Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 24, 2016
The Fifth Sunday of Easter-Year C
As you and I know through personal experience, grieving is very hard work. Every loss of any significant attachment—whether it’s a role, a job, our health, a marriage, a home, a pet, a parish or a person—requires us to let go of that attachment; to adapt to this radical change in circumstances; and to find our way in the world without that cherished and familiar person, place, or thing. Fortunately, grief and trauma have been much studied and understood in recent decades, and we now know that “good grief” evolves through identifiable stages characterized by shock; numbness; denial; bargaining; anger; depression; and acceptance. We also now know that these stages do not unfold in an orderly and successive way, and that we never entirely leave any of these stages behind, even when we engage fully again with a life and with a cherished memory of the lost. Even in acceptance, there will be moments and occasions when we re-visit those earlier stages of grieving. And, if it is a truly significant loss, we know that the pain never entirely dissipates; it only becomes less acute over time. “Time,” regrettably, “does NOT heal all wounds” and, like the risen Christ, we carry those wounds with us into the larger life of eternity. These wounds may be transfigured by God’s grace, but they never entirely vanish. Even in this life, we know that every new loss has the potential to stir up all previous losses, especially if we have not fully grieved over them.
As I have listened carefully to news reports over these last six months, especially in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino, and have observed the rituals of public mourning around these horrific events, it seems clear to me that many of us in the West have largely moved beyond our initial shock, numbness, and denial to the more critical and complex stages of bargaining, anger, and depression. Most of us are now acutely aware that in this age of terror, “safety” is truly a relative term and condition, and that the undertow of fear and anxiety stalks us wherever we go these days. In this week of remembrance occasioned by the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing and the annual race itself—with all of its elaborate security—we here at Trinity are reminded that the threat of terror is only yards away at the corner of Centre Street and Commonwealth Avenue, just outside the doors of this church. And beneath the surface cheerleading of our political leaders and sports heroes, the sloganeering of the media about “Boston Strong,” and the chirpy talk among social scientists about so-called resilience, we know that a deep anxiety over urban life—for Bostonians in particular, and for Americans in general—has permanently changed us, especially following the events of 9-11. We may negotiate and bargain with evil and our loss of innocence by claiming that the next large public event will be the best ever, but no one standing near the marathon finish-line last Monday, or stepping into a subway car or departure area of an airport today in any of the world’s major cities, will escape the undertow of fear and anxiety that the worst can and, indeed, does happen, no matter how vigilant or technologically advanced our methods of surveillance and detection. And this is all quite natural and expected. None of us would succeed in making it through even an ordinary day—anywhere in the modern world—without a certain measure of necessary denial and bargaining. As we know from the story of the ancestral sin in the first pages of the Hebrew Bible, the loss of innocence is permanent, and we will always live “east of Eden” on this side of the grave. We live in an extremely dangerous world still very much in the grip of evil, sin, and a culture of death, stumbling toward the glory that God intends, and that Christ has already gained for us through the Paschal mystery.
As I have listened deeply and carefully in recent months to my own grief and to the angst of so many others, I am also hearing the first stirrings of real anger and depression beneath the faux defiance and studied nonchalance. These too are normal and expected, yet both present special considerations and challenges for us Christians charged by our Baptismal Covenant “to seek and serve Christ in every person, loving our neighbor as ourselves.”(BCP) According to Saint Paul, we are called to be “ambassadors of Christ” entrusted with “the ministry of reconciliation.” This requires that—even as we acknowledge and embrace these feelings of anger and depression—Jesus is calling us to transform those legitimate emotions into concrete expressions of love and, even, prayer for our enemies. And let’s be completely honest and realistic about this: this is no easy thing to do either as individuals or as a society. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we know that the anger and demagoguery of the 2016 presidential election cycle are but symptoms of a deeper and persistent anxiety and fear over the tenuousness of modern life. Grief’s last stage of acceptance and “the ministry of reconciliation” do not happen instantaneously; rather, they more often come after a significant period spent integrating the injury and the loss. And yet, according to this morning’s Gospel, they are the one and only way to witness to the world that we are true disciples of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” Jesus tells us in Saint John’s Gospel.
