"And the Stillness the Dancing" (TS Eliot)
Those old-timey, old fart pastors! An aged parishioner told me that one time when he was a kid, he and a young friend ditched church to go to Woolworth's for cherry phosphates, the pastor crossed the main street, walked up to them at the soda fountain counter and hauled their butts back to church for worship. No ditching!
With the old-timey, old fart pastors, grown-ups were supposed to bring back a church bulletin from their vacations just to prove that they had gone to church!
Those old-timey, old fart pastors! I'm not like that. I'm a cool pastor! The flutist at the funeral of Caroline, a luminary on the local music scene, recently told me I'm the coolest pastor he knows. (Which shows how few pastors he knows. Plus, in the past I've hired him for gigs, so he maybe was maybe going more for flattery than accuracy.)
But--if I'm such a super-cool cleric, why does it bug the fill-in-the-blank out of me when people show up on Easter, but on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday they are home in front of their screen of choice? Is it that the passion story, which we get on Good Friday is so painful? (It is.) Is it that the Maundy Thursday's service, with its emphasis on loving one another, moves us out of our comfort zones?
Throughout my ministry, I have used the option of reading the entire passion story on Palm Sunday in order that folks get that right in their faces just in case they're going to take a pass on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
But a couple of years ago, someone on my church council said something like, "But can't Palm Sunday this year be about the palms and Jesus' entry into Jerusalem instead of us hearing the whole awful crucifixion story?" and I thought, Do I always have to be the old fart pastor? Can't we pause and be joyful and shout hosanna? Because according to what the gospel tell us, the very stones will do it if we don't.
Okay, out of my comfort zone, then. Let's wave those palms--avoiding each other's eyes, of course. And--let's be joyful.
Joy does happen.
On top of that, we know what is coming. Which is why joyfulness is essential. Joyfulness is bliss. It doesn't change the future. It doesn't negate the story of the crucifixion. It doesn't make death stop taking our loved ones.
And I have had too much of that of late. My ex-husband died last April; my sister died this March. And on the day that my sister died, local and beloved folk musician, Caroline, died, too. Mere days after her funeral, which I led last Sunday, another beloved local rock musician and music critic, Greg, died of a cancer he'd discovered only weeks before. His last gig was the one he played to benefit Caroline's memorial scholarship.
I knew Greg. He and I covered the arts beat for our city's newspaper in the nineties--me, visual art, him, the rock scene--before I was ordained. I figured I would contact my former editor from that time, to let her know. She had moved to Cincinnati, so I googled her newspaper. But there was no contact info. Instead I discovered an obituary. I discovered that she, also, had died; she died the year before at 68, the same age as Greg, only 12 years older than Caroline, only 2 years older than my ex-husband, only five years younger than my sister.
So--I'm leaving behind the part of me that is the old-fart pastor. Maybe for good, who knows? What I do know is that I want to wave some palms. I want to sing some songs. I don't want the stones to have the last word. I really, really don't. I want to see our children dance. Heck, I want to dance--and dance hard!
The great mystery of the faith we treasure is not that we get a get-out-of jail-free card. It is that we are together in our common prison with a God who promises us release. And can I tell you what that means, exactly? Well, no, of course not.
But--but I can share these words with you as we enter Holy Week. They are the words I would have written for my sister's funeral if there hadn't been another pastor handling the funeral. These are some of the words I wrote for Caroline's funeral. And truly, I hope these words will be good for you. And for me:
I believe the mystery of what we don't know for sure is the greatest witness of our faith. Because faith is at root the embrace of wonder. And the death of a loved one--whether this is a dear friend or the crucifixion of Jesus, draws us into the most profound kind of wondering.
Truly--I don't know what happens when breath stops. I only know breath. Breath makes words. Breath makes music. Breath makes love.
If I had no breath and couldn't sing or speak or kiss, what would I do? What do we do, what happens to us--because it will happen to us--when we have no more breath, when we can breathe this earth's air no more?
I don't know. But we read this in Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
But how can anyone, even a maybe Capital-A-Anyone, know our name?
Well, I don't know. And--if I had no breath and I couldn't sing or I couldn't speak or I couldn't swallow sweet and refreshing spring water, what would I do? What do we do, what happens to us--because it will happen to us--when we breathe this earth's air no more?
I don't know. So I think of these words from 1 Corinthians--you may know them:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
But what will we know then? And how will we be known? As you might expect me to say, I don't know.
And--and if I had no breath and I couldn't sing or I couldn't shout or I couldn't weep--for all the reasons that we do weep--if I had no breath, what would I do?
What will we do at our last earthly breath?
John's gospel says: there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
But where is that place? Who has prepared it? And for pity's sake, why is a promise not a contract we can sign for our own assurance?
I don't know that, either. But maybe it's because a contract is based on human effort and exchange. And a promise is based on hope and love--and deep wonder.
So as we enter Holy Week, we are not utter fools to hope and pray and long to trust that the joy of Palm Sunday--which will be cut to the quick by the events which will soon come to pass--will be recovered, renewed and blissfully resurrected in the joyfulness of Easter. We live in promise. We root in promise. We are promised we will rise in promise!
And so we wave palms. And so we shed our coats. We dance. We dance hard. And we sing: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the one of David!