When Things Can Only Be Carried

April 9, 2019

Preached April 7, 2019
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green
Text: Gospel of Mark Chapter 14:3-9

I think often we read biblical stories with a somewhat numb mind. Many of us have heard them before. Often scriptures are often read out of context, we aren’t exactly sure what is going on in the broader scheme of the story. For those who have been going to church for a long time, maybe even since you were little, it can be hard to enter into the beauty and the holiness of the stories in the midst of our hectic lives.

Sometimes it is like if you eat a whole box of chocolates – or maybe around this time of year, a whole bag of king size Cadbury chocolate eggs. By the 15th chocolate egg you aren’t exactly savoring each and every bite.

This is not a criticism of us – this is part of life. If you don’t get to see your kids very often, you can appreciate all their sweet little idiosyncrasies – but by day nine of spring break when you’ve been spending every minute together, somehow you can’t quite treasure their little laugh or cute little pile of legos in the floor as much as you might otherwise have.

So as we join together on the last Sunday before Holy week, as we near the end of Lent, I want to invite us to slow down and really take in the amazing beauty and power of this week’s scripture.

It is two days before Passover. Jesus is in Bethany visiting followers and friends at the house of Simon the Leper. Bethany is about a mile outside of Jerusalem. At this time in Mark, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, palm leaves spread before him. We know that sisters Mary and Martha and Jesus’s friend Lazarus also all live in Bethany. We can imagine the times are tense. Jesus and his followers know that Jesus’s message has spread far and wide.

Those who hold power are worried. They are trying to think of a way to arrest Jesus, to quiet him, to silence his message and to discourage his followers who are questioning the long-held power structures and rules of the authorities and they are envisioning that there might be a different way to live.

The son of God hangs out at the house of a leper.

Women have roles of leadership that they have never been allowed in other faiths and movements of the time.

The last are first. The poor are blessed.

The savior of the world doesn’t enter triumphantly into Jerusalem with weapons or pomp and circumstance, but humbly and beautifully on the back of a common donkey.

Things are different and people can tell.

Everyone is tense.

The time is coming. They know what is to come.

Sometimes there are no words.

A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.

Jesus is sitting at the table. We can imagine everyone talks in hushed voices, in the way we do when we sit and wait for death that we know is coming.

Have you ever held vigil for one you love? Have you ever known something will come and you know it must but you don’t want it to and you don’t know what to do?

They sat in Simon’s house around the table perhaps with little to say as they wondered what would happen and how. We have heard the story before, but they did not know how the story would play out exactly.

The woman broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

We can imagine it drizzling down slowly on his hair. She gently rubs his hair, moves her fingers over his temple slowly so the oil doesn’t get in his eyes. The fragrance fills the room.

Sometimes there are no words for the grief, and the fear, and the difficulties we face.

The people around get upset. What in the world are you doing? Wasting so much?! They chastise her. You can imagine everyone is stressed and perhaps a little on edge. People don’t know how to react to someone just walking up and putting oil on Jesus’s head. Maybe he isn’t going to like this. We could have sold that and given the money to the poor they snap.

When we are hurting or scared, we often lash out at those around us. When we are aren’t sure what will happen or what to do, we often aren’t our best selves.

Have you ever lashed out in your pain?

How often are we hurt by those who are in pain who don’t know what to do?

It was no different around this table many years ago in Bethany.

But Jesus speaks up. Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me, he says.

He knows what she has done. She has anointed him with oil, an act of hospitality, a gesture of affection, and ceremonially preparing him for the burial which is to come. It is a silent acknowledgment of what is to come, an acknowledgement that a serious situation sometimes requires more than we can afford to give, an act of love, a holy act.

She has done what she could, Jesus says. She has done what she could.

In a time when we are to slow down, and contemplate what is to come, this story of anointing reminds us of the ways that the church and the church’s people can break down barriers and build bridges, particularly in moments when people are scared, when people are hurting, when they are longing for comfort and care and answers and safety. When they either don’t know quite what is to come or perhaps they do know what comes and it feels unbearable.

There are so many ways that we love people and are there for people without words. When words aren’t really enough. Megan Divine who writes about grief in her book It’s OK that You’re Not OK says that there are some things that cannot be fixed, they can only be carried. They will be with us always, but we can learn to journey with them, and over time, we can learn to journey with them with some measure of peace, or even with a little joy eventually.

