“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, for They Shall Be Comforted”

Scripture – Matthew 5:4 and Romans 8:31-39

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, October 9, 2022

 

Following the death of his 25-year-old son in a mountain climbing accident, Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a book lamenting his loss and grappling with his grief. At one point he locks horns with today’s beatitude: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Mocking what Jesus says, he writes, “Blessings to those who mourn, cheers to those who weep, hail to those whose eyes are filled with tears, hats off to those who suffer, bottoms up to the grieving. (But then, he pauses and contemplates. He writes). How strange, how incredibly strange!”1

Blessed are those who mourn. Does not Jesus comprehend that “it’s the smiling, successful ones we applaud? ‘Hail to the victors’…(We salute) the nations that won in battle, the businesses that defeated their competition…the athletes who came in first…We turn away from the crying ones of the world.”2

Yet when Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, he does not point to the winners. He does not present his audience with a sterling model of success. Instead, he says, “Blessed are those who mourn.”

Well, if that’s the case, we must be living in a time where blessings abound because there is no shortage of woes to lament. There are devastating hurricanes and floods, relentless gun violence, and brutal war. Our planet is rapidly overheating and we seem helpless in preventing an epidemic of drug use and suicides. Poverty and malnutrition refuse to release their grip while a global pandemic stubbornly persists. We continue to be haunted by racial injustice, homophobia, and Islamophobia. We flinch from terrorism – both foreign and domestic and there seems to be no halt to the rise of authoritarianism and white supremacist groups. The list is painfully long.

And, of course, there are countless personal sorrows: life-threatening illness, fractured friendships shattered by divisive politics, children or grandchildren trapped in a downward spiral, divorce, mental illness, dementia, financial problems. It is a hard and exhausting time to be alive. It certainly does not feel like a blessing when there is so much misery.

Like us, Wolterstorff struggles to grasp what Jesus intends by pronouncing a blessing on those who mourn. He writes: “Why does he hail the mourners? Why cheer tears?…(Is it not because) the mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break into tears when confronted with its absence…They are the ones who ache when they see someone beaten down…They are the ones who ache when they see someone treated with indignity…They are the ones who ache when they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries…(Jesus calls on us to) be open to the wounds of the world…to be in agony over humanity’s agony.”3

Blessed are they who mourn because they took the risk to love. If they had not loved, if they had not cared, they would not cry. As one writer put it: “Grief is the flip side of the coin of love.”4

Blessed are those who mourn certainly refers to people who grieve the loss of a loved one, the loss of health, or the loss of one’s livelihood. However, those who mourn are also those who mourn the darkness in our world – those who mourn the violence, the greed, the lies, the abuse of the planet, and the refusal of many to work for the common good.

Blessed are those who mourn the lack of respect for people who are different. Blessed are those who mourn for people who live under oppression. Blessed are those who mourn the state of our world because they know it falls far short of what God dreams it could be.

Another way of saying blessed are those who mourn may be: Blessed are those who have a heart; blessed are those who care enough to shed tears for the miserable state of the world.

Jesus quoted Isaiah more than any other Jewish prophet. No doubt when Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn” he was echoing the words of Isaiah when the prophet said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…to comfort all who mourn.” Perhaps Jesus was also recalling words from the 119th Psalm: “Streams of tears flow from my eyes because (God’s) law is not obeyed.

I am also reminded of the final week of Jesus’ life. As he stood on the Mount of Olives and gazed across the valley at Jerusalem he wept over the city. Through his tears, he said, “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace.”

People of faith – people who love and who possess a vision of a kind and just world – agonize over the pain in the world and their hearts ache for those who suffer.

I think one could easily make the argument that with so much darkness in our world, laughter is insensitive and celebrations should be muffled. One could argue that in the presence of death, happiness should be put on hold.

Kate Bowler remembers when her grandmother was dying. She says, “It had been a long haul since her initial diagnosis and brutal treatments…(Kate’s) mother was always hovering nearby, waiting to see what she could do next. This went on for days and days and days. One day her mom sat down to crack open her lunch and take a breather from keeping watch, only to discover that the meatballs she was looking forward to eating were frozen solid. She poked at them with a plastic fork, then nibbled around the edges. They were rocks. Delicious frozen rocks. Suddenly the quiet hallways of the hospital were full of her mom’s giggling. And at that moment one of her grandmother’s friends popped in to see where the laughter was coming from. Her face tightened with disapproval. She asked tersely, ‘Is anyone with your mother?’ as if Kate’s mom had abandoned her post or insulted the sanctity of the space. Someone was dying. How dare anyone laugh about meatballs?”5

Is it wrong to find humor in moments of sorrow? Is it wrong to laugh when death hangs heavy?

