Sermons usually begin with stories, but I don’t want to tell you a story. There are too many already living in us, the stories of people we’ve lost, people we’ve loved. And today, we’re living, together, into a new chapter of the shared story of our faith community. We begin sermons with stories to create shared experience, but so many of us are already sharing this grief. Were we in a room together, I might actually ask us to move in closer, right next to each other, so we can hold hands and touch arms and hear each other breathing. Our bodies need the comfort of each other.
That’s true as we share this particular loss, but it’s also true as we’ve come through a Thanksgiving holiday without hugging grandchildren or walking arm in arm with a cousin you only see once a year or baking pie beside a beloved aunt. I know some of you haven’t seen your own children or parents in months and all of us were grieving people who have died even before we lost Hope yesterday.
What I have for you today is this shared space where we can’t hold each other, but we can see and hear each other; we can gaze at each other’s faces and make promises for hand holding later. And I have words.
Words don’t eliminate grief. They can’t even push it aside to make room for freer breaths. Words – mine, yours, that of any poet worth their salt – words can only sink into the raw, vulnerable places to remind us where grief lives in our bodies. Words might find a way to hold grief, to coddle it, rocking it gently or they might catch grief in free fall, grabbing on just long enough for grief to settle back into your bones where it will rest for a while. At best, words bring us temporary comfort, shifting our attention from our hearts to our heads where the grief is more distant, but words soon dissolve and we are left with the paradoxical weight of loss.
As your minister, I wish this wasn’t true. I want to have the words that will remove your pain – this pain, the one we’re currently holding together – and all pain, future and past. I want to tell you it’ll all be alright. I want to say the right thing, the magic thing, the exact thing you need to hear to make your pain disappear. I want you to come to church and leave feeling free, feeling light, feeling like some gorgeous scarf blowing in the wind as a result of whatever words I’ve strung together.
But, that’s not how grief works. It lives in us. It takes root and defines us. That’s not to say we will always feel sad, but that grief is, itself, transformative. We stretch. We deepen. We know the world better, we hold others better. We become kinder, softer, more compassionate and gentler once grief settles in. Loss opens spaces within us where we hold others in their grief.
A man in my town is a reporter. While interviewing Vice President Biden several years ago, he got a call that his 9 year old was in the hospital. The interview was cut short. The man raced to the hospital where he stayed with his son for the next several months until his death. Every week, the Vice President called him. Every week. “How’s your boy” he’d ask. That wasn’t about politics or power. That was a man who had lost his young child whose grief had opened a space in him so large he could hold another grieving father. All of us who have suffered a loss can feel that space. It’s soft and both tender and strong like a thick and scarred skin.
So, here we are, again. As a congregation, we’ve had our share of loss this year. I won’t be comparing deaths. Every one has been weighted. Every person has been loved and is missed and each time we lose one of our own, we carry a new sadness forward. Of course, Hope’s death feels very heavy. We’ve lost so many people, and too many have been people of color,- in this congregation, in this city and around the country. These are not losses we can afford. Hope, in particular, was a visionary for a compassionate future. She was joyful and kind and brought tremendous wisdom to our church and to the world. She taught with grace and generosity. After 30 years a member here, we’ve lost a giant in our faith and in our community.
It’s also true that when a life ends while it’s still so well and actively being lived, we are left with a different kind of emptiness. Unfinished conversations fill the room. Questions hang in heavy air. Expectations of meeting, of speaking, of being together come up and are pushed down again and again. The experience of a shared life doesn’t fade quickly.
Carrie McEvoy, one of our intern ministers, experienced tremendous loss not so long ago. The other day, she noted that grief and joy live very close to each other. In our brains, in our bodies, grief and joy bump up against each other. They each fold over, enveloping the other and shifting back again. The memory of one we’ve lost can begin with a laugh which turns over into sobbing and ends with a sense of sad sweetness. Grief is not linear. It is not all about sadness. It is also anger and powerlessness and fear and gratitude. It’s vulnerability and ferocity. It’s both a roar and complete silence.
It comes in waves. It will be a constant companion for a time. Then it ebbs. You can see the world with a little more clarity. And, crash. It’s back, pouring over you, overwhelming you, leaving you feeling breathless. And it ebbs again, moving away, giving you space. Over time, it seeps into your bones, making them stronger and this grief becomes part of the skeleton of your body that moves with you, that holds you up. It happens over time and it happens when we attend to it. Telling stories is one way we do that. After the service, we’ll open this space for people who want to tell stories about Hope or others we’ve lost this year. We will bear witness to our sadness and our joy of remembering and our stories will remind us of how lucky we were and how lucky we still are to be together.