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Sermon for 9 November 2014

FIRST READING Amos 5:18–24

18 Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.


PSALM Psalm 70

1 Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me. 2 Let those who seek my life be put to shame and confounded; let those who take pleasure in my misfortune draw back and be disgraced. 3 Let those who say to me “Aha!” and gloat over me turn back because of their shame. 4 Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; let those who love your salvation say forever, “Great is the LORD!” 5 But as for me, I am poor and needy; come to me quickly, O God. You are my helper and my deliverer; O LORD, do not tarry.


SECOND READING 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.


GOSPEL Matthew 25:1–13

1 Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

There’s a story told years ago that I guess you could say is both sad and somewhat ironic. In 1978, firemen in England went on strike in the middle of a hard cold winter. This isn’t unusual in Great Britain. Civil servants there are notorious for their “industrial actions.” Instead of leaving the citizens without protection, the British Army was called in to take over emergency firefighting.
On January 14 these substitute firefighters were called out by an elderly lady in South London to retrieve her cat. The soldiers arrived with impressive haste, very cleverly and carefully rescued the cat, and started to drive away. But the lady was so grateful, she invited this squad of heroes in for tea. The fill in firefighters not only enjoyed their visit with the appreciative woman, but they enjoyed the tea as well. Then, with fond farewells and warm waving of arms, the soldiers started out of the driveway . . . and ran over the woman’s cat.
It’s a bit of a humorous but terrible story, and I have a reason for telling it. I have seen very well-meaning people, while doing good, “run over the cat” of the person they mean to help. That is, they mean to help, but they do more harm than good.
Some years ago Richard Wilke conducted a funeral service for a man whose youngest son was in the army. Because the boy was a new recruit, he was unable to come home to see his father during the brief illness before his father’s death. At the funeral, the rest of the family acted as if nothing had happened. Indeed, they kept up a pretense of near gaiety at the funeral, creating what Wilke called “a superficial air of unreality.” The eighteen-year-old soldier, however, seemed dazed.
Wilke describes the scene like this, “I knew the boy well, and after the graveside service, when he was standing by himself, I walked up to him, put my hand on his shoulder, and said: ‘John, I’m sorry.’ A big tear welled up in each eye,” says Wilke, “but before those two tears had time to hit the ground, a sister-in-law rushed over, grabbed [the young soldier] by the arm and frantically ‘rescued’ him with trivial chatter.”
In my estimation, this well-meaning sister-in-law ran over that young soldier’s cat. She meant to do good, but the net result was more damaging than beneficial. This young man wasn’t given the opportunity to grieve the loss of his father. When a significant event of loss occurs, especially the death of a loved one, we need time to grieve. Part of the problem is that we live in a death-denying culture.
In earlier times in our culture people grieved more openly. Often men wore black armbands, and the women wore black veils for six months to a year while in mourning for a loved one. Everyone was reminded daily of their loss. We’re told that one of the last public persons to wear a black armband was President Franklin Roosevelt at the death of his mother. So, too, in other parts of the world, people freely acknowledge death. Egyptians dress in black for six months. Some Muslims wear mourning clothes for a year. Orthodox Jews offer prayers for a deceased parent every day for eleven months. But not here.
In our culture, we do everything possible to avoid even the mention of death. Probably some of you think I’m being morbid today addressing the problem of grief. But, if we’re not going to talk about it here in God’s house, where and when will we talk about it? It’s the one subject that affects us all.
Some Christians miss out on the benefits of a normal grieving process by a misreading of our text today from Thessalonians and this is sad. The reading goes like this: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”
Some people read that passage and believe that Paul is saying that true Christians don’t grieve. And this is a complete misreading of the text and the very opposite of what Paul meant. Christians grieve and grieve deeply. Christians are people who have committed themselves to love others and to maintain bonds with others. And so, because we love so deeply, it may be that we’re exposed to grief more often than the nonbeliever. We do grieve. It hurts deeply when we lose someone we love. However, in Paul’s words, if we believe in Christ’s victory over sin and the grave, we “do not grieve like the rest of [humankind], who have no hope.” We grieve, but it is a healthy grief. It recognizes God’s victory over sin and death. We grieve in the light of the empty tomb.
Therefore, we recognize that grief is a normal and healthy part of life. Since the mortality rate for human beings is still, I understand, 100%, all of us are going to grieve at some time in our lives, and, hopefully, all of us will one day be grieved by someone else. It would be sad, indeed, if no one should care about our passing.