As we think about barriers and bridges and how we love and how we welcome as the hands and feet of Christ, this week we might especially attend to the non-traditional ways that we do this – not just with our words, but with our actions, with our holy rituals, for Christianity is a deeply embodied faith. In what ways do we and can we respond to others when they are hurting and unsure, that follows the lead of the woman with the alabaster jar who offered hospitality, gentleness, care, and preparation?

One way that we do this is through the open table. Each week, we feed each other. An intimate act. Everyone is welcome, everyone can serve, everyone can eat. We can say we are as welcoming as we want, but we also show this by a table that doesn’t just say, “Well, perhaps you can join us if you believe this,” or maybe in the future you might believe what we want you to believe or do… No. It is a no questions asked act of love and welcome and nourishment.

We also break down barriers sometime by simply bearing witness, gently and quietly.

The last time I preached here was June 24, 2018. I remember the date perfectly because it was also the day that the child I was pregnant with died. We knew the pregnancy was struggling and Megan offered to cover for me, but I told her I could do it. I preached, in somewhat of a daze, knowing what was to come in the days or weeks ahead, but not sure how or when and perhaps still hoping that there would be a miracle I knew was not really possible.

After church I went home and by that afternoon I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I spent my last hours with my baby to-be here on this altar.

I really thought I would die of a broken heart, our sweet little boy was wanted so very much.

I didn’t want to speak to anyone or go anywhere. I didn’t know what to make of it, really.

Perhaps many of us here have faced a loss that hurt so much that our words failed us. That we didn’t know what to do.

That we were speechless. That it felt as if there was a hole in our heart or a brick in our stomach.

Megan brought over tea and an orchid and left it on my porch, honoring my need to be alone.

I drank the tea, lying in bed, with my red nose and empty heart, wondering how I could go back into the world, but thankful to have the comfort of something warm from people who cared.

I haven’t been to church as much as I was before that day. I haven’t known exactly why, I’ve felt guilty, unsure of what to say to people about my absence. About our baby. In my life, there will always be the before and the after that day.

And yet, I have been so welcomed because no one has pressured me to be here before I was ready. I am warmly hugged and greeted when I can come. Whenever you’re ready, we’re here, Megan has told me as I’ve worried about reentering life after my loss.

Building bridges sometimes means waiting, it sometimes means silent acts of vigil and love, knowing that there are not words adequate to heal the pain that people face. Sometimes we bring them tea, or flowers, or a homemade blanket, a dish of food, or knitted scarf or an alabaster jar.

Sometimes breaking down barriers means we do things that seem out of the ordinary. She has done what she could, Jesus said of the woman with the alabaster jar.

I have spent the year reading about grief. Reading about the way we try to fix it when people are sad, doing our best to console them, but often putting our foot in our mouth, struggling with the right words because we live in a culture that often wants us to sanitize the struggles we face, to heal faster, to cheer up, whispering only to those closest to us, often not naming the miscarriage, the affair, the addiction, the depression, the loneliness that so many carry with them.

And, to be honest, churches don’t have the best track record of holding these pains well. There are too many stories of shaming, of leaving out, of rejecting, of glossing over, of gossiping, of judging, and of mistaking ourselves as God.

So this morning as we think about the barriers we might put up – around our church or around ourselves – and the bridges we might build – among each other and with those around us – we can remember the woman with the alabaster jar.

She knew that should could not fix things.

She did not offer cheerful platitudes that everything would be okay or reassure everyone that it would be all turn out well. Because she did not know and because, in many ways, it would not be okay. It was not okay when Jesus was taken away from his people and tortured and killed, when Jesus cried out “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” It was not even okay after the empty tomb and resurrection because… well, look around us. Even in the midst of the risen Christ, our world still struggles and God still weeps for all of our sweet souls who go on hurting each other and being so hard on ourselves.

The woman with the alabaster jar simply did what she could – she gave what she had – in fact gave lavishly in an act of hospitality, of affection, and consecration of Jesus’s body and his path, honoring his death which was to come.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Kate Bowler teaches at Duke Divinity School and her area of focus is in the study of the prosperity gospel, Joel Olsteen, the idea that fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune is a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in Kate’s life seemed to point toward blessing. She was thriving at her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and has a newborn son. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forced her to realize that she has been inadvertently subscribing to the prosperity gospel, the idea that if we do the right things, things will be okay. Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, there is also the darker side of that… that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you may just have done something wrong. What does it mean to die, at 35 she wondered, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved she asks what happens when we let go of platitudes about death and loss and and don’t immediately put all bad things under the category of “God’s plan,” and live into the mystery of an existence where we don’t explain our struggles and hurt away and instead sit with each other as we acknowledge the ways that beauty and struggle are woven up together in a mystery that is sometimes beyond our comprehension, and bear witness to this among each other.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. And with Jesus reminding us that when we proclaim the good news, we also must tell the story of those who bear witness in times when words are not enough. When we proclaim the good news, we must also remember the importance of unexpected acts of care, of preparation, of quiet affection and hospitality that punctuate the ebb and flow of grief that our people face day in and day out.

