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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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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.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thy Will Be Done

A topic I try to cover every semester in theology class is the theology of prayer.  I first introduced this topic to illustrate the theological category of a "practice" which has become more and more prominent in theological reflection in recent decades.  Taking such a familiar concept as prayer gave me the opportunity to investigate the goal or purpose of the practice, the proper means of practicing prayer, the various forms of prayer that make up the general practice, the "rules of the game" that define what is and is not prayer, the virtues required by and strengthened by practicing prayer, the relation of prayer to a more general practice of worship, and the corruptions of prayer in contemporary practice.  I've written about aspects of this conversation at various times in this blog.

Last week in Systematic Theology class, I started down that road in our unit on ecclesiology.  Having gone over various ways of outlining the doctrine of the church, I had ended with McClendon and Yoder as examples of theologians who had turned to practices of a shared life in community as the crucial ways of elaborating on the nature of the church.  I took the low-hanging fruit, prayer, and began to illustrate how to understand it as an example of a practice.

As usual, the students were fairly quickly drawn into the reimagining of this subject in which they had long been immersed and about which they had often reflected.  As usual, I began to take critical shots at common popular assumptions and problematic teachings about prayer.  We addressed the idea of prayer as a consumer activity, of "shopping" with God.  We looked at the ways we have been told that if we do or say or think or feel the right things, then prayer will work out how we want.  I stressed that prayer is not about getting God to change and do what we want, but that it is an opportunity for God to change us and align us with the divine purpose.  Students were offering helpful supplements to my prepared remarks, and all in all the discussion seemed to me very successful as a teaching and learning activity.

Then the conversation turned deep and personal.  One experienced pastor began to describe pastoral experiences in which a young person had endured a terminal illness.  Another spoke of her sister's illness and partial recovery.  I tried to draw upon my own experience of losing Everly to cancer even as we prayed for God's deliverance.  Finally one told of the sudden death of his young son.  We ran up against the limits of prayer as an input-output machine.  Prayer can never be reduced to doing our duty so that God will do God's "duty" to give us what we hope for.

One obvious protest brings up the story of Lazarus or Jairus's daughter or Peter and John in the temple with the lame man, or any number of other divine interventions for healing and life.  If they prayed and God delivered, why can't we?  The unsatisfying answer is that Peter and John and Jesus did not heal every lame person, raise every dead child, or open every grave.  These mighty works were a sign of God the Creator who is able to do all things in the world God has created.  They were not a sign of the reversal of every pattern and system in creation so that none will ever die or be sick in this world, if we just pray hard enough or in the right way, with the right words. 

The asked but unanswerable question remained:  If God acted in those events, why not in my crisis?  The question has many shades of meaning.  One is the question of whether I have failed God in some way and therefore did not merit God's favor.  Jesus challenged that kind of thinking by the synagogue leaders as wrongheaded.  We do not need to be trying to figure out how to blame people who get sick or face disabilities.  We need to be compassionate toward them.  Another shade of this question is whether God has abandoned us.  But God cannot and will not abandon God's creation.  God stands by us even in the most difficult and most evil of circumstances.  God can, but mostly does not, intervene in the events and actions of human life.  How many years was Jesus living in the world?  Yet we know only a few days and weeks of his life.  These highlights, which emphasize his teaching, his confrontations, and his mighty works, might be assumed to be representative of every day of his life.  Or they may more likely be great and memorable times surrounded by and interspersed among many normal days more like our own experiences.  It's not an answer to the question, but a way of trying to think through the problem.

When I am most faithful to my professed method of theological reflection, I link my arguments back to Jesus.  In this case, words from Jesus about prayer become highly relevant, as well as examples of his prayers.  There are many of these stories and teachings in the gospel, and I will not take them all up in this blog post.  We discussed quite a few in class.  For instance, Jesus' "High Priestly Prayer" of John 17 helps us to identify the purpose of prayer--union or communion with God.  Jesus' parables about prayer teach the proper virtues of communion with God (the Pharisee and the Publican) and the trust in God's loving purposes for us (the Importunate Widow and the children's requests for bread or an egg).  Jesus' model prayer in Matthew 6 deserves extensive analysis for its contributions to an understanding of prayer, but let it suffice here to say that at it's core is the prayerful person's aligning herself or himself with the purpose and will of God:  "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth."  It is this sentiment that inspired the name of this blog.

