Sermon for Proper 25, Year C: Caught Off Guard is a Good Thing

Matt (my own pastor) started off today with a paragraph from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, about the sudden death of her husband. Tears started to fall as he described the circumstances of the husband’s death, and I lost my snot when he got to “I couldn’t give away his shoes, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that he might need them.” I howled inside at “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” He was reflecting on the psalm, which now I forget, but basically it talked about railing at God, and grief didn’t have to be about death… It could be about divorce, or a friend saying they didn’t want to be your friend anymore… I just kept crying, harder and harder, words gutting me like an ax, deeper with each blow. He was dissecting my world, and holding the diseased organs in front of me. I couldn’t just grit my teeth and keep it together. I was sitting in the back, alone, and my head hit my knees as I crouched in pain.

There was a reason I was crouched over. I did not want anyone to see me. I did not want to be touched, I did not want to be consoled, I wanted to be invisible.

We do not get everything that we want. The anxiety of being seen grieving in public was so great that I would have walked out if I hadn’t had an obligation to stay. It was not the grieving itself that undid me. Had it just been a couple of tears running down my face, I doubt I would have taken much notice. It was being seen at this level, where I couldn’t breathe, I had gone into the Oprah “ugly cry,” and there was no Kleenex. I didn’t want to be him:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

I did not want to draw attention to myself, as if grief were a show I needed to put on to tell everyone just how hurt I was… that no one was hurting as much as me… that there was indeed a notion of competitive suffering, and I looked to the outside world like I was truly “winning.”

I wanted to be him:

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

Because Jesus’ whole point in the parable is this:

‘I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Bridget, one of my fellow sopranos, saw me crumpled into myself and came over just to hold me, rock me back and forth until I could get air into my lungs. I had to remind myself that it gave her something to see hurt and respond, and in order to live in community, I would have done the exact same thing had it been someone else’s mother and not mine. Otherwise, I would have buried myself with shame that I let myself emote.

That being said, what I know to be true is that sometimes people need to be left alone to self-soothe, to be able to draw on their own strength.

It came to me later that I’d already been doing that for weeks, without letting anyone in… the exception being Thursday at choir practice, but I knew that I’d be emotional ahead of time and I didn’t have any fucks to give. Those that didn’t know my mother just died could think I was mentally unstable because I was. I don’t know of any person in deep grief who isn’t; particularly those who have lost someone suddenly and are struck dumb by the ordinary circumstances under which it happened. As Didion points out, Sept. 11th dawned bright and sunny, and even though I only saw a patch of blue sky through my blinds that morning, I knew she was right.

After church was over, Bridget and I were walking up the stairs to the choir room to put our music away and get our stuff. I said, “I sometimes preach from my web site, and what jumped out at me today is that grieving people are both the Pharisee and the tax collector at the same time… because what do grieving people do in public? Try to act like they’re fine.” Grieving people, in order to hide how much they hurt, laugh a little too loudly or make the jokes themselves to cover up the wounded animal that lurks within. Often this is for the same reasoning I had- that grieving in public is calling attention to themselves for the wrong reasons.

What saved me today was knowing I was emoting for the right ones. My grief was genuine, deep and pure to the point of exhaustion. It was an ordinary Sunday, and I was caught off-guard, not knowing that I was going to hear such a message directed at my own heart, unprepared to have my heart sliced to that degree and have every feeling I’d tried to keep inside pour onto my shirt and pants.

Gloria mentioned that my mother had died during her pastoral prayer, and all of the people around me had the light bulb go on as to why I was crying all the way through that particular sermon. It’s possible it was just for me. I mean, I know Matt. We’ve met. It’s possible he’s a “Fanagan.” But it’s not likely. Occam’s Razor is that it was what I needed to hear in the place I needed to hear it, without regard for my own time.

I was the tax collector who didn’t want to be a Pharisee, and yet, sometimes we all need to throw caution to the wind and be open with our prayers, because otherwise, we can only guess if God is listening. To be vulnerable in a place where people can hear it is to be sure.

When Joan Didion was open in her grief with her sister-in-law, the response was strong and immediate- that we cannot catch the light by chasing it into the sunset, only by walking back through the darkness to find the dawn.



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