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Homily on the Commemoration of John Donne

The following sermon was preached by Benjamin M. Stewart, Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Dean of the Chapel, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, March 31, 2011.


Exodus 17:7

The people journeyed, thirsted, quarreled.

Moses prayed.

The staff struck rock, water gushed, the people drank.

And Moses named the place…  Massah and Meribah,

because [there] the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord.

Quarreling [Meribah] and testing [Massah] became inscribed into the landscape.

We might say that the “Holy Land” itself is inscribed by such naming:

  • Jacob was fleeing for his life from his brother Esau, and laid down to sleep in an unremarkable place with only a rock for a pillow (maybe also for a weapon), and then dreamt of angels-ascending-and-descending and the voice of God, and so woke up and set up what had been that head-rest-slash-weapon now as an altar and named it Beth-el, “the house of God.”
  • When David found a hiding place from Saul, that place was named “The Rock of Escape” or… as we refer to it in casual conversation, SEHla hamMAHleKOTH.
  • After their rapprochement with the Canaanites, the people hear God’s harsh rebuke and the ground on which their tears fall is named BohCHIM. Simply: weeping.
  • So the rock that could have served as a deadly weapon is instead turned toward prayer, and named the “house of God.”
  • A simple rise in the landscape becomes a monument named for God’s sheltering care.
  • While the tears quickly dry, their memory endures when that place is named weeping, BohCHIM.

 How do we know a place before it is named? The force of the name itself alters the landscape:

  • Golgotha, the place of the skull.
  • Bethlehem, the house of bread.
  • The mountain where Isaac is saved from sacrifice: the Lord will provide.
  • Massah, and Meribah. Testing, quarrelling.

Today we commemorate the life and witness of John Donne, poet and priest who died on this day in 1631. Donne’s writings are still studied for the way they re-name our world in surprising—even shocking—ways.

One of his most famous poems is like a sexy 16th century Marvin Gaye tune. You may know it—“The Flea.” It uses the unlikely image of a single flea drawing out blood from both the poet and the woman he is wooing, and the flea mingling those fluids inside its body, which Donne uses as a sort of psychedelic come-on to mingle just a little more. Not many poets can use fleas as an erotic image and make it work. But in Donne’s writing, it comes off smooth, as an epiphany, and I guarantee at this exact moment there’s somebody (probably in a dorm right across the street) rehearsing those 400-year-old lines to try to name their high hopes for their weekend.

Some of John Donne’s most famous lines are still in wide use in our cultures. Perhaps none more than the line, “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”  Hemingway used the line to name a novel. Our generations have known the song by the same name by Metallica.

Our culture tends to use that phrase, for whom the bell tolls, as a kind of morbid reference to a looming and evil death. To bring it right home to Lake Shore Drive, the Chicago Bears play that Metallica song, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” right before every kickoff and whenever they score a touchdown at Soldier Field. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, Green Bay.

But in its origins in Donne’s writings, that phrase actually named something very different, maybe even the opposite of how it’s used today. Donne was writing in his Meditations against a way of hearing the funeral bell tolling at the church as being about something distant and disconnected from one’s own self. Rather, Donne wanted to re-describe, re-name, the sound of the funeral bell, so that when we hear it, and know that another has died, because we are so knit together in God’s great love and care, because we are one family of created beings, we might hear the funeral bell as also calling out to us, tolling for us, and that we might respond with empathy and compassion.

Here’s the quote in its context:  ... any [human] death diminishes me, because I am involved in [Humankind]… therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee…

In its original context, this famous phrase isn’t about anything morbid, and certainly isn’t about gloating over the death of a rival. Rather, it is about re-naming all of life and even death—even the sound of the funeral bell—as being engulfed in a love that is large enough to hold us all and make us one.

Donne, in fact, begins that famous section by writing first about baptism:

The church is Catholic, universal, [and] so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries [any one], that action concerns me.

John Donne renames the funeral bell as a baptismal bell: calling out the most important burial we will ever know: our burial, our baptism, into Christ, our lives and deaths completely immersed in those floodwaters of God’s love and mercy.

Martin Luther King, on the night before his martyrdom, in some of the most discouraging days of the civil rights era, on a stormy night in Memphis, said in a sermon that he had looked out over the landscape of American, filled with news of violence and profound political polarization and endless foreign wars. The name he gave that desolated landscape? He said, “God has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! …Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Martin King, like a great poet, renamed our blood-soaked land, our way that with tears had been watered, and helped us know a promised land of God’s justice and peace as the goal of all our struggle and journey, our great exodus from the land of slavery.

We might think of Jesus as the great re-namer, the most powerful of poets. He walked the land and re-named for us those the world named with curses; he renamed them in word and deed, as blessed, holy, children of God. And it was of course Jesus, who taught John Donne to re-name the sound of the funeral bell as something not for us to fear, but rather as a call to rise of with Christ’s compassion, to resurrection life, even in the face of death. It is Jesus who has so re-named and re-mapped our world that he could even draw us here, to this rather unlikely place at 55th and University! Like the poet John Donne, Jesus speaks strange names, draws unexpected maps! 

In the pilot episode of the TV show Arrested Development, Michael, the narrator, explains how his grown brother, Buster, has taken course after course in every imaginable esoteric subject. His most recent course had been one in cartography. The episode flashes back to Michael asking Buster about the course,  "Hasn't everything sorta been discovered, though, by like Magellan, Cortés, NASA?" Buster responds, Oh, yeah, yeah, those people. Those guys did a pretty good job…” In this scene, the idea that the world needs any more mapping, that our world needs any more cartography students, is a joke—because everything’s already been settled, mapped and named.

Well, sisters and brothers, welcome to the Lutheran School of Cartography at Chicago.

There is indeed a myth that all-important mapmaking has been accomplished… that Magellan, Cortes, NASA and others have set it down in stone. That the names that matter in our world have been inscribed indelibly by our immigration status, our family history, the appearance of our body, the status (or lack of status) associated with our jobs, our sickness or health, how much money we have, where we live, even where we are sent by the church. Often speaking different names and drawing different maps than the world, seminary is partly a school of cartography, where we learn to call each other, the landscape we live in, and those we will serve, by the most true of names.

At the font, in the pulpit, at the table, among the poor, at the sickbed, with the imprisoned, beside the grave—how can we know these places before they have been named?  You sisters and brothers have been called to speak the word that names the truth of the valley of the shadow, the place of weeping, the mountain where the Lord provides, from Massah and Meribah to the Promised Land. The world needs pastor-poets, and musician-poets, and scholar-poets who will help us know the names of the places we live, and how to know our own name.

But those in cartography school, before setting out to map the world, probably need to spend time listening to the Great Poet who calls us by our true names. How can we know ourselves before we have been named? As we sing now listen to your own name being called, you, your life, grafted into the living tree of Jesus Christ. A tree planted by streams of water, bearing good fruit. Listen to the way that Jesus Christ, like a ringing bell, calls out our own name to us.

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