Scripture: John 20:1-18
The trauma had happened quickly. There wasn’t a lot of time between the shock of his arrest, the frantic attempts to get Pilate to release him and the horror of watching him die. And she had been there for all of it. She had borne witness and tried to offer something to him with her presence.
She was still in shock and deep in grief on the morning in the garden. She was in so much grief that she mistook him for the gardener. She can be forgiven for her clouded thinking because it had only been three days since his execution at the hands of the Roman Empire.
But when he called her name, her attention shifted, she was awakened from her stupor and she recognized her beloved, her teacher… “Mary”…. “Rabbouni.”
It is one of the most moving passages in scripture, for me. In the shortest of exchanges, the calling of her name immediately gathers her in relationship, in love, in the impossible reality that from such horror and pain and death has sprung new life.
For years, the factory had polluted the soil and the waters of the surrounding community and then it closed. It sat empty for over a decade until it was torn down and the land sat barren. A group of local community activists sitting in the midst of a food desert decided they would try to remediate the soil. It was one of those amazing projects: you had the Black elders, some of whom had worked at the plant, you had the young Black and brown activists, you had the Black, brown and white geeks who studied microorganisms, plants and mushrooms and the white Canadian woman who spent her life’s energy writing about Earth Repair.
They first met together in a place that looked deceptively simple: grasses growing but not much else. And then the Canadian began to describe what lay in the soil, the chemicals and toxins that had woven themselves together to poison the earth. But she said, this death is not the final word. We can ally ourselves with the organisms, plants and fungi. For every contaminate, there is a microorganism for which it is food. The contamination took decades and the repair will, too. But we can heal this land if we align ourselves with the creatures who can bring life out of this death.
She said, we need to know the truth about which toxins did the contaminating. We need to know so we know exactly the names of which plants and which mushrooms and which bacteria will be our teachers and healers.
That was ten years ago and the work is far from done. But the earth is being repaired in that small plot of land and the death of environmental degradation is slowly giving itself over to the life of human and mushroom, plant and microorganism working together.
Almost three years ago I made a trip to the Pacific Northwest, to the far west coast of the Olympic peninsula, a place that resonates in my soul-body the way few things do. It was right after one of my dearest mentors had died. And I was grieving deeply. As I disembarked the plane and got into my car and then drove onto the ferry to cross the Puget Sound… as I drove around the top of the Olympic National Park, the bottom of the Makah reservation and finally approached the coast, I felt my fascia start to loosen and my heart begin to soften. I felt my breathing gradually slowing and my mind begin to settle. And all of it caused the tears of grief and loss to come closer to the surface.
Finally, as I got out of my car at the trail head that led through the forest to the beach, I inhaled like I was home and started onto the path. For the first section of the trail, I was looking up at the trees, the ones that always remind me of cathedral pillars standing over a hundred feet tall. I had that same sense of sacredness and worship as I paused and looked through the intricately woven canopy with the sunlight speckling through. And then, for some reason, my eyes were brought to the ground. Just ahead of me and to my left, lying about 75 feet long was the greatly decayed trunk of one of massive trees that had fallen several years earlier… in the span between when it fell and now, millions of insects had feasted, slowly softening its hard wood into sawdust and soil. And there, along its massive span whose outline was less-visible because of its softness, rose dozens and dozens and dozens of saplings. What I was looking, what had brought my attention from the heavens to the earth, what had called my name, was what is known as a nurse log.
The tears which had been close to the surface, came spilling out. That one grandmother who had stood for centuries probably had been transformed from death into life for literally thousands of other creatures and close to one hundred other trees. Amidst my grief, she had grabbed my attention and seemed to call out my name, “Rebecca.” And I recognized her as teacher.
And she said to me, remember, life springs from death.
This Lent we have been journeying together and considering what makes for reparation? What truths do we need to tell about our individual and collective histories? What relationships do we need to form and nurture? What spiritual practices do we need to cultivate and practice? And how do we re-distribute resources so that all may have life and life abundant?
And how do we do all of this in deeply embodied ways that help us ground in our created selves (the vertical line, the height and the depth), in community with others and all of creation (the horizontalness, the width), with all who have come before (all that is behind us and literally has our back) and the possibility of what will come (all that lies in front of us)?
