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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Importance of Remembering: A Sermon for Ordination to Ministry

This sermon was preached on August 27, 2017, at First Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC (Wilmington Street) as part of the ordination service for Rev. Belinda Wisdom and Rev. Chris Whitaker.
Exodus 1:8-22
1:8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
1:9 He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.
1:10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land."
1:11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.
1:12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
1:13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,
1:14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
1:15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
1:16 "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live."
1:17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.
1:18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?"
1:19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them."
1:20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.
1:21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
1:22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."

Romans 12:1-8
12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.
12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
12:4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,
12:5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
12:6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;
12:7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;
12:8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

The Importance of Remembering

The story of the Hebrew midwives is familiar.  Their names are less familiar, but the writers of the Torah made sure to include them so that we could know them:  Shiphrah and Puah.  They are crucial to the history of God’s salvation of Israel, and through Israel, the world.  Let’s say their names:  Shiphrah and Puah. 
They were important members of the community because they played an important role at a crucial moment in everyone’s life.  They weren’t like the bakers or fishers to whom people might go every day for bread or fish to eat.  You didn’t stop by once a week to get any needed supplies.  No one depended on them to lead periodic religious ceremonies, either weekly or monthly.  Children didn’t go to them on school days to practice their reading or math.  But Shiphrah and Puah were important.
When the time came to need the services of Shiphrah and Puah, a family would hate to have to do without them.  Probably someone in any family had some experience with helping a woman through childbirth; however, Shiphrah and Puah were the communal stewards of the wisdom of generations.  Moreover, they had seen it all.  They knew well that every baby did not come into the world in the same way and at the same pace.  They knew that women’s bodies and emotional strength were different.  They had learned ways to encourage and calm and comfort mothers dealing with the pain and anxiety of giving birth.  They could recognize when a baby was under stress or in danger.  When it came time for Shiphrah and Puah to do their job, people would be foolish to ignore their gifts and skill.
That’s why the King of Egypt strategically chose them to carry out his diabolical plan.  He was jealous of the prosperity of the Hebrew people.  He was fearful they might rise up in rebellion.  He was concerned about the loyalty to one another and their commitment to justice.  Over the years, he and his predecessors had found the Hebrews to be useful as cheap immigrant labor.  He knew that the Pharaohs had not always treated the Hebrew workers fairly.  He needed a plan to make sure they would continue to be unable or unwilling to stir up a revolution.
Sadly, the King of Egypt did not understand his own formative history.  He did not know how his ancestors had benefited greatly from the unexpected appearance of this sheep-herding clan from the northeast.  He must not have been told the stories of the visions and dreams that the slave boy named Joseph had interpreted for the Pharaoh.  Someone had not bothered to clarify that Joseph of the Hebrews had been vice-regent of the entire kingdom, supervising an era of great prosperity and power for Egypt among the nations who were their neighbors.  So the Bible tells us that this Pharaoh did not know Joseph.
Not knowing Joseph meant that he was willing to use and abuse the descendants of Joseph for his own greed and ambition.  Not knowing Joseph means he was not thinking about how “all life is interrelated.”  He had not reflected on the fact that “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”  He apparently did not realize that “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (MLK, Jr.)  Those, of course, are words from Dr. King.  Ken Medema has another way to say it pertaining to our being created by God:  we are “bound together and finely woven with love.”  But Pharaoh did not seem to know that.
He thought that he could get his way by dividing society into warring groups.  If he could make the immigrants seem dangerous in the eyes of others, then he could try to leverage that fear and hate to get some things that he wanted.  If he could single out a group who look and talk and eat and pray differently, then he could get others to flock to his agenda and follow him down any path.
I don’t know who Pharaoh’s advisers were.  I suspect some had big investments in the construction industry.  Some were in the extraction business, cutting and transporting stones for monumental construction projects.  Other advisers probably had trained security teams for managing work projects.  And he kept his generals close to try to make himself seem more patriotic.  He had to know people who knew how to get financing for big projects.  Above all, he loved building big towers to show off his power.  His advisers knew how to manipulate their king to make him feel good about himself while deciding to do things that they wanted him to do.
To build his construction projects—cities, towers, roads, monuments—he needed a ready, inexpensive work force, so he was working the Hebrews as forced labor, drafted into “public service.”  He made their working conditions worse and worse, without adequate compensation.  They had to go home from a hard day of building cities and monuments and work more just to get food on the table.  The King of Egypt had enough insight to realize he might not be able to keep these people down forever, so he huddled with his most devious advisors to come up with a plan.  He was ready to compose and promulgate another Pharaoh-dential executive order.  The one about making bricks without straw had been very unpopular.  His advisers suggested that he work a back channel this time.  They had an idea of where the weak spot was among his opposition.
He called Shiphrah and Puah to a meeting.  He had nice chariot go by and pick them up.  They were brought into the plush palace of the king for a face-to-face meeting.  Anyone might be impressed and honored by such an opportunity.  He was counting on the “wow” factor to win them over.  He tried talking with them like they were buddies and allies.  He explained to them what he wanted them to do.
Shiphrah and Puah were certainly overwhelmed by being in the palace.  They may not have been reacting the way the Pharaoh wanted, but they were intimidated.  They knew the cost of opposing the people in power.  So they played along.  He gave them some parting gifts and sent them back home to do his bidding.
Shiphrah and Puah are the predecessors of some more famous Hebrews who came along many centuries later.  Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were three Hebrew young men who were told by a great king to do something they knew they should not do.  We know them by the names that king called them—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  They had another friend named Daniel, whom the king liked to call Belteshazzar.  But just as these young men understood that they could not meet the expectations of the king if they were to meet the expectations of God, so did Shiphrah and Puah.
The Pharaoh had asked the midwives to do something unspeakable.  He wanted them to kill babies when they were born.  Worried that the Hebrew boys would grow up to be “bad hombres,” Pharaoh wanted them killed before they had a chance to breathe the fresh air of the world God had made them to live in and love in.  Pharaoh wanted to end their hopes and possibilities before they could ever get started.  He had figured out that a secret deal with the midwives would solve his problems.  But the problem with this Pharaoh, this most powerful ruler of his era, was that he had fallen into forgetfulness.
One of the great sins of power is forgetfulness.  Now stop before you jump to conclusions.  I’m not saying that when we sometimes forget the things we meant to do that it’s sin.  I’m not saying that as we get older and names and words slip out of reach in the middle of a conversation that we are sinning.  That’s not what I mean by forgetfulness today.  The forgetfulness I am talking about has to do with the way violence and power work in society.  Often when people scheme and cheat and push and shove to get what they want, they turn around and talk about how they earned it through virtue and character.  This kind of forgetfulness retells the history to make the people with power the heroes.  It retells the story to sanitize out the oppression and violence.  The textbooks don’t call forced laborers slaves, but immigrant employees.  They call forced segregation school choice.  They call slaves happy members of the extended family.  Forgetfulness becomes self-congratulation that erases the memory of violent, murderous schemes to gain and maintain control.
If everything had worked out the way Pharaoh was planning, he would have had little problem forgetting the conniving violence he employed to weaken the Hebrews.  A cover story about disease or genetic defects would have been invented to rationalize so many infant deaths.  All who knew the truth would be paid off or eliminated.  Pharaoh was playing a dangerous game, but the stakes were high and the potential rewards were great.  Pharaoh was willing to do what it takes to achieve his objectives and make Egypt great again.
Shiphrah and Puah returned to their homes and their work with a new resolve.  They would have to redouble their efforts to save the lives of the Hebrew children.  They could not be careless.  If they openly disregarded the Pharaoh’s authority and flaunted their disobedience in order to look heroic, Pharaoh would find other agents to carry out his plan.  And who knows what would happen to them for their rebellion?  So Shiphrah and Puah had to have a workable plan.  They had to get their story straight.  Lives were at stake.
They realized that the very forgetfulness that was Pharaoh’s modus operandi could work in their favor.  The King of Egypt did not know Joseph.  He had forgotten the common history of the Egyptian Kingdom and the Hebrew immigrants.  He had replaced it with a narrative rooted in the logic of difference.  The logic of difference says that if you and I are different in a few ways, then perhaps we should conclude that we are different in every way.  We might even be complete opposites.  If my skin is light and yours is dark, then the logic of difference says that whatever I think is good about me must be the opposite about you.  If I am good looking, you must not be.  If I am hard-working, you must be lazy.  The logic of difference is insidious and demonic.  It hides the obvious truth we could see if we would just look at one another and get to know one another.  It replaces our opportunity to know one another with the assumption of inscrutability, of unknowability.  It is a reasoning process that has shaped the invention of the races in the modern world.  We use it all the time in how we think about men and women, too.  The logic of difference is an intentional kind of forgetfulness.
So when the Pharaoh had time to realize that there were still lots of new little Hebrew boys running around in the ‘hood, he sent his chariot out to get Shiphrah and Puah to bring them before a board of inquiry.  He asked them why they would go against the specific instructions he gave them.  They played on his prejudice.  They leveraged his ignorance.  They offered a story about how Hebrew women were different from Egyptian women.  Of course, he knew that had to be true.  He believed in the logic of difference with all his heart.  So they set him up.  They said that when they got called to help with a birth, these Hebrew women with short labor and fast childbirth would already be finished.  The baby would be born, and their chance to secretly kill the baby boys was past.  They didn’t say whether they had still managed to kill a few of the boys—they let him think maybe they had, or at least they were trying.  Wow! Pharoah thought.  This plan was harder than I thought!  So it seems he sent them away with instructions to work harder and move faster to carry out their plan.  Shiphrah and Puah survived another brush with the empire, and Hebrew parents and children were a little safer for a little longer.
