CARRYING ALL THE THINGS // Sara Wolbrecht // November 1, 2015 //Mark 12:28-34 (The Greatest Commandment)
Friends, we have reached a pivotal moment in the sermons at Salt House. We have been preaching through Mark’s gospel for seven months. And if we were to continue today, we would read of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, then we’d read on to his crucifixion and resurrection. But, as you may know, this is what we read every year at Easter time. And so we are going save that part of the story for Easter, keeping the rhythm to the year that churches throughout the world keep. And so this is pivotal for us, because we will soon say farewell to Mark’s gospel.
Here’s the plan for the next few Sundays: next Sunday we have a special time with a concert led by the phenomenal Justin McRoberts, with songs and stories, a different kind of worship experience for us. THEN on November 15th we’ll have another Seahawk’s game with worship at halftime. THEN finally, November 22nd, we’ll kick off Thanksgiving week with a recap of sorts of what we’ve covered in Mark’s gospel.
Tonight, we have one last piece of Mark’s gospel to consider. After Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem, he says and does a few things. Including this, perhaps the most important words he speaks, words that define the most important task of our lives. This passage is usually referred to as the greatest commandment. And here it is for us:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
A man, a teacher of the law, overhears Jesus debating and is impressed with his answers. In the past, others have asked Jesus questions to “put Jesus to the test.” To see if he’ll say something to incriminate himself – like when the religious leaders asked him about divorce. But this time the question is different. This is a sincere question, a man asking wholeheartedly: what matters the most? It’s kind of like the question that we ask ourselves sometimes: if you woke up in the middle of the night and your house was on fire, and if everyone got out safely but you had time to grab one thing, what would you grab? Your answer certainly says something about your priorities, about what matters the most. The Law was some 600 things to follow, and this man is asking, of this house full of things, what is the one thing he should grab hold of?
And Jesus says: LOVE! Love God with everything you have. And notice, the man doesn’t ask for the runner-up, item number two, but Jesus, in the same breath says: and love your neighbor as yourself. We get that feeling that Jesus can’t just say “love God” as a singular focus, but that loving God is so significantly partnered with loving others, that it is BOTH that become the one thing that is the most important thing.
At the heart of scripture and the heart of the life of Jesus, it can all be boiled down into this one thing – love. Love God and love others. And we spend our whole lives trying to figure out what that looks like – for you in your own skin with your gifts to love God and love others. And for me, for us together as families, as community together. And there are so many layers of complexity and beauty and challenge to actually loving God and others.
And for us, today, we’re going to drill down into one thing about this one thing. And it is a controversial thing for us to talk about today. Are you ready for some controversy? Controversial, because, today, we are going to talk about grief and name the grief we carry.
It is controversial to talk about our grief today for at least two reasons - It is controversial from the side of the church and tradition. Because, today is All Saints’ Day. The day on which we remember the saints, those who were faithful to God throughout history and in our churches and families. Yet, today, we’re not just limiting the loss and grief to the death of loved ones. But including all forms of grief and loss – which I’ll say more about in a minute. It is controversial to change the game plan in the church.
It is also controversial because we live in a culture that does not know how to grieve well. We don’t know how to do it, we don’t know how to talk about grief, we are often uncomfortable with it. And yet, we all live with it. And here at Salt House we name how Jesus invites us into a wholehearted life. An authentic life. A life of being who we are made to be, and letting the love of God meet us and transform us. Being real with each other, with God, means being intentional about knowing and feeling our grief.
Now maybe you’re thinking to yourself: Sara, I thought this text we just read is about love! Why, yes, good observation! Here’s the thing: Jesus’ call to a life of loving God and others is a call to a life of loss. For to spend our lives in the messy, fulfilling, risky, transforming work of loving God and others – we will face loss – to love God means loving the things God loves, which are so often broken things, painful things. And to love others means we love people who are imperfect. Who will let us down. Who will hurt us. Who will die. To love is to embrace the loss that will eventually come. And we all live with it.
This is why we’re embracing the controversy of grief today – because it is a constant part of our lives. The life of Jesus shows us that we should love, and also shows us how to live with grief faithfully and wholeheartedly. Are you with me?
So let’s dive in. A good place to start is with a definition. A few weeks ago I heard a fabulous definition of grief from Tim Kessler, who is a grief expert. His definition is this: Grief ~ a reflection of a connection that has been lost. Let that sink in. A reflection of a connection that has been lost. Notice it doesn’t say a positive connection. We grieve negative connections, too. The father that was awful to us – needs to be grieved because there is an emotional connection there. We grieve people we love, people we like, people we don’t like, and people we hate. We grieve people we may have never actually met because we can feel a connection to them. When Robin Williams died – man I still feel that sometimes – because I had a connection to him, to his humor, his characters in film. The stronger the connection we feel – whether positive or negative – will certainly deepen the experience of grief that we have. That’s grief.
So when does grief show up? It shows up whenever there is loss, and even whenever there is change. Has anyone ever experienced change? How much change today, right? Life is change. Change is the one constant. And grief comes as we face change.
And there are certain types of changes that come that really impact us as a source of grief. I’m going to walk through four of them, four kinds of loss/change and I invite you to listen for anything that resonates as part of your story, now. (And this is not all-inclusive, so be listening for what God might bring up for you that I may not even say – because God likes to do that).
First, there is the grief we face in a lost dream. Something we longed for that we will never have. Like, not getting married when you thought you would. Not being able to get pregnant. The loss of pregnancies. The grief of not having the career you wanted. When someone comes out as gay, lesbian, there is a lot of lost dreams that must be grieved. Then there’s separation and divorce, as couples and individuals and families grieve the loss of the family they had thought they would always have. The grief experienced through aging and facing health problems—that certain dreams will never be realized, because of the limitations of our body.
One of the hardest things about experiencing the loss of dreams: so often no one else knew about it, or few people did. And so it is a private sense of loss.
Second, there is the loss of stuff, of possessions or physical surroundings. When we move to a new home, when our job changes, when we finish school or we go back to school, when we lose a wedding ring or another beloved possession, or it breaks, when we drive that car into the ground and it finally dies—have you ever taken a picture of your car as you said goodbye to it for the final time? There can be tears and grief around the changes in our surroundings and stuff. We miss the familiar – there is so much comfort in the familiar. When a pet dies – that’s another one, too – for they are so much a part of our lives, ourselves. We miss the familiar. Even graduating from college or getting married – which are fabulous things – can bring grief. Because there is so much change.
Third is grief when we lose our sense of identity. This can be caused by a job change, finishing school, starting a relationship, ending a relationship, a change in our family, moving away from a community of friends, or some other social change. We so often define ourselves by what we do or by who we are with. When that changes, when the job or the friend isn’t there anymore, when we become a parent, we face feelings of loss and emptiness as we no longer have the same sense of identity. Grief of lost identity.
Finally, there is the greatest grief we experience, which is from the loss of a loved one. Whether that loved one has died, or whether the relationship has been broken or ended, we feel the deep loss of their absence. We miss them, we miss the life we had with them. We remember their face, their voice, their laughter, the things they delighted in, the jokes we knew with them, their preferences about things, the everyday things we did with them. I know when my dating relationships would end, I would so miss having someone to call, text with at the very end of the day. And even when someone like a grandparent dies, or someone who has had a good long life – it is still hard – because this is a different world when they are not in it. The love – the depth of connection we had with them is reflected in the depth of grief we now feel in their absence.
In this quick list, do you hear some of your own story, some of your grief from years past, or fresh grief now? I know I do. So what do we do when we’re experiencing grief?
Being Jesus-people, let’s look at what scripture teaches us. What I love about scripture is that it is so rich with living examples of real emotions in real people – including grief. And I read those words and think, “Man, these are my people.” Christianity is so often portrayed as living in a way that you pretend everything is good. But really, if you look at the bible, it is an invitation into an authentic life, and yes, authentic grief. Just three quick examples:
Like good ol’ Job who lost everything, he definitely did not just grin and bear it, but he grieved. He says: “My eyes have grown dim with grief; my whole frame is but a shadow…” Job 17:1.
And the Psalms, THE PSALMS, are packed with pissed off, grieving, weeping people, who cry out and shout and live through their grief. “Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.” Psalm 31:9.
