The following sermon was delivered by Rev. Heidi Torgerson Martinez at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church on July 1, 2012.
Bring you greetings from the Global Mission unit…YAGM…prior to coming into this call I served for four years as a missionary in Mexico, working with volunteers who served in that country alongside many different communities. One of those was a small, indigenous village called Cuentepec. The people of Cuentepec are largely subsistence farmers, and are also one of many rural communities in Mexico where Spanish is still a second language. My friends in Cuentepec are descendants of the Nahua’ people and have held on to many of their pre-conquest traditions, including their language, Nahuat’l. Anyway. One day I took several young adult volunteers with me to Cuentepec in order to celebrate the festival of that community’s patron saint – St. Michael, Archangel. Joining this community in the celebration of its patron saint is a tremendous experience in and of itself. Large crosses formed from a particular kind of marigold decorate the entrance to every humble home and outdoor cooking hut, and nearly everyone in the village opens his or her doors to whoever would like to stop in to share a greeting and a blessing. Of course, no greeting or blessing in Mexico is complete without shared food and drink. In the case of Cuentepec, beer and traditional green mole over freshly butchered chicken was the meal of the day.
The volunteers and I made our way into the village and were headed to the home of my friend Felipa, with whose family we had been planning to spend the afternoon. As we made our way into town, I saw Felipa walking in the village’s central square with a group of people, but I could see right away that this group was engaged in something other than the typical patron saint commemorations. Each person in the large group was carrying armfuls of brightly colored flowers. Many were carrying candles, and several men at the front of the procession were carrying a large, white stone cross on their shoulders. Felipa beckoned me over and explained that today was also the first anniversary of the death of someone who had been a close friend. She and the group around her were supporting the family of the deceased by accompanying them in a “levantada de la cruz” – a “raising of the cross” ceremony. The group had already been to the home of the deceased’s family in order to pray the rosary, share bread and a sweet drink called atole. There had already been a special mass in the local Catholic church, and the day had already been filled with the sharing of memories, the sharing of tears, and the sharing of laughter. We had come upon our friends near the end of the ceremony, when those gathered walk together to the cemetery in order to continue with prayers and songs. This would also be the day that the family would mark the deceased’s grave with the large stone cross; something they had been financially unable to do the year prior at the time of the loved one’s passing.
In this part of Mexico, death is rarely a private event. Though I did not know the family of the deceased, I and the volunteers were quickly welcomed and swept into this procession toward the cemetery. People shared their armfuls of flowers so that we, too, could accompany this family in their grief and remembrance. If you’ve just lost a loved one, visit https://riemannfamily.com/ for practical support.
It was a long walk. Some of the group cried quietly. Some walked silently with a hand on the shoulder of a grieving neighbor. Some chuckled softly at a tale told about the deceased, and the children held onto the hands of the adults as this experience of memory and meaning-making became woven into their young lives. By the time we reached the cemetery, I was overcome by the power and the surprising grace of this experience. Our friends in Cuentepec knew well that the pain and grief of loss does not dissipate with the final “amen” at a funeral for a loved one. It stretches over days, months, and years. And so, they went to great lengths to ensure that their grieving friends were never left alone in their loss. They became the face of Christ to their friends, not shying away from the pain of grief, but simply being present with their friends in the midst of it.
This summer Pastor Erik has been leading you through the Old Testament texts from 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. As Pastor Erik shared in his first sermon in this series, these texts trace the time during when God’s people went from being a people of the Exodus, who knew themselves to be saved and delivered by God’s hand, to people of a nation, who came to put their trust in kings and wars and expensive building projects. The entire arc of the story in these books is dramatic, to say the least. It’s filled with tales of battles and betrayal, of adultery and murder, of temptation and the hunger for power. But today, the text from 2 Samuel bids us to pause for a moment and recognize that this story is also about friendship, love, and the grief that comes with great loss.
Over the last couple of weeks you have heard how the shepherd boy David was anointed as the unlikely king of Israel. You have heard of David’s relationship with Saul, who had been the first king of Israel. David maintained great and abiding respect for Saul as one who had been the Lord’s anointed, despite Saul’s several jealous attempts to kill David. And you have heard of the intimate friendship between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son, whose soul was bound to David’s in a covenant of love both deep and unique. Much has happened in the five chapters that elapsed between last week’s reading and the 2 Samuel text for this morning. David’s beloved Jonathan and his brothers had been killed in a battle with the Philistines, and Saul, who had been part of that same battle, has fallen on his own sword, unable to bear the death of his sons and the sting of military defeat.
