I’m not particularly good with houseplants.
It’s not that I don’t like them; I do, very much, especially this time of year. There’s nothing like something green and flowering to brighten up a room and take the edge off the lingering effects of a long winter; it’s just that I have trouble keeping them alive for very long! Quite honestly, most of the time it’s my own fault, the inevitable (if unintentional!) result of a lack of any semblance of care on my part. But that said, even when I’m making a real effort to do what’s right where the plant is concerned, I never can seem to bring forth the right combination of sun, water and plant food to keep it alive. Sooner or later, the same thing happens; the once beautiful and thriving houseplant ends up withered, dry and drooping, its leaves falling and its soil dry and parched; pretty much dead and gone forever.
There are those, of course, who just seem to have the knack with plants; especially those that are by all appearances dry and lifeless. I actually stand in awe of people like this; they’ll take a plant that you assume is ready for the trash, and they’ll water it, perhaps repot it with fresh soil and give it lots of TLC. At first it all appears rather pointless, but sure enough, after a couple of days you begin to see the plant’s leaves start to lengthen and uncurl, taking on once again the brilliant green color of life; and before you know it, even more than merely surviving, that plant is blooming and thriving like never before! It’s like watching the dead come back to life; a miracle in which that which seems for all the world to be completely lifeless and hopeless is both resurrected and redeemed!
I see things like this, and I always come away with the same thought: if only the rest of life could be dealt with so easily! But we know better, don’t we? Indeed, if there’s one hard truth that most of us learn in our lives, it’s that not everything can be so easily fixed and brought back to life. Death is a very real part of our lives, and not just physical death, either; there’s also death of the heart, so to speak; the death of relationship, the death of one’s inner peace and self-worth; the fatal brokenness that comes about because of unresolved guilt, crippling shame and deep regret. Indeed, there are so many of us who go about our days bearing all the broken and lifeless fragments of our lives; who try by every means possible to “come back to life,” as it were, but with no success at all. I mean, bringing a houseplant back to life is one thing, but I ask you… can there ever be life again for such as these?
Honestly, I think that’s one major reason why Maundy Thursday is so very difficult for us. As Christians, you see, most of the time in our faith and worship, we focus on matters of life, and healing, and blessing and hope; and well we should. Even when we are confronting the more difficult parts of our biblical truth – things like sin and judgment (again, as well we should!) – there is ever and always the other side of that concern: that with confession and true repentance comes forgiveness and redemption. Even when we gather to grieve the loss of our loved ones in services of memorial and committal, we approach death in terms of wholly receiving God’s promises of life eternal. Death is not our obsession in this place; LIFE is what we embrace here and what we accept at the hand of an infinitely loving God.
But tonight is different. Yes, we come here to sing the songs of praise, feast at his table and to hear and to reflect on his word; but the thing is, on this Maundy Thursday night, that word inevitably and tragically leads us… to death. Here is where we confront the betrayal and desertion of the one who is God’s Son; here is where we must witness his humiliation and his pain; here is where we have to listen to the cries of the people who are shouting for his crucifixion; here is where we have to truly wait beneath the cross of Jesus, watching the life slowly and horribly ebb out of him, this one who was our teacher, our healer, our master and our friend; here is where we watch death come and claim the Messiah, who is Christ the Lord… and know that there is absolutely nothing that we can we do about it.
Because it isn’t Easter… not yet. And though we know there’s more to this story, it’s not our story quite yet. This is Maundy Thursday; the night before Good Friday. And on this dark night, we have to face the blunt, cold reality of death and the grave… and then go home.
And that might be the hardest part of all.
Many years back, a parishioner of mine had passed away and while I was at the visiting hours the funeral director asked if I might go and speak with one of the adult children of the deceased, who had retreated (hidden, really) into a back room of the funeral home. You see, though this woman was in her mid to late 30’s at the time, she had never had occasion to go to a funeral nor to actually view a body lying in an open casket. So now not only was she dealing with the grief of losing a parent, but she also was feeling a great deal of fear as well. But when I spoke to her about it, she said to me that it wasn’t so much being in the funeral home that bothered her, but rather the fact of seeing her father’s body. “Because if I go out there and see it,” she said, “I’m going to have to face the reality that my father has died, and that someday I will, too.”
I never forgot that; she offered up one of the truest expressions of grief I think I’ve ever heard, and though she probably didn’t realize it at the time, one of the best explanations of why this night is so very hard. Yes, death is the great certainty of our lives, it is true; and to see the Christ, who represents and is for us the way, the truth and the LIFE, to face that one great certainty is overwhelming, because we are confronted with the reality of our death as well, yours and mine. What we remember here tonight is truly and matter of life and death… but as we do, friends, we need to remember that there is indeed more here than meets the eye. Death is a certainty, especially tonight, but when it’s in God’s hands, it’s not the finality; and God proves this in the death and, soon, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to them very soon before all of this unfolded. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Notice that he did not say I will be the resurrection, nor did he said that the resurrection is coming, but rather that “I am the resurrection and the life.” Here and now, right in the midst of death’s dark, grim reality.
That is what we need to remember, beloved, as we make our journey now to the cross; that ours is the God who creates life and hope in the midst of death; who brings sustaining love in the midst of all loss; who redeems despair through unending hope.
The Rev. William Sloan Coffin, the famous pastor, preacher and activist, and one who himself knew the harsh realities of death, having lost his oldest son Alex at the age of 24, says it very well I think: “Eternal life begins, not at the end of time, nor at the funeral home, nor even at the moment of death, but right now. The death that comes [to us] is not the death that separates us from the love of God [for we] know that the abyss of love is deeper than the abyss of death.”
Beloved, as we now approach the cross of Christ, may we find ourselves caught in that abyss of love
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry