The Beloved Community of Loss
Our gospel lesson this morning, John 14: 23, is drenched in the sense of loss. These concluding chapters from the fourth gospel record a mystagogical oration, in prayer, as Jesus departs. He departs from his earthly ministry. He departs from his family and history. He departs from his friendships and community. He departs from his role in religious life. He departs from his band of disciples. He departs from his life, this life. He goes.
Much has been rightly written about the strains of division and conflict within the fourth gospel community, as it moved from an identity within Christian Judaism to a new identity within Jewish Christianity and then without Jewish Christianity. Less has been said about loss. Conflict yes, loss less. Yet the strains of relationship and the strains of mystical music with which this gospel concludes evoke a cataclysm of loss. ‘You heard me say, ‘I am going away’’.
Three generations and more after the crucifixion and the mystery of Easter, these earlier Christians were still struggling with loss. I will not leave you orphaned…I have said these things while I am still with you…The Advocate will teach you…Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid…I am going away…I have told you this before it occurs so that when it does occur you may believe…Rise let us be on our way.
With the last phrase, we think the story will move now to the cross. Yet three more chapters of prayer and speech await us. It is the fact of Jesus’ absence as much as the reality of Jesus’ presence which teaches the beloved community of loss about the meaning of Easter. He is risen means He is not here. The community behind and beneath our Holy Gospel of John struggled with loss.
We do too.
This season of Mother’s Day and Alma Mater and Commencement and Memorial Day regularly connects us with loss. Even without the tragedy of ongoing warfare, and particular losses thereby, we should know, come May, about loss. Even without the tragedy of campus killings in Virginia, and the ongoing sense of grief for all learners and lovers of learners, we should know, again come May, about loss. Even without the personal and particular memories which this kind of day inevitably and woundingly inspires, we should know, when may comes, about loss. It is fragrant in the air, loss is fragrant in the air, like the lilacs of May. You may be present today or absent and listening today, with a vaguely impressive feeling, a heart longing, that for the human being embraces far more than the mind alone can ever capture.
It is remarkable, truly remarkable, to read and listen again to an ancient text, written in all its beauty out of many decades in labor with loss. As a pastor, one often find that the loss of the cross is the best gift the church makes to a grieving world. My dear friend Bill Ritter lost his son some years ago. He will show you pictures. Then he will tell you that his picture of God is like this: God looks at the picture, and embraces Bill, and reaches for his own wallet, and says, ‘Yes, I had a boy too. Let me show Him to you.’ The Gospel of John, as Bultmann rightly argued, ends on the cross with a single Greek word, tetelestai, ‘it is finished’.
At least here, come Sunday, there is honesty about loss. At least here, on the reading of Scripture, there is honesty about loss. At least here, in the celebration of Eucharist, there is honesty about loss. At least here, we can admit to one another that we each have our losses, and we none of us can fully appreciate the other’s loss, but we all each one of us can honor with honesty the loss of the other.
Learning the Labor of Loss
What is less clear is our ability to work through grief. The Christian community has a better claim to honesty about loss than to wisdom in loss. Learning the rhythms in the labor of loss is a serious course in life. This morning we will ask you to do more than audit that course, but to sign up and buy the books and enroll in the class and find your seat. We have work to do. When it comes to grief, we have work to do. Our work is cut out for us.
As John Cobb taught us long ago, we are in the midst of creative activity all the time, particularly in ministry. Together, watching over one another in love, we are midwives of grace. There is a kind of directivity alive in our experience, to which, daily, we want to attend. Pay attention! You are here in part to facilitate the growth and listening ability of others. You are children of those ancient poets who crafted the laments in the Book of Psalms. I wonder if you can hear, again, or as if for the first time, this morning, five of the interlacing cries of grief.
One such cry comes up out of the bones, when we are bowed in grief. This is the cry of pain. My God My God why hast thou forsaken me? The cry of pain is an enveloping mist of sadness. Presence is a balm for the cry of pain.
Another, a second cry is one of longing. I expect to see her, to see him…There is a loneliness embedded in the longing. Patience is a balm for the cry of longing.
A third utterance in grief often calls out as a cry for supportive love. People are a balm for the cry for love.
Another, a fourth cry is for understanding. Your left brain in grief calls out for understanding. ‘Why?’ Perseverance is a balm for the cry for understanding.
A fifth cry is for significance. Here is the drive to see something good come from loss.
Work by Kubler-Ross, Strohman, Shafer and others has helped us to understand the varieties of religious experience in lament. We understand that these cries do not emerge on schedule or in order. There is no chronological checklist with which to arrange the work of loss. It comes as it comes. We recognize that often women and men grieve in different ways, with different needs and varying measures of silence and speech, intimacy and distance, emotion and protection. We are aware that grief is dynamic, with no linear sequence of starting and ending points. Yet we have come to accept and even to affirm that grief is a minor chord that throughout our whole life will interpenetrate the jubilant major chords o life, giving greater depth to our love of others, and our appreciation for family and friends.
We have work to do.
Naming the Experience of Loss
Here in Boston this year we have experienced loss. The personal dimensions of care offered to those in grief through Boston University are truly angelic labors in loss. At every point, in our eight losses this year, a personal dimension of head and heart has encompassed your care in grief. From the President down to the most part time chaplain, and with everyone in between, your labor has not been in vain. The families of Julienne Miller, Jacob McCecknie, Beatrice Ponce, Mujar Madek, Michael Robertson, Stephan Adelipour, Rhiannon McGuish, Derek Crowl, and those connected with the losses at Virginia Tech, have felt your embrace. In a moment I want to name and honor many of the professionals who have been angels of mercy in times of loss.
Yet, as full as our personal response has been, in each individual case, as a community, we have still more work to do. We cannot conclude the labor in this hour, but we may frame the work for the future. As a community, here at Boston University, we feel pain. Still. This is the labor of loss. As a community, we have longing for reconnection. Still. This is the labor of loss. As a community, we hunger for supportive love. Still. As a community, we wrestle with ‘Why?’, even as we manage to withstand what we cannot understand. Still. This is a labor of love. As a community, we want to give lasting significance in memory of those whom we love. Still. This is a labor of love. We have our work to do. Still.
You have fellow laborers, here, along the Charles. They are angels. Their work, and ours, will go on. Chaplains Schwarzer, Enquist, Polak, Heller, Young-Skaggs, Olson, Whitney, and Gaskell are some of these angels. We honor them and thank them for their pastoral work.
John Battaglino, Susan Cleaver, Daryl DeLuca, Laura DeVeau, Ken Elmore, Katherine Hasenauer, Shiney James, Annemarie Kougias, Katherine Kennedy, Maureen Mahoney, Robert Molloy, Katherine McGinn, Thomas Robbins, Peter Schneider, Daniel Solworth, Jack Weldon, and David Zamojski are some of these angels. We honor them and thank them for their work. It is hard work, good work, important work, true work. We learn as we go, and learn as we do. And it may be, at twilight, that in these hours, we shall find, we have learned the most. As Emily Dickinson wrote,
By a departing light
We see acuter quite,
Than by a wick that stays.
There’s something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays.