in Theology

“On the Death of Our Child” / Easter Sunday 2017 / Mark 16:1-8

April 16, 2017
Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8

In Name of the + Jesus. Amen.

Last week Friday I found out that a friend’s fifteen year old son had died accidentally. I was on my way to Fort Wayne to do a recording. Having a sixteen year old son myself, it hit me hard. I had to shut off the podcasts and the music. I needed the silence. The tragedy of it loomed over Palm Sunday and through Levi’s visitation on Holy Tuesday and his funeral and committal on Holy Wednesday. This horrible death came in the midst of our annual celebration of our Lord’s Passion. So, all—Levi’s family, friends, and fellow Christians—had the benefit and comfort of hearing Pr. Hertel preach that our Lord died for our sin, defeated the Devil for us, and destroyed our death.

It is true that when one member of the body of Christ, the church, suffers that we all suffer. The words of the Litany rang in my ears all through each morning Matins service this week. “From all sin, from all error, from all evil;  From the crafts and assaults of the devil; from sudden and evil death… Good Lord, deliver us.” There’s no answer as to why, only that Jesus died for Levi, forgave Levi, and promised him the resurrection of the body and the eternal inheritance of Heaven in Holy Baptism. Now Levi rests in the Lord’s peace, awaiting the last day and the Lord’s triumphant trumpet-like call awake!

Another petition of the Litany was personal. We prayed, “To grant all women with child, and all mothers with infant children, increasing happiness in their blessings; to defend all orphans and widows and provide for them;  To strengthen and keep all sick persons and young children; to free those in bondage; and to have mercy on us all…We implore You to hear us, good Lord.” I couldn’t help but think of my own children and how precious and fragile their life is. I especially considered how this petition applied to the young child in Anne’s womb.

But perhaps we shouldn’t have changed the old words of the Litany. This petition used to go like this: “To preserve all women in the perils of childbirth.” I did not know that our child had already died. Anne started spotting later on Wednesday evening and by Thursday afternoon’s appointment it was clear that we were suffering a miscarriage. This was a first for us. I was shocked. We’d had eight uncomplicated pregnancies so why would I expect differently? I had some emotions then. But the reality hit me later.

While I was filling some coffee orders, our six year old daughter Leah asked me, “Daddy, why did the baby have to die?” She’s very matter-of-fact. She followed with, “I wanted a baby sister. You need to get pregnant again right away.” We love our Leah. But her statement hit the nerve. Our child was dead.

I hadn’t realize how sanitized, sterile, and even callous I was to miscarriage until that moment. I’ve suffered with others through this before, at least I thought I had. Perhaps it is the insulation pastors build up in our attempt to empathize not sympathize and avoid compassion fatigue? Perhaps it is the medical language of miscarriage? Perhaps it is the lack of an obvious body to grieve over, mourn, and bury? Perhaps it is that generations of parents have suffered miscarriage in silence and isolation? Perhaps it is the mistaken notion that the child in the womb to a certain point is only a blob of tissue?

I do know this: that my own sympathetic grief with the family of Levi Mueller early in the week later brought the reality of what happened to us into razor-sharp focus. Just like fifteen-year-old Levi, now we learned our child was dead. Our joy at the blessing of conception was now turned to the sorrow of the death. There’s no other way to say it.

So, that’s what I prayed at our Good Friday Tenebrae service. “Almighty God, gracious Father, Your ways are often beyond our understanding. In Your hidden wisdom the hopes of Anne and Christopher have been turned from joy to sadness. In your mercy help them to accept Your good and gracious will. Comfort them in their hour of sorrow with You life-giving Word for the sake of Jesus Christ… Amen.

Granted, it took me a while to make it through. The full weight of what is nothing less than a death of our child came crashing over my defensive walls. I thought my weeping was over after the little interaction with Leah. It wasn’t and it isn’t. There is a time for weeping and sorrow and it is now. But, as we hear at every funeral from St. Paul, “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.

We believe and confess that all life is a gift from God, from womb until the tomb. And more so, we believe every life is one for whom Jesus died. Jesus did not die only for those who come of age, who accept Him, and who live a full and rich life. He died for those who slandered Him, mocked Him, beat Him, condemned Him, and crucified Him. He even died for the murder crucified next to Him. If he died for those sinners, then He died for our littlest, too.

Remember the confession of David, “In sin did my mother conceive me.” The Scriptures are clear: even from conception we are sinners. We are not sinners simply because we sin. We are sinners because we are flesh and blood. It is the condition we receive as our unholy inheritance from our parents spanning back to the first sin of the Garden. Everyone from conception needs redemption. Thanks be to God that the one whom God knits together in their mother’s womb is also the one for whom Christ died to save. He died to save our child, Levi, and everyone.

