A TIME OF GRIEF
1 Kings 17:17-24; Luke 7:11-17
May 29, 2016
You may know the story of a young minister who was asked by a funeral director to hold a graveside service for a homeless man who had died while traveling through the area. The service was to be held at a new cemetery way back in the country. This man would be the first person laid to rest there.
As he was not familiar with the back woods area, the young minister soon became quite lost and finally arrived over an hour late. He saw the backhoe by the grave and noticed the crew was eating lunch under a nearby tree, but the hearse was nowhere in sight. He apologized to the workers for his tardiness, and stepped to the side of the open grave, where he saw the vault lid already in place. The young preacher assured the vault crew he would not hold them long, but this was the proper thing to do. The workers gathered around still eating their lunch. The young preacher poured out his heart and soul.
As he preached the workers began to say “Amen,” “Praise the Lord,” and “Glory hallelujah.” The young preacher preached and preached like he’d never preached before, from Genesis all the way through Revelation. He closed the lengthy service at last with a prayer and began to walk toward the car. He felt that he had done his duty to the homeless man, and that the crew would leave with a new sense of purpose and dedication, in spite of his tardiness.
As he was opening the car door and taking off his coat, he overheard one of the workers saying to another, “I ain’t never seen anything like this before… and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for over twenty years.”
We sometimes laugh about the things that make us uncomfortable. Therefore, there are many attempts to joke about death and things related, like funerals. One of my favorites is the funeral notice for a movie theater owner. It read like this: “Martin Levine, owner of a movie theater chain in New York City, has passed away at age 68. The funeral will be held on Thursday at 2:10, 4:20, 6:30, 8:40, and 10:50, with a Matinee on Saturday.”
We’ve been told that two things in this life are inevitable: death and taxes. The Bible doesn’t give us any good news about taxes, but it does give us good news about death.
Both our Old Testament lesson and our lesson from the Gospel of Luke for this day are about death, and they are quite similar.
In the story from 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah is a lodger in the home of a widow. This widow has been kind to Elijah. Tragically, her only son becomes ill. He grows worse and worse, and finally stops breathing. The poor widow strikes out at Elijah, as if somehow this was his fault.
This is not unusual. There was a book written some years ago by a Jewish rabbi who noted that people in grief often experience misplaced anger. A death in the family draws out a lot of complicated emotions, putting a strain on what may already be strained family dynamics. Many times, grieving persons take out their anger on the clergy member presiding over the funeral. They complain about the music, the message, the decorations, the length of the service. They may be angry toward the deceased, toward God, toward other family members, but they direct their anger at the clergy, says the rabbi. It is a safe way to preserve family harmony during a time of great stress. It has been noted that hurting people often hurt people. And this woman in 1 Kings was hurting, and so she struck out at Elijah.
Elijah had no desire to strike back. This woman had befriended him. Now it was his turn to help her. “Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took the boy from her arms, carried him to his own room, and laid him on the bed. Then Elijah cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him.”
And the writer of 1 Kings tells us, “The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’”
It is quite a remarkable story.
Luke’s story is a little different. Jesus and his disciples are visiting a town called Nain. A large crowd accompanies them. As they approach the town gate, a body is being carried out … the body of a widow’s only son. Jesus did not know this woman but when he saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” And miraculously this young man who was dead sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. Luke tells us that the people who saw this “were filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’”
Let’s deal, first of all, with the tragedy of death. We have two elements here in these stories that speak of the pain and loss. First, both of the women in these stories are widows. They had lost their husbands to death. Some of you know the pain in their hearts. You’ve been there. The emptiness. The fear. The loneliness. For some people, life comes to a grinding halt with the death of a spouse. Frances Jerz, sixty-five, lost her husband. She told columnist Roger Simon of the Chicago Sun Times that even after three years, she still cries. Mr. Jerz had been a machine operator and was approaching retirement when he succumbed to cancer.
Every Sunday Mrs. Jerz gets dressed up like he’s there in the house with her. Her daughter drives her to the cemetery. She touches the stone and she feels like he’s close to her. “That crypt’s got the most lipstick on it,” she says. “I kiss it every time I’m there.”
Some of you can relate to her pain. Some people have a terrible time dealing with the death of a spouse. Life comes to a grinding halt. We don’t know how these women in our scripture dealt with losing their husbands. When we encounter them, however, life seems unbelievably cruel. They are faced not only with the loss of their husbands, but also with losing their only child. Facing one of these life events is daunting. To experience both would be more than many of us could bear.
Many of you are familiar with Eric Clapton, the Grammy Award winning English guitarist, singer and composer. Clapton is one of the most influential musicians of the rock era. He has been inducted an unprecedented three times into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On a warm spring day in March of 1991, Eric Clapton received a phone call from his wife, Lori. In a frantic voice she told him that their four and a half year old son, Connor, had just accidentally fallen to his death after crawling out of an open window of their 53rd floor Manhattan apartment. Clapton could not believe what he was hearing and rushed over the ten blocks to find paramedic equipment everywhere, and ambulances, and police cars. Only then did he begin to realize with a sinking heart, “O my God, it is true.”
