Living Does Not Lead To Death–Lent Week Five

John 11: 1-45

The Gospel of John is full of long and poignant stories. It seems we often only pay attention to this gospel in the season of Lent, and sometimes Advent. Perhaps that is what it is~a gospel of life and death. The lectionary for this week is exactly a recounting of life and death, literally, and one that underscores the impact that life and death have on community.

I have preached on this text before, it feels familiar. Yet this time what captures me is the line “This illness does not lead to death…”  They are the words of Jesus. Words that are so easily forgotten in our daily lives. As a chaplain I saw how illness can radically change a life of an individual or family, sometimes even led to the end of the physical life. The line is paradox. It is wise for us to ever remember the line that repeats through out scripture “be not afraid”. Both illness and death have a way of making people afraid in our real lived lives. Illness and death do of course bring change, different kinds of change. Change frightens us, always. Jesus seems to be reminding us that illness does not always  bring death. He is challenging a stigma that plauges  humanity to this very day. We assume illness and change lead only to death. Of course, the paradox in this text is that illness does lead to death, and then back to life. That is the cycle of Lent. It is also the cycle of life, forgiveness, spiritual growth, and resurrection among others.

John 11 is of course the recounting of the resurrection of Lazarus from the grave. When Jesus is telling his followers that Lazarus’ illness would not led to Lazarus’ death, it seems that Jesus was pointing them to the larger picture of existence, one that his followers could not imagine. The disciples had no frame of reference for anyone returning from the dead. As if to make the point Jesus delays his return to Bethany. When Jesus arrives at Bethany there is no doubt among any assembled that Lazarus is dead, and buried.

That is when the unexpected happens. That is when Jesus reveals that something beyond human understanding is at work, and that something more powerful than death can triumph. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave, and out Lazarus comes to greet the professional mourners who have been hired to wail at the grave. People have all kinds of justifications to make sense of this account. Personally, I do not think it is a literary device in the gospel to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. I think Lazarus was dead not sleeping, and I think he returned from that state to the living. I do not not know how it occurred other than through Jesus and powers we still do not understand. While I do not think it was foreshadowing, I do think Jesus may have been teaching those around him that there was more to life and death then their understanding.

I still think there is more to life and death than what we understand. My work as a chaplain in the hospital ICU wards and in hospice have only confirmed this belief. Although I have seen people resuscitated, I have never seen that done days after their death, after they have laid in the tomb. That is difference between resuscitation and resurrection~time. But this chapter of the Gospel of John and in the cycle of Jesus’s death and resurrection which we will celebrate and ponder in the weeks to come speak to us of something that, to me at least, is more intriguing than life and death. They speak to us of life after life in the flesh. What is beyond death? We don’t have answers for that. But as I ponder John 11, two things seem clear that Jesus loved his friend Lazarus and that life somehow exists after life in the flesh–if the former was not true how would Lazarus or Jesus return? Resurrection is more than an issue of time it also speaks to us of love for the companionship of the other, and God’s love for us. “This illness…”, this living, “…does not lead to death” is one thing that my work with persons who are dying has confirmed for me beyond any shadow of doubt.

God Loves. God Provides. God’s Kingdom

A Sermon based on Hosea 11:1-1 Luke 12: 13-31; Preached at La Jolla Congregational Church, UCC

The hymn we just sang (God of Grace and God of Glory), aside from being one of my favorites, was written by Harry Emerson Fosdick one of the major theologians of the modernist movement during the twentieth century. For Fosdick, the Bible was a repository of our basic human experiences. (1) Religion for Fosdick was, as one historian wrote “a psychological experience….an experience that makes a difference, for the kind of religion that matters is the kind that saves, that is to say, the kind that integrates, strengthens, and enriches the personal lives of those who engage it.” (2) The role of human experience was important to the theological and biblical understanding of Fosdick and other of the modernist theologians of the twentieth century.

“God of Change…” I wonder what Fosdick would think of the scriptures before us this morning. I wonder how he might take the social, political, and economic realities of our own time and interpret these scriptures today. He of course is long since gone, so I am afraid you will have to allow me this morning to step in for him and look at these scripture with you to see what ‘meaning may yet break forth’ from them for us today. (3) As I have thought about these texts this week I have come to the basic ideas outlined in my sermon title: God Loves. God Provides. God’s Kingdom.

