A sermon preached at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church, Reston, VA
on the occasion of Rev. Dr. Jean Robinson-Casey’s anniversary as pastor 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
A kindergarten teacher gave her class a “show and tell” assignment. She said: bring something to school tomorrow that represents your religion.
The first child got in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin and I am Jewish and this is the Star of David.”
The second child got in front of her class and said, “My name is Mary, I am Catholic and this is the Crucifix.”
The third child got up in front of his class and said, “My name is Tommy and I am Baptist and this is a casserole.”
And it’s true, when it comes to death, we know how to make a good casserole (and not just the Baptists).
We also know how to visit funeral homes and even write sympathy cards.
But, when days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months after someone’s beloved has passed what do we do?
But I believe our Jewish brothers and sisters have it going on when it comes to grief. Have you ever grieved alongside a Jewish family?
One of my favorite practices of a Jewish season of grief is called Shiva.
Shiva is the 7-day time period after the loved one dies when the family and friends gather on a nightly basis at home usually with the Rabbi to say prayers and remember the life of their beloved. Night after night after night. For seven whole days (and sometimes beyond).
During the Shiva period, mourners also do not participate in parties, concerts, TV, movies, or similar events that are celebratory in nature. Those who visit the house in mourning pay their respects by sitting on low stools or even on the floor. Mirrors are covered throughout the house. And often the mourner wears a torn black ribbon on their clothes as a sign that the loss of the loved one has torn a piece of their hearts. Candles are burned.
Then at exactly a year after the passing of the loved one another special ceremony is held to mark the end of the life again. In my opinion, these are some beautiful rituals!
But no matter how long we grieve or don’t grieve for the losses in our life, if we’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim, there’s always an expectation of an expiration date for grief no matter the culture. Isn’t there?
But often our grief has a life cycle of its own.
I don’t want to be the pastor this morning that tells you not to grieve, not to pour out your heart to God when the situation asks for it.
I don’t want to be the pastor who tells you to have any shame when life hits you with an unbearable loss.
I don’t want to be the pastor who says don’t cry if you need to, even in public (which I have to tell you my husband, Kevin hates when I cry in public because he always says people are then looking at him, thinking that it’s his fault when it’s not).
No, this morning, I don’t want to be anti-grief at all.
But I am going to ask you this morning this one question, “How long will you grieve?”
This morning, in our Old Testament lesson, we encounter two powerful leaders transitioning toward how the promptings of God’s leadings. And one was asked the question, “How long will you grieve?”
One man was priest in chief in all the land. The other man was the king. The king is told by the priest that he would soon no longer be king. The king doesn’t like this news (of course). And the priest doesn’t like giving it. But this does not change the facts.
Grief enters the picture.
But the Lord says the priest struggling with the change, “How long will you grieve?”
Let’s talk more about WHO these two men are.
First, there’s Samuel, the priest. He’s an honorable man before God whose calling came even before he was born!
His mother Hannah prayed so hard for him that when onlookers saw her in the temple crying out to God they assumed she was drunk. But thanks to Hannah’s prayers and the Lord’s hand on his life, Samuel listened rightly from a young age.
Remember his famous call story? Samuel lives in the temple of the Lord alongside the high priest at the time, Eli.
One night Samuel hears the voice of something calling. It comes not once, not twice but three times. And Eli tells him when he heard the third time to say, “Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.”
And from this point on, as Samuel began to play a major role in the spiritual life of the nation of Israel: he was God’s mouthpiece.
As the people cried out to be a nation “like everyone else” and not be ruled by judges but by kings, it was Samuel’s role to anoint the first king of the land.
This brings us to our second character of the day, Saul. Scripture tells us that he’s good looking and a head taller than everyone else. And of course being tall and handsome makes for a great leader, right?
But, Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest and least important tribe of the nation—so still unlikely choice when picking kings if it came down to a popularity contest. But back in chapter 9 of the book of I Samuel, we learn, though, that Saul is God’s man. At age 30, he descends the throne. The very first king in all of Israel!
And Saul’s a good king until . . . he stops listening to the One who put him on the throne. He becomes more afraid of what the people say about him rather than God. He can no longer be trusted to do as God asks him to do. According to God, Saul must go. Samuel needs to break the news to him.
Can you imagine what this meeting of “You’re fired!” felt like, especially for Samuel?
For, Samuel had invested so much of himself in Saul.
Samuel was Saul’s go to advisor, teacher and trainer.
Samuel had laid aside his ego so that Saul could do his thing and shine.
And now it seemed like all of this hard work was for nothing! A dream cut short.
If we go back a couple of verses, we learn that when Samuel first hears this news from the Lord, he “was troubled and called out to the Lord all that night.”
If that is not a picture of grief, I don’t know what is! For we see Samuel:
Counting the minutes on the clock till morning.
(And we’ve all been there too).
But as time passes, the Lord comes to Samuel again and says: “How long will you grieve?”
