A sermon preached with a congregation that has experienced multiple disasters – both natural and human-caused – over several years.
Lamentations 3:22-33 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
(there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
and be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone.
Mark 5:21-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Good morning! What a blessing to be with you. Thanks very much for having me.
I remember once, after a rash of troubling headlines when I was a teenager, admitting to my dad that I didn’t think I would have kids. I say this as we celebrate my son's fifteenth birthday today. At the time, the world seemed too dangerous to bring kids into it. My dad's response? Well, if all you do is look at the destruction, then there’s never been a good time to bring kids into the world. That was just one of countless ways my parents strived to teach my siblings and I the importance of adding good back into a troubled world. And gracious! Is the world ever troubled today. It can be quite a challenge to figure out how best to add good back in. In today’s passages, we are given three examples of people in heartbreaking circumstances – a city in ruin, a woman experiencing untreatable hemorrhaging, and a man fearing for his daughter’s life – where each person, in his or her own way, seeks to acknowledge the pain they are experiencing and recognizing Good at work in the midst of it. Let’s consider these examples some more together.
I wonder, have you ever pleaded with the Lord? Begged God repeatedly, like the little girl’s father does with Jesus? Or, maybe pleaded with God quietly in your heart, as we may presume the woman who suffered from years hemorrhaging may have been doing following treatment after treatment after treatment that did not heal her. How did she keep hope alive through all that suffering? Or, perhaps have you lamented to God, as the author Lamentations does in the first two and a half chapters of the book, sighing great heavy sighs for a community facing devastation? In your own pleading, or searching, do you experience glimmers of hope? Do you experience a sense of trust that, even as great tragedy has occurred, in some way things are going to work out? That tragedy, trauma, devastation are not the end of the story?
As I have prepared to be with you this morning, and spent time with these passages, in each of the three accounts we’ve heard today, I was impressed with what seems like a common element – even amid such very different circumstances – of each person moving toward hopefulness from places of great discouragement and overwhelm. In each case, with the author of Lamentations, the hemorrhaging woman, and the little girl’s father, I note how all of them seem to move toward holding two truths at the same time – the truth of what’s happened and the truth that Good is still at work in the world. This practice seems to be important for not getting lost in despair and being able to move toward new life after tragedy. And it’s important for us to remember, there’s no versions of good, there’s only good. And God alone is purely good. So, when we see and participate in goodness in the world, we are connected with the Holy Spirit.
For example, in the case of the author of Lamentations, the author’s city has fallen into ruin. It’s a shell of it’s former self, with people dying and suffering all around. For the first two and a half chapters of the book, the author names the suffering, names what has been lost, through rich poetic arcs. I encourage you to read those passages, if you have not done so recently. Briefly, though, hear the author of Lamentations as the author writes just before our passage for today: “I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long. God has filled me with bitterness, and has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’ The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.”
These days, we do not often practice this kind of lamenting. At least, not publicly. It’s hard to be that bold, that direct, that poetic about what you’re feeling. So often, especially in times of overwhelming devastation, it’s immensely difficult to name not only what has happened but to give language to what reactions feel like in the body. How it feels like teeth grinding on gravel. Arrrgh! Or how devastation can make us even forget what it ever felt like to be happy. In fact, that’s a common experience after trauma – losing the ability to feel joy. Feeling embittered toward everyone around you. Being able to acknowledge not only what happened – a traumatic event that has occurred – but to acknowledge how you reacted and to incorporate that into a regular rhythm of life takes time and nurture.
In trainings I lead, I often encourage people to practice finding words for lament, as this author has done. To try writing about grief, and naming what has been lost – even just to yourself and before God. Sometimes, for example, the pain someone might feel after losing their home, for example, might not be the only aspect of traumatic loss they feel. They may also, for instance, mourn the loss of how meaningful the neighborhood had been, or the loss of feeling safe. It’s these less tangible losses that can sometimes be the hardest to process, and can fester within us for years, partly because they take so much more effort and intention to identify. It takes getting quiet, and asking yourself about what’s been lost, and listening carefully to how your body reacts and what thoughts come to mind. Sometimes, journaling can help. Sometimes, talking with a therapist or a good friend can help. Creating art can help. Sometimes we find we are able to identify what’s missing, what needs to be lamented, when we’re fellowshipping with loved ones. Whatever method is most effective for you, it’s good to practice lamenting what’s been lost – especially when it’s complex and multi-layered.
Unfortunately, sometimes, as Christians, we would rather just jump to Resurrection. We would much rather declare everything will be ok, without doing the work of earning that confidence. Rather than acknowledging what’s happened or how we’ve reacted, we dismiss those feelings in favor of only thinking positively and not dwelling on anything negative. The problem with that practice, sometimes, can be that it actually makes us stuff down a feeling of loss, and, unfortunately, forces it to linger within us rather than get metabolized. Trying to jump straight to health – to will ourselves to resiliency, as if a shortcut might be possible – skips over an important stage that occurs in between loss and health, a stage of uncertainty when we don’t know precisely how things are going to turn out. When all we feel is lost and forsaken. We miss the importance of marking that experience of bewilderment – a stage where, ideally, we recognize God abiding with us even in the midst of our sense of great loss.
We get a glimpse of this step in another passage of the Bible, when Mary Magdalene goes to the Garden after Jesus has died. In John 20, she goes to the tomb and finds two angels there and Jesus is missing. She begins to cry, wondering if his body has been stolen or moved somewhere. The angels ask her why she is crying and she says, They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him. She acknowledges her pain and her sense of bewilderment. She knows what she’s lost. As more and more scholars have studied trauma and healing, their studies show how acknowledging or expressing what’s happened – whether by words or by nonverbal action – is an important step in generating healing.
