July 23, 2017 – Kate Davis

I came home from preschool with a construction paper craft and proudly put it on the fridge. That day we’d learned about traffic safety — green means go, red means stop. To fortify this message, we made cut-out traffic lights — red, yellow, green.

My mom complimented my jagged circles and uneven pasting before offering a corrective: Peanut, you’ve hung it upside down.

To which I responded, with complete sincerity: No I didn’t.

Yes, the red light goes on top, and green on the bottom.

No, green goes on top and red goes on the bottom.

Honey, I see traffic lights all the time. I know which way they go.

At this point I’m getting combative: Green goes on top. We just learned this in school.

My mom, who is a much wiser and more patient person than I, sighed and said: okay.

Around the same time — I was maybe 4 — my grandmother had sewn me a butter-yellow summer dress, hand embroidered across the top. I took one look at it and announced, “I don’t wear yellow.” My mom — my poor mother — whispered to me, explaining that Grandma, who you love, went to a lot of effort to make it for you. Don’t you at least want to try it on? They sighed and went downstairs, and eventually my conscience — in my mom’s voice — got the best of me and I put it on… and went downstairs, and said, “Are you happy now, Grandma?”

I was a stubborn kid. No, that implies that I’ve somehow outgrown my stubbornness. I am a stubborn person. And no matter how patient my mom was with me, how much she tried to explain or prove, once I had made up my mind about something, that was it.

We laugh about these stories now, but at the time I can picture my mom’s confusion, frustration, embarrassment. Hadn’t she planted good seeds in her daughter? Where was this deep-rooted weed of stubbornness coming from?

I’ll admit that there are times that I wish my stubbornness could be weeded out, too. I’ve been in the middle of fights over stupid things, and think to myself, What can’t I just concede? even as I’m vehemently debating for my point.

I’ve hated my stubbornness. I wished to be naturally more pleasant. More “nice.” Certainly, when I was in a stage of life of dating, my romantic life would have been much easier if I had naturally been inclined towards being a polite girl who silently nods with interest at the right moments. But I often couldn’t seem to let my ideas and opinions remain silent.

I lamented: What made me this way? Why can’t I just nod and smile? Haven’t good seeds been planted in me?

A couple years ago, my parents came to visit for my graduation. At the school’s open house, they mingled with my fellow graduates and met my professors. Dwight was one of my professors, and not one I’d say I was particularly close to. He and I had our differences. And we voiced them in debates that took over class time, most often without resolution.

So it’s the open house, I introduce my family to Dwight, Dwight to my family, and Dwight looks straight at my parents and opens with: “Your daughter is so stubborn.”

My parents were shocked — not that he had diagnosed me as stubborn; they knew that better than anyone. They were shocked that the people who were granting me a degree in being a pastor knew that I had bad traits. Not quite recovered, they laughed and agreed, “Yes, she is.” I’m on the sideline thinking What the heck, man?

And then Dwight continued, “Your daughter is so stubborn, and the Church is so blessed to have her. The church is in a season of transition; Seattle is one of the top cities of de-churched adults; this is a dying field of work. The Church needs people with the kind of tenacity and fortitude of your daughter, now more than any other time in history.”

I tell this story not to tell you how lucky you all are to have me.

I tell this story because it seems to illustrate the truth of this morning’s parable: The very thing that we want to rip from the soil of our character might be intertwined with the very best of our character.

Or, in shorthand: Despite our tendency to focus on our sinfulness, we are all sinners and saints.

Last week we read another parable, about a sower who throws his seeds onto a path, rocky ground, among thorns, and fertile soil. Canon Britt taught that each of us is soil, and none of us is bad soil. Jesus shares the good news with everyone, believing that no one is inherently “bad soil.”

This week, Jesus says: You are not defined by the weedy parts of your soul.

I don’t think it goes too far to say that many of us hate of ourselves. There are aspects we despise, traits we hate, characteristics that we believe are dark, shadowy sides that we long to uproot and burn.

And it’s those very traits that we hate in ourselves that we also can’t tolerate in others. The very places we don’t receive grace for ourselves, we are unable to extend grace to others. Perhaps we even despise them as much as we despise ourselves.

Jesus says, “Do not uproot the weeds, for you would uproot the wheat with them. Let them grow together.”

Jesus accepts the weedy parts of our souls. He acknowledges that they exist and he calls a weed a weed, but his firmness that they be allowed to grow makes me wonder if perhaps nothing is as bad as the hatred of the bad, the desire to remove it, to obliterate it.

