"God does sit with us and grieve" – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

I had a bright, shiny sermon prepared for today about the wedding at Cana in Galilee, and about how in that story Jesus’ presence transformed everything so that everything and everyone in the story seemed to shimmer in the radiance of God’s glory.  And then I saw the horrifying photographs of Haiti.  Death, destruction, suffering and devastation.

In my prayers, I reflected on that other day which I always find so challenging.

August 6th, the day when we celebrate in church the Transfiguration of Christ, when on the holy mountain Christ’s face was irradiated with divine glory, is also the day when we remember the disfiguration of the people of Hiroshima, whose faces were irradiated with deadly heat and radiation.

We who are Christians, we who know and worship a God whom we call Love, we need to try to make sense of what has happened in Haiti.  We may not be able to completely understand, but we need in some way to make sense of it for ourselves.  I heard a Haitian woman yesterday as she held up her hands say, “One minute I try to hold on to my faith.  The next I say, ‘God, why us?’”

In a sense there is no answer to that question “why?” or at least none that we dare give without sounding trite.  Such suffering, as Job discovered, is a deep mystery. And it is rarely open to our logic and theological probing.  This morning I would just like to share some of my own thinking and praying about making sense of a world where so many suffer.

Over the years as a parish priest, and during the two years when I was chaplain of a hospice, I sat with many people who were suffering and dying.  And often I would be asked that same question, “God, why me?”  I don’t think they were asking for a neat theological response, and I certainly didn’t have one, but I think they were grateful that I let them voice the question, and that they were glad that I took the time to sit with them, and be with them, and didn’t try to answer too quickly or tritely.

What I believed then, and what I still believe, is that meaning, however mysterious and hidden, is in some way to be found in that cross, which hangs before our eyes at the front of the church.  We are in the season of Epiphany, when we celebrate the manifestation of God’s glory.  John’s Gospel is rich in such stories of God’s glory.  Glory shining forth at Jesus’ Baptist, glory at the marriage of Cana in Galilee.  Glory as Jesus feeds the huge crowd with just five barley loaves and two fish.  Glory as he raises Lazarus to life.  But for John, the greatest sign of God’s glory is actually the cross.  “For now is the Son of Man glorified.”

On the cross Jesus shows us that God is with us, at our deepest need, in our greatest sorrow, at our worst suffering.  “I am with you.” The cross gives us hope, that God has entered into the heart of darkness and has in some mysterious way redeemed that darkness and pain and sorrow.  The cross answers us that hope is stronger than despair, that life is stronger than death.  This is the glory of the cross.

And we reflect that glory when we stand with those who suffer, when we pray for them, and share in their sorrow.

Our Bishop and Brother Tom Shaw wrote these words in his letter to the diocese: “We must know that God is more present to suffering than any of us could ever possibly be, and that as we are willing to take on the suffering of others, whether through our prayers, our donations or our service, we join God in God’s compassionate presence.”

When such disasters happen on the other side of the globe, it is often difficult to get personally involved.  But Haiti is not far away, and we in our community, and many of you, know people who live there, have personal stories to tell of those who have suffered.  Many Haitians live here in Cambridge/Boston.

So we are holding in our hearts many individuals, and pray for them by name.

We rejoice with the St. Margaret sisters that although their convent in Port au Prince has been destroyed, Sr. Marie Margaret, Sr. Marjorie Raphael and Sr. Marie Therese are safe.

We rejoice that our friend Jude Harmon is safe.  We have been supporting Jude financially and with our prayers during his time as a young adult, service corps volunteer, teaching at the Episcopal Seminary in Port au Prince.  He was teaching when the earthquake struck, and he got out of the classroom seconds before it collapsed.  We are so grateful to God that he is alive.

For the past three years I have served as Chaplain to the House of Bishops.  You may not know that Haiti is part of Province II of the Episcopal Church, and is the largest and fastest growing diocese.  There are over 83,000 Episcopalians in Haiti; 97 Episcopal churches; over 200 Episcopal schools with more than 6,000 students.  Over the years I have had the honor of getting to know their Bishop, The Right Rev. Zaché Duracin, and some time ago he graciously asked me to lead the clergy retreat, to be held this year in the cathedral, during Holy Week.  Now that beautiful cathedral, and Bishop Duracin’s home, have been destroyed.  But, thanks be to God, both he and his wife, Marie-Edithe, are alive.

So how can we, here, today, help our brothers and sisters as Christians who are suffering so terribly now, today, in Haiti?  First, we can help by donating to relief operations.  As Episcopalians in Massachusetts, we might want to support the Episcopal Relief and Development’s Haiti Fund.  Or, we may want to donate to the Sisters of St. Margaret who have a convent here, in Roxbury.

Secondly, we might reflect on who we already know with connections or family in Haiti, and support and comfort them.

Thirdly, and most fundamentally, we can pray.  Pray for the people of Haiti.  Pray to the God who shares our burden and our pain.  Pray to the one whose glory is revealed most truly in the cross.  When we pray, as our Rule puts it, we are not calling down a divine presence to come to the place where we have seen a need, for the Christ who fills all things is already in that place.