Sometimes breaking down barriers and building bridges is slow, quiet work among aching or grieving people whose pain it is hard to know.

We remember today that we do not have to fix things or have the right answers. We can feed each other at the table, we can wait patiently on each other, sit quietly with sweet gifts of tea and orchids and handmade quilts and home-cooked meals, being present. Anointing in our own ways with our own oil.

In memory of her.


That the Times We Are in Today Will not Remain as They Are

July 4, 2016

Preached July 3, 2016
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green
Text: Gospel of Matthew Chapter 9:18-34

Sometimes it seems like nothing will ever be okay.

We look left and there is pain and hatred.

We look right and there is violence.

We look at our own homes and lives and see the ways that we fall short of the life we long for, the life we thought we would have.

Sometimes it seems like we are just going through the motions.

There are days for many of us when ask ourselves quietly, “What more can we do? What does all of this even mean? What are we even doing here?”

We scramble like little rats in those mazes where they do experiments, we scramble to try to make it better, to get to the end of the maze where we can rest and where everything is okay, we’ll get our treat.

If only we would make a little more money, things would be better. We could relax.

If only our spouse would love us a little more, things would be better we tell ourselves.

At each age, each life stage, we have our own set of if-only’s….

There have been and will be the big things – If only the cancer would be healed, we wouldn’t complain about the small things anymore.

If we could feel better. Our bodies. Our hearts.

If only we would find a job, then it would be okay.

If only we could stop drinking.

If only people would quit being selfish and violent.

If only people would vote for reasonable people.

There are so many if only’s.

For those of you who have ever struggled with acute or chronic illness, you probably can especially relate to this. Life seems tough until you are sick all the time. Or until you are facing death. And then you think, “Wow. I didn’t know. I didn’t really realize how hard it could be or how good it was before this happened.”

When you have those good days, you feel light and think, “Ah I will never stop appreciating this.”

I was chronically ill from the time I was in my mid-teens until I was well into graduate school. I went to doctor after doctor and got mostly sort of guesses at what it might be, but no one really knew. I was exhausted all the time, walking to my car from my house was a big undertaking. Some of my teeth fell out and my fingernails detached and fell off.

And I will always remember this day in college – it was in April and I was worn down from years of doctors and feeling bad and trying hard and nothing working.

And I woke up feeling okay. I remember standing up and walking to the bathroom that morning and feeling light. I could breath easily, my head didn’t hurt.

I hadn’t eaten so I wasn’t sick to my stomach yet.

And I took a shower and got dressed and was walking on campus in the warm spring sun and I remembered. I remembered what life was like before I was sick. I remember literally there was a bounce in my step. I thought, “Oh what did I do to make it better today? How can I catch this feeling? This calm.” I remember wiggling my fingers and moving my neck back and forth.

Nothing was hurting.

I remember thinking, “I wish I could put this in a bottle. This feeling of being okay. This feeling of things being. I want to keep it. I want to hold on it.”

And we have these moments, maybe some more pronounced than others, but we have these moments of wanting to capture the present moment and hold onto it, the times when things seem good and okay.

But of course, no matter if it a good day in the midst of sickness, or a good day in the midst of a stressful life, or a day without bombings on the news, or a moment of connection with someone whom we love but we struggle to make things work with, we cannot capture these moments when things feel okay and keep them or hold onto them.

We are always in a back and forth time, in between holy moments and seasons and the ordinary time of existence when we bump up against the limits of human compassion, the limits of human bodies… the reality is that day in and day out we bump up against the limits of love and care and peace.

Our topic this week is about healing, and I am struck by the deep need we all have for healing – both physically and psychologically – individually and as a society. Yet, we make shockingly little progress on it.

Many of us face what some people call “first world problems” – the car is broken, air conditioning is not working, the car in front of you isn’t going fast enough and you want to get where you are going right now, the sound system at church isn’t working right, put our foot in our mouth, we send the kids to school with mismatched shoes, or forget the birthday of beloved.