So last week I tried to make sense of this aspect of Jesus' praying:  praying for God's will to be done.  It is not only in the model prayer.  Jesus did not forget his own advice when he found himself in a crisis.  Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, not long before he would be arrested, tortured, and executed, Jesus poured out his heart in prayer.  He asked if the expected sequence of events could be avoided.  He asked if there could be another way.  And he followed his cries with the prayer, "not my will, but Thine be done."  He prayed that he would align his will with the purpose and will of God.  As my friend J. Kameron Carter showed me, it was the prayer his mother taught him.  When we first encounter the young Mary in Luke's gospel, she responds to the pronouncement and promise of God's messenger Gabriel by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  The mother who was willing to align her life with God's purpose taught her son to pray in this same manner.  When he was old, he did not depart from it.

Even here, we run into dangers interpreting Jesus' prayer.  The core prayer is clear--praying for communion with God and the capacity to join oneself to God's purpose in the world.  But what is it that Jesus wants to avoid?  What other options are available to him?  What is it that he ultimately agrees to be the will of God?

Too often, we operate primarily from our position of hindsight.  We overlay the conversation of this prayer with layer upon layer of traditioned interpretation.  We import the revivalist's personal salvation preaching, the early modern construction of spheres of power through the nation-state, the medieval divinely predestined feudal order, and so many potential distortions of race, capital, religion, and violence.  We assume that when Jesus is asking to avoid the abandonment and torture and execution that he is facing, it is God's will that Jesus be abandoned, tortured, and executed.  We leave aside the actualities of a concrete life and let our minds wander among eternal verities and metaphysical principles.  We accept that dangerous theological dictum that Jesus came to die, as if the life he lived was not itself the purpose and will of God.  We turn Jesus in the garden into a mere cypher for an internal conflict within God.  We pretend that one part of God does not want to die, but the other part of God wants him to die.  But this is the wrong interpretation.

What were Jesus' options?  He could continue to follow the path of proclaiming and embodying the Kingdom of God.  This is what had gotten him in trouble.  This is what had aroused the powerful to make plans to destroy him.  This is what had stirred the crowds to follow him and put their hope in him.  This is what had motivated the disciples to be part of his movement.  He had challenged the social order, the economic disparities, the political structures.  They had pushed back and threatened and plotted to end his movement.  Now, at this moment of truth, what should he do?

If it be possible...this phrase represents the question of how to proceed and be faithful.  For Jesus to stand up for the people, to continue his mission, and to do so stubbornly now is going to mean he will be arrested, tried, tortured, and executed as an enemy of the state.  Another option would be to retreat again to the countryside and wait to continue the battle another day.  He has done this more than once in the past, if we can piece together a history from the four gospels.  But for several weeks at least he has been convinced that the time for retreating is over.  He has told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem for a final confrontation, and that it is going to cost him his life.  Would retreating once more be a way of extending his influence and building his movement?  Or would it be a way of undermining the work he had built up thus far?  Would it be a cowardly retreat, or a strategic plan for a long-term struggle? 

A different option would be to walk away from it all.  Jesus could concede defeat.  He could say, "Sorry, I didn't mean it."  He could settle back down to carpentry or join his buddies in the fishing business.  He could be that guy everyone has heard of--"remember who he used to be?"  He could give up on the calling he had previously accepted and renounce his critique of injustice.  He could promise to leave the Sadducees and Pharisees and Herodians alone.  He could even hold a joint press conference to say they had worked out their differences and that he is now in full support of their leadership.  Jesus would not have to deal with arrest and execution.  He could walk away.