Now there are those persons who might tell me that I am stretching it to find the message that God Loves in the Book of Hosea. I am not, but it is true that this prophetic book is one that recounts the tresspasses that led to the exile of the Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel, and it was not pretty. Much like, Fosdick, Hosea was a prophet trying to make sense of his world. For Hosea, the world he came into was one in which God had made promises to love and care for, to prosper the people, of Israel. But the rules changed. Hosea found himself in a time in which numerous Kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were assassinated; a time in which political and military alliances were being made with Assyria–an oppressor of the Kingdom Israel at the expense of traditional allies. It really did not make a lot of sense… Hosea and his people found themselves in a world of change, a world in which exile would arrive. Theologically speaking, the people of the Northern Kingdom had turned their attention away from their covenant with God and the aspects of their lives that defined their society, and focused their attentions on chasing the political powers and material wealth that kingdoms outside Israel might provide. The Northern Kingdom had shifted their focus from the values of covenant to placing ultimate meaning on material gains and wealth and the prophetic record is clear they paid for their focus on materialism and wealth with exile. Which way are choosing in our own day?

The Book of Hosea is a book of prophecy so it is not all doom and gloom…there is hope. Hosea’s doom and gloom, however, are a warning about the downfalls that await a society that strays from right relationship with God. For right relationship with God that is at the very heart of prophetic messages. For Hosea, the hope for restored right relationship lies in the history of God’s love, care, and historical provisions for the people of God’s covenant. It is this hope in God’s love for God’s people that rings through our passage for this morning.

Our passage from Hosea this morning portrays God’s love for the people by recounting the God’s acts of providing for the people of Israel. Hosea recounts the Exodus quoting God as saying “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11: 1-11).  Then the prophetic narrative goes on to portray God telling the story of God’s presence in the life of the Northern Kingdom “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk…I led them with cords of human kindness with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” (Hosea 11: 3-4) This is not a God far off but a God who is intimately involved in the life of the people. It may even be that the reference to Ephraim is a reassurance to the people of the North Kingdom, as their first King Jeroboam was from the house of Ephraim. (4) The metaphors used to portray God’s acts of love toward the people are ones we would expect to find in reference to a loving parent.

(Feminist scholars would note that it is significant that the metaphors for God in this passage of Hosea refer to the love either a father or mother would give a child. It is significant because the rest of the Book of Hosea is often very harsh towards women. Thus to portray God’s love and protection in gender neutral way here of all places is such a rarity of the prophet it must be paid attention to as carrying another layer of meaning. (5) We shall, however, leave the feminist treatment of Hosea for another day.)

Our passage from Hosea concludes with God providing for the people to return from exile to their own homes, once right relationship with God is reestablished.

Perhaps Harry Emerson Fosdick would ask us, at this juncture, how we maintain our right relationship with God? How do we balance our need to live in society, exist on the material level, and maintain relationship with God in light of our hope for the coming of God’s Kingdom? How indeed do we find the wisdom & courage “for the facing of this hour”?  (6)

As Christians, we look to the gospel for guidance and wisdom in how to maintain right relationship with God. The gospel lesson the lectionary presents us with today, verses 1-11, are those that deal with the distribution of wealth and the accumulation of goods. However, if we read further in the text we learn that it is not enough to just note that Jesus refused to address the just distribution of wealth, when he refused to address the man’s concerns about inherited possessions. It is not enough to note that Jesus warns those who hoard material goods that God will make a mockery of material hoarding, when God comes like a thief in the night to call us from this life (Luke 12: 20). Whereas Hosea was concerned with the national or corporate pitfalls of striving for power and wealth; the Gospel speak to us of our individual drives for power and wealth.

The parable alone is not enough,to understand the Jesus meaning. It is Jesus’ commentary to his disciples after the parable if the rich fool, in verses 12-31, that teach the spiritual values if the Kingdom of God that Jesus trying to impart to those he had chosen to spread his message. In the verses following the parable, Jesus’ teaching to the disciples makes it clear that he does not address the man’s concern about the division of inherited goods not because Jesus is disinterested in the division of material goods, but because it is the wrong concern to focus on. Jesus affirms at the end of this speech that God knows we need the materials necessities of life (Luke 12: 30). Jesus’s point is that all those material things are not only not the point and goal of living but can actually get in the way of our right relationship with God.