And it is not that these are not real challenges, but wham – all of our daily struggles end up feeling pretty minor when we face the really hard stuff.

For those of you that have lost a loved one, perhaps you know this too well. If only we could see her one more time. If only we could hold his hand, kiss him, or sing to her again.

In the face of great pain, all of a sudden previous pain seems kind of minor or trivial.

In times of great pain or desperation – our own illnesses, facing death in a more imminent way, facing the loss of someone we love, in our come to Jesus moments  – thing seem clearer, priorities obvious.

But man is it hard to live that on a day to day basis. It is hard – really impossible to hold on to the clarity of a moment.

And so we try hard to try to figure out how to make things be like the should.

I want to say that again because that at the heart of what I want to talk about today.

We try hard to figure out how to make things be like they should.

And frankly, for most of us, that doesn’t really go very far. Because once you get things like you thought they should be – maybe you improve your marriage, you figure out how to heal from abuse or addiction, you finally get your house clean and yard mowed and closets cleaned out, your business set up, you are not longer sick, or your finances in order – there is something else.

Sometime that something else is that you realize that the color of your carpet doesn’t really look right, or the car you thought you wanted is looking a little old. Sometimes it is realizing that you thought that getting the right job and the working really hard and making enough money would make things be like they should, you thought getting married would help, or when you had a child then life would be like you envisioned it.

We live in a culture and a time that says always, “More.” More more more. Try harder, work harder, get more and do better. The grass is always greener! You thought you were doing well because you were feeding your kids brown rice and vegetables? Well come to find out your brown rice has high levels of arsenic in it and the organic vegetables you bought from Kroger’s that are shipped in from California are using up all the water in California.

There is always something else we can do better and we live in this if-only culture that always whispers to us like a siren, “A little more. Try a little more. Get a little more. Do a little more. You aren’t quite good enough yet.”

And what we are really trying to do with all these things is to heal. We are trying to make ourselves whole, complete, well. We are working hard to make better the things that are broken because we live in a broken world.

We are taught often that we can get to healing like it is a line on our productivity to-do list. Healing of our bodies, our relationships, our hearts, our minds through check-lists.

We are lured by the call of our to do lists and our pinterest boards and productivity hacks that if only we get the calculus right, get the right app on our phone or right plan, things will finally be better. The right mix of hard work, insight, good tips, clean closets, healthy food, and better elected representatives and we would be set.

It is a tempting story.

Yet, even when we do all the right things, we still get sick.

We do all the right things and people we love still die.

We try to do all the right things and we still face pain.

We still have that secret we haven’t told that eats at us.

We still feel shame. We still make terrible mistakes – sometimes on purpose and sometime by accident.

And this is not because something is wrong with us – it is not that we haven’t come up with just the right mix of How to Be in the World but it is because we are in a world where wounds and pain are just part of what we have to face from birth until death.

It doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of good – joy and love and connection and beauty and healing and hope – but it means that we will never find a way to get out of the hard stuff. We won’t be able to check off enough boxes for everything to be okay.

As we see Jesus in chapter 9 of Matthew, for him too it is just one thing after another.

He is going to the girl who died and on the way meets the bleeding woman who needs healed.

He gets to the girl who died and brings her back to life, moves right onto the blind men, and then to the person who cannot speak.

One thing after another.

And as we read the story of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection, it never stops. He does slow steady work, healing here, healing there, but in fact he does not fix it all. He did not wave his hand or a magic wand and make it all better, rather Jesus life and death and resurrection created the space for a new kind of healing.

He lived among the people, in the mess of this human existence, slow and steady, in a very little corner of the world doing what he did. His acts of healing, his preaching, his love, and his speaking hard truth about things that undid the way it had been done before.

His hard work and hard love in the face of dogma and imperial power brought his life to an end very early, but he knew this too and prepared for it.

He lived into his death by the very human act of gathering folks around him that loved him and whom he loved, teaching them slowly and patiently, inviting them to walk with him. Knowing that his time on earth was limited, he says later in Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Some have interpreted this as telling the disciples to convert people to Christianity by saying a particular kind of prayer or, as some Christians have seen it, as pressuring or forcing people to convert. But when I read this, I hear “baptize them” – tell them that they can die to their old selves and be renewed!

Teach them what I have taught you – to heal people, to walk with people where they are, to hope together that the times we are in today will not remain as they are – that there is another way than the violence of occupation and violence imperial power and ways of being religious that are dogmatic and exclusionary.

There were fifteen miracles where Jesus healed people in Matthew.

