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Grief Unbound

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

Lent 5A: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130

Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

March 29, 2020

I was recently reminded of an experience, circa 1994, of watching the movie Philadelphia, the film featuring Tom Hanks who played a lawyer who was fired from his firm for being gay and having HIV/AIDS. Kateri and I had gotten together the year before, and as someone who was newly out as queer (though not yet as trans), I was just starting to take in the complex history and vibrancy as well as stigma and discrimination woven into LGBTIQ experience. The HIV/AIDS crisis was in full force. As I recall, we saw the movie in a Philadelphia theater, being college students nearby. What stands out most vividly in my memory is a courtroom scene near the movie’s end when Tom Hanks’ character suddenly collapses and is rushed to the hospital. The movie up to that point was already intense with themes of love, discrimination, and illness. But as I sat there taking it all in, something in this scene undid me. I leaned over into Kateri’s shoulder and just sobbed. I may get teary from time to time, including sometimes when preaching (as you know), but this was something else. I remember walking out of the theater feeling exhausted and heavy, but also cleansed. The film had tapped a deep grief, surely personal but also much larger than my own. I think I knew walking into the theater that the movie would be heavy, and I’m sure I expected to connect to a wider sense of community through it. I didn’t understand just how that connection might happen. I had no idea how grief would bind me to a much larger, deeper, and necessary process.

Grief lies at the heart of our story from the Gospel of John this morning. It is as much this story’s sign as is Jesus’ enactment of his declaration, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Last week’s passage dwelt much more significantly on the emotional and systemic reverberations surrounding Jesus’ healing action than on the actual reversal of the man’s blindness. Jesus powerfully opened up and inverted our ideas of seeing and unseeing. This week, in similar ways, the power of life and death are opened for us through the mechanism of grief. And that grief does not simply flow from one or two people. It belongs to an entire community. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus in this story unfolds in and through a process of collective grieving, a process he powerfully joins.

Surprisingly, that joining of grief unfolds in important ways through distance. The theme struck me at first because of our own current context of social distancing. I was then struck by the contrast with our gospel passage from last week which, if you recall, had a memorably tactile aspect. It was downright gross: Jesus spat onto the ground, making mud, and smeared it onto the blind man’s eyes before asking him to wash it off. Then the poor man had to relive the experience through a slew of conversations. This week, however, dramatic action unfolds through distance, and sometimes in what can feel like slow motion. Jesus is given a message from Mary and Martha of Bethany that their brother Lazarus, described as “he whom you love,” was ill. You would think Jesus would run to the side of this family to whom he was so closely connected. But instead he waits two days before beginning the journey. I imagine the disciples feeling perplexed about this wait. What was going on with Jesus? Then when they finally start to get going, they fear for Jesus’ safety. When Jesus explains, “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to waken him,” I imagine them thinking as they recalibrated their concern, Lazarus might not need you to be his alarm clock… Jesus’ explanation that in fact Lazarus was already dead did not exactly clarify his actions. Poor Thomas responds (perhaps in sardonic resolve?), “let us also go, that we may die with him.”

As they finally begin making their way, the extension of time in this story is matched by space. We hear that Martha on her own leaves to meet Jesus on the road after she had heard he was coming their way. Mary had stayed home, maintaining distance and accompanied at home by community members who had come to mourn with her. Martha’s initial words to Jesus are piercing in their grief: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus’ response that her brother would rise again lands awkwardly, and Martha responds, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha surely did not want to think in terms of Lazarus being raised. She wanted him not to have died in the first place. Yet even in this highly emotional moment, she is somehow able to hear and remain connected to Jesus through her grief and his strange words. When she returns to her sister, telling Mary that Jesus was calling her, Jesus stays in the same place, maintaining this odd distance. When Mary comes to him, she is followed by the mourners who thought she was making her way to Lazarus’ tomb. Now at this second encounter, a group of people are present as Mary kneels before Jesus and repeats Martha’s anguished words, “if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The grief of this moment has been dramatically heightened up to this moment by distance and delay. But now, as Jesus sees them wailing—not just Mary and Martha, but all the mourners, the group of them crying collectively, reflecting the shared reality of grief, something in him seems to break. Hearing the invitation by this group to “come and see” where the body of Lazarus has been laid, Jesus joins them in weeping. This crest of crying sweeps the rest of the story to its resurrection conclusion. Everything that happens from this moment on—the removal of the stone, the smelly body, the prayer, and finally the words of life themselves, all flow from this shared grief.

