Matthew 16: 21
From that time forth began Jesus to show to his disciples, how that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again on the third day.
I recently wondered – how many times did Jesus actually predict his death? – did he really know how and when, and did he appropriately inform others? It turns out that yes, at least three times he said, in so many words, “I am going to suffer and die and be raised again.”
Today’s scripture marks the first time he says it out loud, straightforward, and not to be misunderstood. The apostles are still a bit clueless. In the scripture immediately after this he gets in a nasty quarrel with his pal Peter who just refuses to hear the gloomy news about his friend and leader. Jesus calls him out and basically says Face it Peter, I’m going to die even if you don’t accept it.
I don’t know about you, but I know that some of the most challenging times for me have been hearing the news that someone I love is dying, or is just gone without warning. And actually what I could not predict in my own experience was that Death would be relentless and that resurrection as a calling would become a practice I would come to construct as an act of faith to get through this past decade of my life. The challenging truth is that I could not practice resurrection without accepting that there’s been a death of someone or something, or even metaphorically speaking, of myself.
Several years ago, the medical community predicted my mother’s death. After her frail self got literally blown off the steps of her church by a 45-mph gust of Buffalo’s wintry wind, she suffered a broken arm, a fractured pelvis, and after routine tests, the very scary picture of a tiny black dot on her lung. We had never seen mom suffer such a physical blow but we were more scared about that black dot than we were the months of rehab she was about to face. My father, sister, brother and I all stood shoulder to shoulder at her bedside and blew back fiercely against the C word. After hours of waiting for the verdict, the doctor came and said, “It’s nothing to worry about.”
Nine months later the black dot had grown into a checkmark for the first prediction. Your mother has lung cancer, they told us. We can do a course of chemotherapy and then radiation and see how she does.
Six months later came the next prediction. We can try surgery and try to remove the cancer, they said. Filled with cautious hope, I took the week off work and flew up to New York to be with her.
I was a year into my “Interim Directorship” at the massage school after Paul Davenport, the director and owner, had suffered a debilitating heart attack shortly after my mother’s fall. I was super-stressed-out and 7 days, 7 nights and 2 Sundays was going to be an eternity in terms of holding off on my growing responsibilities at the school. As soon as I saw my mother, however, I sidled up close to her on the couch and stayed very present.
The third prediction came the morning of the scheduled surgery. “Your mother is too weak and the cancer too far progressed. We fear that we will jeopardize her -more than help her – if we cut into her.”
And then, there it was: “Your mother has less than six months to live.”
Honestly, my friends, it seems silly now, but none of us – not my mom, not my dad, nor my sister, nor my brother, nor I – had asked the question from the start:
“How long before she suffers, dies and is buried?” Like Peter, we just ignored what we didn’t want to accept and went on believing she would live for an eternity.
This was Spring 2010 and by mid-summer that year my mom was getting closer and closer to the end. I could hear it in her voice when I talked with her on the phone. As the end of July neared, I prayed she’d hang on while I finished up a few things at work, and then I again flew home. It was a Wednesday night. She was in her own bed, under Hospice care, and barely conscious. But she rose up enough to see me and acknowledge me with a small upturn of her drying lips.
My sister sat vigil with my mom during Thursday night and then I stayed awake with mom Friday night, and started administering morphine under her tongue as she started to flail in the darkness. When morning finally came, my dad lay next to her in the bed weeping while my sister leaned in towards my mom’s ear, saying softly, “It’s ok to go mom. We’ll be ok. John, Dar, dad and I are all here with you. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us. It’s ok to go. We love you.” I sat next to Deb reaching for my mother’s hand. My brother sat at the foot of the bed and held his chin in his palm, silent.
My mother passed away at 9:10AM that morning, with all of us by her side – and I really do believe – in peace.
What none of us could have predicted is that exactly one year and one week later, my sister would die in a freak ATV accident. I dropped everything and flew home the next morning. My sister’s husband took me to the site of the accident. The shocking story he told was that she was only going one or two miles per hour, but that a wheel had gotten caught in a rut, which in turn toppled the vehicle into a small ditch below. The ATV landed on top of my sister in such a way that it literally crushed her heart. Emergency crews tried to keep her alive but she was pronounced dead a couple hours later at Buffalo General.
For the next year or more, my sister Deb occasionally appeared to me in dreams and she was always just returning from taking a break. Everyone was so glad to see her and she was vibrant and laughing and she assured us that she just needed time away but was now returned to us. It was all going to be OK.