It is a powerful story.  It sets up the story of Moses’ birth.  The desire to keep baby boys alive made it very difficult for Hebrew families in this time.  Eventually, Pharaoh made it a patriotic duty for Egyptians to kill Hebrew baby boys.  That led to the unique turn of events of Moses’ floating in the river and adoption into the household of the Pharaoh.  How many other little boys did not survive the murderous plot against them?  “Rachel, weeping for her children” was a cultural memory that flowed down through the centuries, all the way to the Exile.
This contrast of forgetfulness and remembering strikes me as a crucial message for today.  We gather here in a commissioning service for those who have answered the calling of God to minister among God’s people and in the homes and streets and halls of power where we find the people God loves.  What will be our modus operandi as we do this work?  Will we surrender to forgetfulness and leave behind the people who brought us this far?  Will we use our commission to lord over others and to use them to serve our greed and lust for power?  Will we forget who Joseph was, or will we remember?
This story points to at least three ways in which remembering is crucial to taking up the mantle of servant leadership.  First, we can see that Shiphrah and Puah remembered who they were.  Second, we can recognize that they remembered who called them.  And third, they remembered why they had been called.
The story of Shiphrah and Puah leaves one important detail uncertain.  Were these midwives from the tribes of the Hebrews, or were they Egyptians who worked among the Hebrews?  Some have argued that Pharaoh would have had little reason to trust them to do this horrible task if they were Hebrews.  He would have selected Egyptians with whom he might hope to share a common prejudice against the immigrant Hebrews.  That seems possible.  Many, however, have argued that the midwives were part of the Hebrew community which was where they did their work.  Various rabbis have supported this view down through the centuries.  The wording in the text is ambiguous, but I think it doesn’t make a big difference for our purposes.  In either case, whether Egyptian or Hebrew, these women remembered better who they were than did the Pharaoh.
These women had worked and built relationships among the Hebrew immigrants for long enough that they had become well-known, even respected in their work.  When Pharaoh wanted to scheme with some midwives, these were the ones well-known enough to get the invitation to his palace.  Even though he did not remember Joseph, apparently Shiphrah and Puah did.
Now the text does not mention that they knew Joseph.  But they did clearly know the people of Joseph.  They knew the goodness of family life, the love of friendship, the joy of new beginnings, the struggle of poverty, the pain of grief and loss.  They knew flesh and blood human beings, created by God, made for love, given gifts and strength for work, striving to make the most of their situation.  They knew the stories of cousins and aunts and uncles, of parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.  They remembered the history of where they had come from, whether as Hebrew immigrants or as Egyptians who had cast their lot in friendship with the Hebrews sojourning in their homeland.  They knew the people of Joseph.  They remembered the many ways his character and virtue had been taught, shared, and passed down through generations of Hebrew children.  They remembered the welcome of the Hebrews into Egypt and the gratitude and service the Hebrews offered in return.  They remembered that they stood on the shoulders of giants.  They remembered who they were.
In taking up Christian ministry, can you remember who you are?  Not many among you were noble, not many wise, not many powerful.  But each one has been given grace gifts by the Holy Spirit.  Each earthen vessel is capable of having the power and wisdom of God poured into it for God’s use.  God didn’t have to use you, but God has called you.  The church didn’t have to notice you, but the church has acknowledged your potential and called you to a task.  The Spirit didn’t have to fill you, but you have known the unction that only comes from God.  Do you remember who you are?
In small towns and in some neighborhoods, it was traditional to get to know someone by asking, “Who is your momma?  Who is your daddy?  Are you so-and-so’s boy?  Are you what’s-her-name’s girl?”  It is about figuring out who you are by remembering who you come from.  Are you from Joseph’s people?  If you weren’t born to them, have you been grafted into their family?  Do you remember what kind of people Joseph taught them to be?  Are we going to see Joseph when we see how you live?  Are you going to be the Jesus we see in the world?  If you want to be God’s servant and a minister, then remember who you are.
We can also see that Shiphrah and Puah remembered who called them.  Part way through the story, we might start thinking that the midwives who got called to the Pharaoh’s palace would become the Pharaoh’s agents.  We might think they would be answering the call of their king and becoming his servants.  But the story turned out differently.  He was accustomed to being able to impress people or throw his weight around and get them to do his bidding.  He was used to being the boss and hiring and firing according to his whims.  So he seemed surprised when what he asked Shiphrah and Puah to do did not happen.  When he called them back, he was probably looking forward to getting to say, “You’re fired!”
The story took a different turn.  Not only did the Pharaoh stay oblivious to what was happening in the birthing rooms of the Hebrews, the One who really called these midwives took care of them.  Shiphrah and Puah knew who they worked for.  They knew who had called them out as leaders.  We don’t know how many midwives served the Hebrew women, but it probably was more than two.  So Shiphrah and Puah are representative figures.  Maybe they were the leaders and organizers of the midwives.  Whatever their role, they had a clear understanding who it was they worked for.  So when the Pharaoh stepped in to try to be their new supervisor, they were polite and immediately disobeyed.  They served the one who had put them to their task, not the one who wanted to use them to do his dirty work.  And the story tells us that God stood by them, protected them, and blessed them mightily for remembering that it was God who called them.
Will you remember who you work for?  One of the first things that usually happens in a church when a new minister comes along is that everyone tries to get a piece of her or of him.  Folks want to have coffee or go out for lunch.  They come by the office or call on the phone.  The conversations may start very general and encouraging, but many of them end up playing an angle.  People have grudges against other church members, or they have been upset ever since some group or program got eliminated.  They have visited a church and seen something they like, or they are never satisfied with the way the Bible is taught.  So they start recruiting the new minister to be on their side, to join their cause, or even to do their dirty work.  They plant seeds of suspicion or communicate veiled ultimatums. 
Who do you work for?  Of course, Shiphrah and Puah worked for the families they served at times of childbirth, and you work for the people God is sending your way.  But don’t get that mixed up.  You work for them because you work for God.  Your work for them is to do the work of God, not to join in schemes for power or influence, for greed or status.  You are not their stepping stone, but they are not your stepping stone either.  God is the one who has called, us, and we are pressing on toward the high calling of Christ Jesus.  God took hold of you, and now you are striving to take hold of that for which you were taken hold of by God.  You have to lay aside the weights.  You have to shun the temptations to sin that so easily get your imagination.  You have to leave some things behind so you can reach out for the fresh gifts of God’s Spirit.  Remember who called you.  Remember who you work for.  In all your ways, acknowledge God, and God will direct your paths.  If you want to be God’s servant and a minister, then remember who called you.
Let me highlight a third way of remembering that we can see in the story of Shiphrah and Puah—they remembered why they had been called.  They were midwives.  That was their job.  It was their calling.  They knew they served God’s people.  They knew that it was God who called them.  And they also remembered what is was they had been called to do.  They remembered why they had been called.  Their job was helping families bring healthy children into the world.  They had to learn the traditions, learn from experience, develop the science through observation, be alert and rested for the job, give their best every time, and find the joy and fulfillment that comes from a job well done, a life lived in faithfulness.
Now and then a birth might not go as hoped.  There might be complications and injury to the mother.  There might be problems that keep a child from being born strong, or alive.  Shiphrah and Puah had to be ready for these times as well.  They were called to do their best to help a family bring a baby into the world, and they also were called to support and care for families who struggled with the vicissitudes of life that can come with childbirth.  They had a mission.  They were servants of God and servants of their fellow human beings.  They were called with a purpose, and they could not let that purpose slip away from their vision.
Too often, a change in role can cause a change in how a person relates to others.  We all have seen it.  It can happen in even the most minor of situations.  Sometimes, in a church committee, people have worked together for many years, sharing, speaking up, listening, and carrying their loads as equals, as children of God seeking to do what they are called to do.  Then one of the group who has not been the chair of the committee before becomes the chair.  Suddenly, the new chair acts like a different person.  Because of a title, she or he starts behaving as if the other committee members should only do the listening part, not the thinking and talking and deciding parts.  It starts becoming a one-way relationship of boss and underling rather than equal partners.  And all that can happen when there isn’t even any program money to decide how to use.  Rising into an office can confuse some people so they forget what they were called to do.
Pharaoh thought he could get Shiphrah and Puah to forget that they were called to help life flourish and get them to become murderers and life-destroyers.  He thought that their promotion to being in his inner circle would change their view of their work.  Thank God that he was mistaken.  They could not see any way to accept his orders to kill the baby boys.  They were strategic in finding a plan to make sure they could prevent that from happening under their watch.  They knew their calling, their purpose, and they kept their eyes on the prize.
You are called to be a servant.  Minister is the translation of the Greek word diakonia, which is also translated as servant.  You are not overlord.  You may oversee some programming, some budget, some mission tasks, but oversight is not the same as being the boss of me, the boss of him, or the boss of her.  God has called you to serve.  By now you may know some specific ways in which God wants you to serve.  So if you are called to preach, do so with truth and conviction.  If you are called to teach, study to show yourself approved.  If you are called to evangelize, make your life good news to those God sends your way.  If you are called to hospitality, then receive God’s children with joy and generosity.  If you are called to pray, then make yourself a vessel of God’s work as you are transformed to do his will.
The lectionary epistle text for today reminds me of my own calling to ministry.  It seems centuries ago that I was 18, but at that tender age I accepted God’s call to minister.  I had no idea where it would lead, and could not have predicted I would ever be in a position to stand before you here today.  But in those early days of my calling, I often returned to this epistle text from Romans 12. 
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, [I beseech you] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