Certainly there are significant political implications to these deaths, but we hear virtually none of that today. This morning, the only thing we hear of is the piercing grief of David’s lament over this excruciating loss. “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!” he exclaims. “How the mighty have fallen!…You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields!…Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.” He calls the entire community to grieve along with him, bidding the daughters of Israel to weep over Saul. Though the narrator of this story tells us that Saul has been disobedient to God, lost his courage, and was mentally unstable, David still affirms the greatness of Saul’s deeds and the significance of the role he played in Israel’s history. David’s lament over Jonathan is especially poignant…”my brother Jonathan, greatly beloved were you to me;” cries David, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” The one to whom David’s soul had been bound has been taken from him, and the entire community learns David’s song of mourning…
Dear friends in Christ, there is not one of us gathered here today who cannot identify with David’s visceral anguish in the face of loss. A great many of us know what it is to lose a close friend or family member. We also know, like my friends in Cuentepec, that the pain of such loss does not magically disappear at the close of a funeral service. Even years later the memory of a loved one, and the loss we still feel, can sneak up on us in surprising ways. The clatter of change in someone’s pocket, or the jangle of keys. The smell of soap, aftershave, or perfume. Lyrics from a song, or a voice in a crowd that sounds almost like theirs. But even those memories are short-lived and painful. And sadly, the wounds that such loss creates can outlast our memories. Sometimes time can dull its edges and reduce its piercing sadness to a dull ache, but sometimes time has no effect at all. Like the sound of David’s song of lament reverberating across Israel, so does the sorrow of grief continue to reverberate in our lives.
Of course, the death of a loved one is not the sole cause of grief in our lives. Many of us know what it is to walk with someone close to us through the valleys of chronic disease…Alzheimer’s, cancer, HIV or AIDS, debilitating mental illness. Still others among us grieve for a world that appears, at times, to be coming apart at the seams. We mourn for children who die of malnutrition or preventable disease, for casualties of war on any side of any conflict, for victims of natural disaster, for the loss of our own dreams for ourselves and for our loved ones.
I will be honest, friends. There is a part of me that wants to apologize for this sermon, to skip right over David’s lament. “Who wants to be reminded about death and grief and loss,” my mind says, “especially at the beginning of a holiday summer week?” But I fear that my instinct to jump over a grief-laden text like this morning’s from 2 Samuel is only indicative a larger issue in our U.S. culture, and even our churches. We are not always particularly good at allowing one another to express honestly and fully the scope of deep grief. Our cultural and spiritual traditions do not often include communal rituals of support and accompaniment like the levantada de la cruz in Cuentepec, nor stark poetries of lament like we hear from David in 2 Samuel. Instead, we tend to turn away from grief. We don’t know what to say, so we don’t say anything at all. We don’t want to upset the bereaved, so we stop mentioning the names or telling the stories of those for whom we grieve. We don’t know how to simply be present with pain – our own or that of another – so we do what is in our power to forget, gloss over, move on.
I think this is precisely why it is important to stop and recognize the gift that David’s song of lament is for a people like us. David’s vulnerability and honesty in expressing his pain – even calling the entire community to grieve along with him – reminds us that we belong to one another in times of difficulty as well as in times of joy. Our souls are bound to one another, just as David’s soul had been bound to Jonathan’s. David’s lament reminds us that we are never alone in times of grief, and calls us to share in one another’s burdens, even when it feels uncomfortable or awkward or too painful to handle. And perhaps most importantly, David’s lament reminds us that God isn’t scared of our grief. In fact, the Old Testament is filled with stories of people who lash out at God in the midst of anger and loss, fear and anguish. David’s song of grief reminds us that God’s grace and mercy and love for us is expansive beyond our wildest imaginings, accompanying us and embracing us even in – perhaps ESPECIALLY in – our darkest moments of grief and sorrow. We can find a certain strength in a lament like David’s – strength not only to move through grief, but the strength to express it, relying on God’s great love and a community of faith to support us.
In a few moments those who would like to do so will have an opportunity to come forward and receive a sign of God’s healing presence through the ritual of laying on of hands and anointing. As we share in this ritual together, let us surround one another with prayers of comfort, healing, and hope. And later, as we gather at this table to share in the presence of Christ in bread and in wine, may we also find hope in a God who was unafraid to take on our deepest vulnerabilities…a God who loved this broken and beautiful world so much that he chose to walk with us the path of suffering that leads to death…a God who understands intimately the pain of loss, but who never, ever allows it to have the final word. Beloved of God, we are a resurrection people through the power of Christ. May we know that gift of new life to our very cores this day. Amen.