Julian of Norwich had visions of Jesus — this was in 13th century England. Afterward, she recorded entire conversations that they had had. Jesus told her “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” And she asked Jesus, “How can all be well when great harm has come to your creatures through sin?” And he responded, “Since I have brought good out of the worst-ever evil, I want you to know by this; that I shall bring good out of all lesser evils, too.”

Later Jesus tells her, “Sin shall not be a shame to humans, but a glory.”

This isn’t a license to get away with bad behavior, but an invitation to complexity. An invitation to understand your weeds and how they might be intertwined with your best qualities. An invitation to receive grace and extend it to your own self. It would be easy to simply strive for perfection; tolerating our weeds requires compassion, love, patience. It might be that the only perfection can hope to attain is in accepting and blessing our imperfections.

For years I lived wanting my stubbornness to be rooted out and burnt up. But then someone saw a weed — saw my stubbornness — and said, “This is also good.” He saw how entangled the roots are with traits that I need — traits the world needs. And in that moment, I began to re-narrate my life. The same stubborn child that said “I don’t wear yellow” became the stubborn adolescent who said “I don’t wear clothes from companies whose advertisements promote anorexia.” The stubborn child who said “green goes on top” became the young adult who refuses to accept that the wealthy belong on top of society.

It’s in our own interior lives that we learn to acknowledge complexity, to accept shadows, and to live in grace. Only once we’ve received that grace, are we truly free to extend it to others.

In a few moments, we’ll confess our sins to God and neighbor. As we approach confession today, I’m thinking about what it means to be a good neighbor to myself, what it means for the narrating, judging voice in my head to be a good neighbor to my behaviors. If God can receive me not just for my wheat, but with all my weeds, who am I to reject myself?

But before we get to the confession, we’ll profess the Nicene Creed, and in it, our belief in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Which means that in our order of worship, we profess our belief that we are all already forgiven, well before we confess. Perhaps we are even able to confess because we have already been forgiven.

Jesus doesn’t deny our weeds, but he does accept them, and he loves the entire field of our being with the weeds yet intact.

May you let wheat and weed grow together. May you come to bless the weedy parts of your soul and know grace in your bones.  And may you be freed to extend that grace to everyone you encounter — even in their weediest moments.

 

Easter 4 – May 7, 2017 – Kate Davis

If you’ve spent much time churches, you might (like me) have a little bit of baggage with scripture in general, and shepherd imagery in particular.

I think we like to use shepherding stories for children. They’re so … pastoral. So tame. Sheep are so soft and cuddly and kid-friendly.

My childhood lessons of the gospel passage we read this morning focused on one verse: Jesus says “I am the gate, whoever enters by me will be saved”. The lessons focused on some variation of: gates keep good things in and bad things out. Gatekeeper Jesus defends us against the evils of the world so that they never come near us. The important thing, I heard, is to be inside the gate where it’s safe — far from dark valleys where evil and atheists lurk.

But if Jesus is the gate, and the point of believing in Jesus is to be safe — then how do we explain disease, addiction, depression, loss, abuse, and the innumerable other ways that people suffer — and yes, even people who follow Jesus, and yet suffer? Is our gate broken?

It’s only in looking at these “good shepherd” passages as an adult that I’m beginning to realize how much of the text was left out in my childhood verse memorization. Jesus doesn’t stop after “I am the gate, whoever enters by me will be saved” — he continues “whoever enters by me will be saved — and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus says that the shepherd’s job is to call the sheep and lead them out. Which is a very different image than being locked in. Jesus seems to have a goal other than our safety.

The shepherd leads us out of the gated area — out into the world. Out to green pastures, out beside still waters.

//

And out into the darkest valley.

On Friday, I attended the funeral of my friends’ stillborn child.

Months ago, the couple learned that their baby had a genetic disorder. They found out so early that they had the option to terminate the pregnancy, but they decided to parent as best they could for as long as they could. They decided to see where the experience might lead them.

A few days past her due date, their daughter was small but kicking — until she wasn’t. My friend labored for a child she knew would be stillborn — labored, it must have felt, not to bring about life, but for death.

After the funeral service, the grieving mother and I embraced, and as she pulled away she noticed her hand, covered with the ashes of her daughter and the dirt she had, just moments before, buried her with. As she ended the hug and noticed, she instinctively apologized, and we looked at her hand. In a holy half-second, we beheld the messy and dark reality of death. All I could think was, this woman walks through the darkest valley.

And she is not in that valley because she doesn’t love Jesus, or doesn’t follow God. She is not in that valley because she wandered away from the good shepherd. She didn’t choose a path that God wasn’t on. Rather, she is in a dark valley precisely because she was present and attentive to where God led her. She was present to her daughter. She is present to her experience of motherhood. And she is present to her grief.

