Love and Loss Break Us Open to God

Pentecost 4

Jer 20:7-13; Ps 69: 7-18 Rom 6:1b-11; Matt 10:24-39

Rev’d Dr Deborah Meister, ODM

All week, I have been struggling with anger. Like many of you, I read with increasing horror about the migrant tragedy which unfolded off the coast of Greece on June 14th: hundreds of people dead, few rescued, while the Greek Coast Guard appears to have done little to help.  Indeed, more of those who lived were saved by a Mexican billionaire than by those legally tasked to help. (I note that investigation is still unfolding.)

And then, four days later, that story was gone, replaced by the saga of the Titan submersible, in which the nations of world poured out their resources to rescue five persons, three of them quite wealthy. I grieve for their deaths, for their family members and loved ones, but it’s hard not to be shaken by the comparison: so much effort expended for so few, while hundreds of desperate and impoverished people were treated like human trash. And yet, we know, you and I, that God loved them, too. That they were also his children.

That same day, a drunk driver killed a friend of mine and her husband, together with two others, in Alabama. And then there are the fires still raging, the ocean warming, the national leaders spewing hate speech about immigrants and trans people rather than doing something substantive to address any of our real problems. — All which is to say that this is a week in which I could have used some comforting scriptures: Jesus the good shepherd, carrying the lost sheep home. Jesus gathering the children in his arms and blessing them. Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead.

Instead, we have these scriptures, which we just heard: strange, spiky, troubling texts with frightening images. Jesus, bringing the sword of division. Jeremiah, with a fire burning in his bones.  St. Paul, calling us to die. What do we do with readings like these, with the Christ who comes to bring, not peace, but a sword? What do we do with our own anger and fear at the shape the world is in?

Sometimes, of course, anger is not what it seems to be. After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis was consumed with anger, but as time went on, he said, “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.” Theologians talk a lot about the wrath of God, much less about God’s grief. Perhaps it is heretical to suggest that God can even feel grief — although Jesus cried out at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35) and he wept for the destruction which was to come on Jerusalem (Luke 9:41). Do we dare to suggest that God can weep, even in Heaven, the place of eternal joy? It would be a paradox, a departure from orthodox doctrine, but the theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes that after the crucifixion, “God and suffering are no longer contradictions.”[1] Before Christ, God responded to the suffering in the world. But through Christ, God now identifies with it — and does so in the most radical way possible, taking up into the divine life of the Trinity a Son who now bears the scars of the cross.

But what was the cross, this cross we are now commanded to take up in our turn? It was not purely physical, any more than the nails were. Bolts of iron could not have held Jesus to the cross; only love could do that. And, in this case, love we had spurned. Moltmann writes, “To suffer and to be rejected are not identical. Suffering can be celebrated and admired. It can arouse compassion. But to be rejected takes away the dignity from suffering and makes it dishonourable suffering. … To die on the cross means to suffer and to die as one who is an outcast and rejected.” To die on the cross means to suffer and to die as one who is an outcast and rejected.  Wasn’t that the true horror of the migrant ship, not only that so many perished (although that would have been enough), but that so little was done to help? That in their dying, those people were rejected — that the powers of this world did not feel they were worth saving? We have seen a crucifixion at sea. How could God see such a world, and fail to grieve?

How, even, can we, with our hearts which are so much smaller than the heart of God? That’s what Jeremiah was wrestling with, in that passage we heard this morning, Jeremiah who had, among the great prophets, perhaps the worst ministry of all. The other prophets were called to give hope or to plead with the people to repent.  But Jeremiah was charged with the most awful of messages: It’s too late. Your fate is sealed.

If Jeremiah had been speaking in anger, those would have been satisfying words: Take that, ya lyin’ louts! But these people whose cruelty had sealed their destruction were not Jeremiah’s enemies; they were his tribe, his nation, his neighbours, his friends. And so he cries out, in bitterness of heart, “Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed” — or, in another translation, “You have seduced me, and I was seduced.” The latter version evokes the deep love between God and the prophet, a love which we, too share. It is this love which has led Jeremiah into intimacy with God — an intimacy which nails him, also, to the Cross: the cross of loving concern for others in a world which breaks them. Jeremiah is overwhelmed by this demand; he wishes only to keep silent, to care less; but God’s burning love rages like a fire in his bones, and he must speak. In all this, the prophet does not seek to hide the depths of his distress. Instead, he names it — names it to himself and to God — and asks for help: “to you, O Lord, I commit my cause.”

