The Holiness of Sadness
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark on the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, October 6, 2019 by the Very Reverend Tyler Doherty.
I’ve been thinking these past couple weeks of 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg’s address to the United Nations about climate change. Her “How dare you!” has been ringing in my ears since that Friday a couple weeks ago in New York. After years and years of scientists making arguments that appealed to reason that had very little effect except to make their hearers wring their hands, it was Greta’s impassioned plea, her voice shaking with rage, tears of anger in her eyes, that seems to have (at least momentarily) awakened a sluggish global bureaucracy to the urgency of the problem we face.
When you think it about, Greta is not too different from the prophet Jeremiah, who was accused of being a rather gloomy fellow, prone to hyperbole, a little too strident for polite company. But Greta and Jeremiah know something we too often forget—that grief and sorrow named, wailed, or whispered, offered to God, is the beginning of healing. “Denial is not just a river in Egypt,” as the old pun goes.
Sometimes, in corporate worship contexts, we avoid lament. Sunday worship can be seen as a kind of booster shot to buoy our spirits and get us through challenges of the week to come. Lament, distress, grief, depression, dealing with the loss of a loved one, distress at racialized rhetoric in our political discourse and the rise of hate speech, or the seemingly endless humiliations of getting older are relegated to the priest’s office or a pastoral care visit.
Now, God knows we all need uplift and inspiration. God knows we need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness to us who again and again wander far away. God knows we need to be reminded that God reaches out again and again to draw us back to the “life that is really life”, as it said in our reading from 1 Timothy last week and away from all the substitute ways we try to secure our ultimate happiness through strategies that ultimately disappoint—safety and security, power and control, affection and esteem. But if our worship, if our relationship with God, is just about inspiration and uplift, what do we do when the going gets tough? Do we feel we have to leave a part of ourselves at the door?
If we are struggling in the wake of a difficult diagnosis, if we have a family member struggling with mental illness that has turned everything upside-down, if we’ve lost a job or loved one, if we can’t recall things they way we used to, what are we to do? Do we just put on our happy face, sing a little louder at the Gloria and then collapse into a heap when we get home?
Too often, we can get the impression that struggles and sorrows have no place in our worship, and (perhaps even more destructively) in our relationship with God. We can get the impression that if we were “real Christians” we wouldn’t struggle. If our faith were stronger we would be able to navigate even the most difficult of circumstances with a beatific calm that would make even our Lord Himself a little jealous.
If we look a little more closely, that whole notion that we can only bring a part of ourselves to worship, to our relationship with God, hinges on the notion that there is something wrong with us if we aren’t feeling upbeat and cheerful. But the liturgy is full of places where the full range of our humanity is called forth, honored, accepted, and held up to God to consecrate.
When the bread and wine and the gifts are processed to the altar, it’s a sign for us that we can bring all of ourselves to worship, not just the pretty bits. Passages like our readings from Lamentations and the Psalms remind us that we are welcomed, just as we are, without having to pretty up the picture in our relationship with God.
There are cries for help: “Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold.” (Psalm 69: 1, 2a) They give voice to the sense that God is distant: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1-2) They express penitence and plea for forgiveness and renewal: “Blot out my transgression; wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51: 1a-2) And they speak powerfully of good old-fashioned down-heartedness: “Give ear to my words, O Lord, give heed to my sighing.” (Psalm 5:1)
Or think of barren Hannah pouring herself out in tears and making a spectacle of herself. Think of Job’s disputations with God about the calamities that befell him. Abraham’s argument with God over God’s anger at the people of Sodom for their failure to display hospitality. Jesus’ own cry of forsakenness from the cross “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Even the name of God’s Chosen People, Israel, means “to struggle with God.” Real worship, authentic worship, doesn’t shy away from these struggles. Even in the context of praise or thanksgiving we are invited to lay our confusions, our mourning, our lamentation, our anxiety, dread, and worry before God’s throne. As Jim Farwell writes, “God does not want automatons to worship; God desires relationship, and relationship requires honesty.”
Why, Lord, must evil seem to get its way? Why, Lord, must he be sentenced, locked away? Why, Lord must she be left to waste away? Why, Lord, must broken vows cut like a knife? Why, Lord did my spouse/parent/child die so suddenly? Why, Lord, must any child of yours be hurt?
Our passage from Lamentations was written in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Many people were killed in the eighteen month-long siege and the lives of the survivors were utterly broken and shattered. Jeremiah, faithful prophet that he was, knew he didn’t have to put on a happy face. He knew he could give full expression to his horror, his grief, and his doubt. With unflinching human honesty he laid it all out before the throne of God, warts and all.
You see, giving voice to hurt, naming the loss, the grief, the anxiety, is the first step towards healing. We can bring all of ourselves to God. We can picture all of our annoyingly human emotions as already accepted into the heart of God whose heart breaks with our heart.
We can picture with Dame Julian of Norwich that all of our experience, no matter how raw, no matter how unrefined, is held like a walnut in the welcoming palm of God whom no sorrow, no grief, no anger, no anxiety can overwhelm.
And if we can recognize that everything is already held and welcomed into the heart of God, perhaps we can take that brave step of actually welcoming those same feelings in ourselves. Perhaps we can become a place of welcome for ourselves where those emotions aren’t chased away, repressed, or blotted out by booze, pills, Netflix, or chocolate cake.
Perhaps we can welcome those feelings in ourselves in the same way that God has already welcomed them into God’s own heart. Perhaps we can picture our grief, our anxiety, our lament as a little child knocking at the door of the heart and learn to see and acknowledge it, to welcome it in, to hold it in love instead of slamming the door and telling it to never return as if it were a pesky door-to door salesman. And perhaps we can learn to hold the pain of others in the same way. That’s what love looks like.
Once seen, named, expressed and given voice, we find something quite strange about these unwanted strangers that show up at the door of the heart. At the center of our grief, our sorrow, our lament, is the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases, whose mercies never come to an end. We discover that it is good that one wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
Lament always contains within it the promise of new life, of hope, of new creation, and restoration of which our puny little minds could never conceive.
So whether it’s in hearing our own struggles, in the praying of the psalms, or in those pregnant silences in the Prayers of the People where we offer our petitions, thanksgivings, and intercessions, or in that moment between the Deacon bidding the confession and our corporate admission of the ways we’ve fallen short of being God’s answer to those prayers—caring for the sick and the suffering, working for justice and peace, healing the world in God’s name—remember that we bring all of ourselves to worship.
Take a page from Jeremiah. Take a page from Greta. Set aside that time-honored “Anglican reserve” and name what is on your heart and troubling your soul. God can handle it. God’s already seen it, heard it, and taken it in to God’s own heart. But our giving it voice opens a channel of grace, a way through the seas that seem to rise up to our necks.
Giving voice, pouring ourselves out, just as we are, helps us see that the good treasure of which Paul speaks has already been entrusted to us like a pearl of great price buried in the field of the heart. Named, the night of lament gives way in God’s own time to the dawn of hope, and hope in God’s own time gives way to the broad daylight of full-throated praise—our sorrow turned to dancing by the one whom no darkness can overcome.