At 18 I was a mixed up mess of overconfidence and fear.  I had been told by everyone that I was smart and gifted, and I often believed the hype.  But some of the time I knew it was just hype.  I knew I was just a scared kid trying to make it in a bigger world.  I was trying to listen to God and trying to be somebody.  I didn’t want to disappoint my family, and I wanted my friends to like me.  And no small part of me was trying to impress the girls I couldn’t get my eyes off of.  If that’s not a description of an earthen vessel, I don’t know what is.  So when I read Romans 12, it reminded me I had some changing to do.  I needed to grow up from my immaturity.  I needed to put aside the wants and ways of the world that I had learned growing up, and I needed to take on the wants and ways of God.  I needed to follow the way of Jesus, which this verse describes as presenting oneself onto the altar as a living sacrifice to God.  It’s a complicated metaphor.  I was relieved that it said I could be a living sacrifice, even if I also realized in the back of my mind that when Jesus lived that way it had cost him his life.
This giving up of my self-made image, my self of my own construction, was the crucial step to learning God’s will for me.  I longed to hear God’s call, and this epistle text told me that by giving myself, I could find my way to discern the will of God, and that it would be good.  It would be excellent.  That’s what I wanted.  To achieve as high as I could, but within the scope of what God wanted me to do.  I couldn’t think too highly of myself, but had to put myself on God’s altar to be remade, to be transformed, to become God’s servant to do God’s will.  If I would walk that path, God promised to make the most of me for a particular task in my time and my place.
Do you remember why you have been called?  Too many lose sight of it when they get dollar signs, TV ratings, and big buildings on their minds.  Others just want to go their own way and can’t figure out how not to try to be the one who is large and in charge, even if it means only with a tiny flock of longsuffering church people.  God has a good purpose for you.  It means putting yourself aside and letting God replace your ambition and greed with God’s own purpose and grace.  If you want to serve God and be a minister, then remember why you were called.
I rejoiced when I saw that this story of Shiphrah and Puah was the lectionary text for this Sunday.  For any of you who heard it preached this morning, I pray that the Holy Spirit has brought you an additional gift from the richness of the Holy Scriptures as you heard it again.  But there is one more thing I want to point out about the importance of remembering as we close.
There are many times when the Bible lets us down concerning God’s love for and calling of women to lead and work for the Kingdom of God.  Written in times when women had little status in society, too often the texts omit and forget their names.  In the story of the great flood, we never learn the names of the very important characters who are the wives of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  Even in the stories of Jesus, a Samaritan woman from Sychar who comes to get water at the well, a Syro-Phoenecian woman who gives Jesus the opportunity to expand the grace of God to Gentiles, a woman who gives all she has to God, a woman who touches his garment in faith, a woman he forgives when the crowd wants to stone her—so many who are central to communicating his gospel life go unnamed.  But this story is not one of those.
We know the names of Shiphrah and Puah.  The Books of Moses tell us their names.  The Torah, God’s gift of love to the people of Israel, names them.  But did you notice, there was a so-called famous character in this story.  He is called the King of Egypt.  He is called by the Egyptian imperial title, Pharaoh.  But we don’t know his name.  Scholars argue about which of the known rulers of the Egyptian empires this character might be.  They compare the dynasties and their writings, and some theories seem sort of right, and sort of wrong, to fit the Bible story.
We don’t remember this Pharaoh’s name.  The Bible doesn’t remember this Pharaoh’s name.  The Books of Moses do not remember this Pharaoh’s name, although surely Moses, who lived in the household of Pharaoh knew who this king was.  But we do remember the names of a couple of midwives who worked among an outcast immigrant people.  We know these women who were instruments of God’s work.   
We know these ministers, even though we don’t know the Pharoah.  He already demonstrated that he had a bad memory.  He forgot what he did not want to know, and he did not know Joseph.  But Shiphrah and Puah knew Joseph.  They remembered who they were.  They remembered who called them.  And they remembered why they were called.  Go forth today in the spirit of Shiphrah and Puah and serve God with the same faithfulness they demonstrated so many centuries ago.  Speak their names.  Remember.  Amen

