Last Sunday, June 23, 2019, my paternal grandmother Dorothy died. She had spent two weeks in the loving and tender care of Hospice following a massive stroke. She was 93-years-old, which was, truth be told, a bit on the young side for her long-lived family. I was in the Holy Land during most of her time in Hospice, and thanks to the wonder of the internet, a FaceTime call put me in the room with her from halfway across the world. My father said that she visibly brightened when she heard my voice, though by that point she could not talk. She could barely squeeze a hand. I lit a candle for her in the “upper room” in the Old City, a peaceful place that beckoned prayer. The tears I shed for her watered the dusty ground of Jerusalem. Continue reading “Sabbatical Notes, Week 10: A Remembrance”
Sermon for Sunday, April 2, 2017 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So say both Martha and her sister Mary when they meet Jesus outside Bethany. They must have been saying this over and over again to each other in the four days since Lazarus’s death: “If the Teacher had been here, things would be different. If Jesus had come when we first wrote to him. If, if, if…”
Two weeks ago, one of our ten Handy Guidelines told us that how a line of dialogue is spoken is a matter of interpretation. So how do the two grieving sisters deliver this line? Is it an accusation? [angrily] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is it wistful? [sadly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or is it faithful? [lovingly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Probably a little bit of each one, all rolled together in that roiling mass of anger and sadness and love that we call “grief.” No matter how Martha and Mary speak this statement, my question is this: is it true? Would Lazarus still be alive if Jesus had been there? Continue reading “If You Had Been Here”
Sermon for Sunday, March 13, 2016 || Lent 5C || John 12:1-11
Imagine with me a letter written by Lazarus, the friend whom Jesus brought back to life after four days in the tomb.
To my dear sisters, Martha and Mary, by the hand of a trusted friend:
I have written and re-written this letter in my mind, and still any words I hope to scratch here will pale in comparison to the anguish I have in my heart for you. I love you both. My spirit wilts to contemplate putting you through grief yet again. You already passed from grief to joy, as I passed from death to life. But I fear we will reverse this cycle again before long.
Indeed, if you are reading this letter, then I have died once again: not from illness this time, but from malice. I am writing this to help you understand what has happened, and I’m sorry if my thoughts seem like fragments. Fragments are all I have right now. After dinner tonight, Jesus confirmed the fear that has been growing in my mind. His words shattered the innocence I wrapped myself in since coming out of the tomb.
He drew me aside after his confrontation with Judas. I could smell the perfume you anointed him with, Mary. I will remember that scent for the rest of my days. I will remember, too, his eyes set on mine, full of love and agitation. “Beloved,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t know what to say. What did he have to apologize to me for?
“I’m sorry for what may be coming soon. I’m sorry that you may suffer on my account. I’m sorry I drew you into all this.”
He looked to be on the verge of tears. “Into what, Lord?” I asked.
“I brought you back from death, only to make you a target for death again. There are powers in Jerusalem who seek my life, and now they seek your life as well. These crowds that come to hear me—they also come to see you, to see with their own eyes proof of the words I speak. And now those who seek to kill me have added you to their list.”
I had sensed this—in the roving eyes of some in the crowd, in the growing sense of foreboding in my gut—but hearing it from Jesus’ own mouth made it real. I hadn’t named the fear I was feeling. I had feigned innocence, hoping that ignoring reality would change it. But Jesus’ words set reality in front of my eyes, and I could not turn away.
Will I die tomorrow? Will I be stoned in a public square or dispatched by an assassin’s blade? Will there be blood? Will it hurt? My sisters, I know you are reading this after I’m gone, so these thoughts must seem wild and misplaced in such a letter. But I beg you: keep reading, for I have not said all.
He kept his eyes on me as I took in his words. I didn’t know whether to run away or to weep on his shoulder. I felt faint. I looked around for something solid to lean on. The walls and chairs looked flimsy somehow. So I reached out and steadied myself on his arm. Finally, words came. “Why did you restore my life if I’m just going to be murdered weeks later?”
