Grief and Praise: Easter Sermon - John Bergen, April 12, 2020
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Picture the morning.
Picture Mary. She had stood on that hill, she had watched Jesus die, unable to reach out and touch him.
She had stood beside Mary his mother, and his aunt, and the other Mary, and maybe she had never felt more powerless.
Maybe it wasn’t until they took the three bodies down that she realized this was really happening.
Maybe later, holding the other Mary in her arms, she said, “I know I will gain deep wisdom from this grief, I know that by walking this path I will grow, but I don’t want to grow like this!”
Maybe she shouted at one of the disciples to stop telling her about silver linings.
Maybe she felt tired—of death, of crucifixions, of burying friends killed by Roman soldiers, of them getting away with it.
Maybe she is haunted by the fact that she missed the call Jesus made from jail because she was taking a nap after being up all night outside the courthouse, and those calls only go one way.
Maybe she is haunted by those words: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Maybe God is haunted by those words.
Maybe Mary resolves in that moment that she will never forget those words, that every time she shares bread and wine she will remember this broken body. Maybe she resolves that she will make sure his name is never forgotten.
Maybe every time we lift up Jesus’ broken body, we lift up every body broken.
Maybe remembering the broken, refusing to forget, refusing to turn away, is an act of resurrection.
Maybe she goes to the tomb that morning resolving to do something, some ritual, some action, that will preserve his memory. She needs to make some meaning of a meaningless world stuck in the shadow of the cross.
Imagine her shock when the tomb is empty, the body is gone.
Maybe, after running to and from the place Simon Peter is staying, after he comes out and tells her “Yeah, it looks like his body isn’t here” and then he goes home she is too tired to be angry at him and she just stands right there. Maybe, like Job, she refuses to move until God meets her there by the tomb.
Maybe the face of every loved one she has lost flashes before her: Every death from sickness and poverty, every grief too great for words.
Maybe she does not recognize Jesus because his face shines with the faces of every one of those lost loves. Maybe his is the face of every person crucified, lynched, murdered, every person killed because they couldn’t put their hands up fast enough, couldn’t avoid the falling bomb, couldn’t avoid the swinging fist, couldn’t afford the doctor’s visit, couldn’t breathe.
Maybe in the face of her Teacher she sees the great cloud of ancestors and witnesses. Maybe when Jesus calls her name he calls her out from under the shadow of the cross, to a place where love remains beyond death. Maybe she sees a world beyond crucifixions.
Maybe God keeps calling our names, over and over again. Maybe in any moment we can turn and meet God in a place beyond crucifixions.
Back in January, I said that this year would not be a dress rehearsal, that we must lean with all the weight of our souls into what this year would require of us. I do not claim to be a prophet. I did not think we would find ourselves celebrating Easter via Zoom.
In that sermon, I talked about the simple, anonymous bravery of those who fought the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, doing the work knowing they could die, but that the work must be done so that others would not die. I did not know that a few months later many in our congregation, and so many in our world, would go into work every day with that same knowledge and bravery.
Today, we are learning to think, to live, as one body. Some of us for the first time, taking baby steps, learning to make decisions based on the reality of our shared oneness. We are learning to wash our hands, to physically-distance, to wear masks, to pray for each other over Zoom, to drop off groceries, to send money, to protest from inside our cars, to focus on and value relationships above everything else, not for ourselves but because we are all on this life raft together. We are learning that we are not solo saviors, but that we can protect each other. We are learning how to think like a Beloved Community.
We are learning too, many of us, how to sit with our humanness, our powerlessness to protect those we love. This loss of control has become an unexpected Lenten journey, an unrequested spiritual practice of offering grace to our surfacing trauma and loss. We are remembering that we are bodies, that bodies are finite, they get hurt, they carry grief and pain. We are remembering that no one can protect us from our own trauma and grief, that no one else can free us from the tomb.
Some in our community have known these truths and lived in them for a long time, and your wisdom is like the angels rolling away the stone, so that we all may walk out. Maybe rolling away the stone is a collective labor of many angels, but walking out of the tomb is our own personal journey.
A few days ago, my mentor the Reverend Rhetta Morgan wrote to me. She said,
If you love [your people] deeply your heart can crack every time you aim to support. I believe the cracking is a kind of spiritual forging. Can be. We must let our hearts break and breathe in the alchemical process that takes place. We will be different, we will notice a deepening of our capacities to empathize and have compassion. We will notice growing nuance and complexity in what it means to wrap our hearts around people and issues and situations we never could before. Let your hearts break, cry your eyes out. Then make a choice, as many of you do, to pull yourselves together and keep going.
Grief is powerful. It can crack us open, tear us apart, remake us, transform us. But maybe more than that. The writer of Matthew says that when Jesus died the Temple curtain tore in two. That the tombs around Jerusalem split open and the ancestors were resurrected and walked around town. Maybe all of creation was cracked open by grief, and God’s love spilled out in the form of resurrection.
Maybe every grief cracks creation open, and a little bit of resurrection spills out.
Because not only our grief is powerful. So too is our healing, our joy, our praise. In the past few weeks, my grief and my praise have lived side-by-side, sometimes in the same moments. Caring for friends and members of this community, I have felt simultaneously overcome by sadness and fierce hope. I have been witness to people turning to face their own grief and realizing in a shout of joy that it has become their Teacher.
Maybe in these moments of grief and praise, we find ourselves face to face with a sacred Teacher whose love holds the cycles of death and rebirth within us and in our world. Maybe Easter can remind us that resurrection is not only possible, it is a simple fact of our universe: Love will continue to pour out into our world. Death is never final.
Picture the morning.
Picture Mary, her sight and her heart transformed when Jesus calls out her name. When she moves from a world that knows only death and crucifixions, to a world beyond crucifixions. Grief and praise. She was lost, but now she is found.
This morning, we are in the midst of this work. Rolling away the stone together, as far as we can, to imagine a world beyond crucifixions. Calling each other’s names in a sacred chorus. Glimpsing a new world beyond this pandemic and the evils that resign innocent bodies to crucifixions every day.
Each of us has something that grounds us in this vision, that fuels our belief in resurrections. Yours may be a psalm, a scripture, a piece of music, a breath, a place, a person. Whatever it is, I hope you have found time to return to it, dwell in it, let it hold you. Mine these past few months has been a prayer written after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, by a little-remembered Catholic priest from Detroit named Father Ken Untener. It finishes like this:
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
This is what we are about. We are a people learning to walk out from under the shadow of the cross together. The collective labor of rolling away stones, and the individual practice of letting our grief and our praise crack us open so that resurrection may spill out. Lifting up broken bodies as sacred. Imagining, leaning with all the weight of our souls into a world without crucifixions. This is our time of resurrection.