Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says that “the prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.” When I first read these words, what caught my attention most immediately was this notion that grief is a prophetic task of the church.
In seminary I took a pastoral care course on grief. Well, almost. I ended up dropping the glass in favor of another, but I hung around for a class or two—long enough to learn a key truth: That grief comes in many forms. It can be the experience that follows the death of a loved one, but it can also be the loss of any other relationship, the loss of a job, or a home, or a dream, or even an idea. In the course of a human life, we grieve many times over.
This truth came as a revelation to me, and it became tangible when I went through divorce about 6 months after I graduated from seminary. It helped me to know that this is something I would need to grieve.
This morning David read from the book of Lamentations, which doesn’t often make it into the Sunday morning liturgy because it’s just so freaking sad. The kind of grief in we encounter in the book Lamentations is another kind of grief still—the grief over the failure of a nation, and all of the other losses that follow on the heels of this failure. Lamentations is the poetry of Exile, mourning the defeat of Judah by Babylon, the destruction of Jerusalem and surrounding areas through war, the loss of leadership, the loss of culture, the loss of religious stability.
Lamentations is generally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, who is sometimes known as “the weeping prophet” because many of his utterances are also just really sad. We don’t actually know if Jeremiah himself wrote these words or it they were written later and attributed to him, but we do know that there was a common collective art form in the ancient Near East known as the “city lament.” These can be found in various cultures in the ancient Near East, and in them the city is associated with a goddess. In the event of a great disaster in the city, the goddess is portrayed as one who grieves and mourns. This literature is bleak, brutal, and relentless, like the book of Lamentations. Within it, there are only brief glimpses of hope; but they are there.
In the book of Lamentations, the city of Jerusalem is personified as a woman who has lost her child, perhaps the worst kind of loss there is. And what is worse is that she believes it is her fault, so there is not only the pain of loss, but the torment of guilt as well. Indeed it is, in part, her fault—through the failure of Judah to do God’s justice work of caring for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.
The Bible scholar Kathleen O’Connor says that “laments are prayers of protest, complaint, and grief over a disaster, and with great passion they appeal to God for deliverance. They arise from faith in the power and willingness of God to save. They insist that the world is an open system in which divine intervention is always possible.”
Many observers of American life have noted that we often do not grieve well as a collective culture or as a nation. Some of our subcultures and communities are better at this than others. But think about what happens after a mass shooting: Thoughts, prayers, an initial flurrie of activity to propose new legislation. A few weeks later, nothing. Not until the next mass shooting. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Perhaps we don’t entertain grief long enough or deeply enough for it to leave us transformed; it is much easier and more comfortable to revert back to a state of denial.
Or think about the ecological crisis. To face that crisis head on is to be confronted with our own complicity in destroying this precious planet. Even for those of us who “believe” in climate change, that is a heavy burden to bear, one that I find it personally difficult dwell on, no matter how much I want to be a part of the solution.
But if never fully entertain our grief, we cannot fully claim our hope.
When I was going through that divorce in 2008, I read a book called Good Grief, and in it the author described what I thought was a curious, yet freeing practice. The author suggested giving grief a room, some real estate in your mind and your heart. A designated space and a designated, yet limited amount of time to visit what was lost. Perhaps daily in the early stages of grief, and then weekly, monthly, or yearly as time moves on. A space where you can go to relive memories, to wish for more time together, to imagine what might have been. Then to close the door and move back into the present reality, open to a new future, full of infinite divine possibility.
When and where do you visit your grief?
This morning I want to suggest to you that, among other things, a role of the church in a sorrowful world is to provide Sanctuary for our grief—to be a place where grief, for whatever kind of loss, can be acknowledged, given a hearing, respected for the wisdom it has to teach, and harnessed as the energy which compels us to keep on in the struggle for a just world.
This morning I’m going to invite you to bring your grief to the Table, both as individuals and as a collective community, consciously or unconsciously. We bring our grief to the Table, and we also are invited to leave it there, to let the Table be a symbol of the space where we let our grief reside—our anger, our longing, our love, our grief—so that we can go out into the world and get on with the business of living. Which includes doing the work to build a Kingdom where there is no more sorrow.
This is the time when you can return to that strip of black of cloth that you received when you came to worship. I want to give you a moment to think about what your piece of cloth might symbolize for you, what personal or communal loss you might be grieving today that this cloth can represent. What grief would like to bring and leave at the Table? It can be something small or something monumental. In a few moments, I also will invite you to grieve collectively on this World Communion Sunday for the losses that we observe in this tumultuous time in our nation and in our world.