[Pause.]
Both the psalmist and Jesus know that there are rhythms to life. We enter the fold for sustaining rest, and we go out from the fold to encounter both the beauty and the darkness of the world. We enter the gate and we exit. We lie down in green pastures, and walk in dark valleys. Sometimes the two are closer together than we would expect.

It strikes me that we read these texts in the Easter season. We read about the walking through the valley of the shadow of death when the memory of Christ’s death is so recent. We state, in the psalm, that even while walking through the darkest valley, we fear no evil — when the memory of Christ’s resurrection is fresh. The Good Shepherd is the one who has willingly walked into the darkest valley without fear — and has showed us that death and darkness are not the end of the story.

These texts, today, make me rethink the whole purpose of the spiritual life. As a child, what was emphasized was safety. As an adult, I doubt that safety is at all the point. God doesn’t seem ultimately concerned that I’m protected from the dark realities of the world. Safety does not seem to be the goal. Preservation does not seem to be the goal.

Jesus tells us that he came that we “might have life, and have it abundantly.” That word “abundantly” is the translation we use for a word that conveys a sense of “an extraordinary amount; going beyond what is necessary.” I love that — that Jesus came for “life beyond what is necessary.”

The goal of spiritual walk, then, is perhaps life beyond what is necessary — life beyond simple self-preservation. Perhaps the spiritual life is about becoming a person who regularly passes through the gate. Becoming a person who is willing to walk in dark places, and can tolerate the fear of darkness.
Perhaps it’s about becoming a person who knows there is no path that God is not already on. A person who trusts that there will be green pastures again, despite the darkness of the valleys in which he sometimes find himself. A person who can be present to the joy and the grief in her midst. A person who acknowledges evil — and yet does not fear it.

Jesus doesn’t promise that we’ll stay inside the safe fold of the gate. And the psalmist doesn’t write only of green pastures and cool waters. Indeed, the psalm seems to take for granted that we will walk dark valleys.

But we are reassured that we never walk them alone.

Cleopas and his companion, who was a fellow disciple, perhaps a woman, maybe even his wife, were discouraged, anxious and certainly confused. It was Sunday evening, just a few days since the death of Jesus. The shock and horror of his crucifixion was still very powerfully in their minds. It was the image they imagined every time their eyes were closed.

This was not how it was all supposed to turn out. This was not the result they expected when Jesus finally entered Jerusalem in triumph just over a week ago when the palm branches were laid at his feet. No one anticipated the rank power of politics, the fickle nature of crowds and the scheming of those who were threatened by the message and very person of Jesus. Now he was dead. The promise of change and a new life ended with him. His followers were afraid and in despair.

Then there was the strange message from those who had been at the tomb where the body of Jesus was placed. The women had seen a vision of angels. The other disciples confirmed that the tomb was empty. There was a claim that he was alive. No one knew what to make of all of this. It was too overwhelming. They weren’t sure they were ready to hope again, to trust again, to offer themselves to the possibilities of a new way and a new kingdom when it had all just collapsed.

Cleopas and his companion just wanted to get away from it all. They took the road to Emmaus. We don’t know why. Maybe they didn’t really know why. The journey gets them out of town. Like many before and since, they took the geographical solution to their sorrow and stress.

You know what it’s like when you are on a long walk or hike, covering the miles one step at a time. There is time to think. There’s time to talk things over, to consider and reflect. Walking does more than get you from point A to point B. Walking is transition time. Those who make pilgrimages remind us that “the way is made by walking.”

So it is for Cleopas and his companion. They begin to walk with a stranger, a stranger who starts by listening to all that they had recently experienced. The stranger listens as they pour out all they had experienced, the message and teaching that had changed their lives, the crucifixion and death that had crushed them, their dashed hopes, their sadness and grief, and the strange rumor that their Lord might be alive. The stranger listens and listens and listens.

Finally he speaks. He speaks to them of the everlasting love of God as revealed in the Hebrew Scripture. He reminds them of the promises God made to Moses, Miriam, and countless prophets. Their hearts, which were cold and shuttered, began to beat and burn as they remember all that they knew and had experienced of God.

When they reach Emmaus they’re not ready to say “good-bye.” They offer hospitality. They share a meal. When it’s time for the traditional prayer over the bread, the stranger takes the role of host. In the ancient Jewish tradition, he takes the uncut loaf of bread and raises it high, chanting the blessing. He breaks the bread so that he might give it to each of them. And in that moment, at last their eyes are opened and they recognize him, not just as a teacher of Scripture or as a companion along the way, but as the One to whom the Scriptures point and as the One who has gone before them on the journey from death to life.

