Title: A wide lapped, weight bearing witness
Text: I Thessalonians 4:13-14
Pastor Judy Howard Peterson
We do not grieve as those who have no hope,
and we do not hope as those who have no grief.
When something longed for is conceived, there is always such great joy. And when followers of Jesus, who had survived the endless religious infighting that is required by those seeking to create the most pure and faultless religion, when those followers of Jesus who had been battered by fundamentalism, legalism and the “required” dismembering of parts of the body, when they finally found a community of Jesus followers who spoke peace to each other, who sought to dwell in unity and not uniformity with one another, when they found those who proclaimed that it is Christ alone that holds them together, it was like the infertile finding two pink lines on pregnancy test.
There was such great hope at that conception. Such great hope that this life would come full term and that it would grow up and grow old. And so when this hoped-for life suffers a miscarriage, it is incredibly painful. And I can testify that the days following the loss of a hoped for life, can be incredibly disorienting and worth no small amount of grieving.
Regardless of what the outcome had been today there is reason for deep grief. Our lovely Covenant Church, this beautiful dream that was conceived by those who longed for a communion that would be an answer to Jesus’ final prayer, that we would all be one, has finally met its match in those who would seek to dismember this body because they believe the Bible is absolutely clear, this time. This beautiful dream whose birth announcement read, “We will be a companion to all who fear Thee. We will be joined in Christ”, this beautiful dream whose baptism liturgy proclaims, “In Christ there will be no divisions among us, neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, conservative or progressive, queer or cisgender and that through Christ’s body and by Christ’s flesh we will find ourselves held together, this beautiful dream that sought to end the dis-membering of the body, has been battered and dismembered by those who care little about the joy found in her conception.
And so we grieve, as we should. But, I want to proclaim to you that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. In our grief we cling to hope because we are people of the resurrected Christ and we know that in Christ, death never gets the last word. In Christ, a resurrected life always follows after death. And this fact remains true here today. Today, we can again proclaim, “Oh Death where is your sting. Death swallowed up by triumphant life.” I know this hope is hard to hold onto when what we have lost is so new in the grave, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope even as we do not hope as those who have no grief.
Last year, in the midst of my own grieving over the suspension of my credentials and the termination of my ministry at North Park University, a former student paid for me to attend a retreat called, “Following Life’s Sacred Thread.” The first evening we were invited to take a string out of a basket and consider what it was speaking to us. My string was frazzled and unraveling. The weekend didn’t really go all that well from there.
I failed the labyrinth. I actually made it all the way in to the center, where I had some candid words with God. As I began to leave I suddenly felt so trapped by the narrow walkways that prescribed only one path, that I had to get out. I was so claustrophobic that I simply couldn’t weave myself slowly out, so instead, I cut straight through all the tall grass and wildflower walls and went back to my room. The silent part of retreat followed the next day. Part of the discipline was to sit at a table with everyone and eat in silence. I cried the whole time because the experience was so much like the “care” and discipline I had been under in the Evangelical Covenant Church, where shunning and silencing was their method of choice. And now, at the table, it seemed once again that everyone was so busy being holy that no one was willing to break their silence in order to ask me why I was falling apart. By the following morning all I wanted was out, I said to one of my retreat partners, “I am done with the church. I want nothing to do with the church. I hate what they have done in the name of the Lord.”
It was shortly after this bold proclamation that we entered into our final spiritual practice. The Spiritual Director who was leading the retreat had us gather outside and invited us to close our eyes and to ask the Spirit of God what shape our body should take. Suddenly my arms seemed to have a mind of their own and they began to lift themselves into a position where it seemed I was cradling something or someone in my arms. As I stood still in that position, listening, the Spirit brought to mind a clear image of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Perhaps you know this work of art. It is one of Michelangelo’s finest sculptures.
The Pietà is a wide lapped Mary, somewhat out of proportion really, now old enough to have seen her son make it to 33 years. Jesus, the body of Christ, is draped over her lap and her right arm bears the weight of death as it cradles her crucified son. You really should Google it, because it is striking. And then, if you look long enough or closely enough you will see that her left hand is upturned, as if holding open the possibility that there is still hope.
We do not grieve as those who have no hope.
As my mind held that image and my body held that posture, the Spirit of God spoke to me, “If you had come across the then body of Christ, battered, beaten, and broken by both empire and temple, what would you have done? Would you spit upon it, kicked it to the curb, stepped over it, or left it behind? Or would you have been like the wide lapped Mary and would you have drawn the beloved body of Christ onto your lap. Would you have commissioned your own arms to hold the weight of that death and would you have been at least one-hand hopeful that death was not going to get the last word?”