Monday, April 17, 2017

On Jordan's Stormy Banks--Reposting

I have been looking at the CaringBridge site recently again because of an injury to a little girl whose parents I know and admire.  She was struck by a car and severely injured, but she continues to make progress.  As is usually the case on CaringBridge, we don't know how things will turn out or how quickly they will change.  The long journal of my colleague and friend Dwight Peterson reminds us that we do a poor job of predicting how a person's life will endure.  The chance to keep up with one another and share presence keeps people coming back and praying for one another.  I know my love and hope for Amelia is growing with each story and picture that appears.
     While in CaringBridge, I looked back at the website I set up for Everly when she was ill.  I continued to write there well into 2015, almost two years after she died.  I took a moment to read the last journal entry, written in reflection on both her death and her father's death.  With the attention I've been giving to thinking about the presence of death in our lives, it seemed to me that this entry spoke into the struggle of living and dying, displayed in many ways around us and in the lectionary texts of the last weeks of Lent.  Therefore, I'm reposting for any who might wish to continue on that road of reflection with me.
Journal entry by Mikael Broadway

When I was still a pre-teen, I'm not sure when, but I think in Portland, Texas, around 1969 or so, I remember not the time but the experience of hearing the hymn "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand and Cast a Wishful Eye."  I think it was the boisterous melody and rhythm that caught my attention, along with the lyrics which I could easily understand.  I also remember some kind of visual of a storm over a body of water, dark and menacing.  There were no music videos in those days, so I must have been looking at some sort of children's hymnal with illustrations.  Maybe I was at a children's choir rehearsal or "Intermediate Training Union" (you Baptists may remember that terminology).  I remember deciding to learn that song, and I still have an echo of that memory each time I hear or sing it today.