Months later he was to say in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, “After it sunk in that my son had died … it’s funny, but I really didn’t feel anything; I went blank. I just turned to stone and wanted to go away. I mean there was no way I could have ever prepared for what had happened. But in time I found I couldn’t avoid feeling the pain of Connor’s death. I had to go through the suffering.”
Out of this suffering, Clapton turned to his music and wrote a very personal song to express his grief … his struggle to live with the loss of his son … his yearning to know peace in his life again. You may remember the song. It became a popular hit. It is called “Tears In Heaven,” and its lyrics speak of Clapton’s search for the healing of his shattered heart. These are the words he wrote to his son:
“Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?
Would you hold my hand, if I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong to carry on, ‘cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.”
The last words of the song are these:
“Beyond the door, there’s peace for sure.
And I know, there’ll be no more tears in heaven.”
The two stories from our scripture remind us of the tragedy of death, of painful loss, of heartfelt grief.
But they also tell us of God’s love. These stories are miracle stories. Elijah resuscitates a child who has stopped breathing. Jesus raises up a young man already in his coffin. But our emphasis should not be on the miracles, but on the truth behind the miracles: God sees and cares for us in our grief.
Years ago, a man was traveling by ship with his young daughter across the ocean. Earlier that particular Sunday, he had preached a sermon about God’s love. It had been a difficult sermon for him to preach, because he was newly widowed.
He was standing against the rail of the ship, looking out at the vast and magnificent ocean, when his daughter asked him if God loved them as much as they had loved her late mother.
“Of course He does,” answered her father. “There is absolutely nothing bigger or more powerful and all-consuming than God’s love for us. It’s the biggest thing there is.”
The little girl pressed on for more information, wanting to know exactly how big God’s love was.
Finally her father with great tenderness said, “Well, look across the sea as far as you can. Look up and down and all around. God’s love stretches around to cover all of that; above the blue sky and deeper than the deepest part of the ocean underneath us.”
The little girl pondered for a minute and replied, “And to think, Daddy, we’re right in the middle of it.” And we are. We’re right in the middle of God’s love. We don’t need a miracle to tell us that. Most of us have known God’s love all our lives. Of course, that is not to say that miracles do not occur. They do … to the eyes of faith.
Diane Komp is a pediatric oncologist … that is, she treats children who have cancer. A highly trained physician, she used to be an agnostic. That was before Anna died. Anna was a little girl who had leukemia, in the days when recovery was rare. As death came close, her parents, the hospital chaplain, and Dr. Komp gathered at her bedside.
“Before she died,” Dr. Komp writes, “Anna mustered the final energy to sit up in her hospital bed and say, ‘The angels … they’re so beautiful, Mommy, can you see them? Do you hear them singing? They’re so beautiful, Mommy.’ And then she lay back on her pillow and died.”
The chaplain, who was uncomfortable with all this, left quickly, leaving the agnostic Dr. Komp to help these grieving Christian parents. What she remembers is that Anna’s parents were deeply comforted by what happened, “as if they had been given the most precious gift in the world … together we contemplated a spiritual mystery,” says Diane Komp, “that transcended our understanding and experience.” Diane Komp was an agnostic no more.
Friends, in both life and death we are surrounded by God’s love. Some of you have experienced that love. Perhaps it was in the midst of a time of loss. You’ve been there. You’ve met God in your time of grief.
But there’s one more thing to be said: there comes a time when we must return to life. There is a time for grieving … and it is an important time. But there is also a time for returning to life.
In “Learning to Say Good-by,” Eda LeShan tells of visiting a friend of hers who lost her husband. They went to the cemetery and stood by the grave. There they shared some memories. Then they were silent. Nobody seemed to have anything to say. Then the young daughter in the family, a little girl named Liz, all of a sudden ran and did a cartwheel over the grave. Eda LeShan must have looked surprised because Liz’s mother, smiling broadly, turned to her and said, “Liz hasn’t done any cartwheels since Bob died. He used to love it when she did.”
Reflecting upon this, LeShan said: “I tried to understand just what Liz’s message to her father meant. Then I realized that her gift to him was to pick up the threads of her life and to begin to live as fully as she could.”
That’s what her father would have wanted. That is what those who have gone to heaven always want for those who have been left behind. They want us to pick up our lives and move on with the conviction that the God who loves us also loves them. God is not the God of the dead, Jesus once noted, but of the living. That means that those we love are still living with Him. If we believe that, we have no choice but to move on toward abundant living with Christ. We may not be ready to do cartwheels just yet, but ultimately that is the will of the Father. That is the will of those who have gone on before us. Arise, and live. Amen? Amen.