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  1. Sermons : Beatitudes 2: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

    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.



    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)

  2. Sermons : Beatitudes 1: Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

    Transfiguration of the Lord

    Matthew 17:1-9 ; Matthew 5:1-3

    Today we begin a slightly expanded Lenten Sermon Series on the Beatitudes. These majestic phrases at the beginning of Matthew are the keynote address of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5, 6, and 7. It is a vision statement of sorts, a preamble, the way Christ gives us of thinking about the world, His world.

    One really important thing to note, scholar Eugene Boring reminds us, is that the indicative mood of the beatitudes is to be taken quite seriously. They are NOT, ‘you will be blessed if…’, but ways Christ names what IS. Blessed ARE these among us. Now. This is about what Christ calls true, perhaps naming the marks of the church. 1 This series will continue through to Palm Sunday, and will work in partnership with the Wednesday evening study that will begin in a week and a half. Come join us to continue the conversation. Let us pray…

    Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen

    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    Our plane landed in Indianapolis right as the storm blew in last Sunday evening. It was a bit bumpy, through the darkness and fog. About 350 of us gathered at Second Presbyterian Church there to ask one simple, yet really big question: “What is next for the Presbyterian Church?” We have all heard the complaints – maybe even done some ourselves – about the loss of membership denomination-wide, the loss of power and prestige; we have heard the groaning about the price of 35 or so years of contentious debates about ordination. But, for those of us who gathered and struggled, we began to wonder if something new was happening. We joined in powerful worship, had plenty of time for conversation groups, or simply to catch up with old friends over a cup of coffee. Big churches and small, seminary presidents and seminary students, presbytery execs and the church press, we talked about diversity and technology, about empowering new leaders and holding accountable the present ones. It helped that we didn’t have to solve anything just yet, didn’t have to vote on anything at the end of the day. Though a really quick 48 hours, I left with a sense of gratitude for so many gifted leaders, and a deep hope for our church. Maybe God still has plans for our broken church, for this part of the family we call the Presbyterian Church (USA). Maybe there are some things we can still do. Maybe things could be different. Maybe they already are…

    The Beatitudes are about vision. Matthew begins his gospel by reaching back, through a genealogy with names we know – like Ruth and Jesse and David – and names we don’t – like Joram and Eliakim and Zadok – all of this to tell his community to whom they belong. Matthew’s church, Jewish Christians recently expelled from the synagogue, were trying to figure out who they were in a world that was changing so quickly. Matthew orients them, and their Lord Jesus, in a long chain of faithful people, filled with the Spirit of God. Jesus’ story begins, naturally, with his birth in a stable, with wise men following a star, with an escape to Egypt. John the Baptist appears fully grown, proclaiming repentance, baptizing all comers, even Jesus. The heavens open after the baptism as Jesus’ ministry begins with temptation in the wilderness, with the facing of difficult questions, with a reminder of the One in whom he is to place his trust. Disciples are called from their nets and them, like a shot, we are off and running, on the hillsides of Galilee, preaching and teaching and healing, the crowds gathering in anticipation. And then it was time. Great crowds, Matthew tells us at the end of chapter 4, followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Excitement grew as they wondered. Who is this Jesus? What is he about? Something wonderful seems to be happening, but what does it mean? This is the function of the Beatitudes, to instill them with vision. And not of the way things can be just a little bit better, but of an entirely different order. These beatitudes, these ‘blessed-are’ statements, blend wisdom and prophecy. Eugene Boring describes the form as wisdom because they proclaim the blessing of those in fortunate circumstance based on observation and experience and prophecy because they play in the tension of present and future, already and not yet. 2 Remember, they are NOT, ‘you will be blessed if…’ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They are ways Christ names what IS. Even now. This blessing comes because of the authority of the speaker, sitting on the mountaintop. 3 And this teacher, Jesus, is ultimately the one who embodies these blessings—so they become an invitation to follow because this is who Jesus is, what friendship with him looks like, what oneness with God looks like. 4

    This vision begins to develop first by what the Beatitudes don’t say. James Howell, a pastor in Charlotte, has written a helpful little book called “The Beatitudes for Today.” An important interpretive lens he uses – and that we should as well – is how these sayings hold up a mirror to our society, turning all of its values upside-down. He says it is so important to note that Jesus didn’t say:

    -Blessed are those who climb the corporate ladder; they will be blessed with a comfortable retirement.
    -Blessed are those born into fine families; they will enjoy countless advantages.
    -Blessed are those who shop; they will own neat things.
    -Blessed are those with a fine education.
    -Blessed are the good-looking, blessed are those who satisfy their desires. Blessed are those who have what they need, seem happy, live in great neighborhoods, have some amount of power and control over their lives.

