Fairy tales have been much on my mind this week. That might surprise you, given the workload of Holy Week and the events affecting us. Naturally, the press has been trumpeting the upcoming nuptials of William and Kate. Now, I am old enough to remember the first fairy tale wedding. Like many my age or older, I got up in the middle of the night to watch Diana demurely stroll down the isle to meet her prince. Sadly, as is all too often the case, that marriage was anything but a fairy tale. There was not happy ending. They did not, as the story books claim, live happily ever after. Charges of marital infidelity, invasion of privacy, and a tragic death made sure that was no happy ending. Perhaps, part of the reason so many want this one to succeed is because of the image of the little boy trailing behind his mother's casket. Of course, such sad endings have been part of our life these last few days. . .
Earlier this week, one of our families buried loved one who was a husband to one, a brother to another, and an uncle/great uncle to many. The world would probably note that he had suffered for years with Alzheimer's, so his passing must have been a lifting of a burden. Plus, he'd lived a full life. The only real tragedy surrounding his death, by human standards, was the fact that he'd lived so long without his faculties. Of course, for those who loved him, for those who knew him as a lover, a brother who could get under one's skin, or an uncle who might spoil and tell tales about a parent, his passing is anything but good. There is a terrible sense of loss, a terrible sense of finality, a terrible sense of sadness. What kind of God thinks this is an acceptable ending to a life?
That alone would be tragic enough for one group of faithful people, but our sad endings were not to end there this week. Those of us that are active in the fight against Human Trafficking and those of us on the Prayer Chain know the loss suffered by one of our partners in ministry. Again, by human standards, his passing might not seem so sad. Like Johnny, Hovey was older. Like Johnny, Hovey had suffered from a lingering disease. He'd had a chance to say his good-byes, and he's certainly gotten extra time on earth after having been diagnosed with the big “C.” But, he too had a family. A widow mourns his passing and the loss of his support. Children have lost a father. Grandchildren have lost one of their biggest fans and spoilers. Business partners have lost a good partner. And, as evidenced by the number of people who turned out at St. Peter's for the funeral, the community even recognized someone valuable has passed. But some of us might wonder, did God notice?
And, perhaps a bit harder on more of us, we lost one of our youthful partners late last week and mourned his passing this week. Shawn Arnold, one of our partners in AFM, passed away from a long battle with disease. His story is a bit more tragic by human standards, and particularly so for our intercessors. It always seemed like Shawn would climb whatever hill needed climbing, fight whatever battle needed to be fought. Unlike the other two, Shawn was young, too young. He was only 24. Like the other two, he had a chance to say his good-byes. For 8 ½ months he fought the good fight. Just when it appeared that he had beaten the infections and was going to finally get the blood marrow transplant, the cancer cells returned. All the fighting, all the suffering had been for nothing. His end seemed cruel – such long fights are supposed to have happy endings. Yet, in a scene not dissimilar from our Lord's passing, Shawn gave up his fight and finally succumbed to the inevitable. What kind of loving God allows children to be taken from us?
And, as if those stories were not enough for us, we were given a final communal sucker punch to the gut last Sunday. Just as I was announcing that Dawn and Tony had run off and gotten married last Tuesday, Tony was being taken from her and from us. Tuesday, Dawn and Tony are thrilled and excited. Tony was so excited that he returned on Thursday with Alaska (his German Shepherd also known as “Snots”) and some paperwork he'd been gathering for the bishop. And as we were processing out on Palm Sunday, his heart was failing him. Unlike the first three deaths, there was no chance for good byes. Things were left unspoken. Dawn and many of us were left to wonder why. How was God present in this? Why would God allow a couple to get married on a Tuesday and take one of them the following Sunday?
Each of us gathered here today has been touched by at least one of those deaths, and some of us have been touched by all four. And now, into this special community of faith, we are about to baptize our newest member, Maggie. Have we lost our collective minds? Who in their right mind wants to be a part of a group that knows so much suffering and death? Worse, where are the triumphal shouts of the righteous, as promised by the psalmist? We, better than most, know the true suffering in our midst. Ordinarily, you and I deal only with the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the abused, and the enslaved. On top of all that though, during the week we call Holy, we get these terrible endings. Where is the happy ending the fairy tale promised us? Where is our victory that He promised? Too often it seems like we are on the losing side. Too often, we have more questions than answers. Too often, we are mourning rather than celebrating. And we have the audacity to hope? We have the temerity to claim that we are loved by our Father in Heaven?
