Friday, April 18, 2014

"Sitting With Death" - Good Friday Sermon

“Sitting With Death” by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood – April 18, 2013
Community Good Friday Service

Earlier this week, a clergy colleague of mine lamented aloud “why is death so hard for people?” At first I thought she was joking. I mean, anyone who has ever had someone close to them die knows that the death of a loved one can be a whole range of things and that is it often hard for the person who is dying and those around them. I rarely meet people who are just excited and jazzed up about their ultimate demise. And when I do meet those people I am a little worried for them.

But I do get what my colleague was asking – “why is death so hard for people?” Because what I have noticed over the years is that death hits people in different ways. What you learn by watching people die is that dying is a lot like living. Some people do it better than others. There’s no “one right way” but you know a good death when you see it. There are definitely deaths that you watch and just think, “Yes. That’s how it’s done. I hope I can die like that some day.”

Part of what I expect my faith system and my community of faith to do is prepare me for two inevitable realities: First, people I love will die. And I will have to learn to survive without them. Second, I will die. I have to live day in and day out with that awareness without allowing it to paralyze me. If I am lucky, I will have some time to realize that death is approaching sooner rather than later and I will have the opportunity to be aware that my death is immanent.

One of the reasons death is so hard for people is that it is mostly hidden from us. Few of us die at home, surrounded by family and friends. Many of us have never seen a person die and some people make it into their adult years before they’ve even seen a deceased person’s body. When we do see bodies they are typically made up to look like they’re simply asleep. How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, that looks just like her. She looks like she’s just sleeping,” over an open casket? We don’t like to talk about death much. We use euphemisms like “he passed away,” “she’s gone to a better place,” or “she’s no longer with us.” We do what we can to avoid the stark reality that death is inevitable even though it is one of the few things that we all have in common.

On a day like Good Friday, though, death is unavoidable. I’m guessing this is part of the reason most church-folk shy away from Good Friday. It’s uncomfortable to gather and read these gruesome texts full of blood and gore, hatred and cruelty. It’s a challenge to figure out how to teach these stories to our children. It’s a struggle to sit in the midst of Good Friday without rushing forward into Easter. And, let’s be honest, it would be a whole like easier just to skip it altogether.

But if we skip Good Friday or if we fail to take seriously the call to the severity of this day we miss an opportunity to sit with death. And I, for one, have decided that I never want to miss an opportunity to sit with death.

Once a month, the main governing board of our church, the Church Council, gathers to meet on Wednesday night. This past Wednesday we spent a healthy portion of our meeting shedding tears and telling stories about the way we’ve been forced to sit with death recently in our congregation. The deaths of several pivotal folks in our community have caused us to reflect on our own mortality. We cried as we remembered empty spaces in our pews. And we expressed anger at cancer, which has taken people from us long before we were ready to let them go. One of the themes that was lifted up by several wise ones around that table was just how important it is to allow ourselves to sit with death. And how thankful we are for having had the opportunity to watch loved ones die with grace, dignity, hope, and courage.

One of the things that is happening in our Passion Narratives is we get an opportunity to watch someone die “a good death.” It turns out that Jesus is our model, not only for how to live, but also for how to die.

In the passages we are hearing today, Jesus models a death that graceful, dignified, hope-filled, and courageous, 

First, Jesus is not afraid to make his needs known. When he is thirsty, he says he is thirsty. I know, I know, this seems like a no-brainer. But I have watched people in excruciating pain near the ends of their lives try to suck it up because they don’t want to impose on people around them. That is hard to watch. And on the flip side, I have seen people who, like Jesus, are comfortable making their needs known. One of the more beautiful dying-times I’ve experienced was sitting with a woman and her brothers at Hospice House this past winter. Her brothers the better part of an hour just getting her comfortable. She would gently tell them, “I need a pillow here,” or they would ask, “Is it better if I prop your feet like this?” After she was finally settled comfortably in a chair, she stayed there for about 10 minutes and then asked to move back to the bed. She didn’t apologize. She didn’t shy away from expressing her needs. She just said, “I’d like to get back in bed now.” Her brothers were gentle, patient, and clearly very thankful that there were concrete things they could do to help.

