Sunday, April 30, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Pieta: The Mother and Son"

Mark 15:42-47

Since it was late in the afternoon on Preparation Day, just before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph from Arimathea dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a prominent council member who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom.) 44 Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. 46 He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried. (Common English Bible)

“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Two

It is one of those images that hits a particular chord in our humanity and amplifies across the internet for millions of eyes to see: a photograph of little preschool-aged girl in her soccer jersey, flanked on either side by her parents, with jerseys that share her number 37 and that bear the names “Mommy” and Daddy.” And then on either side of them are two more parents, also with the number 37 on their backs with the names “Stepmom” and “Stepdad” above the number.

All of them alongside the little girl, Maelyn. All of them affirming her. All of them supporting her.

Naturally, people became curious to learn more about this uplifting family, and WSB-TV 2 in Atlanta went to do a little digging, and I’ll share from them some of theirinterview with Maelyn’s mother, Clara Cazeau, and Maelyn’s stepmother, Emilee Player:

They explained that the amicable relationship between the two couples isn’t anything new: they share custody and have been co-parenting Maelyn for the last three years. They had no idea that the photo would touch such a deep chord for people and go viral.

Cazeau said, “I had just gotten these shirts made. Emilee posted the picture and made it public—but we had no idea it would go that far.”

On both family’s Facebook feeds are similar photos of the four smiling “co-parents” and their two daughters. When asked how they manage their relationship, they say it’s all about being mature and putting aside your own insecurities.

“You really have each person 100 percent in it,” Cazeau said. You have to put your differences aside for the good of your child.”

Maelyn may have no idea that her family’s story has gone viral—but her stepmom says that even at just 4 years old, she does know a lot about what it means to be accepting.

“She’s very sweet, very loving,” Player says. “She’s not standoffish, she’s accepting of everybody. And I think that’s because she’s been taught to accept everybody by the people who love her.”

Parents and co-parents alike are capable of raising their children with love, and to teach them to be inclusive and accepting in ways that perhaps we were not. Maelyn is living, breathing proof of that.

Who our parents are matters. The genetic lottery can determine so much about our fates—whether we are raised with love and care, whether we are born rich or poor and the correlation to remaining rich or poor, all of these can play factors into the people who we become.

We tend to talk most about Jesus’s parents during the Advent and Christmas seasons, and perhaps understandably so. But no discussion of the images of Jesus would be complete without talking about how Jesus is seen and depicted in relation to His parents—both earthly and heavenly—in perhaps the most famous co-parenting arrangement of all time. So while we take in the joyful image of one co-parenting situation—of Maelyn’s—we can, in so doing, reflect on that situation for Jesus.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents and teaches us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we’ll be using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

We began this series last week by rewinding to Good Friday to the image of Jesus the man being hauled out before the chief priests and temple authorities by Pontius Pilate, and we are going to remain in Good Friday for one sermon longer as we fast forward several hours to the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, and the image of Mary holding her dead son’s body that was immortalized most famously in Michelangelo’s (the Sistine Chapel painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) statue of the two, called the Pieta.

The other famous image of Jesus with Mary is the Madonna (the image, not the iconic celebrity), otherwise known as the Mother and Child, and the two images are a fascinating juxtaposition to make—both are of Mary holding Jesus, but in one, Jesus is a very much alive infant, while in the other, Jesus is a dead adult man, having just been executed by the state.

In this regard, Michelangelo may have taken a bit of liberty with his art, as Mark states in this passage that while Mary the mother of Joseph and Mary Magdalene were present at the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, it was Joseph of Arimathea (who is not Joseph the earthly father of Jesus) who performed the actual removal, presumably under the supervision of a Roman official or centurion sent by Pilate, and Mary the mother of Jesus, while present according to John's Gospel, has to have her presence inferred here.

You can, and should, though, easily and vividly imagine Mary as being given the chance to hold her dead son’s body one last time before Joseph wrapped Jesus up in a linen cloth that served as a shroud and placed the body in Joseph’s own tomb.

It is a heart-wrenching image that is difficult to truly wipe away from your mind, so do not try to do so. Do not forget the human pain that comes with a child predeceasing their parent, even if, in this case, it is inherently necessary for that child to then resurrect.

That is why I chose Maelyn’s story to begin this message—because the images we tend to share, and want to share, of our families, tends to be the images we want to share, not the ones we do not. I would say that this tendency is extended, as the nature of the family unit shifts over time, to more and more often include co-parents and stepparents and their photos (or photos of them). Indeed, as I noted then, Jesus’s own family unit was one that included a co-parent in Joseph.

So much like the joy around Maelyn’s family, or around the image of Mary and the newborn Jesus, so too is it important to see the images that may not cause us such joy, but that may challenge us, make us ask questions of ourselves, or push us outside our comfort zones—images like the Pieta. There are images of our families and friends that we often cannot wait to share with the world. But there are also images that are not quite so joyous and clean-cut either, but that offer a very real window into the depths of our humanity and compassion.

Down in Arkansas, where the state government is churning through executions at a historically rapid rate, one of the inmates executed, Kenneth Williams, received a bit of mercy and help from an unexpected source—the family of a person he killed (not the person he was put on death row for killing, but someone else) learned that he had a daughter he had not seen in many years and a granddaughter whom he had never met.

So, according to the Associated Press, this family sprung for the plane tickets for his daughter and granddaughter from here in Washington to Arkansas to see him one last time (and first time, for the granddaughter) before he was put to death this past weekend. Asked about this act of mercy by the AP, the daughter, Kayla Greenwood, of this man’s victim, Michael Greenwood, simply said, “I told him we forgive him.”

Can you see difference in gravity between these images—between the joy in Maelyn’s family and the anguish in Kayla’s? But can you also see how that anguish gave way to mercy and to forgiveness?

We do not know if or when Mary forgave the state for crucifying her son. But knowing Mary from her words and deeds in the Gospels, and knowing that she did indeed find favor with God, I imagine that she did indeed in time begin to forgive them, just as, according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus also did. It may not have been easy, it may not have been right away, but eventually, perhaps that forgiveness was there.

For while Jesus was God-made-flesh, He surely took on some of his mother’s characteristics as a man. As does Maelyn as her parents and co-parents raise her. And so too have we, sometimes for worse, but hopefully for the better.

May we continue to seek to exhibit as many good and great traits from our loved ones as possible, especially the One who loves us the greatest and deepest from the throne in heaven with a love so great and so much that, as John says, Jesus was sent to us as a result…not so that we might die, but so that we might live, and live eternally.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 30, 2017

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