Or is joy actually one of the ways we are comforted when we are in sorrow? When we mourn the death of a loved one, isn’t part of our healing remembering joyful, even funny times? Laughter can be callous if someone is clueless to our pain, but laughter can also be a healing balm when we grieve. Surely one of the things that makes hard times bearable is that both joy and sorrow can be in the same room. In nearly every memorial service I have officiated, along with the tears, there have been moments of levity – laughter and tears.

Bowler, who has wrestled with a terminal illness, says, “Some people will try to tell you to just ‘choose joy,’ as if reframing your perspective will make things hurt less. I wish I could tell you joy was a magic formula. But no matter how joyful you choose to act, joy does not erase the pain. Some things cannot be canceled out. But we are capable of a whole range of emotions that can coexist. Joy and sorrow. Grief and delight. Laughter and despair. Sometimes, the absurdity is what keeps us afloat.”6

Of course it is also essential for us to never lose sight of the second half of today’s beatitude. Jesus did not put a period after “Blessed are those who mourn.” He continued with words of promise: “For they will be comforted.”

God refuses to stand at a distance. When our mental and spiritual reserves are running on fumes, God injects joy and peace into “the cracks and crevices of our hearts.”7

The Scriptures do not deny suffering or claim that God insulates good people from experiencing pain and despair. The Apostle Paul is a case study in suffering. He was whipped, beaten with rods, starved, ship-wrecked, and nearly stoned to death. And yet, when he wrote to his fellow believers, he declared that nothing can separate us from God’s love.

The Good Shepherd is as close to us as the air we breathe and lightens the heavy weight of our suffering by shouldering some of our pain and by drawing us together to support one another.  When God’s love flows among us we can bear greater burdens collectively than we can individually. So when times are harsh, we must reach out to bolster one another and to stiffen each other’s resolve.

Bowler writes, “When all we see is death and decay and destruction and disease, God sees hope…(but it is) hope with feet. Hope that takes work…(A better day) doesn’t come without the participation of God’s people. This isn’t about standing passively by while watching God work… We work alongside God”8 to build a better world.

There is more. God’s love is not vanquished by death. God loves us throughout our lives on earth and continues to love us when we pass from this physical realm to God’s eternal kingdom. In the face of indifference or injustice, selfishness or strife, danger or even death, nothing will separate us from God’s love.

We cling to hope regardless of how hopeless things might appear, because for people of faith, darkness is never the ultimate victor and death does not have the final word. God always has the final word, and that word is resurrection.

Even when it feels as if God has taken the day off – or even the entire year off – God is with us. Even when all we can see is suffering and injustice, and all we can feel is fear and despair, God is in the wings. Even when the world we yearn for seems like a fantasy, the God of resurrection is stirring new life.

So, yes, blessed are those who mourn, for they will – WE will – be comforted.

 

NOTES

  1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p. 84.
  2. , pgs. 85-86.
  3. Thomas Lynch, “Grieving My Daughter’s Suicide in a Time of Wider Grief,” The Christian Century, November 18, 2020.
  4. Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, Good Enough, (New York: Convergent Books: 2022), p. 9.
  5. , p.12.
  6. Arianne Braithwaite Lehn, Ash and Starlight, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019), p.100.
  7. Bowler and Richie, Good Enough, p.222.

 

Prayers of the People

Sudie Niesen Thompson

 

Loving God – You are the good shepherd. You make us lie down in green meadows and lead us beside quiet streams. You comfort us when we wander life’s shadowed valleys and welcome us to the feast of grace. Gather us in this day and surround us with your mercy, that we might find rest in your loving embrace.

God, some of us are weary and overburdened, and long for respite and renewal. Some of us are anxious in the face of uncertainty, and seek your assurance and peace. Some of us are searching for a sense of purpose, and crave your guidance. Some of us are weighed down by grief, and need your comfort. You, O God, know the concerns of our hearts … you know our brokenness, you know our pain, you know the ways in which we need your tender care. Attend to them, we pray. Surround us with your love, and shepherd us toward healing and wholeness.

With you beside us, we have nothing to fear. You are our guardian and guide, our refuge, our strength – a very-present help in trouble. May your presence embolden us, O God. Help us not to cower away from the shadowed valleys of this world, but to traverse them with courage that is born of faith. We remember those who find themselves in the valley of the shadow of death: The people of Thailand, who are reeling from a heinous act of gun violence that stole the lives of so many precious children. The people of Florida and other coastal communities, reeling from the violence done by wind and wave.

When we see suffering, stir our hearts toward compassion. When we see injustice, make us thirst for righteousness. When we become complacent with the way things are, prod us toward right paths that lead to peace. And, when we become despairing or despondent, anxious or apathetic, remind us that nothing — nothing! — can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We pray rejoicing in your abiding presence, which has sustained us through all generations. So we join our voices with the faithful of every time and place to offer the prayer that binds us together:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.