You can listen to the story here
The doctor who signed her death certificate and I crossed paths in the driveway. We recognized one another from the few times that our visits to the house had coincided. I hadn’t been a pastor for more than about a year and I remember thinking the first time I’d seen the doctor arrive with her medical bag, “at least she has some real pain medication in there.” All I had in my bag was a bible and my tiny, little communion kit. Just some old wine and a few stale wafers. I envied the doctor with her knowledge, her pills, her medicine and her skills. The doctor sighed, “Oh thank-God you’re here! They’re a real mess in there.” As I stood there, wondering what to say to that, I remember wishing the doctor had something in her bag of tricks that could give me the courage to enter the house, I felt like a fool. What was I supposed to do?
This wasn’t my first visit. A parishioner had called me just a few months earlier, “Could I go and visit a friend of hers who was dying; cancer it won’t be long now. She is being cared for at home; she wants to die at home. She used to go to church and now as the end draws near, she wants to reconnect.” Would I please go and see her.”
I knew I was out of my depth from the moment I hung up the phone. I thought this is it. This is the real stuff of being a pastor. This is where they discover that I don’t have what it takes to do this job. Leading worship, preaching, and teaching is one thing, this, this is something entirely different. But the parishioner was insistent, her friend, let’s call her Anna, her friend Anna, you’ll never guess she was once a Lutheran; yes she went to Sunday School, Confirmation, had her kids baptized and even taught Sunday School. But since they moved to Newmarket they had fallen out of the habit of going to church. There wasn’t a Lutheran church in Newmarket when they first moved here some ten, or was it twenty years ago. “Anyway Pastor, she really needs to get close to God right now, so I told her you would come; you will go and see her won’t you, I know she’s not a member, but she really needs to get things in order before she goes.”
Standing there in the driveway feeling like a fool, I said good-bye to the doctor and tried to get myself to go inside.The black van in the driveway signaled the presence of the funeral home; there to collect the body. Her husband welcomed me at the door, fell into my arms and said only, “It is almost finished, they’ll be gone soon.”
He motioned to the stairs and I got the impression that he wanted me to go up. I expected him to follow me. I was wrong. I entered the familiar room. Anna was still lying there. She looked much the same as she had when I’d seen her the day before. I’d like to say she looked at peace, but she did not. Her face was frozen in the same tortured expression, I’d seen the day before. The gentlemen from the funeral home stopped what they were doing and quietly stepped out of the room. I guess they thought I needed some privacy, and I was grateful for the moment to think. Most of you know that I love words. I’m a preacher and a teacher and words are my friend. Words help me to figure things out. Words help me to make meaning. Words give me the stories that give shape to the meaning that I try to make out of the stuff that happens. Standing there in that room, words failed me. There was only silence. ………..
After the silence became unbearable, I shot up a prayer to the faraway god, up there in the sky,“You got me into this! Tell me what to do. Tell me how to help. Where are you when I need you?”
I went out into the hall and wordlessly the gentlemen from the funeral home went about their business and in just a few moments the body was gone.I was sitting in the living room listening to her husband recount the details of Anna’s final moments, when their daughter burst through the front door. After many, many tears were shed it was decided that I should accompany Anna’s daughter to the funeral home the next morning so that she could see her mother. Anna’s husband insisted that the body they had removed from their bedroom was not Anna; Anna had left sometime during the night. Anna’s daughter wanted to kiss her mother good-bye. She was angry that they had not waited for her arrival before taking her mother from her.
Before I left, I reached into the bag of tricks that lurks somewhere in the back of my mind and remembered the words of a wise seminary professor who had suggested that storytelling helped us to make sense out of life and while there is nothing that can make sense out of death, a few good stories made the pain bearable. Stories she would say are as good a way as she had ever found of beginning the healing process. So, before I left, I made arrangements to accompany Anna’s daughter to the funeral home, and I encouraged Anna’s husband to invite members of the family to come by for tea, or a meal, or even a few drinks, just a small get together where they could tell me stories about Anna and we could begin to plan her funeral.
The next afternoon, I accompanied Anna’s daughter to the funeral home. They had done a splendid job of preparing her body. She looked better, less tortured. Anna’s daughter reached for my hand, squeezed tightly and leaned into me. Her whole body began to tremble as she wailed and sobbed. Over and over again I heard, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” and I am ashamed to say that I was grateful that it was Anna’s daughter and not I that was echoing these words. I had no idea what to do, what to say, how to help.
It took some time but her sobbing began to subside and was replaced by something more daunting as even more questions began to leap out of her. “What will I do without you?” “Where are you Mom?” “How can I go on without you?” “Why, why did you have to leave me?”
For once I was glad to have no words. No words only silence with which to reply. Question after question met only with silence until suddenly, Anna’s daughter announced, “That’s not my mother. My mother is not here.” We left together in silence.
