Foundry UMC DC: Sunday Sermons

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From Mourning to Dancing

April 3rd, 2018

From Mourning to Dancing

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 1, 2018, Easter Sunday.

Text: John 20:1-18

 

While it was still dark… Not while the sunrise sparkled and waking birds sang. // While it was still dark… Not when confusion had cleared and clarity had come to light. //  While it was still dark… Not when it’s a beautiful mornin’ when everythin’s going my way… Not while the warmth of sunlight drew out the fragrance of fruit and flower… Not when self-confidence was mastered and the way forward sure. // While it was still dark… Not when life and health was all we knew and death seemed far from us…  Not while power finally failed to corrupt and justice and love reigned. // While it was still dark…  While it was still dark Easter happened.

 That strikes me as very good news today.  While it is still dark, Easter happens.  Because if the message is that Easter only happens in the light, is only possible when things are going well, when we feel strong and certain, when suffering and death hasn’t touched our lives, when the powers of empire have been defeated and justice is consistently done—if that’s the only context where Easter happens, then our celebration of Easter today would be a farce.  We would all be in certifiable denial.  Because the truth is that it is still dark.  Do I need to line out the darkness and dissonance in our nation and world, in our relationships and our own lives?  The litany of human struggle and suffering, of injustice and scarcity, the list of persons and populations and species constantly at risk of harm—these have become in my own mind like white noise because of how often I’ve repeated that litany and list in sermon after sermon and prayer after prayer.  The darkness is heavy and disconcerting.  All the realities and stages of grief press upon us in the dark.  Shock and anger, denial, depression… It’s hard to function well in that space.  It’s easy to lose perspective, to get confused, to act out.  It is still dark.  And for some both near and far, there is no escaping the visceral awareness of the darkness because grief for them is daily bread, insecurity and violence prowl around every corner. Others of us may be privileged such that we can forget or deny the darkness; but sooner or later in one way or another it touches us in a personal, painful way.

 

On August 29th 2015 I entered what was for me a long journey through darkness.  It wasn’t through an act of senseless violence, but rather through the mundane and universal experience of illness and death.  My dad died after a long, painful struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.  I had begun my ministry here at Foundry about a year earlier and so was still trying to find my way in this community and ministry role.  Checking out to deal with my grief wasn’t an option.  In fact, ten days after I spoke at my dad’s funeral, I stood in this space and welcomed record crowds, news media, and former parishioners Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea Clinton to Foundry for the closing worship celebration of our Bicentennial Year.  There were things to attend to, both then and in the year to come:  the 2016 General Conference, visioning the second phase of our multi-million dollar Mission Possible Capital Campaign, a redesign for our Sunday experience at Foundry and a not insignificant presidential campaign season and election…  But I was in the dark.  I’ve described the 12-18 months following my father’s death as my “cave-dwelling” period.  I ventured out of the cave to do my public ministry, to try to be present and creative and brave and all the things… But when I wasn’t doing that, I crawled into my basement den and under a blanket.  I binge-watched shows I don’t much recall now (except maybe for True Blood).  I struggled to keep track of things, my temper was often short, my moods mercurial, my posture sedentary. Grief makes us do weird things.

 My experience of grief—not just over my dad’s death but also over the state of things in this beautiful broken world—has made me wonder about the weird details of today’s story in a new way. Perhaps all those specifics about the linen grave wrappings—where they were and how they’re folded—is an example of how grief and stress cause certain images to lodge in our memory so that we find ourselves turning those images over and over in our minds.  Perhaps the fact that Peter and the other disciple take in the shocking scene at the tomb and then “return to their homes” (??!) simply reflects our human tendency to not know what to do when all is lost, so we just go home and crawl under a blanket.  Maybe Mary’s words to the gardener (aka Jesus) weren’t gentle pleading, but rather a sharp retort to what’s perceived as a silly question: “If you’re the one who took him, stop messing with me and just tell me where he is!” Perhaps this is simply the lashing out that can happen when our resources are low and our hearts broken.  Maybe Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus because it’s still so dark and her eyes are filled with tears or because when we’re in distress, it’s so easy to not see what’s real, especially something good that we’d never expect.  The weirdness and weight of grief does seem to explain some of this strange story…  //

 While it was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty.  She didn’t know that Easter had happened.  She assumed foul play, insult to injury, more of the same cruelty from a world that wouldn’t learn how to be gentle or just.  She was shrouded in the darkness, shattered by grief, deep in lament and mourning.  She stood there and cried.  What else was there to do?

