caught by surprise

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Over the past week or so my depression has made a presence of itself—life feels increasingly heavy and deflated. I can point to some circumstances that are contributors, but one of the difficult things about living with depression is it doesn’t require a cause to make itself known.

The lectionary passage for this week is part of a sermon where Jesus says those who are mourning are blessed because they can look forward to laughter, and that those who don’t know grief have got some hard days coming.

Well, the hard days are here. Here’s what felt worth saying today.

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I’ve been reading a book called The Geometry of Grief by Michael Frame and he made the statement that beauty and grief were next door neighbors: they are not identical, but they live on the same street. He says that what makes something beautiful is the combination of it being familiar and a novelty at the same time—you think you know what you are going to see and it catches you by surprise. Grief, he says, is much the same—you think you know how life is going to go and then you are caught by an irretrievable loss. Moments of deep joy and deep sadness come from the same place.

I wonder if Jesus had something similar in mind as he made his parallel lists in the verses we read this morning.

As I read over the passage it struck me that Jesus had to work hard to get any time to himself—right from the start of his ministry. There are forty verses between the passage we read last week about Jesus calling Peter, James, and John to follow him and the verses we are looking at today. In those short words there are at least two healing miracles, a couple of theological discussions with those who didn’t feel like Jesus was doing it right, a party at Matthew’s house after he was called to be a disciple, and an attempt to get away to pray. When he came back into town, the crowd was waiting. They were clamoring to get close to him to get what they needed.

Rather than getting frustrated at everyone jostling for position, he began to talk to them about four things: poverty, hunger, grief, and social standing. He went down the list twice. The first time he talked about feeling blessed; the second time he talked about feeling miserable.

–how blessed are you who are poor because the realm of God is yours;
–how blessed are you who are hungry now because you are going to have enough to eat;
–how blessed are you who are weeping now because you are going to laugh;
–how blessed are you when you are marginalized because those divisions don’t matter to God.

Then he said

–how miserable for you to be rich because you are trapped in your comfort;
–how miserable to have all you want to eat because you are going to end up hungry;
–how miserable for you who don’t feel loss because sorrow will find you;
–how miserable for you when everyone says nice things about you because you can’t live on flattery.

It feels like Jesus is choosing sides–making a list of who’s in and who’s out in God’s eyes—but if we go back to the idea of grief and beauty living on the same street, we can see more to the story.

Generally, when we read the gospels we are left to imagine Jesus’ tone of voice. I could tell that some of the commentators I read this week thought Jesus was scolding the crowd, but others imagined that he was describing what it was like for the two groups of people. As I read and re-read the passage, it struck me that Jesus wasn’t complimenting and cursing people as much as describing their reality. To say it another way, those who have been caught by surprise by poverty, hunger, grief, and marginalization have a chance to be on the receiving end of compassion and care, and thus are blessed to know how to help others in a way that humanizes both the giver and the receiver. Those who live in a place of excess and comfort find it hard to change for fear of losing what they have; they don’t want a surprise, only what is safe and familiar—and that won’t last.

I’ll give you a concrete example. After my father died, I felt grief I had never known. Ginger’s father had died a year and a half earlier. I said to her, “I feel like we could call everyone we know whose father died before mine and say, ‘We’re sorry. We meant well, but we had no idea this is what you were dealing with.” I remember my first day back at work. At that time, I worked as a trainer in an Apple Store. I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t concentrate. Everyone at work was kind, but I could tell they didn’t get it—and I understood that. One person whose father lived with a chronic illness that made death an inevitability hugged me and said, “I know how you feel. Let’s go get a cup of coffee.” We walked next door to the coffee shop, got our drinks, and sat silently for ten or fifteen minutes. And it helped.

On the other side, do you remember how many of us were driving around trying to find toilet paper and paper towels when the pandemic first hit two years ago? The impulse when we found some was to buy all we could so we didn’t run out. And that was the heart of the problem. The issue was not that there was not enough to go around. It was that people hoarded out of fear of running out or out of greed in hope of reselling it (and I’m sure there were other reasons). But if we had all continued to buy the paper products as we had done so before the pandemic—which is to say if we had thought beyond putting ourselves first—there would have been enough to go around.

It seems like a simple enough truth about life, doesn’t it? Yet it’s one we have to keep coming back to.

One of the recurring themes any time a messenger from God shows up in scripture is the first words they say are, “Don’t be afraid.” We tend to imagine the messengers started that way because the people weren’t used to having an angel in the room, but their words are more far-reaching. When folks were out snatching up toilet paper, they were driven by fear: what if there is not enough for me?

When we begin to accumulate things, we often begin to be afraid of losing them. The more we have, the more we have to take care of—and, often, the less we take care of each other. It’s not that those who live in poverty or who go hungry are not scared, but Jesus is saying they are not as controlled by their fear because they have to learn how to share and how to depend on one another.

Here’s a statistic to illustrate the point: the state of Mississippi is fiftieth in per capita income: the poorest state. It is also second in per capita charitable giving. Mississippians give 7.2% of their income away to various causes. Connecticut is sixth in per capita income; we are forty-fifth in charitable giving. We average sharing 3.2% of what we have.

I share those numbers not to induce guilt, but to ask what we are afraid of. Jesus looked at those around him who just made sure they were fed and safe and had more than they needed and said, “That must be miserable because you and I both know that won’t last.”

We are all exhausted. The pandemic has made frustration and fear far too familiar. It is difficult to see beyond where we are right now. As we hear Jesus’ words, let us remember that to take solace in our comforts will not silence our fears. To move beyond our fears so we can be surprised by joy means sharing what we have and asking for help. It means we are in this together. The way hungry people are fed is by someone else sharing their food. The way poor people survive is by others creating opportunity. The way grieving folks are comforted is by other grieving folks sharing their sorrow. The way those at the margins find a place to belong is by others widening the circle.

We are not defined by our circumstances, but by the way we respond to them. We can be miserable and trapped by our fear, or we can be open to the surprise of blessing. May we be people who choose the blessing. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

7 COMMENTS

  1. I think you are spot on about the pandemic. I think many of us thought it would be a sprint and it’s turned into a marathon. That does not seem to have an end. We are tired. And tired people can become short tempered and unloving. We need to remember this, even this, shall eventually end.

  2. 6 months last week since Dad passed. Somehow, I was busy enough (probably on purpose) and it was… just another week day. But then you’re going to feel some guilt about it, it’s unavoidable.

    The small things we have to do get done because it’s a duty. But even the smallest are a chore on *those* days, as you know. Then you do a small thing you want to do, knowing you’ll feel some guilt there, too.

    Somehow, I find a way to laugh at something – it may be completely absurd. But it gets me moving rather than sitting, contemplating. And I’ve also got to be quick on the Play-Shuffle button or music will come on that is completely overwhelming & it might come without notice, too. Here lately I’m stuck on a lot of vintage soul records because I want that completely-lost-in-the-moment feel.

  3. Your words ring true to my heart Milton. Love and grief are present always. I strive to be present to choose the blessing which is always there if I look for it.

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