Jesus’s teaching to the disciples in verses 12-31 speak directly to the the value of human worth and value of human life. Here Jesus reminds the disciples that the birds do not work; they behave as expected of birds. The parallel for us seems to be that we are to be concerned less with doing work, but in being human. Similarly Jesus teaches the disciples that we are valuable to God just because we are who we are, not because of the things we do. Jesus teaches that the value of the lilies is in the inherent beauty of their nature, which far surpasses what can be accomplished by human hands. Jesus attempts to teach the disciples that we are human beings, and not human doings.

This is not an easy teaching. I often wonder if the disciples grew to understand this teaching. I often wonder if we understand it today.

As a hospice chaplain I often interact with persons facing depression, not so much because they facing the end of their lives, but because they no longer are able to do the things they once did or fulfil their roles as they once did. You see in our contemporary individualistic society we tend to place ultimate value on doing and providing for one’s self, and that is how we judge human worth. So when people can no longer do for themselves they face a crisis of meaning, which I tend to think of a crisis of being. At the root it is a crisis caused by being human and vulnerable. In these situations I often find myself coming to this scripture about the lilies. You see we have worth because we are living, because we are in relationship with God; not because of what we may do or accumulate. It is hard thing, in our society, to comprehend that our worth rests in something we have no control over at all, its all ”God of Grace”.

I was at our recent Synod in Long Beach. And while I am one of the first people to get excited about the theological implications of a God who is still speaking, I heard this so ad nauseum that I started thinking….about the the still speaking God…About myself as a person who started life with profound speech impediment…There are so many ways to communicate, why would God need always to speak? I started thinking about the persons with whom I minister: those who are dying, those who struggle with worth; then I thought of those who never spoke and those whom can no longer speak. How does a still speaking God speak to them? I recalled, in that convention hall so full of speeches, how profound it is to sit in silence, to try to be rather than do, and I knew that simply being is way of living I have yet to understand much less to master. And I then thought..what about the God who can not speak?

The “speaking” of God and human beings is our covenant or relationship. Given that we live with a “God of Change and God of Glory”, how do we interpret the prophetic text from Hosea and Jesus’ parable about the rich fool and Jesus’ lillies in light of our own experiences? Like Hosea and his people, like the farmer with full barns, we too are called by our covenant with God to be God’s people so fully concerned with the importance of human personality that our focus remains right relationship with God. (7) What do we do with that call? What would Harry Emerson Fosdick, have me say?

It occurs to me that what I might say is this: What if God is still loving, and God is still providing, but we are so concerned with wall street and the dow, with NASDAQ and the unemployment rate, with behaving as the superpower and keeping “other” people where they “belong”…What if we are missing our call to live into God’s Kingdom? What if God can no longer speak, because in our experiences we have become so consumed with the idols and of modern life that we are no longer listening?

Endnotes
(1) Macquire, John. Twentieth Century Religious Thought. (Trinity Press: Harrisburg, 2001) 189.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Play on a quote famous in the UCC, from a sermon Robinson wrote to a congregation upon reaching the new world.

(4) From “Ephraim” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephraim, accessed August 3, 2013.

(5) Yee, Gale. “Hosea” in the Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1992) 200.

(6) Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace and God of Glory”, as printed in Hymnal of the United Church of Christ. (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1974).

(7) See commentary by Moore, Rickie in Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005)  1273-1274.

Grief

 

Buber and Kelli

Buber and Kelli

I never saw this coming. My beloved Buber the Dog died on March 12, 2013. (Yes, as in Martin Buber, I thank those of you who get that, because it was essential to his canine-ality.) We had taken him to the Vet ER because he suddenly could not stand up, would not eat, and looked like he might be in pain. They took x-rays, said his skeleton was fine and suggested that we follow-up with a neurologist which we planned to do. We took Buber home. He looked comfy and sleepy on a cushion we had for him. I asked him if wanted to go “out”, he lifted his head and torso to look over at me and then just flopped back down as if wanting to sleep. I turned off the light and left the room to let him sleep off the pain meds, little did I know that was my last conversation with him. Less than two hours later I went to pet him good night and found that he was already gone.

We had a home vigil. Burial in the high desert at a friend’s ranch.

I am a hospice chaplain I work with loss and grief all the time. But this has got to me in ways nothing else has. Perhaps it should. This was my and my husband’s beloved dog, this was family, this was my baby. This was the animal that just simply wanted to be next to me all the time, and when I was home he mostly was next to me. This was an animal who connected to my soul–Buber was his name.

Now Buber is dead and buried and life is all odd. I come home from work and there is no pup, if my husband is out there is simply no one there. The house feels empty, and yet somehow it feels more like home now and less of a convenient rental. Things that seemed so important no longer seem so important, and I have this urge to simply slow down.

