Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The understory

John 20: 1-18
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 21, 2019 – Easter Sunday 

While I was on sabbatical I had the good fortune to experience the onset of spring numerous times. In the four weeks I was in Arizona the weather and the landscape went from cold and about eight inches of snow to upper sixties, blooming ocotillo, barrel, and hedgehog cactuses, and desert golden poppies. As I made my way east from Sedona to Albuquerque to Amarillo to Oklahoma City to Little Rock and Nashville and Hendersonville, NC I saw budding and blooming trees, greening grass, and clumps of daffodils and other early bloomers. On a side trip to Atlanta with Glenna Shepherd I saw spring full-blown in late March: magnolias, azaleas, camellias, even a wild rose bush all in full bloom.

As I drove north from Hendersonville through Asheville and into the Pisgah National Forest, I witnessed the greening understory of the deep, mountainous woods. Early spring is such a tender time. How brave is the mountain laurel and viburnum and yellowroot, and wildflowers like spring beauty and bloodroot and trillium, and green plants like fiddlehead ferns and skunk cabbage when nights are still chilly and the threat of snow and frost is still present.

Anything can happen to that unprotected understory, those first green leaves and early bloomers. One year in Connecticut, on our annual Rosh Hashanah apple picking trip, as the kids and I rolled up to the entrance to the orchard we were told “no apples this fall”. Earlier that year in the spring, there had been a couple of very warm days and all the apple trees blossomed seemingly at once, the flowers fat with their nectar. All it took was a hard frost to freeze that nectar and render it useless. Every time I see the first tender green of spring I think of how much depends on those early few weeks.

And so it was during the third spring I witnessed that I drove through the Pisgah National Forest to Bakersville, NC to find my father’s house. I hadn’t been there since my father died in April of 1985 and I had come back to say goodbye in June after my sophomore year of college. I struggled to identify anything that might have been familiar: landmarks, towns, businesses. I began to cry as I drove up and down the hilly roads and really had no idea why. “Woman, why do you weep?” Memories of visits during summer break and school vacations came flooding back and the understories of our relationship. The tears just rolled down my face.

I questioned my motives. “Why am I doing this?” I knew I would not be able to find any sign of a grave on the property. Half of my father’s ashes were buried behind the house with only a simple rock to mark the space. My stepmother sold the house in 1990 and moved to California. The other half of my father’s ashes are buried in Norwell, MA, beneath a copse of pine trees behind the church where he got sober and started a crisis intervention ministry, the same church where I was ordained.

Why am I doing this? Why do I seek the living among the dead? My father isn’t there. Everything is so unlike how I remember it. It reminds me of invitations to visit the Holy Land. See where Jesus walked; visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church which contains the both the site of the crucifixion and the tomb where he was buried; or the Church of the Nativity built over the cave venerated as the birthplace of Jesus. How could they know hundreds of years later where these events actually took place?

It’s only been 34 years for me and I can’t remember how to find my father’s house. Earlier in March I visited my brother in Tucson and we went on Google Earth to see if we could follow the road east out of Bakersville and find our way to the house. We had no address. All our dad had was a mailing address: box number #326A, Rural Route 4. We zoomed in and followed the road but we couldn’t be sure.

When I got to town (population 459 souls) I went to the Bakersville town hall, a little storefront near where the two main roads crossed. The person behind the desk directed me to the Mitchell County Register of Deeds, located down the street and around the corner. Over the course of an hour the clerk and I searched huge books of deed records to find who had last purchased the house. As it happens, the people who bought the house in 1990 still owned it. I googled their names and found them in the white pages. The house now had an address.

My dad's house, June 1985

But it still had a long rocky, bumpy dirt road leading up to it. I parked at the bottom of the driveway so that I wouldn’t startle the owners or damage my little car. When I got up to the fence, two dogs announced my presence. An older woman came out to meet me. I tried to look as harmless as I could.

I told her my father and stepmother built the house, that I hadn’t been back since 1985, and I wanted to see if it was still here. She apologized for the condition of the house, that they hadn’t kept up with maintenance in a while. I was just thrilled to find it still there. It’s such an odd house in some ways. The hot water is heated in large black-painted tanks behind the skylights in the roof. My stepmother had insisted on a kitchen with a cast-iron cook stove. All of the front rooms have sliding glass doors. It took my stepmother 5 years to sell it. The couple that lives there now were the only people who looked at the house. She said yes when I asked if I could take a photo. She apologized again and said that they love the house, that they love living there. I reassured her and said it’s like the Velveteen Rabbit, careworn and much-loved. I thanked her and looked at the house one last time before walking back to my car.

March 25, 2019

Like the season of spring and that tenuous understory, the resurrection isn’t always triumphant and joyous. It can take time. At times it can feel quite vulnerable and emotional. It doesn’t have to make sense. Sometimes we have to work at it, work on ourselves, have patience, be forgiving, and receive what is offered.

It doesn’t always happen where and when we think it will or hope for. Even when we give up on resurrection, sometimes it surprises us. And yet the resurrection isn’t just for us or about us and our lives. The story of one who is Love enfleshed, Love incarnate, is the human story. A story of pain and sorrow. A story of knowing and being known. A story of healing and wholeness and restoration. A story of justice and compassion. A story of cruelty, abandonment, rejection, betrayal and extravagant grace. A story in which death does not have the last word but rather it is the beginning of another journey. A story in which Love is made visible, real, unbreakable, resilient. A story that can take place anytime, anywhere, in any life.

Jesus is born wherever the vulnerable and marginalized are lifted up and liberated, wherever there is tender new life, whenever we encounter what is good and holy and true in the flesh.

Jesus is crucified whenever human flesh is abandoned in its suffering, wherever people can’t afford their healthcare, their heating and grocery bills, or a safe place to live, whenever queer or trans or black or brown flesh is disbelieved, disowned, dishonored, destroyed, discriminated against. Jesus is crucified when the earth and its creatures are abandoned in their suffering, wherever plastic chokes the earth, wherever water is not clean enough to drink, whenever a lifeform suffers because of human convenience.

Jesus is harrowing his way through hell when we fight for each other’s wholeness and bear each other’s injustice, when we make amends for our wrongs and forgive ourselves and others, when we restore even one who was unjustly accused, who suffered for their human rights, dignity and worth, when we move to restore the earth to beauty and balance.

Jesus is raised whenever hate and judgment have no power over us, when we let go of toxic thinking and behavior, when we celebrate and embrace our belovedness and that of all flesh, when we are freed from our fears and released to love.

Love is our understory, that fragile quality of being alive, in which we’re not sure what’s going to happen, but we know that love makes all the difference.


Benediction – by Howard Thurman

Give me the courage to live!
Really live– not merely exist.
Live dangerously,
Scorning risk!
Live honestly,
Daring the truth–
Particularly the truth of myself!
Live resiliently–
Ever changing, ever growing, ever adapting.
Enduring the pain of change
As though ’twere the travail of birth.
Give me the courage to live,
Give me the strength to be free
And endure the burden of freedom
And the loneliness of those without chains;
Let me not be trapped by success,
Nor by failure, nor pleasure, nor grief,
Nor malice, nor praise, nor remorse!

Give me the courage to go on!
Facing all that waits on the trail–
Going eagerly, joyously on,
And paying my way as I go,
Without anger or fear or regret
Taking what life gives,
Spending myself to the full,
Dead high, spirit winged, like a god–
On… on… till the shadows draw close.
Then even when darkness shuts down,
And I go out alone as I came,
Naked and blind as I came–
Even then, gracious God, hear my prayer:
Give me the courage to live!

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