Self-Evident Truth

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

November 21, 2021

Christ the King Sunday

 

John 18:33-37

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Let us pray: Gracious God, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

Do you remember the court room scene in the 90s movie A Few Good Men? Tom Cruise is young unmotivated Naval officer and lawyer named Lt. Daniel Kaffee. Jack Nicholson is Base Commander Colonel Nathan Jessup, a hard-jawed marine. It is a court martial case of two marines charged with murdering fellow marine, William Santiago, and also truth and justice in a messy world. In the tensest moment of the court room scene, Jessup says, “You want answers?” “I think I am entitled to it,” Kaffee says, “You want answers?” Jessup asks again. Kaffee yells back, “I want the truth!” and Col. Jessup fires back (say it with me if you know it) “You can’t handle the truth!”

In today’s text, it is Jesus who is brought in for questioning. So are you the King of the Jews? Pilate asked, feigning interest, sipping coffee I imagine. The Pilate administration routinely had to deal with various extremist groups and their leaders. This was generally a paperwork thing. Someone says yes, he is convicted, “dispositioned” as an enemy of the state, and the rest of the breakfast meeting continued. But in this case, curiously, the leader did not give a straight answer. Which was problematic. Granted, there was no fear here for Pilate, just a need to avoid a potential parochial PR nightmare with the Jews, the largest group of his particular region. Pilate knew that the more these subgroups fought each other, the better for the administration, honestly. When they fight each other, you see, they do your work for you. They wound themselves and they tarnish their peaceful holy messaging and what’s more, they are easily controlled. That these faith leaders would adopt a world view based on revenge and capital punishment suited Pilate just fine. But, this Jesus would not take the bait.

What is truth? Pilate asked, maybe with a Col. Jessup edge in his voice by now. The Pilate administration had an answer they were listening for. Let’s be clear: this was not a philosophy class. This was a loyalty litmus test. It’s likely that Pilate already agreed with Jesus on what truth does: Truth shapes people. Truth affects their actions. Their identities. Their allegiance. If you want to know what a person believes is true, just watch their feet. Gravity, for example, is a powerful force on our planet. That is true whether someone assents or not. And yet those who belong to that truth, who believe it, walk most carefully around cliffs. Oxygen is essential for human life. There is no need to poll on this truth to gauge its popularity. And yet those who belong to that truth, who believe it, always move toward fresh air. People, no matter how dogmatic, do not hold their breath for very long.

And the only other truth that mattered was that Caesar was King. Like a good middle-manager, Pilate spent a great deal of time controlling the truth narrative. And his tools were the normal ones. Ask a question like “What is truth” enough and people get confused about what they know is true. A little fear was often enough to make people behave irrationally even around cliffs. A little smoke was often enough to make people run the wrong direction away from the oxygen they need to survive. With enough fear, smoke, and confusion in the air, Pilate and therefore Caesar would remain the voice of truth. Those tools were as effective as any cross or travelled faster than any chariot.

Scholar and preacher Fred Craddock said,  “Like many moderns, Pilate assumes truth is a ‘what,’ that truth has a definite objective content that can be clearly stated.  This is not the understanding of truth in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus is never said to teach truth.  He does not deliver the truth to his disciples, who are never said to ‘have’ the truth.  Truth is not an object, a body of material that can be possessed.  Jesus is not a great teacher who gives disciples ‘great truths’ to live by.  He gives himself; he himself is God’s truth.  Truth is a ‘who,’ not a ‘what.’”9

Our world is full of Pilates Pro Tem who still ask “What is truth?” A shelf of recently published books suggest that Western societies are becoming hostile to expertise, increasingly susceptible to bias and vulnerable to superstition. They suspect we are drowning in a flood of information. That we are now post-Enlightenment. If the Enlightenment gave us we hold these truths to be self-evident, the post-Enlightenment might say, “What is truth? Why those truths? Your truth might be self-evident to you but not to me.” In 1966, Time Magazine ran its first cover without art. The cover said, “Is God dead?” It was a discussion about the health of churches and the beliefs they taught. Then, 50 years late, in 2017, using the same font, Time’s cover was “Is truth dead?”

Maybe our human nature truly can’t handle the truth very well. Research shows that when new technologies arise, whether it’s the Roman road system long ago, the printing press or the internet, human nature is pretty predictable no matter what century you’re discussing. The fastest things to spread are the same: confusion, smoke and fear.