I know all about grief, intellectually. and personally. I have lost many loved ones to death. Professionally I see death so often it is a real presence. But this is different.  I feel ridiculous. I work with dying people and grieving families, and the death of my beloved pup has turned my life upside down. But I think this is the way it should be.

We feel the pain of loss to same extent that we have loved–and love survives death. It still seems sacrilege to not say “hello” to Buber when entering the house. I look for him in all his favorite spots. And every time I imagine petting his beautiful fur and know I will never get to do that again, tears well up in my eyes. I have done the shock and disbelief. My anger and bargaining have been intertwined….if I had known he was dying….if only I had not been so busy…..thank God he did not die three days before when I was away on a church business trip…. I have even berated myself for not seeing the signs and symptoms of canine dying, thinking that as a hospice professional I should have foreseen this—we don’t always see it even in people, and I had never seen a dog die. Death can surprise you. I have been unkind to myself.

There will be firsts. Like today, we washed the bedding and no more will there be Buber on the bed. And yet in my mind’s eye, I am sure I saw Buber sitting on the clean bedding as I walked by the bedroom just before dinner. When I watered the fruit trees and roses in the yard, Buber was no longer in the yard avoiding the water hose (he did not like to get wet, but he found the waves at the beach fascinating).  Nonetheless, I had the sense the other day that he walked around to the back of the house as I was watering. Yes, I put down the hose and followed just to check his favorite spot to see if he were there.  And I keep forgetting that I don’t have to worry about Buber catching his ear on the rose-bush and getting his ear pierced by a thorn. I am sad that I don’t have to throw the lemons that have fallen on the ground straight into the compost because they may have dog pee on them and thus would be unfit for human consumption. Mostly I am sad that as I write this post Buber is not sitting next to me–often he would  get up on the bed and cuddle next to me as a wrote or use the foot of the bed as a platform to nudge me at desk if I were sitting there. Nope, now it is just here, me, writing on my own…and horribly undistracted. I hope I still will have something to say. Those eyes had much wisdom and grace and taught me so much.

I know the fifth step of grief is acceptance. I am not ready for that yet. I still feel that a part of me has been ripped away with no chance for goodbyes.  But what would I have said? “Don’t go?”  That would only be cruel. “I love you and you are the best dog ever?”–I said all that. He had had pain medication, so if he had pain that had been addressed and he was at home with his people, where he would want to be. So I am assured that Buber the Dog had what we call in hospice “a good death”.  People and food were the most important things in life as far as Buber was concerned. In fact, being and dying at home where he could hear his people talking and fretting over what to do for him next may have been exactly as he wanted  it to be. It was all very hospice like really. I still  feel like this was sudden and I am not ready to accept it.

Yes, l may likely get another canine in time, but there is none like Buber the Dog and his sweet soul that poured the love of God right onto you whether you thought you needed  it or not. The loss of such a being I cannot accept right now, and maybe at least, theologically, I can never accept. May we all meet a living being sometime in our lives who simply think we are worthy of all the grace and love they can bestow. Though I bid adieu to my theological pup and I am pretty sure that I now not only have a direct line to God , but also a fan putting in a good word for me with the Supreme Deity, whose heart will also melt at the sight and touch of the floppy ears

Buber th Dog's resting place

Buber the Dog’s resting place.

 

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She Who Calls

Michelle Obama was speaking at the Convention about how adults within the community influence the young people and look after them, even when the adults in question are not their parents. The point was the important role that all members play in shaping the lives of the growing generation…. And then my phone rang.

I did not hear the end of the speech.  But I heard the voice of our church secretary passing on the news to me that one of the members of our church, I’ll call her Antonia, had died about an hour previously.  It is not news that most people want  to hear. It was not unexpected. Our pastor had told me the Sunday before that the time looked more like numerous hours than days. Antonia had beaten cancer before. I remember when she gracefully stood before our congregation to tell us all how much she sincerely loved each and every one of us, and how she now had stage four cancer and was not expected to live more than two years. It tugged on me. I knew that she had loved the life she had lived, and was continuing to do so. I hated the news. I loved seeing her children move closer to be with her and the joy on her face as her grandchildren became involved in activities at church. But as a hospice chaplain, I knew it was unrealistic to expect a single soul to face cancer and win twice. I think she knew I saw the same writing on the wall that she did. But we never talked about it. Instead we carried on our relationship as it always had been only with more hugs and words and glances of affection.

