When I was a kid, way before digital photography, we would hurry to the drug store with rolls of film as soon as we’d return from a trip, and then, in a day or two, we’d hurry back to get our pictures and eagerly open them, right there on the counter, to see what just happened to us a few days earlier, so as to begin the process of sealing and celebrating the experience by remembering it.
I Googled the words “most monumental anti-climax in history” and I got, Y2K – remember that one? And the Mayan Calendar prediction of the end of the world in 2012. Yes, and someone online also suggested, The Big Bang.
... It is this type of grief that I believe Mary Magdalene was dealing with on that first Easter morning when she walked alone to Jesus’ tomb – she was not just going to look after the body of a friend, her teacher – she was going to that grave to bury the dead future he had helped her imagine, to lay to rest their dead vision of the way things might have been. She was going there to grieve for her lost hope – what else could she do? Mary thought the story was over.
What Jesus is telling us is that if we do everything in our power to protect our lives the way they are - that is, if we successfully prevent change, prevent conflict, prevent pain or loss - then at the end we will find that we had no life at all. It may be nice, and comfortable, painless and free, but as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, it was wasted, empty, and fruitless.
Martha cuts to the chase saying, "Yeah, I know all that stuff about the resurrection of the dead on the last day, whenever that is supposed to be.” But she is not interested in any pious talk about her brother having gone to a better place, or that it’s somehow God’s will. After all, without her brother, what’s going to become of her and her sister? She wants muscular answers she can trust. Why not?
Many years ago in India, a group of men traveling through desolate country found a seriously wounded man lying beside the road. They carried him to a Christian Missionary hospital and asked the physician who met them at the door if a bed was available. The physician looked at the injured man and immediately saw that he was an Afghan, a member of the warring Patau tribe. “Bring him in,” he said, “For him we have a bed.” When the physician examined the man, he found that an attacker had seriously injured his eyes and the man’s sight was imperiled. The man was desperate with fear and rage, pleading with the doctor to restore his sight so that he could find his attacker and extract retribution. “I want revenge,” he screamed. “I want to kill him. After that I don’t care whether I am blind for the rest of my life.”
I remember when I went to the very first church I served as a student pastor. I was 24, I think. I was only supposed to serve that tiny two-bit town parish for three months. Before I got there, I tried to bargain with God about it. I knew I wasn’t ready. I’d only had one semester of seminary. I said, “Okay, I‘ll preach every Sunday, and I will call on the people, and moderate meetings if you want, but under no circumstances allow anyone to die on my watch. Nobody, period. I’m just not ready for that.”
And so we begin the Lenten season, the traditionally somber season before Holy Week and Easter. It is a time when Christians remember the great story of Jesus and his love and turn inward, reflect and do self examination. It begins, for many, with a service we observed four days ago with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, a liturgical reminder of our mortality. Traditionally Lent has been a time for penitence and confession. Well, let me propose to you that we begin this journey, this year, slightly differently, by pondering the gift of love in the context of passing time; God’s love and the love God’s love awakens in our human hearts. How about love?
So, let me advise, there is a David inside every one of us. It comes out of us at the oddest times. Be sensitive to your restlessness in these last weeks before spring. This time of year we can get pretty cranky. Remember, you’re only human. But also remember who and whose you are.
Here is how he did it. First he bought a long black leather trench-coat (known to be worn by Gestapo operatives). Then he purchased a tommy gun to look even more menacingly like a member of the Gestapo. Next he walked into the ghetto one sunny day and rounded up 125 Jews who he instructed to walk out of the Ghetto with him, their hands up behind their necks as if they were under his arrest. He cut a fearsome figure. No one, either Nazi or Jew, dared ask him any questions. He then delivered the Jews to the people waiting to hide them. Marching behind Graebe they expected to be executed and instead were given their freedom and their lives.
What the best teachers do is not give us lots of new information. They help us in fact, unload information that is bogging us down. That’s what I like to do in the class I teach once in a while about reading the Bible on its own terms. I’m working to get us to get rid of lenses we’ve been using to read the Bible on other people’s terms for way too long. I think that can be freeing.
Paul says, if you are happy, grieve. If you have a family, live as if you were 19 again. Paul is saying that because of the coming of Christ, the whole world is topsy-turvy. It’s flipped on its head. Everything is now up for grabs. But for us here, in Salt Lake City in 2018, we aren’t interested in anything half so out of control. But you know, even for us here – we well-adjusted, well-insured, firmly in the middle-class or upper middle-class, there are these moments that come along, even for us.
But look, by no effort of our own we find ourselves living on an oasis, placed perfectly by chance (or God) at the perfect distance from the sun to support the life that’s on it. The universe is something like 13 billion years old. The earth has been around for a bit longer than 4 billion years. We humans have only been around for 200,000 years – a whisper in the lifetime of earth, and even less in the lifespan of the universe.
Thirty years ago I spent a whole day in the hospital, sitting with a woman named Marion, from my first church. She was waiting her turn in the queue for a by-pass operation. I will never forget the trepidation she felt that was just underneath a veneer of calm. I will never ever forget her eloquent reflection on what she was going through. As I offered her empathy, she looked back at me very tenderly and said, “Well, I guess it’s all in a lifetime.”
I’ve previously written in the church newsletter about my visit to Bethlehem in 1999. That day, before tensions between Israelis and Palestinians began to rise due to the intifada, and cement walls began going up all over, a visitor could still imagine an impossibly young Palestinian girl filled with holy purpose, riding a donkey down that little town’s one main street with her new husband, Joseph, the both of them looking desperately, by starlight, for a place to gain shelter for the night.
Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann says that the Christian faith is about that two word admonition: "Fear not." Years ago in Chicago I heard him engage a group of us clergy. He asked us to recall a time when, as children, we were frightened: maybe lying in bed, sure that the shadows on the wall were of a dark monster and the bumps and creaks on the stairway were the portent of something dreadful. He asked us to imagine calling out to our father or mother, who would appear and take us in his or her arms and say, "Everything is all right. Don’t be afraid. It will be all right" That, Brueggemann says, is what faith is about.
I have a pastor friend who, years ago, was told by his children’s minister a moment before the annual church Christmas pageant that the little boy chosen to play Joseph was sick. My friend just said, “Have the shepherds stand right up next to the manger scene – no one will notice he’s missing.”
No one who has a child knows what will be called out from him. I witnessed it myself visiting my granddaughter for the very first time last week. I will tell you, she is the most darling thing I’ve ever seen, short of her mom, my daughter. But as small as she was at birth – a little over 6 pounds – she took all the air out of the delivery room and has continued that way the last seven weeks. Babies are cuddly, and sweet; the cutest thing you will ever see if she is your own. But she is also demanding, expensive, and relentless.
We will never know the extent or the full effect of the good we do on this earth. God may bless even the smallest thing we have done or said. And God may use and bless our failures, too; even the big ones. Remember, “Not to take possession of your life plan is to let your existence be an accident.”