A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR LENT 5 2014
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain….
So begins "The Waste Land," the signature work of that most Anglican of poets, T.S. Eliot. How it suits my mood and our readings today, including the one you didn't hear – Paul's letter to the Romans. He begins that letter by warning that "to set the mind on the flesh is death." In doing so, he is, I think a tad too hard on all of us, trapped as we are in the flesh of our bodies. Oh, I try always to follow his advice and set my mind instead on "the Spirit [that] is life and peace," but every April death crowds my thoughts.
April is, indeed, the cruelest month and, for me, this is the cruelest week…so full of memory and desire, spring rains, dull and aching roots, lilacs I would coax from the dead land. In a garden so full of life, the bright flowers, the well-fed birds, even the warm sun seem to mock a recurring sense of loss.
Sitting in that garden, my thoughts go back to 1968, a year that began so full of hope and promise – a war ending…or so we thought, rights being realized, positive change at every turn. Then, on April 4, that awful evening bulletin – Martin had been shot and killed in Memphis. In an instant, the best of times became the worst of times. A bullet had killed the dream…had killed the hope…or so they thought.
Then, of a February just three years ago, in a squalid refugee camp in Jenin, Palestine, I met another hero – Juliano Mer-Khamis, the son of an Israeli Jewish mother and a Palestinian Christian father. In his well-named Freedom Theatre, he was, we could see, bringing joy and hope-filled dreams to the traumatized children of the camp. Their sense of joy was palpable, when, by mistake, I stumbled into a dark room where the kids were rehearsing "Alice in Wonderland." It was a joy that stayed with me upon my return home…and all through March. April 4 dawned again and, with it this time, an e-mail. Juliano had been shot dead beside his little red car that I had last seen parked in front of the theater. Another bullet had killed the joy…or so they thought.
But April 8 has for fourteen years now been the hardest day of all to bear. It was a warm, sunny Saturday…about two in the afternoon…when Mimi, the love of my life for thirty-five years, breathed her last. I held her hand, as her breath "returned to God who gave it." And outside, on the street, I could hear the music of the ice cream truck and the sound of happy children. I'll never forget the song on the jingling bells – "Do Your Ears Hang Low" – nor the cruelty of the faceless disease that had killed our love…or so I thought.
And this afternoon, this April 6 of the San Francisco Night Ministry's 50th anniversary, there will be a funeral in The City for its founder, the Rev. Don Stuart…a funeral I must miss to serve the living he had served. I think he would understand and approve. For his ministry lives and thrives in them.
So too, despite death's best efforts, does the work of Martin and Juliano. This April 4, for example, the Freedom Theatre's school graduated its first four actors. One of them, Motaz, said the following:"The Freedom Theatre is not just a theatre, it's a stage that can create revolution. Theatre is my whole life now. It gives me hope, and dreams." In those dreams, Juliano lives. And, in my nightly dreams, Mimi also lives…proof for me that love does not die. Paul was right about that as he was about the spirit. The spirit of love is indeed "life and peace."
But there's another date to keep in mind as Lent winds down and, next Sunday, we begin Holy Week. Ever wonder about the day that Jesus was killed? When it was precisely? A quick look at the Hebrew calendar tells us it was the first day of Passover in the year 3760. That would be April 7 on our calendar… about three in the afternoon. There's another song that haunts my thoughts every year about this time of year, every Good Friday round about three: "Were You There When They Crucified Our Lord?" They had killed – or so they thought – our God.
And, today, we're reminded of the events that led up to that day, the events that presaged and precipitated that first Good Friday.
We've been through this before…together. We know that, when we hear this story about Lazarus, Good Friday is near. Consider where Jesus was and why. Consider why, although he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, Fact is Jesus was on the lam again…for the last time it turns out. Recall John's words in the verses immediately preceding our Gospel for this morning:
"he stayed two days longer in the place where he was."
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, 'How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly….
The Jews took up stones again to stone him….
Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there.
And today he crosses the Jordan and begins that final trek back up the Jericho road to Bethany and the cross. The time has come. "I won't keep you in suspense any longer," Jesus seems to say. "I am the Messiah. You want proof? Come to Bethany and watch what I'm about to do!"
Jesus meets Martha on the road and a powerful scene unfolds in which Jesus, the Messiah, claims his divinity while demonstrating his humanity, grieving with, weeping with Martha and Mary, probably holding them in his arms….the very essence of human and divine compassion.
I thought of these things Sunday before last, when, in the New York Times style section, I read an article entitled "A Generation Redefines Mourning" about millennials trying to work out their grief on the internet. The twenty-something asking the funeral home to e-mail him a picture of his dead mother, so he wouldn't have to go in and identify her body. The "Ask a Mortician" channel on YouTube. The Twitter hashtag "RIP." The Facebook posting of a death followed by 136 "likes." The "selfie" at a funeral. Wading through this litany of what the author called the "still evolving social norms" of "modern loss " and "death awareness," I found it morphing into some black comedy reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. And, recalling Jessica Mitford's more serious American Way of Death, I found myself reflecting on how we've accustomed ourselves to avoiding facing death honestly; to masking it with perfumes, cosmetics, and euphemisms; to stifling our very human grief…forgetting perhaps that grief is but the continuation of love that refuses to die
How unreal. How unsatisfying. How unlike the nitty-gritty, in-your-face, quality of the Lazarus story. The harsh reality of the decomposing body…"Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." The hysterical hurled accusation: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." The honesty of the grief: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… Jesus began to weep."
Jesus began to weep! "It's okay," he seems to say. "I understand. Yes, Paul's right, keep your mind on the Spirit. But it's alright to lament death, to grieve the earthly loss of a loved one, to share the grief of others." "Don't worry," he adds, "there will be resurrection. Roll back that stone. I'll demonstrate."
Comparing ourselves to our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, we Episcopalians sometimes like to say "We're not a grief-stricken, guilt-ridden 'Good Friday Church.' We're a joyful 'Resurrection Church.'" Yes, we are. And that is good. But it is not good – it is not really possible – to fully be the latter without some experience of the former. It is not possible to fully experience the joy of the Resurrection without knowing the anguish of that Thursday night in Gethsemane and the grief, the guilt, the pain of Good Friday.
As we are told in Ecclesiastes and will experience in the microcosm of Holy Week:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
And, among them,
A time to weep, and time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance
So, next Sunday, as we dance in here, waving our palms and singing our hosannas, prepare to experience the totality of Holy Week – the good, the bad, and the ugly…and the sublimely, supremely joyful - yes, "every matter under heaven." Don't just listen to the words of John's Passion Gospel. Absorb them. Live into them. Savor them each day of Holy Week. In the totality of that experience you will find the richness of faith, the fullness of life, and the completeness of Christ's promise of salvation.