I was not her pastor or her chaplain. I, however, was also not just another member of the congregation either. I grew up in this particular congregation. I had known Antonia probably since I was six months old–my entire life as far as I am concerned. Antonia, you see, had been one of those adults who makes a profound affect on the growing generation. She had been a teacher, I am sure she affected the lives of many youth. But this about she and I. She defended my mother’s right to be a single mother, in the days when that was not quite the trend it is now. She was one of my first Sunday school teachers. She was one of the “proper and successful” adults to remark on my maturity and confidence as I grew through adolescence. She and her husband danced at my wedding.  As a young adult trying to establish a life she made it known to me, very intentionally, that I was never alone, that she was there. And somewhere in between there was that day she called me….it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

She: Hi Kelli. I was meeting with the Trustees. We are trying to fill the church leadership positions for the next year. And well, we decided that since you are already teaching the Sunday School that you could take on the role of Christian Education Director.

Me: What does that mean, what do I have to do?

She: Don’t worry you’ll be great. Thanks! (end of conversation).

I should probably also say that Antonia’s skill as a successful member of the nominating committee pretty much went down in the history books after this stunt. She was just not a woman I would say no to, about anything–and she never exploited that, so I always simply trusted her.

Little did I know, when I hung up the phone that day that Antonia had set my life on a path that would change me and my path forever. I ended up being the Director of Christian Education for two or three years, and only left it  for a required internship with another congregation (whom I also loved). But, it was during my time as Christian Education Director that I came to realize that six of the ten children in my Sunday School class had siblings or parents with disabilities and that this affected all of them–and that somehow I was called to address this. It was during my time running the Sunday School I came to learn that I loved teaching and wanted to teach in the church in some capacity for the rest of my life. It was in the time after Antonia called to tell me  that I was not only needed but was GOING TO do THIS work, that I finally embraced the call to seminary and ministry. Yes, there have been several literal phone calls that have vaulted me into new forms of ministry, but this was one of the firmest and the one to which there was only one answer.

I am not the pastor of the church that Antonia and I shared for thirty-five years, but I am a chaplain in part ordained by this congregation to the work I do. And I must admit its been hard to know my place, in this situation, at all times these last several months. Wanting to run to her, as the youth I have always been in relation to her and to tell her how much she has influenced me. Wanting to embrace her with all the love I could, and the skill surrounding end of life care I have acquired, and simply not knowing what role to play. In the end I was simply a member of her church congregation, and perhaps that is as it should be. But knowing how Antonia had embraced me with her genuine love and simple concern throughout my life, it was nearly heart-rending to know it was not my place to get into the car and drive to her home and sit with her family the night she died. Dinner had already been provided by the congregation and the pastor was there; and as a chaplain I know that more people often create more chaos in the hours just after death, I did not feel it was my place to impose that night.

I had already planned to be out-of-town the day that was scheduled for Antonia’s memorial service, so I did not get to share the impact she had on my life with her family at that time. I was in a grove of grand Sequoia trees at the time of her memorial. Minutes after I expected her service was over I felt the undeniable feeling of her hug surrounding me and I knew I had made the right choice in not changing my plans–that I needed to be surrounded by trees that were growing when Jesus walked the earth to continue my path of ministry. She knew this and knew right where I’d be.

The greatest saints who call and nominate the members of the church to ministry never really leave us. I think in even in death part of them remains with the church and the clergy they have called, whether as cheer leaders, challengers, or  simply out of pity and remorse I can not yet say. I have decided that I may still have to thank Antonia for that call so long ago. That I may still need to express the many effects it had. But  for now, I think I’ll continue to wait. I think I’ll just have to thank her when I know how it all works out …just to be sure …she didn’t have the wrong number after all.

Presence and Praying for Peace

Two nights ago I attended a candlelight vigil, I had received a text message about it earlier in the day and knew only that a man had been beaten. The text cam from my husband who had heard about this through his volunteer/community ties. From the context of the message I received I suspected hate of some form had to with the beating. I did not have much to go on, but I was moved enough to go to the vigil, and to wear my vestments, although no one had asked me to.

When I arrived at the vigil it was a small gathering and this surprised me, but not for long. I soon found the “organizer” of the event and spoke with him. It turns out that the man who had been beaten, Jason, had been living in a local canyon and someone had beaten him in the head with a rock. No words were said at the vigil no statements made or prayers pronounced. Rather people stood around and talked quietly with others that they knew as they held candles, while Jason fought for his life in the hospital. Many the people gathered knew Jason, some were from the local GLBT community. It was simply a gathering of solidarity.

