Sermon for Milledge Avenue
June 26, 2022
“Hope Is Up to the Challenge”
It is good to be in Athens. It is good to be in Athens, even if it is not a day in the fall, fresh off an impressive win. Even as the landscape changes, as businesses come and go, and as the people I have known and loved have moved as I have moved, as my family has moved, it is good to be home. And though we have not lived here for years, I know that some of you may know more about me than should be shared with those who do not know on this Sunday morning!
It’s good to know that in the surrounding neighborhood, old azaleas peaked with blooms anew a few weeks ago & that were it not as hot as it will be today, picnic tables aplenty would be available for lunch just a few curvy streets away. I like to think about the fact that also nearby, a sleepy bear, several roaming deer, too many inquisitive reptiles, and a few screeching owls serve as good representatives of the human population in this city.
It is good to be in this place. It’s good to remember the 3-on-3 basketball tournaments in which my Dad and Franklin Scott, both campus ministers at the UGA BSU/BCM, and your former, former pastor Buddy Revels competed against more fit and agile, but also more cocky and unwise college students. I think those three referred to it as their “Ministry of Teaching Humbleness.”
It is good to be in this place too because I need to say thank you. Thank you for being a sanctuary for many in this town. Thank you for being a sanctuary for me as I grew up, but also when I was in college. I grew up at First Baptist Church, but I knew that Milledge Ave, a sister church, would be here for me if I needed your people. Thank you, today, for giving me a chance to come home.
Thank you for giving space for Ginny Dempsey to minister. She preached at First Baptist as a graduating high school student and I’d like you to know I listened to her as the YOUNGER student. No matter the number of years ago, I still remember her sermon: “A Childlike Faith.” With those words, I have never forgotten the freedom she gave me to approach God with the confidence that it was okay for me to make that approach.
Thank you for giving Nathan Byrd a pulpit. He has always had plenty of words to share. As a child, I remember that he too, let me know that I mattered to God because Nathan Byrd has that way of talking to you as though you are the only one in the room and that for whatever amount of time you found yourself in conversation, you were who mattered to him the most.
Thank you for allowing them time to be with friends in ministry. Being a minister in ANY church is hard right now and it is good to share the joys, stresses, and griefs with those who care in the same way.
Kate Braestrup is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, and for those of you who do not know why a chaplain would work for a fish & wildlife warden, (I only now know because of finding her story,) a chaplain for a warden service responds to outdoor events where tragedy has occurred.
In her story, “The House of Mourning,” Braestrup tells two narratives about deaths in which she was involved. The first death is her husband’s. He was a police officer killed in the line of duty. She shared that while the instinct of those around her was to protect her from seeing his body, she recalls a sense of urgency to tend to him, to clothe him, but she’s met with a great deal of resistance. So she reminded for her cautious colleagues the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus saying, “Mary Magdalene didn’t have to overcome the protective skepticism of the disciples in order to [see and touch and anoint him].” Braestrup also notes, “nowadays we’re persuaded that it’s the presence of the body, not its absence, that is most distressing.”
Her second story is even more heart wrenching. It is a parallel story of a child wishing to see the body of her young cousin and best friend after an ATV accident. After careful thought and discerning from Chaplain Kate and the child’s parents, the unfolding of the decision to allow this to happen is a beautiful story. Braestrup shared her final thoughts: “You can trust a human being with grief. Just walk fearlessly into the house of mourning, for grief is just love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, love is up to the challenge.”
Grief, like the word love, has many forms. And like love, it is defined by time and place and relationship. Grief gets complicated because it also has tag-along emotions like anger, loneliness, and regret. Grief has stages.
As a hospital chaplain, grief floats around regularly and in many of its different forms: Grief of tragic loss, grief from the anticipation of a death that will be—those are pretty obvious to identify. But there is also grief around loss of time, the loss of a child’s naivety, the loss of someone’s ability & autonomy. Grief also arises when a family realizes that people who they thought would offer support and comfort do not do so. Grief accompanies the joys of healing. On the path of recovery, families discover that their lives will not be what they once were and that the family will need to find a new way in order to make way for the rehabilitation and care of one who has suffered injury.
A few weeks ago, when I read the lectionary passages for this Sunday, I felt the grief in the verses. You might say that my job would set me up for such an interpretation, but I do believe that we—the collective, worldwide, human “we”—are grieving in many ways right now. We are not all in the same stages, and many of us are in a stage of anger, but grief is fresh within us right now. If we love, we grieve. If we care, we grieve.
Can’t you feel the building emotion in the story of Elisha and Elijah? “Shh,” Elisha says to the companies of prophets. “Shh…I know it is coming, but shh, leave me be so that I can be with him in peace.” And when the moment finally comes, there is no more quiet. Waters are parted, the movement of the pair is halted, and in a fiery whirlwind, a chariot pulled by horses swoops down and carry Elijah away. With palpable emotion, Elisha tears off his clothes and cries out in mourning.
The story from Luke’s gospel this morning gives us a four more “grief settings,” with foreshadowing of a fifth. There is grief in rejection, grief in home-less-ness, grief in death, grief in saying goodbye. And in Jesus’ face, set to Jerusalem, the place where it will end before it will begin anew, there is grief of what-is-to-come—anticipatory grief.
