Ambiguous loss and the increase and multiplication of mercy

Sermon, Sunday July 26, 2020. St Peter’s Lewes.  Mark Harris

“Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal”

This is from the Collect, a prayer at the beginning of the Eucharist that sets a direction for our meditation on the readings. And today this collect rings true. We could do with a multiplication of God’s mercy in these days. As Mary Gauther says in her song, “We all could use a little mercy now.”
Last week, in the middle of the night on Tuesday, I tried to cry. There was this deep sense of grief within me, and I wanted to let tears wash that grief out. But the tears did not come. I could not cry. I retuned slowly to sleep, without the consolation of tears.

I realized that there was a grieving in my heart that was beyond words, and even beyond my ability to summon up the tears to cry.  Since I spend lots of time in my studio doing printmaking art, I’ve tried to find picture words to use.  Nothing!  My prayer to let the tears come was not met, for the words or even the pictures were not there. I wonder if you have been there too in these strange days? Grief without tears.
There is great comfort in Paul’s comment, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

“That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  Sleep returned that Tuesday night, not as consolation but as space for the Spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words, or images, or even tears. I believe I went to sleep with the Spirit sighing.
It got me to wondering, in all the pandemic concerns, in the economic uncertainties and in our time of political and social uncertainty I have not taken time to grieve, and it has all caught up with me. And maybe you too.
We are grieving for ambiguous losses.  Unambiguous losses are by comparison clear. We lose a loved one, we deal with debilitating illness, we suffer disappointment, we lose a job. Concrete losses. But here there is an uncertain, ambiguous loss.

Krista Tippitt recently interviewed Pauline Boss who coined the phrase “ambiguous loss” to refer to loss that just does not seem to have any resolution. Someone who has disappeared and now must be declared dead, the loss of someone to dementia without losing their body presence, and in these days for us Episcopalians, the loss of the comfort of the Sacrament without any resolution of the problems that make it impossible to actually receive. And for all of us, a loss of innocence and trust in others.

With ambiguous loss we quickly turn to “what’s next” in part because our losses are not clearly defined, and our grieving, like the losses themselves, seem unending.

I grieve for the ambiguous losses in my life, and I suspect maybe you do too:

I grieve for social engagements that have died. The world of pressing the flesh is gone. But it is not a concrete death, but rather death by a thousand slights.

I grieve for the church I was used to. It has died. St. Peter’s was known as a parish where people sang together, where we jostled our way to the line to receive communion, to go for prayers of healing, and later to robustly gather at the table for eats at coffee-hour. We came together with abandon for meetings of all sizes, like a family of puppies gathered at the food dish. And all of that is gone. Yes, we do come together via the internet, but as we all know, “it’s not the same.”

Even what we experience as family is affected. I grieve the awkward and hesitant meeting with those I love. Dare we embrace? Can we laugh together? Distance seems so artificial, even as it is necessary.

We have experienced a thousand little deaths. And yet we have not set a time for grieving or even allowed for grieving, and no time for tears. We don’t know even know how to name our losses. Instead we essentially admonish ourselves, and are admonished by others, to suck it up, to get on with it, to find a new normal. No time for grieving, move on.

To some extent this is necessary. We are admonished that we need to let the dead bury the dead. We do need to face into the new. That is true, but still the grief is there to be named. And until named that grief hangs on as a ghost, a specter. Until then we cannot hear the Spirit that both sighs and calls us forward.

The Spirit remembers, and “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” And in the sighing, perhaps those griefs are named, whispered, by the one who comforts us,  like a parent comforting us when we hear sounds under the bed, and holding us close, whispering, “It’s OK, it’s OK. Don’t be afraid. Just go to sleep.” Our wordless grief is met by the Spirit of God, who connects with us, sighing on our behalf. And having interceded, what now? What does the Spirit call us to after the sighs too deep for words?

And it is here, in the acknowledgment of our grief, that we hear the words of the collect echo, “Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal”

The grief is indeed for things temporal…our small ways of life, our normalities, even our ways of being community. We miss them, but we also remember that they were pretty dusty, pretty tattered. Perhaps it was more than time for them to finally be put to rest.

Maybe it is alright to have our old normalities die… do we really want to miss our misogynistic ways, or our racist past, or our reliance on economic inequities as a matter of course? Perhaps we grieve and then finally let go.
Jesus, in his parables often presents us with the promise of the age to come, the Kingdom of God. He calls us beyond our normality and all its impediments.  

He does not teach a reinstitution of old ways whose loss we grieve. He does not offer a program for remedy for the failings of the old. Instead he proposes a radically different new age, one which is a response of the Spirit, who having interceded with sighs too deep for words, now calls us forward.

The mustard seed, like our hopes, made dormant in grief, will grow amazingly.
--------That’s what to expect from God’s reign.

God’s new world will be yeasty, wild in its expansion. There’s a new heaven and new earth for you!

In the Kingdom of God you will find immeasurable joy, like a pearl of great price, and for this you will give everything.

Bury your hopes in grief, then buy the plot so you can have those hopes when you are finished grieving.

Cast your hopes out wide in great expectation and hawl in many things, only to keep what fulfills those hopes.

The Spirit, who sighs with and for us, will also return not to console, but to dance with us a new dance. 

God willing we not find a new normal at all, we will not get back to business as usual, we will not overcome our grief by repetition of who we have been, but by becoming new.
“Behold,” says the Spirit, “I make all things New.” First, we grieve, then we rise from our grief, made new.  Death and Resurrection.

Paul is right, “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”….” I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I believe our practice in this hour is to make the destination clear:  To do this we must make unambiguous the losses we now grieve for. We need to name those losses, grieve our lost former selves, and rise to new life. That new life will be unambiguously expansive, as generous as the net that draws all in, the tree that gives shade to the birds, the treasure and the yeast that grows explosively. Jesus offers a multitude of mercies, just as we prayed for in the Collect.

And then we can say in High Expectation, as did the Prophet in the Revelation of John the Divine, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

And so, I say, at long last weep dear friends, and then Arise in great expectation!  Amen.

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