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A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens March 4, 2007 at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio,

Dedicated to the memory of Carl McFadden and always to the glory of God!
The Sacrament of Grieving
Part III of VIII in the Lenten Sermon Series “The Sacraments of Life”
Phillipians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13: 31-35

Today, we come to “The Sacrament of Grieving” in “The Sacraments of Life.” While grieving is mostly associated with death, grief is far more pervasive and intrusive in our daily lives than most people are aware. Grief is manifest in reaction to painful loss, continued longing, general depressive tones, and frequent symptoms of psychological or social distress. Grieving becomes sacramental when we are able to name our grief, grasp it, and turn it over to God, thus allowing God to use the grief for healing and hope.

Grieving is our constant companion. In the ongoing flux of life, we undergo many changes and transitions. Arriving, departing, growing, declining, achieving, failing - every change and every transition (our psychological acceptance of the change) involves a loss and a gain. When a loved one departs for the armed services, we experience separation - not as death, but under the threat of death. Beyond death itself, we daily and regularly face our grief. When we retire (forced or not), divorce, move, relocate, arrive in a new country or a new culture, change a job, face a disability or disfigurement, lose our health (emotionally, physically or psychologically), lose a child, or even gain a child, empty the nest or face any of the seven stages of aging, lose hope or lose our dream, face a personal violation (rape, robbery, damage to property, loss of land, loss of valued possessions), or face any form of disappointment - we grieve. Imagine when any number of these times of loss or gain stack up together. For many of us here, it has happened and it can feel overwhelming.

There are a number of stages of grief. Some say three, some four, others ten. The number of stages is less important than what is experienced there.

In Comforting Those Who Grieve, Doug Manning points to four stages: First, SHOCK. This stage lasts for about three weeks - depending on the way grief came - quickly or over time. The second stage is REALITY. This is the hardest part - when a person wakes in the middle of the night and finds himself or herself overcome by pain and distress. Listening is needed in the face of Reality. Third, REACTION sets in. This is the impetus for a person to move from the reality stage to anger. They hit bottom and get angry. Anger is not a bad thing, unless it becomes focused on the wrong things. Finally, RECOVERY arrives. Moving through grief will bring recovery given time and space to heal. Grief is a natural process. We must move through the cycles of our grieving and as we do we find they get smaller and less overwhelming.

Grieving is usually multi-layer. My Grandfather, Rev. Hugo Kellermeyer died when I was 10 years old. Grace United Church of Christ is Canton, Ohio was the church he was serving at the time of his death. The Church was immediately adjacent to the parsonage - separated by a small yard. When he died, my grandmother faced layers of grief. She had to move out rather quickly, to make way for the new pastor and his family. So, Mommy Jo lost her husband of 40+ years (who was within a year of retiring - so add her “future” to the list), her family income, her church, her neighbors, her house, her city. When she moved to live close to my cousins in Archbold, Ohio - she gained a new town, a new church, her first and only self-owned home. I remember her struggles throughout all of this. Given time and an immense faith, she worked through her grief and these major transitions. But, during that time, she needed to grieve. No one could take her grief from her.

The degrees of our grieving can be obvious or perhaps ever so gradual. Often such grief is unknown, unnamed or unseen to us. But, it is grieving, nonetheless.

Doug Manning tells the story of Ann and Jess Wade, friends of his from Tulsa, Oklahoma. They suffered a sudden death of one of their two children. The child had croup (a breathing disorder that is frightening to behold), the condition worsened, and the child was admitted to the hospital. The doctor saw nothing serious, put the child under oxygen and sent Jess home to care for the other child. In thirty minutes the child was dead. Ann was hysterical. Everyone was trying to get her to calm down and “get a hold of herself.” Ann stopped suddenly and said these profound words: “Don’t take my grief away from me. I deserve it and I am going to have it” (Manning, see title above, p. 12).

Ann’s words are profound. We spend so much time and energy in our lives trying to take away other people’s grief or deny our own. I am sure you and I have added weight to people’s lives by filling the air with psychological and philosophical babble hoping to diminish or end someone’s tears and obvious pain and grief. My actions and your actions along the same lines really are designed to help you and me avoid dealing with our own feelings. Somehow we misunderstand sympathy and empathy. We think these essential qualities of emotional and spiritual relationship are bad for people. We think they will wallow in self-pity if they take time to grieve. Unfortunately, when we speak and act this way, we miss the sacramental nature of grief.

Grief is a sacred gift. God gives us grief to go through the large and small painful transitions of our lives. Whether carried for a short period of time or for a lifetime, grief needs a place and time to be expressed.

In today’s gospel, Jesus grieves over Jerusalem. He weeps over its past and future history of killing the prophets and stoning those sent to save her. He weeps for the City of Peace which will soon oversee his crucifixion on Calvary - a hill of death within her city limits. His lament comes from his heart’s desire to gather the people of the city for peace. Like a hen gathering her brood under her wing, he wants to protect people for and from themselves. But, it is not meant to be. The Miracle Worker of Nazareth cannot deliver this miracle.

All these centuries later, God still weeps for the Holy City. We join the lament of the ages for Jerusalem, still silencing prophets and fleeing from ways of peacemaking. When, O when will we ever learn? Whether in Baghdad, Kabul, Washington, Tehran, or Jerusalem - when will we learn that the ravages of war and the craters left by the holes of destruction lead to mountains of grief? I feel Jesus weeping for us and asking us - when will we ever learn?

He must have felt intense grief on the night in which he gave us the sacrament of communion. Breaking bread, pouring the cup, broken body, poured out blood - all of this must have caused Jesus to weep on the night in Jerusalem the eve of his death. Later as he wept in the Garden of Gethsemane and blood flowed like sweat from his anguished brow, as he cried to God to take away the cup of death, he must have thought, “I know now that you are taking my life, but you may not take my grief away from me. I deserve it and I am going to have it.”

Grief breaks us. Grief causes our tears and our emotions to pour out. But, grief also foreshadows our healing and our resurrection. Good Grief gets us through to the other side of our losses and gains in life. Since grief, like our Savior Jesus Christ, is our constant companion, let us go through grief as we travel on our sacred journey to God. Amen.

Copyright 2007, The First Congregational Church