Grief and Hope

Lent 3B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The Monday before last the U.S. surpassed 500,000 deaths due to Covid-19. One out of 670 Americans has died of the virus. One in three Americans has lost someone they knew. We lost sisters, children, husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, in-laws, neighbors, colleagues, teammates, and friends. The bereaved are doubly trapped in the pandemic and in their grief. How do we grieve such an immense loss of life?

In Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities and churches, the need is especially acute. COVID has claimed lives at twice the rate as white Americans. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that life expectancy in the United States “fell by a full year during the first half of 2020, a staggering decline that reflects the toll of the covid-19 pandemic as well as a rise in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks, and diseases that accompanied the outbreak.” Black Americans have lost 2.7 years of life expectancy, and Latinos have lost 1.9. White life expectancy fell by almost 10 months (0.8 years). (Adam Russell Taylor, Sojourners, 2/25/21)

Our varied experiences expose the inequities baked into our society. If we think of the Ten Commandments as a scale that perfectly balances between love of God and love of neighbor, we quickly see how out of whack the status quo is –not only for people of color in our culture, but for those who are oppressed around the world, and also for the non-human life we call nature.

In the temple Jesus fashioned a whip of cords. He scattered the coins of the money changers and knocked over their tables. He told the dove dealers, sheep sellers, and cattle wranglers to get out! Jesus made a scene. It wasn’t like disrupting the pancake breakfast or the Christmas bazaar fundraiser. Jesus overturned the workings of the temple itself. In our grief, we have in Jesus one who listens, and mourns with us and also one who fights and struggles with us for a better world.

St. Augustine wrote that Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger, so that what must not be cannot be; and Courage, so that what can be will be. More than many emotions, anger shows what you really care about. Anger, like that of Jesus in the temple, can bring about change. Anger re-negotiates boundaries. Cold anger, emptied of violence and aggression, is empathetic, powerful, and creative.

We understate the story when we say Jesus merely “cleansed” the temple. Rather, he created an alternative to the Jerusalem temple that is in, with and for us all. The mighty and glorious temple of Jerusalem became the temple of his body—not limited to any specific geographical place or time. This new temple is not a building but a way of life. We have become a temple of Living Stones –of the Word and for the world, but also transcending the world.

This pandemic year has shown us the truth of this. Unable to be together in our house of worship we remain joined in Spirit, knit together in mutual bonds of love, which are the sinew and bone of Christ’s body (1 Peter 2:5).

The Jerusalem temple functioned through animal sacrifice. Like communion or baptism, the faithful made peace with God to be reconciled and account for sin through the sacrifice of innocent, unblemished, animals. Money changers were necessary so people could buy these animals with the coins of their homeland which often bore craven images of foreign kings and local gods. The money changers exchanged these coins for shekels minted by Jewish authorities. It was legitimate work, but the system wasn’t working. It needed reform. I wonder, what would Jesus want to change about the church today?

Lent is an invitation to have a conversation with grief, in all its expressions. Jesus shows us that grief is part of the human experience. Scripture says that Jesus was a man of many sorrows. He was acquainted with our grief. Jesus wept. He was rejected. He was betrayed by friends. He grieved over systemic and relational brokenness. To follow Jesus is to learn that even beautiful sacred things can become burdens and barriers to God’s grace.

One of the gifts of Lent is the encouragement that Jesus gets it. We are not alone; we are not unseen in our grief and in our suffering of injustice. You are embraced by God in the temple of your own body. Heaven and earth are joined together in the quiet interior space of your soul. It is a temple not made with hands that is amplified and expanded in color and textures as we circle together in Christ’s name. This Lent, while we learn to listen through prayers without words on Wednesday evenings, we add to our personal prayer playbook to find both comfort and courage.

Pastor Osheta Moore uses a technique to put words to her grief and to find an answer in grace using simple, breath-prayers. She says, “It has not only empowered me to press through the pain, but it has given me a way to connect with Jesus, who gets it.”

Pastor Moore explains, “The practice of breath prayer involves praying a short, five- to seven-syllable prayer. On the inhale, you pray a name for God that is meaningful to you: “Nurturing Mother,” “Kind Savior,” and “Gentle Healer.” On the exhale, you pray your request: Give me peace; hold me close; be near me in my grief.
The day Ahmaud Arbery was killed, she prayed, “God of Justice, hold me close.” On the day she learned that the novel coronavirus was ravaging brown and Black communities, she prayed, “Wounded Healer, protect the vulnerable.” On the day there was rioting in her neighborhood after George Floyd was killed, she prayed, “God who hears, respond to our cries.” (OSHETA MOORE, A Year of Negotiating Grief, Sojourners, 1/26/21)

I wonder, what would Jesus throw out of your life with his whip of cords? What are the things that entangle and enslave us? What are you really angry about? Do not be afraid, but listen, and follow. Therein lies the trailhead of a path blazed by the Holy Spirit leading out of bondage and into new life God promised you in baptism. The path to abundance and eternal life leads through destruction and desolation. You will lose your life before you save it. Jesus comes to you today, but rather than a hymnal or bible, in his hand is a whip of cords to open a trail out of our isolation and into communion; out of our despair and into hope; out of resignation and into action; out of sadness and into cold anger; out of misery and into hope and joy. See, the playful purposes of God have become our traveling companions as we journey together, in a temple not made with hands, that brings life out of death.