We’ve been learning, in school, about the difference between sanctification and justification. How we are justified by faith, but how being sanctified is an on going thing, a journey you set out on that is really a one way ticket. It’s made me think, in conjunction with this season of lent, and this mix CD I made for myself (because, see, I’m so old school I have to make myself mix tapes, the rest of the world has moved on from such things), it’s made me think about the one way ticket that we all have. About how there isn’t a return trip, about the absolute fact that no one gets out of here alive.
I don’t mean to be macabre, morbid, I promise you I am not wearing a hair shirt, but really, think about it. Think about this one way trip and what we spend our time doing. I think we spend a lot of our time tending graves, probably our own graves, worrying about all of the things that people will say about us someday, the legacy or wealth we believe we are leaving behind.
I think sometimes its easier for us to tend our graves and to pretend we are already dead. Because when we are dead we don’t have responsibility for the hurt and the broken people in this world, when we are dead we can really not care about what happens in the world as long as our tiny little plot of earth is well tended, our plastic wreaths taken down in the fall and the grass mowed.
There are lots of examples in the bible about life coming after death, there is the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel, where the prophet called those bones up and made them live again, there is Lazarus, be he friend or fiend, we shall never know, but his family had the pleasure of seeing him walk. The little girl Jesus rose in Matthew.
And I’ve had a hard time with the bible, and I’m still not sure where I stand. It’s hard to have this thing that you were taught to believe was magical and divinely inspired and so LITERAL that Eve really really did walk in the garden and eat the fruit — it’s hard to then stop seeing the bible that way, but to also somehow still see it as more than a collection of stories, more than letters to people who are long dead from people who didn’t even know this Jesus that we follow and pretend to know and be like. But the good old b-i-b-l-e tells of the women who go back to the grave of Jesus, and the resurrection they experience there in a stone rolled away, an angel and flowers dripping heavy with dew and bird song.. you get the idea.
So while I am telling you it is a one way ticket, this life, this one shot down here on a globe that spins through space, I am also saying that there is resurrection, that there cannot be life unless death came first.
I had the distinct pleasure of offering ashes to go this year. I stood on a busy corner in our small town in my choir surplice and cassock, with a heavy black sweater on and my hands froze and then my toes, one by one. I spoke Spanglish with Deacon John and we used the words “como dice” many times, trying to explain to each other how we felt, trying to talk about cars, trying to talk about his decades of amazing ministry.
We had a lot of people stop, one very old woman who said she was recovering from pneumonia and couldn’t go to church. She asked me, so sweetly, if it would hurt my feelings to have the priest impose her ashes instead. And it did, but only a little, because I too understand that priestly things seem to carry more weight, more oomph, like they are more and better medicine.
My favorite lady to stop got out of her car and came toward me, and I thought she too would ask for the priest. But she didn’t, and when we read the confession together I noticed that she was crying. And when I said the absolution for us both I noticed she was sobbing. She was wrapped into herself, arms crossed tight across her body, with her bare cheeks exposed to the frigid air in a parking lot at a strip mall, with her heart laid bare to me. I asked to go in peace, to pray for me, a sinner. And then I asked her if I could hug her. And she said yes.
And she reminded me of Ezekiel and his dry bones, his doubt that God through him could make those bones knit together, how they would grow sinew and muscle, how they would rise up again as a mighty army; because those ashes that I smudged on her forehead somehow made her alive again. Because she showed me that she was finally and truly alive with the liquid that ran down her cheeks and wet my sweater, with the arms that held me so tightly.
I think, friends, that contemplating death isn’t the worst thing we could do in these less than 40 days left to us. I think that contemplating how we tend our own graves, how we kill off and entomb parts of ourselves because they hurt too much – I think that is valuable work.
But it’s important that we walk away from our graves once in a while, important that we realize that the future isn’t about us. It’s about a greater reconciliation, a greater call to peace and to justice and to mercy and to what is right and fair for all of God’s people. It can’t be about you and me, because we aren’t going to make it, because we will reach the end of the line long before the world looks very different than it does today. But please don’t be discouraged, because if I don’t make it out of here I am raising up others to lead after me, others to love this world and to love God, and to do justice and love mercy and walk so humbly.
I know this is short.
I have a to do list a mile long, and a family waiting for me, with the TV paused on our favorite show just about six feet from where I sit. And I am no Ezekiel, but I am telling you that our prophetic voices and our faith are what will raise a great army. And that we will overthrow death and again and again. I am telling you that sometimes, even in knee deep in the dirt of the grave that we dug for ourselves something moves, and the light shines and we can see that there is life in this thing too. A one way ticket it may be, but it is a journey toward holiness, and journey where the things we leave behind us, protests and safety pins, hungry folk fed – those are the things that matter on this long trip toward the end of this life. I am telling you that even though it may not seem like, even though the shadow of the stone that stands in the doorway of your tomb may be so large – that there is resurrection.
A friend of mine is traveling with her husband down the hospice road. And the song below makes me think of her, as do the tulips that are even now pushing up out of the dark earth, through the dead leaves and in the shadow of a mighty tree. No matter what we do life will not be held down, there is only this one chance, be sanctified, work at it, I know that it is so hard.
I’m trying too.
I promise you this is true.
I love you, still.
You and me have seen everything to see, from Bangkok to Calgary, and the soles of your shoes are all worn down. The time to sleep is now, but it’s nothing to cry about, because we’ll hold each other soon.