June 27, 2021 / 5th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Lamentations 3:22-33 Second Reading 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 / Gospel Mark 5:21-24, 35-43
Old friends are a gift that keeps on giving. Persons who have known you for most of your life share rich memories and are a reliable source of both wisdom and joy. I have known Mike since we were in high school. He was in my brother’s class, a year ahead of me. We were acquainted during those years, but we actually became closer in the years after high school. Mike and his wife, Jean, lived for a while in a farmhouse they rented outside our hometown, St. Charles. I remember celebrating our nation’s bicentennial out at the farm, back in 1976. We have stayed in touch over the last 50 years. Mike and Jean welcomed the arrival of their first child, a beautiful girl named Erin. They were among the first of my peers to become parents. One summer day, four-year-old Erin wandered over to a neighbor’s yard, fell into their swimming pool, and drowned. It is a parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child – few things in this world are more devastating. The death of a child contradicts the natural order of things. Most parents would say, “Take me, not my daughter or son.” Mike and Jean experienced unimaginable grief and sorrow at the loss of their daughter.
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In today’s gospel reading we learn how Jairus and his wife were spared such crushing grief and pain. Jairus approached Jesus with a desperate request: “Come save my little daughter, who is at the point of death.” Jesus went with him, but while they were still on the way, the news came that the daughter had died. When they arrived at the house, the weeping and wailing of the mourners had already begun. As would happen at a later time with Lazarus, it seemed that Jesus had arrived too late – the girl was dead. However, it was not too late for Jesus. He took her by the hand, said, “Little girl, get up!” – and she did. Everyone was overcome with amazement.
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If only the same could have happened for Erin – and for my friends Mike and Jean. But it didn’t. It hasn’t happened for countless other grieving parents either.
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How then shall we live? I can tell you how Mike and Jean lived. Many parents are understandably broken and pushed to despair by the death of a child. My friends grieved – but they did not give up or give in to despair. They found great support in a group for bereaved parents called The Compassionate Friends. Over time they were able to provide support and encouragement to other devastated parents. They became more active in church. They had two more children – and today enjoy their grandchildren. These days Mike serves as president of the church council at their Lutheran church. Having experienced profound grief, they are able to care for others in their time of sorrow. They were a tremendous help to my brother when his wife died. And, when my brother spent his last days in the hospital, Mike and Jean were there most every day, offering comfort and prayers.
Their life story is in its own way a miracle. Their daughter was not saved from death. Nevertheless, Mike and Jean were saved from a life made futile and empty by regret and despair. By the grace of God, they were able to persevere – and to become instruments of love and compassion for others. They are living examples of what Paul describes about the faithful in Second Corinthians: “ . . . afflicted, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, struck down, but now destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
To find joy and meaning in life after such a heartbreaking loss is a work of God’s grace. To use Paul’s imagery, Mike and Jean are ordinary clay vessels containing rich treasure, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) God restored them to life.
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Grief and devastation can be experienced collectively as well as personally. The destruction of Jerusalem in the year 586 BC was such a moment. The Book of Lamentations expresses the sorrows brought about by that disaster. Jerusalem was no ordinary city. It was the Holy City. Here was the sacred Temple of the Lord. To see the city and the temple utterly destroyed was devastating: physically, emotionally – and especially spiritually. It felt as though God had turned his back on his chosen people. Things became so dire that some resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. Lamentations recounts in grim detail the unrelenting suffering and sadness. The opening verse in chapter one established the bleak tone: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people. How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations.” The concluding verse walks close to the edge of resignation and despair. A desperate plea is lifted to the Lord: “ . . . renew our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure . . .”
However, our First Reading today comes from the very heart of Lamentations, from the third of the five chapters. And here, surrounded by words of dejection and despondency on either side – we find a ray of hope in the darkness. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is thy faithfulness.” These verses are the inspiration behind the great hymn we will sing in a couple minutes.
Feeling forsaken and forlorn, the writer of Lamentations nevertheless recalls the faithfulness of God. He issues a plea to wait for the salvation of the Lord. Waiting and hoping are two sides of the same coin. To hope is to wait confidently for what is yet to come. And waiting patiently is possible only for those who have a hope they trust will not disappoint them. Enduring hope is the steadfast love of our God. Love is the bottom line for life. Love is the one sure way forward. Without love, we are nothing. With love we can bear and endure all things. It is God’s great love that raised the daughter of Jairus to life – and Lazarus – and most consequentially, Jesus.
It is God’s love that sustained Mike and Jean through their time of deep sorrow. It is God’s love that has worked through them to comfort and encourage many others. God’s love could not be extinguished by the fall of Jerusalem or the destruction of the temple. God’s love has surrounded us and supported us through the long months of the pandemic.
God does not prevent all sorrow and suffering and loss. Yet God does not forsake us. His mercies never come to an end. God’s love is steadfast and enduring. God’s love will ultimately prevail.
Thanks be to God.