August 28, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Romans 8:18-26 (also Ezra 3:10-13)
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Holy is the Sigh
(sixth in the series “I’ve Always Wanted to Know”)
Today we’re returning to our summer sermon series “I’ve Always Wanted to Know” with a luminous and practical question: “When somebody dies, and people say, ‘It was God’s will,’ how should we respond?”
Maybe you have heard this happen. Here you are at the funeral of someone you love, and somebody comes up to you who is trying to help. In the South they would say, “Oh bless their heart.” But this person who means to help, who means to say something reassuring, decides to leads with the line that at best is a wish and at worst is a lie. “So sorry for your loss. I’m sure this is God’s will… Somehow?” “Or I’m sure this is part of God’s plan. Maybe?” No thank you.
To stand there so politely and listen to this can be deeply wounding. It’s not your fault, and it’s not fair. But the truth is, a person who means to help can actually make things worse. It’s like the ground splits and there emerges a slow growing gap between their good intentions to comfort and how it actually feels.
Turns out, this gap is the subject of an epic folk story nestled in the Old Testament. What happened was that God and the Adversary (some say the Devil) decide to place a friendly wager. “Have you considered my servant Job?” is what the LORD asks Satan. God wagered that Job would not turn away from God no matter what kind of hell might be unleashed upon him. This is a terrible bet, but God won it.
The first part of the story highlights the suffering Job was forced to endure, suffering fully authorized by the LORD our God. Strangely, God is not portrayed as the villain in this book. The Satan character is not the villain in this book. You know who’s the villain? Job’s friends!
Let me read to you these verses from chapter two:
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all the troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from home —Eliphaz the Termanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go console and comfort Job. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. They raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust…upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw his suffering was very great. (Job 2:11-13)
As the story unfolds, they do speak a word to Job. They try different approaches to help Job make sense of his plight. Surely God knows what he’s doing. Surely you must have done something wrong to deserve this. Surely this is all a test? Maybe? And their efforts to help do not help. Part way through the book, Job has had enough. Listen to how he answers our question of the day:
I have heard many such things. Miserable comforters are you all! Have windy words no limit? What provokes you to keep on talking? [Sure,] I could talk as you do if you were in my place. I could join words together against you, and shake my head at you. (Job 16:1-4).
See there’s a growing gap between how Job’s friends mean to help and what they actually do. This back-and-forth between Job and his friends is most of the story. Eventually, Job and God hash things out in a stormy argument, Job repents, and God gives him his stuff back. But Job’s friends are required to make an offering to God, and Job has to pray for his friends.
Emily McDowell is an artist and a cancer survivor who has created a marvelous line of Honest Empathy Cards. Like Job’s retort to his friends, these sympathy cards offer snarky and refreshing responses to the question we’re considering today. One card says, “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.” Now I don’t condone punching people, I do appreciate the honesty. Another card displays this message on the front, “If this is God’s plan, then God is a terrible planner… No offense if you’re reading this, God. You did a really good job with other stuff like waterfalls and pandas.” 
These cards illuminate our human difficulty with finding the right things to say. Now when someone dies and people say, “It was God’s will” we don’t have to punch them in the face, even though we might by mistake. Instead, it might work to say something like, “I know you’re trying to help, but I don’t think that’s true.” Or if you have a half an hour, “I’m interested in why you’re saying that, could you help me understand what you mean…”
And it may be, the best way to respond is to sigh. Look you’re there and I’m here, and there is a growing gap between us. (sigh) And holy is the sigh.
Of course, one problem with failed attempts to console is there may be some part of us secretly wondering —dreading?— whether they’re actually right. Is it possible that my uncle’s death is somehow part of God’s will? That God really did plan this and is sitting somewhere safe authorizing our sorrow?
I will tell you, I’m a person who believes that God can have a plan. If I can have a plan for my day, why can’t God have a plan for the future or a dream for the universe?
But believing God may have a plan is not the same as believing everything that happens is part of that plan. Sometimes things happen that are not God’s will. Sometimes we humans cause suffering that makes God crumble to the floor soaked in sweat, and snot, and tears, and it’s no wonder we wish God would get it together and act like a professional!
Then there are the things that happen which are not God’s will, but God takes those moments of horror and changes the story, so one day we can look back and see something beautiful.
So there’s a gap between God’s dream for the world and some of the things that happen. There is a gap between how we understand things now and how we’ll understand it better bye and bye. This is the gap Paul describes in his letter to the Roman church in this passage on the present suffering of creation and the future glory of God.
The suffering is real, and the suffering is not all. In between the condition of our world today and God’s promise of tomorrow, in between these worlds, don’t expect a sterile waiting room quiet. I think of the cry that rises up when they’re laying the foundation of the Temple in Ezra. The people who remember the first Temple are weeping, while the people who see the new foundation are shouting with joy, and it all gets mixed together so you can’t hear the difference —the sorrow of what should never have happened all poured into the hope of what might be.
Paul writes, “We know the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan while we wait for adoption, for the redemption of our bodies.” The earth is groaning and sighing in labor; the Holy Spirit is confiscating our broken up prayer and singing and sighing across the gap. And holy is the sigh.
And so it is. There is a pulsing space between this world we live in and the unfolding, intruding promise of God. There is a pulsing space between how someone means to comfort me and ends up hurting me instead. And oh my friends, there is space between how I mean to offer comfort and end up causing harm.
When someone dies and people say, “It was God’s will” or the people say something equally clumsy and violent, I totally get it because I am part of these people too. I’ve read article upon article about what not to say to a grieving person, and I am still spectacularly capable of saying the wrong thing.
A few months back there was a video circulating on the internet making fun of a recent political candidate. This has nothing to do with this candidate’s position on issues, but when I saw this video of him, I thought, Oh no, I could totally imagine doing that myself! What happened was he was hugging his wife at the podium. It was a loving and lovely embrace. Then another dignitary comes and approaches them from behind, so the candidate turns to hug him, and elbows his wife in the face. Realizing this, the candidate tries to hug both of them at the same time and punches her in the face again.
Here we are trying to say the right thing, trying to offer a hug, and we end up punching the person in the face. And who hasn’t done this. In any loving relationship, there is always the risk that we will hurt when we mean to help. There’s a risk in visiting someone who actually wants to be left alone, and there’s a risk in staying away when someone really needs a visit. There is a risk in saying the wrong thing, and a risk in not saying the right thing, like the name of the person who died. Say their name.
There may always be this gap between our intentions and our actions. But the gap isn’t the problem; it is the space where the Spirit breathes, where forgiveness pours in. Together we can honor this gap from both sides.
So please don’t withhold your hug because you might punch them in the face. Please don’t stay home because you don’t know what to say. Please do not let us give up on prayer, even when God is too quiet, even when we don’t know how to pray as we ought. The gap is how the Spirit gets in. She intercedes with sighs too deep for words, so our sigh gets mixed up with the sigh of God, so you can’t even hear the difference. And holy is the sigh. Amen.