Author Edgar Jackson years ago wrote a bestselling book on grief. He describes grief in this way: “Grief is a young widow trying to raise her three children, alone. Grief is the man so filled with shocked uncertainty and confusion that he strikes out at the nearest person. Grief is a mother walking daily to a nearby cemetery to stand quietly and alone a few minutes before going about the tasks of the day . . . Grief is the silent, knife-like terror and sadness that comes a hundred times a day, when you start to speak to someone who is no longer there. Grief is the emptiness that comes when you eat alone after eating with another for many years. Grief is teaching yourself to go to bed without saying good night to the one who had died. Grief is the helpless wishing that things were different when you know they’re not and never will be again.” Grief is the young mother who loses a child in child-birth and is taking “each day second by second” because it’s the only way she can manage to function.
The only way you can avoid grieving is to avoid loving. All significant losses result in a form of grieving. Some of you have gone through painful divorces, and you grieved just as surely as if you had lost your loved one to death. Some of you have experienced the loss of a beloved pet. For you, that loss may have been as significant as the loss of a family member. The loss of a job or having to move to accommodate a spouse’s job may produce symptoms very much like grief. In America one out of five people moves every year because of change of employment or promotion. For the family of the person being moved, that means leaving behind family, schools, friends, neighbors, etc. Another form of grief may be retirement.
For some people, their work gives their life meaning. The feeling of being put up on a shelf or out to pasture, as it were, can be devastating. There are many occasions in life that call for grieving. What we need to remember is that when we’re hurting from a deep loss, we need to be able to express that loss or change. It’s important to remember that we should never apologize for our feelings or the expression of those feelings.
If you recall, even Jesus wept when His friend Lazarus died, even though He knew that Lazarus was going to be raised from the dead. Jesus knew the hurt that Lazarus’ sisters were experiencing. Jesus hurt for them. And He wept (John 11:35). We should never apologize for tears shed in grief.
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, tells about a business associate of his father who died under particularly tragic circumstances. Rabbi Kushner accompanied his father to the funeral. The man’s widow and children were surrounded by clergy and psychiatrists trying to ease their grief and make them feel better. They knew all the right words, but nothing helped. They were beyond being comforted. The widow kept saying, “You’re right, I know you’re right, but it doesn’t make any difference.”
“Then a man walked in,” says Kushner, “a big burly man in his eighties who was a legend in the toy and game industry. He had come to this country illiterate and penniless and had built up an immensely successful company. He was known as a hard bargainer, a ruthless competitor. Despite his success, he had never learned to read or write . . . He had been sick recently, and his face and his walking showed it. But he walked over to the widow and started to cry, and she cried with him, and you could feel the atmosphere in the room change. This man who had never read a book in his life spoke the language of the heart and held the key that opened the gates of solace where learned doctors and clergy could not.”
As a pastor in training I was assigned to Cooper Medical center in New Jersey to complete Clinical Pastoral Education. One of the requirements was to be the on call chaplain at night. I’ll never forget the first call on my very first night. I was called to the Children’s critical care unit to comfort a family who had just lost their 5 year-old son. I said all the right words but all seemed somehow hollow. Then I witnessed God’s love and mercy that night. A nurse never said a word to the grieving parents; instead she simply knelt down in the floor in front of them and cried with them. The comfort she provided that night was nothing less than the love of God shared. Sometimes, as hard as it may seem, no words are necessary.
How do you comfort someone who is in deep grieving? Give them the opportunity to express their pain. Don’t feel the need to find just the right words to say. Usually there are no right words except, perhaps, “I’m sorry. I love you.” Then a hand on the shoulder, or possibly, a hug will sometimes be sufficient. Most of all, don’t short-circuit the grieving process. Having said that, we must acknowledge that not all expressions of grief are healthy; there does come a time when we need to move on.
A pastor tells about a widow in his congregation. Her husband had been a prominent banker and a pillar of the community. At the funeral and for a few weeks afterward she was the model of stoic acceptance. Not a single tear filled her eyes, at least not in public. But then, after some time, finally the façade crumbled and she became an emotional wreck. She withdrew into her house, neglected her friends, quit going to her house of worship. Months went by, then a couple of years. Whenever she went out to shop for necessities, the pain was etched on her face. And, finally, after about three years, her heart gave out and she joined her husband in the cemetery.
