Delivered at Ames UCC on February 18, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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VIDEO AND IMAGE
How many of you watched the cell-phone footage from the high school students in Parkland, FL, last week? Here’s what one of the teens who recorded them said:
I recorded those videos because I didn’t know if I was going to survive…But I knew that if those videos survived, they would echo on and tell the story. And that story would be one that would change things, I hoped. And that would be my legacy.1
Did any of you see the photo of the woman at the scene with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead?
It was actually a photo of two women and the caption said they were parents waiting outside Parkland’s Douglas High School. One woman is blonde, the other red-headed. The red-head is in the arms of the blonde, her mouth open and her eyes closed, her face pressed against her friend’s chest. The mouth of the blonde woman is pulled tight in a grimace, her eyes barely open. It is her forehead that is marked with an ashen cross.
Her forehead is marked with the same ashen cross so many of us received on Wednesday, too. Earlier on the same day that her child died or was at risk of death, she received the cross of Christ mixed with the oil of Psalm 23, and heard the words “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”
Unlike the teenager with the cell phone video—whose comments are such an indictment of the world we have allowed him to grow up in—we do not know the mom’s motivation for receiving the cross of ash that day. Nor do we know how it is speaking to her now.
I wish we did. I wish I could know how her faith is serving her today. How did it feel when she saw that cross in a mirror later in the day? Has that ritual provided comfort? Has it become a hollow lie? What function does a ritual reminder of mortality serve when every day gives us opportunity to witness actual mortality? And sometimes really gruesome and preventable mortality?
Our story today is about another family confronting mortality, another family in crisis and in mourning: siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
In it, the sisters try to get Jesus to come see their brother as his health fails. When Jesus does finally show, after Lazarus has died, both of the sisters say to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Martha adds that she knows God will reverse the death if Jesus just asks. Jesus assures her that Lazarus will “rise again.” Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” when everyone else does. Martha is essentially saying that, yes, she knows there is a living future for Lazarus, as her faith tells her there will be for all people, but she wants it now. She is affirming the promises of her religious tradition while asking Jesus to subvert them because she is in pain.
I am guessing a lot of people of faith in Parkland, FL, are making the same negotiations with God today. As they did in Orlando and Las Vegas and Charleston and Dallas and all of the other communities who have endured this kind of death.
It is one thing to spend a life expressing faith that we are all safe in God’s hands and another thing to see that such hands do not guarantee safety from assault rifles wielded by a classmate, or co-workers, or a white supremacist, or a homophobe, or a regular-seeming neighbor, or a man with well-documented mental health struggles.
And this story doesn’t help, either. In this story, Martha and Mary get what they want. Their brother is resurrected. Then John, in his heavy handed interpretation of his own gospel, makes it clear that Lazarus was a one-off intended to teach the people about Jesus’ identity.
Now, given that this resurrection only happens in one gospel, I think we can safely assume the story is entirely metaphoric. But still, it is a story about a loved one coming back because of faith in God. It feels cruel to offer a lesson about Jesus’ identity in that form, even as a metaphor.
So what can our scripture offer that ashen and ashed mom today?
Not much. This gospel does not offer her much. Her child will not be resurrected. None of the children and adults who have died in the 1,607 mass shootings since Sandy Hook will come back, no matter how strong their families’ faith proves to be.
I would say, instead, that it is the image of the ashen and ashed mom that is the gospel today.
During my sermon after Sandy Hook I described God’s presence with each child and adult as they fell. As each went down, God was there. For all of them, all of them as individuals, all at the same time, I asked the congregation to imagine hands catching shoulders and heads, softening the landing after the bullets’ terrible blows.
And then remaining.
Imagine holiness, in the shape of a human or star shine, whatever makes sense to you, remaining steadfast by the dead, all of them as individuals, all at the same time, until human love and help and sorrow could arrive.
The cross on that mom’s forehead says the same thing. It affirms God’s presence in even the greatest man-made horrors. But it says even more.
I had planned to preach today on Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman was a pastor and professor and mystic who lived from 1899 to 1981. He inherited his Christian faith from his mother and his grandmother.
Thurman’s grandmother, though, was born a slave. And she taught him that not all of the Bible is gospel: She promised God that if she were ever to be free she would never again tolerate hearing the Pauline letters because they had been used to justify her captivity.
Mrs. Thurman never learned how to read. She could not read the Bible for herself, encounter Jesus on her own in that way. And she had to endure her master’s pastor preaching happy enslavement. She had every reason to abandon God in Christ Jesus, to see him as another kind of whip and shackle, another abominable lie.
But that white man was not her only access to God in Christ Jesus. She also had a secret slave minister, someone who against all odds had heard the truth of God’s liberation in spite of the perversion of human domination. The secret minister told her and her fellow property, “You—you are not (n******). You—you are not slaves. You are God’s children.”2
The image of that ashen and ashed mom preaches the same thing today.
The good news of that image is that holiness never abandons us, never leaves us alone in our suffering. This image is the secret minister to all of us, all of us who are held captive to our nation’s collective failure to reverse a lethal system of social isolation, tribalism, and the privileging of ownership over safe homes and mental health care.
That mom’s grief and her rage while literally under the symbol of life’s capacity to flourish in spite of human death-dealing proclaims, “You—you are not destined to be statistics. You—you are not less important than money and political power. You are all God’s children.”
And God’s children are not to be trifled with, are not to be denied.
Be it through acts of public grief like Mary and Martha, be it through the will of a desperate slave mother like Hagar, be it through a leader of escaped slaves like Moses, or be it through Jesus’ table of friends and betrayers alike, God’s children will always rebuke wrongful death and God’s children will once again topple false masters.
1Burch, Audra, Patricia Mazzei, Jack Healey. A ‘Mass Shooting Generation’ Cries Out for Change (New York Times: February 16, 2018).
2Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976, p. 39