Date Given: 11/3/19
Joel 1:1-4, 6-7
“Hear this, all who live. Come gather together, receive what sorrow gives.” This opening line might just be one of the most beautifully offensive lines we could hear in a song. The song was written based on the opening verses of the book of Joel. These words beautifully illustrate a profoundly important call to mourn well. I don’t know of a less American, a less modern Christian, a less in tune with the way we’re usually told to do things call than this. But, the entire book of Joel is written to express this one significant calling that we so often miss. God’s people are called to mourn well, because doing the work of mourning is life giving.
“Hear this, all who live. Come gather together, receive what sorrow gives.” One of the greatest blessings I receive as a pastor, is the invitation to walk with families through some of the most difficult moments of their lives. As weird as it may be to say, doing funerals is one of my favorite job requirements. To prepare for a funeral, the most important thing I do is simply listen to the stories of someone’s life. In talking about the loss of a father, a sister, a child, or a friend, I am usually told more real and significant stories in 15 minutes than I’d get in an entire lifetime of small talk. There is something so beautiful about simply sharing the stories of the people in our lives who have deeply impacted and shaped who we are.
In those moments, when I have the chance to sit and speak with loved ones, I’m given the profound gift of sharing in the work of mourning. It is life giving to tell the stories of the people who have written so much of our story. But outside those moments, I find that we rarely do the work of mourning well. No one ever really teaches us how to mourn well, if at all. Usually, we push to go one of two ways – pretend it doesn’t hurt or pretend it didn’t happen.
To pretend it doesn’t hurt, we have a well developed language for minimizing pain. There are all sorts of little sayings we might offer – “at least they’re in a better place.” “It’s good because they aren’t hurting anymore.” “It was just their time to go and it’s all part of the plan.” Whatever truth there may be in these sayings, I find them just as dangerous as they are helpful. It is comforting to know a loved one is no longer suffering, to know they have found the healing arms of the Lord. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. And the more we latch onto the comforting sayings, the more we risk simply burying the pain of loss that needs to be expressed.
To pretend it didn’t happen is usually a much simpler process. We simply don’t talk about the person we’ve lost at all. To mention their name or acknowledge the loss is too painful to risk. Occasionally, it is actually stated that we don’t talk about them. Far more often, we proactively self censor so as not to make someone else sad. If we don’t bring it up, the logic goes, then it doesn’t have to hurt anymore. The problem with either strategy is that grief doesn’t resolve that way.
We live in a world that so often expects us to put a clock on grief. It is implied, if not outright stated, that we are supposed to be able to move forward and get over our sadness in some absurdly short amount of time. But if we are grieving the loss of spouse, a parent, a child – of someone who means the world to us – that grief may be a part of us for the rest of our life. There is no ‘acceptable’ time to get over a significant loss. If you have ever felt shame about how long it has taken to grieve a loss, I want you to hear very clearly that there is nothing more normal or human than going through the ups and downs of grief. It takes most people at least a year just to begin to accept a new normal, and there is no timeline on how fast anyone has to go.
Masking the pain with happy language or refusing to say anything at all will only bury the wounds beneath the surface. Grief will come to the surface, whether we acknowledge its existence or not. Grief may come out as anger or fear or the inability to focus on anything or anyone in front of us. Grief often bubbles back up on birthdays or anniversary dates or holidays. Grief comes up at our favorite places, while eating our favorite meals, while doing our favorite activities. The process of mourning is a necessary part of healing from the wounds of grief and that process takes time. To reach out for help and learn how to heal from loss may be the most essential thing we can do in life.
Because it is not just the death of a loved one that causes the pain of loss. Any time we lose hold of normalcy or an expected future, grief is not far behind. Loss of a job, a family move, losing trust in a close friend, kids going to college, even something as normal for students as moving from one grade to the next… so many experiences in life create the pain of loss. Very rarely are we taught the gift of how to mourn loss well. But to do the work of mourning is life giving, because the grief that comes with loss may be a part of us forever.
That reality may be the simplest way to understand the purpose of the odd beginning to the book of Joel. “Hear this!” Joel says. “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.” This is very clearly a rejection of the “it didn’t happen” strategy. The very first call of Joel is to tell the story. To speak about what happened. To remind generation after generation about the reality that was faced.
