“The Silence of Grief, the Consolation of God, and Our Strength for Tomorrow”

June 19, 2016


Job 2:11-13

Matthew 10:5-16


Before my vacation, I expected that I would resume my series of sermons from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning. And I could have reworked the sermon that I planned for this morning to fit the context of this morning and the week that just ended. But it seemed better to start with other scripture lessons today and, I hope, come back to Galatians next Sunday.

[At this point copies of sermons were held up, identified, and dropped to the floor.]

This is the sermon I preached after a doctor who performed abortions was shot on a Sunday morning while ushering in his church.

This is the sermon that I preached after the shootings at the movie theater in Aroura, Colorado.

This is the sermon that I preached after Sikhs were gunned down at their temple outside of Milwaukee.

This is the sermon that I preached after the Boston Marathon bombing.

This is the sermon that I preached after 15 year old Tamir Rice was shot by police in Cleveland.

This is the sermon that I preached just one year ago this very weekend, on June 21, after a young woman was shot at the Coralville Mall in the same week that nine African Americans were killed by one white man at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

While serving other churches I also preached sermons after our first and second invasions of Iraq, after school shootings and the Oklahoma City bombing, and, of course, after 9/11.

While the need for such sermons seems to come with increasing frequency, the words for such sermons only get harder to find.

Words, followed by death, followed by more words, followed by more death.

So I will start with the sound of silence that we hear in the Book of Job.

After all the tragedies that befell him, surrounded by death and devastation, Job sits among ashes, unrecognizable to his friends who come to comfort him. While he and his three friends sit on the ground for seven days and seven nights, no one speaks a word to him, for they see that his suffering is very great.

The response to crushing tragedy and suffering? A week of silence.

No speeches. No analysis. No speculation.

All of these will come later.

First, however, there is silence—silence that respects the horror; silence that respects one another. After the killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last Sunday, we need each other, not to take away our pain, not to speak, but to simply share the burden of sorrow, of grief, of fear.

So we hear again of the wisdom of silence.

Speech that matters grows out of a deep, respectful silence that searches the mysteries.

We face the mystery that is each human person. Who can really say or fathom what causes a person to succumb to mental illness and descend into despair, depression, or even violence? Who can say why an American-born citizen would turn on others? Who can explain the continued hatred of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people? Who can say what drives someone to purchase guns and ammunition that will be used for the sole purpose of killing other human beings?

And who can really understand what causes one person to shelter another even with their very life?

“No one spoke a word… for suffering was very great.”

We face the mystery that is God. Writing about Job and his friends sitting in silence, the Old Testament scholar Carol Newsom says: “It is God the creator who made us as we are, capable of love and attachment, but also susceptible to disease, accidents, violence. In this sense it is God who gives and takes away, from whom we receive both what we yearn for and what we dread. There is a tendency to want to associate God with only what is good. If one does that, however, then when trouble comes it is easy to feel that one has fallen into a godforsaken place.”[i]

“No one spoke a word… for suffering was very great.”

We may want to speak words of pain or confession, words of despair or fear or rage. But first, let us be silent.

In our silence we seek once again the consolation of God in the wake of hatred and tragedy.

I remember watching a television report in the aftermath of another tragedy. It showed a father hugging his daughter as she cried. Over and over he kept telling her: “It’s going to be all right. It’s all right now. It’s going to be all right.”

This is how we long to be embraced.

This is what we long to hear.

In faith we proclaim, even now, that God does not want human suffering,

            that God abhors the evil that we see and do even more than we do.

that God will yet forgive the wrong we have done and hopes for the repentance of all people.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who knew as much of hatred and tragedy as anyone, helps us when he writes: “God wants to console us. God only consoles when there is reason enough for it; when humans do not know any more, when the meaninglessness of our life scares us. The world, as it is in reality, always scares us. But a person who is consoled sees and has more than the world, this person has life with God.”

These are days when we long for the consolation of God, days when we are scared by the seeming insignificance of life, days when the reality of the condition of our nation, our world will frighten us.

And so these are days when we might yet hear the consolation of God, when we might yet hear words of comfort.

And those words of comfort are also words of a future that call us to action.

Out of the suffering, tragedy, and violence, out of the silence, we turn again to the Christ whom we seek to follow. And while at first his words might seem strange to hear on this day, they are a source of strength and encouragement that will carry us through the days ahead.

