Posted on in Sermons by The Rev. David Marshall
Year A, 6th Sunday of Easter
We all know grief, but we don’t talk about it much. Part of that is social pressure. We are expected to have our lives together and to be positive, cheerful, and successful. Sharing grief reveals our losses, our tragedies, and sometimes, our failures.
Memorial Day is a time when our culture does talk about grief. This national holiday was established after the American Civil War. The level of casualties in that war was unprecedented. 620,000 died. New weapons and old battle tactics caused many of the deaths, but even more were caused by the terrible conditions. For every three soldiers who died in battle, five died of disease. A staggering 2% of the population of our country died in this war, and many more were maimed and scarred, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In the face of this nation-wide grief our country set aside Memorial Day to remember, to mourn and to honor those who died.
Since then, of course, Memorial Day has come to stand for more than our Civil War dead. Some people choose to remember lost family and friends on this day, as we do on All Saints Day. Memorial Day has also come to be a day to recognize all who have fought and sacrificed, including those who came home without limbs, or with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
We all know grief, even if we do not talk about our own grief very often. In fact, grief is an important part of who we are and what matters to us. I recently began reading a beautiful book titled Practicing Resurrection by Nora Gallagher. I’ve had this book for a while. Friends have recommended the book to me many times, but I’ve never gotten around to reading more than the introduction. Well, this time I read a little further, and the author began to talk about her experience of losing her brother to cancer. The way she described his death, and her experience as he was dying, gripped my heart and completely captured my attention.
I was captivated because I know grief of my own. Here, in this memoir, Nora Gallagher was sharing her grief and the experience of learning to live with that grief. My eyes filled with tears because I have lost people I love. My chest grew tight because I have watched people I know and love slip away, or die painfully, or die suddenly and unexpectedly.
We all know grief, but we don’t like to talk about grief much; or maybe we don’t know how to talk about grief. We have all experienced that terrible moment of silence after someone reveals a great loss or tragedy. What do you say when someone tells you they are dying of cancer? What do you say to someone who has lost a spouse, or a child?
Worse yet, when someone we know has suffered great loss, we avoid them. We don’t know what to say, or we are afraid of the strong emotions, and so we stay away, thus isolating those who grieve at their most vulnerable and needy time.
We all know grief. Grief is a part of the human experience. Jesus knew grief as well. Remember how he cried at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, who had been dead for four days?
In this world we know grief, and we avoid grief, but that is not the way of God. In God’s world, we have a different approach to grief. Grief is not avoided or denied or hidden. Grief forms our hearts to be better able to love God and one another, and that is possible because of what Jesus has done for us, which brings us to today’s Gospel.
The setting for today’s Gospel reading is the Last Supper. Jesus has gathered his disciples and closest friends to prepare them for his death. He gives them a new commandment that they love one another as he has loved them, and he shows them how they are to love one another by washing their feet in a humble act of generosity and service. And then, as we hear in today’s reading, he promises that he will not leave them orphans. Jesus promises that he will ask God, and God will send another advocate, to be with them – and us – forever: the Spirit of Truth – the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promises that he will ask God to send another advocate. Jesus is, of course, the first advocate, so if we want to know what the advocate will do for us, we can look at what Jesus has already done. We can also look at the word advocate itself for guidance. The word in the original Greek that is translated as “advocate” is Paracletos or Paraclete. Paracletos has a range of meanings. In a legal setting, a court of law, an advocate speaks for you, making your case and defending you to the judge. In a more relational sense, an advocate is someone who brings help, consolation, comfort, and encouragement. The most basic meaning of the word, though, is simply to “come along side another.”
We all know grief, and we know that the sweetest, most life-giving thing when we are grieving is to have someone “come along side” us and be present to our grief. Someone to help, console, comfort, and encourage us.
That is what Jesus promises and what God give us in the Holy Spirit. When we love God and arrange our lives to be an expression of that love, we find that the Holy Spirit has come along side us in moments of joy and in moments of grief.
We all know grief, but as sisters and brothers in Christ, we need not hide our grief or avoid those who grieve. Jesus promises us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will come along side us. Jesus says, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
We are not orphaned. We are not alone in our grief. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. We all know grief, but as sisters and brothers in Christ, we need never be alone.
Today I would like to invite you to do something together, in honor of Memorial Day, that will allow us to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit. I would like you to remember a grief of your own. Remember a grief that you would like to offer up for prayer. One that is present for you. I invite you to write that grief and offer it to the Advocate on the piece of paper found in the bulletin. You may put your name on this, but you don’t need to. We will be sharing these with one another.
When we come up for communion there will be a basket for you to put your grief into. We will offer these to God, and ask God to send the Advocate to walk along side us in our grief. At the end of the service I will take the basket to the back of the church. As you are leaving you may take one of the slips with you. Through the next week, you will then come along side your sister or brother who wrote their grief on that slip of paper by praying for them.
This will be our own observance of Memorial Day. This will be our own participation in the work of the Holy Spirit. This will be our own experience of the Advocate, coming along side us.
The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
May 25, 2014