However, at the hour before worship when I was just about to sit down and go through it once again, the word came: Sue had died unexpectedly last night.
We’d all been keeping Sue and Jerry in our prayers in the months since her leukemia diagnosis. She’d survived a stem cell transplant and 100 days of treatment. We were hopeful, she was hopeful, she would soon be back at church. But then Saturday, trouble getting up and dressed in the morning led to a 9-1-1 call that led to the hospital emergency room, a heart attack and her death last night.
I had a sermon – and now the shreds of it before me – shredded in my own shock and tears as I talked to Jerry on the phone. Shredded as I thought about sharing the heartbreaking news with the congregation in a few minutes. Whatever my sermon was all sounded too pat and too sure – a sermon that hadn’t been tested against a grief like this. I hung up the phone and stepped out to tell the choir about Sue.
What to do for worship? Cancel Thanksgiving? Read together the texts that I read at memorials after times like this –The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want, (Psalm 23), I am convinced that neither death nor life… , (Romans 8:31-39), In my father’s house are many rooms…(John 14:1-4). It all felt like too many words – too much, too soon. Perhaps better to leave space for stunned silence. Perhaps carry on – but how? How to worship without just pushing through?
I shared the sad news at the beginning of worship greeted by gasps and tears. I said a prayer and invited us to let worship carry us that day. It certainly would need to carry me.
I stumbled into a sermon about vulnerability. I wondered if the disruptions and dislocations in our lives are the best chance we have of meeting all we mean by Jesus. Perhaps, I shared, we need to trust in staying here in our vulnerability – that place where we’d rather not be – I’d rather not be.
But as I struggled to find an ending, the sermon was already being lived there in the back pew. Jerry and his son Peter had come to church that morning and were being surrounded by hugs and tears.
Whatever this struggling preacher was trying to say in so many words about the God who might meet us and remake us in our brokenness was a message long ago received in the back pew by two grieving men embraced by a grieving church.
As I joined others to embrace Jerry and Peter after the service, I fell into Thanksgiving. In this most broken of places, Jesus had indeed been here all along – meeting us in that amazing grace we call each other.