Deaths We Cannot Accept
In my span of life there have been photojournalism pictures -- magazines… newspapers -- which have moved me to the very core. I can think of the photo of the Vietnamese girl running naked down the road after having been covered with napalm. That photo did as much as anything to influence American opinion about that war. I can think of the photo of the girl at Kent State kneeling beside a body with her arms stretched out as if to ask, “Why?” I can think of the photo of the second plane exploding into the World Trade Center.
One such photo appeared on the front page of the Washington Post a week ago Thursday, a day after the school shootings in Parkland, Florida. The photo was of a mother cradling her daughter – who had survived the shootings – in her arms. Both were crying. Seventeen high school students had just been murdered by a disturbed young man with an AR-15. Seventeen deaths. What made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, though, was the forehead of the mother. There was marked a large and distinct cross, marked at the Ash Wednesday Service she may have been called away from. Marked with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
And what struck me was this: At that Ash Wednesday service she had attended I imagine she was reminded – by the readings, by the sermon, and by the pastor’s words as he marked the cross on her forehead – I imagine she was reminded that her life was finite … that someday her life would come to an end … that she would die. And I imagine that she may have accepted that reality; that her life was finite… that some day she would die. But then she emerged from the church to be confronted – maybe by a phone call, maybe by somebody rushing up to her – that the possible death she had immediately before her was not her own, but her daughter’s. The pastor had said, “Remember you are dust.” He did not say, “Remember, you daughter is dust.”
I think it is easier to accept the inevitability of our own death than the death of a loved one. I’m certain that was the case with Peter when Jesus informed him that he, Jesus, would die --- and not of old age out there in the future someplace – but sooner rather than later after great suffering and rejection. Peter could not accept Jesus’ death. Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him – as if giving Jesus a scolding could prevent this thing from happening. It is at this point that Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then, to underscore the point even further, Jesus gathered everybody around him and talked to them about their own deaths. He said that, to be his followers, they must take up their cross. Crosses are instruments of death. It is not an illusion to suffering. It is an allusion to death. Then he came right out and said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
That part I imagine Peter could understand and accept – the inevitability and necessity of his own death. Peter accepted his own death. And, indeed, tradition has it that Peter was eventually crucified – like Jesus – only upside down. Peter could anticipate that and accept that. What Peter could not accept was the inevitability of the death of Jesus whom he loved dearly.
The pastor said to the mother, “Remember you are ashes and to ashes you shall return.” He did not invite her to accept her daughter’s death. I think it is easier to accept the inevitability of our own death than the death of a loved one.
I know that is the case with the death of our daughter … something I don’t touch on in sermons very much, if at all. So I hope I can get through this. One of my reactions was similar to that of other parents who have lost children. Why couldn’t it have been me. I would gladly die if my child could be alive. To this day, I think that if there suddenly appeared a door to death and that if I walked through it Kathie would come back to life – I would run toward it and through it. I’m ok with my own death. Not someone so very close to me. I have a grief response every time we sing For All the Saints. This past year it jumped up an bit me on Reformation when we sang that verse in A Mighty Fortress which says, “were they to take our house, good honor, child, or spouse.”
Now, I know that Jesus was trying to teach Peter the significance of his death, that he must die so that all might life, and he needed Peter to accept that. But I wish that he could have been a bit more sympathetic to Peter’s grief. And I wish he hadn’t called him Satan. Peter was expressing a grief borne out of love.
There’s another reason I wish Jesus hadn’t called Peter Satan. It may have hurt Peter so deeply that he may not have heard what Jesus had do say next: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will find it.” Here is a gospel moment Peter need to hear. Here is a kingdom moment Peter needed to hear. The point of this whole thing, Jesus was saying, it to live and die for the sake of others… to live and die that God’s kingdom might come, just as we ask in the Lord’s prayer. “Thy kingdom come.”
We give our all so that others may have life and new life. So, we do all that we can do to prevent the unnecessary deaths of others, especially those who are nearest and dearest do us.
Seventeen students died unnecessarily on Ash Wednesday at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school. I guarantee you that each of those parents would gladly go to their graves if their child could be alive. I can’t help but think that when Jesus talks about our losing our lives for the sake of the gospel that it means, in part, that we need to put it all on the line so that these things never happen again. Teenage survivors of Stoneman Douglas gave of themselves by travelling to Tallahassee to ask their representatives to pass mildly sensible gun legislation so that these kind of tragedies, although they will never be stopped, will be mitigated.
Jesus is talking about losing ourselves so that others may be found. It is time that we lost our guns so that others may live – at least the AR-15s which can kill so many people in so little time. Jesus said we need to lose in order to gain. Maybe representative may have to lose votes. Maybe senators may have to lose NRA contributions. Maybe the rest of us may have to lose some 2nd amendment rights. But Jesus said, “…those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The safety of our children is the very definition of, “for the sake of the gospel.”
Jesus died for me --- and for you. That death I can accept and understand. I can accept and understand my own death. But I can’t accept the deaths of the teenage beloved sons and daughters of those parents this past Ash Wednesday in Parkland, Florida.
For those who would value their own rights over the lives of children I would say, “Get behind me, Satan.”
Text: Mark 8:30-38