Monday, 02 November 2015 00:00

"Pink is Beautiful", November 1, 2015


“Pink is Beautiful”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
All Saints Day
November 1, 2015
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

As we were trying to think of the colors of the rainbow for our sermons for the fall, we were kinda stuck on what to use for All Saints Day.  We finally settled on pink.

Seven years ago, my colleague Bill Englund, pastor of First Baptist St. Paul, lost his daughter in an awful house fire while she was away at college. When we gathered in the standing room only sanctuary in St. Paul, we were all sporting April’s favorite color. You guessed it, pink.  I think of that every time I put on my pink shirt.  I think about a father’s grief, a sister’s, a mother’s.  How do you go on?  It’s not easy, nor is there a clear path.  About the only thing that you can count on is for people to surround you, to say the things that they think you need to hear, even if that is silence—some of it is even helpful.  And we muddle through. They were comforted by April’s insistence that pink is beautiful.  Don’t wear sackcloth and ashes.  Wear bright pink, they said.  It’s the color of life and joy and hope.  It’s the color of fun and frivolity.  It’s the color of valentine hearts and the pink panther.

How do you remember the saints that have gone on before?  When Jim Henson died, he didn’t want anyone wearing black at his funeral. He wanted people to be colorful like so many Muppets.  I’m sure some wore pink, just like Miss Piggy, declaring that Jim’s life was beautiful, and he made us love all kinds of monsters no matter what their color.

Pink is the color of the triangle of solidarity with the LGBT community. Pink triangles were the required badge of gay men and lesbians in Nazi Germany. Like the Star of David, it pointed them out as undesirables.  But people started wearing pink triangles in solidarity with their homosexual neighbors, the idea being if everyone wore such triangles, no one would know who was who.  It was an affirmation that all are people of value.  Since that time, we wear pink triangles to say that people are beautiful.  Pink, in this context is beautiful.

When I was in San Francisco in the late 90’s, I often visited the Castro Metropolitan Community Church. It was a time just before the three drug cocktail came around, too late to save the lives of an entire generation of primarily young and vibrant gay men who succumbed to the AIDS virus.  At their Sunday evening services, we sang at the top of our lungs, “We are standing on Holy Ground and I know that there are angels all around.”  They stood there where their fallen brethren had stood just weeks, before.  Grown men weeping and remembering the angels that surround them.

We, too, remember the angels that surround us: Lou Martin, Bill Burch, Sheryl Palmer, Elli Bienhoff, Flip Saunders, and so many more.  We’ll call out their names in a little while as we gather around the communion table.  The ribbons that we have on these banners are mostly green and blue and gold.  But every once in a while, a pink ribbon is there.  Pink is beautiful.

Frederick Buechner said: “To be a saint is to be human because we were created to be human. To be a saint is to live with courage and self-restraint, but it is more than that. To be a saint is to live not with the hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and to receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews.”

Pink is the color of ribbons that we wear as we raise awareness about breast cancer.  I saw a YouTube video from my Facebook friend Zam Walker.  I met her at the Iona Community back in 2011.  She and her husband David pastor a church Greenoch, Scotland.  But her service at the church has been interrupted by the recurrence of breast cancer.  She made the video from her hospital room for her friends to see.  She had an oxygen tube hanging from her nose, but she also had her humor, her energy, her Scottish brogue, and her bright smile. She said in her video “Many people think of breast cancer and sport pink.  But it’s not all fluffy bunnies. It sucks not being able to breathe.”

We know of so many people who have struggled with cancer. So many brave people. So much triumph. So much pain.  As we deal with disease, we can’t help but encounter bravery, mortality, fear amidst hope.  And we wear pink as we remember their beauty.

We don’t know what was afflicting Lazarus.  He could have been sick for a while. He could have been in remission.  He could have been lingering for a long time.  What we do know is that he was sick, for his sisters sent word to Jesus that he was very ill.  Jesus made the trip to Bethany to visit, but by the time he arrived it was too late.

When Mary and Martha broke the news to Jesus of the death of his good friend Lazarus, he did what we all do. He wept.  He wept at his loss.  He remembered the banter that they had together, their camaraderie. Jesus hung out with Lazarus when he wanted to relax and get away of the hard questions.  He could just be with him.  But when he got to Bethany, he had missed the funeral and the burial.  And so Jesus wept.

