grief is real

12106763_685609678206584_3284926183590566533_nThis sermon was delivered on Sunday, October 11, 2015 at Palmyra Presbyterian Church in Palmyra, NE.

Scriptural Reference:
Mark 10:(13)17-31

A link to the recording is available here.

      I had the distinct pleasure of attending my first Husker Football game recently. Some friends gifted us with the tickets and some other friends gifted us with childcare so that my husband and I could fully immerse ourselves in all that is Husker Nation without having to worry about our two little people. To protect myself from potential flying hymnbooks or other readily available items in your pews, I’ll let you know that we chose to give up our Gamecock season football tickets in 2007, instead preferring season baseball tickets. That said, I’ve gotta tell you that the game was so much more fun than I thought it’d be! I was so pleasantly surprised with all of the experience – save the game score. Which leads me to the point: there seems to be much sadness in the land of Husker Football this season. When we returned to retrieve our children, the husband of the volunteer babysitters shared that no one was really talking much about the game – good or bad – on social media, which led him to believe that fans have just about given up on the team’s ability to perform well this year. He is personally frustrated, and given some of the very loudly shouted comments I overheard around me during the game, so are other fans. There is sadness in Husker-land. I might even go as far as to say there’s a bit of grief there, too. But, take heart Huskers! We Gamecocks offer up the same laments this season. Our teams are heart-wrenching sometimes. They cause us to scream or yell with delight, but also murmur under our breath, and sometimes worse – stop talking altogether because we’re so upset.

         Jesus is on a journey in this passage, but is interrupted by a young man. This journey is important and Jesus doesn’t want to be interrupted, which is why the response he gives might seem a bit less than pastoral in our story today. Jesus has begun his journey to the end of his ministry; his journey to the cross where all of his teaching and preaching will become complete. Jesus doesn’t want to be interrupted, but this young man literally blocks the road as he kneels in front of the Good Teacher, so Jesus allows himself to be interrupted. Here he starts out with a standard response: “you know the commandments…” and ends up realizing that the man needs more. The man needs guidance. The man needs someone to hold his hand and help him understand. This young man wants assurance that he’ll be able to attain eternal life. “He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him…”

         I often have to stop myself when I’m finding I become furious with my teams, especially since I’m primarily a collegiate sports fan. I have to take a breather, step away from my anger and remind myself that these student athletes are just kids. And before they are athletes, they are students. Yes, their “role” as a student athlete is to bring entertainment to the masses, but their ultimate “role” is to get a degree above anything else. Come on, Katie, you work in campus ministry, you should know better than to be so hard on college students! And don’t forget – they are younger than your brother. (Usually that sidebar works well for me, but seeing how my baby brother is only three years younger and I’m slowly inching up in the years, I may need to come up with a new way to remind myself just how young these youngsters are who entertain us with their athletic talents.) But! Don’t they realize how much I personally invest in them? Just think of all the money I spend to enjoy watching them play – the season tickets, the fan gear, the parking (oh! the parking!), the food at the stadium, the babysitter, the special cable TV package for away games. And then we can’t even begin to calculate the emotional sacrifices I make for them, can we? The up and down on the impassioned roller coasters. The elations and the defeats. Sometimes, it’s just all too much. The cost of sacrifice becomes too high.

         “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The grief is real. This young man wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life and left being told he had to sell all of his possessions and only then could he follow Christ. This young man is commonly known as “The Rich Young Ruler” because the scripture says that he has many possessions. This is a hard message for us to read and comprehend, must like the disciples had trouble comprehending in verse 24. Reality becomes a hard pill to swallow when we are facing this story. We all know that we have some wealth, for we all have something greater than someone else, which qualifies us as wealthier than the other. In this realization, we are faced with a life-altering decision, as was the young man. The feelings I imagine this young ruler is feeling are similar to my four-year-old’s feeling when I tell him it’s time to pick our unused toys and give them away to other children who don’t have toys. My son loves to help others, but the idea of parting with his beloved toys is heartbreaking to him.

     The first half of our message today tells us that the man was shocked and went away grieving. But here is the interesting plot twist – nowhere does it say that the man didn’t sell his possessions. All we are told about this man is that he is grieved for he had much wealth, but we are never told that he doesn’t go and do as Christ instructs. And here’s another plot twist – the man leaves in grief possibly because he is convicted of his wealth versus the poverty of the other. This may be the first time in his life that the man realized that the bit he was being asked to give up is far greater than the whole of what his impoverished neighbors owned. Any way we spin the tale, the sadness exists. The grief is real. A sacrifice of some sort must take place, and heartache lives in the decision-making.

In his book Strategic Leadership For a Change, Union Presbyterian Seminary professior Ken McFayden reminds pastors and lay leaders that maybe the carpet just isn’t even really carpet after all. He says, “Grieving. Hoping. These powerful emotions may coexist, seemingly competing for dominance in our hearts and minds and souls. In the juxtaposition of grief and hope, we may experience a degree of anxiety, particularly when our grieving becomes so intense that it disempowers our capacity to hope.”[1] I believe wholeheartedly that this is what’s happening in our scripture lesson today: the young man is grief-stricken to the point that it stifles the hopefulness with which he approached Christ, and the disciples are struck numb with fear that their sacrifices of everything just won’t be enough despite what they’d hoped all along as they have dutifully followed their Messiah. Anxiety is setting in with both the ruler and the disciples. Grief overpowers their hope. “No one wants to grieve. But amid loss, change that generates loss, and broken or breaking attachments, we feel the powerful grip of grief. And it hurts.”[2] No two experiences of loss is the same, as we note above. One leaves in sadness and the other(s) react in near anger.