Pilate reminds Jesus that his nation has turned on him and wasn’t that significant a nation to begin with. If someone feels weak and alone, they usually flip. What is Truth? In Caesar’s world it was power and pressure and pandering and policing and politics and pretense and privilege and posturing and popularity and eventually severe punishment. In Caesar’s world it was performative and pecking orders and prison and predation. In Caesar’s world, that truth is self-evident.

And there is the world of Jesus. The world where truth is as personal as it is general. The world where truth is not a kind of accounting. Counting heads. Counting rights and wrongs. It is an encounter. It is not a rule. That allows us to feel right and stand in judgment over others. It is a relationship. Where we are vulnerable because we know how wrong we can be and we are loved anyway.

Those who belong to that truth, who believe it, feel God’s love grounding them like gravity and feel the Spirit breathing them through every fear. Christ the King Sunday is when we practice de-throning ourselves as the Kings of our lives. We take off our little paper ego crowns and slide off our shoes and remember we stand on holy ground. On Christ the King Sunday we stand in awe before God who chose to be truth among us, the kind of truth we could follow but never possess, love but never limit, trust but never trap. A real relationship.

When Dave and I were going through premarital counseling, we met with a wonderful Episcopalian Priest named Frank, though he had a fancy title in the diocese The Very Right Reverend. He laughed and said, “You know that doesn’t get me very far when I use it at home with my wife.” He wrote a wonderful book called The Art of Being Together, and as we talked, Frank said perhaps the most important skill in any marriage is the ability to renegotiate around a new truth. He said it twice. The most important skill in any marriage is the ability to renegotiate around a new truth. Suppose someone gets a new job or a child is born or someone wants to move. Someone becomes a vegetarian or is plunged into grief or is suddenly home all the time or gains 25 pounds. All of these are new truths, and the marriage needs to learn how to adapt. He said it is often not effective to tell the other person to deal with it. Nor does it go well to keep plodding along as if the change has not happened, avoiding the new truth. You have to renegotiate.

And how do you do that? When a new truth comes, healthy marriages become very articulate. They speak what they need, plainly without manipulation. Sometimes there isn’t an easy agreement. She loves going to parties. He does not. She wants to be more social. He wants to relax. When it is clear there isn’t an easy way for both parties to get what they want, he said our faith tells us to rely on the truth of grace, and to speak the language of gift-giving. For example, if he decides to go along to the party, she makes point to say “Thank you. I know you that wasn’t your favorite but it meant a lot to me.” If she stays home, he makes a point of saying, “Tonight has been a gift. I see what you gave me. Thank you.”

This is true for any relationship. Friend groups, families, churches, communities. We all renegotiate around a new truth. Whether that new truth is a new family member at Thanksgiving or a community dealing with a new phase of the pandemic. There might be a Thanksgiving where not everyone agrees. Or a season at church where not everyone agrees. Or even a time in the country when not everyone agrees. I know, it is hard to imagine, but think on that with me. Instead of Caesar’s truth, governed by pandering and pressuring and punishment, imagine that people could be articulate about what they need and that we could use the language of grace with each other, of gift-giving. Not the Black Friday gifts kind. But the gift of relationship. The gift of listening with absolutely no agenda. The gift of saying, “I might be wrong.” The gift of laughter so that conversations have oxygen enough to breathe. The gift of trying their suggestion. The gift of saying thank you when someone goes along with your plan when it is not their preference. Truth within real relationship.

There is a church I know that even before the pandemic was realizing that being a multi-cultural church was important to them but that meant not everyone was getting what they wanted. What felt beautiful to some, extended silence for example, was uncomfortable to others who preferred an extended passing of the peace. So, they started using something called the 75% rule. They realized when they gather for worship everyone should be happy with no more than 75% of the service otherwise it was likely that one cultural preference was being dominantly expressed. That meant that the 25% of the time or more when something was unfamiliar or even uncomfortable, and others felt joy and comfort, they learned to see this as a gift to God and from God, a gift found in relationship.

The Kingdom that Jesus describes so often throughout Scripture is unlikely community and unexpected welcome and strength found in weakness and wisdom that looks like old school foolishness. It’s bread multiplied and death defeated and life rich and abundant. The gifts of God for the people of God.

Indeed, this is a hard time for churches, for all communities. It is a time of renegotiation around a new truth of pandemic and polarization and such deep pain. I wish it were not so. I wish I had started with you when the truth we were facing was simply which coffee brand we preferred.