And Jesus himself, he who is the Son of God, when he hears that his good friend Lazarus has died, what does he do? “Jesus wept.” John 11:35.
So looking at these, what’s one thing scripture point us toward when it comes to grief? Well, thankfully, it resonates with what research supports, too: grief must be lived, faced, felt. You can’t run away from grief. You can’t stuff it. And so what we do, in the words of the song and story, We’re Going On a Bear Hunt, when it comes to grief: We can’t go over it, can’t go under it, Oh no! We’ve gotta go through it! We live though grief. And we let ourselves feel all the things.
And living through grief is a matter of feeling lots of different things. Grief is not just “feeling sad.” Grief is not just sadness, but a cluster of emotions. It is anger, betrayal, fear, denial, relief, joy, peace, acceptance, bargaining, emptiness, hopelessness. It is tears, laughter, oversleeping, under sleeping, overeating, under eating. Grief is complex and is as unique to a person as their fingerprint. A reflection of a connection that has been lost – and is experienced as many different emotions and expressions.
And those emotions will not be a constant onslaught of grief, but what I’ve come to recognize is that grief comes in waves. It will flood in when something triggers it, and flow out when it’s done. And we just ride the waves as they come.
And so as people of God, we choose to become people who carry grief. Willingly. Intentionally. Naming it. Riding the waves. We carry all the things that grief brings up, knowing that with time, we learn to carry it without as much pain. Like, as we grieve the lost dream, we begin to dream new dreams. As we grieve the loss of moving away from a place or a group of friends, we find new rhythms and places and friends. As we grieve the loss of identity, we live into a new sense of self. As we grieve the loss of someone dear to us, we find that the grief lessens with time, we find ways to honor them, and we find ways to ride the grief when it comes, and not be consumed by it. We live into it, as the grief becomes a part of us. As God’s people we live it and carry it.
And as God’s people, we know that the great good news is that we never carry our grief alone. Did you hear that? We never carry our grief alone. Our God is present in our grief and pain, crying out and shaking fists with us, hurting with us, eating too much chocolate with us. And: our God gives us one another so we can help each other carry all the things that are so hard to live with – including our grief. That is such great good news. We never carry our grief alone.
And it is important for us to not carry our grief alone. What research points to is the importance of having someone, even just one person, to witness our grief. To see it raw, unedited. Who knows our ugly cry, who knows our anger. And for us to have the courage to share our grief so it can be witnessed, to name the dream that has been lost, to name the broken relationship – this is a necessary part of grieving. For grief to be witnessed.
And as God’s people, this also means we are people who do the carrying and witnessing for others, right? We get the good gifts of God’s love and care embodied in actual people who are present with us. And we are also the embodied presence of God who show up in the grief of others. We choose to witness the grief of others.
Now let’s remember that we are surrounded by a culture that does not know how to grieve well. So we get many unhelpful messages about what it looks like to help one another carry grief. Have you ever been in a place of grief and well-intentioned people have said horribly insensitive things to you? Maybe something like, everything happens for a reason. Has anyone ever told you this? Have you ever said these? I will be first to admit that I have! It happens – because grief is hard and people get freaked out by it and they see someone hurting and they want to fix it. When we witness grief with someone else, the number one thing we can do is just show up. And tell them: I am so sorry, and I don’t know what to say, but I’m with you. That’s it. To show up and not try to say the right thing. We can’t fix it, but we can be people who willingly name our grief, carry it, and with the love of God help others who need to grieve, too.
…So my friends – what is God saying to you in this? What has come up for you in reflecting on grief? Today, on this All Saints’ Day, we intentionally hold the controversial question of: What and who do I grieve at this time in my life? (Leave on the screen) What grief are you carrying? Is there grief that you have been avoiding, stuffing, that you need to carry with intention?
A way to consider this is to consider the change that has happened in your life – maybe in the last few months, maybe something big from a while ago that you have not let yourself carry all the things for.
For me, I will forever grieve the community of friends and the church Jason and I left in the Bay Area, when we left to come here just over a year ago. I know this is where we’re supposed to be, and I’m thrilled about it. But dang it I miss my friends there. And yes, the weather, too. I know that there will always be sadness about leaving that place, even as there is deep, deep gratitude here – and for me it means attending to the waves of grief when they rise up in me.
