Choose the Sermon: On Sorrow

August 15, 2021
II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130

(On sorrow — how to hold it lovingly and gracefully for yourself, others, your community and world)


Earlier in the summer we asked you to “Choose the sermon,” to suggest something you want the preachers to tackle. One of you contributed this: “On sorrow — how to hold it lovingly and gracefully for yourself, others, your community and world.”

What a beautiful approach to an age old question, a central question for so much of religion: how to hold sorrow. To approach sorrow, or hold sorrow, lovingly and gracefully is not always our first response. We often try to keep sorrow or grief at bay. We try to prevent ourselves from crying, weeping, wailing, keening. We look for distractions to prevent us from feeling the pain of grief. Often we would rather not go there, to the sorrow.

And these days, these long months and years, there is no shortage of sorrow in the world. There is personal sorrow for those we have lost in death. We carry sorrow for relationships that have been painfully broken. There is the sorrow of what Covid means for us as a congregation: today is the 75th Sunday that we have been apart from each other for worship. There is societal (and personal) sorrow around injustice that just never ends; the injustice of racism, poverty, immigration policies, the ways that we seem to never learn from our mistakes. We may be aware of holding sorrow for never-ending war and climate change as well as war due to climate change and climate change due to militarism. It can be a lot to carry, it is a lot to hold.

The passage today from II Samuel, is a very abbreviated version of a family story full of sorrow; there is grief at every turn. I encourage you to read all of II Samuel if you have some time – it is a page turner. Given the tragedy upon tragedy in this family, it is no wonder that so many of the psalms of lament are attributed to David.

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

There are layers to the anguish that David carries here. He weeps out loud not only because Absalom died in such a gruesome way but because their relationship was broken. This father and son relationship was fractured to the extent that Absalom was attempting a coup, and it was David’s own army that killed Absalom. Hearing David’s distraught wail is so wrenching, so universal, that composers throughout the centuries have set his words to music. His grief is the inspiration for poetry as well as works of fiction.

David’s wail echos in the tender places of our own minds and bodies because we also know the feelings of pain and disconnection. Sometimes the sorrow and disconnection we carry is something “less than death” like a broken relationship between parent and child, or the end of a friendship or a divorce, or an injustice we observe only through the media. Whatever the sorrow, it makes things feel upside down and confusing, like the pieces of our lives no longer fit together. We not only feel disconnected from the subject of our grief, but also from ourselves, the world around us and maybe even from that great Love beyond ourselves. It is hard to hold this gracefully and lovingly. Instead it feels messy and lonely.

But David’s wail is a reminder that there is no shame in grieving. It is part of what makes us human, even what makes us animal. Researchers believe many animals grieve. Elephants, dogs, whales, chimpanzees and even crows are thought to experience grief – and ritualize their grief. Sometimes this is noisy, like the crows who squawk loudly around one of their own that has died. Sometimes it is quiet but excruciating. Remember the mother orca who three summers ago carried her dead baby on a “tour of grief” through the Salish Sea for more than two weeks.

Like other animals, we humans must find expression for our sorrows and griefs. Psychotherapist Francis Weller says it this way, “When grief remains unexpressed, it hardens, becomes as solid as a stone. We, in turn, become rigid and stop moving in rhythm with the soul.”

Finding expression for our grief is not as simple as attending a funeral, signing divorce papers or attending a candlelight vigil, though these may be steps toward making sense of the sorrow. Examining the grief of broken connections is not a quick or simple process, because grief does not follow a timetable or a consistent trajectory. Sorrow comes in waves, sometimes small, sometimes crashing down on us, knocking us to the floor – figuratively or literally.  And it can be cumulative, especially in a season like this of ongoing death, loss of in person work/school/worship, the morphing virus, the danger of white supremacy, increasing gun violence and all the other sorrows we carry. It is heavy.

(As Kaye said,) Lament is the term that is often used in religion when we talk about sorrow. To pray the psalms of lament is an active way to name the very real causes of sorrow (and the often accompanying anger.) There is something powerful about lament, naming what brings us sorrow. The act of naming and remembering allows us to move the sorrow, pain and anger from our heads into our bodies and then right on out into the open – so the community can help us carry it. So we can carry it with each other. Too often grief and sorrow isolate us and keep us separate from one another. Lament allows us to bring the pain into the open so that we do not have to stand alone. If we lament loudly enough other people notice.