Jesus walks with them in their grief and sorrow. Jesus opens the Scripture to reveal the grace and mercy of God. Jesus breaks bread and shares it to create the new community of love in his presence.

When disciples experience Jesus as he is revealed in the Scripture and the breaking of the bread, they get up from the table and practically run all the way back to Jerusalem so that they can share the good news with others. Lives are turned around at the revelation of the risen Christ. Hope springs anew. There is new purpose and promise. The body of Christ is restored and re-membered by the power of his presence at the table.

The Emmaus experience is not a one-time event but a universal offering for those who follow the risen One. Jesus has promised to be with us every time we gather at table in his name. He has promised to send his Spirit to open the Scriptures to us so that our hearts may burn with hope and be stirred by God’s passion for justice. Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. Christ is revealed in Scripture. And just like those first disciples, we are compelled to leave this table to share good news with renewed passion and purpose.

Have you ever thought about why we break bread together at this table every week? Have you ever questioned why we use real bread instead of wafers? Maybe you’ve even wondered where the bread we use comes from. It looks homemade because it is. Every month a woman named Sally spends the better part of a day mixing, shaping and baking bread for St. Luke’s and for her home church. She has been doing this as a gift to us for nearly two years.

Sally and her husband were not practicing Christians most of their lives. They were busy running a small business and raising a family. They were good secular folks, ethical and generous. When they were in their late 50s, they met the pastor of a nearby church when he became a customer. Over the course of time they got to know him and he invited them to come to church.

They visited, they came to the table, they took part in the breaking of the bread, they joined the “Way,” which is like our Spiritual Pilgrimage and walked the journey of faith with their companions. Their eyes were opened in new ways. Their hearts burned with new compassion. Ken became a sponsor for other new folks. Sally started baking bread.  For her it’s a spiritual discipline, a time for prayer and to draw close to Jesus.

This past month their journey took them into grief and deep sorrow. Although her husband’s health is not good, it wasn’t a health crisis for him but rather the suicide of their beloved granddaughter that overwhelmed them and their whole family. Sally and Ken are the only Christians in their extended family. Their son and his wife didn’t know where to turn for the funeral of their beloved daughter. Sally and Ken offered the help of their own church. They were confident that the loving welcome that had introduced them to God would be offered for all.

The service was held right after Easter. The pastor helped the family by choosing Scripture that speaks to an Easter hope in the midst of the sorrow of death. The table was open for those who wished to draw close to the presence of Christ in bread and wine. Of course, Sally baked the bread. Surrounding the family and all those who grieved was the Christian community, the companions along the way who shared with Sally, Ken and the entire family the faith, hope and love that they had experienced in the Body of Christ, the Word made flesh in that place.

Sally and Ken’s family had never really understood this late-in-life conversion of their parents. But something changed as they were offered hospitality during the very worst that life can deliver. Their eyes were opened as they saw Christ in the community. Their hearts were moved by the words of hope and healing they heard in Scripture. And as they witnessed Christ offered for all in the sacrament of bread and wine, they cried. They wept in sorrow but also in hope that the same one who broke bread with outcasts and sinners, the One who walked the long journey of grief with Cleopas and his companion, this Jesus who offers himself for all will welcome their beloved daughter to the great heavenly banquet of unending love. Amen.

Easter 3, Year A – April 30, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

 

 

Easter 2 – April 23, 2017 – Kate Davis

Today, we begin Week 2 of Easter, but in our gospel text today, the disciples are still on first Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Earlier in the day, Mary went to the tomb and wept. She spoke with angels, embraced her Rabbi, and preached the first post-resurrection sermon to the disciples, saying “I have seen the Lord!”

Just hours later, that very evening, we read about the disciples meeting in a room — locked up, in fear of their spiritual leaders, fear of being recognized for their relationship with Jesus.

Did they not believe Mary’s sermon? Or was their fear about what was happening on the other side of that door so overpowering that it clouded over any joy they had initially experienced?

Our friend Thomas the Twin isn’t with the rest of the disciples in their fear — the text gives no explanation as to where he is.

I say “our friend” because we recently heard about Thomas in the story of Lazarus’s death and resurrection. It was Thomas who said, “Let us go to Lazarus, that we may die with him.” I like Thomas. He feels so deeply. In that comment about dying with Lazarus, he invites us into the reality that any of us who has grieved knows: That when someone dies, it’s as though we die with them.