Recently, reading from Henri Nouwen's In Memoriam, I was reminded of that hymn again.  The short book begins by telling of the warm reunion with his mother when she was terminally ill, and the blessing and joy of being together.  He was reminded of the many ways in which her faith and faithfulness had anchored him and held their family together.  But after their initial time of gathering, he describes a dramatic change that happened in his mother.  She became less able to communicate.  She had moments of obvious struggle.  She seemed no longer at peace, but often disturbed, fearful.  She seemed to him to be in a fight against whatever evil, temptations, and doubts that she had suffered during her life.  He interpreted these days as a final battle as she prepared for the end of her life, a storm through which she was having to pass.

Part of what Nouwen was realizing was that his mother, who had often been for him a tower of strength, was a human being, a woman, who had her own struggles.  She was not just the one who helped the other family members with their struggles.  And he saw this working itself out in her last days of life.  His reflections, of course, put my mind into searching through Everly's days of dealing with cancer and its deadly outcome.

I thought through her last days.  From March to July 2013, there were many ups and downs with treatment and constant pain.  She was committed to do all that she could to keep living with us, and for the most part she pressed through whatever came, asking for help that she needed from us.  There were times when she became discouraged by the pain, but we kept seeking answers and trying to find a way to getting better.  Our family trip in May was for her a great triumph and celebration.  

There was only a short time remaining, but none of us knew that.  We kept looking at houses in Austin, hiring inspectors, thinking about how to fit all five of us in a house together, and even negotiating a contract.  At the same time, the cancer was doing its own work.  When our house-buying plan collided with the tumors' deadly growth, the time was nigh.  The doctors diagnosed the situation, and we learned there were no more medical solutions available.  We made the transition to hospice, and Everly lived less than one more week.

During that week, she did not have the same kind of struggle that Nouwen saw in his mother.  She was very vocal with her fear initially that she would be deserting us when we need her.  But her trusted friends shouldered their priestly role in granting her absolution, reassuring her that she had done all that she could do and all that God would expect of her.  They told her they would make sure her children never went hungry or had no place to lay their heads.  And she received this grace and began to rest.

If she had the kind of struggle about which Nouwen writes, it was during her first month after the diagnosis in 2012.  Already very sick, and considered potentially beyond help from medical intervention, she entered the hospital and received her first dose of chemotherapy.  Anyone who was following her story through this illness remembers that the first treatment almost killed her.  In that intial crisis, she fell deeper and deeper into a stupor.  Her body became weak.  She could not eat and had to be fed through a tube.  She slept constantly, and emerged to waking dreams and hallucinations.  

She sometimes awoke with fearful concern about some matter from work or from our family life, needing to give one of us instructions on what we needed to take care of, urgently.  Sometimes these troubled conversations dealt with some relationship or other matter about which she believed she had done wrong and things needed to be set right.  I know I was not the only bedside companion who served as her minister in that time of trouble.  Perhaps, during that time, it was the stormy Jordan she saw before her, and she felt her need to face the dangers head on and get herself ready for that crossing.

She came out of that initial sojourn in the wilderness with a new outlook on her life.  She took on the disciplines needed to regain her strength and to resist deterioration.  She talked of the peace she had made with her career and her previous years of hard work toward a powerful mission.  She considered what she wanted her remaining years to count for.  And through many ups and downs, she made them count as much as possible toward the goals of taking care of her family and reminding us of the beautiful life we had shared and would keep on sharing.

I don't mean that her 15 months, minus that first month-plus of hospitalization, were constant sunshine.  Everly certainly had fears and worries.  She was a worrier, but not to despair.  And she did not handle pain well.  Many of you have heard her say honestly, "I'm a wimp."  She did not like to get stuck for an intravenous tube.  She did not like any treatment that made her burn, or get chills, or get poked or prodded.  But that part of her life was not so different from before we had to face cancer.  Of course, every time we had to get a new CT Scan and reevaluate her progress, there was anxiety.  When the news was not as good as we hoped, there was disappointment and concern.  

I'm not trying to sugar coat things, but I think it is accurate to say that Everly did not face that kind of struggle against her potential dying as a constant overwhelming problem after the beginning.  She was not resigned to die, but she was not terrified by it either.  When she looked back at her experience of making it through those terrible days in 2012, she would tell us stories and share insights as one who had been through a great ordeal.  She spoke as one who knew something beyond what most anyone had known, having approached the brink of death, looked into it, turned back from it, and rededicated herself to a life worth living.  I think you will forgive me if at times I sound like I'm writing hagiography, but what I want to say is that she had faced something, had passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and she did not need to repeat those experiences and lessons again.  She already had learned that even there, God is with her.

So as I look at her last days in July 2013, I don't see intense dread.  She became upset sometimes as she dealt with losing control over her body, growing too weak, too tired, too foggy-brained to act independently.  But these were flashes and passing moments.  It was difficult to speak, but she would suddenly enter a conversation with perception, instructions, and even jokes.  It was hard to swallow well, and she would cough as one who felt she would choke, then rest again.  Mostly, she was at peace with her children and all of us who cared for her around her.

I think we saw more of this struggle, that Nouwen described, toward the end in the prolonged illness of Everly's father, Herbie.  His struggle was longer and painful in a different way.  He observed himself slipping into dementia and losing the strength from his athletic body.  He was exhausted but could not sleep peacefully.  The waking dreams were deep struggles for him.  I am not talking about his character or trying to say Everly did better.  I am merely describing a difference in the progression of mind and body.  Herbie's illness incited his brain in different ways than Everly's, stirring partial memories and robbing him of awareness of the loving people around him.  He feared being left alone and called out for Marie, his wife, at all hours.  He found himself running a race or fighting an enemy when he was simply in bed with family standing by.  He had fought so many battles, solved so many complex problems, trained his body and worked hard for so many years.  As that slipped away from him, he continued to fight and run.

What Nouwen learned, and what we learned from Everly and Herbie, is that our loved ones struggle.  Even when they have hidden it from us so well, they have had their struggles throughout their lives.  Some of those struggles come back to them as they take account of their lives and look ahead to what may remain.  Herbie was grateful for such a rich life, for the devotion and love of his marriage, for three talented and intelligent children, and for so many friends and young people with whom he had shared that life.  He hated to see that go, and the progress of his disease elicited his will to fight.  But some joys persisted through it all:  especially loving to be with Marie and eating ice cream.  Everly's illness took a different path.  But with both of them, we could honor their struggles and rejoice with their joys.