    But Jesus doesn’t say that. It doesn’t make sense, almost to the point of being ridiculous. Not blessed are the wealthy and powerful and strong, but blessed are the poor in spirit. The meek. The mourning. Those who seek peace and compassion, who make space for others. Those are things we don’t want to be, generally, that we do our best to avoid. You don’t get ahead that way, Jesus. Surely he must know.

    Yet he climbs the mountain. Matthew’s readers would know that this was a holy space, like Moses went up the mountain to receive the law, like Jesus and his disciples would again later in the text for the Transfiguration, that we also read and celebrate today. Special things happen on the mountain. And Jesus announces a blessing. And it doesn’t make sense. We all know what it means when we hear someone say, ‘Bless their heart, but…’ In the south that is condescending, code for pity. It’s not a good thing. But Jesus is saying that God has taken an interest in the poor in spirit, in the meek and mourning. That God is being active, diving in, getting God’s own hands dirty, with us and for us. Blessed connotes in Greek soteria and in Hebrew shalom. 5 Salvation, well-being…not superficial happy, but deep contentment, freedom, peace. Howell suggests Jesus describes blessedness as “being near God, being in sync with God, snuggling up close to truth, committed to follow in Jesus’ way.” 6 Not because of their circumstances, but because of God’s strength, surrounding them, sustaining us.

    And in today’s first phrase, Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who are poor in spirit. Tom Long says this could be paraphrased “spiritual beggars.” “This beatitude indicates that those who have come to the end of their own resources, who know they cannot sustain hope and purpose out of their own strength, and who have thrown themselves on the mercy of God will not be abandoned. They have already been given, through the continuing presence of Christ, the kingdom of heaven.” 7 This beatitude includes those who literally poor, bills come due, sleeping in the shelter downtown. But it is also broadens to include all of those on the margins, alone, sick, suffering. It may even include us sometimes, as nice as things look on the outside, feeling that desperation gnawing away. And Jesus reminds us that things aren’t as they seem, that those who may seem like nothing, no one, unimportant, are blessed, loved, cherish by God. Even in their suffering. Even in their deep loneliness. And that the church is called to meet God in those places. Where the poor in Spirit are, God is. Under the bridges, in the alleyways, in the lonely living rooms of beautiful homes where everyone thinks everything is okay. As we all try our best to maintain that illusion. When we keep our eyes wide open and pay attention to one another. They are blessed, so that we might be blessed, so that Christ might bind us all together.

    I saw a story last week on the Today Show about Jean Wilson. Jean is 82, and every day for the last three years she has called the same Dominoes pizza in Memphis, Tennessee, to order a large pepperoni pizza and two diet Cokes. Every day, except a few Mondays ago. Her regular driver, Susan Guy, came in Monday morning, and discovered she hadn’t called in a couple of days. “I have to go!” she remembers saying. He manager, unsure, tried to talk her out of it. She told him to clock her out, that she was going. She knocked on the windows, banged on the doors. She checked with the neighbors, who hadn’t noticed anything different. She called 911, and rushed back to work. She ran by later, to see the paramedics and police. Jean had fallen in an interior hallway, and had lain on the floor for three days. She was tired, and dehydrated, but is expected to make a full recovery. The police officer told Guy that Wilson “probably didn’t think anyone would call. She asked who called, and [we] said, ‘Domino’s, a pizza delivery driver.’ And they said she smiled a really big smile.” 8 Because someone noticed. Because a regular person paid attention to someone else.

    The poor in spirit can mean a lot of things – brothers and sisters standing at intersections, or in the house next door. In places forgotten to many of us. And we are called, once again, to live into the vision Christ proclaims. Who do you need to look out for? Who do you miss in the pews you need to call? I know you all sit in the same place. How can we, poor in spirit as we may be, be open to the different set of values that Christ proclaims, that Christ himself embodies? Ultimately, the beatitudes are about vision, about seeing the world in all its Godgiven fullness, in all of its possibilities, the kingdom breaking in, with us, even now.

    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 177. This reference comes from the Rev. Jessica Tate’s paper on this text given at the 2010 gathering of The Well, Davidson, NC. 
    2. Boring, from Tate. 
    3. Tom Long, WBC:Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 45-46. 
    4. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 1. 
    5. Boring, 176, from Tate. 
    6. Howell, 32. 
    7. Long, 46.