“Lazarus,” he said, “I wish I could spare you the prying eyes that have hounded you since that day. I wish I could spare you the pain that may be ahead of you. I cannot. But I can tell you this…”
Dear sisters, coming from any other person, what he said next would have rung pitifully hollow, but the light in Jesus’ eyes held the promise that his words are truth. “I came that you may have life,” he said, “and have it in abundance. This life that I give, beloved, is more than just your ability to move or think or breathe. This life includes those things, just as it includes pain and grief. But ever so much more, this life includes those wonderful gifts from God that reach into eternity: love and joy and grace and justice and peace. You are mine, and I have taught you how to love others as I love you. You are mine, and I make your joy complete. You are mine, and I offer the grace to strive for justice and peace everyday, no matter how many days are left to you.”
I was captivated. I looked him in the eye, and again that light of truth danced behind brimming tears that now began to trace silent streams down his face. “I shed tears now,” he said, “knowing that you may suffer for my sake. But I shed them also for the joy of knowing that such suffering cannot diminish the life I give you. Yes, you will die again. Do not let that keep you from living. And yes, you will live again after you die. Do not let that keep you from living now, either.”
His words washed over me, like clear water from a living spring. I drank them in, and they filled me. The life that he gives is more than life. The life that he gives is more than death. It does not begin when I die, nor did it begin when he brought me from the tomb. His life endures, for I am his whether I live or whether I die.
Dear sisters, while I pray to be spared from pain and suffering, I am not afraid of death. I am afraid that I do not have the strength to live as one who has this abundant life that reaches into eternity. I am afraid that I will live as though I were dead again.
But Jesus chose his words well the day he brought me back to life. Yes, he knew my fears even before I did. Do you remember what he said that day? I do, and those words are imprinted on me like the smell of tonight’s perfume. “Lazarus, come out.” He never spoke a word of resuscitation, never said, “I raise you from the dead.” He just commanded me to leave the tomb. And the gift of life came back to me in order to obey this command.
So until the day I pass through the gate of death again – and I sense it will be soon – Jesus’ command to stay out of the tomb still rules my life. This life he has given me – given each of us – reaches into eternity, so whatever ways we show forth his love now are burnished with the sheen of heaven. Whatever ways we show forth his love now will last long after we are gone, will ripple out to touch more lives than we can possibly imagine.
Mary, Martha: if you are reading this, I have died again. But know that my death will not stop the abundant life that Jesus revealed to me when I was still with you. Do not wait for death to begin your abundant, eternal life. It is yours now. Laugh and dance and sing and serve and love. And rejoice that Jesus continues to give you—and me—the gift of himself, the gift of abundant life that reaches into eternity.
With all the love in my heart,
(Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2011 || Proper 22A || Philippians 3:4b-14)
My grandfather, Roy Thomas, went into hospice twelve days ago, after several difficult weeks in the hospital. Less than twenty-four hours later, he passed away due to complications from being alive for more than nine decades. I awoke to the phone ringing at quarter to six in the morning, and I knew before answering what the news would be. Now, my grandfather and I were never close. There are no pictures of him teaching me how to fly fish or taking me to the ballgame or riding a tractor with me perched on his lap. There was never a Norman Rockwell moment in our relationship. He sent me a card each birthday, and I saw him every other year, give or take.
So, when I broke down weeping in my office a few hours after I received the call from my father, I was taken completely by surprise. Where were those tears coming from? How could the loss of someone, with whom I had but a passing relationship, hit me so hard in my gut? These were the questions I was asking myself as I wiped the tears away. I felt a bit silly, crying so uncontrollably when I was sure I was just fine, thank you very much. But perhaps, more fitting questions ask exactly the opposite. How could I be surprised that I felt such tear-stained grief over the loss of my own grandfather, no matter the state of our connection? How could I possibly think that the loss of a member of my own family wouldn’t hit me so hard in my gut?
The concept of “loss” is tricky thing. The overriding fact of earthly life is that one day – perhaps not today or tomorrow, but one day – we will lose our earthly lives. Everyone dies. There are no exceptions. We have thousands upon thousands of years of data backing up this reality. And yet, we train ourselves to ignore this overriding fact. We assume that death is something that happens to other people – fuzzy, nebulous people on the news and in the obituaries. Not the people we love. Not the people close to us.