Herbie had been very clear about his approaching death while he was still able to communicate, before the strokes took his clear speech away.  He had had a good life, and he was ready to die.  It hurt him deeply that Everly's life would be cut short, while he might live on after having already had a full life.  Like any parent, he would rather have taken her place so that she could live on.  Long before he died, he had "cast a wishful eye to Canaan's fair and happy land."  And as we numbered Everly's last days, she also faced with a willing heart that she was "bound for the Promised Land."

I think that in writing about this, both Nouwen and I are striving to be honest, to tell the truth.  Dying often is not, as many of us hope and imagine, an easy slipping away.  It is not only having family together and saying good-bye.  It is also a struggle to let go of the only good that we have known and to face the ways that we did not live in every way as we had aspired.  I can't think of any more appropriate way of handling our grief over Everly than being honest about our living and being honest about our dying.  

We get so focused on our own experience of our loved one's death, and that is to be expected.  What Nouwen did, and what I have tried to do here, is also to collect and put together the clues we have of what our loved one went through.  We can't say we know it with certainty, especially those periods when they were not able to speak to us about it.  But we can take what they did say, and what their convictions have been, to see through a glass darkly, until that time that we see face to face in "one eternal day where God the Son forever reigns and scatters night away."
No chilling winds or poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore.
Sickness and sorrow, pain and death,
Are felt and feared no more.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Death Behind Us, Death Before Us

This sermon for the Lenten season was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on April 2, 2017.  It seems highly relevant for Good Friday or Holy Saturday.
Ezekiel 37:1-14
    1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?"
    I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know."
    4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.  5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD."
    7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
    9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."
    10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
    11 Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'  12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act," says the LORD.

John  11:1-45
     1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.
    3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill."
    4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."  5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
    7 Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again."
    8 The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?"
    9 Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them."  11 After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him."
    12 The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right."
    13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."
    16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