I have been deeply moved by all we have shared together on this Lenten journey and I am bringing it to this Easter moment: the truth-telling about the Doctrine of Discovery; the relationships with MIRAC and Reclaim the Block and Honor the Earth; the spiritual practices which have been a particular kind of intimacy as we’ve practiced over Zoom; and the dreaming of how we, as individuals and as the Lyndale community might pay reparations: to our indigenous and Black kindred.
As I’ve sat with these last few weeks in my heart, there are several things that spring up for me as lessons.
The first is that resurrection and reparation are not the same thing, but they are deeply related to each other. Reparation and resurrection are both responses to deep brokenness, and, in particular, brokenness that springs from oppression. Both focus on healing from betrayal and destruction and both are rooted in relationship.
Rev. Dr. Serene Jones was my systematic theology professor in seminary and her class was one of my favorites. One of the most important things she taught us came when we got to crucifixion and resurrection. As she lectured, her voice became soft and commanding in a way that told us she was very serious. She said, if you don’t remember anything else from this class, remember this: you must never write or preach about crucifixion without writing and preaching about resurrection. And you must never write or preach about resurrection without writing and preaching about crucifixion.
Resurrection is God’s response to the crucifixions in our world. No matter how dead something appears, no matter how powerful the violence and evil that killed it, God is a God who makes a way out of no way. God finds a way to bring life out of the deepest death. Reparation is one concrete way we can participate with God in resurrection. Reparation is one way we can look into relationships, into toxicity, into degradation and ally ourselves with the process of repairing the world. But we can’t participate in resurrection and reparation if we pretend that crucifixion and violence haven’t happened. Resurrection and reparation are rooted in bearing witness to the crucifixions of our world and vowing to resist their power.
The second lesson I’ve been sitting with this Holy Week is that, our Biblical story aside, most resurrections and most reparation take a long time. So much so that it might be better to say that we are called to practice resurrection and practice reparation for the long haul… and, even then, resurrection and reparation is, more often than not, generational work. It’s work that is started by grand parents and passed like an heirloom, onto children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Practicing resurrection and reparation is long haul work because the power of crucifixion… of colonization, of white supremacy, of extractive capitalism…. The power of crucifixion is real. Trauma and pain, suffering and sorrow, degradation and toxicity can be pernicious, persistent and long lasting. And they can be handed down from generation to generation like a poisoned inheritance. Serene Jones was right. We must tell the truth about this reality.
But the fact that practicing resurrection and reparation is generational work doesn’t make it any less sacred or powerful. Indeed, being part of a long line of healing is a gift unlike any other.
On Monday morning as the sun was rising, several of us from Lyndale joined with about fifty or a hundred other kindred at George Floyd Square to pray before the opening arguments began in the trial of Derek Chauvin. We gathered at the Say Their Names memorial which is an open field filled with white headstones with the names of hundreds who have been killed by police. And we proceeded to walk first to the north gate of George Floyd Square and then to the South Gate, then to the East Gate and the West Gate and finally to the center of the Square, just feet from where George was murdered. The pain is still palpable in the place. The crucifixion that happened there, the modern-day lynching that so many witnessed, still haunts and traumatizes. And as we walked, we renounced the evil that still seeks to kill.
But two things resonated in my soul: the first was when we got to the West Gate, the leaders said, “we like to think of the West Gate as the Mutual Aid gate. This is where whoever needs to give can come and give and whoever needs to receive can come and receive. This is where we learn to heal and take care of ourselves with food, water, medical care, a listening ear or a prayer.”
The second piece that resonated with my soul was that when we got to the center of the square, where there is a beautiful sculpture of a fist raised high, the leader pointed out that all around the sculpture, they had laid dirt and mulch several inches deep on top of the pavement. She said, we have dirt here because we need to plant and grow, we need the soil to heal us, too.
My friends, the crucifixions in our lives are real. There is no doubt. As followers of Jesus, we are called to resist such violence and death whenever we can and to bear witness and act in solidarity, for we are a people who have traveled through Good Friday.
But we are not just a Good Friday people. We are an Easter people. We know that God’s deepest desire for us is not death but life.
The resurrected one, the teacher, didn’t just call Mary’s name in a garden centuries ago. The resurrected one, the teacher calls to us today.
So, let us awaken from our grief and from our despair and be students of the nurse log and the microorganism, let us ally ourselves with the plants and the mushrooms, let us give when we need to and receive when we need to.
And may we live so that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will marvel at the heirloom we’ve passed down to them.