Table of Grief
A sermon on 2 Samuel 1:1,17-27 & Psalm 130 by Nathan Nettleton, 28 June 2009
A few years back, a bloke in our congregation by the name of Len Harvey died at the age of 93; not exactly an age where people talk in terms of tragic waste of life or anything like that. As I was preparing for his funeral, I was talking with his surviving sister and I said to her, “You’re doing a great job of organising everything and looking after everyone, but it must be hard for you too, losing your last sibling.” But she replied saying, “O, I can’t grieve. Len was so frail and suffering more and more. He’s much better off now, so I can’t grieve.”
Her line of thinking was one you often encounter, in a slightly different form, in some church circles. Among Christians, the thinking focusses not so much on the difficulty the person has been released from in this life, but the glory and joy they’ve arrived in beyond the grave. The consequence is the same though. You hear people saying that it is not right to grieve and be sad because the person who has died has gone to a better place. They’ve gone to be with Jesus. Therefore we should be happy and rejoice for them.
Well, if that view of the godly way of responding to death was right, then King David of Israel got it badly wrong, and we’d have to wonder what the people who compiled the Bible were doing when they decided to include a copy of the song of lament that he wrote for Saul and Jonathan. The song is an unrestrained outpouring of grief. It reminded me of a scene from the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” It was the one funeral, that of a man named Gareth, and in the service, his lover Matthew cites W.H. Auden's poem, “Funeral Blues.” I’m sure many of you remember it, it was the stand out scene of the movie:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policeman wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
David’s Lament and Auden’s poem are striking testaments to the sense of desolation that grief often brings. The person I loved more than any other in the world is gone, and no comforting theory about how much better off they are is going to make any difference because I’m not better off. I’m alone. We’ve been torn apart.
As an aside, in case someone is desperately waiting for me to comment on this, Yes, it is true that David’s lament sounds as much like a lament for a gay lover as Auden’s poem does. If I said I valued Derek’s love more than the love of women, you would make that assumption about me. Personally though, I don’t think you can confidently assume that the inferences you would rightly draw if it had been written today will still hold true for something written in another culture 3000 years ago. I would also not be willing to conclude that David and Jonathan were not lovers. I’m simply saying that I don’t think there is enough evidence to build a case either way.
What is beyond dispute though, is that there is a depth of love and emotion between these two men that leaves the remaining one grief stricken and desolate when they are parted. And what is also true is that the Bible honours that grief by including this expression of it in sacred scripture. And those of you who know your Bibles will know that this is by no means the only example. There are dozens of them in the Psalms. There is a whole second book of Jeremiah called Lamentations. And that’s just for starters. Apart from the book of Job, you will not find in your Bible any sustained argument that such grief and desolation are inappropriate for believers, and in the book of Job you will only find it because the writer of Job wants to disprove it so he has to first set it up so he can knock it down.
I’m convinced that the idea that we shouldn’t grieve because someone has gone to a better life is just plain wrong. I think the idea arises from a fairly simple misunderstanding of what grief is expressing. The mistake is to assume that grief is focussed on the experience of the person who is gone. But for the most part, it isn’t. Grief is actually focussed on our experience as the ones left behind with our world irrevocably altered. Our departed loved one may be in a better place, but we’re not. We grieve for our loss, not theirs. I’m oversimplifying, of course, because when a young person dies we often have a strong sense of them having missed out on the life that was opening up before them, and that’s very real, but even then much of our grief is still about us losing the opportunity to witness and share in that young life as it unfolds.
If you don’t believe this, go and sit in an airport departure lounge sometime and watch people farewelling their loved ones who are leaving for new adventures or a better life elsewhere. Sometimes you’ll witness scenes that can rival an Italian funeral. They have a much clearer picture of what that better life might be than we do when someone dies, but the pain of separation is still enormous. You might be far better off where you’re going, but something special will be missing from my life as long as we are apart.