Shortly after I arrived I was approached by a man in a collar. Turns out this man who spoke with me was a gay Independent American Catholic priest who had left the Roman Catholic Church disheartened by what appeared to be the Catholic Church’s refusal or inability to protect victims of the sexual abuse scandal. The priest reported to me that he was there because he knew Jason; the priest explained that he had met Jason while teaching in the local community. Both the priest and I were there simply to show our solidarity with the victim of this senseless crime and his chosen family, as Jason lay in a hospital bed, reportedly, with a very poor prognosis. We were there to provide presence to those who had gathered; all those who had gathered had gathered to be present.

Later in the evening a group of people came out of the hospital and physically leaned on some of those who had gathered for the vigil. They were Jason’s chosen family. One of the women in this group spoke with me and thanked me for being there. I did not do anything, but I was there. It was a reminder for me of how powerful our simple presence can be for others in time of crises.

So what about the vestments? I thought about this, particularly as the media came in and took pictures of the gathering. It may seem presumptuous, and perhaps it could be seen as such. At moments I felt a bit odd standing there, holding a candle in my clergy robe. But it was not presumptuous. It was not presumptuous because in many ways this event was the parable of the good Samaritan made real in the contemporary context. Here was a man and his extended community in crises and of course it was the role of the clergy to stop and bear witness to the pain of the other in crises. I was not there to fix anything I could not do that. But I could bear witness.

That is not the only reason I was there, though. We live in a society of great violence and marginalization of the poor, the GLBT community, the disability community, those who live with mental illness, those who struggle with addiction or propensity toward violence, and anyone else who steps beyond our norms. The truth is I do not know if Jason belonged to any of these categories expect being poor–he was living in the canyon. I do know, however, that we can not continue to accept senseless and extreme violence toward others within our community and continue to consider our society civilized, period. So I wore my vestments to show that God is with all who suffer, and that the marginalized are noticed by the communities who seek to bring God into the world. I wore my vestments, and I was there silently witnessing the suffering senseless violence perpetrates on its victims and on the community around the victims of violence. I did not offer to pray and I was not asked to pray; Jason’s family told the reporter who covered the “story” they were praying for his recovery. It was a gathering of presence and silent prayer. My prayer was one of peace not only for Jason, but for the community immediately around him, and our larger community that has become so fractured that such violence can occur without community uproar but rather be noted on the evening news before we all tuck into bed for a brief night’s sleep. God help us all.
A photo of  Jason, a homeless man who was beaten in the head with a rock, a candlelight vigil held in his honor.

Good Grief: Memorial Day 2010-2011

Today is Memorial Day, a day to remember those we have lost to war and those we have lost whom we love. I thought I would post a sermon in acknowledgment of the day. The following sermon “Good Grief” was preached at the Community Congregational Church of Pacific Beach on May 30, 2010. This particular sermon provided a context to speak to my congregation about our collective grief. I find it highly relevant a year later, so I am posting it here. For all those we have loved and lost…we remember on Memorial Day.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery

Good Grief

Lamentations 3: 19-30    John 11:1-20, 30-37

On May 5, 1868 General John A Logan, as the commander-in-chief of a veterans organization issued a proclamation that Decoration Day should be observed nation-wide.(1) Decoration Day is very traditional throughout parts of America. So traditional in fact that we don’t know when or where it started. It seems to have just appeared in multiple communities, perhaps as a corporate response to death. What we do know is that Decoration Day came to be celebrated throughout America around the end of the Civil War. It was a time, historically, during which the gruesomeness and numbers of human deaths not only seemed unparalleled in American history, but devastated communities because the war was so divisive. As General Logan sought to make Decoration Day a national event, May 30th was chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary date of a battle.(2)

Decoration Day has played an important role in American communities. As early as the 1880’s Decoration Day was also called Memorial Day in the South. This name change to Memorial Day in the South may have been a political one to accommodate people who also mourned Confederate soldiers.(3) So Decoration Day became “Memorial Day.” But I feel compelled to point out to you that to this day in the South, Memorial Day, in addition to being a day to honor those who died in the Civil War and World Wars is still held as a day set aside to remember and honor all those loved ones that the community has lost from its corporate life.

