May 28, And then...

 And then…

Luke 24: 44-53

I usually have a couple of books going at the same time. Right now, I am reading several books in preparation for my trip to Israel and Palestine in June – historical and autobiographical pieces – but I usually also have at least one piece of fiction going as well. The one that I am reading right now is a novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman titled “A Man Called Ove” (pronounced “oo-veh”)

The man character is of course a Swedish man named Ove, whose beloved wife has died and who has recently been forced into retirement. He’s a very direct, practical man, set in his ways, impatient with anything new or different, and now very, very sad and lonely, but isolated and unable to express or even process those feelings.  

As the story begins, Ove determines that the best course of action is to kill himself so he can go to be with his wife. He arranges everything carefully, leaves explicit instructions for his affairs, thinks about every issue and angle, but then every time he thinks he’s got everything set, someone or something comes along and “interferes” with his plans: the new neighbor moving in across the street backs the U-haul trailer into his mailbox, and Ove has to come out and back the trailer for him, the wife of the same couple needs to learn how to drive and Ove is the only one who is available to teach her, a boy who delivers the mail wants to fix up a bike for a girl he wants to impress, but he doesn’t know how. Ove does. A stray cat falls into a snow drift and need “defrosting” and then adopting, and who will do it? And, so it goes, even to the point where Ove, deciding to throw himself in front of a train and finally be done with it, ends up instead saving someone else who has a seizure and falls on the tracks first.

Ove misses his wife desperately – she was the riot of color to his black and white. He wants to be with her in the after-life, but again and again, the things of this life – the needs of his neighbors, the handy set of skills he has, the growing friendships with those around him, call him back to this life. That is, he’s ready to go, and then… something else asks for his attention, for his care. He sees his life coming to an end. He sees it, he plans it. And then…something else happens.

The novel is in some ways profoundly sad, but then it is also immensely delightful, as the author captures the often mundane and sometimes surprising turns of life – things that make for a good story I think.

But then again, these things are also the things that make for a good life, an interesting life – continuing encounters, day by day, with the often mundane and sometimes surprising twists and turns of life: you thought it would turn out one way, you were even planning as much, and then it took a turn you didn’t expect; the story-line of your life asked something of you that you never intended, much less imagined. You thought you had it figured out, somewhat settled, and then tragedy came along, or failure, or friendship, or love. Over time you slipped into a dependence on someone else to carry a part of your life along, to bring color to your black and white for example, until they couldn’t anymore, and then you had to figure out how to re-balance yourself.

And then tragedy came along, or failure, or friendship, or love. And then you had to figure out how to re-balance yourself. It’s all these “and then” moments that catch us, right?

And in many cases – like it is for Ove, so it is for us: the threshold, the intersection of death and life, and the thin veil between the two, is the place where we find our most testing and trying “and then” moments.

In the novel, the reader comes to find out that Ove’s wife was a paraplegic – injured in a bus accident many years before, an accident that took the life of their unborn infant as well. She sat with the tragedy for quite a while, but then one day she decided to live. “We can busy ourselves with living or dying, Ove,” she said, “We have to move on.”

And she did, redirecting her life for good, becoming a teacher, teaching children others considered hopeless. She taught them to read Shakespeare, she loved them, and near the end of her life, when she is dying from cancer, she says to Ove, “God took a child from me, darling Ove. But he gave me a thousand others.” And this is another example of the bright color to Ove’s black and white, but when she dies, he loses not only her, but her hope and her beauty are taken from him as well. And then…he has to figure out what to do next.

That’s a fictional story, but it is true as well. We overcome disappointments and even tragedies, and we find a way to live for good. We see beauty and hold on to hope. We color the world with energy and imagination so long as love lives in and around us. But how do we overcome the finality of death? What do we do with the final “and then” – and then she was gone…

“Death is a strange thing. (writes the Ove storyteller, Fredrik Backman) People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of death that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with (death) that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.” (“A Man Called Ove” p. 440)

Near the end of the Gospel account, the disciples are caught by this as well. When Jesus dies, suddenly the starkness of living as the “left behind ones” catches up with them. They are overwhelmed, overcome, nearly lost. How could this have happened? No matter that Jesus warned them of his impending death. How could they have known that it would actually happen? Surely he was talking about something way off in the distance, cautioning them about what might happen someday, not giving them a warning about something just around the corner.

And then…suddenly it was all happening: the plotting by the religious authorities, a betrayal by someone close, the arrest, the mock trial and the scourging, the scattering of his followers, Jesus’ crucifixion, his torturous death, his burial.

He was alive and then he wasn’t. He was with them and then he wasn’t. And then…

But of course, the story turns on Easter Sunday. The world shifts again: an early morning trip to the tomb, a waiting angel, an empty grave. And then…Jesus appearing. And then…Jesus alive!

Who would have expected such a thing?! And then…it’s like a new day. It’s the same story (sort of) but a new chapter. Jesus was dead and then he’s alive. He was gone and then he’s come back. They were separated and then they were together again. They had lost all hope and then their hope was restored.

