Text: Romans 12:9-15
I had a conversation recently with someone who had moved to a new city and was struggling with finding a church that was a good fit for her – a church where it felt like she belonged. She was looking for a church where she agreed more or less with the theology, where the worship did not have to perfect but was engaging and authentic, and where there was a sense of community. A place where she would find friends.
She told about visiting a church in her new city. It was very high-tech, very efficient, it had upbeat soft-rock style music, and a message that was pretty simple, but fine, she said. The thing about this church that was an issue for her is that nobody spoke to her. Not a soul. And as far as she could tell, they didn’t speak a whole lot to each other, either.
Now I know that for some people, that might actually be a positive. The idea of a church where nobody notices whether you are there or not can be appealing. But most of us want church to be a community. A place where we can find support and encouragement and understanding and help when we need it and a place where we can be a part of something bigger than us.
One of the questions in the Summer Sermon Suggestion Box was “How Should the Church Handle People with Grief, Illness, and Sadness in the Congregation?” How do we relate to those in the church who are hurting? It’s a good question, another excellent question. And this question gets right at the heart of this issue of community.
I remember being at a pastor’s conference a number of years ago. Dr. Molly Marshall, the president at Central Seminary in Kansas City and a longtime friend of Susan and me was the speaker. She was talking about ecclesiology – that’s the theological term for our understanding of the church. She was being purposely provocative, but she questioned whether the idea of the church as a family was actually a good image, a helpful way to think about the church.
I mean, think about what family means – about all that family entails. If you are hurting financially, you might ask mom and dad to help out. If you are sick, family members will be there for you. They might come and stay with you after surgery. They help you move in at school. If you get arrested, they may or may not bail you out, but family is who you are going to call. Your family will put up with your weird habits and eccentricities and even if you have serious differences – differences of opinion, differences of politics, differences of religion – you are still family. You are still connected to one another. Family members might drive you crazy, but they are still family.
Molly questioned the idea of the church as family because it may create unrealistic expectations. If we think of the church primarily as a family, it may lead to disappointment.
Well, Molly was playing devil’s advocate a bit, but some at the conference were upset that she dared to question the idea of the church as a family. We talk about our church family and it carries great meaning. But Molly was asking very important questions. When we speak of the church as a family, what does that mean and what kind of expectations come with that?
I thought about the question that was suggested for this sermon and it occurred to me that we could really just shorten the question to, “How does the church deal with people?” - period. Because at some point, we are all grieving. We all face illness. We all have times of sadness. It is just part of life.
Following the death of his wife many years ago, Martin Marty wrote a wonderful little book that was a reflection on some of the Psalms called A Cry of Absence. He speaks of two kinds of spirituality – a summery spirituality, characterized by happiness and praise and a warmth of spirit. The summer season of the soul is a time of joy and hope and certainty.
But there is another kind of spirituality, which Marty calls a wintry spirituality. He notes that about half of the Psalms fit with this season of the spirit. When death comes, when absence creates pain, in times of discouragement and worry and fear and foreboding, in times when God seems to us to be absent – these are winter times of the heart. And Marty notes that we are all subject to these times. They can come suddenly, without warning. And for some people, the wintry season of faith is an especially long season.
So maybe the first thing to acknowledge is that when we ask this question – when we ask how should the church relate to folks who are hurting – is that we are not just talking about other people, we are potentially talking about ourselves.
We would all prefer those summery times of the spirit, but I am afraid that we have tried to normalize those times, for lack of a better word. Or to set them as God’s ideal so that we can be a bit uncomfortable when others are not experiencing happy and cheery times in their lives.
I think that whatever we are hoping for from the church, we want church to be a place where people are real. Where we can be ourselves and where authenticity is valued. That means that we are going to have to understand that at any given moment, a number of us are facing those wintry times of the soul. Church should not be a place where we feel like we always have to put on a happy face. It takes way too much energy to do that. And if we can’t be real and honest with one another, then what’s the point?
Our scripture this morning is from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. He says, “Love one another with mutual affection.” The Common English Bible translates this as, “Love each other like the members of your family.” It’s no wonder we hear all the talk of church family, because it is a Biblical image. And Paul goes on to say, and I want to focus on this, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.”
As we think about how to relate to one another – those who are hurting, those who are experiencing a wintry season of the soul as well as those who are in that more summery season – these are helpful words. Rejoice with those who rejoice, celebrate with those who celebrate, laugh with those who laugh, but also weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, hurt alongside those who are hurting.
The question, I think, is “How can we best do that?” The question of how to relate to folks who have experienced grief and illness and sadness seems to me to be asking for such practical guidance. How do we go about the nitty-gritty work of being church to one another, particularly when people are hurting?