“See how she loved him,” some said. But wiser minds knew that was not it at all. She had bottled up her emotions for too long and then when she did express them full bore, she became stuck there. She had always been somewhat self-involved. Consequently, her hurt turned to anger and she wouldn’t allow others to help her move on. And her death was, in its own way, more tragic than her husband’s. His couldn’t be helped. Hers might have.
Grief is a healthy and natural part of how we deal with a loss. We should never try to bottle it up. There’s healing in tears. But we can’t get stuck in our grief either. That’s true of grieving over a lost loved one, to death or to divorce. Don’t allow hurt or anger to color your life. That could also be true of a move or any other adverse situation.
Another pastor tells about a young man in his church whose parents were forced into a traumatic move to a new town when he was a sophomore in high school. His hurt over the loss of his friends turned to anger. He was determined not to accept the move. Fortunately he was too smart to resort to alcohol or drugs to express his disenchantment. Instead he decided to express his pain by refusing to study, refusing to make new friends. For an entire school year he successfully sabotaged his own school experience. Fortunately he had loving parents who helped him through this situation, but now, even though he has turned his life around, and has become a superior student, doors have been closed to him to some of the better universities, because he became stuck for a while in his pain and anger.
Now, we can say, he’s a teenager; his reaction was the reaction of an adolescent. If you think the same thing doesn’t happen to many adults, you need to be more aware of what’s happening around you. Loss hurts, no matter how it comes, whether by death, divorce, loss of a job, moving away or any radical change of life situations. “Grieve not,” writes St. Paul, “as those who have no hope.” As Christians, we handle grief the same way we handle all of life, trusting in God’s love for us. We hurt, but we can take comfort in knowing that Someone holds us in His powerful and loving arms. Krista Tippett in her book Speaking of Faith tells a moving story.
Tippett tells about her New Testament teacher, well-known author and Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School, Leander Keck. Tippett says that when she landed on campus, Keck’s wife of many, many years was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. The terrible thing about Alzheimer’s, of course, is that it robs you of your loved one even while they’re still alive. Krista says Keck carried his grief over his wife’s situation softly, but publicly.
She says she will never forget the day near the end of the year in their study of the New Testament when Keck read to them from the book of Revelation. Revelation is not one of Tippett’s favorite books, but there is a passage in the book of Revelation that she says she will forever hear in Leander Keck’s voice. Many of us have found great comfort in this passage as well. The words go like this: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; The sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, And he will guide them to springs of living water; And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:16-17)
Ms. Tippett says that as this old professor read this passage to them, tears filled his eyes. All of the students knew he was thinking of his wife and the terrible grief of the last chapter of their life together. Krista Tippett said, “He was cleaving to that promise. . . of a tender ultimate encounter with God when the sadness will be gathered up, the defects mended, the tears wiped away.” She says those sophisticated Yale students rose to their feet and applauded Leander Keck . . . tears pricked their eyes . . . and so did the promise in those lines. Do we have that kind of faith, that kind of assurance, that kind of trust in a God who wipes away every tear?
More than fifty years ago a pastor named Granger Westberg wrote a little book titled Good Grief. That book over the years has helped so many people that in 2010 a fiftieth anniversary edition was published. Westberg contended that grief can be good when four things come out of it.
First, grief is good when, “We come out of our grief experience at a slightly higher level of maturity than before.” Second, grief is good when, “We come out of our grief as deeper persons because we have been down in the depths of despair and know what it is like.” Third, grief is good when, “We come out of it stronger, for we have had to learn how to use our spiritual muscles to climb the rugged mountain trails.” And four, grief is good when, “We come out of it better able to help others. We have walked through the valley of the shadow of grief. We can understand.”
Almost all of us have been through a grief experience. We know what Westberg is talking about. We, too, are stronger because of that experience and we’re better equipped to help others because we’ve been through this valley, through this terrible valley. No one is saying, “Do not grieve.” But God’s Word for the day is, “Do not grieve as those who have no hope.” When we grieve, we trust in God and in His limitless love for us. And in those times of grief, learn to lean on His loving arms.

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