Recently we watched Lord of the Rings as a family. I identified so deeply with Frodo who looked at Gandalf and said, “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

I suspect we are here today because we want to be reminded again about what is true. So here it is: The truth is not a what but a who. Jesus who gave his life for you not because you were very right but because you are very loved. Jesus who turned Caesar’s tools…. a cross, pain, punishment, into the sign of God’s truth… forgiveness, eternal life and world-changing communion. Jesus who prepares you and prays through you and prods you to serve your neighbor and promises you that you will not be alone to face this and provides others who while different from you are essential to you so together you become the people of peace and patience and purpose. A people of proclamation that Jesus is Lord.  Amen.

 

There Were Rumblings

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

November 14, 2021

Mark 13:1-8

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,  “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Let us pray. Beautiful Savior, when life is a peaceful sanctuary and when the load bearing walls of our lives feel like they are shaking, we come to you. We trust you. And Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

I’ll never forget the 2011 Earthquake in Virginia. Hearing the glasses clink in cabinets. Planting myself in a doorway because I had heard that was the sturdiest place to be. Eventually bolting outside to ask if others had felt it, only to find two very rattled painters who had been touching up the second-floor exterior walls of my neighbor’s home, atop 30 ft ladders, during the quake.

Later that night came images of the National Cathedral. The pinnacles, parapets, finials, and the apse, the masonry of our sacred ideals, were twisted or cracked or lying on the sidewalk. And you know what, most people responded, “What in the world is a finial?”

“Teacher, what large stones! What a magnificent everlasting sanctuary!” the disciples remarked to Jesus. And he responded, “Not one stone will be left on another. This building is going down. There will be wars and rumors of more wars. Nations clashing. Famines. Also, you know what always arises with upheaval? All kinds of false saviors.” Then, he said these are “but the birth pangs.” Just the birth pangs. Isn’t that the mother of all understatements? “Oh, it’s just labor starting. It’s just the water breaking upon a new world order.”

This was Jesus’ longest sermon in the Gospel of Mark, and it huddled his disciples around a bracing truth. This Temple that you want so badly to be permanent and eternal is not. Gazing down from the Mount of Olives, the sun setting on the dazzling Temple, Jesus starts to talk about apocalyptic endings.

And now here we are, 2021 is nearly over. Perhaps you are in a November state of mind. It’s that feeling of fragility that sets in, as the leaves, once florescent, turn brown and scratch along the ground like animals finding a place to take cover. It’s that “I am only temporary” feeling that catches you when chimney smoke curls out a warning into the cold air.

Will Willimon, former Dean of the Duke Chapel, another grand building, said, “Contrary to what you have been led to believe, when Jesus goes apocalyptic, and talks of the end, he’s not predicting the future; he is speaking of the precariousness of the present. This temple, this world, is not as stable, eternal as it appears.”

Most mainline Christians prefer moral wisdom from Jesus to cataclysmic talk. More Sermon on the Mount than this apocalyptic sermon from the Mount of Olives. Model for us compassion for the poor. Give us a holy pep talk. We prefer our saviors to save us from falling apart and death, not offer redemption and eternity through it. More alpha, less omega, please.

But we are experiencing a season of great rumbling. I would wager a bet that historians will consider our time one of great tearing down, an era of deconstruction. Institutions are not as sturdy as we thought. In most towns, the greatest buildings used to be the Bank, the Post Office and the Catholic Church. And maybe Sears. And in the last decade, we’ve seen cracks in the walls of all of them.

There have been wars and rumors of wars. This Veterans Day was the first in 20 years where the US was not at war. Wars in Ethiopia and Yemen and Mexico brush by our news like rumors. Famines barely make the news maybe because we are living through a slow-rolling plague, which along with the climate crisis, means many of us are running on spiritual fumes. And of course Jesus was right. Like clockwork, false saviors arrive, promising health and wealth if you pray the correct prayer, or vote the right way, or eat the right proteins, or are lucky enough to land the second Amazon headquarters, HQ2, a shiny Helix building that will soon arise in Arlington.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, was once asked his opinion of Sears, that went bankrupt in 2018. Imagine the thud when he said, “Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years. If we start to focus on ourselves, instead of focusing on our customers, that will be the beginning of the end … We have to try and delay that day for as long as possible” (November 16th, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-says-amazon-will-fail-one-day-2018-11).

This second Temple, T2, the one Jesus and the disciples were discussing, it was a marvel, 40 years in the making. 1st century Jewish historian Josephus described the Temple this way: Now the outward face of the temple… was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow” (Flavius Josephus, The Jewish Wars, Book V, Chapter 5). Archeologists say that stones of the Temple weighed 50 – 300 tons, that its walls were anywhere from 8 to 17 stories high.