I think about Jesus’ relationships. Jesus was not afraid to show how he felt. The shortest verse in the Bible in many English translations is a very powerful verse. Does anybody know what it is? “Jesus wept” in the King James - John 11:35. The setting is that Lazarus had died. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were good friends of Jesus. We read about Jesus spending time with them in their home. Jesus had received word that Lazarus was ill but arrived at their home after he had died. And when he saw Mary crying, he began to cry. He was weeping with one who was weeping.
One of the things I often hear when a person has experienced a loss, or is facing a difficult diagnosis, or has lost a job, or gone through a breakup, or is deeply concerned for a friend or family member, is “I just don’t know what to say.”
When Jesus went to see Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death, his tears said everything that needed to be said. They expressed the concern of his heart. I can think of occasions when my family has experienced hurt and loss. I don’t remember much of what anybody said. But I do remember folks who were there. Maybe you have had that same experience. Simply acknowledging what someone is going through and not acting as though nothing has happened communicates a lot.
“I’m sorry” is sometimes all that needs to be said. I’m thinking of you. I’m praying for you. A nod, a smile, a simple acknowledgement of the pain. A card or note or email can be express our concern, and it doesn’t need to be wordy.
You may have the opportunity to tell the spouse or child or parent of the one who is hurting that you are thinking of that person, but it is important to also express this directly to the person. In other words, it is always better to talk to someone than talk about someone. Rather than asking somebody else how Bruce is doing, ask Bruce. When others don’t address your hurt directly but talk about you, it can add to the feeling of isolation.
Now, I know a lot of us feel awkward in dealing with difficult stuff. We may be worried that the person will not want to be bothered, that they are too busy or that it will be too painful to bring it up. Well, people have a way of letting us know what they need and letting us know if they really don’t want to have a conversation about it.
If someone is grieving, to say the name of the one who has died lets the person know that their loved one is remembered – people have expressed to me that they appreciate when others bring up their parent or spouse or child or other loved one in conversation. To just say the name means that they are held in memory and continue to be important in the community.
Another way to care for those who are hurting is through practical acts of love. Tangible expressions of concern. Many years ago, as a Southern Baptist campus minister, I was informed that my job was being eliminated in budget cuts. It was painful. In retrospect it was probably a blessing because we were lousy Southern Baptists, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.
The day after I received this news, George Davis called. He was an older minister, a wonderful guy. He took me to lunch. I don’t remember a thing he said but he there just to be there, just to commiserate. This happened 28 years ago and George died 15 years ago, and I still remember it.
When there is illness or death, tangible things like bringing food or picking up somebody at the airport can mean a great deal. We had a next door neighbor named Bill Dillon. He was a Methodist but he was an OK guy anyway. Bill had an illness and was in the hospital a couple of days. I was mowing our yard anyway and Bill and Carols’ yard wasn’t all that big so I went ahead and mowed it. It was a small thing, no big deal. But I learned that to Bill it really was a big deal. Such small acts can have a big impact.
This week Susan and I were talking to a friend who had lost her husband. Susan asked her about things others had done that were meaningful. She mostly just talked about people being there, about expressions of love, about people who brought in food. And it was very interesting: she said she really appreciated when people brought a casserole along with a note saying what it was, because you don’t always know what it is. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but that really is making concern tangible.
A couple more things. First, there really isn’t necessarily a timeline on this kind of thing. Expressing concern a year after surgery or a cancer diagnosis or through a chronic illness or a death in the family is still a good time.
What is said when a person has suffered grief or loss or a personal setback may not matter so much. But what isn’t said really can matter.
Minimizing loss is not helpful. “You’ll get over it in time” or “Don’t worry, there are plenty of other fish in the sea,”or other attempts to make the loss less than it is are best left unsaid.
And likewise, attempts to explain the unexplainable are not helpful. “God needed them more than we did” is not what a grieving person needs to hear. It doesn’t make God look so good, either.
And then, we don’t need to know every detail about what a person is going through. One way to care for those who are hurting is to respect their right to keep things private if they wish. We don’t know everything about our family member’s health situation either. Along these lines, we always ask if someone would like to be included on our prayer list.
Now going back to Molly’s argument: it is true that the church will not fulfill our every need. The church is a human institution made up of flawed, imperfect people. But it is also true that for a lot of us, the church can be closer than our blood family.
And here is the thing: I have observed that our actual families are not perfect either. They can also disappoint us.
When we in the church can be real with one another – when love is genuine, as Paul puts it – and when we rejoice with those who are rejoicing and weep with those who are weeping – we as a church can truly help to see one another through those wintry times of the spirit. And we can truly be family to one another.
How do we relate to folks who are hurting, knowing that is all of us at least part of the time?
With grace, knowing that we are all imperfect and our efforts to care for one another are imperfect
With words and tangible actions – which are the only way people will really know that we care.
Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Amen.