So when we hear, in today’s text, of Thomas’s so-called “doubt” — the moment when he says he wants to touch the wounds of Jesus — I suspect there’s more going on for him than doubt alone. Doubt is an intellectual concept and Thomas — he’s so heartfelt. In his response to Lazarus’s death, I know Thomas to be a man who knows that death is real, that trauma can’t be easily forgotten or overcome, that suffering lingers and remains. It seems that Thomas knows suffering can remain even after the impossibly-good-thing of resurrection happens.

Thomas knows, apparently without being told, that Jesus will have wounds. Not even healed over scars, but wounds. Open wounds — wounds he assumes he can put his fingers and hands inside. Something about Thomas’s deep feeling means that he knows he can’t move on until he acknowledges the reality of the woundedness, feels its literal depth for himself.

*                       *                       *

A few years ago, an art collective that works to disrupt rape culture made a memorial for survivors of rape. Floating in the quiet waters of the reflection pool of the Washington Memorial were their giant letters — each one taller than I stand — in bright red. The text was the entirety of a poem by an anonymous rape survivor. Floating peacefully before the monument, it read, “I can’t forget what happened, but no one else remembers.”

The wounds that many of us carry do not show on the body. Rape is just one example. The marks of physical abuse may fade, but the wounds sometimes don’t. Verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse are invisible all along. Death of a loved one. Addiction to substances or behaviors. Even though the wounds we carry may not show on our bodies, the enspirited wounding is very real. For some of us, we can’t forget what happened, and it feels like no one else remembers.

For those of us who can’t forget, Thomas might be our patron saint. For Thomas, it is the wounds that are the point of entry into the resurrection reality. When Lazarus died, Thomas experienced death. And now, it’s Easter, and he can’t get to the good news of resurrection without going through death again.

In Thomas, those of us who can’t forget are invited to tell the truth about our wounds. And Jesus does not turn away from that truth. The Resurrected Christ models for us: he shows, without shame, the effects of the worst thing that ever happened to him. He allows Thomas to enter into his pain — in a very physical, deeply intimate way, to enter into his wounds and to penetrate his experiences. The Resurrected Christ invites us to see and touch the site of pain.

What strikes me most about Jesus is his openness with his wounds. In his first appearance to the disciples, in that locked room of fear, the gospel-author writes:

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.

Jesus has a kind of casual insistence that they look at his wounds. There are no pleasantries, no catching up — there isn’t even any rejoicing at his presence, until after he’s opened up his robe to show his wounds. Without being asked.

And the blessing he greets them with, “Peace be with you.” Christ knows that a sense of peace that passes all understanding is exactly what we need to be able to witness to suffering and to encounter woundedness.

I think, in part, that Jesus can show his wounds so openly because he knows that the wounds don’t define him. The worst thing that’s ever happened in his life is not who he is. I might even go so far as to say that the way he bears his wounds — openly, insistently, vulnerably — I think that tells us more about his identity than the fact that he is wounded.

*                       *                       *

Around this time last year, I wrote a Facebook post in response to the “memories” feature on Facebook, a feature that shows what you posted on the same day in previous years. I hadn’t realized, until then, that much of the unsettledness and despair I feel each April comes from a kind of cyclical re-wounding, like my body remembers, even if I don’t. I wrote that, the first weekend of April 2009, I was raped. The first weekend of April the following year, my marriage ended as a direct result of that rape. Same weekend the year after that, my career was disrupted — largely as a result of my breakup. And the same weekend in 2015, I turned in my master’s thesis on grief and grace — a project that helped me make sense of each of those previous events. Last year, I wrote in that epiphanic post that I’m grateful for the ways the really painful experiences formed me, so much so that on some days I’m able to love the thing I most wish had not happened.

You could say that I stuck my hand in the wound.

I wrote the reflection, in part, because our cultural silence around the very real effects of rape don’t help anyone. And I wrote it because I can’t forget what happened, but no one else remembers.

In the days following, I was surprised at the number of comments. And surprised, further, that the majority of them included the words: “thank you.” I wept, more than once, when people sought me out at church or school to share their wounds with me — to tell me of experiences they had previously kept hidden. It was as though multitudes were appearing to say, “Peace be with you,” and drawing their robes aside to show where the sword had cut. Sharing led to much deeper connection.

*                       *                       *

Why wasn’t Thomas in that room with the rest of the disciples on that first Resurrection Sunday? Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t locked in fear. Perhaps he believed Mary’s sermon so strongly that he felt free to be in the world, a way-maker for post-resurrection life. Perhaps he’s Thomas the Believer, guiding the disciples out of the room — out of their fear — sending them into the world. Perhaps he sticks around the next week to help the other disciples get to the bottom of this pain, feel around the wound, make meaning of it.

