3 Easter: A Season of Grief

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“When he trawled so wide he should’ve trawled

~From “Fishermen” by Francis Harvey

Oh, heck yes!
Jesus trawled way too wide
and would have done better
with fewer, less
ambivalent and feckless disciples, like…

Jesus is such a good dude
in this story from John.

Here he was, a dead man
who had just endure unimaginable
pain and suffering from torture and execution
by nasty Roman overlords.
Despite all of that,
he cooks breakfast for his friends.
Who does that?

The only other thing I want to note
about this odd little ghost story
is what a sweet thing Jesus also does for Peter.
He leads poor hapless Peter by the nose
through a three-peat, “I love you.”
This gave Peter the opportunity
to make up for his three-time repudiation of Jesus
on the eve of the execution.
Jesus is essentially
reconciling with and restoring Peter
with a fail-proof public process
that even Peter couldn’t screw up.
And the command, “Feed my Sheep”
then bestows leadership upon Peter
that no one can later deny.

This breakfast on the beach story
ties up an uncomfortable loose end
leftover from a bad night
that left Peter a coward and turncoat.

But after breakfast on the beach,
everything is okay
and all the parties are rejoined and renewed
in community
around a campfire and a fish fry.

“Ichthys,” the Greek word for fish,
quickly became the primary symbol
for early Christians.
As we know, they turned it into an acronym
because each letter was the first letter
of their proclamation:
i for Jesus
c for Christ
h for “of God”
y for Son
s for Savior
So ichthys was an acronym for:
”Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

I found this quote in Christianity Today,
from the second-century theologian, Tertullian:
“we, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys,
Jesus Christ, are (also) born in the water.”

Today we have the chalice
and the cross
and the crucified Jesus
and the silhouette of a steeple
as familiar symbols of Christianity.
But in those first generations is was a fish.

Fish were part of the feeding of the 5000.
Fish were the livelihood of the disciples before Jesus
and afterwards as well.
Fish were the sign of a first simple, ordinary
when Jesus first encountered
Peter, James, and John.
Just like in today’s story,
in that first encounter they had been fishing all night
and gotten skunked.

Jesus tells them where and how
to fish
and their nets are so full
it causes the boats
to capsize from so much abundance.

Get it — capsized from abundance?
He was going to turn their lives upside down
with more abundance than they had ever known
or could stand.

Fishing is what Jesus promised to the disciples
they would be doing from now on,
only it was fishing for people.

So fish, not the cross,
began as the primary symbol for Christians.
As you know, it was both a secret symbol
to help one them avoid discovery
and persecution,
and a public one found on rings and seals
and other archaeological evidence.

It makes perfect sense
that it would take well over a century
for the cross to become distant enough
from the crucifixion
not to be a terrible trigger
of a severe historic wound.
Plus, they were evangelizing the Romans
for whom the cross
was a positive symbol of geographic their dominance.

But also, what was it that made someone
a Christian? Baptism — immersion in water.
“We, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys…”

So that’s all I want to say about fish for now.
Aren’t you glad?

I want to talk about grief instead.
On some level,
whether subliminally or not,
the breakfast on the beach story
is a grief story.

It is the kind of story
that anyone who has ever lost
someone they love
has dreams about.

You know those dreams, right?
In the aftermath of a death
in which we see or speak to the dead
in a mixed up,
highly symbolic,
weird dream.

You wake up
and suddenly remember
you were having breakfast or something
with your mom
or your dad
or your spouse or friend
who is dead — and maybe has been for a long time.

You shake your head
and go on about your day,
and maybe never even tell anyone about it.
That kind of dream.

I dare say, these days we all
are carrying around a lot of grief —
extra grief even.
We’ve recently lost a good friend, Joanne.
But many of us have lost others
during this pandemic,
whether from the virus
or things related to the virus.

Other deaths too, that just came
like a thief in the night
when we were shut away from each other.
We haven’t even had a chance
to grieve together.

These past two years
are a very weird season indeed.
So much has been stacked up,
pancaked into a pile
we have kept in the shed.

