(Video available on our church’s YouTube channel).
When Mary Magdalene first saw the Risen Christ near the empty tomb, the Gospel of John tells us that she mistook him for the gardener. But maybe it was not mistake. Maybe the one who tends to the garden in a graveyard is a lovely image for the kind of resurrection work we are each in our own ways and times to do.
This Easter I want to pay tribute to someone – who will remain anonymous – who I think really embodies a resurrection way of being, who lives and works as a witness to the resurrection, especially in the midst of human suffering. As many of you know, I’ve worked as a chaplain in hospitals in NYC and Philadelphia. These days it’s really on my heart the reality at those hospitals in the storm of this pandemic.
I want to tell you about one of the more extraordinary souls I had the opportunity to get to know at these hospitals, which are full of extraordinary people doing the hard work of healing and care. She was not a nurse, not a doctor, not an EMT, not one of the folks who, rightly, are being lifted up as heroes these days.
She was a custodial worker. Her job was to clean the hospital rooms.
She approached her job as a vocation, a calling.
She was someone with a very open-hearted faith and an easy smile. She was someone well acquainted with struggle, with poverty – she was an immigrant to this country. She had come to know God as a living presence in her life, and in the life of her community, a living presence with the power to bring life and redemption up and out from death and dislocation.
And she approached her work as a cleaner in the hospital as an act of prayer, an act of devotion to this Living God, an act of witness to the mysteries of resurrection.
This hospital was a trauma center. And her job did often enough involve cleaning the stuff that can spill from human bodies. Her job did often enough involve cleaning a room in the aftermath of death, as well as in the aftermath of healing.
When she worked, she prayed.
When she cleaned a room, she prayed for the peace of the souls of those who had left the room for the grave. She prayed for the healing, the vitality, the hope of those who had left the room for continued life. She prayed for the hands and the hearts and the minds of those who had left the room to go on to care for other patients in other rooms. And she prayed for those whose lives and souls and fears and hopes would next rest on that bed and inhabit that space.
She prayed that the space may be cleansed for them Washed of any pain or fear or grief or guilt And filled with the love and mercy of God Made new for the love and the healing that person would need.
She approached her job as a religious vocation, an opportunity to do her part on behalf of that cleansing and restoring and healing Spirit of the Resurrected Christ.
So, I honor her this Easter, this hospital custodial worker, who will remain anonymous. I honor the way she lives out her resurrection faith.
Now, I wouldn’t be doing justice to Jesus if I didn’t take this opportunity to say that the temples of healing, which she and other custodial workers are tending to in our country, are crawling with money changers who are sacrificing lives on the altar of Mammon. Part of the cleansing power that Jesus brought was to flush the forces of greed out from the spaces meant for restoration, redemption, and healing.
This is about integrity: Whatever is our work to do, and our sphere of activity, it is a matter of our integrity as Christians to approach that work with courage as witnesses to the power of resurrection, to be agents of the power of resurrection the holy power of ever renewing jubilee in the midst of greed, the holy power of ever renewing mercy in the midst of judgment, the holy power of ever renewing possibility in the midst of confinement, the holy power of ever renewing life in the midst of death.
With Christ every moment, every day, can be made fresh again, clean, whole, open, awake to Glory upon glory, Grace upon grace, Holy Realm without end.
(Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, pastor, First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, United Church of Christ)