May 29, 2022
"All Our Losses"
Rev. Scott Landis
Sundays like this always present a challenge to preach given the complicated convergence of events. Many here today are veterans or family members of some branch of the United States Military and may be thinking of friends or relatives who have died while defending our nation – trying to maintain the peace in our country or in other lands. You have wept often at graves throughout the continent and perhaps even here in our beloved Hawai’i. Perhaps you come seeking comfort to soothe an aching heart as you mind is flooded with memories.
Others may be sitting in our pews today longing to receive a word of hope amidst the latest surge of the never-ending pandemic that strikes both fear and frustration into our hearts. You may be wondering, “How long O Lord?” OR maybe you need to be lifted from an abiding sense of despair as you struggle with the reality of another horrendous tragic school shooting that leaves us shocked, angry, and bewildered wondering what we can do to break this seemingly unending cycle of violence we have been on for too many years.
Juxtapose all that with words I frequently hear from parishioners that goes something like, “I come to church to forget all about that and simply want to worship God.” I understand and respect that need. But, I think, to act as if none of these other things have affected me in the last few weeks would dishonor the heartbreak that I have felt and the sadness that has infused my prayers especially in these last few days. The reality of loss is just too painful and too familiar.
As I have thought about it, loss comes in at least two forms. There are the losses that I have control over – comprised of that which I willingly give away; those that I surrender or let go. And there are the losses of which I am the victim. These occur when something is taken from me. I am robbed in a way, and I have no control over the situation at hand.
The first form of loss is somewhat intentional. I willingly let go of that which no longer is necessary or wanted. So, I may surrender my desire to control a situation or to remain in a relationship that is toxic. Prayer often provides the language I need to facilitate this desire as I release a sense of guilt or anger to God. These losses are typically initiated by me, and they are let go on my terms.
The other form of loss if far more painful, complicated, and over which I have very little control.
For example when a serious diagnosis is given robbing me of an illusion that I would always live in full health. Or when notice is given that my job of 20 years has been terminated and I have been let go. Or when my personal boundaries have been violated though rape or abuse. Or when a loved one dies prematurely taking away precious time together that we thought was just beginning. Or when we are confronted with another senseless shooting of children in an elementary school – children whom we do not know, but the projections of which are haunting. [Pause]
It's been my experience that the church rarely provides enough space for us to grieve our losses – especially the ones where we are the victims. In our fear and anxiousness to move folks along to a happier place of restored wholeness we encourage them to “have faith, remember - God is with you, just believe.” All of which is true, but I wonder if we are allowing for the lament that folks need and deserve when they are victims of tragic loss. And I wonder if our haste to get people out of the doldrums is the reason why so many grieving believers often stay away from the church during those very sad periods. Perhaps they do not feel they have permission to freely grieve when and where they may need it the most. [Pause]
When my former partner died very suddenly of acute leukemia, he went from diagnosis to death in just a few hours. I was devastated. It was a Friday, and I was slated to preach the following Sunday. Someone else preached the sermon I had prepared, but I insisted on going to church. Family members asked, “are you sure you want to go?” But I knew where I needed to be.
I didn’t care what others thought. I knew what I needed. I just sat there and wept. I didn’t sing the songs, but I heard the voices of others - a healing balm. I don’t remember praying the prayers but the witness of those who could buoyed me and gave me the strength I did not have. The church held me that day – allowed me to feel the bitterness of having been robbed of the one I loved more than life itself. My sorrow was overwhelming, and they didn’t try to make me feel better – but rather gave me the space I needed to grieve – and that saved me. [Pause]
We read today in the book of Acts a most unusual story which demonstrates both forms of loss. The story is somewhat humorous, a little unbelievable, and yet, teaches a powerful lesson.
It begins with an unnamed woman referred to as a “slave girl” who was essentially being abused – trafficked if you will – by her owners who pimp her abilities to prophesy. Day after day she “announces” that Paul and Silas were servants of the Most High God. You’d think they would have been grateful for the free advertisement but evidently, she never quit – constantly announcing – day after day — when they walked about AND when they were preaching. It obviously got pretty obnoxious . So annoying that Paul eventually commanded her to “stop – shut up!” He called the “demon” out of her. For good or for ill she lost her gift infuriating her owners, who now lost their source of income. They likely tossed her out like yesterday’s newspaper when she was no longer profitable for them.
Frankly, I don’t believe Paul handled that situation very well. I get his frustration but, like many of us in ministry do from time to time, he made a big mistake. We don’t know what happened to the woman, but I doubt it ended well.
The consequence for their action was being brought up on charges for “disturbing the peace.” Stripped, flogged, and thrown into jail, Paul and Silas experienced their own loss – the loss of their freedom. But they were able to tap into something much deeper than I could when I experienced loss. They dug deep, drew upon their faith and began to sing – at the top of their lungs.
As the story goes, an earthquake occurred opening the cell doors and releasing them of their leg irons. When the jailer saw what happened — and the likelihood they all would escape — he was mortified and attempted to kill himself rather than face the punishment of his supervisors. But this time when Paul commanded the jailer to “stop!” something very different happened. He gave the jailer space to sort out his feelings. Shaken to the core he asked Paul, “what must I do to be saved.”
“Just believe,” replied Paul, “God wants nothing more than for you to be still and believe.” When he does, he is baptized (along with his entire household) and cycle of violence is broken. He is, indeed, saved.
It’s not only Paul and Silas whose chains were broken and set free. Neither is the jailer bound by the oppressive power structure that he was under. God, through Paul had done a marvelous thing. [Pause]
Friends in Christ, just like Paul and Silas, the jailer, even the slave girl in this story, and every one of us have and will continue to undergo a whole host of losses in our lives. We know that. It is a part of the human condition that no one escapes. Where, I believe, the church might do a better job is in providing space for folks to feel their losses profoundly, without shame, and allow God to do God’s work of healing in due course. In due course.
There is no timeline for the renewal of our faith nor is there a prescribed path. We all go about it differently. It just takes time. But as we do, we must, at some point, regain our voice. At first buoyed by the strength of others, we must, in turn, do what we can to provide hope for those enduring losses of their own. In that way, I believe, we offer the “HOPE of salvation” for those who experience the devastation of loss.
Like I said earlier. This has been a hard week AND it’s been a hard couple of years. You may be feeling the loss profoundly and perhaps even more so today for various reasons. Be gentle with yourself wherever you are and whatever you feel. God continues to invite you home and very often through the strength of another who wants nothing more than to love you back to life, faith, and hope.
I have tasted that sweet nectar of salvation through the grace gifts of others for which I am so very grateful. May we all be recipients of grace as we rely on our God whose steadfast love endures forever. And then, when we are restored, may we use our strength, our voice, or gifts to be a healing balm to others in their time of need.