Love that Death Can't Stop - Easter 2007
By Charles Rush
April 8, 2007
Mk. 16: 1-8
(mp3, 5.6Mb) ]
d you see that snow last night? I came home last evening, my neighbors were outside talking, and this flurry was swirling between us. They were waiting for my reaction so I said, "Merry Easter to all and to all a good night."
A blessed and happy Easter to all of you. I got a call this week about my nephews Henry
and Charlie, aged 4 and 5. Apparently, on Palm Sunday they were outfitted in
bow ties and seersucker sport coats, each with their palms welcoming Jesus as he
rode into their Episcopal church in North Carolina. This year was special because Jesus
was on a live donkey. Reportedly, my nephews were amongst a few, possibly the
instigators, who decided it would be funny to whip the donkey with their palms
and see what he would do.
These are the
same two nephews that last year ate so many cream filled, chocolate covered
eggs during the Easter egg hunt that they refused to participate in the
family meal afterward, prompting my
mother-in-law, Nana, to exclaim that
God's miracle with Jesus was nothing compared to what He would be up against
with her grandsons. May you be so blessed with chaos, the good kind.
begins with the poignancy and humane tenderness in the midst of death. And who
cannot appreciate this even if we trust in eternal life?
I think of
Leland Gunn, who met his wife 60 years ago. He passed her notes asking her if
he could walk her home after school, notes she wouldn't return. And finally he
got up the courage to ask her face to face. She explained that she had to go
straight home after class as per her father's instructions. He had some
detention duty, beating the chalk out of the erasers. She said she couldn't
wait but then she said, 'there's no reason a body’s got to hurry. I can
That was all he
needed to hear. Those erasers were never cleaned so quick in the history of the
school, he threw his books in his satchel, ran down the
road and caught up to her.
Years went by,
they graduated from school, and after he returned from the war in Europe, they married, raised 5 children
together, and 11 grandchildren. Leland was a relatively successful farmer.
became ill, gravely so, and he put her in the hospital at the county seat that
was 74 miles away from the farm. He went to see her every day, sat with her all
day long, drove the 74 miles home. He knew it was bad
and he couldn't sleep, so he started cleaning up the house the way he knew she
wanted it cleaned up… and he kept finding things to clean almost until dawn.
Then he started on a list of projects that she wanted done, projects that he
had never found time to get around to. Every night he would work on these until
just before dawn when he would finally lay down for a couple hours just
The day came
his daughters came to see him… to talk. One of them was a nurse and they
explained to Leland that their mother was not going to make it. Leland sat
there in the den quiet and stoical. He had never been a big talker. They made the
usual arrangements about who was doing what to keep after the farm. They tried
to talk their daddy into staying at their homes and they knew he wouldn't do
it. They hugged and kissed and left.
Leland sat at
his kitchen table for a long time just blank. He decided that he was going to
say some things to his wife and tell her how much he loved her. And he thought
about what to say over and over in his mind. Leland was never good with words,
so in the middle of the night he decided to write something down. That way,
when she came to with the medication, he wouldn't forget. So he wrote it down.
He crossed stuff out. He wrote it again.
He folded his paper, put it in his pocket, and laid
The next day at
the hospital, he sat with his wife, she was just
restlessly sleeping most of the time. All morning he sat there, and in the
middle of the afternoon, she opened her eyes, he pulled up next to her. She
smiled at him. She was weak and groggy but she was with it. Leland stroked her
face, made small talk. He looked her
deep in her eyes and he wanted to begin the speech but she looked so weak that
suddenly he was feeling faint. His heart was fluttering. He couldn't help himself. There were tears in
his eyes but no words in his throat. He
reached in his pocket for his notes but all he could see was a blur on the
squeezed his hand. Most of their life, she had done the talking for both of
them. She said, "honey, I'm going on ahead of you."
He nodded his head. She said, "But you know what?" He said,
"What?" She was quiet and then she said, "If it's possible… I'm gonna stroll".
begins like that, with the humane poignancy that comes
from saying 'goodbye' to people that we love. It is full of pathos. The women
are in the middle of their 'goodbye' when something happens to them, what we
don't know. We just have these stock poetic images that come from apocalyptic
literature. They are symbolic, allegorical images that writers used routinely
to describe a direct encounter with God, an epiphanic experience.
I like the
version in Mark. It ends abruptly with the shock and wonder that the women had.
They were afraid and they said nothing. Whatever it was that they experienced,
they had the immediate and palpable sense that the Love Force they had known
through Jesus was not stopped by death. It is not past, but still future that will meet you.
It is like
those fishermen in 'The Perfect Storm'
who didn't check the weather carefully and see this wall of water coming at
their little boat. They have this moment, this "O My God" moment,
looking at this wall of water and at each other when it is stunningly apparent
how woefully they underestimated this force in front of them.
this divine encounter had a moral component for each person there as well. It
was anxious. None of them left Jesus on terms they wanted to end on. They felt
bad. Each of the disciples fell away, one by one. After a big pledge of loyalty
at the Last Supper with Jesus, they each left, some just slinking away, others
forcing Jesus hand with the authorities, trying to get him to assert himself.
The Temple authorities viewed Jesus as too much
of a threat. They dispatched him to save the institution and themselves. The
Romans were very reluctant to act but they did and they acted decisively. They
tortured and killed him without prejudice.
rejected near and far, personally and institutionally. We had goodness in our midst; we
had truth in our midst and we killed it. This is what made them
anxious. It was terrible chain of events that last week of Jesus' life, it was
compromised, but it was over and done with. Everyone was sad. They were
embarrassed, and surely almost everyone was secretly ready to get on to the
next thing and get this sad chapter behind them.
