sidling up to death: an easter sermon

Sermon 4-21-19: EASTER

Luke 24

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

For several years, my mom worked as a hospice chaplain. What that meant was that day in and day out, she was spending hours in the homes of people who were actively dying. Death was, during those years, a constant companion – both for Mom and for the rest of us. And as anyone who has spend significant time in death’s presence knows, you either get comfortable with it or you…lose it. Gallows humor is some of best – and worst – kind of humor. Those of us who don’t spend our days sidling up next to the end of life are often offended or confused by the ways that hospice workers, ER staff, and funeral directors talk about death.

For those years that Mom was working as a hospice chaplain, our family found ourselves learning how to sidle up to death and enjoy a little gallows humor – because what other option is there?

I would regularly call Mom – just checking in on a random weekday afternoon – only to hear her answer in a whisper, ask me to hold on a minute while she moved from a sickbed filled with family singing or praying or chatting out into a living room or front yard. “Mom!” I’d protest – “You don’t have to leave the dying to say HEY to me!” “Oh,” she’d say “he’s dying but he’s not dead yet. It’s fine. They’ll be in there a long time, yet. What’s up?”

The best hospice encounter, though, happened one Saturday morning when I went out to breakfast with my parents in Roanoke. We walked into the restaurant, and before we were even seated, Mom made a beeline across the room to greet someone. This was weird: in my family, you introduce everybody to your people. It wouldn’t have been weird at all if she said “Oh, there’s Patti. Come on, y’all, let me introduce you!” But Mom did not do that. She didn’t even look at Dad and me, just walked over, put her hand on this woman’s shoulder, leaned over and said something, then walked back to our table, where we’d been sitting. “Who’s that?” I asked Dad. “I have no idea!” he said, just as confused as I was.

When Mom sat down, Dad and I looked at her, concerned and confused. “Who WAS that?” we asked. “Oh,” replied my mother, the HOSPICE chaplain, who sat day in and day out with patients whose lives were on the verge of ending, “that was a former patient.”

Dad and I took one look at each other and cracked up. Mom doesn’t HAVE FORMER patients, we both thought. Her former patients are…DEAD. We laughed until we couldn’t catch our breath. Ridiculous, that a hospice patient would be sitting there across the room eating pancakes. But Mom, sort of annoyed at us but also enjoying the joke a little, too, just said, “it happens.”

What Mom knew that Dad and I didn’t is this: sometimes, people who enter hospice care leave it without dying. Sometimes, people improve. Sometimes, the ones who draw close enough to death to see its eye-teeth end up, months later, sitting in small-town diners sipping their coffee and putting ketchup on their hashbrowns.

Mom knew that, because she spent her days sidling up close to death. She knew what it looked like, what it smelled like, its contours and its unpredictability. Dad and I, both resistant to even our regular physicals because we don’t like doctor’s offices or the possibility of bodies that slow down and give up on us, did not know. We thought it was hysterical.

//

I’ve been thinking about aloe and frankincense and myrrh, lately. That, by the way, is what you might smell in the sanctuary this morning – aloe and frankincense and myrrh – they are the oils and spices that the women who had followed Jesus so faithfully brought to the tomb that Easter morning.

Why were they bringing burial spices that morning, while it was still dark? Hadn’t Jesus already been buried in the tomb? Shouldn’t all of that have already happened?

The answer is yes. Jesus died around 3pm on Friday and for his friends, family and Jewish community, the Sabbath began at sundown. The sabbath meant no work, no travel, no commerce. It meant that no one would be able to prepare Jesus’ body between sundown on Friday and sun-up on Sunday. If you weren’t versed in the burial practices of the day, you might not know what a big deal that was – this inconvenient sabbath day looming over the grief and trauma of crucifixion.

Jesus’ body would need a lot of attention: to be removed from the cross, anointed with oils, wrapped in linen cloths, treated with spices that would cover up the odor of death and begin the work of preserving flesh. That work was women’s work: they were the ones who knew what happened in death, because they were the ones who went out to buy the spices and the linens, washed the bodies, anointed them with sacred oils, tenderly cared for the flesh of human life captured by death.

And these women knew that they were on a pressing timeline. Jesus died around 3pm. The women did not linger at the cross: they knew what to do in the face of death, and they hurried over to the market. They needed myrrh and frankincense, aloe and linens, and if they did not buy them now – this afternoon, before the sun set and sabbath arrived – they wouldn’t be able to do what needed to be done until Sunday. By then, Jesus’ body would already have begun to decay, already have begun to resist the tender mercy that these women knew how to provide.

The artist Jan Richardson has created a series of prayer icons, following the hours of daily prayer and the work of Mary Magdalene during that last week of Jesus’ life on earth. This one is called “Shopping for Spices.”

blog-ShoppingForSpices

The women went out, bought the spices, did what they could in the face of death, took care of what there was time to take care of, and then hunkered down to rest, grieve and pray their way through that Holy Saturday sabbath.

