Thursday, March 24, 2016

Good Grief

Sermon preached Palm/Passion Sunday, March 20, 2016

Texts: Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23:32-49

            Type “Famous People Born in Minnesota” into an internet search engine and you get an interesting list of names: Judy Garland, Jessica Lange, Jessica Biel, Bob Dylan, Prince, Garrison Keillor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jessie Ventura.  On any list of famous people born in Minnesota you will find Charles Schultz.  Schultz is a Minnesota treasure. The cartoonist, best known for Peanuts and its cast of characters – Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy, was born in Minneapolis in 1922.  Just last year The Peanuts Movie was released to generally favorable reviews.  One critic said that the movie “feels like the return of an old friend.”
            Schultz thought cartoonists should say something with their work.  If you do not say anything in a cartoon, you might as well not draw it at all.  Humor which does not say anything is worthless humor.  So I contend that a cartoonist must be given a chance to do his own preaching.  (Short, The Gospel According to Peanuts, 7)
            Lucy is talking with Charlie Brown.  It is a bit of a reversal.  Afterall, Lucy is the one with her own “business” – “Psychiatric Help, 5¢”.  Here she is sharing with Charlie.  “Sometimes I get discouraged.”  “Well, Lucy, life has its ups and downs, you know…”  “But why?  Why should it?  Why can’t my life be all Ups?  If I want all Ups, why can’t I have them?  Why can’t I just move from one ‘Up’ to another ‘Up’?  Why can’t I just go from an ‘Up’ to an ‘Upper-Up’?  I don’t want any ‘downs’!  I just want ‘ups’ and ‘ups’ and ups’!” (Short, The Gospel According to Peanuts, 84)
            Wouldn’t we like to go from up to up to up?  Don’t we just want to go from Palm Sunday to Easter, from a Palm Parade to an Easter Parade?  We want ups and ups and ups.  But then someone decided to make Palm Sunday also Passion Sunday.  Then someone else made a decision to examine “challenging emotions” for Lent and today that challenging emotion is “grief.”  No going from an up to an upper-up for us.
            As Jesus rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road [Sorry to say, Luke has no palms on palm Sunday].  As he was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:37-38)
            And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts (Luke 23:48)  This is an acknowledgement of loss.  It is a gesture of grief.  We all know grief because we have all known loss.  We know it well, because loss and grief are part of the human experience.  Since 2009, in our family, we have lost, among others, my dad, Julie’s mom, my grandma, a little dog.  My uncle is struggling with the loss of his sight.  As a congregation we have grieved many beloved people.  Sometimes I look out from here and remember just where many sat.  I know the grief some of you have gone through, and are going through, and I thank you for the courage it takes to examine grief, even as it feels so fresh.  Someone once described grief to me as like the chorus in a Greek play – always present, sometimes center stage, but often not, yet it does not simply disappear.
            Grief is the experience of loss, of feeling loss, of mourning loss.  Feeling grief is an indication that we care, that we love.  Many wise people have linked our capacity for grief with our capacity to feel other, more “up” feelings, and we will hear from them in a bit.  In II Corinthians, Paul writes about “godly grief” (7:9-10) by which he means feeling bad when our consciences have been moved.  That is a different kind of grief than we are discussing this morning, but I think we can also think about godly grief.  All good grief, that is, grief felt and worked with well, all good grief is godly grief, because all good grief helps us grow.  In the words of St. Irenaeus, “the glory of God is a human person fully alive.”
            So in this week in the church when we will go from celebration to grief and back to celebration, lets explore good grief, godly grief – grief felt, listened to, worked with well that ends up growing us.
            Therapist Francis Weller, whose work is a rather recent discovery for me, writes that we would do well to re-conceive grief.  Grief is less an event in our lives, a period of mourning, though it is that, but even more, grief is “an on-going conversation that accompanies us throughout life.  Grief and loss are with us continually, shaping our walk through life, and in some real way, determining how fully we engage our lives.”  (The Wild Edge of Sorrow, 4).  Weller is trying to put us in touch not only with the deep losses that move us to enter periods of mourning, but with the smaller losses that are also a part of life.  We age, and lose some capacities.  We lose opportunities.  We lose jobs, either by changing jobs or by retiring, and retirement has a dimension of grief to it.
            Sometimes stages in grieving are identified.  If you have ever taken a class on death and dying, you know the Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  These can be helpful, but we need to know that grief is often messier than this, not always so neat.  One of the ways thinking about grief in this way has been helpful to me recently is in thinking about our society.  Have you noticed how much anger there is in our society, how much anger has become a topic of discussion in our politics?  Injustice can invite anger, but so can grief, and I have been wondering lately how much of the anger in our politics is a part of grief over a world that we seem to have lost – a simpler world.  Yet anger is not meant to be a permanent landing place in grief, and I think we could use some good grief work, along with political analysis.
            In our individual lives, anger can be a part of grief, too, but is not meant to be a landing place, but a stage.
            So grief has many dimensions, even if they are messier than denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  And back to the most important point, good grief can grow us.  While grief is difficult, it is good that we feel grief, because it is a part of feeling love.  If we did not love, if we did not care, we would not grieve.  We also would not live very fully.  Here are those words from wise teachers who have helped me understand the connection between grief and growth.
            Elizabeth Lesser, The New American Spirituality, 180: The opposite of happiness is a closed heart.  Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness.  A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion.  An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality….  We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead we isolate ourselves even more from joy….  The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart.  Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.
            Francis Weller, The Sun, October 2015:  The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them.  How much sorrow can I hold?  That’s how much gratitude I can give.  If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair.  If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.  Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.
            Good grief, godly grief, is keeping the conversation with our lives, including our losses, going.  It is the courage of the heart and soul, sustained by God’s Spirit, to stay present to our grief, to feel its many dimensions, but not get stuck along the way – not get stuck in anger, not get stuck in a depressive sadness that paralyzes us.

            The final week of Jesus’ life is a story of courage – coming to Jerusalem, letting the joy of people show, staying true to his mission of teaching and healing, facing mocking and finally, death.  The story of the final week of Jesus’ life is also a story of tenderness and compassion, which are particularly evident on Thursday.  From Jesus we can draw courage to engage our grief well, and engaging grief well leads to compassion, tenderness, a larger heart, new life.  And that is the promise that comes with our willingness to courageously work with our challenging emotions, that there is new life on the other side, that there is resurrection, that Easter is coming.  Amen.

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