Sermon: "What's Behind the Words?"


July 1, 2018 | Lectionary 13b | Pr. Craig Mueller

It caused quite a stir: the words on Melania Trump’s coat: I don’t care, do you? What exactly did that mean? What was behind the words? Was it lamenting the way migrant families were treated? The way her husband is treated? That we should care more or care less?

When we ask someone “how are you,” we’re used to the responses “fine” or “busy.” But when someone says, “I’m okay,” you wonder what they mean. Sometimes “okay” is what you say when you’re not okay, ironically. So, what’s behind the words? After such a response last week, one person revealed that she has just learned about a suicide of one colleague and a cancer diagnosis of another. Things were not okay.

David’s words in the first reading are poignant. The grief is raw. Both Saul and Jonathan are dead. Three times David says, “the mighty have fallen.” Strange that David is grieving Saul after being in a cat and mouse chase with him, and Saul trying to kill him. Sure, David—the king in waiting—has consorted with the arch-enemy Philistines, yet Saul continues to be out of control and growing ever more paranoid.

Yet, Jonathan is a true soul-mate, David’s best friend and ally. “Greatly beloved were you to me,” David says, “your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.” What’s behind the words? We can’t necessarily read today’s understanding of relationships and sexuality into that time, yet for many sexual minorities today, the same-gender relationship between David and Jonathan is deep and abiding. And the loss of it breaks David’s heart.

Let’s think about lament. The concept of lament wasn’t a part of my Lutheran upbringing or even mentioned much in seminary. The lament of David doesn’t name God, interestingly. Yet lament is usually directed toward God as it is in many psalms, including today’s. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O God.” Sometimes it’s more like: how could you do this to me, God! Have you rejected us forever?

Yet now there is a section in our hymnal with lament hymns. Laments are part of our prayers and we will use a special litany of lament this morning. We may lament following a national disaster. We may lament in a time of grief or illness. We may lament injustice or the way the earth is treated. I discovered a book called “Spiritual Complaint,” helping Christians to become more comfortable with the language of lament. Some of us were taught not to challenge God or question God. But that’s not biblical, you say! There’s plenty of lament in the scriptures, actually. What’s under the words of lament? Surely, it’s not just permission to complain, bitch, fret, whine, kvetch, and feel sorry for ourselves, is it?

The reality is that sometimes there are no answers. The grief is too raw, the grief all-encompassing. In such times it feels like life as we have known it is over. Jews have prescribed mourning rituals, and they vary whether it has been seven days, thirty days, or a year since the death of a loved one. I wish we had something similar. Too often we rush through grief, thinking after a couple of months we should be able to move right on.

In our gospel Jairus begs Jesus to lay hands on his daughter near death. When Jesus arrives, the girl has died, and there is a scene of lamentation: people weeping and wailing loudly. A true and perhaps more healthy expression of grief than much of our sterilized approach to death.

William Sloan Coffin was a well-known preacher at Riverside Church in New York. His twenty-four-year-old son was killed while driving in a storm. Coffin tells of a well-meaning, middle-aged woman who visited him following the death, carrying about eighteen quiches. The woman approached Coffin, shook her head, and headed for the kitchen, saying over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” What, pray tell, is under those words? Reacting with hot pursuit, Coffin shot back, “I’ll say you don’t, lady.”

Sometimes we don’t have the words, we don’t know what to say. And perhaps silence, an embrace, or a gentle touch is all that is needed. And for the record, a few more things not to say: “Everything happens for a reason. She’s in a better place. I know you exactly how you feel.”

So, even as I lament when we use too many words to say what is too deep for words, let me close with a poem, “The thing is,” by Ellen Bass.


to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.