First Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 61:1-7 ; Romans 8:31-39 ; Matthew 5:4

Perhaps this sermon should come with a warning:  We are going to talk about loss and grief, and since most of us have experienced that, this sermon may possibly elicit some tears.  But here is the good news.  It is okay to cry in church.

In fact, I think it ought to be okay to cry in church not just today but any time.  This is a sanctuary, a safe place, a haven, and here we can lay our true selves before God, and hopefully be comforted by the holy presence that this place represents, as well as by those around us.

 

A former governor of Oregon, Barbara K. Roberts, has written a very helpful book about facing death and loss, after the death of her husband, Frank, from lung cancer.  The book is called Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology. Barbara shares part of her story:

“Frank died on Halloween and he would be interred on his birthday, December 28th.  I brought him home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Construction workers were finishing a new room at the mauloleum where his remains would be placed in a few more weeks.  But especially during this season, I couldn’t face the thought of Frank’s urn in the dark and lonely mausoleum vault.  Frank was home for the holidays. But I couldn’t tell anyone.  So I stood crying in the lovely big bedroom, alone with his ashes, the devastating memories of his death – and my secret life of grieving.”

“And then I did what I did every afternoon.  I walked over to his urn, put both hands on this lovely art piece, and said, ‘Hi Honey, I’m home.’  In this room, in this sanctuary, I could still talk to Frank, report about my day, kiss his photograph, and wrap myself in his robe.  Here, holding the urn in my lap, I could tell him how I struggled through each day without him.”  (Roberts, pp.2-3)  Do not think you are crazy, or let anyone tell you that you are, when you do things like this, she says, and:

“If you are questioning whether it is okay to grieve in your own way, then I give you permission to weep, weep loudly.  Take his sweatshirt to bed.  Talk about her and to her.  Keep pictures in the living room and set an empty place at the table.  Watch old movies and videotapes that show that familiar face.  Hug a pillow and rock yourself.  Put your feet in his shoes or wear her ring on a chain under your clothing next to your skin.  Cry out his name in the night, visit her grave as often as you need to.  Do the things that help you through a day, a week, a year, two years.  Through all of this remember, ‘It takes are long as it takes.’”  (Roberts, p.7)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” said Jesus.  William Shakespeare said, “Give sorrow words.”  Grieving, or mourning, (and we will talk about the difference between those two in a moment) means that we have risked enough to love.  In the book about the Beatitudes that we will study in our Lenten series, What Jesus Meant, Erik Kolbell says that Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor himself, in speaking about the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust, said that “the opposite of life is not death but indifference.”  (Kolbell, p.45).  Kolbell continues this thought by saying:

“Life is affirmed in grief because to grieve means something has stirred our passions, asked us to care deeply about it, given us the courage to give a portion of our heart to it.  Love is painful because it risks loss;  indifference is tragic because it risks nothing.”  (Kolbell, p.45)

Loss is a part of life.  Whether it is the death of a family member or close friend, the loss of a job that has given us meaning and supported our family, the break-up of a marriage or a cherished friendship, all of us experience the grief of loss at some point in our lives.  Some of the “experts” on grief distinguish between grief and mourning.  They say that grief is more internal; it is mental suffering, the feelings that come with any loss:  shock, anger, denial, pain, confusion, isolation, etc..  And mourning is more external.  It is the outward expression of those feelings of grief, the lamenting, to use a biblical type of word.  Mourning is the funeral and the eulogy, the tears we shed at the service; it may be placing a rose on the altar or the casket, or scooping dirt over the ashes in the memorial garden.  Mourning shows our grief to the world around us.

We frozen Presbyterians are not very good at expressing our feelings.  We are not alone. In general, it is no longer very acceptable in our American society to spend a lot of time outside of the funeral service showing our grief.  We expect people to “get over it,” and move on, or to at least do their grieving in the privacy of their own homes.  We are generally uncomfortable with the outward expression of sad feelings.

And yet here is Jesus, in this extraordinary sermon, telling us that those who mourn are blessed.  In Jesus’ day, mourning was almost an art.  There were often hired mourners when someone died, not just at the burial but for the hours and days, perhaps a week after the death.  Mourning was expected at the display of the corpse and at the funeral.  Women sang dirges, men eulogized the dead and beat their chests and heads, and stomped their feet. Grief was expressed with the whole being.  Even in the early days of this country, the expression of grief had more depth. We know that widows traditionally wore black for months, perhaps years, after the death of a husband.  Such practices have largely gone away, as we push mourning away, and act as if everything is alright within hours of a loss.  We have lost the compassion that allows us to mourn in public.  We want our world to put on a happy face.

“Blessed are those who mourn,” says Jesus, “for they will be comforted.”

Biblical scholars think that, while perhaps also acknowledging the personal losses that we all experience and grief, Jesus may be referring to something bigger here than just the grief that affects you or me.  Jesus did not say “Blessed is the one who mourns.”  This is expressed in the plural, in the sense of community, as when we grieve over the hurt in the world around us. When we see news like we have been watching this weekend, of the earthquake and tsunami devastating Japan, and heading towards American soil as well, when we watch the riots in Egypt, when we hear news of murders and abuse, or of people dying of cancer or AIDS, we grieve for those we do not even know.  We hear the concerns on our prayer list, and we cannot help but grieve when we see that a young woman is at Duke for a double lung transplant, or a young friend of our youth is struggling with cancer, that church members sit with their family members in ICU or in Hospice care. We lament with prayer for our fellow human beings.