Some of you know that my father’s family is in the South. I can tell you that in rural Alabama, Memorial Day—and indeed the remembrance of loved ones who have died—is a bit different from it is here in urban California. Here we have large cemeteries in different regions of the city and often you have to go out of your way to get there. There, cemeteries are scattered everywhere throughout the community, and often they have no walls or fence— just acreage you pass daily on the sides of the roads.

As is common in that rural area, my own father is buried in the churchyard of the church closest to the family land. Many people visit the graves of loved ones daily or weekly. This is part of the Southern culture and expected of those who mourn. But even after mourning, there is a cultural expectation of remembrance.

My step-mother in Alabama makes silk floral arrangements and she will tell you that most of her business is done between April and May each year preparing floral arrangements that will decorate the tombstones of loved ones on the local celebration of Decoration Day and when flags are added to the graves to recognize Memorial Day. And yes, in parts of the South some people plan these arrangements out months in advance. To neglect to decorate the graves of your loved ones this time of year it is a serious cultural taboo akin to forgetting Thanksgiving and Christmas. In some ways all this effort of decoration seems strange. But in some ways, being adopted into my step mother’s culture, it makes sense and seems almost comforting to have a communal event remembering and honoring individual losses and creating public space for the needs of those who grieve.

If this still seems foreign to you, I can liken the rituals of Decoration Day only to the cultural and religious festival of Dia De Los Muertos—Day of the Dead—that we in southern California may witness at the beginning of each November. Indeed, in some lore about origins Decoration Day there is a mention of a woman who wrote that decorating the graves with flowers should be held as a “religious custom of the South.” (4)

Mourning and grieving is not something we often talk about. Because we avoid it, some even say that observation of Memorial Day should be returned to May 30th rather than observed as a three-day weekend that serves more as the opening of summer than the national day of mourning and remembrance it was intended to be. We must admit that with all the commercial sales and BBQ’s and our beautiful beaches mourning and reflection is not something that we really want to do—not with summer coming! Indeed there are many reasons to be distracted from the reality of death.

Our text this morning, however, is one that speaks of the realities of death and is one that clearly shows us a religious custom of grieving. The eleventh chapter of John and its account of mourning leading up to the raising of Lazarus is a text packed with theological implications. There is the question of why Jesus waited two days rather than going to Lazarus immediately and why this seemed so offensive to Mary and Martha. There is the conversation between Jesus and Mary about who and what resurrection is—and its underlying debate about the existence of an afterlife that persists in the Jewish faith. There is the implication that discipleship means following Jesus even when the journey is potentially to one’s own death and then there is the whole issue of Jesus having control over life and death in what comes next in the gospel—the raising of Lazarus, which in the Gospel of John will be the last straw that leads the temple authorities to arrest Jesus.

However, it is the scene of mourning that is of particular interest. Not only are the sisters and family of Lazarus mourning, but community members and friends of the family have also gathered to mourn Lazarus. The Gospel of John is clear that Lazarus and his sisters were friends of Jesus. For Jesus is not sent message that Lazarus, but that he who you love is sick. Jesus is part of the community of friends and family who join in the mourning. It was part of the religious and social customs of the time not only for others to join in the mourning, but for this gathering to continue for a week. Jesus arrives on the fourth day (of mourning). And in one of the most profound moments of the narratives we have of Jesus’s life we are told that “Jesus wept.” (verse 35)

He simply wept for his friend Lazarus. And the grief of Lazarus’s sisters.

Before the gospel account gets on with its important points of drawing parallels between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Christ or illustrating that Jesus has power over death or even suggesting that God is about to do a new thing, never seen by humanity, it proclaims that even the Son of God pauses to mourn and to grieve.

It is a gospel lesson that we may do well to relearn in this twenty-first century. Too often in our fast paced world the once-natural processes of life and death are rushed so production is not slowed and we don’t fall too far behind.

In some cultures it is normal to have an extended period of mourning when a loved one dies. But too often in our American culture, we get three days’ bereavement leave. According to tradition not only would Lazarus’ sisters have a week of mourning after the funeral but another month of lesser mourning and, depending on the relationship one has with the person who died, the period of mourning may last up to a year. To us this period of mourning may seem a luxury, but it may be necessary.

Before the Civil War, death was a common part of life. In the period following the Civil War, when Decoration Days were first established, the numbers of deaths society had to adjust to because of the war was uncommon and so required a new approach to corporate mourning.