But after all of that, there’s one more “and then” to come. It’s this morning’s scripture story: Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.

Once again, it’s the story of how he’s with them…and then he’s gone again, carried up into heaven. He’s blessing them, right? And while he is still blessing them, he’s suddenly gone again. And then….then what?

Well, two things happen then. Two things: they worship and they witness. That is, the followers of Jesus give thanks for what they’ve been given, for the life they’ve had with him, for the courage and strength and vision he’s passed on to them, and then they resolve to tell the story and to keep telling the story.

That is to say, they celebrate what they’ve been given in Christ, by Christ, by telling the story, by testifying to this amazing story in which they have become participants – the story of God’s incarnation, the story of reconciliation and grace, the story of love come down to earth, the story of hope and wholeness, the story of redemption, the story of mercy for the downtrodden and justice for the oppressed, the story of Jesus the Christ.

Jesus ascends to heaven…and then it’s all up to them. Yes, the Spirit comes, and they have Jesus inside them, in their hearts and minds, but unlike before when he walked with them and talked with them, now it’s their story, their lives, their witness, their ministry. And then…it’s up to them.

It’s up to them. It’s up to them to remember the one who has left in a way that eases their sadness, but also points them toward whatever is next. It’s up to them to figure out how to take hold of the spirit of the Beloved and live it forward, continuing to testify to their hope and love.

That kind of perspective, that kind of mission, may be one of the reasons I liked the direction of Fredrik Backman’s story of Ove so much: When Ove’s wife Sonja dies, his heart is broken, and he wants to give up. But then slowly, he turns a corner, and things from his memory instead of binding him with despair, start to release him toward hope. When he mutters something sour to himself, he is startled to almost hear her laughing kindly at him, the way she did when she was alive. When the stray cat looks at him with expectation, he remembers how much his wife loved cats. When the boy who wants to fix the bike shows up delivering the mail at his door and says of Ove’s wife, “I just liked her, that’s what I wanted to say. I’m…you know…I’m not so good at reading and writing and all that. She’s the only teacher I ever had who didn’t think I was as thick as a plank. She got me reading that Shakespeare, you know…I really felt terrible when I heard she died, you know,” – when that happens, Ove remember how much good her passion and faith and kindness has done. When the neighbor’s child calls him “Grandad” after he comes to her birthday party, he realizes what it would have been like if his own son had lived and how much joy it would have brought his wife to one day have become a grandparent.

And so it is that over and over again, she comes back to life in his mind and his memory, and her life speaks to him again, and the “and then” question is answered with this call: And then, you go on living.  And then, you keep doing what I would do. And then, you make meaning of life and you take my blessing and you grant it to others.

It's not living a life stuck in the past; it’s carrying the testimony of the past into the present and pointing that awareness of who you are, and how those who have loved you have helped you to become who you are and more – pointing that awareness with hope and thanksgiving toward the future. And when that happens, the words “and then,” rather than being an expression of inevitability, do become words of possibility, and words of hope.

And then…life went on. And then…we were surprised by blessing. And then…we kept growing and changing. And then…we did good. And then…we made our teacher, our parent, our spouse, our neighbor proud. And then…we didn’t give up. And then…we were touched by some kind of grace. And then…we were visited by the sacred at moments and in forms and shapes we never expected. And then…we saw our own worth and the worth of those around us. And then…we were no longer afraid. And then…we lived life – the life that we had, yes, but we lived it in a way that connected us and carried us forward toward the life that we had yet to live.

The verses at the end of Luke’s gospel, at the end of today’s scripture, could be “the end” of the story, but they aren’t. The worship and the witness of the disciples after Jesus ascended guaranteed that it wasn’t the end. And we know too, that it’s never “the end.” It’s always “and then.”

So, what’s your “and then?” Surely you’ve come to a place recently or you will come to a place soon where you need to turn the page. What’s your next chapter? What’s your “and then”? And will you power that ‘page-turn’ with your worship and your witness, with your gratitude and your testimony?

Life stretches out before us. Something ends, yes, and then, something new begins…with us, with life.

Let us pray:

Yes, indeed, dear God, life stretches out before us; something ends, and then something new begins. But these transitions are not easy for us, and sometimes it is hard to hold on to hope; to live forward with a sense of trust in the movement of your Spirit. 

We pray, then, that we would have a stronger and clearer sense of Jesus within us and between us, guiding and encouraging us to live as people of grace and goodness, to live as people supported and motivated by love.

We know, dear God, that we will come to these “and then” moments again and again. Broaden our vision and deepen our peace, that we might be our best and most hopeful selves.

We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Benediction:

And then…this hour of worship comes to an end.

And then…you go out into the world.

And then…you witness to the hope and healing you know through Jesus Christ.

And then…you keep going – living his example; sharing his mercy.

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

May 28, 2017