On Grief, Brokenheartedness and Not Leaving the Dead to Bury the Dead


(This is a homily preached at St. Hildegard Catholic Community on June 25, 2016. The scripture readings for that week are listed here. Instead of the Epistle, we read Jan Richardson’s Blessing for the Brokenhearted, which is also quoted in parts of the homily.)

So many times as a preacher, the lectionary has saved me. When I didn’t know how to give voice to the pain or rage or joy that was felt in my church or the world I would look at the lectionary readings and find that the assigned scripture for that week spoke to those feelings so much better than I ever could, that all I needed to do was let those ancient words speak for themselves.

This isn’t one of those weeks for me. I am so aware that this is the first time we gathered as a community after the shooting in Orlando, and I wanted readings that would give voice to the grief of having lost more LGBT people and people of color to violence. Or perhaps readings that would name the resilience and joy and life-among-ashes that is taking place in Pride celebrations all over the world—including our own San Francisco– this weekend. Or readings that could speak courage and love into to the culture of fear and divisiveness that is entrenched in our political discourse.

For me, today’s readings don’t do that. As a hospital chaplain who regularly sits with people whose lives have been forever changed by death, and as a person who lost her own father only a little over a year ago, these words of Jesus to “Let the dead bury the dead,” his refusal to allow this man a few days to bury his father cuts deep, it feels tone deaf, it feels hurtful.

Earlier this week, I met a woman at the hospital who had recently lost two children. At one point in our conversation, she told me, “I keep getting up each day, but it’s empty. There’s some happiness sometimes but it’s a shallow happiness. There’s not any meaning in it.”
In that moment, it was impossible to offer any sort of hope, any sort of promise that things would ever be OK again. There was no telling her to “let the dead bury the dead,” because right now she is nearly buried with them, except for that stubborn heart of hers that keeps beating, that keeps waking her up each morning, that keeps her tied to the land of the living.

“Perhaps for now
it can be enough,” Jan Richardson says,
“to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating.”

In today’s first reading, when Elijah names Elisha his successor he gives Elisha time to process this information. He lets Elisha finish his work, kiss his mother and father goodbye, celebrate his new calling with the community that raised him.

But in the Gospel, Jesus doesn’t allow anyone that wants to follow him that time. He tells us: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Reign of God.” He seems to be saying that in order to follow Him we have to be willing to forget everything about past lives: our friends, our family, our work, even our grief.
But in order to follow Jesus into the land of the living, do we really need to turn from the dead? Must we leave our grief on the side of the road as we go ever forward, never turning back as we plow the fields? Are those really our only options? To forget the dead or to seem to die with them ourselves?

Isn’t what makes us unique the love we’ve had, the experiences we’ve shared, the times our hearts have been broken open? If we were to abandon all of that, wouldn’t we be denying Jesus the parts of us that are most precious, most important? Those are the things that make us who we are. Those are the parts of us that are best equip to serve the Kin-dom of God.

As I was struggling with this reading this week, I spoke to a friend—a Baptist minister who is perhaps a little less inclined than I am to argue openly with a gospel reading, about how much I was struggling with this week’s text. He reminded me that Jesus was also someone who had let grief shape him. This, after all, was a man who traveled for days to weep outside of Lazarus’ tomb, who was brought to tears by watching his dear friend Mary cry. When Lazarus died, Jesus did not let the dead bury the dead. He looked back, called Lazarus out of the tomb and carried him into new life.

How can we carry those that we’ve lost into new life? How can we let our heartbreaks, our grief, our losses help us follow Jesus more fully? Instead of leaving the dead by the side of the road, is there some way we can carry them on this journey, make them a part of our traveling companions?

If that woman I met at the hospital has any hope of following Jesus into new life, I don’t think she’ll be able to do it by letting the dead bury the dead, by continuing to plow forward without ever looking back to what she’s lost. If she is going to follow Jesus she will need to carry her two lost children with her on the journey, making them her constant companions, letting that grief shape her and teach her and lead her to a new sense of meaning.

This week, the Bay Area and much of the rest of the world gather to celebrate Pride in the shadow of the Pulse shootings. On one level, it seems like a strange time to have a party, but then, of course, Pride was never really a party. Pride was always a mixing of grief and rage, joy and resistance. This celebration that began as a riot in Stonewall, and that became one of the first places people could openly grieve loved ones lost to AIDS, has always known the place of grief in celebration. I have never been to a pride celebration that left the dead on the side of the road. At each parade, the dead, it seemed, were somehow carried along on as fellow travelers, a cloud of witnesses who called people to live more fully, more joyfully, more honestly. Grief and loss have never been a distraction from Pride, but a teacher and a guide that has allowed hearts to be broken open so they could love more and love more bravely.

When Richardson talks about the wonder of that still beating heart, she says:

“Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still”


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