Joel continues by saying what happened- “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” What happened was a very devastating, very painful experience of loss. 4 different types of locusts are named as the villains in this story. Thanks to pesticides, crop protection measures, and the simple fact that almost none of us grow our own food we almost never have to worry that a swarm of locusts will come along and devour our supply of food. In the time of Joel, a plague of locusts was an unexpected and unstoppable force. There was almost nothing more terrifying or devastating that could have happened to God’s people in that day and time.
Joel describes that very devastation in stark terms. Describing the locust invasion, Joel says, “a nation has invaded my land, powerful and innumerable; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vines, and splintered my fig trees; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches have turned white.” Joel even goes on to say in chapter 2 – “out in front of the locusts the land is like the garden of Eden. But after them it is a desolate wilderness. Nothing escapes them.” I can’t imagine a more clear rejection of the “it didn’t hurt” strategy.
Locusts would have been more devastating and destructive than every hurricane and flood we’ve seen in these last few years. Locusts would have threatened life itself for countless men and women. From front to back, Joel is exploring this cataclysmic kind of event. He tells God’s people to grieve, to mourn, to lament…to remember. Joel clearly considers it a gift to the next generations to remember and tell the story of this devastating event. There may not be a more odd and beautifully offensive message in all of scripture. Gone are any attempts at pretending this didn’t happen or this didn’t hurt. There is no sugar coating, no pretending, no getting around the incredible pain of loss felt by God’s people when locusts came and destroyed every bit of food they expected to harvest.
“Hear this, all who live. Come gather together, receive what sorrow gives.” As strange as this message may seem, it is born out of a conviction at the heart of the Christian life. At the heart of our faith is a single story that we remember and tell more than any other. It is the story of our God who came to live by our side and be one of us and show us how to love one another. But it is also a story of devastation, a story that cannot be told without a cross, a story that we remember and tell every time we gather around the communion table. Because it was at that table that God offered the promise of new life through death itself.
It is a story we remember and tell because it is the most essential reminder of who we are as children of God. God could have chosen to be the untouchable Lord above all things. Instead God chose to have His heart broken to mend every scar we bear and heal every wound we cause. In the cross of Christ we find that there is no pain we could feel, no depth we could reach, no challenge we could face where God has not already gone before. We gather and tell the story of our crucified Lord, in part, because it reminds us that every time we grieve, God grieves with us.
Perhaps the single most healing part of the grieving process is being able to tell our part of the story – how we have been affected, what we fear we are losing, how our life will never be the same – and to find ourselves embraced by another child of God. In finding the community in which to tell our stories, in all their raw emotion and reality, we begin to receive the gift that sorrow brings; we begin to find the embrace of the love that knows no bounds and never ends.
Telling our stories helps us recognize that the people we’ve lost are forever a part of our story. We begin to see how inseparable the pain of loss is from the beauty of life together. To pretend it didn’t happen or pretend it didn’t hurt is to deny that those we have loved and lost have made us who we are; it is to deny the ways our loved ones will always live on in us.
No matter what the locusts of our lives may be trying to take away, God is always faithful and will always be by our side. We are always surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, by all the men and women who have gone before us, by the people who make us what we are and show us a love that is stronger than death. And we are always invited to tell this story. It is this very story we tell today on All Saints Sunday. It is a story of love and loss, a story of joy and grief, a story that finds its completion in the table of grace that is set before us.
On this all saints’ Sunday, we gather together to receive what sorrow gives. What sorrow gives is the reminder that we would not be who we are without the men and women who have gone before us. What sorrow gives is a celebration for that of the faithful saints which lives and grows in each of us. What sorrow gives is the embrace of the community around us that will continue building on their legacy, even long after we’re all gone.
The story of the faithful saints, the story of the people we mourn today, this is our story. So hear this! The Lord our God is by our side. Hear this! The faithful saints we celebrate today will live and grow in each of us. Hear this! We are invited to remember and tell the stories of the people who have made us what we are. And today we give thanks that our story finds completion in the hands of the one who came to live our life, to die our death, and to raise us up to everlasting life. We gather to tell our story in all its high and lows, in all its joy and sorrow; to tell our story in celebration of all the saints, in thanksgiving for the foundation of God’s love on which we stand.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.