When I die, I hope I can remember that it’s okay to make my needs known.

Second, Jesus is able to focus on those closest to him…even in the midst of his own death. To the thieves on the cross with him he offers the reassurance of eternal life. To his mother and his dear friend he offers relationship, making sure they know they will have each other to lean on in his absence. I have seen, time after time, that is it often so helpful for people who are actively dying to focus on the people around them that they love. One time I commented to a dying person that I was so impressed with how much they were thinking of their family. He replied, “Well, I guess I just realize that this is happening to me, but it’s happening to them, too. After all, I will only die once, true. But my kids will only lose their dad once, you know?” And I have watched grieving people, again and again, give thanks for dying people who offered care in tangible ways. Sometimes it’s the big stuff, like making sure you have a power of attorney or planning your own funeral. And sometimes it’s the little stuff like making sure your partner has all the passwords and account information they need. But it is always linked to offering reassurance and taking care of those who are closest to us.

I hope that when I die I can remember to pay attention to the others around me who are still living.

Third, Jesus is not afraid to run the whole gamut of human emotions. He does things that surprise us. He forgives his murderers. How’s that for astounding? And he admits that he feels abandoned by God. How’s that for shocking? Jesus Christ felt abandoned by God.  Those that I have had the privilege of being with as they neared death have often run the gamut of emotions, too. I have been with people who have confessed to me that they felt angry at God, even though they did not believe God was causing the disease that was ravaging their bodies. I have been with people who have said, “You know, I just can’t even think about this any more. I know I’m dying, but I need a day where I can just stop thinking about it. Thinking about my death is boring me.” I have been with people who have admitted that they felt a little scared because they didn’t know what was coming next. And I’ve been with people who were a tiny bit excited about finally discovering what comes next. There is a whole range of emotions that come with dying.

I hope that when I die I can remember that it’s okay to feel all of them.

Finally, Jesus knew when it was over. He said, “It is finished” and then bowed his head and gave up his Spirit. One of the beautiful things about John’s text there is that Jesus is the actor. Even though Jesus has been beaten and crucified, he retains a bit of control. He is not a victim. It is almost as if he is choosing the moment of his death. He greets it with a simple statement of realization – “It is finished” – then he bows his head and gives up his Spirit. He is conquering death even as he dies. He greets it head-on and walks resolutely into the inevitable.

I hope and pray that when I die, I will know when it’s time to give up my own Spirit. And I hope that I will feel like it is a choice I am making for myself.

Granted, so much of death – like life – is beyond our control. I may spend years preparing myself to die only to have it happen in an instant. And clearly, we can’t all expect to be just like Jesus. He sets a standard in living and dying that can seem fairly unattainable at times.

But I do think that one of the gifts of this Holy day is that it presents an opportunity to sit with death. Whether you notice the same things I do about Jesus’s dying – whether you like what you see as you watch Jesus die….that doesn’t matter too much. What does matter is that we take this opportunity to sit with death. To look death in the eye and not shy away.

Because I believe sitting with death is a bit like an inoculation. If we take on each small opportunity to sit with death….the death of an acquaintance, the death of Jesus….then we are preparing ourselves to be ready when it’s time for the “big deaths” in our lives…our time to lose a life-partner, a parent, a child, a best friend, ourselves.

There are many gifts held out to us during Holy Week. Thank you, Jesus, for allowing us to sit with you in death as well as life. Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"What's Going On Here?" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

Sermon Text - Matthew 21: 1-11

I invite you to take just a few moments here at the beginning of the sermon and re-enter the text from Matthew’s gospel that we heard earlier in the service. I’m going to read it again and I want you to do whatever you need to do to get fully present, really listen, and become a full participant in the story. That might mean that you close your eyes. Or get out the pew Bible so you can read along. Or put your head down on your arms. But take a moment and allow yourself to enter the text. Notice the cast of characters. Notice your vantage point…are you walking along next to Jesus? Or perhaps you’re watching from far away. Notice what your senses are telling you…what do you see? Touch? Hear? Taste? Smell?