What if we, like the disciples, are invited to witness the deep wound of the Resurrected One?

What if we, like Thomas, are allowed to penetrate the deep hurt of the Divine?

*                       *                       *

What if, like Christ, we’re invited to expose the worst thing that ever happened to us, or the worst thing we ever did? What if we didn’t secretly and shamefully hide our wounds because we know that they do.not.define.us?

Alleluia, Christ HAS risen, and IS risen, and the resurrection continues to occur, each time we are honest about our own wounds, each time we witness the wounds of another, always secure in our identity as Children of God, as Beloved Disciples, as the Body of Christ.

Peace be with you, Beloved Ones.

Peace be with you.

Easter Sunday Sermon, Canon Britt Olson

Happy Easter!  Here at St. Luke’s we have been getting ready for the past 125 years just so we can welcome you on this happy morning and share with you the joy of new life in Christ. The Church throughout the world has been preparing for over 2,000 years so that you might join the saints who have gone before, our brothers and sisters in every nation and the host of heaven in the great proclamation, “Christ is risen!”

Each year Easter is preceded by Holy Week, beginning with Palm or Passion Sunday. What was your Holy Week like this year? Did you experience with the earliest followers of Jesus the events and emotions of the last week of his life?  Traditionally we enter into Christ’s passion through prayer, confession, foot washing, a holy meal, silence, and the adoration or Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. These are ancient practices that often don’t fit into our busy, modern lives.  But even if you didn’t came to church this past week, you probably experienced something of what Holy Week is like.

Maybe this past Palm Sunday you woke up to images of Coptic Christian worshippers at a church and Cathedral in Egypt who had been killed or wounded by bombs that went off while they were waving their palms and singing their praise to God.

Or perhaps you heard about or saw images of Pope Francis on Holy Thursday washing the feet of prisoners as an act of humble service, inspired by Jesus’s final commandment to love others as he loves us. I have a lot of Christian friends in South Sudan, which is currently in crisis because of famine and a civil war. My Facebook feed had photos of my friend Cathy washing the feet of some of the many orphaned girls she has sheltered at her rescue organization, Confident Children out of Conflict, in a church with no windows and only dirt floors.

On Good Friday, you may not have had a chance to listen to the Passion Gospel read aloud or to spend time at the foot of the cross, but you probably heard that our government dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal in Afghanistan.  Perhaps you were struck by the irony of calling this the “mother of all bombs” on the day when we remember the agony of Mary, the mother of Jesus as she watched her son die a horrific and violent death.

Closer to home, this Good Friday I stood by helplessly as two exhausted and homeless women took shelter in our courtyard. One of them slept on a bench, while the other simply passed out on our stairs. And even though we had fed them, offered to help find them temporary shelter and prayed with and for them, they continue to suffer and be in sorrow, fear and danger.

So how was your Holy Week? What condition are you in as you come to this Sunday of the Resurrection? How is it with your heart? What are you passionate about? What causes you to burn with anger or calls you to take new risks? Do you struggle with hopelessness, despair or confusion? Are you grieving? This Holy Week many of us looked for hope and life but often all we saw was death.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to that first day of the week, the first day of the resurrection overwhelmed with sorrow and with broken hearts. They grieved as those who had lost all hope. The love of their lives, the light of their world, the promised one had been brutally beaten and strung up to die in front of them. Everything they had expected and longed for was destroyed. Nothing had turned out as they had planned. Not only would Jesus be unable to change the government and reform society, but they were headed for a brutal crackdown on all they believed in. Their friends and fellow disciples were hiding in fear that they might be the next to be picked up by the authorities.

Early in the morning as first light was dawning, they went to see the tomb where the body of Jesus lay. Like many whose lives have been turned upside down by death, they needed to be as close as possible to the body of their beloved. Death had separated them. The power of the state and of the religious establishment had destroyed him. His own close followers had betrayed, denied and failed him. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary could not/would not let him go.

They came to the tomb as dawn was breaking. They came with no expectation, nothing to gain, their hope and faith in tatters. As Matthew tells the story, something upended them. Something turned everything upside down. Something made their broken hearts beat uncontrollably and blinded their eyes with its brightness. The ground shook, the stone rolled away and they were confronted with a being and message that they could not comprehend. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

Nothing would ever be the same. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did what their hearts longed to do. They knelt down. They touched the damaged feet of Jesus.

