The following is a sermon by Michelle D. Jarvie, written as a reflection on Isaiah 61 for an Advent Service of Remembrance and Hope.
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next.” Those words are found in a memoir called It’s Always Something by actress Gilda Radner. Two particularly hard losses for her were the death of her father when she was a young girl, and then her own very painful fight with cancer.
Tonight’s service is about remembrance and hope, or in other words, the journey of healing after loss. It begins with total destruction and being exiled to a place where you have to stay for a long time. When my first husband was killed, I desperately wanted to die every day for the first three years. I greatly resisted settling into my new normal, and I’m pretty sure that my hostility toward people who unintentionally said the wrong thing led to more lost relationships. I was extremely disheartened with the world, untrusting of God, and bursting with anger. I had this picture of what my life should’ve been like, and even after I found a new focus with teaching that helped me start to find myself again, I repeatedly dealt with the pain of unmet expectations both within myself and others. I’m sure many of you can relate, as the process of accepting your new normal – be it without a person, a job, your health, your dreams – chips away at the spirit within you that once had their arms open.
And then, when you’re finally open to returning to life, because you finally understand that the only good option is to move forward, you land on the rollercoaster. Some days we feel grateful for a second chance, for the wonderful people and opportunities that helped us climb out of the 500 foot well. And other days, we are like the Israelites from Isaiah 61, thinking “Things are better, I’m out of exile, but I wanted so much more. This isn’t how life should be.”
The prophet from tonight’s reading is charged with the task of confronting people who are wearing this headdress of grief. They spent 70 years of exile and slavery in Babylon, and have come home to the city they have been dreaming about their entire lives – and it’s trashed. The temple is still in ruins, and the community they expected to be righteous is filled instead with political and religious factions as well as economic disparities. It’s compounded grief that makes the hole seem even deeper. Yet in this time of disappointment and exasperation, God says this is “The Year of [my] Favor.” I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t too open or trusting of God’s “favor” after my husband died. I felt abandoned; it was certainly not a joyous time to start over.
Perhaps that’s why it’s fascinating that the prophet is told to heal and provide hope by first making the people see themselves in a different way. God tells the prophet to bring “garments of praise” to replace their spirit of despair and provide “crowns of beauty” to replace ashes on their heads. In addition, the people are to be treated as honored guests – which we see through giving the “oil of joy.” It strikes me that in our culture today, when people are grieving a loss, we do not treat them like this. We leave them alone, because it’s easier for us. We make judgments about how they should be living or grieving. Our world sees public or prolonged grief as a weakness. And yet, God wants us to adorn it. Instead of rushing through our difficult emotions so we can quickly close the chapter, God wants us to share it. It’s in this place of transition, uncertainty, and death that we see God the most, and where He reveals His intent for the world. It starts with taking a deep breath and naming where you are.
I’m pretty convinced that for people to name and accept loss in their lives, they have to be validated. That means seeing the nonlinear stages of grief as appropriate, expected, and natural. When someone told me not to be angry at God or depressed after James died (“Is that what he would want for you, Michelle?”), I shut them out. It wasn’t what I needed, and it just made me feel more frustrated and broken, because I was now also misunderstood and alone.
The lovely words that the writer of Isaiah 61 uses to convince the frustrated Israelites are centered around the everlasting covenant that God makes with them. And He ends this powerful chapter telling us how it will look: like a garden. It’s interesting that this visual is used post-exile, as it’s one of the most famous visuals that the prophet Jeremiah uses in a letter at the beginning of exile: In Chapter 29, Jeremiah says: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” God’s people needed to hear those words because they did not want to accept the new state of their lives. You’re going to need to hunker down here for a while, God says. I promise I am still with you in the midst of your pain, and we will find a way to put one foot in front of the other. In verses 5-6 of tonight’s text, the writer says that God will help them rebuild the ancient ruins and renew their devastated city. Notice that he doesn’t say he’ll take away their pain. Instead, strangers will help them shepherd their flocks. The Israelites will have new voices/callings as ministers of God. And because of all of this, they will be a sign of God’s blessings in the world.
Signs of hope are imperative for our endurance of this life, because of the truth of the human condition. I’m talking about the dichotomy of life, that there is pain and joy in everything. I think we can find hope in the Israelites’ experience because it is one of resilience and faith in God born out of destruction and exile. It’s relatable, as we know true joy only after surviving deep pain. Let me go a step further – we know true joy after accepting deep pain will be with us. A helpful analogy given to me was this: It won’t always boil, but it’ll simmer.
A brilliant psychotherapist by the name of Francis Weller said, “Everything I love, I will lose. That’s the harsh truth. You either have to shut down your heart – and miss the love that is around you – or wrestle with that truth and come out the other end. There is indeed such a thing as joyful sorrow. The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them.” This is why we invite you to take home a blue candle today in remembrance of not only the loss you came to honor tonight, but also of the work that grief and God commands us, most importantly to be a sign for others. It could be as small as sharing one moment of gratitude on Facebook every day for a week. Inviting a neighbor over for a cup of tea and going beyond the superficial. Maybe it’s mailing a friend who’s struggling a candle or a kaleidoscope with a small note about the power of light in darkness or how our broken pieces can shift into new patterns. I realize that most of you in this room are the ones who need these gestures; however, through seven and a half years of my journey as a widow, I can confidently say that the greatest healing I’ve ever encountered was when I reached out to others who were hurting.
It’s easier to sit back and say things like “time will heal” or “I’m not comfortable being that social or hearing about others’ losses.” Being a sign of hope for someone else takes courage, especially when we don’t feel like we’re ready to be a sign of hope. I remember literally starting to shake when my best friend told me she needed me to be a mentor in her North Minneapolis classroom. I wasn’t sure I could be reliable or hopeful or put on a smile – I thought that’s what her kids needed. Volunteering with them changed the course of my life, because they needed me as I was: broken like them, showing up, caring. Holding on to and addressing their needs helped me feel purpose again, and to see myself in a new light. I’ll never forget when I surprised a girl named Nikita who started to cry after we read a book about sisters. I put my arm around her and we just sat in silence for the rest of our time. When she had to go, I just said “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to not be okay right now.” She squeezed my hand, looked up at me in disbelief, and gave me a harder hug than I thought possible. That was an important day.
I don’t have it all figured out, but my loss has taught me that life isn’t about success or perfection. It’s about lighting the candle for someone else. Teaching others as we go through grief ourselves. Naming God in the midst of the mess. He showed up in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and He shows up today, often through other people. Thanks be to God.