Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
An Open and Honest Conversation
Psalm 34:1-18, Luke 24:13-35
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Last Sunday and the Sunday before, which was Easter (just in case you’ve lost track!), we had far too many requests for prayers for those who had died and those who were grieving. I don’t mean that we had too many requests, but rather we had too many people die who were close to us or who impacted our community. Whether it was the 2-year-old who wandered away and drowned or the high schooler who was in so much mental or emotional pain that he needed to end his life, or those who have been ill, those who have lived long full lives and those whose lives ended in ways we just don’t understand. In all of these deaths, there is grief.
So, I felt that this could not go by without our talking about it, not only because grieving is a part of living and loving; and, not only because we are a community of faith who seeks to support people wherever they are on life’s journey; but, also because today’s reading focuses us on Jesus’s presence with two of the disciples who were also grieving as they walked the road to Emmaus.
The first time I preached here was when Tom Lenhart went with the 2013 Confirmation Class to Boston. This reading was also the lectionary text for that Sunday. At the time, I talked about how this reading took on a whole new meaning for me when I went on my first silent retreat. I had been dealing with a lot of death including the unexpected death of a good friend and mentee. When I got to my retreat, I sat down in the spiritual director’s office and just started crying.
After a few minutes, she asked what my tears were about. I admitted to being overwhelmed with sadness at all of the deaths that I had witnessed as a chaplain, with the 9/11 Ground Zero chaplain work I had done, and with my dear friends’ unexpected death. I was compassioned out and could not even remember the psalmist reassuring words that, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” At that time, I was in so much pain and grief that I could not feel God around me in any way.
My spiritual director asked if I had talked with Jesus about my losses and about how I felt. I shrugged her off, saying, “Oh, he already knows how I feel.” She paused for a moment and then asked me, “You know the story of the men on the road to Emmaus? What did Jesus do when he meets up with them?” I looked at her unsure where she was going with this. She went on, “Jesus says to them, ‘Tell me about your loss.’” She pointed out that Jesus asks them twice to tell him about their loss. Then she said, “Even though Jesus knew exactly what was in their hearts and what they had been talking about, he asks them to tell him.” She paused and then said, “You need to tell him as well.”
So, I spent the next several days crying and talking with Jesus about my losses. At first, I thought I would never stop crying, but eventually, over the course of the week, I cried less and breathed more. I walked a great deal and looked at the nature that was surrounding me. I could feel myself starting to heal. I began to reconnect to God as my heart was restored and renewed. I truly believe that this happened because I had been able to tell Jesus about my losses and therefore, give them over to him.
Friends, the ability to know or remember that God is by our side when we are in such pain gets covered up when we are compassioned out, as I was, or are grieving or when we doubt or when we are confused – when things don’t turn out the way we thought they would – or hoped they would. Sometimes we get angry with God over a death, and are not able to turn to God, even when God is right there with us. Like Cleopas and his companion, we cannot see that God is present with us because of what is going on for us.
And, that is where God calls on us to help. We don’t need to have the answers, we don’t need to defend God or offer platitudes. We need only be present with the person who is hurting. We need only sit with them, hold their hand, pray with them, help them stay connected to others in their life. Sometimes, that may not feel like it is enough, but chances are, it is more than enough for the person who is grieving, because you can’t make them feel better. You can’t make their grief go away. You can only be present with them.
And, you can invite them, if you feel comfortable, to tell you about their loss. To tell you how they are feeling. Now, that may be scary for you, but it will be healing for the person who is grieving. Usually, they want nothing more than to talk about their loved one who died. Most people are afraid to mention the deceased by name. Somehow we are afraid that we will make the grieving person cry or upset them more. They are already upset, so you asking them about their loved one who died and talking about the person, can actually help them because it enables them to feel comfortable enough with you to share about that person as well.
And, if you knew the person, your being able to share your own memories about them will be healing as well. It is okay to talk about the person who died because you are telling the grieving person that the one who died mattered to you and made a difference in your life, too. Your willingness to have an open and honest conversation with someone who is grieving, brings about healing and hope for that person. It can be a difficult conversation to have, but if you go into it knowing that you are not alone, that Jesus is there, listening as well, you can help bring about healing for someone for whom you care. When we name our grief, our pain, our disappointment in the safety of our community, we know that there is an assurance of grace, an assurance of unconditional love and acceptance.
Loving someone involves so many different layers for us. When we fall in love, we don’t think about the pain that a break-up or illness or death might bring. We are not built that way. We are built to love and to be with other people.
After my mothers’ death, my dad was having a really hard time with his grief. We would talk on the phone and he would talk about the pain in his heart and the emptiness he felt without her by his side. Once he said that the pain was so deep that he wasn’t sure he could survive it. He also voiced the question, “Why does it have to hurt so much?” Such a hard question to answer. As I sat there listening to his lament, I remembered the famous quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson, “is it better to have love and lost than never to have loved at all,” and so I tried to help him understand that when we love, we also open ourselves up to pain.
I asked him if he would be willing to forgo the love he had for my mother in order to not be in pain right now. Without hesitation, he said, “I would not trade anything in the world for every moment I had with your mother. I loved her more than life itself.” As I held back my own tears, I helped him to understand that with love, also comes sorrow. Somehow that made his pain a bit more bearable, but it did not take it away.
I am working on a self-evaluation for the Personnel Committee. I want to share a paragraph from it, because I think it helps to describe what is in my heart as I seek to serve you and as I deal with my own sorrows and grief and as I seek to learn from you and with you.
“The one thing I was not really prepared for when becoming your Senior Minister, and has required a shift in my own thinking and being as I serve God and our community, is that I am more a part of the lives of the people I serve than I ever imagined. When I say “dear ones” from the pulpit, I mean it – when I say “love” at the end of a note to someone, I mean it. One of my colleagues had told me, prior to my becoming a pastor of a church, that I would fall in love with my congregation; I thought she was crazy. She wasn’t. I love each and every member of our church. And, as we know, when we love people, we are also more open to hurt and sorrow for and with them. That is the one thing I had not prepared myself for.
“Because I am so intimately involved with people and their lives, I feel pain and sorrow for them on a much deeper level – a profoundly deep level, which sometimes leaves me feeling totally helpless – and in those moments, I can do nothing else but turn to God for support and help and strength. Telling Jesus about my pain and my sorrow helps to bring me solace and support and gratitude for my call to serve FCC. This too is a part of my own growth as a minister and a human being. It brings me closer to God as I follow the path on which God walks with me, and sometimes carries me.”
The solace for me, as I grieve the losses of those close and those who I didn’t know but who meant something to you, is knowing, with all my heart, that God loves us so much that God finds a way for each of our loved ones to be with God, no matter what they have done in their life. God loves them and welcomes them into the protective shelter of God’s love. And, a part of them remains within us. We are who we are because of their influence in our lives, and so they will continue to live on through us. Our hearts will be filled with gratitude for their presence in our life.
“Tell me about your losses,” says Jesus to the grieving disciples. “Tell me about your losses,” says Jesus to each one of us. God’s love for us is so strong that God is willing to take on our grief, our feelings of loss and anger and resentment and fear. Jesus tells us, “Let’s have an open and honest conversation about what you need from me. Come to me, I will listen and I will reveal myself to you, just as I did with the disciples long ago, when they stopped to break bread together with me. Through God’s Holy Spirit, you will know, that I love you and that I am with you always.”