When we arrived back at Anna’s home we heard laughter coming from the living room. Eight, nine, maybe ten people, some of them I’d met on previous visits. All laughing and telling stories, stories about Anna, it wasn’t long before her daughter joined them. A glass of wine was thrust into my hands; there was bread and cheese on the coffee table, and casseroles in the oven. Apparently, the neighbours had brought over enough food for a feast. As we shared a meal, we remembered Anna. When the meal was over, Anna’s husband said, “I wish Anna was here, she would have loved this!!!” One of the guests disagreed, she insisted that Anna would have been mortified to be the center of attention, which sent the whole group into gales of laughter at the thought of Anna being mortified on the day of her death. Gallows humour.
Before I left, I had enough words and stories to do Anna proud at her funeral. As I said my good-byes Anna’s husband asked me if I had a favorite flower. It had been a long, hard winter, and I told him that at this time of the year I was longing for spring to finally arrive, so right about now, tulips are my favourite flowers. “Perfect” he said, “Tulips it is.” Then came more stories about how much Anna hated the types of flowers that professional florists concoct for funerals. Everyone it seems had a story about Anna going on and on at some funeral or another about how horrible these contrived bouquets looked. Natural, hand picked flowers lovingly arranged by friends and family that’s what was called for. And as the pastor is longing to see some sign of spring, tulips it is! Everyone was instructed to bring tulips.
At Anna’s funeral, there were tulips everywhere; more tulips that you can imagine. It was beautiful. Tulips lovingly arranged by those who loved her. The tulips and the stories got us all through the funeral of a woman who died much too young. The tulips and the stories helped us to begin the task of making meaning out of the death of a loved one. The tulips and the stories did not take the pain away, nor did they explain the pain away, and they certainly didn’t change the fact that Anna was dead, or that her family would have to go on without her. The tulips and the stories did help us to begin to make meaning out of her death. Together we wept among the tulips and we wept in the midst of the stories and together we began to find words and to make meaning out of death.
Why are you weeping? “Because they have taken away my Rabbi, and I don’t know where they have put the body.” “What am I going to do? What will I do without you? Where are you Mom? How can I go on without you? Why, why did you have to leave me?
Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” She supposed it was the gardener, so she said, “Please, if you’re the one who carried Jesus away, tell me where you’ve laid the body and I will take it away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
If only, all those we have lost and will loose could appear to us and comfort us in our grief. The followers of Jesus were bereft. Their beloved Jesus had been taken from them, tortured, and executed by their enemies.They had placed all their hopes and dreams in Jesus. Jesus had taught them a whole new way of being in the world. Jesus had lived in such a way, taught so challengingly, loved so fully, that in Jesus they had seen an image of God which turned their whole lives upside down. Jesus’ way of seeking peace, not through violence but through justice, opened them to new possibilities. They had dared to dream.They had hope in the face of oppression.They had been willing to follow Jesus into battle. But when Jesus had insisted on living what he preached, most of them had fled in fear, and the horrible truth of their abandoning him, the reality of their failure was more than they could bear.
It is almost impossible for us to imagine because we have been reading the bible, which reads much like those professional bouquets of flowers at funerals, designed to provide answers to the unanswerable, all tied up with neat little bows. Generations of arrangers have taken the stories which have been told, as followers and lovers of Jesus struggled to make some sense out of his death. Generations of interpretations upon interpretations of those stories make it seem as though everything happened just thus and so. Resurrection happened just like that, in the twinkling of an eye. Jesus died. He was not there. They didn’t know what they were going to do. They wept. They trembled. They were consumed by grief. Huddled together in an upper-room terrified that they too would soon be killed. Suddenly, after only three days Jesus is risen. Jesus is risen indeed. Alleluia! Resurrection all tied up in a neat little bow. The perfect bouquet. Smell the flowers and all will be well.
I wonder. I wonder. People do wonder you know. That’s how people are. Questions. Questions. Questions. What’s going on? What are we going to do? Words. Words. Words. For Anna’s grieving loved ones it was, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live.” Words familiar words, designed to help us to make meaning.
For the followers of Jesus, there were also words, familiar words designed to help them make meaning. Words from their sacred scripture from the book of the prophet Hosea, which tells of a time when the people were in anguish, and the prophet comforted them with words, “Come, let us return to the Lord for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
In Jesus they had experienced God as LOVE. Surely, God would not stand idly by and allow their enemies to take Jesus from them. Surely, LOVE itself could not be destroyed by the powers of evil. Surely, their God, the ONE in whom they live and breathe and have being, surely God who Jesus had taught them is LOVE, surely LOVE would not abandon them. Surely LOVE would live.
Questions, questions that have no answers. Questions for which words always fail us. Questions we just can’t help answering with words. Words which are designed to comfort and to satisfy. Words that when all is said and done, fail and leave us with more questions. So, if God is LOVE and we experienced that LOVE in Jesus then where is Jesus? Will we ever see Jesus again? Will we ever see LOVE again? Will the LOVE that lives in us die?
