25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
A year ago on Palm Sunday, a friend of mine from seminary named Rev. Patrick Heery rushed to the hospital. His wife Jenna, carrying twins, was coming into Labor early and hemorrhaging. After six units of blood, they saved Jenna’s life. But their two twin sons, Ezra and Leo did not make it. They were stillborn. This was after four previous miscarriages.
That evening, Patrick and Jenna held their two sons in their arms, and then later that week buried them back home in Ohio. After this, Patrick took some time off. But about one month after losing both of his sons, Patrick stepped into the pulpit and delivered this message. I would like to share it with you this morning.
When Jenna and I buried our boys Ezra and Leo in the wet ground of Wilmington, Ohio, beside their great grandparents and their great, great grandparents, one of my aunts hugged me close and said, chokingly, “I can’t understand why two people who would make such wonderful parents are being made to suffer like Job.”
It’s natural that my aunt thought of Job. He is a father robbed of his children. So am I. But while I am so clearly surrounded by a supportive and loving community, Job is bereft of everything. He loses his herds and flocks, the roof over his head, his health, his standing in the community. Impoverished, his body covered in boils, Job becomes an outcast. His own wife tells him to “curse God and die.”
While Job may not curse God, he does accuse God. He rails against God, yells at God, questions the God who allowed his children to die. He describes a pain so complete, so consuming, that he longs, not just for death, but for oblivion. He wishes he had never been born at all.
One of the truths of the Book of Job is that life can be ugly. It can be terrible and unfair. Job knows this better than most. Having experienced four miscarriages and now the premature death of our sons, Jenna and I know this. The 30,000 women in the United States who lose a child to stillbirth, every year, know this. The person who grieves the death of a spouse knows this. The millions of Americans who may lose healthcare know this. The refugees of Syria and South Sudan and Iraq and Yemen know this. The person who sleeps homeless on the street, or who can’t get a job because of the stigma of incarceration, or who goes to bed every night hungry, knows this.
What can I say about grief that you don’t know already? Do I tell you about the nightmares that keep me up at night? The violent dreams where I’m running, running, but am too late. Where I am powerless to save Jenna, to save my children, to save myself. Dreams that wake, in sweat, to a reality not so different.
Do I tell you about the anger that burns me up inside? The tears that come unannounced? The weight of my body, of my mind, so heavy to move, to do the simplest tasks?
Do I tell you that I’m not the same person I once was? That something vital has gone out of me?
Do I tell you about the moment Jenna and I said good-bye to each other, thinking she too might die?
Where are the words for such things? Such terrors?
Job’s friends try to find the words. But they come out wrong. They silence Job’s pain and anger. They tell him it’s his fault, not God’s, saying Job must have sinned mightily to have warranted such suffering. It’s not life that’s ugly, they say; it’s you.
Job admirably refuses to believe their lies. I say “admirably” because it is easy, all too easy, when you’re suffering, to believe that you are the monster, not the world.
Job persists in his lament. It’s not until the very last chapters that we hear from God.
And this is important. Because God doesn’t silence Job’s grief. God listens. And when God does at last speak, God doesn’t dispute what Job has said. Doesn’t deny or even try to fix Job’s pain.
Instead, God says to Job, “Let me show you the world through my eyes.”
God reveals a desert—a wasteland void of human life—and dumps buckets of rain on it, lavishly wasting water just to see what might grow.
God shows Job the Leviathan and Behemoth, big lumbering beasts that threaten the world with chaos. God shows him the wild mountain goat, the desert donkey who refuses the call of the herder, the buffalo that will never plow a field, the bizarre ostrich. Scholar and author Ellen Davis writes, “All these creatures in the divine photo album have one thing in common: they are completely untamable…”
Job thought that if he lived a pious and righteous life—which he did—he would be rewarded. In his neat, manageable world, God was in absolute control. And so, for that matter, was Job.
But that’s not the world God created, and that’s not the God who created it.
All of nature evidences a profound and unpredictable freedom…
This is not freedom for freedom’s sake. This is freedom for love’s sake. God so loves the world—its every contour, its every creature, its every sound and touch—that God unbinds the world’s chain and relinquishes God’s own control, even at the cost of God’s own pain.
God’s not just tritely telling Job that you can’t have joy without pain, beauty without ugliness; no, God’s telling Job something far more profound. God is telling Job what it means to be a father, to be a mother—what it means to love something so hard that you give yourself to it entirely and then unclasp the cage.
The God of creation, the God of the cross, is not an all-powerful puppet master, but a parent whose love is so extreme that it invites freedom, invites unknown possibility, even to the point of breaking its heart.”
These words from Rev. Heery have stuck with me this entire past year. They have stuck with me because they are honest. Because they are beautiful. Because there is truth in them. They have stuck with me because of the strength that Patrick and Jenna show through them. But they also have stuck with me because of what they remind me about God.
On that cross, two thousand years ago, God lost a son. As the centurion said after Christ’s final breath, “Truly, this man was God’s son.” God’s son died. And Patrick’s words remind me that we don’t serve a God who punishes us with pain, but a God who enters into that pain with us. We serve a God of such extreme freedom and possibility that God was willing to give up a child so that we may be reunited in love
Our world doesn’t always make sense. It is full of pain. It is full of death and loss, far too early. But this Holy Week, we remember we don’t journey it alone. The Lord of heaven and earth is a parent. A parent of Christ. And also a parent of each one of us. God is a Father who has sacrificed, a Mother who has mourned, a sibling who has been there by our side. And even in our darkest moments, our most crushing pain, our times of greatest loss, God is still at work, bringing new possibilities and life, even after death.
At the end of his sermon, Patrick says this:
Life is God’s greatest gift and sacrifice for us, and as such, it is beautiful.
Job knows this. I know this. For I have held my sons, wrapped in linen, and felt their peace, their beauty, wash over me. I have felt laughter, even joy, slip back in. I have fallen even more in love with my wife. I have gone for drives through the country, and walks through the woods, and though at times, I have cried, and at times, I have yelled, I have also felt overcome with the beauty and awesomeness of life. I have prayed, and I have heard my boys answer—in birdsong, in sunlight, in mist over the water, in round pale stones, in arms wrapped around me, in others’ tears mingled with my own, in frail words that break from my mind.
And in butterflies. Butterflies showing up everywhere. Butterflies woven into Janet’s stole during Ezra and Leo’s funeral. Paper butterflies fixed to flowers. Butterflies on a wooden plaque with their initials. Two preserved Peruvian butterflies, a gift from friends who also lost a son—Levi. Butterflies on a painting we’ve had for years—six butterflies in total, the exact same number of our losses. A butterfly on the top of Castle Rock in the Adirondacks, appearing the very moment Jenna spoke Leo and Ezra’s names, swirling around us.
Butterflies even appeared in the book we had been reading to Ezra and Leo—The Hobbit. We were only halfway through when they died. Last Sunday, on Mother’s Day, Jenna and I finally summoned the courage to resume where we had left off—to finish the story for our sons. The wizard Gandalf has just left Bilbo and the dwarves. They’re alone, scared, walking through a dark forest, surrounded by unknown threats. Bilbo climbs a tree. He bursts above the canopy into a blinding, beautiful light. And all around him are butterflies. Thousands of butterflies. I didn’t remember that part.
Butterflies. Our boys, God, speaking to us. Of love. Of frail, brief beauty.
I do believe because of the cross that Patrick and Jenna will see Ezra and Leo again. But the God of the cross is also with them now, sharing their pain, and leading them back into life and joy and beauty, as God does through each one of us, through the love of Jesus Christ. Amen.