Rev. Dr. Nancy Parent Bancroft
October 9, 2022
Readings: Psalm 130, Psalm 13, Matthew 11:28-30
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Haven’t we felt like that from time to time in the last few years? Discouraged, dejected, demoralized? Despite these commonly shared emotions, our culture places a high value on strength and happiness and often leaves us feeling alone or somehow weird, lacking or not emotionally healthy if we remain too long feeling grief, sadness, anxiety or fear. We can have these feelings alright but then we should just “get over it.”
But if we love our planet, if we abhor violence, if division and hatred make us anxious and if we fear where we may be going as a human race, grief is a normal reaction to the reality in which we find ourselves.
And not to grieve for loss of civility among us, for loss of safety on our streets, schools and even places of worship; not to grieve for lack of any shred of collaboration in our government, not to grieve for our dying planet requires that we distance ourselves from awareness of reality.
If we profess to following the values of Jesus who made inclusion one of the hallmarks of his public life, welcoming women, children, Samaritans, tax-collectors and whoever was considered to be an outsider, or otherwise unacceptable, how can we not cry at the plight of immigrants in this country and those barred from entering it? As we watch the news from our comfortable homes, how can we remain dry-eyed watching mothers and children in Ukraine walking aimlessly around the bombed remains of where they once lived? How can those of us who choose to live by the ocean and tend gardens tolerate watching our suffering planet on the news each night expressing its suffering through new wildfires, tornadoes, mud slides, floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events?
And then there’s Covid which has led to over 6.5 million deaths worldwide, and long-term illness for far too many. The virus has caused us to limit travel, prevented safe gatherings with family and friends, caused conflicts about masking and has left us worshiping from home or in a freezing building.
And then there’s personal illness and the poor health of family and friends, and the suffering for so many because of the high cost of living
“How long, Oh Lord?”, the writer of Psalm 13 asks. How long must we bear all of this grief?
A little history: The persecution of the first Christians occurred, sporadically and usually locally, throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in the 1st century AD and ending in the 4th century. A long time. For over three centuries the members of the Christian Church needed to be cautious about who to be open with. During this time, Christians used the symbol of the fish as a shibboleth – a secret wayto identify themselves. You’ve seen it – that very simple design of two intersecting arcs. This fish symbol still can be found in caves that were likely gathering places for early Christians. The fish was used because in Greek, the word for fish is Ichthys and is an acrostic: Each letter stands for a word – Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, i.e. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
When Constantine the Great came to power, he issued the Edict of Milan (313), which permitted all religions, including Christianity, to be tolerated. From that time, Christians no longer had to meet in secret and so their homes and other gathering places began to be adorned with crosses – initially plain, and in time with jewels or with a crown or with a corpus of Jesus portrayed as a king. The statement being, “We will be good citizens, but Jesus is our true ruler.”
But it was in the Middle Ages that the cross holding a suffering corpus came into popular use. There are a few crucifixes found that were in existence before that time, but they are rare. But in the late Middle Ages artists seemed to be trying to outdo each other in depicting Jesus in excruciating pain. You’ve likely seen these artifacts and paintings in museums: blood dripping from the crown of thorns and flowing from his lanced side. Why the shift? The Black Death! The Black Death (also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality or simply, the Plague) was a bubonic plague pandemic that occurred in Western Eurasia and North Africa from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the death of 75–200 million people. The plague is estimated to have claimed the lives of up to 60% of the western Eurasian population over its eight-year course. The message of the crucifix? “You are not suffering alone. Look how I suffered for you. I know your pain. I understand your loss. I’ve known your fear.” Worshipers took comfort in entering a church and seeing a suffering Christ. They took solace in holding the image of Jesus who suffered like they were suffering.
There’s a poem entitled Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that begins, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.” In her poem she says in several ways that people are happy to be around us when we’re happy, but not so much when we are in grief. The reality is that even when family and friends are around to comfort and support us, in our deepest pain we still feel alone.
So where does all of this leave us. The world is a mess in so many ways and there’s little or no indication that things will improve any time soon.
