They came in the very early morning hours.
In the stillness of the deep dawn, when light and dark were equally everywhere.
Mary, Mary Magdalene, Salome, maybe other women – came to anoint their friend, their teacher with all the rituals of death.
Just a few days ago, they had watched him die, and terribly. Why? They still weren’t sure why.
Another of their friends, someone close to Jesus, had betrayed him, and somehow it quickly ended here. In the not-quite-light, at his grave.
It made no sense.
All they knew is that he’d taught them that they mattered. Everything about him taught him this, again and again. Until they believed him.
They’d never be the same.
But somehow, he was suddenly just – gone.
And so they came with their spices and their oils, their grief, their sense of duty. They came to help, in the only way they could.
Over the last few weeks we have been exploring this idea of help – mostly in terms of our common neediness – our limits and our vulnerability. We’ve talked about asking for help, receiving help. We’ve even dealt with our helplessness.
Which is why I’d imagine you might be breathing a sigh of relief today, because today we are finally talking about helping, as in offering help – rather than (shudder) receiving it. Right?
Let’s be honest, we Unitarian Universalists often want to be the shepherd – not so much the sheep.
It’s one of the reasons that our tradition hasn’t taken so well to the idea of using pastor as a title for its ministers – even though I think it’s a lot easier to say in regular speech than minister, or reverend. But Pastor is Latin for shepherd so historically UUs have been….hesitant – because if we’re shepherds, then who are the sheep?
This has been made worse by the rumor that sheep are dumb, or that they thoughtlessly follow the crowd.
It turns out however, that sheep are actually quite intelligent, social, and complex.
But I’m guessing this doesn’t convince you – it’s hardwired. We want to be the helpers – the ones who step up, and show up, the ones who make things a little, if not a lot better.
Helping feels good. It reminds us of our power, our agency, which is not wrong. Especially when things feel chaotic, painful, or confusing – helping can be a way of regaining some sense of control. This is what the women were doing in the early morning hours.
These strong, courageous, prophetic women – tending to the body of their friend.
As the story is told, they were the first to meet, in fear and amazement, the resurrected Jesus, the first charged with telling the world that he had risen, the first to be disbelieved by the male disciples because who would believe a woman’s story afterall.
These strong, courageous prophetic women went to Jesus’s grave as many of us go in these moments. Hoping to do what they could for him, and for his body, to honor and remember his life.
They went as helpers.
And yet we know, and they likely knew too, that even more they went because they needed help, and comfort. They needed reassurance that everything would be ok. They were feeling – lost, helpless, painfully aware of their own limits.
Even when we try to assert some degree of agency – it’s always true – that we run into our limits. Even when we’re offering help, we still need help. It turns out there’s no firm line possible between us, and them.
Help that is helpful gets this – accepts it – surrenders to it as part of the deal.
Even more, help that is helpful knows that this limitedness is fine. Even good, and a gift, a relief – to be able to trust that you could show up filled only with this sense of love, of inherent worth, to believe this offering is enough. Trusting that not being able to fix everything doesn’t mean we can’t fix anything. And that our worth is not dependent on fixing or helping or saving anything at all.
This is a gift.
A couple weeks ago I finally got to watch the Mr. Rogers documentary.
In case you’re not someone who grew up or raised kids in the US in the 70s, 80s, or 90s – Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a show on PBS that basically broke every rule for good TV and yet somehow totally worked.
Watching the documentary from today’s context, I was shocked at how radical Mr. Rogers really was – and still is.
Because at the core of his message – and he says this in a clip at the end of the film – is the idea that you don’t have to do anything sensational to be loved.
Help that is helpful gets this still-radical idea – and just tries to pass it on.
Help that is not helpful, however, doesn’t get any of this. Thinks that this whole idea – that you don’t need to do anything sensational – or fix everything, or save everyone – that that idea is stupid, foolish, insufficient, and/or irresponsible. Help that is unhelpful is afterall – often driven by our egos – it’s why helping can feel so good! Unhelpful helping wants everyone, including ourselves, to know how strong and capable and in control and not vulnerable we are.
Help that is not helpful wants to keep that idea of a clear line between those of us who are helpers, and those who receive help; Those who are needy, and those who are not; help that is not helpful denies our inter-relatedness and instead tries to hold us all as entirely separate, disconnected.
A lot of the time, this sort of unhelpful help believes that unless we can make it all better we shouldn’t even try. Or, that we aren’t good enough anyway, to help. That we don’t have the right words, or the right education…We are too quick to fill up the silence, or change the subject. We don’t show up at all. Or, we show up too much, and get confused about whose pain is whose. Finding ourselves so caught up in the struggle it starts to pull us under.
A few years ago, psychologist Susan Silk started to notice this sort of unhelpful helping when she had breast cancer, and people would say things that she would find – unbelievable.
One favorite she says, came from one of her colleagues, who wanted to visit her after her surgery.
“Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? ‘This isn’t just about you.’
‘It’s not?’ Susan wondered. ‘My breast cancer is not about me?’”
From these experiences, Silk developed a model for helpful help. She calls it the “Ring Theory.”
It can apply to all sorts of crises – medical, financial, emotional, existential.
The idea is, you draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, you put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Silk’s breast cancer – that would’ve been her.
Next, draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring, put the person next closest to the trauma. Maybe the spouse, or other immediate family.
Repeat the process as many times as you need. In each larger ring, put the next closest person.
When you are done, you have, as Silk says, the “Kvetching Order.”
She goes on: “Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, ‘Life is unfair’ and ‘Why me?’ That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.
“Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. When you are talking to a person in a smaller ring – the goal is to help, which means listening more than talking, and avoiding giving advice.
“People who are suffering don’t need advice, they need comfort, and support.
So, say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Or, ‘This must really be hard for you.’
Or, ‘Can I bring you a pot roast?’
Listen for their experience that is just theirs.
Don’t say: ‘You should hear what happened to me.’
Don’t try to argue them out of their pain, or tell them how hard it is for YOU.
When you need support – and you will – just look for it from someone in a bigger ring.”
Silk’s mantra is: Comfort IN, Dump OUT.
It’s a great way to think about how to create entire communities that offer help that his helpful. Communities of help.
Help that is helpful realizes we’ll all get our turn in the center ring. And in all the other rings too. We’ll all get a chance to be the helpers, and the help-receivers – it’s all part of the single fabric of destiny that Martin Luther King spoke of – this inescapable network of mutuality.
As I’ve been thinking about the Easter story this year, I’ve been especially thinking about how help that is helpful comes from an awareness that we too need help. Because I’ve been thinking especially about Jesus as a helper – and what his life, and his death have to teach us about help that is truly helpful.
Afterall, it’s one of the promises that Christianity makes –
that Jesus saves. Which is like helping, but super-sized.
Help that fixes and heals – everything.
In those days, and months, and years after Jesus died, his followers and friends tried to make sense of the senselessness the women were just beginning to acknowledge in the stillness of the morning.
Why he died. Why he lived.
The way his life had changed them.
How or if this change would last, or matter – even beyond their own lives.
There is no way to say for sure what happened to Jesus after his death, if he was actually there to greet the women, calling Mary by name; no way to know if later he asked his followers to touch him, to feed him – to prove he was alive. There’s no way to say for sure – any more than any of us can say what happens to us after death.
We can only say that the people of his time experienced – or at least universally said that they experienced – Jesus as alive. As scholar Marcus Borg says – it was the unanimous testimony of all the early Christians.
Still, it’s important to note that only much later did this testimony become the sole focus of how people made sense of all that senselessness – what help his life actually provided, and what it meant for him to be a savior.
As scholars Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock remind us in their work, Saving Paradise, it took about 1,000 years of Christianity, before all of Jesus’ help got narrowed down to his crucifixion, and what came to be understood as his atoning sacrifice – a turn that connected love to suffering, even death.
It took about 1,000 years for this turn to happen.
Before that, the good news of Jesus’ life, the way we understood the help he offered, was focused more on his – and our – lives here on earth. The experience of his humanity in human community. Humans with bodies, and feelings, and needs; humans who help and heal and save one another in small and big ways, every day.
I thought about this last Thursday night, at our vespers service. As I felt the water hit my bare feet – all of us awkwardly carrying around our socks in our hands, so human together. I tried to imagine this great teacher kneeling before his followers and washing their dusty, dirty, weary feet. And I thought – this is what Jesus meant when he said love one another.
This kneeling, this letting go, this helper that is also helpless.
This savior who also needs saving.
This healer who needs the touch of his friends’ hands, the food of the Passover meal, the company and witness when the fear becomes too much, the surrender when even the supreme helper knows he cannot stop the end from coming…
Love one another. He told them – that night, as he passed them the bread and the wine.
In the same way that I have loved you, love one another. It’s all that really matters.
If they loved one another like this, even if he wasn’t literally with them it will feel like he is.
If they can stay connected to this love that is inherent, perpetual – if they can be its partner. If they can help and heal in a way that is connected to their own helplessness, their own need for healing. Then it will feel as if he never died.
These many years later – it’s still true – when we wake in the early hours of dawn to find news of the world’s and our own brokenness then it feels as if we are too small, too limited – we are still called to offer what we can, to do what we can, and then to trust that a love is holding us through it all.
We are the shepherds, and the sheep.
We are the helpers, and the helpless.
We are the name at the center of the ring; and we are sitting at the outer-most-edge holding our arms out wide.
And the good news of Easter is that when we stay connected through it all to the love that says – You Matter. You Belong. No matter what. If we live our lives in a way that keeps coming back to this truth. Then we can trust that this Life, and this Love, will never die.
Amen, and alleluia.