Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div.,Ph.D. firstname.lastname@example.org
4th Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2021
Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community
Last Wednesday evening Jean and I watched a program hosted by Nicole Wallace of MSNBC. She focused on what she calls “Lives Well Lived” to tell stories about and honor those who have died due to covid. She made the point that we cannot move forward with any sense of honor and decency without focusing our memory on these terrible losses. As she presented the program she invited Rachel Maddow to also reflect on our national tragedy. Rachel said something that still remains with me. She said, “It feels like we don’t have the language to express how to process this loss.” Now, while I understand and agree to some extent that we come up short when we memorialize this year of death, what I want to say this morning is we do have such a language.
Two weeks ago I invited us to focus on and to talk about grief. It is a most human thing to grieve the loss of a loved one. This language starts in memory and in story. And faith takes over when, in the words of President Biden, “There comes the time when a smile on your lips comes before a tear in your eye when you remember the one you love.” To believe in the victory of life over death is to speak the language of resurrection.
First, let’s be honest. Death is loss. We cannot escape this fact. Tragic, unnecessary death has all the feeling of hitting the wall, of being lost in a strange land. And working through loss and grief requires honesty and clarity. Isn’t it the case, though, that when the smile comes before the tear it’s then we understand the language of transformation? Isn’t it then that the message, the words we speak, reveal their dependence on the language of life?
In his book, “I Am the Truth,” the philosopher Michel Henry calls this insight of transformation – living. In our living we find that where we are headed is beyond this life. Our day-to-day living is about believing the truth about our divinely given, eternal journey. Our living is about sharing a language with others that is way beyond institutions, commandments, and what St. Paul refers to as “The Law.” This living, Henry says, is modeled after Absolute Life who is Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Jesus is the language God speaks.
It is why St. Paul could say in the letter to the Romans that the Law is death. In Galatians he teaches that it is the Spirit who guides us in love. The Law has no power over such living – even the law of death.
This morning I chose the language of exiles who return to a new life to guide how we live our faith. This 1st Reading from Isaiah is taken from the section that includes the prophecies about the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem after years of captivity in Babylon. In their history Babylon meant death for Israel because the people were separated from their central place of worship – the source of their living.
The prophet tells the people, “Leave Babylon, run from the Chaldeans. Drink again God’s living water.” This was their language of life overcoming death. The exiles – and remember it was the actual experience of this people – the exiles journeyed from death to life. They remembered this experience. They spoke the language that celebrates the smile before the tear.
Now, listen again to Paul’s message this morning in the reading from Ephesians (2:4):
“God brought us to life in Christ even when we were dead in our sins.”
Remember Paul’s understanding that the Spirit does away with the Law, because Law is death. So whether it’s by sin or by death that we think we are abandoned, we have a language, based upon our living faith, that speaks the truth of God bringing us to life.
The reality of our Lenten journey is that we do have the language that is able to speak of grief and the loss of death with honesty and empathy. This language exists because we live by faith in resurrection which is why we comfort each other with this message.
How does this language gain credibility? Only when we share in the grief and the loss. Only as we walk with each other in the darkness, the loneliness, the separation do we credibly take up the cross. Yes, it’s the language of the experience of exile, the language of the cross that makes it clear that we know what we’re talking about.
The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote a column one year ago on March 20, 2020 just as this lousy past year was getting started. He titled it, “Pandemics kill compassion, too.” He studied the Spanish flu of 1918-1919. He said he wondered why we don’t know more about what happened back then. Why doesn’t our cultural memory keep alive a positive and life-affirming story about American response to that pandemic? What he discovered was people were too ashamed about what they did, or more accurately, what they did not do as 675,000 died. He brought to light the misinformation and division that marked the failure of leadership at the height of that earlier pandemic.
What he found that was positive was the response and the care of public health workers who responded with courage and self-sacrifice to those who were In the grip of that virus. Do you remember the Evergreen Health hospital in Kirkland, Washington? It was the site of one of the first mass death events in this pandemic. Brooks reported that an executive of that organization said in the face of so much death, “We have not had issues with staff not wanting to come in. We’ve had staff calling and say, ‘If you need me, I’m available.’” I guess regardless of the pandemic some things do not change.
To mix the philosopher, Henry, with the teacher, Paul, it is only by the living of the Spirit in and through us that we survive our own losses and the losses of others. We speak the language of transformation because we believe in resurrection.
And here’s where we come to Jesus. Today’s Gospel passage from Mark is what is referred to as the 3rd Teaching of the Passion and Resurrection. Whether or not Jesus’ description here contains his exact words isn’t as important as it does seem that he spoke of his death and resurrection on multiple occasions. All three synoptic gospels relate his teaching on the matter. He prepares the disciples and us for death – his, in particular, but ours as well. He’s the one who calls us to take up the Cross.
Then in 8 words he changes everything. He says, “Three days later the Promised One will rise.” There are 3 days of distance following the loss. Grief follows upon death as we are all aware. But that is not the end. Our language speaks Resurrection – the New Life that follows on grief and death. It is the life of the exiles who return to their center of worship, the life of the Spirit who overcomes the Law that brings death, the living of the Absolute Life – Jesus, the Word made flesh.
Let’s be clear that other languages are out there. There’s the language of self-promotion and self-glory which has no words to comfort the dying. There’s the language of “live for today” which has no horizon for the lessons of memory and history.
The language of transformation is the one that provides the words, “The Promised One will rise.” So, let us covid captives and exiles express words of worship while we live and give praise to our God whose language we speak.
A Prayer (JR)
Gather us, O God, from the captivity of covid. In our land more of our people have died than in all the wars of the last century. We are in grief and at a loss. The limits of our language bring us to your gift-giving presence in this Lenten Season. Open our hearts, our minds, our mouths to speak your Word of transformation. As we walk the path that includes the Cross of death and separation, may we speak again your Word of Life at Easter’s Rising.