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grief

November 7, 2021

Have you ever cried but tried to hide your tears so no one else would see them?  Maybe you’ve hidden in a bathroom at work or at school so that you could cry alone. You might have even run the water to drown out the sound of your sobbing.  Maybe you’ve locked yourself away in a bedroom or cried in the middle of the night when no one could hear you.

I have a hunch that most of us have hidden our tears at one time or another.  Our world gives us some mixed-up messages about crying.  It tells us that we’re soft or weak or wimpy if we cry.  We’re made to feel ashamed of our tears, so we find ourselves apologizing when we cry in front of someone else.  “I’m so sorry,” we say.  As if crying were a sign of a character flaw.  I think that stigma is especially true for men and for boys, who are often taught from an early age that tears aren’t “masculine.”

There are quite a few tears in today’s readings.  Did you notice?  They show up in all the readings except our psalm. There are a lot of tears in the gospel.  Those tears are understandable given that Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus has died.  When Mary meets Jesus, she comes to him crying.  She is crying for her dead brother, and I wonder if she’s also crying because she’s angry at Jesus – angry that he has waited so long to show up.  Her words suggest as much: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Tears are, among other things, signs of grief.  And grief is usually a sign of love.  Tears means that we have loved someone enough that our hearts are broken when that person dies.  We are forever changed, and we can’t help but express that loss.

So Mary cries.  And then Jesus cries.  He cries for his friend Lazarus, and he cries as he sees his friend Mary grieving for her brother. 

Before Jesus encounters Mary, he’s already had a run-in with her sister Martha.  Martha runs out to meet Jesus on the road, and she is the first to say to him: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She asks Jesus to do something.  Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.”  And Martha answers: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  I imagine her tone of voice suggesting that she’s not too interested in what will happen later.  Her brother is dead now.  Her grief, her tears, her pain are real now.

That’s just it.  We know that Jesus promises resurrection, life beyond death.  He says as much to Martha when he says to her: “I am the resurrection and the life.”  We hear those future promises in our other readings as well.  Isaiah tells us that God will swallow up death. God will wipe away the tears from all faces.  No more crying.  In Revelation we hear the same promise: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

Those are powerful promises, and I believe them. But in the meantime we are grieving.  For now we still weep.  What about that?

It’s important to acknowledge that in this life grief is real and lasting.  It’s especially important to say that out loud in a time when we have lost more than 754,000 people to COVID in the United States and more than five million around the world.  Each one of those people was beloved by family members and friends and co-workers.  Each one leaves behind a void that no one else can fill.  Each one was unique, created in the image of God.  The same is true of all the people we have loved and lost, no matter how they died.

There’s another part of today’s readings that strikes me as important.  People are not alone when they cry.  Our reading from Isaiah imagines a feast of rich food, of well-aged wines.  That doesn’t sound like a person huddled alone in a closet.  That sounds like people gathered around a table overflowing with delicious food and drink, sharing together in a meal in the midst of their grief – a grief that God will remove when God swallows up death forever.

When Mary goes out to greet Jesus and kneel at her feet, she is crying.  When Jesus looks up and sees her tears, he also sees her friends and neighbors weeping with her.  Her community has surrounded her and feels Mary’s grief alongside her.

Who do you trust to see your tears?  Who do you trust to cry along with you?  That’s what we need when we are grieving – people to sit with us and cry with us and not try to convince us that everything will be OK but instead just be with us in the grief.

We remember on this day that we are part of the communion of saints.  We are joined with all the people of God – past, present, and future.  We inherit the gift of faith from our ancestors, we share it with others and receive it from others in our lives, and we pass it along to the next generation.  That faith takes on new shapes and practices over time, but some things remain central.  The waters of baptism, the bread and wine of communion.  We gather beside the water and around the table to remind each other that we are not alone.  God is with us.  We are with each other.