He attended to one after the other, knowing that he would never check off all the boxes. It would never be completely okay, but it would a little better. For today. And tomorrow he would do the same thing again.

Our culture thrives on the idea that you can have it all, but in his commitment and reality of his full humanity, Jesus showed with his life that you cannot have it all and your work will never be done.

He knew that in his lifetime he could not fully heal the world and be true to his divine nature and his human nature.

His life provided an example, a new way forward, a new paradigm for God that was not the God that sends down fire and brimstone on cities and towns, but a God that rides to his death into Jerusalem on a little donkey.

A God that goes to the sick among us, those on the margins of society, and calls his people to do the same.

In Luke we read how Jesus sends the disciples out to heal, bid them to travel light, and then later sends out 72 to heal in his name. No one went out with a grand hurrah or weapons or pomp and circumstance, “We are here to save you!” He said to them, “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.”

The amazing thing about Jesus as the person on which our faith is based is that he was not some magical sorcerer who waved his wand and fixed things, but he was with his people doing what he could.

The stories of miracles in the bible call us to a life of healing, but not a life where we can do it all or have it all.

The stories of healing in the bible remind us that it will be one pain after another. Among those we love. In our society.

So as we go out to the world, hurting like we will hurt, watching the hurt flash before our eyes on the news and in our neighborhoods, tell yourself that our journey is long and there will always be something else.

We can endure this, we can do the work we can do, little by little, by keeping perspective. “I will be with you always,” he said. Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Our call is not to be all okay ourselves, and not to make the world all okay, but it is do to the incredibly hard work of healing day in and day out when things are a mess, not giving up on ourselves as we mess up over and and over, and not giving up on others as they mess up over and over. Not giving up when things don’t go how we want them to, when the hurt seems unsurmountable.

The story of Jesus birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension is a story of long, hard slow work, where Jesus teaches us to do what we can with what we have, knowing that we cannot do it all, or have it all, and we must get up every morning and face the world and try to make it better even if that costs us everything.

So let us keep up this slow hard work, my friends, in a world that desperately needs patient, forgiving healing people.

May it be so.

.

This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use without permission.


Finding Our Way to Sunday

April 4, 2015

Holy Week can be a lot of things. It can be a time when people who are not Christians or religious feel sick of seeing things in their Facebook feed about religion. It can be a time to color eggs and get dressed up. It can be our one visit to church this year. It can be a reminder that loss is excruciating and painful. It can be an invitation to remember the kind of lives we are called to, where even when you try to do the right thing, sometimes people betray you and bad things happen. And it can be a reminder that even after bad things happen, there are often ways forward that you we can’t yet imagine, that don’t even seem possible.

Holy Saturday is especially important to me because it reminds me of all the people in the wake of loss, in the midst of unbearable hopelessness. On that Saturday after Jesus was killed, no one knew what was to come. For the disciples, for the people who believed that Jesus could renew faith and perhaps renew the world, for Mary who loved her son so dearly, they sat on that Saturday in anguish. Shock. In the numb that often follows death. It wasn’t yet Holy Saturday. It was just a sad, horrible Saturday for people who thought things were maybe going to be better.

This Saturday, may we not run too quickly to the hope, the stone rolled away, the miracle, and remember all of those people who are sitting in shock, in trauma, in aloneness, and in fear. Who hope that there will be new life, somehow, in the midst of death, but don’t yet see a way. May we remember how important it is to be with folks who are in that long Saturday. Who long for love, who need our care, and who need us to be patient with them and welcoming to them as we all try to find our way to Sunday.

Holy week can be a lot of things. This is the beauty of the incredibly rich Christian tradition. It can be coloring eggs and visits to church once a year, it can be an invitation to live a different life, and it can be a reminder of the rough world we live in and the possibility that it might be different. It can be all these things and a thousand more. I am thankful for a God that wants us all where we are at. Let’s widen that circle. Build a bigger tent. Come in and let’s figure it out together.

Amen amen amen.

p.s. A good book on Holy Saturday is Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining.


In the Long Wake

June 2, 2014

In the Long Wake
Preached June 1, 2014
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green

The text for this sermon is Acts 1:6-14:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

*

We sat there in my Aunt Carol’s kitchen, surrounded by casserole dishes, the unused oxygen tank, prescription medicine bottles, and each other. It felt like some sort of weird dream. Here we were writing thank you notes to people who had given money to the church in Aunt Carol’s name. It seemed bizarre to be marking the day after her funeral sitting awkwardly in her kitchen writing notes to people, but at least it gave us something to do.