To make matters worse, Mary and Martha played the guilt-card. “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” It’s the bargaining step of Elizabeth Kübler Ross’s steps of grief. You know, shock, denial, bargaining, depression, anger, acceptance. “If you had been here, he would still be alive! You could have saved him. You healed so many others.  Why are you so arbitrary?  Why would you let your friends die, even the ones you love?”  We ask that of God all the time.

Jesus knew they were talking out of their grief, and it didn’t help. Jesus did what we do when people die.  We weep. We weep for the lost chances. We weep for the loss, the hole that is in our hearts.  We weep for the unfinished business between us. We weep because others are weeping and we are pulled into that grieving vortex. We weep to let out the anguish and the cries.

I am oddly comforted by the fact that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb.  When William Sloan Coffin’s son died, he spoke of how God wept at his tomb.  God weeps in solidarity. But God is not so aloof as to wish pain on us. But when it happens, because we all die eventually—last I heard, God weeps in solidarity with us, just like the Son of God did at Lazarus’ tomb.  Just like Mary would weep outside of Jesus’ tomb. We go through that cathartic convulsive moment or week or month, or hour—it’s different for each of us.  And it helps us get to the other side.  

We come to church today acutely aware of the saints that have passed before.  We see their names on these ribbons.  We hear their tones as the bells tinkle.  We remember them and we are humbled that we need to carry on the work they have left undone.  They are our guardian angels, our inspiration, our cloud of witnesses.

But how do we go on?  Do we simply suck it up and get through?  Do we wallow in the grief for endless eons?  Do we try to change our lives, make our lives more meaningful because of the person who died?  Do we sport pink, even if it’s not our color? All of these are valid and good responses.  And there’s no clear road map to get beyond grief.  

But this is what I know.  We can’t do it alone.  We need people to surround us.  We need people to support us.  We need people to pick up the slack for us when we can’t do it ourselves anymore.  We need people to cook for us, to remind us to eat, finish our sentences when we are so filled with grief that we don’t know what to do.

As many of you know, my father died in early January almost three years ago.  Right after his death, I went to Nicaragua with the bell choir to visit our sister church.  Luckily I was there with my family and fourteen other bell ringers and roadies from UBC.  We had a good group that picked up the slack.  They let me know that they had things covered and that I didn’t need to take care of them.  Even our sister church was the epitome of compassion. And when I got sick and spent the better part of two days convalescing, they were so loving and caring.  And every time the bells played, I remembered the bells on these banners.  All the people who have heard them, all of the joy that had been spread, all of the reality that we are never alone.  We are always surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  Two years ago today, our family put my father’s name on this banner, just like we had put Kim’s mother’s name on this banner many years before.  And today, we remember them and the beauty they graced us with.

Pink, the color of solidarity, the color of love, the color of springtime tulips and hyacinths. It’s beautiful. But it’s a reflection of a community surrounded.

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the people took off the burial cloths from Lazarus.  Jesus said, unbind him and let him go.  Let him go.  He would not live for ever. None of us would.  He didn’t unbind him and let him go back to the way things were before.  He unbound him and let him go.  

There’s a wonderful scene toward the end of the final Harry Potter book.  Harry, it seems, dies and yet is still sustained by the power of his mother’s protective charm, which is more powerful than even death.  But before he returns, he spends some time in another dimension, a tomb—if you will.  Harry meets his old teacher who has also died.  He had already seen other people who had died who gave him the courage to fight on.  But in this tomb scene, Harry is at a train station.  His teacher reveals to him all of the secrets of his life’s story.  Finally Harry asks what he should do—should he keep fighting or just give up.  Of course the teacher is not going to answer him directly.  He says, “We’re in King’s Cross station.  I suppose a train could come here at any moment. You could choose to get on it or not.” Where will the train go? Asks Harry.  “On” replies the teacher.

Jesus said, unbind him and let him go.  He was talking about Lazarus, but I also think he was walking about us.  We who are so bound by expectations, by cowardice, by despair, by loneliness.  Jesus tells us to unburden ourselves from all of this.  And by the power of God, go on.  But remember that you don’t go on alone.  Other people unbind you.  Other people have gone before you.  Other people believe in you. Other people wear pink in solidarity with you, with what you will become, with what you are becoming.

Listen.  They are as close as a ringing bell.  And they remind you that you are beautiful.  You in all of your pink expectation, your enthusiasm, your luxury of time and breath. Use it well.  Unbind him, unbind her, and let them go.  And remind them that they are never alone.