I’ve shared with you before some of Rachel Held Evans’ writing.  She died two years ago at the tragically young age of 37.  One of her friends, Jeff Chu, helped pull together the new book Rachel had been working on when she died.  It’s out now, titled Wholehearted Faith.  I find it poignant that in the Prologue, Rachel talks about the communion of saints.  She writes[i]:

For better or for worse, there are seasons when we hold our faith, and then there are seasons when our faith holds us.  In those latter instances, I am more thankful than ever for all the saints, past and present, who said yes, and whose faith sustains mine. They believe for me when I’m not sure I believe.  They hold on to hope for me when I’ve run out of hope. They are the old lady next to me in the pew and the little kid behind me who recite the entirety of the Apostles’ Creed on my behalf on those Sundays when I cannot bring myself to say all those ancient words wholeheartedly…They pray for me when the only words I have to say to God are…[ones that] would make even my most foulmouthed friend blush.

As Rachel knew so well, we are a communion of saints.  A community of people created and bound together by God across time and space.  People who are inconsistently faithful but who, in our care for one another, can catch glimpses of that day when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

And so, saints of God, when your tears come, let them flow.  God is with us, and we weep together.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu, Wholehearted Faith, p. 3

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July 18, 2021

In 2004 some e-mails started circulating among the employees at a well-known accounting firm.  People were troubled by the behavior of a new recruit.[i]  In the middle of a busy and bustling office setting, she appeared to be doing nothing.  She just sat at her desk and stared into space.  When someone would ask her what she was doing, she would say something vague like “I’m doing thought work.”  She spent one whole day riding the elevators up and down over and over.  When a colleague asked if she was “thinking again,” she replied “It helps to see things from a different perspective.”  The other employees became increasingly agitated, and their e-mails became increasingly urgent.  Something had to be done about this new colleague.

As it turns out, unbeknownst to them, they were all participating in a performance piece called The Trainee.  The alleged employee was actually a Finnish artist named Pilvi Takala, someone whose work often focuses on disrupting social norms with simple actions.  In this case she was challenging the notion that we must be productive every minute of every day.  We all know that there are many things that distract us from productivity throughout the day – text messages, phone calls, social media, conversations with other people, hunger, exhaustion, stress.  But when someone so blatantly violates the expectation of constant productivity, it challenges so much of what we’ve been taught to value in ourselves and others.

Just a couple of weeks ago we heard how Jesus sent out the disciples two by two, telling them to travel lightly and to carry a message of repentance and hope to the surrounding villages.  At the beginning of today’s gospel, they have just returned, eager to report to Jesus what they have accomplished, all that they have done and taught.

But wait just a minute, Jesus says.  Before you do that, he tells them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  Their plans for rest get thwarted by the crowds that follow them, as it turns out, but the invitation is important.  Come away and rest a while.  Jesus puts rest ahead of reporting what they might have accomplished in their recent travels.

Remember that Jesus, too, is in need of rest.  We hear again and again in the gospel of Mark how Jesus looks for opportunities to rest.  In this moment we can imagine that he is grieving the recent death of John the Baptist, wrung out by the moral failures of leaders like Herod and disappointed that he’s had to warn his disciples to be prepared for rejection everywhere they go.  No wonder he has compassion on the gathering crowds, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd.  He knows what it feels like to be disappointed and disillusioned, longing for connection.

We know what the need for rest feels like too.  We can feel it deep down in our bones, when realities and responsibilities force us out of bed even though we don’t always relish that “to do” list. We get worn out from being available and accessible 24 hours a day – to friends and family, to colleagues and supervisors, to our own worries and fears.

We get caught up in the myth that our worth depends on our productivity – that our success as humans is measured in how much we get done for how many people in how little time.

The messages from the culture around us will try to persuade us that that’s just how things are – you either measure up or people will start circulating e-mails about you.  But what a terrible way for our value to be determined.

I’m not saying that you should ignore your responsibilities and become a big slacker.  I’ve known most of you for a while, and I have yet to meet a slacker.  But how might we understand our sense of who we are and what we are worth as something apart from how much and how often we produce?

