What To Do When Atticus Dies
When we meet Jesus and the disciples in our gospel today, two things happen: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’”
But if we pick up the scripture right there, we miss a key ingredient of the story.
What just happened? What did we read about last week?
Mark doesn’t tell us what we know actually happened.
In the same conversation where the disciples tell Jesus all the good they have been able to do in his name, he has to break the terrible news to them: John the Baptist has been beheaded.
Can you imagine the grief and pain and fear that broke over them at hearing that Jesus has just lost his cousin and the world has just lost a great prophet?
So Jesus took them away to a deserted place to rest, not just from the clamor of the crowds and the tiring ministry work they’d been doing, but to give them some space to be alone as a small family to come to terms with the blow they’d been dealt.
It must have been a profoundly disillusioning moment for the disciples.
They’d just gone out and healed the sick and preached the good news to the poor.
They’d really seen people’s lives being changed by the message they had been sent out to deliver.
Then to come back and find that John the Baptist had been executed—it is one of those moments of wondering, “What is the point of all this? Where is God in the midst of this?”
We’ve all had moments like this lately as we’ve watched the news in our world around us, with one act of gun violence piling up on another.
And I have had one of those moments of combined disillusionment and grief in hearing the news about Atticus Finch.
Harper Lee released the partner book to her novel To Kill a Mockingbird this week, called Go Set a Watchman, and the news has already hit the world that in the new book, Atticus Finch is a racist and a bigot.
I, and many other people who love the original book, was devastated.
Atticus was a moral giant in my world.
From reading the book as a child onwards, even though he was a fictional character, I somehow relied on Atticus to be out there somewhere, strong and safe and standing firm for integrity and doing the right thing.
I think what made so many of us love Atticus so much was the fact that even as he did great things like face racism and stand for moral excellence in the face of great pressure, he did it as an ordinary man who was doing his best to be a good father.
He was just like us, but he was the best of us, and he inspired us to be more.
To hear that he was not who we thought he was is a painful and disillusioning blow.
I feel like Atticus has died, like he was killed, a beheaded prophet just like John the Baptist.
I feel like a light has gone out of the world.
I think I understand what the disciples might have been feeling and I hope Jesus takes me away to a quiet place to rest for awhile.
But even though Jesus wants to give the disciples a quiet place to heal, that’s not what ends up happening.
The crowds follow them, so desperate to experience Jesus and his grace that they hunt him down. “He had compassion for them,” the gospel says, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and Jesus once again plunges in, teaching and healing them without restraint or rest.
And the disciples are with him, once again in the crush of the crowds, no place to be alone and think and pray and mourn.
But Jesus was still caring for them, just in a different way than how they had anticipated.
Throwing oneself into work is a common response to grief, and the reason so many people do it is because it helps.
The busyness, the structure, they help keep your mind from turning inward on itself, and remind you that the earth keeps turning and the days roll on, and life will come to have meaning again in time.
And more than anything else, helping others is one of the best ways to bring light back to your own hurting heart, so Jesus takes the disciples with him as they care for the crowds. He shows them that although their own pain is great, there are so many poor and sick and hurting people out there whose pain is equally bad if not worse, and they are needed.
They cannot bring John back, but they can make John’s dream manifest in the world, a dream of a new Kingdom of God with Jesus in their midst.
But the reason the disciples are able to help people and work through their grief is because Jesus is with them. They could not have done it on their own.
Grief can be a profoundly isolating experience, because the truth is that while other people care for you and do their best to be there for you, they can never really understand what this loss feels like to you.
It’s perfectly normal that after someone expresses his condolences for your loss, the next moment he’s thinking about what to make for dinner or his next Facebook update.
Again, that’s normal, but it somehow hurts, and makes us feel more alone.
Jesus is the one who will make sure we’re never alone.
When we are called back into the world to help others and do good work for the kingdom in order to bring our own broken hearts back to life, we’re not generating that energy ourselves. It comes from him, from his presence, from his spirit working through us.
We see an example of that in our lesson from 2 Samuel. Not in response to grief but in a place of triumph and joy, David thinks he needs to build a cedar house for the Lord.
It is self-generated work for self-generated purposes and reasons. David thinks he is doing this for the Lord, but he’s really doing it so he can feel good about himself and express his power as a king.
And the Lord pulls him up short.
“Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”
“Who asked you?” God says to David.
“No, no, no,” God says, “Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.”
God is the builder here. God is the one who will provide. God is the one who chooses the time and the place.
We don’t build things for God. God builds us.
We hear that same truth proclaimed in our lesson from Ephesians: “You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
This is exactly what is happening to the disciples in this moment in the Gospel of Mark today.
Brought low by grief, beaten down by the cruelty of the world, and dragged straight back to work by Jesus, they are heartsick and wondering how they can possibly carry on. But as they find strength through Jesus to do their ministry, God is building them into something new.
But that building is happening to them as a community. If they had allowed their grief and fear to isolate them, they would not have recovered.
They might have drifted back to their fishing boats, disillusioned and disappointed, the bright spark that made them drop their nets to begin with all but gone out.
This trial that they went through together, they had to heal from together, and they did it by serving others with Jesus.
And so with every hurting body they bathed and bandaged, with every curious seeker they taught, with every hungry mouth they fed, although their sadness and anger at the death of John still ached at the back of their minds, they began to experience what life was like with “Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
Every church goes through hard times. This church has borne grief and heartache in the past and will do so in the future.
What will make the difference in whether we survive it comes down to two things: do we separate and isolate or do we get through it together? And do we let ourselves be consumed by our pain or do we channel it into the building of the Kingdom?
Grief and disillusionment are a part of discipleship every bit as much as joy and blessing.
Our heroes like John the Baptist and Atticus Finch will fall and we will wonder how we will find the strength to go on.
But Jesus is always there, calling us to let our own pain meet the pain of those who are hungry and broken and need his presence, just like us.
When we respond to that need, God has the opportunity to transform our common pain into something new, and together we and the ones we seek to serve are built into a temple of grace and new life unto the Lord.
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