Entering the Grave

Last week, I had the great honor of retelling one of the most amazing stories I have ever heard in my life. I'm posting this sermon on my church blog, but I wanted to post it here, too.

In the sermon I refer to the tragic death of Tom Fox, the sole American among the four members of the Christian Peacemaker Team abducted in Iraq. Even as we still mourn his death, great Alleluias pierce our Lenten lamentations as we celebrate the peaceful military rescue of the three other peacemakers.

All four men entered the grave. Three were returned back to life. Yet the great mystery of the Christian faith is that even death cannot separate us from the Source of Life. Tom Fox lives now in the vast heart of God.

* * *

Last week in Valyermo, the other first-call pastors and I had the opportunity to hear a word from Tamara Nichols Rodenberg, the new dean of the Disciples Seminary Foundation. In addition to years of pastoral experience in the US, Tamara and her husband also spent about six years in Southern Africa as missionaries. I understand why mission nights at churches used to draw huge crowds: missionaries have stories to tell, stories that are infinitely more compelling than anything you could see on television. Missionaries tell stories of God’s creative and redeeming work in cultures drastically different than our own.

One of Tamara’s toughest barriers in South Africa and Swaziland was the matter of her gender. I get looks here in Southern California for being a female pastor; the communities in Southern Africa simply didn’t know what to do with her. European colonial customs and indigenous African customs were combined in ways that keep women vulnerable. According to the women’s movement Imbokodo, “In modern day South Africa, women are faced with a wide range of issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, unemployment gender discrimination as well as poverty.” In addition to the gender issue, Tamara, who is white, worked in South Africa just a few years after the fall of apartheid. Tamara’s entire Southern African ministry was undertaken in the context of danger.

But the Spirit of God was upon her.

One day, Tamara and her husband attended a funeral of a man who had been active in a rural congregation. He was survived by his elderly wife. And in many poor, indigenous cultures, the widow of the deceased is considered dead as well. She has no right to property, and is likely to be mistreated by her in-laws and children.[1] The rituals of the community emphasize this. During the funeral of her husband, a woman cannot be seen. She is covered in heavy, black blankets, even during the heat of the day. She is shrouded and alone in her grief during the whole funeral.

Tamara watched as the blanketed woman moved to the body of her husband. She watched as a hand emerged from the covers to drop a fistful of dirt onto the coffin. She watched the heap of blankets shuffle back to her solitary seat.

And that’s when the Spirit of God intervened. Tamara knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was sending her under that blanket to share the pain of the woman underneath it.

She got up and dove under the heavy cloth before anyone could stop her. Her husband was astonished. After all, part of being a good missionary is honoring the culture and customs of the people. She was breaking a rule that no one ever thought to break.

The widow under the blanket seized Tamara’s hand and clenched it so tightly Tamara couldn’t even feel her fingers. The woman held on for the rest of the funeral. When she finally let go, Tamara ducked back out to face the consequences of her action.

Her spontaneous response to the Spirit had not gone unnoticed. The whole congregation was silent. The Bishop of the church came and stood before her. She was the center of attention and scrutiny. The foolishness of her split-second decision was clear. Would this cause their whole ministry to collapse? Would she loose the fragile respect of the people?

The Bishop stared at Tamara.

And then he spoke. “Thank you for entering the grave.”

Sisters and brothers, this story takes the cruciform shape of the gospel. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg boldly entered the grave of a living widow in a rural African village. She risked her reputation and her ministry by trespassing the rules and rituals of the culture. To the untrained eye, she was a fool. But her action revealed the abundant, life-giving, and foolish love of God. “For God’s foolishness,” Paul reminds us, “is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

In this Lenten season, we keep our hearts affixed to the cross. No matter how desperately we would rather avert our eyes from that horror, the scriptures keep pointing us back to the ultimate image of weakness and suffering: the crucified Christ, the glory of God nailed to a cross. In the words of the hymnist Brian Wren,

Here hangs a man discarded,
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by.
Can such a clown of sorrows
Still bring a useful word
Where faith and love seem phantoms
And every hope absurd?

(Brian Wren copyright 1973, 1975)

The Word of God—discarded. The Messiah—a scarecrow. The beloved Son of God—a nonsense pointing nowhere. The view at Calvary makes our Savior look like nothing more than a clown of sorrows. And yet through the cross, Jesus enters the grave. He extends his hand to us in our darkest hour, bringing the Spirit of the Living God into the lair of death.

Through the utter weakness of the crucified Christ, the power of God’s love resounds. The wisdom of the wise is destroyed. The discernment of the discerning is thwarted. Those who see the cross for what it is will never again believe the lie that death is more powerful than life, never again predict that violence and domination will triumph over sacrificial love.

We who follow the crucified Christ are bound to look like fools to the wider world. We are called to do unreasonable things to share God’s love with creation. And sometimes, by the grace of God, we live out our ridiculous vocation. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg offered God’s presence in a place thought to be godforsaken. Tom Fox lost his life doing the blessed work of peacemaking in a land wracked by war. And countless more Christians quietly answer the call to enter the grave as fools for Christ.

With your consent, I’d like to close with a story of my own. I pray that if I boast, I boast in the Lord. As you know, I am in my first year of pastoral ministry. With the prayers and support of a legion of faithful Christians, I discerned and responded to the call God placed on my life. And I tell you what: I believe that God called me to this place. But even with that confidence, the first year of ministry can be daunting. One of the persistent issues has been my age and gender. The members and friends of this congregation got over the fact of my young age just as I was about to start making old age jokes. But the people I meet beyond the walls of this congregation still react. Many people respond with disbelief, but their shock soon warms into appreciation. On a few occasions, though, I have been hurt. I am hurt by the claim that my ordination was invalid because I am a woman. I am hurt when people assume that I am incapable of offering a pastoral presence to people in crisis. And I was hurt when a woman laughed at me, long and hard, when she learned that I am a pastor.

My instinct is to go on the defensive. I want to stand up for the Holy Spirit, who calls both men and women into spiritual leadership. I want to point out my Master of Divinity degree and my Certificate of Ordination, bragging about the education I received in seminary and the blessing I received from the Church.

But instead of those things, I must accept that by responding to my vocation as a minister of the gospel, I am a fool for Christ. I am no Tamara or Tom. I do not risk my life for the gospel the way these missionaries risked theirs. But I proclaim the crucified Christ in a land that is thirsty for the gospel.

We proclaim the crucified Christ in a land that is thirsty for the gospel. This is all we can do; if the power of God’s love revealed on the cross does not attract people, nothing will. The Kingdom of God will always look like a fool’s paradise to some. It is an upside-down place where the weak are strong, where the dumb are brilliant, where a discarded scarecrow hanging from a Roman cross is our salvation. It is divine madness, and it is the power of God. Amen.

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