    17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
    18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.
    20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  21 Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him."
    23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
    24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
    25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
    27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
    28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you."
29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.
    30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
    33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
    35 Jesus began to weep.
    36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
    37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
    38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  39 Jesus said, "Take away the stone."
    Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."
    40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
    41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.  42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me."
    43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"
    44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
    45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
    We already heard the reading from the prophet Ezekiel.  I’ve had a special affinity for Ezekiel, for his many acted out prophecies and for the pathos of his life as a prophet who was rejected among his people.  Ezekiel’s visions, another sermon for another day, make a crucial theological turning point, along with the other great prophets of his era–Jeremiah and the Exilic Isaiah.  They reshape the vision of a people under God who are not dependent on an earthly army or king, or even on a land of their own.  They elevate the doctrine of the Hebrew God to One who is not limited to land or ethnicity, but rules in all places and among all peoples. 
    This passage in the 37th chapter, one of the most famous ones from Ezekiel, is a text I have preached more than once.  I want to highlight the first verse before I read from the gospel text.  If you want to turn to the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, I will start there in the first verse.  But first, let me repeat the first verse of Ezekiel 37.  “The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.”
    Now if you will join me in the Gospel reading from John, chapter 11.  The lectionary selects verses 1-45, telling a familiar story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  I will narrow the focus to the first 16 verses.  John 11:1-16.... 
    And look again with me at that final verse, 16.  “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”
    Join me today as we consider these two passages on the theme, “Death with us; death behind us; death before us.”  Death behind us. Death before us.
    The first thing to strike me about these lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent was the pervasive presence of death.  The prophet Ezekiel was carried away by the power of the Spirit and set down in a place of death.  It was some kind of historic battlefield scene, but one in which the traditional practice of burying the dead must have been too overwhelming.  Instead, a field of dried, bleached bones lay scattered before the prophet.  As so many other times in his prophetic ministry, Ezekiel found himself overwhelmed.  Here he stood, surrounded by the signs of death of so many who had lived before his time.  He was immersed in the memory, or perhaps it was the forgotten memory, of so much death behind him, so much death that loomed heavy behind him.
    Then we look at the Gospel text and find another very familiar story in which Jesus initially feels no pressure to check on his friend, only to find out soon that Lazarus had died. I was struck by more death.  With his disciples, he has to face going to the home of his dead friend.  Moreover, his disciples are concerned that to take this journey could also mean the death of Jesus and even their own deaths.  In the midst of their work of ministry, they are looking down a road toward death.  Death looms before them.
    My mind quickly jumped to a famous Irish prayer associated with St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.  One of the most remembered sections of the prayer repeats one affirmation after another about the presence of Christ:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise...
But my mind replaced the affirmation of Christ with the recognition of the presence of death. 
Death with us, death before us, death behind us,
Death in us, death beneath us, death above us,
Death on our right, death on our left,
Death where we lie, death where we sit, death where we arise...
I admit it’s not a pleasant set of thoughts.  We live in an age of denial.  We like to call our denial positive thinking.  We think we can mentally hide from the realities of life.  So faced with the pervasive presence of death, we are most often inclined to say to ourselves or to one another, “Why don’t we change the subject?  Let’s talk about something happier.” 
    I’m not criticizing that strategy.  Sometimes that’s the best way to cope with some of the hard truths of our existence.  But we should not confuse coping through occasional denial with opening our hearts to the truth about what people face every day in our world.  We, as Ezekiel and as Jesus, live in a world where death surrounds us.
    Many of us have in recent months had to entertain the possibility of death’s presenting itself in our families as national leaders threatened to eliminate health insurance for millions of us.  What kind of logic, or should I call it greed, drives people to believe it’s acceptable to cause the deaths of many thousands of fellow citizens by taking away access to health care?  What does it mean to call health care a responsibility and not a privilege, when at least half of workers make such low wages they could never take the responsibility to purchase health care on their own?  Death with us, death in us, death where we lie down.
    I’ve heard people say that when I preach they know to expect a social justice sermon, a sermon about ministry in our community.  I don’t mind that reputation.  I hope that along with that reputation I can also have a holistic faith and ministry that touches all kinds of needs and hopes of God’s people.  But I don’t apologize for always seeking to look beyond our inward well-being toward the well-being of the world God loves.
    Yet today I want to say that while there are obviously social justice implications for this message, it is also an attempt to delve into the depths of what it means to live and love, to lose and die, and to be God’s creatures, to be human in this marvelous and mysterious world God has made.
    In day-to-day living, we don’t always have time or energy to think about the mysteries and marvels.  We stay busy putting one foot in front of the other.  We count on the continuity of having the people around us present today and tomorrow and next month and next year.  Jesus probably felt the same way about his friends in Bethany.  When he got word that Lazarus was sick, maybe he did not initially take it very seriously.  Everybody gets sick now and then.  I had a head cold this week.  Some of you may have had a rougher time with the flu recently.  We think of getting sick as something to endure, with the assumption that “this, too, shall pass.”
    A couple of days later, Jesus decided it was time to go to Bethany.  Had another person come to give him a message?  We don’t know that, but we soon find out that he had somehow come to know that Lazarus had died.  Maybe he had a vision or an intuition.  Moreover, John does not give us much insight into his mood or feelings at this point.  Later we learn how sad he was about Lazarus’s death.  At this point we only know that he has made up his mind to go to Bethany.
    His disciples are pretty upset about this plan.  They have been doing their work farther north, and across the Jordan, outside of the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem authorities.  The reason is that Jesus has not always been respectful and diplomatic in his dealings with the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Roman authorities.  During his last visit to Jerusalem, of which Bethany is a near suburb, a mob had actually picked up stones to kill him.  Jesus and his buddies slipped away before the stoning could happen, and they had stayed far away ever since.
    Now Jesus is facing the death of his beloved friend Lazarus down the road, near Jerusalem.  The disciples are thinking about that angry mob with the rocks.  We know from the other three gospels that Jesus has warned his disciples that when he goes to Jerusalem, the rulers there are going to kill him.  Their strategy has been to keep their distance.  They are not sure Jesus is thinking straight.  He insists on going, so Thomas gives a plainspoken response–“I guess we can all go die together.”
    Under the rule of empire, the residents of Palestine were acquainted with death.  They had the experience of harsh treatment by the Roman overlords and the Herodian interloper kings.  They could not get out of their minds the image of their friend John who had been beheaded because he would not mince his words.  And they had seen the way crowds can shift to mobs in a moment when the conversation turns an unpopular way.  They weren’t ready to die, and they were not convinced they or Jesus needed to die.  If Jesus would just get organized for battle like a real Messiah was supposed to do, they could gather enough fighters to sweep into Jerusalem and take out all the enemies of the people.  But Jesus showed no interest in being a Messiah under those conditions.  So maybe they were doomed to die together.
    The slogan Black Lives Matter is a response to the pervasiveness of death in times and places where it just should not happen.  The former president stood in the role of every person when he confessed that in the killing of Trayvon Martin it was clear that the boy could have been the son of any black parent, including himself.  The blood of Trayvon, of Michael, of Sandra, of Freddie, of Rekia, of Jonathan, of José, of Uniece, and of so many more cries out from the ground.  How many deaths until young people’s lives matter?  How many killings until accountability becomes a reality?  Death on our right side, death on our left side, death where we rise up, death where we sit down.
    The rest of the story from John 11 is very familiar.  Jesus goes on to meet Martha and Mary.  He weeps over the death of his friend.  And God performs a powerful sign through the Incarnate Son to demonstrate that there is nothing out of the reach of God’s power.  The story of Lazarus’s coming forth from the grave is a powerful moment in the gospel account of Jesus’ life.  It foreshadows something even greater to come when Jesus comes out of his grave.  In and of itself, this event does not abolish death.  Lazarus went on to die at a later time, as did his sisters and everyone else gathered in Bethany that day.  And so we still find ourselves living in the midst of death, as did Jesus and his disciples and friends in this story.