Like so many deaths, it seemed like it happened in slow motion but was so fast I couldn’t really remember what parts took place where. There was the questionable x-ray and then more scans and so quickly things moved from a normal life to surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and hospital beds in the living room because she couldn’t walk up the stairs anymore. Many of you have been there.

I was with her the last time she left her house. What strikes me is how mundane it was. She lay there in the middle of the night her hospital bed in the living room and the breathing was so labored. Do we go to the hospital? Don’t we? It was like we just didn’t know at the point what was good and what was bad. Was she trying to recover or was she now just hoping to die peacefully? She didn’t know and we didn’t know.

Within twenty minutes we decided to go to the hospital and that was that. Out the door, leaving pill bottles on the kitchen table, a midnight snack on the cabinet, and we left her home of 30 years and she would not come back.

And so here we sat, after her death, in the kitchen, struck by the banality of her absence. The cars still drove on the roads outside. We had to return to our jobs. The casseroles would stop coming. The notes would be sent out. And life would go on. It felt so momentous to be without her and yet the world went on, and we were left to make sense of things in the wake of this loss.

As we think about our scripture this week, I think of the roller coaster the disciples were on for the weeks surrounding Jesus’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Often, we hear the stories in the Bible and nod with familiarity because we have heard them so many times and know how they turned out.

But imagine Jesus friends and his mother sitting together after the crucifixion. That quiet, odd, calm that comes after a death where you no longer know just what to do with yourself. Arrangements have been made, there has a burial, and now you must figure out how to go on. I imagine how they sat there on that Saturday, felt sick to their stomachs, worried, unsure of what to do as they faced what seemed like both an eerie absence and a chaos that Jesus’s death left. What were they to do in the face of the world that was broken before Jesus’s death and surely seemed even worse now?

We must remember that although the resurrection was joyful, it came after a losing a friend to a violent death just a few days earlier. Imagine what it might be like to lose, not only a friend, but your leader and teacher whom you believed would lead to a different world. Imagine how you would feel if you lost your teacher friend, who was like your family, and three days later that person showed up, wounds gaping?

They had seen miracles, but as they saw the wounds, and struggled to make sense of it, like many of us still struggle to make sense of it – they struggled to integrate it into their lives and to what was happening. They did not yet know that Jesus was the Jesus we know or that the tradition he and they would leave would be Christianity. It would be many years later that the term Christian would even be first be used.* At this moment in the bible they were poor, exhausted followers of a charismatic, poor, Palestinian Jewish teacher in Galilee and Judea.

Thus, even with the resurrection and the ascension, we must remember that the disciples were real people who did not know what was happening, did not know the outcome.

Jesus’s life and death and resurrection and ascension does not shock our ears because we have heard it so much, but these words invite us to consider this in its own context and where this would have been traumatic, scary, and confusing. And overwhelming.

Shelly Rambo is a theologian at Boston University and she has written a book that I have found very helpful in thinking about what Christianity can look like today in the midst of a world not only full of suffering and injustice, where it can often feel overwhelming, but particularly a world where Christians and Christianity are too often part of causing harm. In her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining she makes the argument that the power of the resurrection is not Jesus’s resurrection as the triumph of life over death, but the power of the persistence of life in the midst of death. His wounds were still open.

Through hundreds of interviews with trauma survivors, she realized that they were learning how to live with experiences that were difficult to integrate into their existence. Survivors of Katrina, survivors of war, rape, of childhood abuse and neglect. For many of her interviewees, there was never a time when there was victory over the pain, when it was gone, or away, but rather the best that they could hope for was a life in the midst of the reality of this experience that remained with them.

And Rambo argues if Jesus’s resurrection and ascension was the end of the story, there is no more for us. And this is why, in our verses today we hear, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven,” two angels say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And they are called to turn their attention back to the aftermath. To the world that remains.

We hear that they returned to Jerusalem and they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, and they prayed.

They gathered together to turn their attention back to the world. To turn their attention back to the world that was still shot through with trauma, and death, with oppression, and people who long for a better life in the midst of brokenness. I don’t know about you, but I know of longing for a better life in the midst of pain.

Shelly Rambo writes about a theology of remaining – where we do not go to the triumph, to the victory, because in that triumph and victory we leave behind the people who are still living in the midst of pain and wounds and death. And that, my dear friends, is all of us.

Many of us have probably heard and been told that we should be saved. And for too many of us this was about saying a prayer or perhaps going to an altar call and someone telling us that was it. It was about making a decision that had something to do with whether we would go to heaven or hell, whether we would be good or bad, in or out.

