A Sermon based on Psalm 139 verses 1-18.
In 1944 two people feel in love with each other. She was the daughter of tobacco farmers; her father tended the fields while her mother tended the children. He was the son of a carpenter and a gardener; his father built houses while his mother fed the family. She lived in Worley and he lived in Barnard, two tiny dots on a map of North Carolina, two of many such dots sprinkled across the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. Connecting their dots was a road called Big Pine, and along this road, aside from the pine trees that gave the road its name, there wasn’t much, save a Volunteer Fire Department and a Baptist church. That church is where they met; he was shy, but he managed to ask her out. Before she could say yes, the army sent him 300 miles east of her to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and then he was moved again 700 miles south of her and stationed in Camp Blanding, Florida.
Every week he would write letters and she would drive along Big Pine to the town of Marshall, a slightly bigger dot on the map, and the only one with a post office. There she would pay three cents and slip her letter into the mail box, sending her words over the miles, miles that covered states and towns she had never seen and did not know. At first their letters were shy, “would you like to go out next time I am home?” he would ask her, but as their love grew, the shyness wore off. In that time, and in their particular corner of the world, talk of love and romance was often exchanged for more constructive conversation, so their letters were mainly composed of details: when and where they would meet, who they would double date with that evening, and when he might be coming home for good.
Yet lingering among the practicalities of their letters was the whisper of emotion, as subtle as a soft breeze you don’t notice until you are reaching for a sweater. As they came to know one another more deeply the whispers of that emotion grew louder. He went from signing his letters with his initials, F.T.P. for Fred Thomas Payne, to “Love you, Fred”. In turn she signed hers, “All my love, Mary Kate”.
Sometimes, when love grows, the language with which that love can be described shrinks. This happened to Mary and Fred. At one point she wrote to him: “Sometimes I think I could write a book and then I sit down to write you and not a word comes to mind.”
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
Even if Mary didn’t know what she wanted to say, God knew, and somehow that message got through to Fred, because when he came home from the army he asked her to marry him. As a wedding present her Daddy gave them 49 acres of land and on it they built their home, and planted their livelihood into the rich soil of the mountains. Tobacco sprang up along with seven children, five boys and two girls. When he wasn’t in the fields, Fred worked at ‘Home Electric and Furniture’ a store down on Main Street, the only street that ran through the center of Marshall. Between selling furniture and tilling the field, Fred made a lean living. Around the end of the month cornbread and milk would be the staple for dinner, “We just have to make do until your Daddy gets paid”, Mary would tell her children. Having grown up poor she was accustomed the language of “making do”, which is an altogether different way of speaking than then language of “want”. When you are always “making do” you rarely talk about what you want and so those desires go unnoticed and unfulfilled. Whatever Mary longed for, her children didn’t know, she may not have even known, but God knew.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
The house where Mary and Fred lived was nestled among the gentle slopes at the base of the mountains. From the front porch you could see the largest hill where the cows grazed on the tall, brown grass. At sunset the fading light would illumine that hill and turn the whole world amber.
As the first stars appeared in the sky, Mary and Fred would sit on that front porch, their children in the rocking chairs beside them, grandchildren running through the grass catching lightening bugs. That is how the family came to know one another, sharing that time week after week. At the time they may not have known just how important Mary and Fred’s home was to them. They may not have known the ways it was shaping them and their families. They may not have known, but God did.
O God where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
On August 8th, 1994 Fred died in their home with his family nearby. His youngest daughter had just changed the sheets on his bed so that they were fresh and cool to his skin. Mary was by his side, heartbroken to lose him, but relieved his suffering was over. How the human heart can hold both joy and sorrow is hard to know, how Mary’s heart was able to carry so much grief she probably didn’t know, but God knew.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night”,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
When Mary died, the love of her family, those who knew her best, helped usher her passing from this life to the next. One granddaughter held her hand while another one brushed her hair. Her daughters rubbed lotion into her arms, and fed her bites of chocolate ice cream. As many children and grandchildren as could fit in her room did, and they were all there when she crossed over the threshold.
I want to go home, she had said to my mother, who kissed her forehead and said, “I know”.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
When none of them as yet existed.
Before it could be proven that the world was round, the ocean was believed to stretch out forever, its glistening horizon being the most remote distance any human mind could imagine.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me.
Now of course we know where the oceans lead, we’ve crossed over that horizon many times, but the knowledge of God still eludes us. No matter how many of the earth’s mysteries we uncover there are still questions that go unanswered, secrets of life that the mountain holds deep to her core, and the ocean buries under miles and miles of liquid blue. If you listen carefully you might hear these secrets being passed on a winter’s day when the breeze rubs the empty tree limbs together; or when you walk by the sea and hear the shoreline lapping the sand. But even if you hear it, you will not understand it, for God’s knowledge is a knowledge made up of stardust and the grains of sand created when the world began; it is a cosmic and other-worldly knowledge, a knowledge that answered Job from the whirlwind, commanded the Red Sea to part, cried out on the cross and was met with silence-only to echo that silence on Sunday morning when the tomb was empty and the whole world was left wondering how a dead man rolled away that heavy boulder. Why, it is a knowledge that is simply too wonderful – something so high, that we cannot attain it.
Unable to reach this knowledge it chose instead to come to us. The knowledge of God showed up weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, comforting a grieving widow, and rejoicing when families were reunited.
The knowledge of God held the hands of those who were diseased, and ate supper with those who couldn’t afford their share of the bill. The knowledge of God knew who people were before they could even introduce themselves, and in response to their disbelief God’s knowledge would say, “I saw you before you saw yourself, and I have seen greater things than these.” (John 1:43-51)
Because, remember? God’s knowledge was there when it all got started, for in the beginning was the Word. God’s Word to us. You are not alone. I am with you. There is nowhere, not even death, where I am not.
So when Mary couldn’t find the words to write to Fred, or when she couldn’t express her deepest longings; or when she didn’t know how her heart could hold all that joy and grief at the same time, God knew. And when she finally passed from this life she didn’t go to God; she simply went with God to her new home. For God was already there. God is always there. Beginning to end; day to night; shoreline to mountain ridge, death to life. Days when our eyes continually fill with tears and days when we think we might burst with joy. In and through and around
and beyond all of that God is there.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
All praise be to God. Amen
Author’s Note: I preached this sermon on January 15, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich. I wrote this sermon during a week when my grandmother was dying. She passed away on the Wednesday before I was slated to preach. Because of my schedule I wasn’t able to return home for the funeral, scheduled for that Saturday, an experience with which many clergy can relate.
Photo by Serene Vannoy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/serenejournal/2056094568/ Used under Creative Common Lisense 2.0.