And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Beth'phage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.
If any one says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,' and he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of an ass."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.

Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, "Who is this?" And the crowds said, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee."

Take just a minute and jot down or reflect on what you experienced. What did your senses notice? What did you see, touch, hear, taste, smell? Where were you in the scene? 

My guess is, if we were to compare notes we would find that many of us noticed different things. We placed ourselves in different locations in the story…took up different characters. Some of us joined the crowd. Some of us watched from a distance. Others of us were right there with Jesus on that donkey and colt.

The story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem for the final days of his earthly life is one that can be experienced from multiple vantage points. There is no quick and easy way to wrap up this story in a little box and tie a bow on it. For all its brevity it is complex. The great preacher Fred Craddock wrote once about this story and asked what exactly was going on here, with this strange procession into the city. Was it a parade? A protest march? A funeral procession?[1]

The answer, of course, is yes. It is all three of those things.

A celebratory parade where Jesus the King triumphantly enters into the glamorous city, surrounded by cheers, paparazzi, and glitz. A protest march where a ragtag group of nobodies stumble into the capital city, shouting out in desperation and hope: “SAVE US!” And a funeral procession where Jesus and his friends walk resolutely, one foot in front of the other, towards the certain death that awaits them later this week.

Palm Sunday is all of these things. And it is more, too.

It is the gateway to Holy Week. I have a professor friend who said earlier this week that she was confused about why her students were going to be missing class on Monday. She said, “I thought Easter wasn’t until next Sunday.” Well, my guess is that her students are Jewish and they are missing class for Passover. But, it certainly would make sense for Christians to be missing class during Holy Week. I remember being so thankful when I attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas for graduate school because the university was always closed for Good Friday. It’s the only time in my life when I’ve attended a Christian school and it was so good to be able to spend Good Friday focusing on the life and death of Jesus.

Christmas has become the “big Christian holiday” – the one that gets the most attention out there in the world. I’m sure most non-Christians believe it’s the most important holiday for us. And I don’t want to minimize Christmas, of course. It is important. But Holy Week also needs to be revived within our faith. We who call ourselves followers of Christ need to recognize that this week is, indeed, the holiest of the year.

This is the week that truly speaks most fully to the complexity of our faith system. This is the week where we are slapped in the face with what it means to be human. The highs are higher, the lows lower than at other seasons of the year. As a teenager, I remember enjoying the pageantry of Holy Week. As an adult, I often find it challenging to allow myself to fully abandon my defenses and be swept into the power of the week. 
I sometimes long for the days when I could more easily slip into the drama of this holiest of weeks. I give thanks for the rituals that ground me and force me to confront the realities of Holy Week. I have my own private Holy Week rituals….reading through the full Passion narrative by myself, watching Jesus Christ Superstar. And even when I don’t feel like it, I force myself to participate in the community rituals that come each year. I wave the palms and shout Hosanna. I join others to sit around a table at Maundy Thursday and recall the last meal that Jesus shared with his friends. I steady myself and confront the ugly horror of Jesus’s torture and death when I attend the Good Friday service downtown. None of this is fun. But these rituals ensure that I don’t miss out on this holiest of weeks. And they prepare me for what will happen a week from today when we gather again in this place for Easter.
The story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem beckons to us, insisting that we find a way to enter into the drama of the week. The greeters at the church door extend a palm branch to each person who enters, luring us to imagine ourselves there with the crowd, greeting Jesus in the parade…the protest march…the funeral procession.
Because there is such a rich cast of characters, because there are so many vantage points from which to view this story, it is possible to experience it in a multitude of ways.
Professor David Lose of Luther Seminary writes about visiting a church in Washington, D.C. on Palm Sunday several years ago. The tradition at this church was not just to march around the sanctuary with palms, but to march around the entire neighborhood and then return to the sanctuary to read the Passion story aloud. Lose writes about how one of the strangest things that happened as they marched around our nation’s capital city with palms is how some people seemed to not even notice. People just kept reading their papers, staring at their phones, sipping their coffees. Lose notes that re-enacting the text this way helped him realize that although there were certainly crowds following Jesus around in Jerusalem, there were also perplexed “city folk” who probably glanced up briefly, with amusement, and wondered, “Huh. Wonder what’s going on here?” and then went right back to their regularly scheduled lives.
There are so many vantage points to this story.

