The last time I preached, I had lamented that while Denise got the “Fear not little flock” Gospel, I had the father against son, mother against daughter and so on, or the Family Feud Gospel as I referred to it. I joked that I thought Denise did this on purpose. Well, I did the preaching rota this time—and since I would not give myself something this controversial—it is clear that God is simply showing me that God has a sense of humor. The Gospel message began this morning by Jesus saying, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” I am going to repeat this several times this morning, it is not easy to be a Christian.
To sort out the “…hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters…” part of the Gospel, I will share with you the thoughts of Mitzi J. Smith, Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. She said, “No one considers hate a fruit of the Spirit; rather, it is commonly viewed as the antithesis of love.” She goes on to explain that if you are going to follow Jesus, you will have to hate your life because you will have to give up that life. As I said this a few weeks ago, we need to be focused not on earthly goals, but on Kingdom goals. If you think about it, if we are going to pick up our cross and follow Jesus, we first need to let go of whatever it is we are carrying. What is it you are carrying with you that is keeping you from living fully into your Christian identity?
Jesus then asks us about planning in order to achieve our goals. “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Or, what king plans an attack without first taking inventory of resources and troops? I think Jesus was telling us to follow Him, but that doing so was not a free-for-all party, but a well thought out process that requires sacrifice and work. Jesus was telling us, it is not easy to be a Christian.
All this talk of letting go, and taking up our cross, and planning is what kept haunting me from the Gospel. It is not easy to be a Christian, and letting go of anything causes us to grieve, for what we have given up or lost. I can say that as pleased as I was to be with you full-time during this transition, I was not as filled with joy as I initially expected myself to be. I realized that I was grieving the loss of Denise. I was in denial. I wanted everything to stay the same. I did not want to let go of what I was doing, I did not want to take on her role in different areas—I wanted her to stay and do that. I did not want to plan and prepare as Jesus indicated we needed to do in the Gospel. I asked, “Why can’t things just stay the same?” Maybe some of you felt that way too. I did not want to change, this was not my plan. For a while, I ignored that she was leaving. I was in denial, the first stage of grief. While I am not sure what stage of grief I am in currently, I did want to look at these stages with you.
These stages are from a book written in 1969, by Elisabeth Kübler Ross. She first identified the stages of dying in her transformative book On Death and Dying. (In high School I took a class on this book.) Decades later, she and David Kessler wrote the On Grief and Grieving, introducing the stages of grief with the same compassionate and practical approach that transformed our perspective on dying. Many people look for “closure” after a loss. Kessler argues that it’s finding meaning beyond the stages of grief most of us are familiar with—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—that can transform grief into a more peaceful and hopeful experience. Transforming our grief into peaceful and hopeful experiences is our challenge. It is going to take all of us to pick up our collective cross and carry it successfully.
The stages start with denial, as I described earlier and then, anger comes next. Anger is generally feared by our society. However, we have to let ourselves feel angry, because underneath the anger is our pain of feeling deserted and abandoned. It is difficult to see where God is in anger, but God is there. Anger is really a sign of the intensity of the love lost.
The next stage of grief is bargaining. We will do just about anything to avoid feeling pain of loss—even bargain for it. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one. It is not easy to be a Christian, and it is not easy to grieve, but both are worth the effort.
Depression comes next. Grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. It’s important to understand that this depression is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on? Why go on at all? Depression after a loss is too often seen as something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in is actually depressing, and ours is not. In fact, it holds hope and new opportunities for all of us. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. In parish transitions, this stage where some people disengage from the pain and look for a geographic fix for their feelings. The grass looks greener at a parish not in transition, but there is no such thing. God is continually creating, and we are always in a state of transition. Just because we have had a change in leadership does not mean we have lost our foundation, or each other. Staying and helping to pick up our collective cross is a lot of work. Look around you, we are all in this together. And it will take all of us to carry our cross, and keep walking in together in love, and “Love is the Way” is our theme this year.
Finally, we come to the stage of acceptance. This stage is about accepting our new reality. It is the new normal with which we must learn to live. In resisting this new normal, at first many people will want to maintain life as it used to be. We cannot maintain the past intact, and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves. We begin to live again and enjoy our new normal. We can make new connections, new meaningful relationships. Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We invest in our friendships and in our relationships with ourselves, God, and each other. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time. We are standing on a firm foundation and we shall continue to build up our Holy Cross branch of the Body of Christ on that foundation. While our life together with our former rector has ended, our new life together has begun—a life full of hope and promise.
I leave you with these words from Paul’s Epistle today. “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” I am with Paul on this. I can stand here and say, all of you need to engage more deeply and everyone should shoulder their responsibility, bear the weight of our collective cross, and walk together. But, I won’t. I too want you to search your hearts, and find the love you have for God, each other, and the community of Holy Cross. Then let your light shine—show, and share that love in your words and actions, as we continue to move forward together. Love is the way to manifest the kingdom, love is the way to heal our hearts, love is the way to live in hope for our future. Together, let us take our first steps, walking in love, knowing that Love is the Way. Amen.
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 Philemon 1-21 Luke 14:25-33
The Gospel reflection of Mitzi J Smith can be found here: https://www.workingpreacher.org
Much of the copy on the stages of grief was taken from: https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/