by Maggie Breen
Ann Weems. Ann is a poet. She is person who can craft words and the images they carry in a way that invite the reader to thoughts and feelings and insights that can be hard to grasp, hard to acknowledge perhaps, hard to pay attention to.
In 1995, 13 years after the death of her 21 year old son Ann Weems writes…. “And still I weep. On that day in 1982 the stars fell from my sky and still I weep.”i The years have passed and she has been loved and cared for by those dear to her and by strangers – people doing the work of angels she says but even now she moves in the world where she explains “anger and alleluias” careen inside her, where “laughter and lament” sit side by side in a heart that yearns for a peace that passes understanding.
Ann uses her craft to name a difficult reality: the reality of our search for God in the midst of loss. Many of us know the deep world shattering loss of which she speaks. Others look at the circumstances in which our sisters and brothers in this country and around the world have to live. Circumstances of war, poverty and illness, in the midst a world of plenty and we know the place that Ann is naming. From these depths we cry along with the psalmist and along with Ann. Where are you, God? Can you hear my voice?
Martha and Mary know where Ann stands. The stars have fallen from their sky. Both are single woman who have lost their only brother. The brother they loved but also the vital source of their financial and social security. Martha thought she knew this God-with-her, this was, she was sure, a God who had the power to prevent these types of things. But when she faces the depths, when she losses everything, where is this God – with – her that she thought she knew. If you had only been here, she accuses Jesus, God-with-her, he would not have died. You are powerful, you performed these other miracles, you love me, I believe all the right things, where were you. Where were you??
It is to cries like these that Jesus turns his attention in this story by John and lets us know – I am right here. I am right here with you, exactly as you need me to be in this place of loss and anger and fear.
Honestly I have had some trouble with this text since I was pretty young. Martha’s and Mary’s questions were mine. Why didn’t you stop this and who are you God to walk in and bring this guy back to life. It’s temporary, he will die again – you are really not dealing with the loss that we have to face in this life. You are not making it go away.
But loss is real, it happens, it comes along, sometimes, oftentimes, of our own making, but then also as something we encounter as people of this world, people who move on, people who can change, people who can get hurt. So Jesus waits, he knows that loss is real, that it is part of who we are, but crucially in this story he invites us to look again, to look in a different way and to see the way God is present in these difficult places.
I am a God, he tells Martha and Mary, I am a God he tells Ann and tells us, who will move through the darkness with you, who will be with you in your the questions, and your pain. Can you see me, will you let me be with you as I stand beside you and as I bring new life.
Pat is a confirmation sponsor at St Andrew. Each of our confirmands have a sponsor who commits themselves to walk beside them as they get ready to affirm their faith and become members of the church. The sponsors help provide a safe place for our whole group to ask their questions of faith.
Pat is not here today, she has been gone from church for a few weeks lately and needs to be with her community. We miss her but also need her to be with her community. I have Pat’s permission to share with you some insights that came to the group as we listened to Pat’s experience of loss.
Pat lost her husband Ted about a year ago. He was an active and strong man who became ill suddenly and in a life changing way. She cared for him, then she lost him. We were reflecting on the Nicodemus passage a few weeks ago and the conversation turned to eternal life. We were asking along with Nicodemus. What is it? How can we know it? As the discussion went on we talked about how although we had different ideas of eternal life that there was a faith that when we leave this world we get to be with a God that loves us. Pat said she knew this to be true, Ted was with God. Then Pat told us something else, she said that over the past year, through this time of adapting to life without him she has come to know in a new and life giving way that Ted lives. Pat in as she has spent time with those whom Ted loved, as they have shared who they are with each other that she can look at them and see Ted. She said that the way knew himself as someone beloved and gifted and the gentle and loving way he gave who he knew himself to be to other, the way he loved them, the way that he bore Christ to them, is evident to her. She can see it, she can see him, in those he gave himself too, in those he loved, they carry him with them in who they are. She said that she sees ripples of him in her universe, ripples that will not be overcome, his self-giving love is a light that shines in the darkness.
One of our sponsors looked at her for a few minutes, kind of shuddered and said, “I want that.” I want to live in the way of Christ, I want to live in all that I am as someone beloved of God, so that people know me in their universe when I am gone to God. I want to be a ripple. Is that not New Life? Is that not New life just just all the way round, in what Pat knows and in what she let us see. As the group had the courage to enter this conversation and to let Pat take it where it needed to go we got to see, to experience New Life.
Now, I don’t know about the rest of the group but I can say that it felt a little dangerous for a minute. As Pat began to talk I worried that it would be too much. Really I was worried about me, what if I can’t handle where this conversation might go, what if people get upset, what if I don’t know what to say. It is to this place, this dangerous place of being present to the story, to the pain and questions of others, that Jesus asks us to have the courage to go.
We don’t want to go his disciples tell him, it’s useless Lazarus is dead, there is nothing to be done and if we go there we will die too. They are right, this journey with him is one fraught with danger, real danger. Jesus and his disciples left Judea because the people had already threatened to stone him. Some of the mourners who witness Jesus raise Lazurus go right from there to the Pharisees to tell them what happened and from here the pharisees decide enough is enough – if we let this Jesus go on like this we will all be destroyed and they determine to kill him. This is dangerous territory – but the disciples are asked to go. They are asked to believe that as they go, as they face these dangers, they will see new life, a hope and a reality that cannot be put to death, they get to see this life in Lazarus’s rising but ultimately in Jesus resurrection. The question to us is will we go also.
The sense of fear that the disciples in this story faced are fears that we also face as we think about being with and listening to those who have seen the stars fall from their sky. Those who have lost what they hoped for, maybe a relationship, maybe their health or a job and with these things the ability to provide healthcare, food, a home, those who don’t have access to what they need because of their race or sexual orientation or physical abilities. But it is to these places that Jesus asks us to go and to know that God goes with us offering new life. It can be difficult to know what good our presence will do, it can be painful to listen to the loss that has been encountered, it can be against what our culture values to hang out with those who have lost everything, providing a meal for homeless men in the basement of your church really doesn’t pay much, standing with those marginalized and persecuted can get you into a lot of trouble. But the sitting and the listening is the presence of God, the standing as an ally with the other, it is a reflection that this other is worth something, an articulation of the belief that we each have gifts to offer the world. But these text today let us know that Jesus is there with us in these dangerous places and as we go, as we provide a place for the others questions, as we stand with those who have lost, lost their basic needs, lost their dreams, been told by the world that they are less than whole, as we let them be all that they are, as we listen and know that God is in our midst, we will find surprising New life.
Ann Weems experienced the presence of God in those who stayed with her and encouraged her to express her loss and anger to God. She had a dear friend who stayed with her long after the death of her son and assured her that all that she felt was wholly acceptable. This friend told her that not only could she but that she absolutely should express all that she felt to God. She joined with others throughout the years, she joined Mary and Martha, she joined with the psalmist, maybe she joins with some of us, who need to ask where are you God? As she received the encouragement to express who she was and how she felt she says she she would encounter this image:
And he in his weeping,
He joined himself forever
To those who mourn.
He stands now throughout all time
This weeping jesus,
With his arms about the weeping one:
“Blessed at those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.” He stands with the mourners,
For his name is God-with-us. Jesus wept.ii
As we are present to each other in our loss and in our questions, as we listen carefully and respond to who the other is and to what they need we are with a God who joins God’s very self to us, who stays with us and who brings new life. If you watch, as you welcome and journey with those who are reaching, who are searching for God, says Ann, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their sky one by one.
Thanks be to God. Amen.