“Praise the Mutilated World” – Sermon for memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Joe McLelland

I had the privilege, today, of preaching at the memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Joseph McLelland, former Professor of Religious Studies at McGill University and Faculty member of The Presbyterian College. I share that sermon here.
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Over these past few weeks, as I spent a bit of time surveying the life of Joe McLelland, it struck me what a relative novice I am in the world of ministry and in the world of the academy – wet behind the ears, really! In the year of my birth, Joe had already served fifteen years in ministry – in the year of my birth, he had already 15 years into his academic career here in Montreal. When Joe was publishing his early essays and was teaching his first classes at McGill, I was, as my wife and I have taught our kids to say, still only in the mind of God. This is to say, among other things, that his academic career was full, that his contributions to church and college were many, and that his faithful service to the church was long.

When I arrived in Montreal for theological studies at The Presbyterian College in 1999, I encountered Professor McLelland, as I have mostly known him. And the first memory I have of him comes from the community lunches held each Wednesday at the college. During those lunches Professor McLelland and Professor Bob Cully would sit across from each other exchanging smart-ass comments that kept all of us much entertained. There is a real gift in that, it seems to me – the theology professor as human – if I may, the theology professor as smart ass. This is a theologian, after all, who would write essays with titles such as “The Comic Society,” and “In Praise of Crocodiles.” This is a theologian who could write that “the art of clowning is the humane art in which we find our way to the center, the definite place at which God promises to meet us.”

A few years after my introduction to Professor McLelland and his humour, I encountered him also as a teacher in a grad seminar at McGill where we explored the philosophical theology of Søren Kierkegaard – delving into the question of how we know God – exploring what it means that our faith is beyond reason. Joe McLelland not only taught, of course – he also published extensively over his career, most recently as editor of the Peter Martyr Library – a collection of English translations of the works of Peter Martyr Vermigli, the 16th century theologian and philosopher. It’s interesting to me that Joe’s earliest writing – his doctoral work of the 1950’s – explored the knowledge of God in Vermigli’s writings – the same question he was exploring with us in our graduate seminar some fifty years later. How do we know God? Are there reliable pathways to the knowledge of God? The title of another of Joe’s more popular essays is instructive in this regard: “Clues for a God in hiding.” Joe often took up the hard questions. And he refused the too-easy answers offered by many.

There is much more that could be said, and has been said, and will be said about the life and work of Joe McLelland. But I take it as my primary task this morning, as a minister of the gospel, to offer a word of gospel – to offer a word of good news as we give thanks for Joe’s life and as we acknowledge the gap that his death leaves in a congregation, the gap his death leaves within the wider church, and the gap his death leaves within a close circle of family and friends.

As I approach that task today, I’m going to do so in a slightly unorthodox way – by turning to the words of a contemporary poet rather than to the words of scripture – the scriptures we define as gospel. I suspect that Joe himself might have appreciated a slightly unorthodox approach – he never seemed too worried about venturing to the edges of faith where heresy dwells – for the simple reason that such venturing often draws us into a deeper and more lively faith than we had imagined possible.

The poem to which I turn is written by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski – translated into English by Claire Cavanaugh. The poetry of Zagajewski is rich and compelling – his words are evocative of worlds I would love to encounter. This particular poem takes us into a world in many ways alien to our own: It is originally written in Polish. It is written by a catholic, and someone who describes himself as a bad Catholic. The poem originates in a visit the poet made with his father to their ancestral family village, a village formerly in Poland but swallowed up by Ukraine as a result of the former Soviet Union’s hungry grasping after power and territory. The village was long abandoned when Zagajewski visited it with his father.

Let me read the poem to begin – it is included as an insert in your bulletin.

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

There is something perverse about this poem, of course. Its refrain is a kind of perversity:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You should praise the mutilated world.
A final imperative: Praise the mutilated world.

We hardly need a reminder that we inhabit a mutilated world. In our personal lives we are confronted with the pain of loss, with failures of body and mind, with broken relationships, with the death of loved ones, with anxiety and depression. In the public context, also, it is hard to deny we live in such a world. An eruption of violence at a mosque targets men practicing their faith. Violence north of the border here in Canada – and an eruption of close-mindedness and xenophobia south of the border. Expanding our gaze globally, just momentarily, today there are conditions of famine in South Sudan, and there is relative indifference in the prosperous west.

