02 November 2008

Sermon for All Saints' Sunday - The Privilege of Grief

Preaching Texts

"Blessed are those who mourn," Jesus says, and so we must take Him at His word. But grief is not an easy thing to take, and mourning is not a habit we hold dear to our hearts. We remember life as it once was, life as we think it should be, and we grieve as much for the changes in our lives as we do the death of the people we love. Let us pray: Lord Jesus, loving Savior, we who walk by faith sometimes travel hard roads and follow Your light into dark places. You have told us to trust in You, even in the valley of the shadow of death. Help us to fix our eyes on You, and to hope for all the things You have promised us. Amen.
"The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
I remember sitting with my confirmation class in Minnesota, talking about loss and grief and listening to the song "Tears In Heaven" by Eric Clapton. Clapton wrote this song after his son died from injuries sustained in a fall out of a hotel room window. There's a raw, powerful quality to the grief in the song: the questions of a father losing his child at such a tender age, with such shocking suddenness:
Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?

Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong and carry on, 'cause I know I don't belong here in heaven.

Would you hold my hand if I saw you in heaven?

Would you help me stand if I saw you in heaven?

I'll find my way through night and day, 'cause I know I just can't stay here in heaven.

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees.

Time can break your heart, have you begging, "please."

Beyond the door, there's peace I'm sure, and I know there'll be no more tears in heaven.

When I hear this song, I'm reminded instantly of our reading today from Revelation 7, and also of Isaiah 25; two chapters in scripture where God promises to wipe away every tear from those who weep. I hope in this more than anything else in my life. I hope that grief will not have the final word, that God will speak divine words that bear the power to comfort, that bring a word of blessing and a word of safety. We all hope that one day we will find ourselves surrounded by all those whom we love and have loved and will love, and we will leave sorrow and grief far behind.

But we do not live where we hope just yet. As much as we may pray to be spared grief, death is the reality that lingers over us, and every time we think we've beaten it back, it will come sneaking into our lives like the fog that covers the earth these cold autumn mornings. Sometimes death comes at the end of a long, hard battle with illness and age; sometimes it comes in the blink of an eye, with no chance to say goodbye because it has come years before we think it is due. Death is the certainty we all must face time and time again, and grief is the way we respond to death: both the death of those we love, and the growing realization that one day, death will come for each and every one of us.

Because of this, it's natural to think that grief is an enemy to be defeated, something against which we must struggle and fight. Edna St. Vincent Millay said as much in her poem "Dirge Without Music:"

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Others see grief as simply something to be experienced – a process through which we move and from which we cannot escape. If you ever go to a funeral in New Orleans you'll see people who grieve with passion and power; a much different reaponse than the traditionally stoic grief of the Midwest. Some, like Clapton, deal with grief through self-expression; others become even less of themselves by shutting down their emotions and withdrawing from life until their broken hearts are healed and they are able to stand alone once more.
And it's not only death that works in us in this way. Loss can come in many forms and can cause grief in many ways: being fired or 'downsized,' divorce and separation, moving far away from home, working hard to achieve a goal without success, missing a great opportunity through simple circumstance or, worse, the mistakes of others. All of these things are losses that can and do cause us to grieve for what once was, or what we think should be. Grief comes for reasons we can explain and reasons we cannot. Loss comes when we expect it and when we do not. Death comes to young and old alike, indiscriminate in its selection and relentlessly claiming the lives of our friends, our family, and we ourselves.

"Blessed are those who mourn, says Jesus, and so we must take Him at His word. But what does it mean to be blessed? Are we blessed because we mourn? Should we seek out opportunities to mourn, taking the Beatitudes as a direct commandment and seeking to please God by being the best grievers we can be? No – we cannot earn blessings by grieving any more than we can earn salvation by doing good deeds. But grief is indeed a blessing, and to grieve is indeed a right and honorable experience of Christian life.

Grief is a blessing, a privilege, because as we grieve, we are given a window into the heart and mind of God. "See what love the Father has given us," says John, "that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this; when He is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is." To grieve is to see that God suffers, that God mourns, that God thirsts and hungers for righteousness. Genesis tells us that we are created in the image of God, and one image of God that is found time and again in scripture is the image of God's great grief and sorrow at the sins and brokenness of creation. God is grieved by sin, death and everything that separates God from God's children. When we grieve, when we mourn, we know what it means to be children of God, for God's love causes God's grief, and in our own love and grief we see God as God truly is.

Why does God suffer? Why does God grieve? Why has God allowed us to have this privilege of grieving? Because the privilege of grief reminds us that things are not as they should be, that life is indeed precious – more precious than we imagine. Without the privilege of grief, we would never know the hope of the world to come. Eugene Boring says "Matthew here taps into the deep Biblical tradition that one of the characteristics of the true people of God is that they lament the present condition of God's people and God's program in the world…This is the community that does not resign itself to the present condition of the world as final, but laments the fact that God's kingdom has not yet come and that God's will is not yet done."[1]

The privilege of grief is not the only thing left to us from God our Father. The image of the suffering God is only one image of God, and just as we cannot know each other through one glimpse, so we cannot know God only through God's suffering. Without the privilege of grief, we have only an incomplete knowledge of God: we see only the power and majesty of God, the alien, almighty God who cannot be approached and in divine magnificence cannot have any connection with the frail, fragile lives we live. The privilege of grief reminds us where God wants to be found: in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is Christ who comes to us in His body and blood, broken and shed for you, that reminds us there will come a day when the privilege of grief will be finally overwhelmed by the glory of the full and total reign of God, and God's love washing over God's people.

So the privilege of grief opens our hearts to love more completely – to invest more deeply in the lives of our neighbors – to be wounded in our grief and made whole and strong in God's suffering love. The privilege of grief is one part of what it means to be Christ's followers and see that though death may threaten, though the kingdom has not yet fully come and God's will is not yet fully done, God will indeed have the final word, and grief will one day be a privilege we can forsake for something better. What will that day resemble? Something far beyond our imagination, I'm sure. But poet Anne Porter has an idea, I think, and it is her vision I'll offer as a closing prayer this morning:

At six o'clock this morning

I saw the rising sun

Resting on the ground like a boulder

In the thicket back of the school,

A single great ember
About the height of a man.

Night has gone like a sickness,
The sky is pure and whole.
Our Lady of Poland spire
Is rosy with first light,
Starlings above it shatter their dark flock.
Notes of the Angelus
Leave their great iron cup
And slowly, three by three
Visit the Polish gardens round about,
Dahlias shaggy with frost
Sheds with their leaning tools
Rosebushes wrapped in burlap
Skiffs upside down on trestles
Like dishes after supper.

These are the poems I'd show you
But you're no longer alive.
The cables creaked and shook
Lowering the heavy box.
The rented artificial grass
Still left exposed
That gritty gash of earth
Yellow and mixed with stones
Taking your body
That never in this world
Will we see again, or touch.

We know little
We can tell less
But one thing I know
One thing I can tell
I will see you again in Jerusalem
Which is of such beauty
No matter what country you come from
You will be more at home there
Than ever with father or mother
Than even with lover or friend
And once we're within her borders
Death will hunt us in vain.


[1] Boring, Eugene. The New Interpreter's Bible: Matthew. Abingdon Press.

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