In his sermon on the mount Jesus teaches, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Happy are you who mourn because I’m going to take away your pain.” No, he says, “you will be comforted.” What does that mean? To comfort is to soothe in time of affliction or distress. To comfort means to ease the grief or distress. To comfort means to improve the mood of and even to restore a sense of well-being. But where is that comfort now?
Cynthia Bourgeault says that from a wisdom perspective, the second Beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” is talking about vulnerability and flow. “When we mourn, (not to be confused with complaining or self-pity),” she says, “we are in a state of freefall, our heart reaching out toward what we have seemingly lost but cannot help loving anyway. . . Mourning is indeed a brutal form of emptiness. But,” she goes on to say, “in this emptiness, if we can remain open, we discover that a mysterious ‘something’ does indeed reach back to comfort us; the tendrils of our grief trailing out into the unknown become intertwined in a greater love that holds all things together. To mourn is to directly touch the substance of divine compassion. And just as ice must melt before it can begin to flow, we, too, must become liquid before we can flow into the larger mind.”
What does that mean? I think it means that when we are healthy and strong and happy we face the world from our uniqueness, our individuality. But when we experience loss or fear of important loss we are stripped of the very inner supports that keeps us at a distance from each other and maybe even from God.
In her book GRIEVING IS LOVING: Compassionate Words for Bearing the Unbearable, Joanne Cacciatore writes, “If you love, you will grieve—and nothing is more mysteriously central to becoming fully human.” The pandemic and the other evils I’ve pointed to this morning has stripped us of illusion. We can no longer deny our human precariousness. We are in this together and Emmanuel, God is with us in this kettle of fish.
We have options. We can continue to struggle, to tread water and try to keep our head above the fray or we can submit, lay our burdens down and remain open to God’s grace and what there is to learn from this misery. There is no magic bullet. No easy fix. But coming together, remembering that we are not in this alone; facing our pain, consciously laying it down, admitting our helplessness and praying for help is what we have.
When we have suffered we have an increased ability to experience and express compassion for others in pain. One definition of comfort that I shared with you is to be restored to a sense of well-being. That’s the goal. To feel whole and vibrant. These are very dark times indeed, but rather than succumb to these times, as followers of Christ, we are called to imitate what Jesus modeled and become light in this darkness. We may have retired from out careers, but we never retire from Christianity. We still have a purpose and a mission. St. Paul tells us that the gifts that we have received are not only for ourselves, but for the community. What are our gifts? What am I able to do? How can I shine and bring light into this darkness? Reflecting on these questions and remaining open to the answers is the avenue for comfort that can restore our sense of well-being.
Jeus invites us, “Take my yoke upon you…” This is how we will find rest. This is how we quiet our anxieties, calm our fears, climb out of the depths of depression, discouragement and hopelessness. As long as we are willing to generously express kindness, lend a hand, offer a smile or give a word of encouragement, light shines in the darkness. This, as Christians, is our purpose.
The Divine is present in and around us and we have the grace to lay our burdens down. We have the grace, if we only accept it, to shine.
Joyce Rupp says it well in her poem, Carrying Crosses. Here is some of it:
“Holy One who journeys with me on the road of life with its hills and valleys…Inspire me to release my tight grip when I wrestle with the resistant part of myself, the one that insists on having everything in life turn out the way I desire or demand. Increase my awareness of the false judgments, the unfair expectations that quickly arise to crowd out kindness and compassion for myself and others. Lessen unrestrained fears and tedious worries that keep me imprisoned in turmoil and confusion, thus diminishing my spirit’s strength and ability to reach beyond myself. Soften any hardness of heart I have toward another. Increase my ability to be understanding. Help me topple the walls that prevent my being a forgiving person. Expand my perception of the good things my life already holds. Decrease apprehension about not having enough, being enough, doing enough, or growing enough. Awaken the undying song of hope in my soul as I carry my unwanted cross each day, so that even in the worst of times I continue to trust you to provide what is needed.” Amen