This community mourning, says scholar Tom Long, “grows out of an awareness of the difference between the world as it is and the world as God wills it to be” (Long, p.48).  Long reminds us of the commercial on TV some years back, where the camera begins scanning a typical American landscape, very beautiful, but keeps scanning back towards the highway, as we see trash and litter all along the road, destroying the scenery.  Then the camera focuses on a native American solemnly looking at the mess, and we see a lone tear fall from his eye.  This is how God must feel, Long points out, and how we Christians should feel, as we look at the world at times, as we see the spoiling of God’s creation, and also the deep pains people suffer.

If we dare to care about others, we risk hurting.   Often times we avoid caring, so that we will not hurt. Again, our society encourages this lack of feeling. Violent movies and video games tend to make us more immune to pain and suffering, rather than more attuned to it.  We are encouraged to go after whatever makes us feel good, rather than allowing ourselves to feel the depth of emotions that might hurt.  And when we do hurt, we quickly jump to use pills or alcohol or other stimuli to drown out the feelings or lift our spirits.  Perhaps Jesus is telling us that, at times, it is alright to feel great grief, and even to be able to express it, to mourn.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Our word for comfort comes from the Latin “fortiere,” meaning “to justify.”  In Greek, the word used for “comfort” in this passage is “parakleo, which means “to exhort, to comfort.” Sometimes in the Greek Scriptures, the word Paraklete is used for the Holy Spirit, meaning the Advocate or Comforter. Parakleo has a wide range of meaning, according to the Greek lexicon.  It can mean to beseech, as in calling on the gods in prayer, or to exhort and encourage.  To exhort sounds negative to us, but for the Greeks it would imply speaking not sharply or critically, but urgently and seriously.  For Christians, it would also mean speaking in God’s name, and with the Spirit’s power.  Comfort, for Christians, includes a vision of the salvation that Christ brings with the resurrection and the coming completion of God’s kingdom.  (Bromily, p.778)

“Comfort, o comfort my people,” Isaiah quotes God as saying, as the people of Israel yearn for restoration from exile. And, in the passage we read this morning from Isaiah, the prophet declares comfort for all who mourn, giving them “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display [God’s] glory…”  (Isaiah 61:2-3).  Yes, grief will come, but there will also be comfort.

Perhaps those who have known grief are better prepared to comfort others who grieve. Those who care enough to grieve over the hurts of the world are more motivated to act in ways that will bring changes and provide comfort. I think of John Walsh, who after the murder of his 6 year old son, sparked the creation of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and used the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” to solve crimes and put thousands of criminals behind bars. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who grew up with the pain of prejudice and segregation, and risked his life to help so many people move towards freedom and equality. Sometimes our deepest hurts, our deepest feelings, can motivate us to help others with more energy than we could ever imagine.  And in helping, we too are helped.  Without forgetting our loss, we can nevertheless find joy in our lives again as we help others.  In comforting others, out of the depths of our own pain, we can find that we are also comforted.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The greatest comfort for Christians is a future one.  Many who suffer in this life do not find comfort, perhaps, until the next life, the kingdom to come.  We can think of Jews dying  in concentration camps in Germany, or of enslaved African Americans suffering in the early years of this country.  Maybe we can even remember family members or friends who never seemed to find comfort in this life, who struggled with drugs or alcohol, or with psychological demons.  Perhaps they even died tragically. “They will be comforted,” says our text, in the future tense.  Our greatest comfort comes in the knowledge of the suffering servant, the risen Savior, who knows as deeply as we do the pains of this earthly life.  “For we do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin”  (Hebrews 5:15).  As the Romans 8 passage reminds us, we always have with us the love of God. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  (Rom. 8:34).  Will divorce, or loss of job, mental illness, or disease, or earthquake or tsunami, separate us from God? “No, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us,” says Paul the apostle. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”  (Rom. 8:37-39).  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

We all grieve at times in our lives, for our own losses, and for the losses in the world around us.  Certainly we all grieve for Japan today.  Perhaps we should acknowledge our grief in public, mourning, for instance, for those who have lost their lives so tragically.  For in grieving we show that we care.  In caring, we show that we love.  In loving, we risk feeling hurt.  And yet in loving we live as Christ lived, and as God wants us to live in community with one another, with all of God’s creation.  There is indeed much to mourn.  Yet from the Source of love, there is, and always will be, also comfort.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

Bibliography

Bromiley, Geoffrey W., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., MI, 1985)

Kolbell, Erik, What Jesus Meant:  The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life (WJKP, KY, 2003)

Long, Thomas G., Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion)  (WJKP Press, KY, 1997)

Roberts, Barbara K., Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology:  A Guide for Facing Death and Loss (NewSage Press, OR, 2002)