Called Back to Life
April 10, 2016
Epworth United Methodist Church
Michael, a high school student was auditioning for a school play. He really wanted the part, so whenever he saw the drama teacher in the hall he would go into a long dying scene, dropping his books all over the floor. One day, he saw the drama teacher walk into the cafeteria and he died right into his spaghetti. Later, Haley, his girlfriend asked him why he kept dying in front of his teacher. He told her he wanted to show her his great dramatic ability. She asked, "Why do you do only dying scenes?" He said, "I've got the dying down great. It's the living I'm not so good at."
We also get a lot of practice with dying scenes in our own lives and in the world. We don’t audition for the dying scenes -- they come without our permission, those small and great losses in our lives. There are a variety of settings. Sometimes it plays out at home, when an argument turns ugly and maybe someone leaves. Sometimes the site is a grave where the loss of one we love still makes it hard to breathe. Sometimes it’s projected in high definition like the horrific, painful images from Brussels this week. Maybe the script is written in the unfamiliar street names of a new city after a disorienting move. Maybe it’s transcribed in the frightening diagnosis in your medical chart, or printed in the totals of a poor financial statement. Maybe it’s written on the faces of people who again and again see your skin color, or your gender, or your disability, or your age – without seeing you. All those scripts spell out the loss of a dream, perhaps many dreams. The worst deaths, the deepest losses, or the fear of a loss, shake our world and even our souls.
Today we heard an announcement from the tomb, a scene of a deep loss for Mary Magdalene. The death of Jesus tears her up inside. Add to that, someone has taken even his body, the last physical reminder of her friend, her teacher. She can't see her way through this storm of sorrow, through this terrible torrent of tears. It's a dying scene, but not just of the crucified Jesus. Mary's trapped in her own dying scene, caught in a downpour of despair.
What dying scenes have played out in your life? When have tears been all you could see? The heartbreak can start young. Robert Fulghum witnessed that, one Saturday in January in Seattle. He went for a morning walk:
"From somewhere close by I heard the sound of a small child crying. But the fog was so thick I couldn’t see far enough to locate the child.... Hurrying along I found, standing on a corner, these three: A mother, a child, and a dog. The mother was weeping. The child was crying. And the dog looked so forlorn it would have been in tears - if dogs did that."
He wondered what the calamity could be. Nelly, a four-year-old little girl, in a baby jogger stroller was inconsolable:
"All I could see of the child’s face were its eyes, awash with tears...
'Have you seen my . . . ?' The word was lost in a sob. 'Seen what?' I asked, thinking puppy, kitty, doll, teddy bear, [parent]?
Blankie turns out to be the operative word...
Nelly’s grandmother made a blanket just for her."
It had been with them when they left home… but now was lost somewhere out there in the Seattle fog. They had retraced their steps three times. No blankie.
…I knelt down beside Nelly and said, “I’m so sorry. I understand. I had this happen to me once. It made me cry, too." (And to my complete surprise, when I said that, tears came to my own eyes. I’m not sure just why... Lost Blankies come in many sizes and shapes and forms.)[i]
Lost blankies do come in many shapes and forms and we know that Nelly will see greater grief, like you've seen - grief that can make you question yourself, your abilities, your judgment of others, your understanding of the world. We don't need any more practice at the dying scenes. It's the living we're not so good at.
Mary Magdalene is thoroughly caught up in this dying scene. Her tears almost blind her to anything else. Frantically, she asks this gardener if he was the one who took the body. And then – he calls her name with tenderness and she is stunned to see the risen Christ in this death scene. But resurrections always come out of places of death.
It is through her tears, that Mary discovers that all is not lost. She didn’t expect it there. Yet, it is among the tombs that she hears the call back to life. Where do you need a resurrection? Where do you need renewed hope? Where do you need to hear the call back to life? Look at the dying scenes, the grief in your story to find your fuller role in life. Look there for what Mary discovered about the mystery of God: that evil, sin, death and despair could not destroy the presence and power of love.
Rachel was surprised to find hope and her role in life from a place of despair and disease. When she was 27 years old Rachel had her colon removed due to Crohn's disease. Following the surgery her intestines were put on top of her abdomen. Every day, nurses had to clean them. They put on a surgical mask and gloves every time. (As if they were afraid to touch her.) Rachel no longer felt feminine and decided to kill herself after she was discharged from the hospital. One day, a nurse came into her hospital room. She was dressed up for her date after work. She washed her hands and tenderly tended to Rachel, but didn't put on the gloves like the other nurses. When she learned about Rachel's illness she listened to her with compassion. Rachel says "She was not in a rush to get out to her date. I experienced a place of great strength within. This woman didn't give me back my intestines. She gave me back my life!”[ii] In that expression of compassion, at the place of her greatest vulnerability, Rachel found a deep strength calling her back to life. Not only that. Rachel found her own calling through her illness. She went on to medical school, her own experience leading to a vocation of healing. Dr. Rachel Ramen, Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF School of Medicine and the Founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Commonweal, discovered her role in life out of an experience of grief, very close to death.
Where is the presence of love calling you back to life, to courage? Look in the most difficult experiences to find your call to hope. Nothing can stop God’s movement toward life and love. The Spirit is always transforming death scenes into birthplaces of hope. It’s happening even now. Even in that place of unspeakable pain in Brussels, this week people of all nationalities, religions and races gathered to sing, to pray and write messages of peace on the streets. Arbai Mohamed, a 21-year-old law student at the Université libre de Bruxelles wrote "Love always wins." He says, "We will not be divided by mentally disturbed people with bad intentions."[iii] Even now, in this country we have witnessed a shockingly nasty primary season. Yet, those detestable insults have motivated people from both sides of the aisle to speak up and register in order to vote against hate speech.
The presence of Christ is calling your name. Listen for it even in the scenes of grief, the graves in your life. As the 17th Century preacher and scholar Lancelot Andrewes says, through the resurrection, God will "turn all our graves into garden plots."[iv] God is calling you back to hope, to new possibilities.
A teacher asked the children in the class what they wanted to become when they grew up. "Possible," Billy responded. "Possible?" asked the teacher. Billy said, "My mom says I’m impossible. When I grow up I’m going to become POSSIBLE." Billy could have let his mother’s comments hold him back. Instead, those impossible words led him to look for the possibilities in his life. Your loss, your struggles, are filled with wisdom and possibilities for healing and hope. You have a living part to play in this life. Let God call you back to life - but not just for yourself.
Mary's encounter with the risen Christ isn't some private reunion. He tells her not to hold on to him, but to go tell the others. Jesus and Mary are both part of God's healing work in the world. So are you. Let the Spirit of unfailing love the power of God call you back to the fullness of life and love wherever you need it. Life and love, forgiveness and faith, social justice and joy are more powerful than all the powers of darkness and death! Go, and with your life, show the others! Amen.
[i] Robert Fulghum from Seattle, Washington - January 20, 2010
[ii] Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen "Becoming a Blessing: Remembering the Power of Who You Are," Stanford University,11-15-04
[iv] Lancelot Andrewes,Ninety-Six Sermons, vol. III, 16