My sermon today is a matter of life and death, and it’s full of good news. Trust me, this paradox will be made clear.
Frank was a young lawyer just beginning his practice when he met Jessie. They soon had that experience many of us have had at one time or another, the experience of somehow knowing almost immediately that you have met the one, that person with whom you want to spend your life. Like many others, they looked forward to marrying, raising a family, living a good life, and eventually growing old together, waltzing slowly into old age with quieter music.
They were married on May 3, 1969 in a ceremony jointly performed by a Catholic priest and an African Methodist Episcopal minister. You see, their decision to marry was not without risk, because at that time, the marriage of a Caucasian man from a large Irish-Catholic family to a young African-American woman caused a few eyebrows to be raised. But love prevailed, as it should, even in challenging circumstances. They had three children, enjoyed success in their chosen vocations — Frank as an attorney, and Jessie as a television journalist, one of the first Black women pioneers in that field. They gave back to their community, they were active in their church, and lived a rich and meaningful life together.
And then, Jessie was diagnosed with cancer. Not once, but twice. While the first bout was not easy, it did go into remission after treatment. Not so the second time, and the second occurrence radically reoriented, and redirected the lives of Frank, Jessie, and their children. Of course, there were aggressive treatments, and some signs of hope, which lifted spirits but which ultimately were cruel, because the gains were followed almost always by relapses. As is true often with cancer, there’s one step forward and two steps back, one step forward and three steps back, until there were no more steps back to be taken. Jessie died on June 22, 2013, and was laid to rest less than a mile from here. Her ashes were interred under trees and near water, as she wished. She and Frank had been married 44 years. Frank, their children, and all who knew her grieved a great loss.
Bonnie met Walter when both were non-traditional (middle-aged) students at the University of Minnesota, both finishing degrees. Now, it’s not as though it was love at first sight, but the introductory conversation that lasted thirty minutes on the library steps, and continued with a four-hour conversation over coffee seemed to suggest more than a casual mutual interest. At the end of that conversation, Walter suggested a second date. Bonnie had been widowed 18 years earlier and had three grown sons as well as grandchildren, but something about that day felt good and new. The dates continued, and on May 19, 2001, with degrees in hand, Bonnie and Walter were married. A honeymoon in Paris was followed by a new job at the University of Maine, and a new home in Maine. Bonnie felt that life could not possibly be better.
On January 31, 2013, Bonnie was flying back to Maine from her son’s wedding in Alaska. Walter was not able to attend, having just started a new semester. Bonnie needed to make a short stop at her Minneapolis office, but the police interrupted her at the airport to tell her that Walter had died of a massive heart attack while shoveling snow. Bonnie flew back home to Maine, and in the days following she kept thinking, “This can’t be happening to me again!” In the months and year following Walter‘s death, she kept close to family and friends, cherished her home and her dog, who had been Walter’s constant companion, and held tight to God’s love.
After Jessie’s death, Frank grieved, no doubt, but he didn’t fall into despair or inaction. He went on doing things they had loved doing together, and although doing them alone and coming home alone felt empty, he lived on. One of the things he loved most was travel, and he went to places far and wide. Three years ago, while on a pilgrimage to Israel, he met a woman named Bonnie, who was also on the pilgrimage.
OK, if you can’t see where this is going, you haven’t been paying attention. The story goes on from there, and it’s best told in their words.
Bonnie’s version goes like this: Frank and I met in Israel in September, 2014. We were on the same pilgrimage to the Holy Land and an extension to Istanbul, led by the pastor of my church. Frank fell in love with me at first sight! But he was shy and kind of slow. Finally at our farewell dinner in Istanbul he asked if he could see me when we got back to the States. He was so cute, I had to say yes. One and a half years later in a cozy little restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he begged me to marry him. Again he was so cute, I had to say yes. Our journey to marriage has been nothing but joy! Frank may have a different story.
And here is Frank’s version: Whatever Bonnie says, that’s exactly how it happened. That statement displays a wisdom uncommon in males. But, he goes on, saying: I would only add a few things. (Yup, he’s a male). I think the first time Bonnie noticed me in Israel was when I was the only person in our group to ride a camel — you have to do something to get seen when you are short. When we did get back to Minnesota, our first date was supposed to be a bike ride. Just as we were getting ready to go, it started pouring rain — not a good omen. Se we went to a museum and then got an early supper, where I talked her ear off. She seemed to be listening, which was a good omen. Finally, about a week later we went for a bike ride at Como Park, and we have been riding together ever since.