This means, then, that as we process and express our righteous anger over the heinous crimes of our contemporary reality, the Gospel of Jesus Christ asks us to eschew hatred and vengeance, and to give equal consideration to the demands of both justice and love—two absolute moral norms for a people of God in every circumstance. This does not mean, however, that the perpetrators of genocide and “crimes against humanity,” wielding barrel bombs, suicide vests, chemical weapons, or the many other weapons of mass destruction, should not be stopped by lawful and proportionate means; be held fully accountable for their acts; and be justly punished for their crimes. God is just as well as merciful, and neither a civilized nation nor the world community—dedicated to universal human rights and predicated on the rule of law—may disregard the demands of both retributive and restorative justice. We have an absolute “obligation to protect” the equal and inalienable dignity and value of every human person at every stage of life. Vengeance, on the other hand, is a matter for God alone, and we humans have no warrant there. As the Jewish theologian Jon Levenson has written in his new book entitled The Love of God, “Even the one who serves must not neglect divine justice…There is room for reward and punishment within the structure of covenantal love; but there is no room for covenantal love premised on reward and punishment.” As Christians, we are called to what Saint John Paul ll called “the higher gospel of suffering love” for those who may hate and persecute us. Our Christian vocation is to oppose the culture of death and its devotees with a culture of life and a civilization of love.
With these principles in mind and heart, we acknowledge that depression and emptiness are a normal and unavoidable part of our healthy grief as we yearn and search for the beloved lost person or situation. Yet, even here, we Christians are summoned beyond these afflictive emotions. In his Letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul reminds us that we “do not grieve as those who have no hope.” Because of Christ’s decisive victory over sin and death and evil, this is true for our corporate as well as our personal grief. As we stand in the light of the Paschal Candle this morning, we know that Jesus Christ is the “Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,” and this is as true for our destiny as a people of God as it is for each person. The great vision of the “kingdom of God” in this morning’s reading from the Book of Revelation is of a “new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away….” The Holy One, blessed be He, sitting on the throne—even in the midst of that which is passing away—is already “making all things new.” And these “new things,” the “new Jerusalem,” are ultimate things because—regardless of the present evil and our shameless abuse of human freedom—time and history do not slip through God’s fingers. Listen again to this morning’s “Voice from the Throne”:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
This is our faith and hope—and it is the charter for every Christian struggling to find some meaning in all of our losses and all of our grief.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, we should respect and cherish our grief over the recent events in our national and international life. Jesus himself sanctified our grief with his own tears over the death of his friend Lazarus. Our tears and rituals of public mourning are a sacrament of our love. However, as we grieve and mourn, let us always remember that we are followers of the “Way” of Jesus Christ: the way of poverty, humility, service, reconciliation, and peace. Like the grieving disciples in this morning’s Gospel, we are challenged to find joy in the midst of sorrow, hope in the temptation to despair. The Great Fifty Days of Easter remind us that we too are disciples and servants of that risen Christ, so like St. Paul we “rejoice always, give thanks in every circumstance, and pray without ceasing.” Then, with the forgiving patriarch Joseph in the dramatic conclusion to the Book of Genesis, we can say to our errant brothers and our implacable enemies: “What you intended for evil, God has turned to the good.”
So, during these days of the Easter season especially, let us pray for the grace to act as those who know that all of us sometimes lose the “likeness” of God and yet, as human persons fully considered, we never lose the “image of God.” And let us also pray for the strength and courage to grieve and to mourn as those who have a great hope, trusting that God hears our anguished cries because the crucified and risen Jesus Christ has taken them into the very heart of God who “makes all things new.” For, as Jesus himself has taught us: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”