Grief by Cari States-Codding
This sermon was preached at LCM|Canterbury on August 2, 2020. You can also find the video of the sermon at the bottom of this post.
There is this toxic concept that, just because someone is going through something quantifiably worse than you, that you shouldn’t complain. Sure, you broke your leg, but that other person in the emergency department has to have their leg amputated. You have skin cancer, but the other person in the oncologist’s waiting room has blood cancer. You might be an essential worker, but at least you have a job. You get the idea.
Suffering isn’t a competition. You don’t win by having the suckiest trauma; two people can go through an identical experience, and one can develop PTSD and the other won’t. I might look at an experience and think that it kind of sucks, whereas the person living that experience might have their life radically altered, and vice versa. Suffering, and the grief that comes with it, is a uniquely human experience. Animals experience grief and loss, but their ability to process it is far different than a human’s ability.
Reading the Gospel lesson for today, grief is what caught my eye, not the feeding of the 5,000. The New Testament repeatedly tells us, in one way or another, that Jesus is true God and true man. For me, the feeding of the 5,000 is one of the clearest ways to see the humanity in Jesus. We are given an example of how to process grief, how to process loss, which is especially poignant in the world of COVID-19.
In the section before this, John the Baptist had been executed, murdered by King Herod in a drunken attempt to impress his friends. John was Jesus’ cousin. Their mothers were close friends, so it stands to reason that John and Jesus grew up together, getting into whatever shenanigans were available, complaining about their parents who obviously didn’t understand them, telling on each other, and growing together in maturity and in faith. John shared an intimate spiritual experience with Jesus when he baptized Jesus, when he saw his cousin as the Messiah and asked for Jesus to baptize him. John put his faith in his cousin, in this man that he spent his childhood playing with, and ultimately died because of this faith.
Now, Jesus was left without John. This sobering reminder of his mortality, those brief instances when you think about a loved one and momentarily forget that they are dead, that emptiness that grief creates was now part of his life.
Understandably, Jesus withdrew to be by himself. To grieve, to process what had happened, and to figure out what was next. What was next for him and for his family. His family didn’t even get the chance to bury John, something which was very important to them. Yet, somehow, people heard where he was. Jesus wasn’t allowed to grieve, to sit with his pain and try to breathe. When he saw the crowd he saw what they were bringing to him. Their declining health, the helplessness of new disabilities, the suffering of chronic illness, the uncertainty of what your future will look like, and the desperation of needing something that could help even a little. He saw their grief. He saw their families who didn’t know what tomorrow would hold. In a society where even having eczema could get you sent to a leper colony and separate you from your family forever, he saw the fear that comes with grief.
Jesus didn’t look at the crowd and think of the competition of how much life sucks. No, he looked at the crowd and he had compassion. He saw his prayers for his cousin echoed in the crowd, and he saw his pain dissected and etched into every person coming to him for help. Jesus had gone to this deserted place, and now people were filling it, the noise of their pleas replacing the quiet.
There is a story in the Gospels about a woman touching Jesus’ clothing and being healed. Even though a crowd was pressed around him, Jesus felt her. He felt that “power had gone out from him”. With that in mind, I can’t even begin to fathom how draining healing 5,000 people, not including women and children, would be, especially when you add the draining effects of grief.
Jesus took the deserted place and filled it with life. He filled it with promises of tomorrow and promises of family, something that John wasn’t able to get. I’m not sure who was healed more by this; the 5,000, or Jesus.
Only then did he feed the crowd. After seeing their pain, he gave them a moment to breathe. A moment to sit, and to eat. To share a meal with over 5,000 people. Many of the people gathered there hadn’t shared a meal with others in a long time, let alone had enough food to share. Jesus’ love and compassion was overflowing, both spiritually in the healing and literally in the twelve baskets of leftovers.
If I had been in that crowd, I am pretty sure I would have laughed at seeing twelve men passing out that seemingly small amount of food. The idea that something meant for one person would be able to fill so many people, that this pittance of food would be enough for everyone, defies logic. How can something so small and insignificant be life sustaining for so many people? For people who have not only eaten their fill, but probably stashed some food away for later? But isn’t that what we see in grace? This seemingly insignificant man, a carpenter from a hick village, a person whose skin color marks him apart from the occupying forces that control every aspect of his life, having the audacity to tell us that he has enough grace for us? That he is able to, even in his despair, reach out and heal us, fill us, with grace and love. That this grace and love is crystallized in his despair, when he is crucified.
COVID-19 is irreparably changing our lives. Even if we haven’t had COVID, there is a very good chance that we know someone who has, or has been exposed, or who has died. It’s terrifying, and it’s isolating. No matter how many people have been through something similar, fear and grief is such a powerful, individual experience. In a time when God can seem so far away, we aren’t even allowed into churches. We are told that loving our neighbor means not seeing our neighbor but, fortunately, that is antithetical to being human. I could list all sorts of ways to process grief, reference a myriad of professionals, and toss in some empty platitudes, but that isn’t enough to fill us. The masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, and stockpiling toilet paper doesn’t feel like enough. We are in a deserted place, a place that is filled with others but is still empty. We haven’t begun to heal, and what we see is frightening. Some fish and bread isn’t enough.
So, from a safe distance, look at your neighbor walking their dog. Look at them fumbling to put their mask on. Smile and wave at them, and then wonder why you smiled while wearing a mask. Look at them and see in them your apprehension, your sorrow, and your uncertainty.
When we are in our deserted place, when we are alone and empty, frightened and apprehensive, we can be bold enough to say that there is grace for us. That there is love for us. All we need to do is ask.
Cari States-Codding is a graduate of Northern Arizona University and is now a student at United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. Throughout Cari's time at NAU, they were an active participant in LCM|Canterbury, and after graduation they served on our staff as program coordinator for three years.