Walter Wangerin, Jr., in his 1996 tome The Book of God: The Bible as a Novel imagines what might have been going through Judas’s mind as Jesus entered Jerusalem. In Wangerin’s imagined scene Judas watches  with glee as Jesus enter the city, feeling certain that the moment has finally come when the Messiah will reveal himself as the true King of his people. Wangerin writes:

Judas was delirious. The city gates began to pour forth another mass of people equal to the first. Those who came out converged with those who were coming in, so the singing was doubled and the roar of it cracked the high blue vaults of heaven. It seemed that all of Judea was spiraling down to this sole place for the praise of Jesus of Nazareth. Oh, what a mighty army! ….

Judas laughed with magnificent glee. He couldn’t help himself. He was sailing on a sea of victory, surely, surely! And the water was the people, and the ship was his Lord, and the wind was behind them, surely!

Shaking with laughter, seeking quick camaraderie, he glanced up at Jesus – and suddenly there descended to the earth a horrible silence! Or so it seemed. Judas felt as if he and Jesus were alone beneath a green sea where there was no sound but the voice of Jesus only. Because Jesus was crying. He was not rejoicing in the public acclaim nor glorying in the advent of his kingdom now. He was crying! He was gazing at the stones of the city and allowing tears to run down his face.

In Wangerin’s imagination Judas is in the midst of the highest point of his life as Jesus rides into Jerusalem as the King, but Jesus is in tears. Which is it? Is Jesus the King, high and mighty? Or is he defeated, reduced to tears? The answer is “yes.” Both of these things are happening simultaneously – held together in the Palm Sunday processional.

Pastor Melinda Quivick notices the power of allowing ourselves to sit in and be shaped by the tensions of this holy day. She writes, “Every year someone raises the question why we are celebrating both Jesus’ praise-filled entrance into Jerusalem on that donkey with all those palm fronds and then quickly turning to his murder. The answer is the most central truth about our faith: both winning and losing happen all the time together and in that complex journey is where we find Jesus … owning all of it with us while defeating it.”[2]

Jesus is with us. Owning all of the complexities of the human experience. Sitting in the mess of betrayal, temptation, murder, injustice, hatred, fear. Just sitting there with us in the midst of all of the ugliest things about who we are as humans.

But not just sitting there. Defeating it. Christ comes to us as the One who holds out hope that there can be another way. Christ imagines that there is more than meets the eye. Christ looks at the ugliest, scariest, nastiest parts of us and sees us healed and made whole. Christ faces the cruelest, sickest, most horrifying stuff that humans can dish out to teach other and somehow manages to prevail.

The beauty of the ambiguity of this day is that there is always more than meets the eye. What looks like a parade is not just a parade. What seems to be a protest march is more than that. And the solemnity of a funeral procession is interrupted by shouts of joy.

Being Christian means owning that few things in this world are certain. In our moments of great celebration, there are always those around us who carry pain within them. In our moments of deepest pain, there are always small instances of joy to be relished.

Being human means that celebration can change in an instant to deep sorrow. A vibrant life can be snuffed out in one breath. And even death – that thing that is as certain as taxes – even death is no more.

Living in a state of uncertainty can be awfully disconcerting. But it can also be freeing. Because if there is always more to the story then we are never truly backed up against a wall. There are always options. Nothing is ever final.

Thanks be to the God of Holy Week….the one who cries out with the stones in the parade, turns tables upside down with the protest marchers, and gravely carries the casket in the funeral procession.

May we each carry a bit of the parade, the protest, and the funeral procession with us into the holiest of weeks ahead.