The people who decades ago decided what scripture readings would be assigned to each Sunday in a repeating three-year cycle – they made an interesting choice this week.  In today’s gospel from the sixth chapter of Mark, they decided to skip over two big moments in the ministry of Jesus.  The first is the feeding of thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  (To be fair, the Gospel of John’s version of that story is scheduled for next week, so I suppose they figured they had that one covered.)  The other is the story of Jesus walking on water, which you have to admit has a certain dramatic flair.  I can’t claim to know their reasoning for skipping those parts this week, but I think it’s interesting that it moves our attention away from Jesus doing these big, flashy, mind-boggling things.  Instead we’re invited to see Jesus focus on the quieter things – looking after those who need rest and those who need healing.

In today’s gospel Jesus does travel – from villages to cities to farms.  He moves from place to place to seek out the people who need his compassion the most.  He’s not hanging out in some lofty place and expecting people to come to him.  He finds those who are in need of healing. 

And where are those in healing to be found in that last verse?  They are found in the marketplace.  Isn’t that an interesting detail?  The marketplace, where things are normally bought and sold, where everything has a price, where worth is determined by your ability to bargain and negotiate and get the biggest profit with the least amount of effort.  In that very place people bring those whose needs are great, those who can’t bargain or negotiate at all but want only to be healed.  Those whose value was too often dismissed because of their illnesses or disabilities or maladies.  Into that space Jesus enters to say: Your worth is not measured in terms of health or wealth.  You are worthy because you are loved.  And I love you no matter what.

The same is true for each and every one of us.  Our worth does not depend on our perpetual productivity.  Our worth does not come from our perfectionism, from our pluckiness, or from our plowing ahead while we ignore our own exhaustion and pain. Our worth comes from the love of Jesus, who longs for us to have times of rest and stillness so that we might truly experience what it means to know that love apart from anything that we do.

That rest sometimes comes in the form of vacations, but it can’t come only in that way.  Our souls need quiet moments more often than that; even a few minutes of reflection can helps us receive an awareness of God’s grace washing over us. 

Those small moments of grace can sometimes appear when we least expect them.  Often others invite us to those oases in the wilderness of our lives.  Or they come in small insights during moments when we manage to be still for more than a second.

Our furry friends often understand this idea far better than humans. A friend from California sent me a story this week about the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.[ii]  There are teams across the country, but this piece highlighted the nine golden retrievers from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and Tennessee that were sent to Miami spend time with folks grieving for family members, friends, and neighbors lost in the condo collapse in Surfside.  The dogs intuitively know that grief work is not about engaging in a frenzy of activity.  It’s about showing up with empathetic eyes and furry paws to hold – it’s about being more than doing

The people in our lives can be bearers of grace too.  In her memoir, musician Brandi Carlile tells about Dolly Parton showing up at the Newport Folk Festival. “How are you?” Dolly asks. Brandi finds herself inexplicably honest and tearful, saying: “I bit off more than I can chew with this.” “Alright then,” Dolly replies. “Let’s pray.”[iii]  So they prayed together. And then they went on to sing a rendition of “I Will Always Love You” that no one in that audience will ever forget.

Lately, when storms roll through, I try to sit for a few minutes on my tiny porch and watch it rain.  It doesn’t magically make all my stress go away, but it does settle me.  Those few minutes of stillness make me more aware that I am not in charge of the world any more than I am in charge of the rain or the thunder or the lightning.

This week, whenever you feel yourself overwhelmed by the pressures of productivity, I invite you to listen for the voice of Jesus saying to you: Come away and rest a while.  Hear him say: It’s OK to be still.  It’s OK to rest.  I love you.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, pp. 62-64

[ii] https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-miami-area-condo-collapse/2021/07/14/1015663935/surfside-florida-building-collapse-comfort-dogs-therapy

[iii] https://twitter.com/amylpeterson/status/1416416682839625733?s=20

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