At the same
time, there is also a positive dimension to their slack-jawed, "Oh My
God" moment of
awe. This positive dimension is that you thought it ended badly but it might
not be over after all. What if death cannot stop God's goodness and
love? We hadn't thought about that? What
if we reject God but God doesn't accept our rejection entirely? What if God
keeps coming after us in Grace, with love and goodness, even though we are
hateful? This is an awakening insight that is 'too good to be true' and also
deeply distressing at the same time.
It brings to
mind that lament from the Psalms, "where can I run, where can I hide that You cannot find me?' What if God does not simply
leave us to our own devices? What if we can't be rid of this so easily?
My confirmation class was doing a
little bible study recently and we chanced upon Luke 15, the story of the
Prodigal Son. We were reading about the two sons that asked their dad for their
inheritance before the Dad died. I asked my confirmand's,
aged 13, what they thought about the Son requesting his inheritance. Everyone
thought that took a lot of chutzpah. None of them would do it… I thought you
parents might be relieved to hear that.
But then, this Dad is not like you
Dad's. When this Dad is actually asked for the money, he gives it to his teenage
Son… If I took a poll right now, the percentage of you who would give them the
money would be near zero.
The Son leaves, squanders his money
on parties, women and loose living, goes broke, and then thinks about going
home. The teenager comes to his senses and realizes that his Father's hired help
lives better than he will. He decides to go home.
I asked my Confirmands, "what the Father should do"?
One of them said, 'he can't let him
come home until he shows some respect.'
Another one suggested, "he has to work and repay the money or something."
Yet another, "he can move back
to the area but not back home."
Finally, one young man said, "I
wouldn't even think about going home."
I said, "why?"
He said, "You don't know my Dad?"
I thought to myself, "Actually,
I do know your Dad… and I wouldn't be going home either."
Then I read out loud, "When the
Son was a long way off, the Father ran down the road, threw his arms around the
boy, kissed him, and said 'My Son was lost and now is
found. He was dead and now is alive.'"
Every time I've done this, I get a
lot of silent gazes coming back at me. Half incredulous that
there could be unbounded, unmerited, loving goodness like that… And the
other half are incredulous as in 'Gee, I didn’t think about that', not even as a
possibility. I suspect that this is pretty close to the exact same gaze that
Jesus got when he first told that parable.
This, it seems to me, is the actual
point of this season. Above all else, God wants for us to be reconciled and God
wants to be reconciled with us. With each other, we have all kinds of limits, we have all kinds of qualifications, all kinds of conditions.
Maybe not so with God!
Maybe with God, you are always God's
child. Maybe no matter what you've done or where you've been, God will always
welcome you home. Maybe even if you hate this one part of yourself and in the
quiet of the night that is what you think about in your deepest anxious, concern,
with God you still are somebody.
When one of my colleagues was at Duke
Divinity school, he was a chaplain in the North Carolina prison system. He got a call one day
from a father, whose son was in prison. The young man had committed a robbery
in his small town in the mountains and was sentenced to several years in jail.
He was embittered, angry, stubborn. The Father wanted
to see the son, had written the son, called him, got no response and reached
out to the Chaplain to see if he would intervene.
The Chaplain went to see the kid and
the kid steadfastly refused to see his Father.
Despite the refusal, the Dad, a poor
man, boarded the bus in his mountain town and made the 7 hour trip across the
state in the hope of seeing him on Visitation day. The Son said 'No', so the
Dad boarded the bus and went back home.
Next week, same thing. Week after week,
the same thing. Every time, the Chaplain had the awkward job of delivering the
news to the Father that the Son wouldn't see him. The Father would think about
it for a minute, pick up his things and go find the bus home. So, finally, the
Chaplain, having been trained in psychology like we all are at Duke div. school,
thought he would share some of his
insights with the Father about limits, healthy boundaries, helping others take
responsibility which he did.
The Father was a simple man, didn't
say much. So the Chaplain concluded, "Look, no one would keep doing what
you are doing. Your Son is embittered and defiant and if he won't change
himself, no one else can. I think you need to go back home and get on with the
rest of your life and put your energy there. No one would put up with this kind
of rejection, week after week, nobody would do it."
The Father stood there quietly and
finally pointed upwards and said, "He
has for centuries".[i]
Right, we Clergy have these moments too, "Right, we hadn't thought about
that." Maybe God is really quite different than we are.
Whether we are so independent and
successful that we just don't know what in the world we would really want God
for, whether we are just so stubborn that we would rather be alone than be in
relationship with God, whether we are just filled with some self-loathing in
this one area of ourselves that we can't share with ourselves, let alone God, maybe
God wants to be reconciled with us more than anything else. Maybe God wants us
Maybe the point of our lives is not
just fretting about who we wished we had become and what we ought to have done,
but coming to terms with who we actually are and appreciating how we
had to grow through our mistakes and limitations that was all part of the
process that made us who we have become in fact.
Maybe the point of our lives is not
so much being Mr. or Mrs. Perfect as it is finding redemption through our
actual past and with who we are right now. Maybe this redemption is not focused
so much in the 'after life' as in 'all of our life'-beginning with this cast of
characters that live with us and around us right now.
Maybe our spiritual health is not
about hiding parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of, or compensating for
them, or overachieving in some other area as it is about finding healing so we
can become integrated and authentic.
Maybe we don't have to make
conditional bargains with the Almighty or invent some substitutionary
act of atonement for our past failures, as simply start the process of healing
with those right around us right now. Maybe that is
quite simply what God wants for us.
My brothers and sisters, I tell you
the truth. More than anything else, God wants to be reconciled with you. You
have a place at the table. You are somebody. Find your way home. Amen.
William Willomon, and loosely quoted from Homiletics (February, 2007), p. 55.
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