I don’t think Jesus was talking about cataclysmic endings simply because he was feeling wistful or deconstructive. I think he actually saw something that day that let him know the Temple, while beautiful, was off its center. It had lost its mission. He saw priests with long robes and longer prayers feeding their hunger for recognition. He saw a poor widow clink her last two copper coins into the treasury, noticed by no one. As the disciples gazed down on the shiny Temple, Jesus was saying that if you claim to magnify God and yet you ignore or even exploit the vulnerable, eventually you will be upended by the Kingdom of God. It will not last. It will fall. Injustice and ego and vainglory will give way as God births a new creation.

Here is some word trivia for you: Apocalypse actually means revealing. It means unveiling. An apocalypse reveals the world as it actually is. The veil is pulled back. We see life in all its fragility. And that means that injustice and cancer, wars and pandemics, global powers and even curated Instagram feeds and walls full of diplomas, none of it lasts. What does last is the love of God, who in this story is a laboring woman who has zero patience for a world that harms people.

Kate Bowler is a Duke Divinity School professor who was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer when she was 35. She spoke at Burke a few years ago, and wrote a magnificent book about about how sometimes Christians get it wrong. When we build these cathedrals of certainty, when we construct all these formulas to keep decay and suffering at a distance, when we blindly follow people who claim they know how to control the future, we are off base. It’s normal, natural, but delusional. She primarily argues with prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen who have somehow made the Christian faith into self-help, into health and wealth for adherents instead of love for others and courage in the face of hard things. She didn’t stop there. She noticed all the ways her own faith had become a way of dodging misfortune, a kind of holy health insurance, and how that is hard to square with the life of Jesus.

Bowler wrote, “If I were to invent a sin to describe what that was—for how I lived—I would not say it was simply that I didn’t stop to smell the roses. It was the sin of arrogance, of becoming impervious to life itself. I failed to love what was present and decided to love what was possible instead.”

During her treatments, she would grill her doctors for numbers… all the numbers and statistics and mathematics they might be able to stack up to give her assurances that her treatment would work and her young son would have a mother. And finally one of them said, look, “we are all terminal.” All the timelines and certainty that she thought would help her live her life were actually blocking her vision for the life she had, the one she was living, the two year old rolling about in front of her like a polar bear cub.

So, one day she stopped. Stopped writing bucket lists and building castles in the future and learned to live in ordinary time. “How to do that?” She wrote. “You come to the end of yourself. And then you take a deep breath. And say a prayer. And get back to work” (Bowler, Kate, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Random House, New York: 2018, 159).

She wrote, “My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes, are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so whichever way the path turns, all they will find is love. It’s another beautiful morning, and it’s time to yell with the pitch of the coffee grinder and make him French toast. I will die, yes, but not today.”

That sounds remarkably like how Jesus lived.  Have you noticed that Jesus preferred to work with fluid things like water? Which must have been odd for the son of a carpenter. He preferred baptisms and boats to buildings. He preferred wells to walls. Have you noticed that the only thing he wrote down was a word in the sand? No political party label or even family name seemed to stick to him. Paul described it as an eternal dwelling, one not built with hands. He made his home with God and made everyone feel at home, wherever he went.

I know many of you know what it is like to come to the end of yourselves. You’ve had load bearing walls in your life crash down. Maybe cancer landed you there. Or the divorce. Or infertility. Or the loss of your job. Or disappointment with fellow Americans. Or an empty nest. That probably felt apocalyptic to you. Revealing. Scary. But that is when you find the deeper joy, deeper joy that comes in serving someone else. The lasting joy of being a real friend. The nourishing joy of the CROP Walk that prevents the suffering of modern-day famines.

Churches are realizing that if they focus on themselves, on their survival and comfort, they actually speed their own decline. When churches come to the end of themselves and devote themselves to midwifing God’s love into being in their community, they are buoyant. They experience the joy of a trunk full of sweaters so that no one faces the cold of winter alone. They experience the joy of tutoring a child who then believes that this world is on their side and grows up to make it so. I love that we have a wall of water here. The load bearing walls in this place are the promises made at baptism, that you are loved and you belong and you are worthy of everything we can give and that is enough. According to today’s text, church should not be a building focused on its own beauty. It should be a maternity ward where God’s love is born.

