Called from grief into action and relationship....
My wife and I had some time away from my parish last week, and took the opportunity to visit with family in Ohio and Michigan. The visit was overdue, and a welcome opportunity to reconnect with people we love very much, but don't see too often. Laura's family is a large one, and visiting them means, really, a series of events and gatherings rather than just getting everyone together at one go. At one of the gatherings, a night out for a meal, one of my nieces asked if I had ever done funerals in my work. "Quite a few," I said, "and before that, when I was a kid, I would help out in my grandfather's funeral home." There then ensued a number of stories about helping out at a young age with funerals and all that goes into them, and with what it felt like to be with a family as they went through the grieving process.
That conversation comes to mind to me today, as we witness the continuing repercussions of Joseph's conflict with his brothers (and his presumed death), as well as Jesus' hearing of, and grieving John the Baptist's tragic murder at the hands of Herod's guard. Being with people as they grieve a death is both a privileged part of my ministry, and an incredible responsibility. When someone dies, the ones left in the wake of that death are, really, forced from the paralysis of absolute loss into the next moment, and the next. I have seen it again and again: people lose a loved one and then will the world to stop in order that the loss be kept at bay. Some even hold their breath, trying to keep the next moment from happening; and yet, it does. Each breath, each step takes us further from the side of the person who has died. Each moment means more distance from what was, and carries the person we loved further away from us. My work as pastor is to act as guide and support to these as they make this journey.
That moving forward through time is a curse and a blessing to the bereaved. We cannot stay beside the one who has died forever. We can't make time stop. We can't go back. Grieving is moving forward through loss. As macabre as it can be, making funereal plans, I have seen those seemingly interminable choices (choosing which casket, burial plot, urn, marker, readings, flowers, hymns, repast menus will be used) help people to make it through each day, even each hour or minute, as time unfolds before them in their loss. It is why people bring food to the house of family where someone has died. Eating, sleeping, caring for our bodies and our loved ones moves us forward.
Joseph keeps moving forward because he has to in order to survive. Dreams are interpreted, and we see threads of plentiful harvest and impending famine draw the separations of his past back together.
But, when Jesus learns of the death of John, his kinsman (according to Luke), the one who is his baptizer and forerunner in all four Gospels, he doesn't move forward, not at first. John's death is petty, inhumane and horrid. Jesus wants to be apart from the crowds, his disciples and his work to deal with his loss. He rows off in a boat alone to grieve, pulling in to shore as far away from all the others as he can get in order to grieve...and yet, the crowds find him. In that deserted place, they are suddenly....there...and hungry.
Even in grief, Jesus has compassion for them. He commands his students to find food, and when a meager feast is pulled together, it is his blessing and witness that makes it a feast for all.
Grieving: it is so important to mourn, so inexorable a process...and yet time and the demands of providing for ourselves and others demands us to move forward. Even Jesus himself has to remember that connecting with the living is as paramount in the grieving journey as is the impulse to freeze time and space and make the world go away. It doesn't change the sorrow, or the loss...but that need to take the next breath, that next step is, I believe, God's way of caring for us in our sorrow. We can't alter death, but we can choose to love and care for each other with intention as we begin to live in its wake.