As many of you know, my beloved, feisty, 97 year old grandmother died on Tuesday. And, so I begin this letter to you on a plane roughly half-way between Minneapolis and Maui, on a flight I had not planned to take. But, life and death happen--and so, here I am and here you are (well, technically, at this precise moment I hope that I am still asleep because, you know, time change). As Michael Moore, said, a letter for a sermon was what the church used to rely on for edification--and so, consider this an epistolatory sermon in the style of Paul...
In which case,
Theophilis, aka Gretchen, I bid you peace and ask that you convey my greeting to any who are new to the church.
As I prepared to write this sermon, rather, letter, I turned to a sermon I wrote three years ago on this text. And, to my surprise, it was the sermon I needed to read in this moment as I mourn the loss of Tutu.
In that sermon, I detailed a “Call the Midwife” episode in which the main character mourns the loss of an elderly patient she had grown to love. And, through the loss of this patient, she realizes that love is worth it. That opening herself up to the risk of loss and heartache is worth the great and holy gift that is love...that if she is to truly live she must also learn the gift that suffering can bring--that suffering, being the result of living, engaging and loving others, is worth it.
The pain is worth it, the grief is worth it. The risk of loving is worth it. Almost 20 years ago, I remember lying on my grandmother’s bed before leaving to go back to the mainland, she was patting my back as I wept and I remember feeling embarrassed to cry in front of her--but I could not help but weep. I was all too aware that, as she closed in on 80, it was entirely possible that this woman I loved would die before I saw her again. And, so, as I cried she comforted me--and this memory is a comfort to me as I return home to mourn her death.
And, I realize that if I had been too afraid to allow myself to be vulnerable in front of my grandmother, I would never have received the care that brings me such comfort now.
Grief, love, sorrow and pain--all intermingling and all understood by the God who loves us as we are, a God who suffered as we suffer and rejoiced as we rejoice. I claim this understanding of suffering, on the part of God, as critical to my own life of faith--in many ways, I am a Christian because I serve a God who understands both how hard it is and how wonderful it is to be a human being. In the letter to the Hebrews, Paul testifies that “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness”.
I have shared before that when I need to imagine the God incarnate it is the image of Michelangelo’s “La Pieta” that I meditate upon--this sculpture of Mary holding the body of her dead son becomes, for me, an image of God holding us in the midst of our suffering.
And, as I meditate upon this image--I find myself further comforted that, in the midst of my own grief, and new as I am to this church, I have a community here that holds me--holds me in prayer and love and in understanding. This understanding is a gift. Here we have a community of people who who know what it is to be weak and know what it is to grieve and know what it is to rejoice--and in that knowing are able to deal gently with each other as Christ dealt gently with us. Look around, there are people here who understand suffering because they too have suffered--they will weep with you and be with you in the hard times...if you let them.
People often wonder what it is I “get” out of going to Church--and my response is that I get to be part of a body of people who, in its best moments, is able to bring the love of God to fruition in the world.
And, if I were ever asked to give a stewardship testimonial (thank you Emily and Anthony!) that would also be my response about why I give financially in order to support the church--it’s a place where real people can come together to try our best to love each other and heal the world, and where we can be loved even when we fall short. We are in this together...
For, who here hasn’t wept at the pain of loss? Who here hasn’t celebrated a birth or mourned a death? Who here hasn’t paused in their perusal of the newspaper in awe at the horrific things that we as human beings are capable of doing to each other, and in wonder at the kindnesses we can show? We love as Christ loved and suffer as Christ suffers because we are human. And, because we are human we are the children of God and because we are the children of God we are wrapped in God’s embrace throughout our lives, our losses and our loves.
And, this is a love that knows suffering, this is a love that has been broken, this is a love that has endured, this is the love that looks upon us in the midst of our imperfection and failings and STILL LOVES US. This is a love that deals gently with us because it is a love that knows what it is to suffer.
Once again, that phrase from Hebrews, “He is able to deal gently” with us. And, so in the Gospel today, we hear Jesus deal gently with his disciples. In their fear and in their anxiety they began to argue amongst themselves over who was the greatest.
And, as I picture their arguing, I imagine it was easier to argue than weep over what was to come. So in their grief they lashed out at each other--asking for something that did not matter, in the face of what really did matter. So there they are, the brother’s Zebedee, ”Jesus I believe, reward my belief”.
And there Jesus is, responding with a reminder of all that will come and resetting their priorities...“you do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Now, this is not a call to seek out suffering but rather it is a call to share in Jesus’ own calling--the calling to be a human being and the calling to serve. Because, if we are human we WILL suffer and the grace in that is our ability to serve others who suffer. Called out of our shared humanity and shared love to live with empathy and compassion for all of the beloved children of God.
The next leg of my flight is boarding now, so I need to sign off...and e-mail this to Gretchen before I get on the plane!
I remain, yours in Christ,