In a pastoral sense, these deaths in and on the periphery of our Parish could not have happened at a more appropriate time. While the world struggles with its realization that there are no happy endings, even for the rich and powerful, you and I are reminded that it was for things such as this that He came into the world. It was for this kind of suffering, this kind of mourning, this kind of hurt, this kind of pain that He became human. And, when we are each finally confronted with death, we realize the futility of our efforts. We may think we can provide for ourselves by making sure that we are eligible for a promotion at work; we may think that our doctors gave give us great health if we follow their regimens of medicines, vitamins, and hygiene; we may think that we can “fix” whatever we think is wrong with us through repeated visits to therapists. But death still stands as an unconquerable wall. There is nothing you and I can do to put it off, avoid it, or otherwise dodge its effects. Whether it comes slowly and expectedly or quickly and unexpectedly, its own advent in our lives is unavoidable. It was into that finality, it was into that area where you and I are most powerless that He came to act! And to make it possible for us to live with Him forever, He went willingly to the cross, stayed there when we taunted Him to come down, and finally gave up His life. He became sin who knew no sin that you and I might share His righteousness. And so, brothers and sisters, we stand at gravesides and make our alleluias. Those of us who gathered at these various funerals were reminded of the need for Him to work and walk this week so long ago. For us to have any hope, for us to be able to claim any sense of joy, that tomb had to be empty! And do not mistake it for those of you who have lost your faith or have never had the Gospel explained: this was not a mental resurrection. This day that we celebrate is not a celebration of a carpenter's ideas, his way of life, and some of his amazing insights. No, indeed! This day, 2000 years ago, taught us that God had acted finally and unequivocally to save His people. That great equalizer in the eyes of the world, death, was destroyed. True, unless He comes again before our demise, each of us will experience the death of our bodies. But none of us who die with Him as Lord will remain dead because just as we have died with Him in baptism, He will raise us with Him in new life.
What better offer then, what better hope in such a dark and painful world can Jason and Grace offer poor Maggie? Fully aware of our life together and the sufferings of their own lives and the sufferings that their daughter is likely to face, both Jason and Grace have committed to raise their daughter as one of His. In a few moments, they will promise to do their best, always in need of God's grace, to raise little Maggie to love what He loves and hates what He hates. Can there be a better gift for a daughter? And what a gift it has turned out to be for us! When both Jason and Grace began looking for a date to baptize Maggie, Easter was a time when the whole family and close friends could expect to get together. Who knew how much you and I would need to be reminded of the promise of Christ Jesus? Who knew how much suffering there would be in our lives and how much we would, as a group, need to reaffirm our willingness to go where He has led and to trust in His power and love? Who knew how much we would need to be reminded that He knows our crosses and always goes before us better than God?
Brothers and sisters, this week reminds us all that there are no happy endings, apart from the cross. Unless we are willing to die to selves and to our own plans and our own expectations, the fairy tales all end the same way—in death. This day, we gather as a community of believers, confident in His promises and certain of His power. Easter reminds us that the only happy endings are those that end in Him. To Him has been given power and authority to redeem all things, even our deaths. Thanks be to God that He calls us all to life, a resurrected life, in Him! And thanks be to God that one day, one day, when we have crossed over that great chasm between life and death, He will call to us like He did to Lazarus. Except this time the command will not be “come out” but rather “rise up.” And all of us who claim Him as Lord of our lives and of our deaths will once again obey the sound of His voice and enter into the kingdom He has prepared for us along with all those who, trusting in His promises, went before us. Together, we will take possession of our promised inheritances as first borns, and celebrate what He has done for us for all eternity. That, brothers and sisters, is a promise worth dying for. With that reward in mind and cognizant of His power even over our deaths, brothers and sisters, is how He calls us to live while we sojourn on earth!