And, while we can affirm together this morning the need to open ourselves up to rebirth and to make meaningful commitments to our faith journeys, our verses this morning draw us back down to this world where salvation is not a one-time event, but it is an ongoing process – salvation is slow, my brothers and sisters, it is slow and it is long.

What if we are saved not by just saying a prayer, but by doing as Jesus did – which was to honor tradition while at the same time disrupting that tradition, by loving those people that were said to be unlovable and that includes loving ourselves, by speaking out truth, even when the costs were very high, by forgiving and offering grace even when it is so very hard. That is where salvation is, day in and day out, remaining. Remaining when it is hard and sad and the answers are not clear.

The well-known Christian theologian and African American thinker Cornell West speaks to this when he says that justice is what love looks like in public. He says, “We need the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people,” we are called, he says, “To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.” This is life in the midst of death.

We heard this morning that the disciples returned to Jerusalem and they went to the room upstairs. They began, in many ways, their ministry of remaining with the world. Catherine Keller is a theologian at Drew University and says that this theology of remaining that this is a “theology that holds up in the face of personal and collective suffering, for it frees us from the dishonest resolutions, the grim guarantees, the disappointing promises.”

We have all been on both sides of those resolutions and promises – that things will be different, that we will really, now start to do the right things, the things we should, be the person that we want, to be the partner that we want to be to our spouse, the parent we want to our children, the person that we know we can be. Turn on the televangelist and they will tell you that you will be saved and it will be different. That there will be victory over what ails you – drinking, drugs, envy, pain, disordered eating, sexuality that causes you or others harm.

But I want to suggest this morning that we have not been well served by teachings that frame the Christian journey as one of triumph, or absolutes.  Shelly Rambo notes that insofar as Jesus’s story is proclaimed as life conquering or life victorious over death, the church cannot speak to the realities of traumatic suffering, where there is never the end of the story, or the victory over the struggle, but there is instead slow hard work to eek out a path where life can be decent or even good in the midst of struggle –there must be a return and a return again and again to each time take a step forward, to heal a little bit, to struggle with the demons, and to inch ahead.

This is a theology of staying with it, on the ground, in the trenches. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” said Jesus as he ascended. You will be my witnesses and the angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” and they returned to Jerusalem, and went to the room upstairs where they were staying.

The Christian tradition is a faith born out of violence – of death – of trauma of loss, and confusion. And perhaps it is like this because, at is best, Christianity can be a faith that makes promises that are real. That no matter what you do, you are still welcome. No matter what happens to you, you are fundamentally good. That you can be saved. That you can be loved. That you can love. And that you can love.

But this grace, this salvation, this love – it is not magic. You will be witnesses, he said. It is slow, and it is hard and we are called back again and again to love each other, to remain with each other.

I have spent much of my ten years in graduate school studying the ways that people try to grapple and make sense of their faith and their lives with specific regard to sexuality and relationships. There is a significant movement in the U.S., one that I have studied for many years and I’m finishing my book on it now. Many of you probably know it as True Love Waits, the idea that one of the key things we must do for our children and that good people must do is, “Wait until you are marriage to be sexually active.” Just say no, they say. It is 100% effective.

As I was preparing for this sermon, reading about how theology and the church and Christians can respond to the needs of the world, here and now, rather than looking up to heaven or thinking about things for a later time, I kept coming back to my many years of work and study about relationships and sexuality.

A book a few years ago came out called Sex and the Soul and in this book college student after college student said either 1) they were religious and they considered their relationships and sexuality to be wrong and thus separated it from their religious identity or 2) they were no longer religious because they could not make sense of their relationships and sexuality in light of the teachings of their church. Their faith wasn’t able to answer the experiences and realities that they had on the ground.

And this fractures people. It fractures people from their own bodies, from their faith, from their families, because it is an easy answer to the lived experience that is messy, and complicated, and disordered.

There are not one step answers to making sense of our relationships or our bodies, and this is why Jesus was among the people. Our tradition honors the beauty and messiness of people because God was the people. John 1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But in Greek, here the Word is logos which can be understood as both wisdom and knowledge. It is a creative use of language that draws on both Greek and Hebrew traditions. John is saying here that in the beginning was knowledge and wisdom, and knowledge and wisdom was with God and knowledge and wisdom was God.” And in a later verse we see, John’s gospel tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

And we are now left. Like the disciples left in the wake of Jesus’ ascension to heaven, we are now left, sitting, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of people who will tell us that there are clear easy answers – just say no – just get saved – just do this or just do that – and we are left in the long wake to do the slow work. The slow work of looking away from heaven and the magic and miracles and being a witness to a life that was lived with the people, in the messy, broken, disaster of a world.