And what are the words? Not “be raised!” or “come back to life!” but “come out.” And Lazarus emerged, he is described as “the dead man,” not “the raised man.” It isn’t that he remained dead. It’s that he was still bound by death, wrapped in its shroud. The power of death, the fear of death, the hold of death needed to be unraveled. “Unbind him,” Jesus said to them, “and let him go.” Let him free. The work of unbinding, like that of grief, needed to be joined, shared. Just as the collective mourners helped trigger the events leading to his emergence, now those same people would be called upon to join in the releasing of deaths chains.

This week I was reminded of the power of collective grief by an interview with the sociologist David Kessler shared with me this week by Betty Carmack. It’s headline read “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” I put a link into the Spark so you could consider it, too. There are a number of different kind of griefs, Kessler explains. Perhaps you remember a sermon I shared last year in which I talked about “complicated grief.” In this interview Kessler talks about a form called “anticipatory grief.” He describes it as “that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain.” Usually anticipatory grief centers on death, particularly when someone we love is precariously ill. But it can also be activated about “more broadly imagined futures,” the sense that something terrible is brewing, but that is confusing because it is invisible. It also “breaks our sense of safety.” In this COVID-10 context, Kessler said, “I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”[1] We are grieving, Kessler declares. But how much are we? The interview’s title, “That discomfort you feel is grief,” emphasizes that we may not know how to understand the confusing combination of emotions in the air. What strikes me is that we need to grieve. We need to embrace it as a process. And we need to do it collectively.

The significance of this grieving is not simply our emotional well-being. It is crucial to the work of what Walter Brueggemann calls The Prophetic Imagination, the title of the book we’ve been reading during this season of Lent. Grief is central to the work of the prophets, and indeed to Jesus. They called the people to grieve, receiving and joining God’s own grief, in critical and compassionate recognition of what is broken in our social fabric and fragile created world. That grieving is crucial because it pierces what Brueggemann identifies as our numbness, a feeling that things cannot be other than they are, that the structures of the world in which we are embedded are all that exist. That numbness is the squelching of the imagination that God wants to give us. Because God in divine freedom is utterly unbound by our strictures, able to interject the radically new into our world. The God of liberation calls us out of numbness, our unexamined attachment to the world as it is, the feeling that the evil we know is somehow more manageable than the radical new thing we don’t know. God calls us recognize this numbness, this paradoxical attachment, through grief. Speaking of Jesus’ weeping in our passage, Brueggemann writes, “Jesus is engaged… in dismantling the power of death, and he does so by submitting himself to the pain and grief present in the situation, the very pain and grief that the dominant society must deny.”[2] This grieving is not endless. It need not invite a swallowing up by loss. Counterintuitively perhaps, grieving can open us to newness of life. “Jesus brings newness in the situation but only in his grief,” Brueggemann says. “It is not psychologizing but integral to the narrative that grief, embodied anguish, is the route to newness. The old order that does not want newness keeps it from coming by denying the grief. Where grief for the death of the old order is not faced and embodied and expressed, the old order must go on a while longer, dead though it is.”[3] Calling for full churches Easter as signs of a resurrecting economy, even as the infection curve is far from flattened, strikes me as a perfect example of the wider denial and avoidance, the numbness that Brueggemann describes.[4]

Of course we long to be connected in person. But we must stay the social distancing course for as long as it takes. And as we do, we must also begin to grieve the losses – physical, relational, economic, social – that are multiplying as this pandemic continues to unfold. Not only our own, but together. Together in community, joined deeply and fully by the God who made us and walks with us. We grieve not in despair, but in truth and in trust, believing that, as Brueggemann describes, “newness comes precisely through expressed pain. Suffering made audible and visible produces hope, articulated grief is the gate of newness, and the history of Jesus is the history of entering into the pain and giving it voice.”[5] We cannot yet know the shape of the new thing God is creating on the other side of this process. What we can know is that the God of liberation is with us, and is acting in ways we can only begin to imagine. In these days, may we not be afraid to join God’s holy work of unraveling the wrappings of death, together. The Michael Leunig prayer for this week’s Wilderness Kit read “Let it go, let it out, let it all unravel. Let it free and it can be a path on which to travel.” May it be so. Amen.

[1] Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” in Harvard Business Review [2] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978, 2018), 92. [3] Brueggemann, 93 [4] Jill Colvin and Elana Schor, “Trump’s Easter goal in war on virus a nod to faith, business.” March 27, 2020. [5] Brueggemann, 91

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