Christ is already there in grace and mercy beside those in greatest need – sharing their sorrows.  And in our prayers we are willing to take on the suffering of others, and join God in God’s compassionate presence.

I close with these words which our Brother Kevin shared with us yesterday, from a poem by William Blake:

Can I see another’s woe

And not be in sorrow too?

Can I see another’s grief

And not seek for his relief?

Think not that thou canst sigh a sigh

And thy maker is not by:

Think not that thou canst weep a tear

And they maker is not near.

Oh God gives to us his joy

That our grief he may destroy.

Till our pain and sorrow leave

God does sit with us and grieve.


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  1. Claudia Booth on January 24, 2018 at 22:39

    I have been on mission in Haiti and know that the people, whatever their circumstance radiate a faith that is to be admired.

    Thank you to everyone who supports these true and devout Christians. Any contribution you are able to make, however great or small, will be well used.

    • Dottie Kelley on January 25, 2018 at 12:16

      I have been working in Haiti for the past 10 years. Our organization has raised money to build 2 Episcopal Church/school buildings in the Artibonite area. It seemed difficult for American people to understand why Haitians who have no water, electricity, medical care, etc. would be so determined to have a place to Worship come rain or shine. I like to say in their lives there is very little between them and God. In our lives we have trouble finding our way through our “stuff” to see God.

  2. margo fletcher on January 24, 2018 at 09:01

    Thank you Br. Geoffrey for this. That poem of Blake’s is much abbreviated and it’s ‘thy’ maker which helps make the sense of it. Margo

    He doth give His joy to all:
    He becomes an infant small,
    He becomes a man of woe,
    He doth feel the sorrow too.

    Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
    And thy Maker is not by:
    Think not thou canst weep a tear,
    And thy Maker is not near.

    O He gives to us His joy,
    That our grief He may destroy:
    Till our grief is fled and gone
    He doth sit by us and moan.

  3. Christina on June 18, 2016 at 10:58

    June 18th, 2016.
    A week ago 49 people were shot and killed in Orlando, Florida. They were at a night club enjoying themselves: a community of gay, lesbian, and trans-sexual men and women – God’s people.
    My heart breaks for them, their families and friends.
    May our gracious God be with them all.

  4. Ed on January 24, 2015 at 22:32

    If “Christ is already there in grace and mercy beside those in greatest need – sharing their sorrows,” then why should we waste our time praying for them? I’m not being contentious. I’m just confused.

  5. r hedgepeth on January 24, 2015 at 12:12

    While it is essential to keep the least and the lost at the front of our hearts always, we also need to maintain our awareness that God is with each of us– present in grace and mercy every moment of every day.

  6. Joan Lawrence Studebaker on January 15, 2012 at 08:41

    Thank you for your gift of words which inspire me every day. I begin my day by meditating on them.
    I have a story. well many really since I work in hospice care. BUT this one is maybe more special. A woman age 92 was given a diagnosis of 4th stage leukemia. She was confined to bed. She lived on top of a mountain in Vermont. She had protected the creatures there in every legal and actual way possible. They roamed freely and brought much joy to her over the years.
    She had never borne a child. She was thinking that she did not have much of a legacy.( Her words not ours.) My good friend became a grandmother for the first time and we brought the 5day old infant to the lady on the mountain. We told her that “today he is your visiting angel, but when you go to God will you keep an eye on him and pray to the Father on his behalf?” She held him with joy and wonder and after a long time said :” I will look for him.” On the day she actually actively died, a young deer came out of the wood lot and lay down next to the window where she lay, resting and laboring. He stayed there until 6:00am and walked quietly away. She died shortly after three am. at least her heart stopped, though I could feel her presence for a time after. What blessings in these manifestations of God’s Love. What an honor to be able to hold a hand and encourage the journey to another heaven. I believe there are moments when that veil lifts and we can see and be in heaven. It is not so much another place but a way of being in this place where we are. Especially when we are full of gratitude. May God continue to Bless your ministry. Joan Lawrence Studebaker,associate to the Order of St Helena.

    • Ruth West on January 23, 2015 at 20:37

      Joan, your words were as inspiring as was the homily. Thank you both!
      A truth I learned much too late is that Presence is such a gift! Words are not always needed; just being there, perhaps holding a hand, is answering God’s call.

  7. cynthia karnoscak wigdahl on July 31, 2011 at 18:41

    Hello, Brother Geoffrey!

    I am so thankful to be on your email list for the “Brother, Give Us A Word” messages.

    Today, particularly, I was moved by the William Blake poem at the end of your January 17, 2010 message on suffering and grieving.

    Would you be able to provide a reference for where that poem may be found in William Blake’s works?

    I have a dear aunt who is losing her battle with cancer, and I shared that poem with her and her husband. They might like to include it in her memorial pamphlet, but of course, would like to reference it, if at all possible.

    Thank you, most sincerely.

    Cyndi Wigdahl

  8. jane goldring on July 31, 2011 at 13:25

    hi geoffrey thanks for that homily. it certainly gives you a lot to think about. i really appreciated being able to hear it you. is there any way the others homilies can be heard. jane

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