Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:9–14
I love science fiction.
I have always loved science fiction movies, TV, and books, because good science fiction is really about people. Hidden between the aliens and the time machines, the witches and robots, the monsters and mutants, are stories about people. Their relationships with one another. Their ideas about the way that the world should work, or could work, or does work in spite of our best intentions. Sometimes, it is easier to write a story about love and pain and hope and grief if it is a story about a telekinetic mind-controller and a robot who can fly!
Which brings me to today’s example from the world of art and culture. One of the biggest cultural phenomena in the world today is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the MCU for short. Now, some of you might quibble over whether or not the MCU is technically science fiction, or some other genre. But for my point today, it doesn’t matter. Sci-fi, fantasy, comic fiction, they all use these fantastic characters as a stand-in for very human stories.
Whatever you call them, people are watching. How many of you have seen at least one MCU movie or television show? And how many of you have seen ALL of the Marvel movies and television shows? For those of you who don’t understand what a big deal this is, know that by latest count, in order to see every movie and episode, you are talking about 100 hours of screen time! There are 36 different titles, all with plots interconnected in one multifaceted story. The characters are connected. The locations are connected. There is something about these stories that draws us in.
For example, today I want to tell you about what is probably my favorite title among all of those 36 in the MCU: a television show called WandaVision. Again, it feels like science fiction to me. The primary character, a woman named Wanda Maximoff, has special telekinetic powers that allow her to control objects and even people with her mind. Depending on which movie or show you are watching in the MCU, she is either one of the bad guys, working against the heroes, or she joins the heroes in their fight against evil in the universe…one of the good guys. The second most important character is a robot, technically a synthezoid, named Vision. He, too, has amazing powers: super-human strength…intelligence…and he can fly! So these two characters—Wanda and Vision—have a rather long history in the MCU. Their relationship is wrapped up in love and pain and grief and sacrifice. Great stories about what it means to be human.
Now, you will be glad to know that I am not going to try and give a spoiler-free synopsis of the 9 episodes of WandaVision, or the 100 hours of the MCU to understand the whole thing. It is better to see it than to hear it explained. But to get the gist, let me ask you some questions. How would it feel if—in a totally science-fiction-y way—half of the beings in the entire universe disappeared all of a sudden? Furthermore, what if you had lost someone you loved dearly in that event? And, what if you always wondered if you had the powers to be able to stop it, but you did not?
Imagine the grief. The emotional pain. The shared trauma. These are the issues and questions in the MCU and WandaVision, and you can see how human they are, even if the people facing them aren’t quite human. One of the most basic human emotions is grief. All of us know grief of one sort or another. When we lose someone we love, or even a possession or vocation that we value, we experience grief from the loss. When we lose something or someone tied up in our identity, that loss is felt emotionally, mentally, and even physically. A story about grief and loss like WandaVision connects to us because we understand grief and loss, in intimate ways.
Now, let me add another layer to WandaVision. What if you started watching a show that dealt with all of these emotional and complex and metaphysical ideas…in January of 2021? As the world marked the grim anniversary of COVID-19? As we watched the death toll climb? What would be the emotional experience of watching a story about grief and death…WHILE you were living it all too real in the world around you? WandaVision aired in January to March of 2021, and tapped into so many experiences of grief and loss. It became wildly-popular, must-see TV. It was well-made, thoughtful, AND the timing was right for it to connect to viewers.
You see, one of the reasons why we have been offering this sermon series is the belief that art imitates life, reveals life, exposes life, in the good and the bad. Music. Movies. TV. Books. Paintings and visual art. When a show like WandaVision touches a cultural nerve, it is because the story that it tells is in some ways our story. Even if it is about superheroes and AI robots. We can imagine what grief might look like to them, because we know what it feels like to us. Not only do all of us know grief, but all of us have experienced some level of grief in the last two and a half years. We have lost loved ones, and haven’t even been able to attend their funeral. We lost important markers, like graduations or weddings or anniversaries or birthdays. On a different level, many of us have lost faith in the political system, the judicial system, and the economic system that leaves us and people that we love in danger. Psychologists tell us that the complicated grief of the pandemic will have ripples for decades. What have you lost? In your life and in this pandemic?
So now imagine if you had superpowers that could possibly ease the pain of grief. Would you use them?
Seems a long way away from the world of the Thessalonians, doesn’t it?
But I would argue that it is closer than one might at first think. Paul had built a church in the community of Thessalonica. We don’t know exactly what he told them, but we can assume he told them about Jesus. About the Cosmic Creator Christ. About the one who had power to triumph, even over death. Paul surely would have told them about Jesus and how he had the power to give us abundant and eternal life!
