What’s Next?

If you’re a lucky dog “parent,” you get one in your life. The one. The one to which all other dogs will be compared. You’ll probably guard your heart a little once you’ve lost the one, imagining you’ll never love another the same way. Some you met Haley, my little five-pound rescue, on the Feast of St. Francis. She was mine.

I met Haley five years ago visiting my mother. After the first day, my mom said, “She wants to go home with you.” She did and we became each other’s constant companions. She would go to church with me almost every day. My solo camping routine became “solo” with her. When I came back into the Air Force four years ago, this time as a chaplain, I trained Haley as a certified therapy dog so she could visit units with me. The 3,400 Airmen in my care all knew and loved Haley, and she loved the attention. It was a joy to share her with my people.

When Haley died unexpectedly last month, it felt like a little piece of my heart went missing. I’ve spent some poignant time in our congregation’s memorial garden these past few weeks remembering and thinking about her little life, and giant heart.

Lent is a powerful time to contemplate connection and loss. I know each of you carries some memory of grief in your body, for we hold grief less in our heads than our hearts. I know there are many losses among us, some recent. Of brothers and sisters; grandparents and parents; maybe children. Of life partners or dear friends. Of expectations and hope. Maybe even of a beloved animal companion, your “one.” There’s no such thing as a little grief when it comes to our hearts.

Can you imagine how the followers of Jesus felt the day after their teacher, friend and companion, died on the cross? They must have felt they had lost everything. They’d given up their worldly possessions and livelihoods to follow Jesus. Left their families and friends to follow their one true teacher. Their one. Now their beloved was gone.

They had to figure out what to do.

The women in Jesus’ life knew. They were probably used to taking care of practical matters in the lives of what I imagine were dusty and distracted disciples. The women knew they had to visit the tomb and anoint Jesus’ body.

But when they arrive, according to the Gospel of Luke, the body of their teacher wasn’t there. Instead they see two men dressed in fabulous, dazzling clothes. The women were terrified. Then men ask them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but risen.” The women, which include Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and James’ mother Mary, go and tell the disciples, but they call the story just “idle” talk. I wonder if there was some mansplaining too. Then Peter goes to look himself, and seeing the empty tomb and clothes, he believes, too.

Every time we are touched by grief and loss, we stare into the empty tomb and have to choose. Will we seek the living among the dead, or will we choose life despite its inevitable losses? Will we find life among the living? Will we remember who we are, and why we are here.

What matters to me most in the Easter story is figuring out what to do next. In the Gospel of Luke, we watch the disciples struggle with this question. While the women seem to have a clue, the men are disoriented, not even able to recognize their master when he first appears. Some wander off home; others shut themselves up in a closed room.

If we were to have an evening service tonight, the lectionary would have us read the next verse in the Gospel of Luke, when two disciples are walking home toward Emmaus. While the women took care of what needed caring, the men seem lost. “Well, time to go home, I guess.” It is in this passage that we learn a better answer to “what’s next” than “let’s go home.

Again, it’s the day after the resurrection. Two followers of Jesus are leaving Jerusalem and discussing the last three days, from the trial and death of Jesus to the recent report of the empty tomb. A third traveler joins them as they walk. It turns out this mysterious stranger is Jesus, who asks them what they are talking about. “Dude,” they say. (They probably didn’t say “dude”) Dude! How could you not have heard about what happened in Jerusalem? They tell him the story of their grief and shattered hopes, “that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” Jesus admonishes them because they’ve failed to see the big picture. Not only did Jesus’ crucifixion (and we know) resurrection fulfill the prophecies, but they’re walking in the wrong direction: away from Jerusalem and toward home. In Jerusalem there’s work to be do, a community to gather, healing to be done, a ministry to build. The three arrive at Emmaus, and the disciples, still not aware that the stranger is Jesus, invite him to share a meal. Jesus breaks and blesses the bread. The gospel doesn’t say what words he used but I imagine he hinted, “Do this in remembrance of me”? Now they get it. They see him, and just as they recognize him, he vanishes.

They remember themselves and all that Jesus taught them, and instead of continuing home, they rush back to be in fellowship with other disciples to share what they’ve seen–and I would imagine, their hearts and grief as well. Then, in a completely closed room, Jesus appears to all the disciples, is reunited in a meal, and then ascends.

Easter for me isn’t complete until we’ve stared into the empty tomb, seen Jesus again, and (this is critical) remembered who we are as Christians. We need to look not for the living among the dead, but to find life renewed among the living.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? When we choose life, we must ask, what is next for us on this journey of life? What happens after the Passover meal? What happens after Calvary? What happens once we remember and recognize?

What happens next is the road back out into the world: The road back to your everyday life, despite grief, loss, and challenge. The road back to Jesus’ mandate of creating heaven on Earth—even before we get the outward sign. Absent transcendence, we carry on in in his name. We help heal the sick and brokenhearted. We advocate for those who experience discrimination or oppression. And in our return to wholeness, we emerge more attuned to the suffering of others, to the grief we all carry, to the mission before us.

A Christian faith is suspect if it cannot guide us back toward the suffering of humanity. It must make us better, more loving, more generous people. It must console and have the capacity to make us better practitioners of Love.

And so I pray,

May he who taught us to Love unconditionally illuminate the shadows before us and the depths within.

May we seek not the living among the dead, but life among the living.

May he who taught us these things walk beside you, recognized or not, when you need him most,

And may you, when the time is right, recognize his presence, accept his teachings into your heart, and be renewed—in the glory of his Love, a Love that redeems, heals our broken hearts, and sets us free.


Delivered at All Souls Church, Okinawa, Japan

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