ready to venture far from home. Everything is not as it was. This week has utterly changed us. We are not going back to lives that are the same. Normalcy has been interrupted.
On Friday, synagogues stayed closed despite Shabbat prayers. On Friday, mosques stayed closed despite Friday prayers. Muslims here in Massachusetts have already been harassed, threatened and even beaten. Everything is not as it should be.
Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square is still part of the crime scene. They will worship at Temple Israel this morning, a Jewish synagogue that graciously opened its doors to a displaced people. Old South Church, United Church of Christ, is still part of the crime scene. They will worship this morning at Church of the Covenant.
The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor, told the Boston Globe, “The last time Old South Church in Boston was closed for this long was in 1775, during the British siege of Boston.”
This is not our life as usual.
Our colleagues from the American Red Cross gave me cards to share with you with suggestions for how to cope after a time of disaster. They are in the back of the church. Take one as you leave. We have all experienced trauma this week.
To be “Watertown Strong” or “Boston Strong” is to recognize when you need someone else to walk with you. To be among the living is to know that we need help to stay alive. Recognize that we do not run this race alone.
This week all began at the marathon, which now seems so long ago. This week, one of the hymns from the African-American tradition has been playing in my mind. The songs of our faith have a way of tracing pathways in our minds, to follow well-worn paths in times of uncertainty.
For the enslaved, spirituals were a way to pass on the faith and defy the death around them. And so you sang, even as you were running from those who would hold you captive.
I’m not the strongest singer in the world; but that’s not why we sing. If you know it, join me. If you don’t know it, you are welcome to join me too. I’ll sing it twice. I know singing and clapping are not standard in an Armenian Orthodox church, but consider it a gift from the wider body of Christ.
“Guide my feet while I run this race,
Guide my feet, Lord, while I run this race,
Guide my feet while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!”
In this time of uncertainty and fear, we cling to the sure promises of our God that we do not go on in vain. We tune our ear “for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out.”
Even as we grieve, we will remain steadfast in charity, defiant in hope, practiced in forgiveness, and constant in prayer. This is what the living do. May it be so for you in the days ahead. Amen.