…Jesus says to us today: love God and love others with all you got. That’s the one thing of all the things that matters most. It is a life of beautiful mess, of extravagant joy and a life that includes loss – and we choose to be people who carry our grief and witness to the grief of others.
The band is going to come up and lead us in an old hymn that is traditionally sung on All Saints Day. We sing of the saints of the past. We remember our own loved ones who we miss and who are with us always. We sing in a place of grief, yet we also sing with deep gratitude – for the grief we feel is a reflection of the love we feel. And we thank God for the good gifts of those people that we grieve, for they are the very ones that we love – and love is the most important thing we can do with our lives. Amen? Amen. Let’s sing…
Song of Response: For All the Saints
In Jerusalem, today, there is a piece of the original wall from the second temple, that has been a place of pilgrimage and prayer for nearly two thousand years. It is called the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall. And to it, people bring their prayers, their grief. A sacred spot where people come to encounter the love of God and lay down the burdens they carry.
We’ve made a Wailing Wall for us tonight. And in these next few moments, we’ll continue to make space for naming the grief we carry – and to write it down. There is power in naming things, it’s the first step in growing through them. You may have grabbed pen and paper on the way in, if not, we’ll walk around and hand out more.
Then, you are invited to bring your grief before God. Here at the wall we offer it, and here we allow it to be witnessed and carried by one another. When you feel ready, you are welcome to make your way forward with your papers, to do one of two things. First, you can attach your grief here using a clothes pin to hang it in the frame. The second thing, is if you are grieving someone. A name of a person – then you can bring it here to the table, if you would like me to read their name out loud as we remember and honor your loved one. Whether they are a saint who has died in this past year, or someone who is with you always – I will read the names at the end of our time.
Then after you have done those things, you can come and meet me here at Jesus’ table and receive communion, then return to your seat. And as always, you are welcome to participate as much or as little as you would like.
The greatest grief in my life now is the grief I feel for my brothers. I have two brothers. David, my younger brother, didn’t speak to me, my brother or my parents for five years. But three years ago we reconciled and we have a beautiful relationship. But David is still not speaking to my older brother, Steve. It’s been almost 9 years. They’ve missed a wedding, children born, so much life together. And we can never all be together as a family. I grieve that, even as know God is at work in this relationship, and I have such hope for the future. I carry that grief to God today, and for you to witness. What grief do you carry, what grief can you name today?
Let us pray…
God, we come today carrying the griefs of our hearts. We come to you – knowing that you are a God who cries out with us in our pain. And we come to you, knowing that you are a God who makes all things new, for you are the God of resurrection. We thank you God, for your unfailing promise that death and grief and loss and pain are never the final word for our lives. That you are making all things new, that your Kingdom is breaking in to this world and our lives every day. Thank you God, for that. And so we come to you, now, knowing that you are with us, knowing that you are at work in our hearts, and in all these ways in which we grieve. And we come to Jesus’ table – knowing that you meet us in our pain and longing with the very real stuff of Jesus’ life – his body and blood poured out for us and for all people, so that all things can be made new.
Let it be so now – in the naming, in the carrying forward, in our witnessing of one another’s grief, in the receiving of Holy Communion – for these are scandalous, tender, sacred things that we do together – and we thank you that you carry us through it all. In Jesus’ name we pray – Amen.
Thank you God, for receiving our prayers, our grief, our longing. In this moment we name before those for whom we grieve, and as we do it, we say thank you, thank you, thank you – for the life we shared with them, for the ways in which they changed our lives, and thank you for the legacy they leave in us and this world. We name, honor, and celebrate:
…As well as all others who are on our hearts. We entrust them to you now, again, knowing that you are our God who will never let them go.
We close this time of prayer and grief, with thanksgiving, for with great hope and anticipation, we look forward to all the ways in which you, God, will continue to care for us through others, for how you will heal our wounds, and give us new dreams to dream. We courageously commit to being your people who carry all the things of grief and who witness the grief of others.
For in all these things, you are our God who makes all things new, and as your Kingdom comes, all things will be made good again – we embrace the grief as we hope towards that time, together.