But committing our cause to the Lord is not easy. I mean that in two senses: it is not easy to let go of our own desire to control our lives, and neither is living the Christian life. Christ calls us to move ever-more-deeply into love, and here on this earth, grief is the price of love. We love what is good and beautiful and true, knowing it will pass away. We love people who bring us soul-deep joy, knowing one or the other will be the first to go. We love places that are beautiful, only to see them bulldozed. We love and we love and we love, and with each love we lose.

Put it like that, and God seems cruel, a sadist, a distant being who delights in torturing his creations. But nothing could be farther from the truth. When Christ calls us to take up our cross, he calls us to where he has gone before. The cross which he carried redeemed the world; the one which we carry effects our own redemption. It is true that, in this life, love leads to loss, but in the grace of God, both love and loss break us open to God. Love shows us divine joy and tenderness, joy and hope and life. Loss strips away our illusions of self-reliance, of invulnerability, of control. It takes away, in other words, the thoughts of our heart by which we hold our selves apart from God. Grief well-lived renders us soft, humble, open to others. It deepens our compassion, opens our eyes to those in need. Because we have been fragile, we can no longer despise the fragility of others.

Or even our own. The great psychologist Carl Jung noted that during our childhoods, we each create our own armour — a set of behaviours which keep us safe, avoiding punishment, garnering praise. And this is a good and necessary thing, for our parents are not perfect and this world are not safe, and we need a way to survive. But once we have grown, that child-sized armour becomes a prison, too small for our adult selves. And so gradually, over time, we are invited to a different kind of self-acceptance — one rooted not only in what we have accomplished, but in a deep acceptance of who we are, flaws and all. Far from a call to perfection, our Christianity is a call into acceptance of imperfection, for it is only by holding our broken selves with love that we can find the healing of God.

That’s what it means to die to sin: we die to our indifference to others, which is the ultimate sin. We die to our tendency to judge others, as if we were better than they, because we accept that we are not.  And we walk in in tender vulnerability, like a newborn creature, open to all.

This is difficult work, painful work, and we can only do it because Christ has gone there before.  Moltmann writes that in Jesus, God did not become a religion nor a law nor an ideal; he did not become anything we could enter into by high thoughts or hard striving. Instead, “He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” Through the Cross, nothing is beyond the reach of God’s love.

The writer Nora Gallagher tells of a time she was asked to serve as heath-care proxy for her friend Ben, who was dying. She says, “as I signed that section of his living will, I imagined standing in the hallway of a hospital with perhaps a few doctors in white coats making compassionate and elegant decisions, gracefully. I did not imagine what came to pass. …I sat in Ben’s living room, jet-lagged, shovelling Chinese takeout food into my mouth, my own house strewn with dirty laundry and used cat-litter boxes. I was deciding whether or not to ask a doctor to get a new drug that would help end Ben’s life. I had not imagined being so tired I wanted Ben to hurry up and die. In short, I had imagined a better version of myself. Instead, I was the same old [messed]-up woman.”

And yet, Nora learned something in that time of struggle and failure to be the person she wished to be. “I learned,” she says, “that everything is God’s: my [messed]-up self, my dirty laundry, my harrowing inability to be perfect for Ben. Everything is God’s: shame, suicide, assisted death, AIDS. God is not too good to hang out with jet-lagged women with cat-litter boxes in their dining rooms, or men dying of AIDS, or, for that matter, someone nailed in humiliation to a cross. God is not too good for anything.” (Things Seen and Unseen, 12-13)

God is not too good for anything: Not for our messes, not for our grief. Not for those we abandon to suffering and death, not even for those who abandon them, if they repent. In the mystical alchemy of Christ, “suffering is overcome by suffering, and wounds are healed by wounds.” In the face of tragedy, it is indifference, not anger or grief, which is monstrous; indifference, which is the greatest form of sin. Passions — even anger, even hatred — can be transformed for God, but a life centered firmly on “me and mine” is like a sealed tomb. Our God comes with a sword, yes, but not to kill; he comes to save us from empty piety, from false peace, from a life half-lived. In him, “the suffering of abandonment is overcome by the suffering of love.”(Moltmann)

[1] The Crucified God. All Moltmann quotes are from this book.

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