     The message today for us is not so much about giving up items as much as it is about our priorities and decisions. I’m currently working with two stubborn (bless them!) toddler children on decision-making, consequences, and the like. I’ve lost my mind, right? The oldest wears his heart on his sleeve and was literally shaking upset when his friend went to time out recently. The youngest is two. This may not be my wisest move, but I’m convinced that they need to start now to understand that every decision they make has consequences, and that they can determine the outcome, for the most part. They have control in the process, and I would like for them to learn to make the wisest decisions the possibly can – in everything. Presbyterian Outlook Editor Jill Duffield explains: “This text from Mark asks us: What truly matters? What are our priorities? How do we evaluate worth and worthiness? Framing these verses in this way is important because even if we are preaching to mostly affluent, American congregations, there are some in the pews who have come hungry and have nothing but the possessions they have carried into the sanctuary with them. Thinking about this in terms of priorities and values rather than simply wealth and possessions makes a broader claim that applies to all of us, rich or poor.”[3]

      When we go to a sporting event, we expect our team to win. We pay good money that makes possible their facilities, training, coaching, equipment, uniforms, etc. and therefore we seemingly require a positive match outcome. Our priorities state that if the team doesn’t get mad, we can trash talk the coaching staff, even the players themselves, and we can withhold our emotional support and eventually our financial support. We do the same in our homes, families and churches, too, don’t we? We are deeply invested thus we expect others to know this about us, to live up to our expectations and to make our priorities their own. We place our demands and bring about shame when they aren’t met, which then causes pain, sadness, anger and grief. We behave this way because we’ve forgotten who we are. We have forgotten that we’ve been offered grace upon grace and that we are in turn to offer that same grace to others. We don’t see ourselves blessed, so we forget that we have blessings we can bestow upon our neighbors. We don’t want to live up to the standard of “to whom much is given, much is expected.” It’s too hard and it all just might expose too much of our raw humanity to all whom we encounter.

      Jesus says that those who have sacrificed in the name of the Lord will receive a gracious plenty more both in this life and in the life to come. In our minds this all makes sense, but it doesn’t make the do-ing any easier. The heartbreak still exists. The sadness over the loss is present. Yes, there’s a cost to difficult decisions. Yes, sometimes we are called to do incredibly difficult things, things that might even cause us grief. None of that means we don’t do them, however. But, as Duffield shares: “The Good News of this passage is the fact that eternal life is not inherited, it is freely given by God through Jesus Christ. Verse 27 reminds us that God does the impossible: welcoming those who could in no way have earned their place in the Kingdom. (Remember the little children a few verses back?) God’s claim on us and God’s calling us “beloved” grants us all immeasurable value and worth; there is nothing that can add or take away from it. Many possessions – or utter lack of them – mean nothing in the eyes of God. What would it be like to live this truth? Would there be less grief? Would we be more likely to go, sell, give and follow? Would we be more generous in every area of our lives? Imagine the possibilities for ministry if we let go of even a little of our possessions and all that we attribute to them?”[4]

      Sometimes, though, the grief is there for the sheer fact that we have a need for making a sacrifice of self to help another at all. The reality of our life on earth is that there is poverty; there will always be someone with less. There will always be someone who needs a hand of help. There will always be that person who needs the love that Christ extended to the man as he struggled to understand. Loss for the other will always be a necessary part of our earthly lives, but the kingdom will continue to be better for our losses. This past week my home state has been through hell. Hurricane Joaquin came up the Atlantic coast and dumped eleven trillion gallons of water on the coast of South Carolina and in the midlands, my home city. The amount of water that stands in and flows through the state right now is enough to completely end the drought across all of California, or to fill the Rose Bowl from bottom to top more than 130,000 times. And people have lost everything. The grief is real, friends. The heartache stands. To see the streets down from my home under standing water and my friends evacuate their homes by boat is unreal. There are no words. Really. No adequate words. The sorrow that exists here, however, is not over the act of losing home and possessions, I don’t believe, but over the fact that so many people have such a great need. Those who lost tend to have greater concern and sadness for those who lost more, than they do for themselves. Sometimes, the grief is real because it is prevalent in our world.

     The rich young ruler has great insight, far greater than many who are rich, because he registers through his grief that he is aware of how much he could be losing by not being able to let go of his accumulated material wealth. He realizes how much his anxiety could cost him. And the disciples begin to realize the very same things. The grace upon grace we’ve been offered is worth far more than anything we could gather here on earth, yet somehow we can’t see past what’s tangibly in front of us or the reality in which we live to let go of grief, sorrow, anger, pain, frustration and fear. Duffield closes her editorial this week sharing the story of a man who, near death, begins to give away his money to random benefactors. She concludes: “That is the perspective Jesus is calling us to in this story. Don’t worry about inheritances. God has already given you everything. Enter the Kingdom by following the One who has prepared a place for you. Don’t let anything, no matter how seemingly important to you or the world, get in the way of accepting this unfathomable gift that is before you right now. Go, sell, give, follow the one who loves you and grieve no more. That’s the bottom line.”[5]

     Brothers and Sisters, while it may permeate your life in some fashion or another – you’ve experienced a natural disaster, your family has recently moved, you’ve lost a spouse or child or beloved pet, or your heart is just full of the painful reality of wealth versus poverty – don’t let grief keep you from the hundredfold blessing in this age and in the age to come eternal life. “29Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

To God be the Glory, Amen.

[1] McFayden, Kenneth J. Strategic Leadership For a Change: Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future (Alban: Herndon, VA, 2009), 43.
[2] Ibid, 45.
[3] Duffield, Jill. From:
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

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