But then a relative develops an aggressive cancer. Or a friend flips his SUV. Or a grandparent goes into hospice. And the illusion that loss only happens to other people shatters. The overriding fact that earthly life always ends sneaks up and surprises us, even though this fact is enmeshed in the very fabric of existence.
And death isn’t the only kind of loss we encounter. We confront loss on a daily basis, and still we have tremendous difficulty dealing. There is the loss of autonomy when others make decisions for us. There is the loss of relationships when we part ways with those who have made impacts on our lives. There is the loss of material possessions, the loss of health, the loss of trust, the loss of baseball games (sorry, fellow Sox fans). There is even the loss of loss, which is the grief that happens in response to you realizing that you are no longer grieving.
With loss surrounding us all the time, you’d think we’d have developed ways to deal that didn’t include various forms of denial and willful ignorance. But more often than not, we ignore the potential for loss until the loss is right in front of us hitting us in the gut.
And this willful ignorance is what made me read today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians over and over again. Paul writes: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”
Somehow, Paul’s relationship with Jesus Christ has allowed Paul to confront the reality of loss head on, well before any sort of loss has a chance to sneak up and surprise him. How does Paul do this? Let’s take a look. Can we do the same? Yes, I think we can.
According to Philippians, Paul values knowing Christ Jesus above all else. Nothing even comes close. The value of being in relationship with Jesus surpasses everything. And because knowing Jesus is so incalculably valuable, everything else in Paul’s life seems utterly insignificant. The gulf between what was important before meeting Christ and what is important now that he has met Christ is so wide that Paul can barely see the stuff of his old life shrinking in the distance.
And, therefore, he regards everything as loss. Based on Paul’s own words and my interpretation of them a moment ago, we might come away with the impression that nothing besides being in relationship with Christ should matter, that we should ignore everything that isn’t Jesus. This is the interpretation favored by hermits and ascetics that got away from everything to focus on God. However, I’m not convinced that that’s what Paul had in mind. We must keep going, because so far we’ve only gotten through the first half of Paul’s discussion.
Because Paul values his relationship with Christ above all else, he no longer attempts to cling to the rest of his life. He lets go of everything – his relationships, his possessions, his fears, his illusions. But all of this that Paul regards as loss is not lost. Paul does not cast everything into the void. Rather, he gives everything away to Christ. He gives everything to Jesus, and in doing so, Paul finds that everything he has regarded as loss was always God’s in the first place. Even Paul himself.
Paul relates this comforting reality to the Philippians: “Not that I have already obtained [the resurrection] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Christ Jesus has made me his own. These words are the crux of Paul’s ability to deal with loss. The surpassing value of knowing Christ compels Paul to give everything up to Jesus and thus find himself at a loss. But in the act of giving away everything to Jesus, Paul discovers that Jesus has taken even more. Jesus has taken Paul. Jesus has made Paul his own, along with all that stuff that Paul gave him.
And Christ has made us his own, as well. When we enter into relationship with Christ, the surpassing value of that relationship makes everything else seem entirely insignificant. This seeming insignificance allows us to release our stranglehold on everything that we have been putting in place of a relationship with Christ. And when we release our grip and give away everything to Christ, we will find that Christ has already obtained us in the bargain.
Because Christ Jesus has made us his own, he has empowered us to give to him everything and everyone that we possibly could lose before the loss sneaks up and surprises us. Does this make grieving un-Christian? Of course not. Rather, our grief is one of the things that Christ invites us to give over, so that God might enfold us in our hour of need.
When my grandfather passed away eleven days ago, I was not prepared for the sense of loss that would hit me. Perhaps, this profound loss of someone I didn’t even realize I was clinging to has opened my eyes to truth that I still have plenty to give away to Christ. I would hazard to bet that we all continue to cling to things that have never really been ours to cling to. The good news is this: Any loss, any gain, any grief, any joy, any challenge, any victory is ours to share with Jesus Christ because Christ has made us his own.
During the summer between his first and second years of seminary, Aidan Davies grew up all at once. The summer began with a breakup and ended with a baptism, but those are pieces of a larger story. This story is about a baby boy.
