February 25, 2018 Gift of Emptiness Mark 15: 22-38
-Carla Wilks

In the news over the last few weeks we have heard about some significant events. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, it was another mass shooting at a high school in Parkland Florida. 17 students and staff were killed senselessly. Some of them were killed protecting others and trying to lead them to safety.
This loss has shaken the nation and changed many families forever. One image that really struck me and has stayed with me these last 11 days, was a photo I saw on the CBC news website of a woman with a look of devastation on her face, embracing another woman. On her forehead was the sign of a cross from an Ash Wednesday worship service. I don’t know anything about the woman, but my imagination fills in the gaps in her story – I imagine her going to an Ash Wednesday service at her church, where they reflected on the beginning of Lent, a time for reflecting on Jesus’ temptation, ministry and ultimate death. Maybe she thought about something that she might focus on as a Lenten observance. Then in a moment, everything changed. Her time in the dark wood of Lent just got a whole lot darker. Was she a mom who received a panicked text from a high school son or daughter expressing their fear and uncertainty of their situation, and unsure if they would survive the day? Or was she one of the moms who lost a child that day? Regardless of her specific experience on that day, I imagine that the thoughts going through her mind when she was being marked with the sign of the cross in the morning at church were much different from the thoughts she had as she was cleaning off the cross from her forehead at the end of the day.
Would she have uttered the words – my God my God, why have you forsaken me? What is the meaning in all of this? Where is God?

As I was reflecting on this news story – while upset about it, I found myself as more of an observer, able to keep a bit of a distance because I kept thinking oh thank goodness we live in Canada – our gun laws prevent that from happening.

But here in Canada, while our stories are different, in the past few weeks we have had our own tragic events upsetting to Canadians, and they are the not guilty verdicts in the murders of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. Colten Boushie was a 22-year-old Cree man, the hope of his family, a hard worker who dreamed of becoming a firefighter before he was shot on a farm in rural Saskatchewan. Tina Fontaine was a 15-year-old Aboriginal girl, reeling after the violent death of her father, reported missing from care in downtown Winnipeg until her body was found in the Red River.
Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier were both found to be not guilty in the deaths of these two Aboriginal youth. These verdicts have raised questions across the country of the inadequacy and injustice of the system, from jury selection to the damaging impact of victim blaming. In a time when we talk about truth and reconciliation with our Aboriginal neighbours, this news seems so much in contrast to what is trying to be achieved.
After the verdict in Tina Fontaine’s murder the other day, the Mayor of Winnipeg Brian Bowman’s office issued a statement declaring “we all failed Tina” and challenged Canadians to do better.
Bowman said, I think it is important to be mindful that for many people, today is a day marked by grief, anger, and broken hearts,” “No one can be blind to the racial tensions in our country. The work of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is shedding light onto a dark past of violence and a history of racism in Canada.
“All of us have a responsibility to challenge racism and discrimination when we see it. And all of us need to work to repair the broken relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
Bowman went on to say there is no question in his mind Canadians are continuing to fail young Indigenous people across the country.
“Until we all confront the shame and tragedy of our country’s racism and treatment of Indigenous people, we will fall short of that great country we know Canada to be,” the mayor said in his statement.

For many working in the area of Truth and Reconciliation, and for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters in our country – the despair of these two verdicts less than two weeks apart, I imagine would have felt devastating, maybe like their work and commitment was pointless because these types of things are still happening. For the families and communities of Tina and Colten – the grief of their losses would be brought to the surface again. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The scripture read this morning, was the crucifixion of Jesus. We usually read it on Good Friday in the church. Jesus lived a life of meaning, standing up for what he believed in, and showing through example and story what God’s love is like. Then due to betrayal of his friends, and due to a powerful system in place and people who felt completely threatened by the way of being that Jesus was promoting, he died for what he taught and how he lived. He was crucified. Crucifixion was intended to provide a death that was particularly slow, painful, humiliating and very public. In those last moments of Jesus life, Jesus called out to God – My God my God, why have you forsaken me?? God why have you abandoned me? For Jesus this was a point of ultimate despair. He was empty. He had lived his life, committed to sharing the message of God’s love for humanity, and here he was, at the end of his life, as if it was void of meaning.
Our series for this season of Lent is called Gifts of the Dark Wood, and the series is based on the book of the same name by the author Eric Elnes. Each week we will be reflecting on a different Gift of the Dark Wood. Today’s gift is emptiness. I want to share a quote from the book “For Christians, one of the greatest symbols of the Dark Wood gift of emptiness is the Cross. Here we find the emptiness of the heavens merging with the emptiness of a human body. At their intersection we hear the emptiest and most human of all cries on the lips of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that great and terrible moment of emptiness, not even Jesus could find God. Yet for the last two thousand years, Christians have insisted that the Cross is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new one. Why? Not because Jesus found God as he stared from the Cross into the vast emptiness of the heavens, but because from within this Great Emptiness God found Jesus.”

In the church, we never have to sit in the despair of the Good Friday story for too long, because we know the end of the story – the new life that comes at Easter. The Gift from the emptiness of the crucifixion is the joy of the resurrection.

When something bad happens in our life or to someone close to us, like loss of a job, end of a relationship, death or illness of someone close, it is tempting to jump to a place of fixing what happened or finding a reason for why it happened, but sometimes we just need to be in that place of emptiness for a while in order to be drawn out of it, find the meaning and let God in.

For many of the high school students affected by the school shooting, their place of emptiness has led them to fight for change in the gun laws. I have been watching the students speak on the news and see their courage and determination and see how articulate they are, and I have hope that when they say things like “I won’t stop fighting until the laws are changed so that this won’t happen again” it will have an impact where it needs to and result in change.

And closer to home, in the verdicts in the murder of Colten Boushie and death of Tina Fontaine, where is the gift in the emptiness?

We all have a part in helping that gift to come about. As the Mayor of Winnipeg said in the concluding words of his statement regarding Tina Fontaine – “Despite how many in our community may be feeling today, now is not the time to let our pain, our fear, or our prejudices hold us back. Now is not the time for the commitment we all made as a country many years ago — a commitment to peace and partnership with Indigenous people — to be interrupted or forgotten.”
When we are in the Dark Wood, if we empty ourselves of our fear and our prejudice and our preoccupations, we can be open to the working of God’s Spirit in our lives and our communities to bring new life to seemingly impossible situations. When we feel forsaken by God and alone, we can let go and trust that even Jesus has been in this Dark Wood before and is with us now helping us to remember that the story does not end here.
Thanks be to God for the Gift of Emptiness.