But then Paul moved on to the next sermon, at the next church, in the next community. And the Thessalonians continued to worship and sing and celebrate Jesus, the one with the power of life over death! But then, one of their loved ones died. And then another. And another. And the grief that it caused the community of Thessalonica was real. It appears from the book that some of them assumed that Jesus would return before any of their loved ones died. Perhaps some of them assumed that their belief in Jesus would make something as jarring and painful as death and grief somehow painless. Easy. “Come on,” they said to themselves or even aloud, “don’t we have the power of Christ over this stuff now? Then why does it hurt so bad? Have I done something wrong?”
At some level, some of them perhaps thought that they had been granted some kind of supernatural power over the pain of grief. And yet, the pain was real.
When Paul caught wind of these questions and this anxiety, he knew he had to respond. And respond he did. With two pieces of practical and theological guidance here in his letter to the Thessalonians.
One, Jesus doesn’t make life painless. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that the life of faith is still…life. It requires work. Sometimes hard work. It requires responsibility. Sometimes sacrificing your own desires for that of others. Paul says it this way: “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one.” The freedom we have in Christ is not freedom from what it means to be a functioning member of society. What it means to be human.
And that includes the pain of grief. All of us will grieve loss differently, but all of us will grieve. It is part of the work of being human. When Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he is telling them that they will still have pain. They will still grieve. They can’t snap their fingers and make all of that stuff go away, like some superhero. Of course, maybe superheroes can’t even do that. Even Jesus, who had power even over death, still suffered. Still grieved. Still worked through the tasks of being human. Jesus doesn’t make life painless.
But then Paul makes a second point: Jesus gives us what we need to work through the pain. “Do not grieve as others who have no hope,” Paul writes. Now, I always feel the need to clarify with this passage. I have preached before about an all-too-common misreading of this passage. I have heard it said too often that Paul is writing “Christians don’t grieve. Don’t be like those non-Christians whose faith is so weak that they grieve when they lose someone they love.” Again, that would be out of step with the rest of Paul’s message. See point A. Of course, Christians grieve. Of course, they experience pain. They are human. They feel pain.
But when they do, they do it with hope. They have hope that God walks with them in their grief. They have hope that the community of Christ will come alongside of them. They have hope that the one who overcame death through Resurrection will provide an opportunity for an eternal life beyond this one. They have hope that in the midst of the emotions of grief and trauma—in the anger and the sadness and the guilt and the numbness and the brain fog and everything that comes with grief—they will grieve with hope. They will work through their grief in a new way. A way that sees the bigger picture beyond this current pain. And Jesus gives us what we need to do that work.
Pastoral counselor and author Andrew Lester writes about this experience in his book on pastoral care and hope.
For Lester, grief can lead many, including Christians, down a path of despair. It’s actually somewhat common for folks to get “stuck” in their grief. According to Lester, they fail to see their future story as redemptive and whole and connected to the love of God. They feel isolated and alone. The path of despair can lead to distrust, and further isolation, and even potentially to addiction to unhealthy relationships and poor mental health that psychologists call “unresolved grief.” Many psychologists worry that this is and will be the case with many after the pandemic.
But there is another path: the path of hope. Like Paul, Lester suggests that working through grief and loss is a holy and faithful task. Sometimes it takes the help of a trained counselor. Sometimes, it takes the help of medication or diet changes. But it is not a matter of weakness, but a demonstration of strength. And when we do this work, we find the strength of Christ.
Lester talks about what he calls “trans-finite hope,” by which he means a way to connect the infinite love of Christ to our human finitude. In other words, it isn’t just a hope in the “pie in the sky, by and by,” but a hope in our own finite, human realities. Here and now. It is a hope that the love of Christ, eternal and beyond, comes to our here and now. Lester writes that “hope and love are close allies,” so when we live by hope, when we open our eyes to this hope, it transforms our relationships, our ways of living, our communities.
Which takes us back to WandaVision. Throughout the course of the show, we start to learn about the incredible grief that even superheroes feel. Like many superhero shows, what is at stake is whether the hero will use their powers in selfish ways, even if it leads to the destruction of others. Or, instead, will they learn to care for themselves AND care for others?
Into that open conversation comes easily the best quote of the series, if not the entire MCU. The robot—synthezoid—is talking about the difficulty that he has experiencing grief, because of course he is an android and not human. But there is a common science fiction trope where the robot understands more of what it means to be human than the human does. So Vision says this:
“What is grief, if not love persevering?”
The robot gets it. We grieve because we have loved someone or something. It wouldn’t hurt if we didn’t love them. The good and holy and God-given work of grief is the work of love persevering. It is the work that God gives us, and the work that God equips us for. Today, as we live in grief, on the path of hope, may we participate in the persevering and eternal love of Christ.