Davies was a chaplain only because his badge said he was. For that first month, he didn’t particularly feel like one. I’m not a chaplain, but I play one at this hospital, he often thought. His clinical pastoral educators – the hospital’s professional chaplains – had borrowed their teaching style from mother birds. On the third day of the summer, they pushed Davies and the seven other interns out of the nest and watched as eight pairs of arms, flapping wildly, disappeared in a downward spiral. The wingless interns crashed into the rocky bottom, and, miraculously, found their patients there.
Rock bottom was on the top floor of the hospital, but Davies had no patients on that level considering another intern had chosen the ICU as his normal beat. However, that night, Davies was on-call, and the on-call pager had beckoned him to Intensive Care, and he stared at the message on the little screen the whole elevator ride to the twelfth story.
From the moment he stepped off the elevator, the next several hours blurred together in Davies’s mind. Attending physician speaking…parents deciding to take their baby off the machines…Baby Boy Rodriguez breathing on his own…and then not…wailing…holding…silence. Davies walked the parents to their car. He had very little Spanish, so no one spoke. But grief, it turns out, is a universal language. The car pulled away, with fewer passengers than it should have been carrying, and Davies watched it turn a corner to the lower levels of the parking deck.
He arrived back in the ICU room to find Mary Ann, one of the baby’s nurses, silently wiping down a machine. Cords lay in neat stacks on a rolling table, and a small pile of dirt and bits of candy wrapper filled a dustpan near the door. Davies allowed his gaze to find the tiny bed, upon which the body of Baby Boy Rodriguez still lay. He walked over and looked down at the baby – a perfect porcelain sculpture in a clown-adorned onesie. “He looks so peaceful,” said Davies.
“Yeah,” said Mary Ann, and she came to stand by Davies at the bed.
“When I first saw him this evening, he had all these tubes in him. He looked like he was…but now…” Davies’s voice trailed off.
“He was in a lot of pain,” said Mary Ann, and Davies suddenly realized that this nurse had known the Baby Boy as long as his parents had. Three months in this room, but never alone.
“I’m glad that he was able to take a few breaths on his own,” said Davies. Mary Ann continued as if finishing his sentence, “And his mother could hold him while he was still alive.”
Davies stayed by the bed while Mary Ann continued cleaning the equipment, and the silence renewed. Davies stared down at Baby Boy Rodriguez. He reached out a hand, and with the lightest pressure, placed it on the baby’s forehead. He tried to pray. He moved his hand and took the little balled up fist into his own palm. He imagined God holding the Baby Boy and his parents and Mary Ann and Davies himself in the same way.
A noise made him look up. A small machine had fallen to the floor. “What does that do?” Davies asked.
“It helps with respiration,” said Mary Ann.
It kind of looks like a belt sander, thought Davies. And they were quiet again. Theirs, however, was not a conversation broken by silence, but a silence broken by conversation. The noises of the padding of feet, the pulse of machines, the typing on computers all happened in the obscurity outside the room. But this room was a different world, an in-between world. Between Baby Boy Rodriguez’s own anguished writhing and that of the next patient was peace and stillness and silence.
Davies’s tears traced pathways down his cheeks and fell to the floor. Mary Ann looked up from her cleaning. “The first time is hard,” she said.
“It doesn’t get any easier though, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t. Every time is hard.”
Davies wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “It would be easier if you didn’t care for these children so much.”
Mary Ann looked down at Baby Boy Rodriguez. Davies realized that before she started cleaning the room, she had cleaned and dressed his body. “The moment you stop caring is the moment you have to stop doing this job,” she said.
And the silence renewed. Mary Ann finished her cleaning. Davies continued to hold the hand of the dead Baby Boy. A few minutes passed, and then the glass door slid open. Another nurse carried a folded piece of plastic with a zipper running through it. “I didn’t realize it would be white,” Davies said, as he watched the nurses unfold the body bag. Mary Ann affixed a toe tag to Baby Boy Rodriguez’s ankle and then gently lifted him, as the other nurse slid the bag underneath. Davies touched the baby’s forehead once more, and then the nurse zipped the bag closed. Mary Ann covered it with a sheet, and picked it up, like any mother carrying her child.