We are sitting around our table, in the wake, and the world is waiting for us to be present and remain. To remain when the answers are not easy, when the work is hard, when we ourselves feel broken, and hurt, and scared and not sure of what to do.

And perhaps it is here that we can all find salvation together, bearing witness to The Word – logos – the wisdom and knowledge – that became flesh. To give an account – to testify – to what life can look like in the midst of death.

May it be so. Amen.

*For more on this, see Judith Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), especially pp. 1-26, 240-241, 250-259.

This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use without permission.


Teaching Religion to Toddlers

March 20, 2012

After carefully picking an age-appropriate book about Jesus (Easter story! – not just the cutie-pie Christmas story which was way easier) and adjusting the book’s version of the story to make sure the history and theology are right, my three year old sweetie looks at me sincerely at the end of the book and says, “So there are not going to be monkeys in our house?” “Um, no, sweetie, no monkeys.” Sigh. Will try with this one again in a bit. I guess resurrection is just a bit much for him right now. #theologyfail


The Power of Those Smudges

February 24, 2012

I’m just going to be upfront and say that on Tuesday, I looked up Ash Wednesday on Wikipedia. There. I said it. I mean, I knew that it was the start of Lent. Which is the time before Easter. But between the Baptist church I attended as a child, and the two very low-church Methodist churches I went to as a teenager and Campus Crusade for Christ in college and then the whole leaving the church and then becoming Unitarian Universalist and then staying that but also sort of reentering Christianity, let’s just say that the liturgical calendar wasn’t really a big part of my church life. (Who need the liturgical calendar when you are being RADICAL for JESUS and have, like, four Bible studies to go to every week!?)

And, as Nick Cave says, I don’t believe in an interventionist God, so I won’t say that God somehow pulled me to Ash Wednesday services (or [back to] to Christianity for that matter) but if I did believe those things, that is what I would have said about the services I went to yesterday.

Early this week I was thinking about standing outside of divinity school a few years ago, having missed Ash Wednesday services around campus and seeing everyone with the ashes smudged on their heads and asking my friend Nicole what exactly it was all about and sort of musing that I somehow liked it. And dear Nicole reached up on her head and took some of the ashes from her forehead and put a small faint cross on my head with her ashes, telling me that the priest [she is Catholic] says, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” We talked some about the time before death and resurrection and praying in the desert and burning leaves from Palm Sunday. But what I remember is this power and this feeling and almost like a little collapse inside of me when she gave me some of her ashes. Like, right there, she could perform something sacramental, and I could be a part of things, and a part of this long history of people smudging and praying and confessing and hoping and it didn’t have to be earth shattering or The Great Return to Christianity or The Great Confession of Sin. It was just me and my friend Nicole who is an amazing minister and this moment or more like a washing over me of this circle of life and death and hope and return and leaving and all of it. It was both a big deal and not a big deal.

So at the last minute yesterday I called the local Disciples Church (our Unitarian Universalist church here does not have Ash Wednesday services) to see when their services were. And amid my sweet little son gobbling on his cookie and trying to read me Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?, I was awash again in this flood. I am not sure what it is a flood of, exactly. Of this idea that we are finite, that there always remains hope, that we can begin again, that we are all hurting, that we are invited into a time of reflection and doing things differently, and that this can shape us, and that God is always present. I love our Unitarian Universalist Church here in our new town, but I miss God. For me, I find God in ashes and bread and wine somehow in a unique way that I sort of feel like I need. Who knows why.

What I like somehow is that there are not Answers to be given on Ash Wednesday. At least not how I have experienced it. We are together. We anticipate the crucifixion. We acknowledge our brokenness. We sit together and confess. We sing. We listen. We leave, marked, together, that we are part of the Church. And, in a day, that fades and we are back to our unmarked selves, trying to love, trying to pray, trying not to eat chocolate or whatever other big but really absolutely small thing we’ve decided to do for Lent and we are just praying and waiting and preparing both for something terrible and tragic, yet knowing that only through that can there be new life. For whatever reason, that makes a lot of sense to me right now.


Tattoo

October 1, 2011

On the event of my 32 birthday. To remind myself what I’m about. It is nice to have a reminder right there on me.Image