A year and a half later, a neighbor found my dad lying dead in the driveway on a cold January morning. Now I might have predicted this death because 10 days earlier upon leaving his house after my brief Christmas visit, he looked me straight in the eye and thanked me deeply for making the effort to come home and see him. And then he said again, as he had a dozen times this particular day, “I miss your mother so much.” Dad had deepening symptoms of memory loss and cognitive disorder and it wasn’t going to be long before my brother and I would have to start thinking about assistance for him in his home, or worse, taking him from his house and moving him into what would surely be the upsetting setting of assisted living. If we’re talking about beliefs this month for our credo theme, then I’ll tell you I believe my mom swooped down and got him from the driveway that night before anyone could call for an intervention.
A few months later my best friend was diagnosed with cervical cancer and was gone by the following Christmas after a valiant yet exhausting battle with her own version of the “C” word.
And my beloved friend Paul, the owner of the massage school whom I’d chosen to serve for 25 years, passed away last summer.
So at this point – Like Jesus – who’d been whipped, beaten and is now crawling up a hill to get himself nailed to the cross – maybe you’re thinking – like he probably did:
“Well this story of faith and resurrection pretty much sucks so far.”
So why am I telling you all this? As Larry encouraged us a couple weeks ago in his Prequel to Easter, I had to look back to find hints of resurrection and my path forward.
By the fall of last year, I rolled back the stone and found no sign of myself in the tomb. And so I practiced resurrection in a way I never thought I would: I retired.
I had been so good at working and not so great at grieving. But I had faith. I have faith today because I have been witness to almost 56 Easters and 56 Spring Equinoxes. I’m humbled by the reality that yes, death will come, and that something will rise. Honestly I wasn’t really conscious of the ways I experienced resurrection during all the loss – until I wrote and rewrote this sermon.
For instance, in the year following my mother’s death, my relationship with my sister and brother deepened as we started to compassionately address my father’s needs, needs my mom had kept so saintly quiet for probably five or more years.
Then after my sister died, I was welcomed with open arms by an intimate group of Deb’s best girlfriends. Affectionately called “Club Hoddick” – which was my sister’s married name – they make a special point to gather intentionally whenever I go back to visit. We resurrect Deb’s memory for a night and inevitably end up draining our tear ducts both with sadness and invigorating laughter. The night begins with the legendary toast over a Bud Light or an icy margarita, and ends with another small movement towards healing our collective loss.
During this time, my brother John and I grew even closer – now we were truly each other’s keeper, and he my dad’s main caregiver.
And then after my father died, my brother emerged as more than just the family member I was dealt with, and he and I became friends.
Through these years I also completed a program in Peacebuilding, a skill I didn’t know I would need as I stepped up as the new leader of my co-workers. Inspired by the nights holding vigil for my mother, I now volunteer with hospice to sit with others who might otherwise have no one with them at the time of their death. Motivated by my father’s death, I became a facilitator for the Alzheimer’s Caregivers’ Support Group here at UCG.
For me, looking back, these are the acts of faith by which I revived the near death of my spirit.
I have learned to Practice Resurrection and now I am in it. A full practice of resurrecting who I am without my mom, without my dad,, without my sister, without my beloved best friend, and without the visionary leader whom I chose to serve for nearly half my life at the massage school.
Coincidentally, roughly 40 days and 40 nights ago marked my official retirement.
I am in a process of rest, self-care, and pause. And encouraged by the ritual of Lent, I am looking honestly at my self, my beliefs, and also the life I’ve been given. I hope that this journey elicits an understanding not only of who I am, but of who I am becoming.
The Dar who stood at my mom’s hospital bed blowing back against infringing death eight years ago is not the Dar who has resurrected before you today.
I am older – sure.
Wiser – maybe a little bit.
Stronger – hell yeah!
Believing that there might be something in my story that will inspire a bit of focus on the ways you have resurrected in your daily lives over your own trials and tribulations? – I hope so!
We’re not that different, you and I. Perhaps both of us are relieved that this sermon is coming to an end (!) – and we’ll look to next week, when we’ll resurrect as a congregation into some new perspective or call to action. That’s the magic of UCG and its invitation to us to practice resurrection every day. Because death has no power over the darkness and all of us have the capacity and the ability to rise up – just like Jesus and maybe even like you and I – with a faith that we are and will be raised to a new life, however known.
And now I offer this prayer:
Great Spirit, Healer of the Holes in our Hearts and the emptiness in our tombs, walk with us as we approach the next turn in our Equinox this week. Give us the perspective to find the blessings in the dark places in our own stories, and to identify the wholeness in our broken hearts from which we can maybe become a Light for others.
Strengthen our faith to practice resurrection in the days we still have to be alive. Lift us up, so that we may find your grace light in the night-time of our own fears, and speak to us the peace we so often now long to hear as we arise to each new day.
Blessed Be. Amen.