Davies and Mary Ann processed to the elevator and rode down to the main level. Several turns through labyrinthine passages brought them to a nondescript door. Davies punched in the code, which only pathologists and chaplains knew. The morgue had four cold chambers. Davies opened one. Mary Ann laid the bag containing the body of Baby Boy Rodriguez on the metal shelf. Davies shut the freezer door and mouthed a whisper of gratitude to Mary Ann. She placed a hand on Davies’s arm for a moment, echoed his thanks, and walked from the morgue – back to the living and the dying. Davies turned and saw his fuzzy reflection in the four, shining metal doors.
And the silence renewed.
* * *
Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to serve several people who were grieving over the deaths of loved ones. I’ve been a priest for nearly a year and a half, but it was not until this summer that I officiated at a burial office or spent hours with families, stumbling together through the wilderness of loss. These recent months have again and again brought me to the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to John (which appears more than once in the burial service) and to my own first remembrance of the loss of a love one.
In the months before she passed on, she began having difficulty remembering which of the people in the room were related to her. One time, she thought my father was her biological son, though he had married one of her four daughters thirty years before. The last time I saw my grandmother, she was confined to her bed in the nursing home, a sterile facility a few miles inland from the rock beaches of the northern Massachusetts coastline. In my memory, she was always a small woman, shrunken by age. But during that final visit, I was shocked by her deterioration: the sheets and blankets seemed to double her body mass. Her white hair, once so carefully curled, hung limply from her head. She spoke in a choked whisper, as if her words were too special to share with the rest of the world. And, in a way, they were.
We got the call one summer evening and immediately made plans to fly to New England. When we arrived, we joined the rest of the extended family and pooled our grief with theirs. Cousins and aunts and sisters shared long embraces and reassuring shoulder squeezes and tears. We conversed in muted tones, offering our favorite memories of Esther: the swing set adjacent to her apartment complex; her inability to cook pot roast; her glowing love for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. As we remembered my grandmother, we started repeating certain phrases. “She lived a long life.” “She’s no longer in pain.” “She was ready to go.” “A part of her died twenty years ago with Jack; I’m so glad they are together again.” These sentiments comforted us as we shared them with each other. An outsider listening in on our conversations might have scoffed at such clichéd remarks, but for our family such well-worn comments gave us words to assuage our grief.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha leaves her home and goes out to meet him. Their conversation begins with similar phrases that emerge out of grief. I imagine that Martha and Mary had often said, “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died,” in the four days since they had buried their brother. And now Martha addresses Jesus with these words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps, this is an accusation; perhaps, it is a statement of faith. More likely (as is so often the case), it is a combination of the two. She continues, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Indeed, such a statement had probably reached cliché status at that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ words in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But Martha has not grasped Jesus’ full meaning. Far from offering the usual comforting words to a person in grief, Jesus eliminates the cliché by completely retooling the rules for resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The writer of the Gospel throws the full weight of Jesus’ “I am” statements behind these words. By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death will occur, he says; after all, resurrection cannot take place without death. But life, in some superlative form, emerges when resurrection denies the finality of death. The first verses of the Gospel link life and light: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Just as darkness did not overcome light, death fails to conquer life because of the power of the resurrection.
Jesus’ words to Martha appear in our burial services to remind us of that power. But these words carry the weight of Jesus’ divine identity, and thus serve as so much more than a simple reminder. Resurrection is not some impersonal thing that may or may not impact our lives and deaths. Resurrection is not something to bring up just to make a grieving person feel better. Jesus is resurrection. Jesus is life. By revealing resurrection as part of his identity, Jesus further divulges the lengths to which he goes to be in relationship with us. Death cannot stop this relationship, because Jesus is resurrection and life.
Martha understands that resurrection assures this continued relationship with Jesus. When he asks her if she believes his words, she replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She answers that she believes in him. Rather than her belief fulfilling a requirement for resurrection, her belief simply affirms her relationship with Jesus. She desires a relationship with him, and Jesus, in his unwillingness to end such a relationship, offers the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.
When my grandmother died, my family came together to celebrate her life in the midst of our grief. We spoke comforting words to each other, words that had the power of love behind them. And at the service where we laid Esther’s body to rest next to her beloved Jack, we heard Jesus’ words of life proclaiming Jesus’ desire to continue his relationship with us beyond death in the power of the resurrection.
* The names of my maternal grandparents have been changed (in order that you’ll have a harder pretending to be me while filling out bank forms).