Using laments from the bible can be a step in finding our grounding when everything feels disconnected and chaotic. The Psalms of Lament give us words to say; we don’t have to try to create them ourselves. It may seem formulaic  – and depending on how distraught we are – that may be a comfort in itself, to not have to think but to still have a way to speak.

Turn, O God! Save my life.
                        Deliver me because of your love.
            For in death no one remembers you.
                        Who can give you praise from the tomb?
            I am exhausted from crying,
                        every night I flood my bed with tears,
                        I drench my couch with my weeping
            I am nearly blind with grief;
                        my eyes are weak because of all my foes.
                                    from Psalm 6: 4-7

The thing about sorrow is that it feels too heavy to carry but we don’t know how to ask for help. Sorrow is a broken connection, and it is hard finding ways to reconnect or sometimes even recognize that we have become disconnected. When we lament we share that sorrow out loud so that we do not carry it alone. Lament can connect us once again to other people, and also to ourselves, to the world around us, to God.

Jennifer Bailey recently published “A letter to my unborn Black son” in the Christian Century magazine. It is a lament that names the sorrow that she carries for her child, before her child is even born. She writes – “I will have to sit you down one day, my beautiful baby, and tell you that there are people in this world who will seek to kill you – not just your physical body, but your dreams.”

This wise mother-to-be does not stop there. She remembers what she learned from her own mother and many others who have come before. She reminds us all that: “In these uncertain times, the very announcement of your impending arrival is a light and respite for many thirsting to drink at the well of possibility and optimism. You have blessed us without uttering a word.” She ends her letter the way she begins it, with a mantra that she received from her own mother as a child:

“You are beautiful. You are brave.
You are God’s beloved one.”

Jennifer Bailey’s blessing mantra to her unborn son reminds me of kaddish, the blessing prayer that in the Jewish tradition is said after someone dies. Kaddish is a prayer said in the gathered community, not just once but daily for almost a year. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes that “After the death of a loved one, a person might well wish to stay home alone, or with a few family members, and brood. But saying Kaddish forces a mourner to join with others.” Kaddish is a prayer that blesses God, calls us to remember that there is something greater than ourselves and asks for peace.

I have asked Sharon to read the kaddish. As she reads, you may want to hold someone in your heart for whom you pray this prayer. (I will put the prayer in the chat. Feel free to read along or join in the parts in bold.)

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.
May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently,
To which we say: Amen.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted,
extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One,
beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort.
To which we say: Amen. 

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel.
To which we say: Amen.
May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.
To which we say: Amen.

The tradition of praying kaddish is a comfort, even to my Jewish friends that are not religious. To gather in community, to speak familiar words, is a way to hold sorrow lovingly, even if the words are not quite how you would say it. In times of sorrow, when we are too exhausted from grief to think of what to say, it not a sign of weakness to lament or pray kaddish. It takes strength to speak the words, to carry sorrow – and to express and explore the sorrow that we carry, for ourselves, others, the community and the world. Saying kaddish with the community is a way of drawing on the strength of the community, to reconnect when we feel disconnected.

Usually sorrow is for a season, passed from one person to another. But these days of Covid and climate change – on top of all the “regular” death, we all carry sorrow, sorrow so deep and so encompassing it feels overwhelming. It is for times like this that we have invested ourselves in community. It is wonderful to walk with community when life is joyful – and when there is struggle, disappointment, and grief we need each other all the more. Sharing our sorrow with the community does not remove it but it means that we will not be alone in carrying it. When we invite the community to be part of holding our sorrow, we are reminded that we are still connected, that not all connections are lost. Carrying sorrow lovingly and gracefully means that we will not try to lift that weight alone but we will allow others to hold it and carry it with us.

May we all be given the strength and grace to enter the sorrow when it calls our name. May we be given strength and grace to name the sorrow in lament and call each other by name, “God’s beloved one.”



A few resources on lament and grief–Christian-Brady-e153d6v

Psalms for Praying– Nan Merrill

Richard Rohr’s daily reflections – week of August 2, 2021, especially August 5, 2021 –