I’ll end with what Martin Luther considered to be his greatest comfort. He knew rumblings in his institution. But he knew even more what God was birthing in the world. He believed it was unstoppable. And, he kept these words ever before him, carved into his desk so he could see them every day. “Remember your Baptism.” He wrote, “a truly Christian life is nothing more than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.” It is a doorway place where we learn to see beyond ourselves.

Take a deep breath, even if it feels like Lamaze, say a prayer, and let’s get back to work.

All Things New

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

November 7, 2021

All Saints’ Sunday

Revelation 21:1-6b

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

 

When I was a child in church, I would often pass the time by taking my mom’s rings and putting them on the tops of my thumbs so that they looked a king and queen wearing a crown. So I think I was almost as distraught as she was when, about 15 years ago, her engagement ring went missing. She told me over the phone that she’d looked everywhere in the house, from obvious places like next to her bed to the places one looks only when they have not only lost something precious but also lost trust in themselves. Maybe it would be in the fridge? Could I have put it in a sock drawer? She told me that she worried maybe someone had taken it. When you’re desperate, you can easily imagine how desperate other people might be. So, she contacted the local pawn shops. They hadn’t seen anything like it. Eventually, she told herself that it was fine. The wedding memories were as clear as any diamond, she said, and she took comfort in trying to care less, to minimize the loss in her heart. Shock, Anger, Denial. That is the grief cycle for you.

And, I also remember when, on a whim, my Dad went back to the same jeweler he’d visited as a young man with sweaty palms decades before, with a slightly thinner wallet and midsection. He called me to say, “You’re not gonna believe this. Your mom’s ring. The original jeweler was still there and had one almost identical. So, hot dog, I got it and I just proposed again.” “And I said yes,” I heard her yell out in the background. Every phone conversation was kind of a free for all like that. And I was glad for a time to be in a world where all things could be made new. A bride adorned for her husband. Every tear wiped away. Mourning and crying no more. Once lost, now replaced. Alpha. Omega. Done.

The book of Revelation ends with this gleaming vision of God unrolling a new heaven and a new earth. At the end of one of the most difficult and frightening books of the Bible, there is this opening of hope, this vista of possibility, as Professor Brian Blount calls it. And, I for one absolutely love the notion of a shiny new world as it should be with no crying and no death and only God’s gentle thumb on our cheek wiping away any tear. I love to imagine God as a generous groom proposing to all of humanity that we start over again. I love to daydream about the world God desires free of baggage and injustice. Behold, I am making all things new! In this new earth, cereal boxes will now have Ziploc bags and our communities will nurture everyone well and the wolf and the lamb will play in Fall leaves together that rake themselves and our loved ones will never leave us.

But, Revelation according to John of Patmos proclaims that God dwells with us, not just somewhere else. Revelation declares that this making new is happening in the present tense, now, already, as we speak. For those of us obsessed with HGTV, Revelation declares that theologically, the renovation has started and this text is God’s permit taped to the window. And I have come to believe that that is even more hopeful than some kind of religious reboot. It gets at a truth our hearts know. That our lives aren’t some linear chain rolled out to a certain length and then cut, but that we are part of everyone we have known and they are part of us and we are all being breathed alive by God in an ecosystem of love. We are being made and remade all the time by the grace of God.

All Saints’ Day might be the day when we practice that truth in the most personal way. In our tradition, saint means holy. So that means all of us, not just the heroes and martyrs of old. We whisper or type or chant or scribble or sniffle through the names of those people who are holy to us and have joined the “church triumphant” as we might call it, and as we do that, we expand our souls to better imagine eternal life. On All Saints Sunday, we practice that part of the Apostle’s Creed that often is just rattled off, “I believe in the communion of saints” or that part of the communion liturgy that rolls toward the singing part, “joining our voices with the choirs of heaven and with all the faithful of every time and place who forever sing to the glory of your name.”

All Saints’ Day began around the 6th century. In those days, death was much closer to home than it now, and much more normal. Death happened at home, not in hospitals. And often church happened at home too. The bitter persecutions of Christians had abated by then but normal courage was still required. So, the early church practiced remembering the Saints. Like Peter, how he denied his Lord and then went on to be the boldest disciple and the rock of the church. And I imagine remembering him well kept them from perfectionism. The early church practiced remembering Paul, who persecuted Christians mightily and then quite literally fell blindly in love with the Gospel. And I imagine that kept them hopeful that people could change. For us, maybe today we remember the grandparent who showed us what unconditional love looks like at a dinner table. Maybe we remember the husband who hiked us up the mountain trail of life where we beheld life’s splendor. We remember Fred Rogers and Fred Craddock. We rest in the truth that none of us is self-made. If anything, we are recycled, made new out of all those God made before. And even though grief is no picnic, we wouldn’t be who we are without those we have lost. Which reframes the idea of loss toward a more Christian one. Remember the verses we say at all the weddings? The one thing that never passes away is love.

