Sunday, April 25, 2010

Starting Over

Sermon, Sunday, April 25, 2010
by katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Lamentations 3:1-24 and Acts 9:36-43

As I was reading through the scripture one last time this morning, I wondered about that moment that Tabitha opened her eyes.  I wondered if it had been anyone else except Peter standing there if she would have just rolled over and gone back to being dead. Sometimes it matters who is trying to call you back to life. But that isn’t the point this morning. Rather, I wish to speak to the prospect of starting over. Of resurrection. Of new life.

Perhaps you remember a time when you were little.  You had broken something of your mother’s—a vase, a favorite cup, a picture. Maybe you’d scribbled on the wall in crayon. Maybe you lost your father’s keys. You unscrewed all the screws from the bottom of the desk and it fell apart.  Some kid got in your face and said something nasty, so you punched her. Somebody punched you, so you said something nasty.  Maybe you were not going to eat those peas, no matter how long you sat at the table, no matter how many meals those peas kept appearing. Maybe you stole a pack of gum from the store (and I’m not admitting to anything here).

But you remember, don’t you, that moment when you made a mistake and you knew you were dead?  In the face of certain death and doom, you looked at your parent and said in the smallest, most pathetic voice, “Can we start the day over?”

Time flies, and you’re a teenager. You crashed the car. You broke the curfew. You stole someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend.  You failed a class. You got caught up in something bigger than you thought, and the police brought you home, or worse, your parents had to come get you from the station.  Your bedroom, which had not been cleaned in 5 years suddenly drew the attention of your parent who grounded you until every last stitch of clothing was folded and put away, the papers filed, the trash thrown out.  Your teenage sass got the better of you, and you said things you regret—hurtful things that cannot be taken back. Your parent, with his middle-aged sass, responded in kind, and the words hurt.  Something of yourself died a little, and you longed to say in the smallest, most pathetic voice, “Can we start the day over?”  But now you were older, and the mistakes were bigger—the consequences were bigger. So much water had passed under this bridge—perhaps you could not find in you the strength to ask.

Fast forward to adulthood. You got fired. You failed out of school. You aren’t married, but yeah, you got kids of your own now. You’re in a dead end job that you hate. Long since past stealing gum from the candy counter, you robbed a bank, and now you’re in jail.  Your marriage has shattered to pieces. A loved one dies, maybe several.  The house you poured everything into is no longer something you can afford to keep, and you lose a part of yourself in the sale. The addictions that started as hobbies have you firmly in their grip, and they begin to take over everything. In your more sober moments you can see it, but it’s overwhelming and so you sink deeper.

Somewhere inside, as pieces of us die day after day, we long to say in the smallest, most pathetic voice, “Can we start the day over?” And yet the older we get and the more complicated our lives get, the harder it is to start over, to make a new life for ourselves.  As we get older and we begin to see how tightly our lives are woven together with the lives of all others on this planet, and especially those whom we love, our place in life begins to look more and more like a small box that we can’t get out of. This is the way we’ve always done it, we say.  Whatever and however I did yesterday, that’s how I’ll do it tomorrow, because people can’t change.

And let’s be honest, we don’t like it when people change, so we try hard not to let them. New life for a friend or loved one might mean another death for us—the loss of a friendship, a reminder of our own inadequacies, an empty hole where love used to be.  And so we say that resurrection is not truly possible. Because in the telling of that story—that death is final and new life is a fantasy or a myth or just a story written down by people long ago—we are able to constrain life to the boundaries of what is knowable to us.

A few years ago I worked with prisoners in a hospital.  It was the saddest place I have ever worked—the despair permeated every room of the hospital. Those of us who were staff had heard every story in the book.  Within a week I had heard at least 50 times, “I didn’t do it, but see there was this other guy.”  Many of the patients had elaborate dreams about what they were going to do when they got out—new ways of living their lives, the hope that this time it would be different, this time they were going to get out of the city and take their family to live in the suburbs.  And yet many of them were on their 3rd or 4th stint in jail.  It seemed to be true that those dreams failed on the other side of the prison walls. Somehow, some way, there didn’t seem to be room in our world for those men to find new life.  I met with one man who had worked hard to get certified as a machinist, so that when he got out he would be able to get a job and support his family.  He wanted badly to be able to support himself legitimately so he could get out of the life he had been living.

I naively got excited for him: “That’s so great!” I said.  He laughed at me and said, “Yeah, but Chaplain, I got my certificate, and you know what? In big bold letters across the top of that certificate it says, ‘DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS’. I don’t got a chance. I mean, I have to tell a boss that I have a record, but this certificate is the first thing he’ll see, and I can’t even get a foot in the door.”  Shaking his head he sank deeper into his despair.

Another man I met had a problem with alcohol. A lifetime addiction. Most of the time he kept it under control—he never drank on the job.  But one time, while off the clock he drank so much he blacked out. And in an alcoholic fog, he started a fire at his work. He lost his job, his pension, his home, his wife.  He was an older guy. It was hard to see how he was going to start over.

And who is going to let these two guys start over? What chance do they have at employment, at friendship, at coming back to their families?  Who’s going to give them a second chance?

