Sunday, March 20, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: At the crossroads

Palm Sunday - Lent 6: “The plot thickens”
Luke 19:28-38; Philippians 2:5-11; Psalm 31:9-16

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            After singing our loud hosannas and giving thanks to God in our opening time together, why would we include these verses just read from Psalm 31 in our service today?  We heard Luke’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, we heard the choir and children sing enthusiastically and some of us waved palm branches, even though neither palm branches nor ‘hosannas’ are mentioned in Luke.  But now we switch gears!  We are at the crossroads and we need to make a turn!

 Some of us would rather not.  After all, during this Lenten journey, we have already experienced wilderness.  We have faced the darkness.  We have reflected on how we have wandered from Christ and the church.  We might also have thought about how we have and are wandering afar from each other…how our relationships might be strained, how our congregations, conferences  and MCUSA, are feeling stress/tension/anxiety in the system.  Maybe we reflected on our personal lives during Lent and how we have contributed to that tension and mistrust in our churches or in our families.  So now making it to Palm Sunday, setting aside all of that agenda, and singing the hosannas, felt pretty good.   Now I  am telling you, we can’t stay long on the ‘parade route’ and skip out on the rest of the story.   We need to make a turn, the plot thickens.  We leave the palms at the foot of the cross and begin to walk the journey to the cross with Jesus, whose life ends with his final prayer, taken from this Psalm…vs. 5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”   

 Remember this scene?  ….around noon, darkness came over the whole land until 3pm…the sun stopped shining, the curtain of the temple was torn in two and Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  And then he took his last breath.

Psalm 31 is included every year in the lectionary on this Sunday.  We seldom use it, yet it helps us make the turn into Passion Week.  It allows us to see the Passion ‘from the inside’, to explore the laments of the psalmist, to face and acknowledge our own times of deep distress and anguish, and yet be able to say, ‘but I trust in you, Lord.  You are my God!’ (You are all I have)

I would guess that many of us here today have felt this kind of distress and can identify with the psalmist.  Maybe it was in your past, maybe you are experiencing now! 
Distress, anguish, grief, pain……can come from many sources:  the loss of a loved one, diagnosis of a new illness, living with chronic pain or mental illness, feeling abandoned by family or colleagues, working through abuse, struggling with addictions, admitting sin, feeling guilt and shame……  It is often a state of ‘painful disorientation’…or dislocation.  The psalmist cries out:

“ Be merciful to me Lord, for I am in distress;
            my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
            my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
            my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak!”

Then later..
            “I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.”

I do lots of pastoral visitation with older folks.  Many have had long, successful, productive, and fulfilling careers.  They held positions and roles with responsibility and power, in our churches, educational institutions, mission organizations.  I think some of them have felt like they have been ‘ put on the shelf’, forgotten…as if they no longer have anything of value to offer, especially after retirement.  Might they, might you, be able to identify with that verse.

Jesus’ last week on earth brought to his journey a wide spectrum of experiences and challenges,… rejection, abandonment, mistrust, misunderstanding, loneliness.  Crowds turn on him, disciples deny knowing him or fall asleep.
 I wonder where in your journey you have experienced the deepest distress?  Maybe from something that happened to you or maybe because of choices that you made?

When I reflected on this during my sermon preparation, 3 experiences immediately came to my mind out of my own life.
Window 1: 1975, sitting in the living room of our basement apt. in Elkhart, IN.  We were beginning to prepare for our move to Ontario a few months later.  I was having a phone conversation with my parents in PA.  All of the battery of tests my mom had taken due to some symptoms she was having, indicated she had an inoperable tumor on her liver.  She could be given chemo to slow down the growth.  That was the option.  We moved to Canada.  She died 3 years later.  My cries of anguish were, “Why, Lord?  She was only 62 years old.  I wanted her in my life longer, to know my sons, her grandsons.  I was only 29.  Why?”    no answer
Window 2:  My dad soon remarried after my mother’ death.  He was lonely and missed companionship.  He married a wonderful woman.  Meanwhile we had moved from Ontario to Union City, IN.  I came home from a Woman’s Bible Study one day with Ben, who was just a toddler.  Andy was in Kindergarten.  John, who was a high school teacher at that time, was sitting on the front porch, around noon.  Why?  He should be at school teaching!  He met me inside and told me that my brother, Bruce, had called him at school to let us know that my dad had died that morning of a sudden heart attack.  He was 62 years old.  My cries of anguish were, “Why, Lord?  Dad was just regaining his life, after caring for mom for 3 years.  He was happy again and found a good companion.  Why him?  Why now?  Why did I have to give up/let go , of my second parent only 2.5 years apart?”   no answer
Window 3:  Fast forward… Tuesday afternoon, day after Labor day weekend, 1997.  We had taken Ben back to Bluffton for his junior year.  Andy was at work in our community.  John and I were preparing supper for that evening.  A police officer came to the door and said, there had been an accident involving our son.  “Which son?”  I remember saying.  He was working out on Tannerville Rd., taking down a tree on some property.  “How serious?”  SILENCE!  LONG PAUSE!  ( You know then what the answer is!)  My cries of anguish were, “Why Lord?  Why Andy?  He was only 22 years old, just graduated, found the love of his life, had a strong renewed faith, wanted to get married, go to graduate school, have a family, serve you?  Why?”  no answer.

Cries of anguish and distress…… in every one of those times, at some point I had to come to a place of peace without all of the answers to my many questions….. a place of resignation, of relinquishment, of letting go of the pain and disappointment.  I could eventually say, I don’t understand, I don’t like what has happened.  Sometimes life SUCKS!  But nevertheless, “I trust in you, Lord.  You are my God.  My times are in your hands.” (All the events and circumstances of my life are in your hands.  You are all I have and I am trusting that you will give me what I need!)

When we commit our lives into the hand of God, and relinquish full control and acknowledge God’s role, then we begin to catch glimpses of light in the darkness that help us carry on.   We move from painful disorientation to surprising reorientation.  It is not going back to what was, it is moving forward in newness of life.  It is being surprised by moments that enlighten us and offer us new possibilities.  It is singing ‘new songs’, and feeling the face of God shining upon us and saving us with God’s unfailing love.

In the moments of silence I encourage you to do two things:
Name 1-2 times in your life that you experienced great distress, dislocation, painful disorientation!  Call it whatever best describes your experience.
What helped you through it?  What was a key component or turning point that happened in order for you to move forward, to find a measure of health, wholeness, healing again?

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