Trauma, witness, response

Pardon in Finistere, painting by Eugene Boudin
at the Va Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

For two weeks in a row now, Jesus has talked about being lifted up.

Last week he compared what is going to happen to him, being lifted up, to that time when Moses put the bronze serpent on a pole and lifted it up for people to look at after they had been bitten by a snake so that they might be healed. This week he says that when he is lifted up from the earth he will draw all people to himself.

Both references, of course, are to the cross and also his ascension after his death. When he is lifted up onto the cross, everyone will look upon him and see the glory of God. Being lifted up will be an exaltation. And his ascension will also be a way for people to be reconciled with God. But despite the lofty language Jesus uses - glorification - we are talking about something traumatic here. 

All week I’ve been thinking about trauma. Most weeks I think about trauma because every time I turn on or look at the news, there is another agonizing story. This week in Atlanta, my home of 30 years, a young white man decided that he needed to kill women from the Asian community, either because they were Asian or because they were women, or more probably both, and he was headed to Florida to kill more when he was caught by the police. 

In Myanmar, Southeast Asia, protestors demonstrating against a military coup that has taken over the country to overturn a civil election have been being gunned down by police for weeks now, and in Mozambique, Africa, insurgents have taken up beheading children for reasons still unknown. There are more stories from other cities and countries, of course, including our own. There are every week. And it’s hard not to just look away.

As we move closer and closer to Good Friday, I am more and more aware of just how close I feel to drowning in sorrow. How my sense of resiliency has grown thin. Yet I believe that we cannot look away from trauma, from disaster, we cannot look away from wreckage of all kinds because I know that God is to be found there and that God calls us to stand there too, even if all we can do is stand there and weep.

And we would be in good company if that is all we can do. At the foot of the cross stood Mary Magdalene and the other women after everyone else had run away. They stood in sorrow and they stood bearing witness. It was all they could do. 

But of course that was not the end of the story. Mary Magdalene and the other women later spoke up about what they had seen - not only death but also resurrection. Not that anyone believed them. 

When Jesus speaks of the grain of wheat dying but bearing much fruit, he is reminding us that there needs to be a response to what happens to him. The world responded to Jesus by putting him to death, but a community of believers was formed and responded by serving in the world in his name, bearing witness and responding to suffering. We are the current generation of that community called to continue to bear fruit. 

It would be nice if our story were that Jesus was a good teacher who lived a good life and died a good death, a feel good story of gentle wisdom imparted to eager and dedicated followers, but our story is a lot more radical than that. Our story is that we follow a man who turned things upside down, who erased traditional cultural boundaries, who flaunted customs and who was willing to die rather than become complicit in the use of violence through which to wield power. 

He was killed because he was a threat to the status quo of both political and religious leaders, because he dared to treat the poor and the sick and the outcast as if they were just as important as the rich and the privileged. He took on being an outcast, he took on being abandoned, he took on being misunderstood, he took on being scorned and scourged, taunted and tortured. He took on dying a shameful and horrible death - described succinctly in our creeds as “he suffered” and in response he asks us to bear witness to the suffering in the world and to minister to those who suffer as well. 

As he says today in the Gospel, to bear fruit. To respond.

Which we do by seeing the suffering around us and opening ourselves to the Spirit’s leading us into response, as individuals and as a community, in direct actions on a personal level and as part of community efforts, from supporting equitable public policy to giving from our resources to humanitarian or peacemaking or justice work. And standing up against a culture of hate and violence and death. 

And while we do seek an inner peace as we live as though we believe that God loves us, we must be willing to invite discomfort and even danger when we engage in bearing fruit through bearing witness and serving the suffering. Our engagement can be powerful and transformative, for us and for the world, and undergoing transformation through the power of God means being willing to be broken wide open by the suffering we see. 

I am reminded of the writer Annie Dillard who wondered if we Christians are even aware of the power that we so blithely invoke in our prayers and petitions, or do we simply not really believe in it but are instead just cheerful tourists consuming a packaged program of defanged religion?

“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church,” Dillard says, “we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

As Holy Week draws near and our sorrows and the sorrows of the world are about to be illuminated by his, what do we think following Jesus is supposed to look like when he speaks of dying to bear fruit, of losing our life to save it, to see glory (perhaps in the faces of Asian women) where others see shame, to hear thunder and know it to be the voice of God? What will we see when he is lifted up? What must be broken open in us and how will we bear witness to it? 

And most of all, how will we respond?