Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2021

Erica Olson-Bang

We are rounding the bend on a full year of pandemic living, and, lately, I’ve been trying to remember what it felt like when all of this started. When did I first hear about the new coronavirus? What did I think was happening? What were my expectations? (Can you remember back that far?) What did I expect last March when we first went into lockdown? I remember thinking we would be doing this for 2 or 4 weeks. 6 weeks at the most. This seems laughable to me now. How could I have ever imagined that we’d be here, 11 months later, with no clear sense of when this time might end. There IS hope on the horizon in the form of vaccines–which I am incredibly thankful for–, but still we know that it’s going to be a long time until we go back to what used to call “normal life.” Sometimes when I’m reading the news too late at night, I wonder if we will ever get to “normal” again. Or if we’re stuck in what they keep referring to as the “new normal.” 

There was an article that was going around social media during the first weeks of the pandemic, entitled: “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” The author of the article consulted with a prominent grief researcher and asked if what we were experiencing as a society was grief, and he said: “Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs…The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” And this was back in MARCH! March: when the daily national deaths were only in the double digits, not the thousands. Our many griefs have only compounded since then. 

As those early weeks stretched into months and soon a year, that statement (That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief) has become even more true. As Dan said last week, all of us have just buckets of unprocessed grief that we’re carrying around with us right now. Moreover, so many of our usual ways of processing our grief have been shut off to us, or so changed as to become unrecognizable. How do you grieve without funerals or hugs or someone to hold your hand or the presence of a warm casserole being held out by a warm body.

I didn’t fully recognize my own unprocessed grief until I watched the coronavirus vigil that was held on the night before the inauguration. I cried a lot during that short memorial service, and my reaction to it let me know that there’s a ton of grief there, just below the surface, grief that I have not tended to. During this time we’re also sharing in Dan’s grief as he is with his mother in her last days. If you’re like me, his grief over the last days has reawaken my own grief–reminding me that it’s still there, just waiting. 

We all have our own griefs at this time, and my own personal grief has been fairly limited, all things considered. Others have faced much more than I have, and still others have lost much more. But I think it’s important for each of us to recognize our own grief at this time–in all the big and small ways it comes. 

I’ll share just a couple of things that are grieving me. Some are small: a new nephew that I haven’t met, for example.

Other griefs are big ones: like the reality that I haven’t seen my parents in 15 months and that my dad’s health is failing. He lives in Minnesota, and he has Alzheimer’s. I fear that the good times with him are slipping away during this interval. I have been grieving those lost times. 

There are many others, large and small, that I could mention. I share these two examples with you because I think that we need to come to terms with our grief: to name it and to acknowledge the deep sense of loss that it brings. 

Today’s lectionary brings together two texts that seek to comfort a people that are grieving. Both the Isaiah text and the Psalm are addressed to the people of Judah during the time of their exile. 

What was their grief? The people of Judah had been defeated, and with them, their god; their cities and homes were destroyed, and their place of worship broken down and desecrated; they had been carried off, far away from their homeland; they lived then in the lands of their captors, under the thumb of their oppressors, and they were full of grief for what they had lost. 

God spoke to them in the midst of their grief, and what message does God have for these grieving people?

The Psalmist says to them: 

The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; 

he gathers the exiles of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted 

and binds up their wounds.

And the author of Isaiah writes, 

[The Lord] gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.

God’s message to his grieving people is one of restoration: that in God what has been lost will be restored, that what has been broken will be fixed, that the powerless, weak, faint and exhausted will be renewed. 

Practically, for the Israelites, this meant that God would restore them to their lost land and the destroyed temple and homes would be rebuilt. A very literal restoration. 

But it also teaches us something about God: that God is in the business of restoring the hope of the grieving. 

We see this in Jesus as well, in the passage from Mark that we read this morning:

As Jesus starts his ministry, what is he busy doing? Mark writes, “That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” Jesus busies himself restoring health and life and community to those who are sick, unwell, and at the margins of society. Like God, he is in the business of restoring the hope of the grieving. 

There’s a little thing that interests me at the end of this passage as well. The next morning, Jesus says: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” What was interesting to me here is that as far as Mark relates to us, Jesus wasn’t preaching at all. He was healing and casting out demons. So what does he mean when talks about “proclaiming his message”? What message? 

This made me wonder if his message is the healings, is the casting out of demons. The next line in the gospel suggests that this might be right. It reads, “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Again no spoken message, instead we see healings and castings out. Now maybe he was preaching along with healing and casting out, but that’s not what Mark is interested in. For Mark Jesus’ message IS his actions. And his actions look like this: restoring what is broken, healing what is sick, bringing life to the dead. 

I have a favorite theologian from grad school: a Dutch Catholic man named Edward Schillebeeckx. A key aspect of his theology is what he called: “negative contrast experiences.” Negative contrast experiences are those moments where we recognize that things are not as they ought to be. Think for a moment of the photos of immigrant children held in cages. Something in our spirit rebelled against these images as just wrong, an offence against everything we believe about the value of children and how they should be treated. For Schillebeeckx, these moments of “no, this should not be!” this experience of offense or grief teaches us to recognize the places where God’s restoring work is needed. It’s like a big traffic cone marking out a problem in the road.

In this sense, grief is like pain. Pain has an important and useful function: it alerts us to what is going on with our body. Grief operates in this same way. It alerts us to those places where God’s fullness is missing, places begging for restoration. 

Grief then is not just an important emotion that we need to allow ourselves to experience–though it is that. It is also a spiritual process; it has a theological function. It shows us those places in our lives that are just begging for God’s healing work. 

Allowing ourselves to grieve, then is theological work. It is to take note of the need for God’s healing, to allow ourselves to long for God’s fullness, to yearn for restoration.

Our grief is also a sort of invitation to God. It invites God to come and to bring wholeness to what is broken, to restore what is lost, to bring life to what has died.  In this time of grieving, I pray that we have the courage to name our grief and to hold the grief of others. I pray that we have the compassion to comfort others in their grief and to care for ourselves. In so doing, may we pour out to God our longing, our yearning for wholeness. May we invite God to come, bringing with him his wholeness, life, and restoration. Amen.