Is it not a kind of perversity to think of praising this mutilated world? A perversity to think of praising a world full of personal and public pain. How to praise this mutilated world? Why to praise this mutilated world? Is it because this is the only world we have? Is it because we know that if we fail to praise this mutilated world then the only thing left to us will be cynicism and despair – the only thing left to us will be to resent this world, to resent our losses, to resent the pain experienced within it. Perhaps we must praise the mutilated world because we cannot bear the thought of the alternative – a life of cynicism and resentment.

Or perhaps the poet’s call to praise the mutilated world is rooted in Zagajewski’s awareness that this world is an odd admixture of delight and grief – this world is both joy and pain, both ecstasy and agony, both comedy and tragedy – as Joe would say, both clown and crocodile. In this poem of Zagajewski, yes there is a village overgrown with nettles, there are ships sunk in the deep, there are refugees heading nowhere. Yet he sets these difficult realities alongside music at a concert, acorns gathered in the park, stylish yachts on the water, a curtain fluttering in the breeze. The poet draws our attention to the mixed nature of our world and our experiences. This is admixture is embodied especially in the tender and subtle image of a grey feather, lost by a thrush – in one image, beauty, and delicacy, and loss, together.

If we are to called to praise the mutilated world, perhaps it is because there is no perfect world of delight and joy to praise – no utopia over the horizon. This is the only world we have – and if we are to praise the beauty we discover and the joy we experience and laughter we have lived – then it will have to be this mutilated world that we praise. This world – the one that holds our joyful memories of life with Joe McLelland and others we have loved; and this world that also holds our regret over things said or over things left unsaid; this world that holds our delight and laughter and learning with friends; and this world that holds the pain of fellow travellers near and far. Praise the real world we inhabit, broken and beautiful.

But perhaps there is even more to be said. Perhaps the invitation to praise the mutilated world finds its logic also in the call we have received to praise the mutilated God. The only God we know, the only God we worship – the God we praise with lute and harp, the God we praise with timbrel and dancing, the God we praise with stringed instruments and flutes, the God we praise with loud clashing cymbals – this God is the mutilated God. The only God we know is the God who enters our beautiful, mutilated world, and who bears the marks of that world’s brokenness and suffering. The only God we know is the God who in Jesus Christ bears the mutilated world into the very life of God.

In his essay, “The Festival of Death”, over-against the idea of a God who is only distant and uninvolved – only a dispassionate observer – Joe McLelland puts it this way: “Gospel is exactly this insight into the God who is willing to change for the sake of the human…God is free even to suffer, and to choose such real suffering that it changes God, marks God with signs of human experience, human nature, human destiny.”

To praise the mutilated world is to praise a world that has been embraced and carried into the very life of God. The risen Jesus; the vindicated Jesus; the ascended Jesus, the one who is God with us, has carried our mutilated world into the life of God. Gospel is this proclamation that human scars now belong to God. Gospel is this proclamation that human brokenness has been drawn into the divine dance of Father, Son, and Spirit. To praise the mutilated world is to praise the real world, embraced by God.

We could put it slightly differently, like this:

God will not be God without us.
God will only be God with us.

And perhaps we can say this also:

The world will never be the world without God’s embrace of it.
The world will never be the world without Jesus’ love encircling it.
The world will never be the world without the Holy Spirit enlivening it.
The world will never be the world without the light of Christ infusing it.

Light. Zagjewki’s poem concludes with a play of light – a gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.

This mutilated world is alive with the light of Christ.
This mutilated world is alive with the grace of Christ.
This mutilated world is saturated with the love of Christ.

It is not so much that God refuses to be found – but that we lack the faith to see Christ in the world. The light and grace of Christ are found where his forgiveness and his reconciliation and his love and his peace and his generosity and his righteousness are expressed. These are the clues for a God in hiding. This is what faith believes, and this is what faith seeks – to see the light of Christ in the world, and to be the light of Christ in the world.  Forgiveness, love, peace, generosity, righteousness.  These are the clues for a God in hiding – the clues for a God who wills to be found in the midst of a broken world.

So then:

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

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2 thoughts on ““Praise the Mutilated World” – Sermon for memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Joe McLelland

    • Thank you, Brian. I was grateful to have had some time between Joe’s passing and this memorial service – it meant being able to give a little more time and care to the words offered. And it was a gift for me to go deeper into who he was and try to share something of that. Be well.

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