Jesus sends his disciples out to announce the good news that the realm of heaven has come near.

And he is clear that not all people will welcome this announcement: “I tell you,” Jesus says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

When we hear those names our ears perk up. These two ancient cities are so connected in the popular imagination with sexual immorality. But that is not the activity that Jesus or the prophets of the Bible condemned.

The prophet Ezekiel was clear when he announced: “This was the guilt of…Sodom. [They] had…excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Centuries later, when Jesus speaks of these cities, the context suggests that the inhospitableness of the people, their lack of welcome for strangers, is what best characterized its failing and caused its downfall.

This is what we are confronted with when we read about Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible: Prosperity. A lack of concern for the poor in their midst and hostility toward strangers who sojourn among them.

Not a few times in the past week I heard the Pulse nightclub referred to as a “sanctuary.” That is, it was a place where people could go and be themselves and be accepted for who they were. It was a place of safety, a place of welcome, a place of hospitality toward all people.

And that sanctuary was violated.

The guilt of Sodom in Orlando, the guilt of Sodom in Iowa City, the guilt of Sodom in our nation is that many will still not recognize the intrinsic value of all people, and give full welcome to all people as children of God.

When sanctuaries are attacked, the sanctuary we offer is even more important.

Jesus sends his followers—sends you and me—out among the unwelcoming and the inhospitable to announce the good news that the realm of heaven has come near.

We recognize, of course, that Jesus is not talking about someplace where all good people will go when they die if they just do this or believe that. The kingdom of heaven, the realm of God, is the new reality that is seen when strangers are no longer cast out but are welcomed in, when the image of God is seen and accepted in all people. It has come near. God’s rule is in the midst of being established in the world that God created and loves.

Whenever he talks about the realm of heaven, Jesus is pointing toward the great value of this earth and of our lives before we die. Jesus is pointing toward the great value of each human being created in the image of God.

We are called to announce this as good news. And because it is good news, because the kingdom of heaven has come near, we are called to act in certain ways. Welcoming. Accepting. Loving. Offering hospitality.

Not everyone will welcome this message or these actions. Not everyone will welcome us when we speak the good news of God’s love for all people, when as a congregation we show God’s love and acceptance to all people.

So in sending us out, Jesus also tells us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

The work—or the struggle or the fight—for acceptance and equal civil rights for all people will not end soon nor will it be one easy victory after another. As soon as marriage equality became the law of the land, people began efforts to take it and other rights away from gay and lesbian people, to make life more difficult for the LGBTQ community.

The work—or the struggle or the fight—to extend a full welcome to all people in all churches is far from accomplished, even within the United Church of Christ. But let us continue the good and valuable work that we are doing as an open and affirming congregation. What we are doing here matters. What we are doing is of value in God’s now and in God’s eternity.

The work—or the struggle or the fight—to bring guns and gun violence under some kind of sensible control so that we don’t have to hear about gay nightclubs or elementary schools or places of worship attacked with assault weapons will not end soon nor will there be an easy victory.

We must take on these tasks as ways of announcing the nearness of the realm of heaven. In doing so we must we wise as serpents even as we hold onto our values. And we must not give up when the opposition is great.

We need one another—in silence, in support. There is the hope that we will yet learn to respect each other, to see in each person—in their own joy and their own suffering— an image of the living God. There is the hope that in our growing respect we may find ways to bring a greater peace to this city, to our nation, and even to the greater world.

We need as well the peaceful presence of God in the midst of the swirling chaos of our lives. We need the healing and the forgiveness of God for our broken lives. We need seek the comfort of God when life is brutal.

And so once more, in our sorrow and our despair and our anger we find good news in gathering together. Each day you seek to make real in the world the peace, the healing, and the comfort of God. Each day you live out your faith in difficult and challenging situations, coping with daily experience. Whether you are a straight, gay, lesbian, or transgendered member of this congregation, or a friend, or a first time visitor—this morning you came to worship God with such people. That is the special gift of this day. Know that whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are held in the care of this congregation that values the image of God in you and each one of us.

May this be our peace.

May this be our comfort.

May this be the healing that we share with each other today and take into the world as we walk together in the days ahead.

[i] Carol Newsom, “Job,” NIB, pg. 360.