June 14, 2020

“Good Grief”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Romans 5.1-8

Genesis 21.9-21

June 14, 2020

In a recent Presbyterians Today, editor Jill Duffield made a connection between grief in the time of COVID-19 and that of the Civil War. Drew Faust wrote in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War”: “Individuals found themselves in a new and different moral universe, one in which unimaginable destruction had become a daily experience…Civil War Americans lived the rest of their lives with grief and loss.”[1] COVID-19 has affected so many people in so many ways – some have had to grieve canceled occasions, some have grieved a lack of closure of a major life event, some grieve their daily routines or rituals, and some have grieved loved ones. Our grief is typically private and public – we are able to have rituals to express our grief through personal means, like writing or talking to friends or trusted colleagues, maybe exercising, or some other hobby that helps us to work through difficulty. We also have public means of grieving, through funerals, and hugging, and simply putting a hand on someone’s shoulders – and those public means of grief have not been possible in this time. We must acknowledge what we grieve, and take time to experience those emotions, and process them finding new rituals and ways of seeking faith in these times. Grief is a natural part of life, as we all lose people and things throughout life, and there can be good ways to grieve, and less helpful ways to grieve. It helps to know that when we do grieve, God is with us.

Our first scripture tells part of the Abraham and Sarah story. You might remember that Abram and Sarai, as they were originally known, were called from the comforts of their homeland to go out to an unknown place. Abram boldly followed God. They were unable to have children, and when God said that Sarai would bear a child at an older age, she laughed, and they named that child Isaac, meaning “she laughs.” Before that happened, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning father of many nations. God promised that Abraham’s offspring would be many – as many as the stars in the sky.

Before Sarah became pregnant, she instructed Abraham to have a child with Hagar, her handmaid. As you can imagine, this complicated things. Hagar had a boy named Ishmael. Eventually, most likely ten to thirteen years later, Isaac was born. In the scripture passage we read Isaac and Ishmael are playing together, but they probably were quite different in age.

Abraham and Sarah are typically the heroes of the stories. They are the ones God talks to, and Abraham does some good things along the way. Of course, like any human, they make mistakes, but this is a pretty difficult one that really affects the life trajectory of two other humans.
Sarah sees the kids playing together and becomes jealous, worried about inheritance and probably some other more cultural and personal aspects of the situation that aren’t listed here. She’s worried and goes to Abraham and asks that the slave woman and her son be banished.

First, it is interesting that even though we know the names of Hagar and Ishmael, only Hagar is named in the passage – Ishmael is never named here. Also, when Sarah talks about her, she is the “slave woman,” never Hagar. To refuse to say someone’s name implies that they are not worth being named. It implies that they are less than human. It implies that their title like “slave woman” is their entire identity. What does it mean that no one calls Ishmael by name? Not even God? Is this a reflection of the situation or culture or just a scribal edit?

Abraham is torn. Clearly he loves Sarah and wants to keep peace with her, but this is a really tricky situation. He probably didn’t bring it up, but Sarah did ask him to have a child with Hagar. Ishmael is his child, too, and to send Hagar and Ishmael away meant he would never see him again, and without a male figure in their family at that time, their quality of life and survival would not be certain. We read that this was very distressing, and God talks to Abraham.

God tells Abraham to do what Sarah wants because God will take care of Hagar and Ishmael. Now, how lovely that God has a plan for all this and does take care of Hagar and Ishmael – but what of Sarah’s jealousy? Why does her jealousy become Hagar and Ishmael’s problem? Could this have been resolved in any other way?
Hagar and Ishmael go into the wilderness with just a little bread and water, and eventually that water runs out. Hagar knows where this is going, puts her son under a tree, and walks away to wail and scream and grieve her child – because she is at a loss – literally and figuratively.

God answers her and tells her “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” I love this because God acknowledges where they are, not where they think they should be. When we are grieving God sees us and meets us in that loss and doesn’t wait until we can wash the red splotches from our teary cheeks, reapply makeup and do our hair. God is with us in the ugly cry of grief.

God takes care of them both, they live fulfilling lives, and a nation comes from Ishmael. Islam recognizes Ishmael as a prophet. A story that was created because of jealousy is resolved with God’s goodness and grace.[2] We are reminded of God’s relationship with humans, even when we mess up. Hagar was grieving her son, not wanting to watch her son die. As I read this passage I thought to all the protestors who have been on the streets, holding up signs about not wanting to see their sons die. No one wants to see their children die. God is with this woman, a slave and an outsider, and has a plan for her and her child.

Humans mess up. I don’t know if you’ve checked the news recently, but whew, we seem to be messing up a lot lately. I say “we” because I know that it is so easy to point at one person and blame the state of the world on their mistakes. Yet, I also know that collectively, and I speak from a white perspective, we have contributed and participated in systemic racism, even when our intentions are good and we do not mean to cause harm. If we are going to make any difference in this world, we have to repent before we can reconcile. We have to see the problem to fix the problem, and right now we might have multiple pieces to the problem, but the only parts we can fix are those of which we have control – our responses, our reactions, our words and actions.

The Romans passage reminds us, thanks be to God, that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. Again, God doesn’t wait for us to get our act together and stop grieving, Christ didn’t wait for us to stop sinning. God is with us while we are in the midst of it – whatever it is.

The Romans passage talks about the importance of suffering, and right now our world is suffering in so many ways. Paul writes that we should “boast in our sufferings.” I don’t know about you, but any time I have ever heard someone boast in sufferings, they have not been real sufferings. He writes: “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This is tricky to unpack, because in our time it has been misused to talk about how we should just accept sufferings and not push for justice and reconciliation because sufferings somehow make us better people. If that were true, why would we ever try to stop suffering?

I think Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, says it well: “Future glory is not to be used as an anesthesia or opiate to make us passively accept pain. Rather, the love of God so powerful it sustains us through suffering and empowers us to act according to our faith.”[3] God sustains us through grief and pain – even new kinds of grief, and new ways of grieving. Think about what you are grieving in this time. Think about how you have grieved, and what you need to grieve, and if you have any new rituals.

As we reenter the world, and next week, reenter the church building, we will grieve the loss of certain aspects of worship as we know it – such as the passing of the peace, and singing, and not being able to stand within six feet of people. We will need to recognize that, and also realize God is with us through these changes. While we are sinners, while we are grieving, while we are seeking a new normal, God is with us, and the Spirit is guiding us. Amen.


[1] Jill Duffield, “A lonely, lonely virus,” in Presbyterian Outlook, Vol. 202 No, 7, May 18, 2020, p. 5.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: A, (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 327.

[3] Diane Givens Moffett, “Romans 5.1-8” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 138.