"The Smallest Hopes."
In the last couple of days, this sanctuary has been a grim place. You wouldn’t think it on Easter Sunday--you’d think we were all celebration, all joy and gladness--but consider, if you didn’t, coming to one of our Holy Week services next year. You will hear a different story, on Thursday and Friday at 7pm--a story about dying, about friends watching a friend die and not being able to do anything about it.
Some of you will know this experience from the inside. You will know what it’s like to, say, be friends with someone who has cancer. I had a small friend with cancer; he was one-and-a-half when he was first diagnosed with something else, a rare syndrome, and then it became leukemia but he went through treatment, and he was cancer-free for three years before it came back again, and he died at age 14. He was gentle and calm his whole life. He loved Thomas the Tank Engine and Grover. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it, he lay back on the hospital bed and looked at his mom while she tried not to cry so she wouldn’t scare him.
That little boy didn’t spend a moment of his life alone. Jesus knows; he didn’t get too much time for himself either, even though at times he tried to find solace and a chance to pray… but when he was in the garden at Gethsemane and asked his family to stay awake with him, they couldn’t. Maybe they just didn’t know, like he did, that the end was really near. It can be very hard to hear such news, hard to believe it.
There are moments in our lives of sudden panic that spring up completely by surprise. A person could be an hour into a trip they had planned, and suddenly ask themselves, “Did I turn the stove off?” A person could take a personal day, but then realize, halfway through it, that he forgot that he was supposed to be at a meeting that morning. As the realization comes, so does every potential scrap of hope we can imagine: maybe everyone else forgot too. Maybe I have the week wrong. Maybe they will understand. But all these hopes are set against the backdrop of the horrible fear: I am in trouble. These hopes are like threads we start to pull, hoping one of them will bear us up… but they are just threads.
When a person first hears about a scary disease, it usually comes in little bits of information, interspersed with long periods of waiting. A symptom could be one of a few things, the doctor says; let’s start to rule things out. A blood test comes back with an unusual result: let’s look into this. Take this new test in a couple of weeks, and when we have those results we’ll know what to do next. An ultrasound wasn’t quite what they were expecting; we need to do more scans. We need to sample some tissue. Sometimes we peel off that scary track early on. The result comes back: “Your numbers are just naturally a little different than everyone else’s.” “It looks like it’s just a cyst.” “We ran the test again, and it came back negative.” We breathe a sigh of relief, and live life as if it were a tremendous gift for a few weeks or a month before knuckling down to everything once again.
But sometimes it is not we but our options that peel away. One by one the benign things it might be are eliminated and run off on some other, beautiful track to nice places, but our train does not follow. The specialists become more and more special, and we can hear everything the doctors are saying, and also everything they aren’t. We can hear the precise language, the unembellished action words: “Here’s what we are going to do next.” No feeling words to frighten us—all pragmatism. We heard Jesus tell his followers, in our reenactments: “The Son of Humanity will be given over to human hands. And they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him. And, three days later, he will rise again.” This is how we receive such news.
When we find ourselves or someone we love becoming a part of a medical story like this, we are always looking for the potential hopes--the escape routes that might still be open, the outs that may still exist. We are constantly aware of what it still possibly might be that isn’t so bad, remembering a story we think we heard someone tell us one time about someone who was just about to discover a treatment for this. There’s always a drug trial happening somewhere we might become a part of; amazing scientists are discovering new things every day: nanorobots and gene therapies and viruses that target specific cells and deliver medicine to their doorstep. There are ayurvedic practitioners, herbalists, prayer warriors, acupuncture, organic produce... anything, really.
That’s how a father feels when he’s been told that his daughter has something incurable, something they didn’t know about when she was first a baby, but that has become apparent now as she’s developing. Some syndrome that’s quite rare, but we’re sure that’s what it is. This ends in death; it always does.
That’s how a sister feels when she hears it about her brother. It was a sudden accident, and he’s in the hospital, and he’s in a coma. They’ve done all the tests, and they can’t detect any brain activity. It’s not coming back; the injuries were too severe. Suddenly, in a moment, all their shared memories of childhood are gone: the secrets they kept for each other, the vocabulary they shared that no one else could understand--in a moment, all those connections, the words that only meant something to him, are severed. But maybe there’s a hope! Maybe some wild possibility still exists that the coma is only temporary. How can the doctors be sure? How can they know?
This is how a wife feels when she hears it about her farmer husband, who, out in the fields, had a tragic accident. This is how a husband feels when he is told that he has a healthy baby boy, that the baby is fine, but his wife didn’t make it. In each case, we look for the out, the escape route. What do you mean? Maybe I’m not understanding you. There must be some hope. There must be something we can still do. A friend is still doing CPR, ten minutes after the last breath came… Maybe it will still work.
Kate Bowler writes about a friend who called everyone he knew to stand around his best friend’s coffin before burial, and pray. They prayed all night and day, forgetting to eat. “We just couldn’t believe that God wouldn’t resurrect him,” he said. “Didn’t Jesus bring Lazarus back from the grave? Couldn’t God do the same with the chilling body of a well-loved boy? --They longed for a moment of suspended reality, their Lazarus moment.”
See how we wildly grope around in the darkness for a miracle? You might think you are above this, but when the hardest moment comes, we hope for anything… until death becomes a reality to us. Until we are sure the tomb is sealed. Until the third day of death arrives, and the body is just as dead as it was before. Then, we know. We concede. We despair; it was life, but that was the past. We start the path of making peace with using the past-tense: she was my sister. He lived in New York. I had a daughter, I loved my grandfather, I followed my teacher… but she, he, is no more.
When the women went to the tomb that morning, they had bought and brought spices to anoint his body. They knew he was dead; they went to find his body. They were ready to do him just one final honor, to show how they had loved him. Past tense, story over. But, when they arrived, they found the stone rolled back… and the tomb, empty.
What does this mean? I want to be so clear in saying this: This meant nothing, really. This had no declarative knowledge in it, except that his body was not there--but it became the beginning of a crazy realization, a wild, absurd, unbelievable hope. There was no one in the world who would entertain this preposterous notion that had come over them--except, perhaps, the disciples… maybe. When they had given up on everything, on every hope worth having, suddenly one unimaginable hope was presented--and it was beyond possibility, the kind of thing people dream of and dismiss.
It is ours, too. When we sit in the funeral home, and stand for the doxology--it is our crazy, illimitable hope: that the one who said “Follow me,” the one who said “I will go before you to Galillee,” the one who said “I am the Way, the truth and the life”--this One knew something we didn’t.
The message of Easter is: There is NO END to hope. None. We must NEVER stop. Where we see death, God sees life, and gathers it to Godself like a mother hen, gathering her young. They shall mount up on wings, like eagles; they shall walk and not be weary. They shall run, and not faint.
We, who have seen others die, would have been happy to give ourselves instead.
For this gift, we are happy give our whole lives in thanksgiving;
And so we do.
 “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” Kate Bowler, Random House, 2018, p. 36.