Woman: Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking? “Please, if you’re the one who carried Jesus away, tell me where you’ve laid the body and I will take it away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
We can’t help ourselves when love dies, we keep hearing and seeing that love all around us. It is as if our beloved is right here, in the midst of us. We hear them call our name. They meant so much to us. In the presence of our beloved we were transformed into the best of ourselves.To hear them call our name…ah…the sheer beauty of their presence. Perhaps they can tell us. Perhaps they know the answers.
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned to him and said, “Rabboni! –which means “Teacher.” Jesus then said, “Don’t hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to Abba God.
Are they here? Are they real? Am I imagining Jesus? What is happening? I don’t understand. The followers of Jesus could still feel the impact of his being on their lives. When he spoke, Jesus’ words challenged everything they knew or believed they knew. When Jesus acted, his actions turned their world upside down. When Jesus loved them, they knew the power of LOVE. When they saw Jesus love others, even their enemies, they saw a power in Jesus that was so much more than they could put into words, it was as if Jesus embodied the very LOVE that lies at the heart of everything. When Jesus spoke scales fell from their eyes and they saw things that they’d never seen before. And now, now that he was gone, they could still hear him, they could still feel him. And in seeing him and feeling him all their hopes and all their dreams of a better way of being in the world still seemed possible.
What was happening? Could this be real? It certainly wasn’t neat and tidy. Not with the Romans threatening to annihilate them and the religious authorities demanding that they just shut up and stop causing trouble. But they keep hearing his voice and feeling his presence, and the words, Jesus’ words, continued to challenge everything. Jesus’ presence continued to turn their world upside down.
What was happening? Could this be real? Even Jesus’ enemies where touched by his presence. Even Jesus’ enemies were being challenged by his words. We have the story of Saul of Tarsus to provide us with hints. A scant twenty years after Jesus’ followers struggled with the challenges of Jesus’ absence, the people continued to ask: What is happening? Can this be real? This absence in which we feel the presence of Jesus, can this be real?
Saul himself is touched by this presence in absence, transformed by the challenges of Jesus words, moved to become an Apostle, Paul declares: “Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?” What a stupid question! The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the full-blown plant but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. Then it is given the body God designed for it—with each kind of seed getting its own kind of body. Not all flesh is the same. Human beings have one kind, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. Then there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. Heavenly bodies have a beauty of their own, and earthly bodies have a beauty of their own. The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another. And star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious.”
Words designed to help us make meaning. Words which when all is said and done fail us. So, we turn to more words, other words and craft our stories so as to comfort us. And still the words of Jesus challenge us. And still the presence of Jesus continues to turn our world upside down. What is happening? Can this be real? This absence in which we feel the presence of Jesus, can this be real? Our questions echo the questions of the first followers and lovers of Jesus. Our stories build upon their stories, which were built upon the stories of the ones who had gone before them. None of these stories are neat and tidy. None of these stories can tie every thing up in a pretty bow so that we can present the perfect bouquet which will heal all our pain and answer all our questions. They are just handpicked, slightly askew, bouquets that contain such beauty that we cannot take our eyes of them. They do not answer all our questions, but the really beautiful ones, the ones like tulips after a long, cold, winter, they can capture our imagination and give us the courage to ask our questions and struggle to make meaning of those things which are beyond words.Things like life, death, and resurrection.
About five years after Anna died, I ran into her daughter in the grocery store. I mean it, I actually ran into her. Our trollies collided. We laughed when we realized that each of us had a couple of bunches of tulips in our carts. “Somewhere Mom is smiling,” Anna’s daughter insisted. I agreed and added that it had been a long, cold, difficult winter and the tulips looked so beautiful I just had to take some home. Anna’s daughter nodded and agreed that winter is brutal. She was really looking forward to spring and the tulips would certainly give her hope.
Suddenly, the toddler in Anna’s daughter’s cart shouted, “Who’s that?” Her mother said, “This is Pastor Dawn, she is a friend of your Grandma Anna.”
“And who are you,” I asked the beautiful little girl.
“I’m Anna! I’m free.”
Whether it was free or three it was all the same. This beautiful little girl shared her grandmother’s eyes as well as her name. In her eyes I saw the reflection of Anna’s story, her stories, and her love. After we said our goodbyes, I went back to get more tulips. In Anna’s absence, I felt her presence.
Anna lives. Anna lives in little Anna, and her daughter and in me, and now she lives in you. What is happening? Can this be real? This absence in which we feel the presence of Jesus, can this be real? As real as these tulips. As real as the challenges we experience in the stories we tell. As real as the LOVE we feel in the presence of one another. As real as the LOVE which lives and breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us. In Jesus absence, I feel CHRIST’s presence. CHRIST lives.
Christ lives in LOVE, LOVE which lives in you and in me. CHRIST is risen! LOVE is risen indeed! Alleluia!!!