As I have shared with some of you, my mom passed away on March 20, 2020. Cancer is a terrible foe. Since then, I haven’t really been able to sing For All the Saints all the way through without blubbering or going mute like Ariel the Mermaid. I kind of go dead-eyed when someone offers me platitudes like “she was so nice God just wanted to have her sooner.” Or “she’s in a better place now.” Or “she had done what she needed to do and God needed her back.” Maybe you’ve been on the business end of those words that are meant to comfort the hearer but often just comfort the one saying them. Those words also do no service to the God we know. What God is saying in today’s text sounds more like, “I am here for you.” It sounds more like, here are flowers from my garden. Here is bread from my oven. Here is a hug with no words at all. I’ll just stay for a few days – I brought my stuff. And, drink this water, honey, it’s a gift from the spring of life.” That is what today’s text sounds like.

I was talking with one of you the other day when it dawned on me, losing someone really does make all things new, though not necessarily in the ways you want. You get new routines, new work to do, new roles. Suddenly you are the one who figures out the taxes or the Christmas lights. Losing as much as we have in this pandemic makes our world feel new to the degree it is almost unrecognizable. The ongoing racial reckoning in our country gives us a sense of how deep the grief goes. I learned that the word bereaved actually means robbed. We feel robbed of time, events, people, and a sense of our place in the world. Rather than speed through toward a reboot, we need to acknowledge the grief. Not to become stuck there. But to learn to carry it. And learn from it. And let it teach us.

I hope we as a congregation can use grief language to speak about what has changed here and from there continue to comfort each other and trust God is still doing a new thing among us, in this place, even now.

It’s not all Eeyore either. Grief slashes the veil between this life and eternity in ways that can be exquisite. When you are in grief, a single yellow flower can feel like an answer to a prayer only you know about. A cardinal or a hummingbird or a rainbow can feel like a visitation from a loved one. You start to see the soft contours of humanity in all its grief and beauty all around you and want to offer a tissue to a complete stranger. Ordinary things are crowned with meaning like a ring on a thumb.

I’ll tell you this story that I wouldn’t believe if it were written in a novel except that it truly happened. In late February of 2020, we knew mom only had a few weeks with us, tops. There was such an intensity about those days that we would sometimes find a silly errand or task just to breathe. To let our brains rest. Grief… it comes from gravare, the Latin word for heavy. It was a heavy time. And one of those tasks was organizing mom’s jewelry. Mom and Dad started telling stories about each piece. “Ah, this one was from when you were born. These were our 20th anniversary. And these earrings were from our trip to Texas. I think it goes with a bracelet, check in that bowl in the cabinet near the sink,” Mom said. My sister brought over a ramekin with a couple of safety pins and a bracelet and also, under that Texas bracelet, the missing engagement ring. There was a lot of whooping and weeping about that, and then Mom said, “How about that, now there’s one for each of you.” And we held it in our hands, something that wasn’t new, in fact, it had always been there, we just hadn’t known where to look for it.

God makes a home with mortals. For my family, it was like finding a lost ring and believing even without mom’s presence that we’d have what we needed. Maybe for you it is the friend who shows up at just the right time with candles and wine and you know you are not alone. Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven as treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid the treasure again and bought the whole field. It wasn’t a different glamorous field somewhere else but this same old field was precious to him all the more because he knew the treasure it held. The kingdom of Heaven is like that.

The English poet David Whyte describes grief as a deep well.

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

 

The kingdom of heaven is like that. Field of treasure. A wishing well. A communion table where we are surrounded. Whatever metaphor we go to, this is the not the kiddie pool of church. It’s not the shallow part where most of the noise comes from. This is the deep end, where there is peace even though we can’t touch bottom. Even though it doesn’t fit into tidy slogans. Even though it might leave us cold sometimes. We know in some ineffable way those loved ones join us at this table. We feel it. Sometimes we see it. Maybe you have her smile. Maybe you have his ring on your necklace. Maybe you say “fantastic” the exact same way he did.

The kingdom of heaven is like that. You love and it breaks your heart and by God’s chivalrous grace you wind up with more love that you started with.

Amen.