    I stumbled upon a book of poetry by Audre Lorde this week as I was preparing for this sermon.  The title of the book is Our Dead Behind Us.   I decided I needed to understand what she meant by that title, so I got a copy of the book and started reading the poems.  I was not too surprised to find that title phrase in the first poem, one called “Sisters in Arms.”  It is a poetic narration of two women who find themselves in a crisis.  Both live as expatriates from different societies–one from the USA and one from South Africa.  The South African woman gets news that in a horrific and violent series of repressive acts, her fifteen-year-old daughter in South Africa has been murdered by the police forces.  In the same sequence of events, elementary school children have also been massacred for protesting against injustice and apartheid–six-year-olds, nine-year-olds, even a three-week-old infant.
    The mother heads to South Africa to bury her daughter and join in the struggle.  The other woman remains behind, and in her pain and anger is working in her garden.  Let me quote a few lines from the poem,
my hand comes down like a brown vise over the marigolds
reckless through despair
we were two black women touching our flame
and we left our dead behind us
The power and pain of death, even in their sympathy and care for one another, was breaking them down and breaking them apart.  Their lives kept going on, and their dead were left behind them.  This experience is not far away from many people throughout this world in which we live and die.  Death before us, death behind us.  We don’t escape it if we live in this world.
    God has made us finite beings.  We are born, we live, we die.  Even Jesus’ coming into the world has as a crucial part of it his full sharing of our existence, all the way to the point of death, and more specifically an undignified death. 
    By the time most of us reach middle age, we have become far more acquainted with death than we wish.  Grandparents and parents whose love filled and shaped our lives leave us in this world without their presence.  Too many of us lose loved ones far too early for their time.  The mystery and grief of their absence weighs heavy on us.  We sometimes are tempted to join with the writer of Ecclesiastes and wonder if all of life is in vain.
    I do feel some trepidation in taking you down this difficult road of thinking about death today, but I can’t help but testify to the light the Spirit has shed on these texts.  From Ezekiel to Lazarus, even when we walk with Jesus, we walk amidst death in a dying world.  Part of what we must recognize in Thomas’s remark from John 11:16 is that if we are going to be faithful to Jesus, we may even have to challenge death.  The way of Jesus, we see now in hindsight, is a way of the cross.  It is a road to execution.  It is a pilgrimage of standing strong for God and God’s justice even in the face of those who would kill us for doing so.
    Many of us have grappled in recent months with the likelihood that struggling for justice may become harder in our time.  It may not be adequate to call the congressional representative or write a letter in support of some legislation.  It may not be adequate to have celebratory marches in which we are happy to be together in the cause of justice, then stop off at our favorite restaurant on the way home.  It may be that we will have to face down harsher opponents in our time.  We may begin to catch on that when our young people are beaten and shot in the streets, we cannot keep telling ourselves that it was because they were not acting respectably enough.  In some circles and places, the forces of evil are gathering their strength.  They are already lashing out at Muslims and refugees and transgendered persons.  They are looking for ways to cut away the safety net for the poor, for the elderly, for school children, and for children of immigrants. 
    Protecting the vulnerable may become costly for us in ways that it has not been.  Standing up against official injustice, against warmongering, against government sanctioned discrimination, against unfair voting practices–these may become as dangerous as it was for children in Birmingham, for citizens walking on a bridge in Selma, and for Dr. King organizing with sanitation workers in Memphis.
    I’m not predicting these things will happen to you or to me.  I am simply reminding myself and all of us that when we take up the calling to follow Jesus, a cross may be near in our path.  If any of you would follow me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me. Anyone who would save his or her own life will lose it, but all who would lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.
    There is a deep logic of death and resurrection in the very nature of the church.  Our sacramental practice of baptism articulates that logic.  We ought not to be unfamiliar with death, but we ought to be able to see it differently than the world does. 
    For part of the reason that Jesus was ready to head to Bethany was that he had become convinced by his faith in God that death was not final.  He had come to realize that even if he were captured and executed as an enemy of the state, that God still had a purpose for him beyond that moment of death.  Moreover, his dying as an act of defiance and protest to the injustice of the empire would be far greater than the regime’s acting against one person.  He had come to realize that the death he would endure was one which would encompass the deaths of all of us.  In his role as the Second Adam, he would be recapitulating, reconstituting, rebooting humanity into a new creation.  This is what he tried to explain to Martha later in Bethany--he himself is the resurrection in which we also share.
    Paul wrote about this logic of death and resurrection often.  In Jesus we all die, and in his resurrection we all are raised.  In his death, our past inadequate way of living passes away.  In his resurrection a whole new life already has begun in us.  He, who is our Savior, is our new life.  As Paul wrote in Galatians, I am crucified with Christ, yet nevertheless I live.  But it is not I who live, but Christ lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live in faithfulness to the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.  He reminds us in Romans that we die and are buried with Christ in our baptism.  We rise from the waters of baptism into a new life.
    So there is another sense in which we might say without despair, and perhaps even with rejoicing, that death is behind us.  Although Ezekiel looked at the bones and saw death in its brutality in the history of that valley of bones, his eyes were opened to see that those parched and desiccated bones can live when God raises them to new life.  Jesus, on the road to Bethany, can face the likely wrath of the powerful in Jerusalem because he has fixed his eyes on the joy that is before him.  He is willing to despise the shame of the cross, of the jeering crowd, and of the mocking crown on his brow.  He can endure the cross for the sake of the new creation.  He can endure death because he will bring us all through it with him.  Oh, Death, where is your sting?  Oh, grave, where is your victory?  In bringing all of us together into his death, Jesus puts our deaths behind us.
    Now some of you may rightly want to complain that it’s not quite right, Rev. Broadway, for you to lay on all this thick death conversation and then try to turn it around to be happy in the last minute or two of the sermon.  Let me say that I also hope I know better than that.  It ought not to be a rule that we have to leave church feeling giddy and happy all the time.  Sometimes we may have to leave with some burdens to bear.  So I’m not going to try to dress up death in a pretty outfit so you can forget about what these texts teach us.
    What I do want to say is that in our baptism, we are united to Jesus in his death.  We undergo the death of our sinful ways.  The death of our rebelliousness and rejection of God is accomplished.  The old short-sighted and egocentric self dies in order to be joined to the new self, the true human self, the Second and True Adam, Jesus.  Our new humanity is constituted by being joined to him.  We live in Christ.  Christ lives in us.  We are made new.  This is great and wonderful news.  But that is not the same as saying that we no longer have to face the troubles of the world. 
    I think there is something to be learned here from Jesus’ baptism.  The gospel accounts tell us of the remarkable experience of his baptism in which all three persons of the Triune God are made manifest together as the Son is baptized.  It is a crucial moment of Jesus’ life and ministry, and yet he comes up out of the water only to face some of the greatest trials he ever had to face.  He goes alone, driven by the Spirit, into a deserted wilderness, and great temptations befall him.  He struggles with his mission and Messiahship.  How should his life count in the world?  What kind of Messiah should he be?  It was not easy for him, and it will not be easy for us.  Yet still, because of his example in baptism, and because of the way he embodied that baptism through faithful life, death, burial, and resurrection, we have become united to God through him.
    Would you go on living on your own, alienated from God, if you knew that you could have your life joined to God for every moment and every day?  Would you seek to have the courage to face whatever troubles and trials come, knowing that in all of them, Christ is living in you and you in him?  That is what God is offering to each of us today.  If you have not yet answered the call to unite your life to Jesus, to follow in his way, and to enter with him into baptism that demonstrates our passage from death into life, then there is no better time than today for you to follow Jesus.  Follow him through this vale of tears, through the pervasiveness of death, with hope that God is at work even now to transform this world we live in to become the Kingdom of God, the beloved community, a land where peace and justice reign in the lives of women and men.  Follow Jesus today.  Pass from death to life in him.
    There may be some present today who are struggling with loss and grief.  You have lost a friend, a family member, a spouse, a parent, or some other loved one to death.  You know you are supposed to acknowledge that such a death is a mere passing on to another dimension of life, an entry into the presence of God even more fully than we know on this earth. Still, it does not take away the emptiness and hurt you feel on this side of that transition.  Perhaps you need to turn toward God and ask for comfort and healing as you continue on the road of life that remains for you, before and until the joyful reunion you long for beyond the grave.  If you need to come and cry out for God’s Spirit to fill and heal you, then now is the time to come.  Don’t be embarrassed for having grief.  It means you are human and that you know what it means to love and be loved.  God is a healing God.
    If you live in Durham, but you are not currently united with a congregation, take a moment now to call on the Holy Spirit for guidance.  It may be that God has brought you here today because you should be united to this local body of Christ’s followers as we fight against the pervasive power of death and shine the light of life in the world.  If you feel the calling to join with us in the ministry that God has called us to in this city and this neighborhood, why not go ahead and join with us today.  Amen.
An addendum:  a few words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Whoever enters discipleship enters Jesus’ death, and puts his or her own life into death; this has been so from the beginning. The cross is not the horrible end of a pious, happy life, but stands rather at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ.
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