But Jesus doesn’t give us what we want, does he? We want fire for our anger from rejection. We want to hear words of gladness from our commitment; we want time for ritual; time for goodbye. Jesus doesn’t pay attention to our feelings, he doesn’t acknowledge our “shh-es.”
Instead, Jesus responds with rebuke and parabolic statements that incline us to think we should be learning something big here. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head; let the dead bury the dead; no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I am not sure how many emotions Jesus felt. Did Jesus ever crave a sweet treat? Without a doubt, I know that Jesus experienced grief: Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus. Without a doubt, I know that Jesus cared for those who were grieving: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matt 5:4) And I believe that a grieved Jesus flipped over some tables, pained from seeing the People of God misuse the Temple of God.
In so many of the stories of healing, there is a sense that Jesus recognized the grief of those who have come to him. I think of the men lowering their friend through the roof, of the woman who reached in desperation for Jesus’ cloak, even the woman who approached Jesus for her dying daughter. Jesus acknowledges their faith, yes, but he also seems to understand their varying burdens of grief, doesn’t he?
The pairing of this story of Jesus and the story of Elijah and Elisha is easy to see because the parallels between Jesus and Elijah are easy to draw. Remember, some even think Jesus to be the returned Elijah. But there’s another text with Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings that also pairs well with this text.
It’s when Elijah first approaches Elisha. Elisha is at the plough, working in the field with 12 yoked oxen. Elijah places his covering—his mantle—over Elisha and Elisha drops his plough and rushes to greet and kiss Elijah and tells him, “I’m going to follow you.” But first, Elisha says, let me just go tell my mother and father goodbye. He does so. He slaughters the ox with the hardware of the yoke and they all eat, along with a group of other people.
Elisha commits to following Elijah. The plough disappears. The oxen and the yokes disappear. The burden is lifted and the path has changed. The connection points between Luke’s passage are there… But, it’s different…a goodbye occurs.
The later passage also includes time for Elisha to express his grief, through denial and in loud angst.
Why has Jesus ruined this parallel? Why does Jesus seem so contradictory in the story in Luke? Has Jesus changed?
I don’t believe that Jesus has changed, but it is clear that his direction has. His face is set to Jerusalem. In this passage, we are made aware that Jesus is aware of time. Jesus understands and will teach, and is teaching us, that not all of our grief will be healed on earth.
Elisha picks up the mantle of Elijah and crosses back through the parted waters of the Jordan. He does more than look back…he goes back! But he doesn’t return to the plough or to the yoked oxen. His path is different and he carries with him the mantle of Elijah passed to him. God’s breath, God’s spirit, or as defined by the Hebrew word, “ruah,” is now within Elisha.
Jesus didn’t ruin the parallel, he carried it to the cross. By his death, and in the difficult passage of time until his resurrection, Jesus acknowledges that there will be moments of immense sadness, darkness, heavy clothes-tearing grief. There will be times of grief from divisiveness. And we will cry out in palpable devastation: “Come now, oh Lord.”
“Have you forgotten me? Can you hear me? Do you reject me?”
We will cry out, “Come now, Jesus.”
But by his resurrection, we are filled with God’s spirit, and we recognize that there is hope for our mourning. There is hope for our anger. There is hope for our loneliness, our regret.
God’s kingdom and our hope is in and among the weaving, through Old and New, through the Now and the What-Is-To-Come. And grief is a kingdom-thing: “Blessed will the mourners be when they enter the kingdom of heaven.”
It is as Henri Nouwen says, “Ultimately mourning means facing what wounds us in the presence of One who can heal.”
We have hope for an end to our grief because we have hope for reunion. We also have hope for an end to our grief because we have hope for reconciliation. We have hope for the healing of all that wounds us.
And this lesson in Luke is not “Thy Kingdom Come so that we don’t have to do any hard work on earth as it is in heaven.” By his life, Jesus teaches us just how to go about this work. And Luke is about to share with us the biggest gut-punch of a love-your-neighbor lesson in just a few more verses. (A certain Samaritan is about to perform an incredible show of radical hospitality. It’s titled: “A good neighbor relieves grief and restores hope.” The subtitle is: “Why Jesus didn’t want you to set the village of Samaria on fire, James and John.”)
There are many in this world today who ask as Job asked, “Where then, is my hope? Who will see hope for me?” We will see hope for you, Job. We will see hope for you, neighbor.
We still have work here. We still have to walk into houses of mourning, but fear not: it’s just love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And love, and hope, are up to the challenge.
Let us pray.
Oh God, there are many who are hurting. And God, the burden some days seems so overwhelming that we just stay where we are because we don’t know where to begin. God, you are where we begin. Remind us of your constant love, your covenant. Remind us that your kingdom can be here on earth if we just try, if we just love, if we just show a little more kindness. God, let us impart hope into this world, because it is as your kingdom will be. Oh Lord, we are grateful for the hope that you give us in this today and in our tomorrows.
In your name we pray, Amen.