Sometimes, though, pain is much too hard, complex, or uncomfortable to name. Sometimes there are no words to truly describe what’s happened. Like it may have been for the woman who was hemorrhaging. After years of suffering, of seeking treatment after treatment to no avail, we find her experiencing her pain mostly by herself and not by speaking with others. She does not appear to have any friends or family in the crowd. She does not speak to the disciples or try to get Jesus’ attention. In fact, she’d prefer not to be noticed at all. She’s just going to touch Jesus’ robe, get her healing, and be on her way. After all, according to the Hebrew laws of her time, she should not be interacting so publicly at all, especially while she is bleeding which would have made her unclean. Imagine how isolated she would have been for twelve years. Never allowed to participate in celebrations or go to the Temple. But her she is, risking further ostracizing and punishment, for the possibility of being healed.
This same story appears also in the book of Luke chapter 8. There, when the woman touches his robe, Jesus says he immediately felt power go from him. He asks the disciples who has touched him and looks all around the crowd for the person who stole some healing.
No one knows, except for her. She knows she was instantly healed. Trembling with fear – she’s about to approach a Rabbi and his students within a crowd, knowing she also has not ritually cleansed herself. Still, she cannot help but tell the truth. She speaks both of what she has lost and of what she has gained. And he says, it is her trust in him and in his power that has healed her.
In the third account, a father is desperate to heal his dying daughter. When news comes that his daughter has died, Jesus’ first words are Do not be afraid, just believe. Sometimes, there are no words for what’s happened and no words come. There’s only the experience and going through the motions. In these cases, we acknowledge what’s happened through action, like giving the little girl something to eat . . . which would have been very different from every other time they had ever given her something to eat.
So there is the one truth – what’s happened. What’s been lost? And acknowledging what’s happened – what we’ve lost or suffered – as a part of the steps toward healing and health.
Then, there is the other truth, what’s to be gained. What goodness is at work in the midst of tragedy? The author of Lamentations speaks well to this in chapter 3. How, even amid an entire city in ruin, amid vast collective trauma, Goodness is still at work in the world. The author exclaims: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Trauma and loss are not the end of the story.
But so often, we miss the goodness. We miss those precious breaths of fresh air, fleeting moments of relief amid struggle. When we’re asked what’s happened, after trauma, we often will tell stories that only speak to the negative. Our emotions often blind us to the good. They get in the way of our faith, especially when we hang on to the feelings of pain and heartache. When we let them become, for example, a grudge we hold against God, or the world, or our loved ones. When they keep us from feeling like we can do good things – like when I thought I would never have kids in a world like this. We can become flooded with feelings of irritability, anger, frustration, sorrow, deep sadness, or great fear and anxiety. We stop being able to see Goodness at work. We stop feeling hopeful.
In trainings I lead, after I ask what’s happened, and I usually hear about all the bad. I ask, and when did you feel a moment of relief? And people pause, and remember, oh, yeah, these amazing people came to help, or my sister called right when I needed her to, or a stranger reached out a helping hand, or volunteers brought food and blankets, or in the midst of it all, I looked up and saw the clouds parting and I felt just a bit of peace. It’s important to remind ourselves, remind one another, we Christians are not meant to grieve like those who have no hope. We are not meant to go through sorrow only seeing the sorrow or only seeing Good and positivity. We are called to hold the two truths – of what has actually happened and how that devastation cannot overcome true Goodness.
Sometimes, we get to do that very publicly, like the woman who was healed. Sometimes, we do it privately, like the little girl and her father and their family. I’ve sometimes wondered what it would have been like to follow Jesus’ instruction and to not tell anyone what had happened, but to just know it for themselves. How does having witnessed such robust Goodness at work in the world, and not being able to talk about it, impact how you interact with the world? Do you become people who instead show what you know, without words? It’s something for us to ponder, as people who are called to be God’s witnesses in the world. What might it mean to be God’s witnesses without words? How do we show what we know and believe, or live what we know and believe, without telling people about it? While we are not instructed not tell anyone about God’s activity in ourselves, it can be helpful to think about what it might mean to live that way. It’s something to consider. How might you be if a miracle occurred in your home, and Jesus told you not to tell anyone about it? What would it mean to live more by action than by words? For example, might it mean living with less fearfulness? With less anxiety? With being more kind, more generous, more expressive . . . in other words, with more of the Fruit of the Holy Spirit? With our family, with our friends, with our neighbors, with strangers?
In days with headlines constantly telling us about the pain and suffering in the world right now, it can be easy to forget that people have experienced great forms of suffering for millenia. We met some people today who experienced great pain in their lives. And we have seen how holding two truths was a part of their movements toward healing – the truths of being honest about what’s happened or what’s been lost, and of recognizing how Good is still at work in the world even, and especially, amid great sorrow. And how we can participate in that Goodness. Indeed, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We do have hope. We know crises, and trauma, and disaster are not the end of the story. We are invited to claim, as the author of Lamentations does, that new mercies come every morning, even after disasters. We are invited to recognize, as the woman who was hemorrhaging does, that God calls us into greater relationship with God and with one another, even, and perhaps especially if all we want to do is get a little healing and move on. And, again and again, throughout the Bible, we are invited, like the little girl’s father, to not be afraid, but instead to believe. To believe that trauma and suffering are not the end. And that the Author of Goodness is at work in the world bringing about a new covenant of love each and every day. We are a part of that good work. Amen.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.