They offered their service and their devotion to him as he had offered his love and service to his disciples in the washing of their feet. Joy and fear all rolled up into one bundle of emotion and energy, propelling them up and away to share the news, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”

The Marys weren’t alone that morning. The Roman guards witnessed the exact same angelic being and heard the same message. They saw the same empty tomb and were just as amazed that the body of Jesus was gone. But, their reaction was different. They shook with fear. They became like dead men. The Mary’s hearts came alive wondrously at the message, but the guards nearly died from fear and dismay.

What’s the difference? Both the guards and the women were present at the empty tomb. Both knew that something seemingly impossible had happened. I love the simple truth that children often bring us. Just a couple of weeks ago when we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus, one of our super smart kids said, “That’s not possible.”  No one expected this. No one looked for it. Two different groups experienced it and they each reacted differently. Why?

Love is the reason why. Love makes all the difference. Fear sees the impossible and falls apart. Love sees the glorious impossible and leans into it. After that horrendous final, Holy Week, after all the pain and sorrow and suffering, love sees and believes. As the light grows that Easter morn, faith and hope are made new in Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Only love believes the resurrection. Only love responds with joy and worship and the willingness to share the great good news.

On Easter we find what our hearts have been searching for. We behold the one who has loved us with an everlasting love. Love shines in our hearts so that we might love others. We see a tomb which has become the womb of new birth and we are willing to enter the dark places where despair and death dwell and to shine the light of life. We leave the Garden of Gethsemane where our weakness and fear have failed to prevent the injustice of the arrest of an innocent man and we are invited into a new Eden where love wins and we are compelled to speak truth and love to the powerful. We come to the end of life and find that death doesn’t get the last word and that love believes the resurrection, hopes the resurrection and trusts the resurrection.

God met the Marys where they were that Easter morning, but he didn’t leave them there. Love turned them around, gave them courage and boldness, put in them a new Spirit and sent them out to change the world. God meets us this morning where we are, but God doesn’t leave us there. We, too, are shook up, turned around, startled by grace and surprised by love.  We are sent forth to bear love into the world and to be messengers of hope.  This very day is the new dawn of life and love.  Alleluia, Christ is risen!

 

 

Death Is Real – Kate Davis

Martha and Mary were right, in their accusations against Jesus. If he had been there, their brother would not have died.

The author, in recording these events, goes out of his way to make sure the audience understands that Jesus intentionally stayed away from the place until Lazarus was certainly dead. Jesus knew of the illness; he had the opportunity to go, but he didn’t. He refused to intervene.

I’m not sure what to make of God if Jesus, even in this moment, embodies the character of God. A God who waits to act when someone is in need seems cruel — perhaps even sadistic. I want to shout at Jesus: Your friend is suffering! The one you love is in agony! Go help him! I don’t even need Jesus to travel there to be with him; Jesus healed others from a distance — why not heal Lazarus from right where he is?

But he doesn’t intervene. He allows Lazarus to die. It feels like he makes Lazarus go through death. And not just Lazarus — Martha, Mary, the disciples —  in their grief, they all go through death. Thomas the Twin even names this, saying “let’s go, to die with him.” So they go. They weep. Through their grief, they experience death, feel the weight and the realness of it. The finality. The very present absence.

Recently, an artist named Phil Elverum released a new album under his stage name, Mount Eerie. He wrote the songs in the wake of his wife’s recent death. The lyrics read like heartbreaking prose poetry. A few times he uses this line, almost like a grounding mantra: Death is real. In one song he sing-speaks:

Death is real

Someone’s there and then they’re not

And it’s not for singing about

It’s not for making into art

When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb

When I walk into the room where you were

And look into the emptiness instead

All fails

And in another song:

You had cancer and you were killed

And I’m left living like this

Crying on the logging roads with your ashes in a jar

Thinking about the things I’ll tell you

When you get back from wherever it is that you’ve gone

But then I remember death is real

It’s easy, when we know the end of the story, to want to jump to the end. It’s easy to remind ourselves that resurrection is around the corner for Lazarus, so all the present pain is tolerable, even acceptable. It’s easy to think that it’s okay that Jesus let his friend die because eventually he raises him from the dead, and Lazarus should be glad to have been used for God’s glory. Next Friday, it would be easy to think that it’s okay that God let Christ die, naked, publicly executed on one of the most brutal torture devices known to human history, because God eventually resurrects him.

Maybe. I don’t find much satisfaction in that narrative. It has a tone of “ends justifying the means” that I never see Jesus enact in his life — the means are always important to him.

