Sermon: Holy Truth in the Midst of Grief

Sunday, August 23, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this sermon online (gospel and sermon start around 23:50)

The month of August has a strange way of sneaking up on me every year.  I forget about just how complicated a month it is for me.  On the one hand, there are some really joyful milestones to be celebrated this month.  For instance, August 1 is the date that I first started my call here at St. John’s, back in 2018.  And next Sunday, August 30, will be two years to the day since I got ordained – what a gift!  And, of course, who could forget that August 13 is International Left-Handers Day, which – as a proud lefty myself – I am delighted to celebrate.  

But, on the other hand, August also brings with it reminders of some deeply sad and painful things.  August 2 would have been – should have been – a celebration of my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary.  Now it’s a reminder that they barely made it to 14 years.  And that’s because today, August 23, is the anniversary of my mother’s death.  She died 26 years ago today, after a long battle with breast cancer, leaving behind three young kids and a devastated family.

And even though it’s been such a long time since she died, the grief doesn’t really ever go away.  It just changes.  If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you probably know what I mean.  My mom died so young, so much before her time, that it’s not just that I miss her, though I do; it’s that I grieve all the many things she should have been here for – the birthdays, the graduations, the anniversaries, all the many, many milestones and moments of life that just pile up deeper and deeper with each passing year.

August reminds me how much grief is part of my life, part of who I am.  Grief is a part of the experience of being human – though it’s probably the part of being human that we’re the least comfortable with.  But sooner or later, we all have to deal with it.  The people we love get sick and die.  Relationships fracture and break.  The world we live in is scarred by violence and division and destruction.  And as we continue to deal with this global pandemic, there is grief in it as well – grief from the hundreds of thousands of families who have lost loved ones, grief for all the many ways this pandemic has disrupted our lives, grief for our lost sense of normalcy and safety.

This world is so plagued by brokenness, and so full of grief.  My growing up as a motherless child is just one tragedy among so many.  And I think we try to avoid acknowledging that grief because there is so much of it – and because acknowledging it can make us start to feel really hopeless.  But I’ve come to realize that grief is actually one of the holiest feelings that we can feel.

Because in the midst of this hopelessness and grief, I hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, from our first reading this morning:

“Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.”

Isaiah 51:6

Isaiah reminds us that, while all else might pass away, God is our one true rock.  And it’s in times of grief that I think we see that most clearly.  Grief confronts us with the reality of our own mortality and reminds us that the world we know is fleeting.  The heavens will vanish and the earth will wear out and even we will die, but God’s everlasting love and salvation will be forever.

It’s such good news – but it’s a message of good news that I think we struggle to really hear most of the time.  There are so many other things in this world, so many other voices demanding our attention.  These voices promise that they can give us life and health and true happiness, that all will be well, and we’ll finally find all that we’ve been missing if we just buy the right product, or vote for the right politician, or embark on the right personal improvement plan.  These earthly things pretend to be ultimate and powerful, the answer to all our prayers, but as Isaiah rightly points out, they are limited and pale next to the true power of God.

This truth is abundantly clear in our gospel reading for this morning.  Here we see Jesus exercising his authority as the Messiah, giving his disciples power over heaven and earth in his name.  And even more than this, Jesus asks his disciples a very loaded question: “Who do you say that I am?”  And of course, we know the answer that Peter boldly proclaims: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”  But this isn’t just an innocent, purely theological question that Jesus is asking his disciples.  It’s a question that has much deeper implications.

Jesus deliberately asks this question just as he and his disicples enter the district of Caesarea Philippi, which was an administrative center of Rome, a seat of Roman power.  To the Romans, with their imperial cult, Jesus wasn’t the “Son of God”; Caesar was – Caesar, the emperor after whom the city of Caesarea Philippi was named.  Choosing that spot to declare that Jesus was the true Son of the Living God was a direct affront to the power of the Roman emperor.  In effect, Jesus and his disciples are saying that, despite all the strength and domination and military might of the Roman Empire, that is not the true power and authority; this is the true and ultimate power and authority: Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God.

And by asking his disciples, who do you say that I am, Jesus is essentially asking them: where does your allegiance lie?  Is it with the political and social and economic powers of this world?  Or is it with me?  

Jesus is still asking his followers this question.  And it seems especially timely to wrestle with this question this week, in between two major political conventions, as the parties prepare for a contentious election.  We are already hearing lots of promises being made, lots of claims to power and authority; and I’m sure we’ll hear even more politicians promising us our heart’s desire in exchange for our loyalty.  And in the midst of all the chaos and upheaval in our world right now, it can be very tempting to believe them.  But again, as Isaiah reminds us, we must remember who is the true rock of our life, our true life and salvation – the one to whom we owe our true allegiance.  

These are without a doubt chaotic and troubling times that we are living in.  This year has brought so much radical change in almost every aspect of our lives, and it’s forced us to reconsider so many things that we’d taken for granted.  We can take comfort in knowing that God is greater than the chaos, and that God is with us in the midst of our feelings of uncertainty and loss and grief.  

And we can find blessing, even in the depths of grief.  I know our natural tendency is to try to move on from grief, to try to put it behind us and get back to normal as soon as we possibly can.  But the fact of the matter right now is that “normal” is still going to be out of our reach for some time to come, if it ever truly, fully comes back at all.  So, rather than trying to force a return to normal, to pretend that everything is fine, I encourage you instead to sit with whatever you’re feeling – not to wallow in self-pity, necessarily – but simply to let yourself feel what you feel, be it sadness, anger, hopelessness, anxiety, whatever.  Let yourself rest in the holy space of grief and trust that you will find God there. 

This August is a season of joys and griefs, especially as summer ends and an uncertain new school year begins.  There are more changes and challenges ahead of us – and even though 2020 has officially been the longest year ever, I have a feeling it’s still not done with us.  But remember that God is our rock and our strong foundation.  The heavens may vanish and the earth may wear out and even death may come for us, but God’s life and salvation are forever.

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