Jesus also could reverse his previous position on violence.  He could embrace the popular notion of a Messiah as a conquering king.  Although he had spent his career rejecting and denying that was his way, even at the end telling his followers that he did not come to lord over anyone, but to lead as a servant, Jesus could conclude that it was not working and not worth the cost.  He could get his followers to gather their weapons.  He could stir the crowd which loved to follow him and hoped he would lead them into battle.  He could become that Messiah and fight to the bitter end.  Who knows if he could reach the same success as Joshua or as Judas Maccabeus?  This is what all his people seem to want him to do.  If it be possible...

Then again, he might hope that the people who were his enemies, the ones who were at that very time preparing to arrest him to fulfill the plot they had made, would suddenly change their minds.  Could it be that he would not face their wrath, but they would embrace him?  Certainly that was a possibility in some universe.  But it was unlikely.  And the only way he could find out about that was to go confront them again.

This is the choice Jesus grappled with that night in the Garden.  Should he continue faithfully on the path that he had discerned as the calling of God--to confront injustice, face down the powerful, proclaim a counter-politics and a contrast society, no matter where that might lead or what it might cost him?  Or should he renounce his calling, give up on the struggle, concede the defeat, walk away, turn on his people?  He wasn't choosing whether to accept God's plan for his death.  He was choosing whether to accept God's plan for his life.  Would he be faithful to the end, even if it meant his enemies would execute him?  This is not the same as saying God planned for him to die.  This is saying that God planned for him to struggle against evil without taking up the ways of evil and violence, even if it meant his love for his friends meant he would lay down his life.  God's will is to love.  In Jesus' case, to continue to love to the end meant he died the death of a political enemy.

In a similar way, I think it is possible to reflect on the challenges we face without depending on a predestinarian view of God's will and feeling that we must concede to the chess-game god's next move.  I mentioned earlier the hard questions that we ask but cannot answer.  Just as Job wondered why such terrible things happened, the whirlwind only offered the disappointing answer that there are many things we will not know.  When Everly was sick with cancer, we could not know how the illness would respond to medicine and treatment.  We went through ups and downs, through many pains and struggles, in an effort to see how she might live out her life as anticipated.  At 53, too young for a person to die, she had been stricken.  She faced the difficulty of giving up her career at its peak of success.  She wondered what she could do to build up her children who as young adults still had much to learn from her.  She knew that leaving us behind in the world would mean a harder financial existence and an emptiness in our homes from her absence. 

My own struggles were similar.  How could I support her through her trials?  How could I live without a partner through whom God had always led and guided me?  What kind of life should I have, since so much of the life I had been living was tied up in her career and person?  What both of us had to face was the necessity of living the life we had been called to live in a new set of circumstances.  To the extent that we had heard and responded to God's calling in our lives, then that calling was not changed in this new crisis.  However, it was a new context in which to live it.  Everly came to realize that the time she had available could be best used to build up the people in her life--her children, her family, her friends, her colleagues, and me.  She headed straight into the life ahead of her, following the calling she already knew was upon her.

Knowing the "why" of tragic events often escapes us.  Thus, my theology professor from seminary, William Hendricks, offered a response formed not in certainty, but in wisdom.  He urged us as ministry trainees to learn to convert the question.  We must push past the unanswerable "why?" to the practical "what now?"  What now, O God, would you have me do?  In the new circumstance I face, how do I remain faithful?  If this is what my life has come to, then how can I be the person you have called me to be?

Jesus prayed that prayer in the Garden.  He was up against an unfolding sequence of events that would not go well for him.  Like any sane human being, he did not want to go through the things that now were about to come to pass.  Is there another way?  Can I do something else?  What are the options?  God, help me know what to do.  He concluded that the God who had called him and the Spirit who had annointed him to preach good news to poor people, to set at liberty the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor--this same God who had willed this life for him would carry him through whatever evils and trials he must face to carry out that mission.  God wills for us to take up the mission of Jesus.  May I be always able to pray with him, "not my will, but Thine be done."

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