As I read around and reflected on the grief in our text this morning, it was interesting to note that while pastoral care, psychology, and even biblical scholars agree that death is a separation of relationship that has to be experienced and in time readjusted to, that all these disciplines also make note of the fact that the sheer number of deaths in the World War I and World War II forever changed how we culturally approach the reality of death by making burials more industrial and less personal. Following the thousands of tragic deaths on 9/11 and the wars that have followed, some (scholars) seem to question how we might cope with all our losses. (5)

How we might ever cope with our grief is a good question. It seems clear that we can’t avoid mourning. It seems clear that a short bereavement will not fill our needs. The Gospel of John shows the human and divine Jesus pausing to mourn. Generations before us have set time aside for us to grieve and remember those who have died. Many religious traditions, including our own Christian seasons of Lent and Good Friday, require periods of mourning. Still, culturally we avoid mourning and deny death.

Lamentations is one of the few books permissible for Jewish mourners to read. It is a book that chronicles the complaints and grief of the people following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Here we find an ancient doxology detailing God’s faithfulness, speaking from a time and place that seemed to its author the end of the world. It’s not just about faith, but there is something more in it. The word “hope” it uses (in verse 21) also means “expectation” indicating that even in the most dire of times we can expect God’s faithfulness. (6) Perhaps this was the source of the expectation Mary and Martha had of Jesus to come to Lazarus. Our modern expectation is not necessarily that God will fix all things to our liking but an expectation that God will come and be there in depth of our despair.

We never know when God may do a new thing. But we know God is present with us in our joy and in our sorrow. There is a wisdom we have been given which we may want to recall this Memorial Day, as we remember our personal losses, and as we mark the death of 1000 American soldiers in Afghanistan.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is this:

There is a time for everything…
a time to be born, and a time to die…
a time to weep, and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn, and time to dance…
a time for war, and a time for peace.

—Eccs 3:1, 2a, 4, and 8b

*** Endnotes

  1. “Memorial day” [on-line] at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_day accessed On May 29, 2010.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. “Confederate Memorial Day” [on-line] available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederate_Memorial_Day accessed May 29, 2011.
  5. Gene Fowler, Caring Through the Funeral: A Pastor’s Guide, (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2004)
  6. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.6. (Nashville:broadman, 1971) 216.

The Three Women

I am not a writer, but there are those times when I feel it necessary to write, if only so I don’t forget the significance of events. Today I experienced something that was so refreshing and meaningful I needed to write about it, as it confirmed in a new way something I have known for some time. I am not a ‘spring person,’ but for some reason this spring I have been enjoying all the pastels and flowers in spite of myself. I also feel I experienced Easter differently than in years past. I am still not sure as to all the reasons as to why, but I am willing to think about them for as long as I need to. I think one thing I have paid more attention to this year is the idea of resurrection and the promise of new life that it offers. For me, as many of you know over the past few years I have wavered between mixed emotions regarding my call into ministry. Anger, excitement, disappointment, discontent, and exhilaration are just a few of the vast numbers of emotions I have experienced. It is interesting to note these emotions are and were usually entwined with a church community; not necessarily my idea of God. I continue to work through them and have found my work as a chaplain to be a major part to my healing and integration. For me this year my resurrection was to consider a new way of serving and ministering as a female minister. I have needed for sometime to step out of the old bondage which was negative comments and negative gender roles that were not only oppressive, but unhealthy and damaging.

Today was just another example of how this work ‘heals’ me. I was making an initial visit with a patient who just came onto service. The patient was in his room and I stayed in the living room with the spouse. For almost two hours she talked about their marriage, their children, and their faith. She brought out pictures of them at their wedding and walked me through in pictures almost forty years of marriage and their life together. As the visit was coming to a close I went into the bedroom and found the patient no longer breathing, he had passed during our conversation.

I waited for the mortuary to arrive and to my surprise two women drove up in a van. The two women in the van and myself attended to the body, cleaning and getting ready for transfer. I couldn’t help but think about holy week and resurrection morning when the women came to the tomb. The women brought their spices and perfumes for proper burial. I can’t explain what I experienced in that room, but I know it was healing. I just finished a class in seminary on worship where worship was defined as “any encounter with God.” For me this experience was worship, a sobering realization of life, death, connection with God and humanity. To experience this with women who came there to work and to help create and bring dignity to the deceased and the family was amazing. At one point we all three looked at each other and just smiled one of us saying, “this was really nice, all us girls.” As we were leaving, the spouse of the patient kissed my cheek and said, “How lovely to have such wonderful girls looking after my husband, I know he is in caring hands.”