There are very few of us who have not experienced the grief of a major loss in our lives. If you’re one of the few, your turn will come. Unless you don’t care about anyone, it’s only a matter of time. As many of you know only too well, grief tends to be something that can have a cumulative effect within you. It never really goes away, it just eases a little and acquires new layers. Often when someone we know dies, we find ourselves grieving, not only for them, but all over again for several other people we’ve lost at earlier times. It’s like pulling out a chain of paper dolls - each one brings up another and another.
Grief is not only a personal experience either. A community or nation can experience grief, and then we all share in it to some extent. This congregation knows that well.
And Australia as a nation has layer upon layer of grief in our national psyche, and most of it is largely undealt with. We bear the grief, most keenly felt by our indigenous peoples, of dispossession of land and destruction of culture, and more recently of the tearing apart of families as a generation of children was stolen. We bear the grief of most of our first white settlers, of being dumped here in chains, spurned and exiled by the nation that had borne them. We bear the grief of generations of farming families who have been defeated by drought or fire or flood. We bear the grief of thousands and thousands of families who lost sons and daughters in wars, often other people’s wars that we went to fight. We bear the grief of several waves of refugees who have sought refuge here when their homelands were destroyed by one atrocity or another. We bear the grief of majestic forests torn down and waterways choked and poisoned. I could go on. Grief upon grief upon grief.
Why am I going on about this? Where is God in all this? Well, as C. S. Lewis reflected in his journal written at the time of the loss of his wife, Joy, to cancer, often in the midst of grief, God seems to be silent, or completely absent. Go to God, he said, “when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” (C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, HarperCollins reprint, 1994, p. 21-22)
Even Jesus had that experience of God. In the midst of the agony and grief of his own death, Jesus screamed, “God, why have you abandoned me?” Almost everyone of you who has experienced deep grief will know something of that feeling. It’s not often talked about because not only is ours a nation that tends to repress grief, but there is a toxic myth among many Christians that you are not allowed to express doubts about God or anger at God. But I know I’m not the only one who finds Jesus’ cry resonating with things deep inside of me.
But that cry of abandonment is not the end of the story. And it’s not the whole of the story for us either. There is something quite extraordinary that takes place in that story of Jesus and in what continues to take place week after week on this table. Have you ever wondered why it is that the central symbol of our worship is the breaking of a loaf of bread? Not the baking of the bread or the healing of something broken, but the tearing apart of a loaf of bread. Right here at this table we are acknowledging and enacting the truth that at the very heart of the gospel we proclaim is profound experience of brokenness, of tragic loss, of grief, deep deep grief.
And this is not some trite little memorial of a death long long ago. What is actually happening here at this table is that God is becoming one with us in our brokenness and then turning the whole experience around so that through brokenness we can become one with God. When Jesus Christ was murdered on the cross, we saw God entering into the experience of the woundedness of creation. In his own body Christ suffered the agony and exile and betrayal and grief of a broken world and its bereaved people. Deep in the heart of God all that agony and anguish is there. And with every death and every extinction and every broken home and every betrayal, large or small, the heart of God is broken again and again. And we see that enacted before our eyes at this table.
But it is not only the Table of Grief is it? It is also the Table of Thanksgiving. Our word “eucharist” means to give thanks. So how can it be both a place of deep grief and of joyous thanksgiving? Because God’s response to a broken and dysfunctional world is not to destroy it and start again, but to incorporate its woundedness into the very being of God so that now our experiences of brokenness and grief are actually taking us deep into the heart of God, into the experience of God’s own being. Perhaps there was a time before the first loss and grief when we walked with God openly in the garden and met God face to face in our wholeness. But now our communion with God is different because we are different and God is different. The scars of grief have changed us forever, but God has taken them on and been changed forever by them too. And now even our sharing in the signs of brokenness become a way of entry into the deep mysteries of God, a means of intimate communion with God. Here at this table, the broken Christ offers himself to us, embracing us wounds and all, and incorporates us into his wholeness, so that each and every one of us might know ourselves beloved and serve with him as priests forever in the cosmic liturgy of unrestrained communion.