In the morning, while it was still dark, as soon as they could, they made their way to the tomb. They had spices in hand: tools of their ministry, exactly what was needed when your responsibility is to sidle up next to death, look it in the eye, and understand its depth and implications. They arrived but, to their amazement, the tomb was empty. Two men in dazzling clothes appear and ask “Why do you look for the living among the dead?! He is not here; he is risen.”

And these women – the ones who know what death looks like, what death smells like, what death involves and what death requires – run with their story to tell the rest of Jesus’ friends, the men who were still gathered together, still mourning, still trying to get their minds and their hearts around what had happened. They proclaim, with joy, that death has not taken their friend: He is risen! The women proclaim this gospel, the first preachers, the first witnesses to resurrection, and the men DO NOT BELIEVE THEM.

In fact, when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the Mother of James tell the male disciples what they’ve seen, the guys think it is “an idle tale.” That word, in the Greek, is more derisive than it sounds in translation: it is LEROS, which means “the delusional talk of someone suffering from deep illness.” The disciples, upon hearing the women’s profession of faith, the announcement of resurrection, the Good News that the God they had committed themselves to was powerful even over DEATH, assumed the women were hysterical.

//

It is not a stretch for us to imagine that response from the disciples: even today, two thousand years later, our own denomination has only ordained women as preachers of the gospel for 60 years – a mere 3% of our history as Brethren. And I know all too well that there are still hundreds of pulpits where I would not be welcome.

Women are not the only ones whose voices are considered untrustworthy these days. Think about the confessions of suffering and proclamations of justice that our culture has shushed and derided in just the last few years:

“Me too.”

“Black Lives Matter.”

“I can’t breathe.”

“Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Think of the people in Flint, Michigan, who still do not have clean water and whose voices have been drowned out by callous politicians and distracted citizens. Think of the water protectors at Standing Rock, decrying the desecration of the land that has nurtured and held them, or the people in Southwest Virginia who have lived in treehouses to protest pipelines through the mountains. Think of queer siblings in the US church who name the ways that they have been hurt and harmed by hateful theologies and practices. Think of Eliseo, and other undocumented people whose voices get silenced by threat of arrest and deportation.

All of these people have seen suffering, have witnessed death. They are crying out, testifying, lamenting, naming exactly what is wrong and exactly what is needed. And so often, their voices, their protests, are dismissed as delusional, hysterical, shrill.

We are still very good at dismissing the testimony of the ones closest to suffering. But if we are people of the resurrection, perhaps those are the voices we ought to be paying the most attention.

//

It strikes me that the women may have been the ones to witness the resurrection and become the first preachers of the gospel exactly because they were the ones who were not afraid of suffering, the ones who chose to sidle right up alongside death. They were the ones who moved toward the dead body, who took pains to care for Jesus’ wounded flesh, who went out and bought spices and linens and oils in order to love their friend in death even as they had in life.

Imagine, if the first folks to the tomb that morning were people who had never entered a tomb before. Imagine if the first people there were folks who didn’t know what spices were for, what a dead body looked like, or how it would smell. Imagine what the story would be like if the first witnesses of resurrection were people who didn’t know, intimately, the differences between a live body and a dead one.

These women walked right into the tomb, unafraid. They brought spices because they EXPECTED to encounter death. They knew what death entailed, and its sights, smells, and implications did not deter them from sidling up next to it. In order to become the first witnesses of resurrection, these women had to willingly walk themselves into the reality of death, grief, and pain.

Maybe…just maybe, in order to witness resurrection, we, too, might have to learn to be less afraid of death, less afraid of suffering. And maybe it is safe to say that the ones among us who know death and suffering most intimately are the most trustworthy source to speak to us about healing and resurrection.

//

I don’t know what spices to use to prepare a body for burial. I had to google that question in order to figure out what spices to diffuse this morning. I didn’t know, until my dad and I laughed at my Mom that day, that people could graduate from hospice care without dying, could be former hospice patients still alive and well and eating pancakes.

I didn’t know because I have not spent that much time sidling up to death. Death is scary…terrifying, really. But this resurrection story invites us to consider an alternative. This resurrection story invites us to draw nearer to suffering and death, to show up in hard places, to stick around when the ones we love falter. And this resurrection story gives us the courage to do it, too:

Because, after all, isn’t this the Word, the Truth, the Gospel, the Good News: that the One in whom we live and move and have our being, the One who created us and knows every hair on our head, the One who sent Jesus to walk among us and love us with a love that will not let us go, isn’t this the One whose grace transforms shame and suffering, whose perfect love casts out fear, whose power conquers even death?

The women witnessed resurrection, and proclaimed it. The grave has no victory, death no longer has power over us. He is not here; he is risen! Alleluia! May the gospel embolden us as it emboldened them. May we find courage to proclaim it even when others refuse to believe. May we find courage and strength to get proximate to suffering, to sidle right on up to death, secure in our knowledge that Christ has risen and love conquers even death.

Amen.

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