Because my love for Jesus is so strong, my spirit so easily and emphatically responded, “I would have wanted to be the wide-lapped weight bearing Mary.” And then the Spirit replied, “And how about now? When the now body of Christ, the church, has once again been brutalized by empire and temple, what will you do now? Will you spit upon it, kick it to the curb, step over it or leave it? Or will you tenderly draw it onto your lap and be at least one hand hopeful?”
And so tonight I want to commission you as the Spirit of God commissioned me. Tonight, let us draw the battered now body of Christ onto our laps and let us not grieve without at least a handful of hope. Friends, our church has been brutalized by the powers that be and we do rightfully grieve, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope because we believe in the resurrection of the body. Would you believe with me once again that in Christ there will always be life after every death.
In Ezekiel 37 the people of God have been hounded and ravaged, they have been plundered and ridiculed and they feel dismembered and torn apart. And here we get a glimpse of the process behind the resurrection of God’s people.
The hand of the Lord was upon Ezekiel and he brought him out to a valley that was full of bones. And I want to begin by reminding us that, if we are surrounded by what has been dismembered, we just might have been brought here by the hand of the Lord. It is here in a place of dismemberment that the Lord says to the prophet, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” Now if I were Ezekiel, I might have been tempted to say, “Good luck? I don’t see much possibility amidst so much dismemberment.” Instead, Ezekiel responds, “Oh Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
And as we remain wide-lapped and weight bearing, can I implore you to humbly retain the Pietist impulse to consider that we just might not know everything that God is doing or even can do. And so tonight as we stand together with the dismembered, who have been hounded and ravaged, plundered and ridiculed, we say, “Oh Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
God then tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, to speak truth to them that they may live. Even though it must have seemed utterly ridiculous to do such a thing the prophet begins to preach to the dismembered. And as Ezekiel prophesies as he was commanded, the impossible, the remarkable and the unbelievable began to happen, a thousand little bones began to come back together. Sinew soon began to cover the bone and then skin began to wrap itself around the frames. Unbelievably the bodies began to come back together. And tonight, may I commission you to be the people who speak with words that reassemble the body of Christ. May we be known as the ones for whom, as much as it is up to us, bring reconciliation where there is division?
Now, I am not saying there will be no division, bringing and being good news of great joy to ALL people is often a dividing line for the most religious. However, having someone else draw a dividing line and being divisive are two entirely different things. And so, may we be the people who always speak words that weave the body back towards itself.
Verse eight continues, “But there was no breath in them.” The bodies had been reassembled, but not resurrected. And I’m here to tell you there is a big difference between reassembly and resurrection. Ezekiel is now in the middle of something far more horrifying than dry bones, he is now in the middle of a sea of corpses.
It’s easy to think that reassembly is better than nothing at all, at least all of the pieces are together in one place. But reassembly without resurrection is actually more grotesque than being dismembered. To put all the Christian pieces together, but to have no Spirit is an ugly thing. To gather together and assemble with no Spirit is not pretty. We need the very breathe of God in us if we are going to be raised from the dead. We must never settle for just staying together, we must seek the movement of the Spirit of God in the midst. My brothers and sisters, my siblings in Christ, together let us seek the breath of God so that we might know the resurrection of the body.
In verse nine, God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as he commanded me and breath entered them, they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.”
I want to remind us this evening, that we as God’s people can create programs and help put people’s lives back together, but only the Spirit of God can actually breathe life back into dismembered people and stand them on their feet once again. Resurrection of the body is only possible if God’s Spirit enters in. Let’s pray for a Spirit-led movement of God.
I know it’s easy in these moments to want to step over or leave behind the now body of Christ, the body that has been brutalized by empire and temple once again. It is easy to feel hopeless when so much seems so lifeless, but with my one handful of hope, can I commission you to be those who would draw the now body of Christ onto your wide and generous lap? Will you trust with me that we don’t know everything just yet about what God might do among us? Will you continue to speak the truth, to prophesy, but only in ways that seek to join together the now body of Christ? And can we together call to the four winds and invite God’s Spirit to breathe life back into this body?
And now as we go on our way, may the God who loved the whole world so much that God simply couldn’t stay away and so God put on skin to come and walk with us, may this God now go with us.
May this God whom we see most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, go before us to guide the way into a life that is a wide-lapped weight bearing witness to the truth that we do not grieve as those who have no hope even as we do not hope as those who have no grief.
May this God go behind us to encourage us that in Christ, life always gets the last word.
May this God be above us to watch over us, keeping us from dismembering the body.
May this God go beside us as our most intimate traveling companion and may Christ’s body hold us together and may Christ’s Spirit raise us back onto our feet.
And may this God go within us to give us the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that makes no sense at all, the peace that comes when together we have more than just one handful of hope.