But it’s not just prisoners who find themselves stuck—there are all kinds of prisons, all kinds of deaths.  Haven Kimmel, the author of A Girl Named Zippy, which I have read to you before, wrote a second book about her mother called She Got up Off the Couch.  It’s the story of how her mother, who was deeply depressed for many years, finally found the freedom to get up off the couch, to go back to school, and to live a new life.  She found the courage to be resurrected. Some people made space for her to change and some didn’t, but she found a way to live a new life. Here is a little bit of the story, the moment when her mother decided she would get up and return to school.
     All my life there had been certain constants, facts so steady I assumed they were like trees or mountains, things you could trust to stay where you left them because they were mountains...My constants were the same as everyone else’s: a house with quite a few rooms and utilities that came and went. Church three times a week. Church so frequently and which I so much couldn’t get out of I considered ripping off my own fingernails in protest, or better yet someone else’s fingernails. My family. And no one as dependable as my mom, burrowed into the corner of that sprung sofa cushion, reading and eating crunchy foods, the television on, the telephone ringing. We’d never said a whole lot to each other, given that I was a citizen of the world and was generally on my way out of the door. But she always smiled when I passed her, gave me a wave. And when I got home, there she was.
     Something had been on the rise with Mom for a few months. There were many tearful meetings of the her prayer cell, and at least half a dozen thrown-down fleeces (bargains made with God) and phone calls and arrangements. One of her fleeces involved a television commercial of Abraham Lincoln in a classroom. He was standing at a podium saying if I was thinking of going back to college, did I know that I could test out of some required courses by signing up for the CLEP Test, which stood for College-Level Examination Program. This was all news to me. I heard Mom talk to her women at church about that commercial, and an agreement was reached: if she saw it on the following Friday, anytime before 6:00 P.M., she would call the number on the screen.
     On that Friday, although I didn’t know why we were waiting for it or what it would mean if she called, I spent the whole afternoon nervously watching TV with Mom. Dad was gone, so it was just the two of us. Three o’clock came and went, and then four, and five, and Mom sank deeper and deeper into a heavy silence punctuate with heartbroken little sighs, because a fleece thrown down is an unbreakable contract. At 5:55 she got up and went into the kitchen and stood holding on to the sink, as if she might throw up. At 5:57, she bowed her head. At 5:58 she looked up; I thought she had come to a decision, or was constructing a new shelter made of resignation. At 5:59 I felt my own throat swell with empathy, and at 5:59 and 30 seconds, Abraham Lincoln walked across the classroom that would become my mother’s life, and when I looked up at her, she was staring at the television screen with her eyes wide and her mouth open and I knew that what I was witnessing was no less than a miracle.
We insist so often that people cannot change, that new life cannot happen, that resurrection is a myth. Perhaps those early Christians just couldn’t see that Tabitha was really sleeping, in a coma; surely she wasn’t really dead and her resurrection didn’t really happen. Because if we accept the possibility that she was dead dead and was returned to life, then we have to admit that it might be possible for those around us to do the same. It might be possible for our own selves to be resurrected out of the death we have fallen into.

What holds us back? At least part of it is memory and the long grudges we hold. We hold people to their sins, to their places that serve us, to the roles they have played both good and bad. And yet Miroslav Volf, in his book The End of Memory, suggests this possibility for heaven and the end of time: He says that in the end of time all sin will be exposed, judged, and forgiven. And then it will be forgotten. Even God will forget our sins, for what kind of heaven could it be if we retained the memory of the wrongs done to us?  If I am to be redeemed along with the man who molested my daughter, how can it be heaven if we remember what he has done, no matter if he has been judged and forgiven? And so in the end of times, when all of creation is redeemed, even God will forget. And in that forgetting comes the possibility of new life. The letting go of what was makes room for whatever will be.

Am I saying give up on justice? Of course not! And yet it is time to re-imagine what justice looks like, and it is time to look carefully at our own culpability for the evils in this world.  I am helping to coordinate a conference called Revive! Justice 2010; it is a justice revival, focused around the twin issues of incarceration and immigration, and it will look carefully and deliberately at the way people of color are targeted for detention.  This conference will be about starting over for the men, women, and children affected by incarceration and immigration laws, but also about starting over for all of us who walk with privilege. It is time to re-imagine ourselves to makes space for new life, because the end of time is not here yet, and we must do our best to let go of old ways to make resurrection possible. What do we need to do for those two men in prison, the machinist and the alcoholic, to return to life?

The end of the passage from Lamentations is often quoted out of context: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, great is thy faithfulness O Lord.”  Those two verses are on greeting cards and placards, church bulletin covers, and inspirational book marks. But we forget that those two verses come from Lamentations, and that they are the only uplifting words to be found in Lamentations.  The previous 20 verses include things like, “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath...against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones...I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long...He has made my teeth grind on soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is...The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.” 

And then finally, in the midst of absolute despair, there are these words: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, great is thy faithfulness O Lord.”  It is as if God, in the smallest, most pathetic voice possible, whispers into our ears early each morning, “Can we start the day over?”