Bonnie and Frank, two people in their seventies, a widow and a widower who met by chance (and by the movement of the Spirit)
were married at 3:00 yesterday afternoon in the Church of St. Albert the Great in Minneapolis. Gayle and I were there, along with scores of other people witnessing an occasion of great joy and resurrection.
Yes, I said resurrection, because that’s exactly what happened, and that’s what I’m preaching today, using a lovely story as a point of entry into the resurrection miracle and mystery that happens constantly, with or without our observation. Catholic theologian Richard Rohr puts it this way: “God appears to be resurrecting everything all the time and everywhere. It is not something to believe in, as much as it is something to observe and be taught by.
And here’s another view, from the poet e.e. cummings:
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday:)
But before I go further, let me offer this caveat, which I learned from an Easter sermon preached by my wife Gayle, who said: “We are scared stiff of resurrection because it means that first something has to die.“ Yeah, we’d prefer to skip that first step, but it doesn’t work that way. First death, THEN resurrection, a fact of which nature reminds us every autumn and every spring.
That brings me to the season of Lent, which often spans the time when we all ache for spring, bringing green grass and buds on the trees. There may be someone, somewhere, who says, “I just LOVE the season of Lent because it makes me feel so — what — mortal, yes, that’s the word! Mortal.” I am not that person. We begin Lent on Ash Wednesday by hearing that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. I appreciate
that solemn reminder less with every passing year, as I head toward the finish line with what seems like increasing speed. In addition, we’re asked to soberly examine our lives. In my case, that usually leads to those 3 AM circular conversations in my head that go nowhere and produce nothing except wondering what I have done with my life. No, those achingly long days of Lent are not my favorite time of year.
BUT … each Sunday during Lent we are reminded that there is such a thing as resurrection, and we do arrive at Easter, the day on which we celebrate Christ’s resurrection as metaphor for new life rising from ashes, winter becoming Spring, abundant birth, and countless ways in which sorrow turns to joy. Consider these words from Psalm 30:
“You have turned my wailing into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”
How does this happen, this shift from deep darkness to bright light? How are we so capable of renewal, comeback, and, yes, resurrection? I don’t believe it’s just a matter of a strong will on our part, nor is it a matter of chance and coincidence. For me, the best answer to the question of how it happens comes from the poet Robert Frost. In an untitled poem, Frost writes:
But God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
Spirit enters flesh
And for all it’s worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
Ever fresh and fresh.
We may take the view
That its derring-do
Thought of in the large
Is one mighty charge
On our human part
Of the soul’s ethereal
Into the material.
If Frost is right — and I believe he is — then the choice of the Holy One to take on human form in Jesus is not a one-time event, but a metaphor for inborn holiness AND resurrection power in every one of us. Brothers and sisters, that notion leaves me breathless, and full of hope and strength, knowing that resurrection is always, always possible. I have experienced it myself in my marriage to Gayle — she a widow and I a divorcee. I have seen it in my family; years ago my beloved daughter nearly died, but is alive and thriving today. I have seen it in two dear friends, who found joy and new life in surprising ways. Certainly not least —- I have seen it in the life of St. John’s, which was close to closing several decades ago, but which lived on and lives on to perform vital and life-giving ministries. And I know many of you could add your own stories of death and resurrection. But the resurrection of which I speak is not a physical rebirth for mortal beings, for death is also a reality that will come to us all, and will sever deep and loving bonds we have made on this earth. Again and again, one is taken and one is left behind. When that day comes, the one left will need to remember Jesus’ words in today’s gospel:
“Come to me, all you who are bearing heavy burdens, and I will give you rest for your souls.”
But there is another truth, which I hold close, stated in these words by Frederick Buechner:
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would barely fill a cup.”
So today we celebrate Resurrection, when we can sing out, along with Bonnie and Frank and ALL who have known that miracle, those beautiful words we sang from The Song of Solomon:
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come;
And the voice of the turtledove is heard in the land.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.