Dreams have died,
things we had once hoped to do
but now seem unlikely.

Hopes have died,
beliefs and expectations
that have disappeared unexpectedly
and really, without warning.

The war in Ukraine
is not only grievous
for the bodies that lie spread out and akimbo
across hundreds of miles,
it is also a war in Europe
that is pulling countries around the world into it
in a way we thought would never happen again.

And also, whatever our politics are,
I am guessing they haven’t been satisfied lately,
and that whatever we think is ahead
doesn’t appear as a bright and shinning city on the hill.

I don’t really need to tick down the list
of familial,
and environmental losses
that feel grievous to us.
All I need to do
is point in that direction
and it will likely evoke the shadow of loss.

Whether for a family member or friend,
or our confidence and pride in someone or something,
or hope for the future
or casualties from the past..
losses have stacked up like cord wood.

As you know, I was in Ohio last week
officiating a memorial service for friends
who died during the shutdown,
and this was the first best opportunity
to say good bye — at least in person and together.

As I said on Holy Thursday about Joanne,
grief and thanksgiving for a life
is something we simply have to do
with other people.
Doing it alone
simply heightens our sense of loss
and helps grief to burrow a wormhole inside of us.

I have some personal experience with this
that I may even have mentioned before.
In my fifties,
I hit a real tough grease slick of depression
and took a pretty good emotional fall.

While it was in the aftermath of my dad’s death,
I discovered it was about much more than him.
Like any priest or caring professional,
I had been pastoring
and caring for people
who were dying
or losing their loved ones,
for almost thirty years.

I came to realize, thanks to therapy
and a bunch of grieving,
that I had not been processing my own grief
along the way.

I don’t think it was an inflated sense
of my own strength
or that I didn’t think I needed to grieve.

My job was to care for other people
and I hadn’t learned to step aside when appropriate
and process my own grief.

Honestly, it was just a simple lack
of self-awareness
and a very ordinary proclivity
for denial.

Unprocessed grief
can distort reality
and turn the world inside out,
and ourselves inside out too.

When we do not get to share our grief with others,
for whatever reason
and for whatever loss,
it buries itself in us
and comes out later
in unhealthy
and even self-destructive ways.

Grieving together,
sharing the pain of our losses
and working toward recovery with others,
is just how we get better —
and how we keep from being injured
by our grief.

Because, you know,
grief is not the enemy —
isolation and undue privacy are.
Grieving our losses is good,
is natural,
is healing.
We just need to do it fully and out loud,
with others.

The Rev. David Heffling and I
re-interred four people from the Trinity columbarium
this pasat week, in the columbarium
at St. John’s, Canandagua.

I did not know them
so I wasn’t grieving for them.
But removing all those ashes
from our columbarium last summer and fall,
with the much appreciated help
from John Gibbon and Dan Pletcher,

was a kind of grievous experience.
It was a kind of grieving for the generations
of Trinity members
who rubbed their prayers
into the hard wood of the pews,
and whose prayers lifted up into the rafters
and are still there.
Some of you here now, here in Trinity Place,
are those people.

Interring those ashes
reminded me of all the what might have been,
what could have been,
what was hoped for but never happened…
all the regrets too,
the sorrows and songs — all of it,
a loss. A grief.
Not mine so much as yours,
some of you anyway.

There is no deep theological point
I am trying to make here.
No moral of John’s story,
at least not exactly.

What I am doing is inviting us
to be more mindful
of what we are going through
alone and together,
and that we need one another
and a sense of community
to work through it.
We have no idea
how the next few years will shake out,
institutionally —
in Geneva,
for Trinity Place,
the nation, internationally…we just don’t know.
But when facing that kind of uncertainty,
and trying to heal from the losses
we have already had,
holding hands
and touching hearts is awfully healing.

So let’s not downplay or forget about
our grief,
for all kinds of losses
these last many years.
And instead, let us touch our grief
as we hold hands in community,
and give thanks for the abundance we have had
and continue to share.