You see, the joy of Easter is not that He saves us from sorrow, worry, and despair. The joy is that He saves us in the midst of it. While we’re neck-deep in the horror of this life, that’s where Jesus meets us. That’s probably where many of you are this morning, right in the thick of it with us. Dad had a major heart attack. Mom is in memory care. Husband’s physical condition is deteriorating rapidly. Friend has cancer and its terminal. The joy of the Resurrection isn’t a message apart from this life. It’s the answer to it.

That’s where Jesus met those three women at the tomb. They had witnessed the horrific death of their brother and rabbi. And in the case of one, it was the death of her son. What is more terrifying than to have your child die? I know it now. But did she remember the promise that the Son of Man must die and on the third day rise?

No, she didn’t. Nobody believed, despite the motion pictures. The mother of Jesus along with the other Marys came to finish the preparation of the body for its year-long rest in the tomb before the final internment of the bones in the family ossuary. She considered it his ignominious end. Even when they saw the angel, they were alarmed. When the angel spoke good news, they fled traumatized and out-of-their-minds. They said nothing to anyone, because they were absolutely seized with fear.

Look. Anne and I aren’t alone. You’re not alone either. The fear, terror, horror, and sadness of this life is real. And Easter doesn’t take us out of it. Instead, Christ meets us today in the deep, dark pit of this life. He shines the light of His love into our sin-darkened hearts. He promises resurrection to us our those we love who died in faith. As Luther would have us sing, “In the midst of death we live,” not “in the midst of life we die.” That’s what today is about. Life proclaimed in the midst of death; dead, dry bones receiving sinews, flesh, and breath. God breathing on us who are dead to give us His resurrection and life.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

Crumbs from the Master’s Table

Given current trends in North American Christianity, and culture, I can easily imagine a day when a child, seeing a crucifix for the first time and asking her mother what on earth it might be, will receive this answer: “That, my dear, is someone who did not take very good care of himself.”

This will strike you as farfetched only to the extent that you do not read self-help books, watch your local PBS station (insofar as there remains any difference), or spend time hanging out with clergy.  To do any of these three even in moderation is almost inevitably to come face-to-face with the notion that a truly good shepherd never lays down his or her life for anybody.  One begins to anticipate a new translation of the gospel in which the resurrected Christ will say to Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” and when Simon insists that he does, Christ will reply, “Then feed yourself.”

Having said this, I might surprise you if I also say that convincing people to take care of themselves is one of the greatest pastoral challenges I know.  And it remains such a challenge precisely because of the ubiquitous lip service this culture pays to “taking care of ourselves.”  Once the sheep have heard the false ring of “a stranger’s voice,” even when there’s some merit in the stranger’s advice they will fly from it.  At that point it takes the Good Shepherd himself to bring them back to health and balance.

Fortunately, that is precisely what the Good Shepherd does in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  It is certainly not one of the sweeter stories about Jesus…  That said, it is important to recognize that the Master is only one of two principal characters in this poignant drama.  There is also the mother with the sick child.  I think of her as a single mother with no status and few material resources.  Had she a husband or some other male advocate, would she not have sent him to negotiate with the rabbi?  Instead she goes herself…  

I’ve met her, of course, and so have you.  When my daughter was only three months old we had to take her to the pediatric ward of a large hospital far from home.  Mercifully, our stay was short; the physicians’ alarm proved unfounded.  For other families, visits there were heartbreakingly routine.  I remember in particular one mother and child who shared our room.  Her son had an extreme form of cerebral palsy; one evening we were awakened when he nearly choked to death on his own saliva.  Nurses and doctors rushed into the room and saved him.  I retain the image of his mother in the morning, the face hard with worry, the soothing words tendered in a hoarse voice.

Now I wonder: How did she “take care of herself?”  What did she get by way of “centering” beyond a few hurried cigarette breaks?  If no one feeds the sheep, you see, then the only people who can truly take care of themselves are those already well taken care of…

If the Canaanite woman could bring about a turning in Jesus himself, what stones we are if she does not convert us too.  “O woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims – this after he has characterized her as one of the “dogs.”  He might almost have said, O Woman, you are faith.  Faith with a steadfast heart, a dead-end job and a sick kid.  Maybe the time has come to put stained-glass images of the Canaanite woman in our churches.  Then if some child should ever point to a crucifix and ask, “Who is that?” we can point to the window and answer, “Find her, and she will tell you.” 

— Garret Keizer, Feed My Dogs (Matt. 15:21-28)
[Christian Century, July 28-August 4, 1999, p. 741; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation]


Doing Away with God in the Name of Peace and Quietness

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore – on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe.  It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium.  We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him “meek and mild,” and recommend Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.  To those who knew Him, however, He in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to Him as a dangerous firebrand.  True, He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners; He assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the Temple; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.  He was emphatically not a dull man in His human lifetime, and if He was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.  But He had “a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without Him.  So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.

–Dorothy Sayers