 In the Psalms (our biblical prayer book), a common pattern is for the prayer to begin in lament, naming the pain, the fear, the suffering of life, railing against God for seeming far away…and then, with the Psalmist’s heart broken open in all its raw, truth-telling grief, something shifts.  Is it memory that causes the turn? Or grace? A ray of light in the darkness? Whatever it is, the prayer that begins in rage or grief ends with words of praise and gratitude.  The Psalm Jesus quotes from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—is one of these Psalms, and I imagine that if Jesus’ breath had held out long enough, he might have continued praying words from Psalm 22:

 Praise God!
    Glorify God;
    stand in awe of God…
For God did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
God did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried out…

    and I shall live for God.  (Ps. 22:23-24, 26, 29 adapted)

 

You see the God of Jesus, the God of Easter, is a God who hears when we cry out in the midst of whatever darkness breaks our heart, who does not turn away from our affliction, but rather draws near.  That, after all, is why Jesus came to us in the first place.  Jesus came into the world to bring the love, compassion, and justice of God up close and personal, to meet us in our grief and to help us move through it to a new place.  Jesus knows your grief, your worry, your pain, your fear, your rage, your exhaustion, your confusion…Jesus hears your cry, draws near, and speaks your name.

And while it was still dark, Jesus draws near to Mary; she hears her name spoken by a voice she thought gone forever.  “I am here, Mary. Easter is here.”  And Mary’s weeping, her Psalm of lament turns to praise and proclamation:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
    you have taken off my sackcloth
    and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. (Ps 30:11-12)  //

 

The image of Jesus I see every Sunday is the beautiful window that faces 16th Street, the image of the risen Jesus in the garden, arms extended out in a gesture of invitation as if to say, “Shall we dance?”  Oh yes, please, Jesus. Turn our mourning into dancing.  Take off my sackcloth and clothe me with joy.  While it is still dark, show us how to dance even at the grave, to trust your love enough not to hold on, but to let go.  Take our hand and lead us to the dance floor, the place of grace or of freedom, the space of release and joy. Show us how to move, how to flow, how to catch your groove, how to follow your lead so that we begin to shine in the darkness with a fraction of your light.  Draw us close to you in the dance so that, even from deep under a blanket of grief, we can feel the beat of your heart for us and know that you won’t let us go until we have emerged, not unscarred, but—by your grace—maybe a little wiser or more compassionate. Show us, Jesus, how to dance in the dark! 

 

Easter is not about “pie in the sky when you die” promises that have nothing to do with real life.  It’s about the way that God teaches us to dance the great dance of resurrection right here and right now, to bring a little bit of heaven to earth instead of remaining on the sidelines, fearful, believing that only beyond death can we live free.  Easter is not about pretending that all is well when it isn’t.  Easter is not an excuse to ignore the litany and the list of suffering and injustice.  Easter is about dancing in the dark.  I can’t help but think of those who continue to gather on the dance floor of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando—dancing in the very place where hatred and violence pierced the bodies of 102 people and killed 49 just over one year ago.  Those LBGTQ siblings and allies are dancing in the dark, not allowing hatred to destroy their communion with love and hope and the possibility of liberation.  I think of parents standing at the open graves that will receive their slain children and then turning toward the work of healing, community organizing, protest, and advocacy.  That is mourning turned to dancing in the dark.  I think of those whom Rowan Williams describes as dancing “the useless dance of love for its own sake… Mother Teresa [and]…all who work with the hopeless, the incurable, the dying, the wretched.”[i]  That is dancing in the dark… mirroring the movements of the one who turns mourning into dancing.

 

It may seem overwhelming or impossible to dance. You may feel stuck or clumsy or ill-equipped—less like Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain and more like Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein, puttin’ on the Ritz or poor Elaine on Seinfeld; you may feel embarrassed to step out so freely; you may feel too weary to move, you may be in too much pain.  When I was in that place, I not only watched trash TV, I also watched the dance of resurrection through you, Foundry. The dance wasn’t all up to me, thank God, and one day I woke up and realized that I could step back onto the dance floor with you more fully and joyfully. Was it memory that helped me make the turn? Grace? Yes. And the risen Christ.  Way back in the ‘70’s Bette Midler (The “Divine Miss M”) sang that “It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance.”  The song of Easter is that when your heart is broken—by devastating loss or betrayal, pain or despair for the world—Christ will come to you, arms outstretched, and teach you to dance into a new place of life.  It’s OK if you need to watch the dance for a while. Jesus knows.  And will stay near, ready to ask at just the right time:  “Shall we dance?”  Thanks be to God.

 

[i] Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), 63.

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