So. There must be something important about going through death — not just approaching death but actually going through it. Grief seems to be important: for Jesus, for Lazarus, for Martha and Mary. For Phil Elverum, in his songs. For us.

Death is real. And death is real in more ways than only when a physical life ends. Addiction is another name of death; any number of substances can put someone in a tomb even while they’re still alive.

The end of a relationship is a death, and one that must be grieved. Even — perhaps especially — when that relationship is abusive, codependent, or otherwise bad, if the experience is to be learned from, there’s an additional death of certain patterns of behavior and ways of being that were learned in that relationship.

Church splits, too, are a face of death and a cause for grief, as some here know all too intimately.

Jesus wept. God cries. There must be something meaningful about going through death, about grieving, about ….. being heartbroken — that is, allowing our hearts to break open. Perhaps, grief breaks open our heart to let in something new.

Phil Elverum, the musician I cited earlier, released this statement:

Why share this much? Why tell you, stranger, about these personal moments, the devastation and the hanging love? We carefully held our family life behind a curtain of privacy. Then Genevieve died and I belonged to nobody anymore.

My internal moments felt like public property. The idea that I could have a self or personal preferences or songs eroded down into an absurd idea // left over from a more self-indulgent time before I was a griever. I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her.

DEATH IS REAL could be the name of this album [which is actually named “A crow looked at me”]. These cold mechanics of sickness and loss are real and inescapable, and can bring an alienating, detached sharpness. But it is not the thing I want to remember. A crow did look at me. There is an echo of Geneviève that still rings, a reminder of the love and infinity beneath all of this obliteration. That’s why [I share this much].

I think he’s touching on the transformative nature of shared grief. That when grief breaks my heart open, “the love and infinity” is what is allowed to flow out from my heart and into others … and the love and infinity is what is allowed to flow back into me.

Grief breaks open our hearts, and in doing so, delivers us great gifts. Theologian Roberta Bondi wrote in the wake of her mother’s death that “In grief, she found herself in a state of heightened awareness [a sharpening of the senses in wonder over the world]…all that she saw spoke messages to her of goodness, gratitude, hope, longing, love…the encounter was with reality itself, which reflects God, at a deeper level than we customarily meet it.”

Another theologian, Serene Jones, writes, “Grief is hard, actually the hardest of all emotions and perhaps most intolerable because its demands are so excruciating. It requires a willingness to bear the unbearable. It requires turning private agony into public, shared loss. If you can learn to truly mourn, then there is at least the possibility of moving on —  not because the wound is mending or traumatic scars suddenly vanish… The gift of mourning is that fully awakening to the depth of loss that enables you to learn, perhaps for the first time, that you can hold the loss.”

A much more succinct theologian put it this way: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

And Jesus does comfort, though not by preventing death. Rather, he invites our grief, and joins us in our grief. He allows his heart to be broken open alongside ours, so that we might have the possibility of moving on.

It’s when we are in a tomb, bound in a place of death, it’s there in the midst of grief that the possibility of transformation is somehow strongest. When we feel overwhelmed and alienated by the cold mechanics of sickness and loss, Christ calls to us: Come out! When we want to stay in the dark, Christ invites us: Come out! When we feel the impulse to lock ourselves away until the brokenness of our hearts is put back together, Christ implores: Come out!

Death is a part of life, sure. It can occur at any time, often with no warning. In her wisdom, the Church made death a part of her liturgical year. The church is a place of community that first gathered around an event of trauma and of grace. We first gathered because of the suffering of a man from Nazareth.

And we continue to gather around those events, and their echoes, in our own lives. In the Eucharist, we hear Jesus joining in suffering with those facing death: the grieving, the addict, the rape survivor, the brokenhearted. His body, too, is broken at the beckoning of abusers. And the church not only remembers this, it enacts it. The church refuses to turn away from systemic abuse, exploited power, a humiliated victim, a broken body, blood prematurely poured. We don’t shield our eyes to the violence, we don’t skip the happy end of the story. We continue to observe it, to expose it, to name evil for what it is.

By tolerating the remembrance of this one act of death, we teach ourselves to see, hear, and hold all acts of death. By seeing the glory of one victim, we can narrate the glory we see in one another’s grief. And, yes, by remembering the resurrection of one man, we can hold the hope that new life is available after loss.

Next Friday, Good Friday, we’ll witness to the suffering of Christ on the cross. We’ll acknowledge that death is real. Through Holy Saturday, we’ll grieve, and we’ll wait, and we’ll sit vigil — with crusted tears, catatonic and raw, to see what light might enter our shattered hearts.