I want to stop right here and check in with what I think some of you might be wondering about your preacher this morning:
“Don’t I know what Sunday this is? Don’t I know what occasion I came for? Did I get confused? Don’t I know that a Pastor’s anniversary service is supposed to be about celebration, not all this depressing talk about grief?”
Yes, I know. And I know that you love your dear Pastor Jean and Clyde. And I love them too. And I’m so glad you set this day aside every year to celebrate their ministry among you.
But this is the word of the Lord for today: how long will you grieve?
It’s a word that asks us about all the places in our lives where we are stuck.
It’s a word that asks us where we’ve been paralyzed by the vision that we have for our lives that’s not working out.
It’s a word that moves us to action: to lay down the losses that we can’t just seem to get over SO that God’s fresh new wind can blow it’s way through us again.
I don’t know about you, but if I were to make a list of the grief like this, the list would be long.
- For there are people in my life, I wish I had the power change but cannot.
- For I’ve experienced twists on life’s path that I wish weren’t so but simply are
- And, there have been unkind words said over me that I wish could get out my head but cannot.
All of this is leads to grief my friend. Real grief.
And as a church family we’ve got our grief lists too.
- Former members that we just wished would come back but they won’t.
- New ministries that we just wish would take flight, but they won’t.
- Long standing programs that we wish somebody in this church family would care about again but they won’t.
And to this, the Lord says, “How long will you grief?”
I guess, church, we all have a choice.
The Lord says to us, fine. Have your grief if you want it. Have your sleepless nights if you want it. Have your vision of your life if you want it.
But if you are ready for something better, then grieve no more. Let what is dead be dead.
The morning has broken. A new day is here. Open your eyes to see it.
Consider what happened next with our guy, Samuel. As we go back to I Samuel 16 new possibilities come into Samuel’s view.
God shows Samuel that he is NOT through with him yet.
From God, Samuel receives specific instructions on how to proceed. He’s told to go to Bethlehem. He’s told find the sons of Jesse. He’s told that when he reaches the village, he’ll know which one of the young men will be the next leader.
Samuel is confused (as we often are) but he’s attentive to the voice of the Spirit. He listens! And the most unexpected leader emerges.
David, who is young, small and most certainly NOT ready for a gig on the national stage is presented last.
Samuel hears this: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Or in other words, Samuel: the tall man is out. The little man is in.
Get your head out of the rear view mirror and look up ahead. See I am doing a new thing, do you not see it?
How long will you grieve, Samuel?
I once heard a story from one of my colleagues about a young couple that attended his congregation.
This couple, I learned from my pastor friend were so in love when he married them, so compatible, so full of great plans for their future of children, vacations and the young wife even wrote a plan for how they’d celebrate the best holiday traditions while they were still engaged.
But, then 2 months into their fairytale like marriage the husband was driving home from work and was instantly killed one evening by a tracker trailer.
You look up the word “unfair” in the dictionary and there should be a reference to the newspaper story about this day. Car accidents should never happen. And the most certainly should not happen to bright 20 somethings.
My pastor friend went on to tell me more about this widow. How she began a daily ritual a couple of days after the funeral.
Every morning, she’d go to graveside, take her coffee and read aloud from one of her devotional books or other literature she liked.
When anyone asked why she did this, the widow would always answer, “Because it’s how I feel close to him.”
We want to say awww don’t we? It’s a beautiful expression of the timeless bonds of love, isn’t it?
But then when I asked my pastor friend what I thought was a basic question, “How long ago since this husband died?” the pastor said to me, “The wreck was 23 years ago!”
I gasped. The pastor went on: “Though she gets regular invitations to re-imagine her life with new friends, new activities and even new romantic partners, this woman will not stop grieving. She won’t stop going to the grave every morning.”
And in our own ways church, we are no better off than this woman stuck in a grief ritual that took her from the land of the living.
We’ve also gotten stuck on what we hoped our family would be! We too have gotten stuck on what we wished our career could be! We’ve gotten stuck on what somebody else said our church should be by now!
And in our grief, we’ve forgotten the resurrection power of our Lord. We’ve forgotten to dream a dream and live into something new, the new that our all-knowing Lord has prepared for us all along.
So church, do you want to move into the new?
I can’t think of any better way on this anniversary of your pastors, than to commit to yourself this morning to grieve no more on what the Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church is not.
I can’t think of any better way to live into where Pastor Jean and Clyde are leading you in the future than to lay aside the losses of the past.
I can’t think of any better way to be good stewards of the ministry that God has given you in this place than to mark this day, to mark this day as the day when you grieved no more.
To claim this is a day when you said to Jesus, “I am going to trust you.”
“I am going to follow you.”
“I am going to step out on faith with you . . . even if what I really want to do is run for the covers at in bed at home.”
And most of all: “I am going to grieve for the past no more. I am going to say yes, Lord. Yes, Lord to what you have for me.”
So, church, how long will you grieve?
Let’s leave the tombs and follow our resurrected Lord.