|At the original Fuji Kindergarten, Yamamoto, Jizo – statues of spiritual beings believed in Buddhism to shepherd the souls of deceased children, protect the living, guard travelers, and reside at the thin places between life and death – are placed in a circle in the memorial garden to honor the students who died there and the teacher who gave her life to save many others in the March 11th, 2011, tsunami.|
A sermon delivered at Christ Church Cathedral, Sendai
by The Rev. Shintaro David Ichihara
trans. ed. The Rev. Br. Richard Edward Helmer
The Third Sunday after Pentecost
The Third Sunday after Pentecost
For the past few weeks, I have struggled with what it would mean to preach in Sendai, since both the Gospel and Old Testament readings today are stories of dead sons being restored to life.
This weekend, Richard and Daniel Helmer and I visited several parts of the Diocese of Tohoku. It was a first visit for Richard and Daniel to these tsunami-devastated areas; I had seen them before. Nevertheless, Okawa Primary School still had me at a loss for words. All that I could offer was Elijah’s prayer: “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” And, of course, this is the cry of parents who lost their children to the tsunami. It is profoundly difficult for me to preach about this from the pulpit, thinking of the reality that these families must continue to face.
One commonality found in the two stories we hear today is that the dead in each instance is the only son of the family, and he is survived only by his widowed mother. This means the widows faced a very difficult future. In their societies, a woman could not live without a patron, whether it was her father, her husband, or her son. Lacking all of them, the widows’ plight in these stories was without hope.
Elijah and Jesus both fought with this reality, and yet we know in our earthly pilgrimage that the sons of widows and countless innocents will not be raised today from the dead. The harsh reality is that the families of the victims of the tsunami remain in deep sorrow and pain, and they may never find full healing. So how, then, does today’s word speak to us?
A few weeks ago, Genji Yamaura, a Roman Catholic doctor who translated the four gospels into the Kesen Japanese dialect (spoken in the area of Ofunato) delivered a special lecture at Rikkyo University, where I serve as a chaplain. During the lecture, he invited questions from the audience. One question was, “Why do so many innocents have to experience such hardship? What do you think?”
Mr. Yamaura replied that after the earthquake and tsunami, he reached a simple conclusion: every human being dies. Regardless of the cause of death – whether tsunami, earthquake, or cirrhosis of the liver – everyone must face death. The implication of the question itself is that good people should not die, while bad people should. As you know from experience, this is nonsense. Jesus himself said that natural disaster is not a punishment from heaven. Even if people have to endure great hardships wrought by disaster, it does not mean they are making recompense for some kind of sin. God created the world so that everything on Earth might enjoy life. We are ultimately God’s instruments. Our only task is to attend to the world’s reality while listening to God with a pure mind and await the enlightenment God promises to give us. This is our most important task in life, even as we face the fact of our ultimate demise in the future.
Elijah did not have the power to compete with the desperate power of death on his own. He could only ask for God’s power to restore the boy’s life. Jesus happens upon a group of people in a funeral procession, and he has compassion for the boy’s mother. As many of you know, the words “have compassion for” implies a visceral response: a feeling in one’s abdominal organs. In the Gospel of Luke, “compassion” regularly appears with the words “see” and “approach.” The deeply seated reaction of compassion is what compels Jesus’ actions; compassion is what brings the dead son back to life.
After visiting Shinchi, Richard and I talked about the gospel for today. We had just heard the tragic story of Fuji Kindergarten and wondered how it intersected with the story of the widow’s son being brought back to life. Richard suggested that the regained life was a communal life. Not just the restoration of an individual’s physical life, it is much more: it is restoration of life in community.
Even though we all pray for return of life to the dead, we struggle with our lack of power to make it happen. Moreover, we all face a destiny of death someday, for which there may be no explanation. Yet isn’t it possible for us to see the reality of both life and death, to approach them – using the words of Luke – and to find in that approach the compassion to help recover the people lost in sorrow? While we do not even have the power to heal sorrow, we do have the power to help restore their life in community. In this sense, the focus of regained life is not just for the sons, but also for their mothers.
We are approaching an important milestone of the Issho ni Arukou Project. At this time, I feel we are called to listen to the word of God, who brings hope that everyone in such deep pain and sorrow may be restored to the fullness of life in community. Regardless of what happens next with the Project, we Christians are called to lead our lives after the example of Jesus, who sees, approaches, and has compassion; who says, “Do not weep anymore.”
This might indeed be the special calling at this time for the people of the Diocese of Tohoku.