A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on June 14, 2015 (Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
– Matthew 5:1-12
There may be some of you who have not heard that I have announced my resignation as Pastor, and will be leaving by the end of July. Last Sunday I asked the folks who were here if they had any suggestions of sermon topics I should preach on during my last weeks (you can still do that). One person observed that church members are in mourning, and we should recognize that. And so, today is a time to mourn.
To some of you, that may seem a little extreme. We usually think of mourning as something we do after the death of a loved one. My leaving is not that serious! But the reality is that we can be in mourning for all kinds of losses – not just deaths. Some of you may have experienced mourning the loss of health, or independence – no longer able to drive, or live in your home alone. We can mourn the loss of dreams and possibilities. We mourn the loss of what the church used to be – even if it was far from perfect. We can even mourn when good things happen – like when a child gets married and moves away. Mourning is the inevitable result of getting attached to people or things that can change.
Our spiritual and religious traditions can’t protect us from loss and mourning, but they can offer some comfort and support through the process.
The biblical book of Ecclesiastes recognizes that there is a time to mourn for everyone. It isn’t something to get over. We don’t mourn because of a lack of faith. It is a natural, and important, part of life.
But there are also times to laugh and dance. And we have known times of joy together: We had a great party when I was installed as pastor in 1996. We have ordained church members. We have celebrated church anniversaries. We have celebrated Easter Sunday 20 times together!
After all that, of course there would come a time to mourn. For everything there is a season.
Several weeks ago, some of us watched the film Shadowlands – the story of 20th century Christian writer C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy, whom he met and married in middle age, after living as a bachelor for a long time. She brought new joy to his life, but it was short-lived because she was soon diagnosed with cancer. As she got sicker and her death drew near, she said to her husband, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
That’s the deal. Happiness and pain are inextricably linked. A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
When a time to mourn comes, it naturally makes us sad, and maybe even anxious about the future. Things have changed. What now? Will we ever rejoice again?
This is where Jesus shocks us. “Blessed are those who mourn.” Blessed? Where is the blessing in mourning? Where is the blessing in what we are now going through?
Jesus says the blessing is in the comfort that God can give to those who mourn. It doesn’t come quickly – it never seems to come quickly enough when you are in the midst of loss. God doesn’t always restore what was lost. God doesn’t magically make the pain go away. But instead, the comfort comes from a reorientation of our lives – from what is gone to what is still here, and to what we haven’t yet discovered. Comfort can come from unexpected places and unexpected people.
Mourning is a wilderness experience – of being in a barren and empty place. The Bible has a whole host of wilderness stories. The Hebrew slaves escaped from bondage in Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The prophet Elijah escaped from the death threats of Queen Jezebel by fleeing to the wilderness. The defeated and conquered residents of Jerusalem lived for several decades in the foreign land of Babylon – a cultural and spiritual wilderness in the midst of a great city. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil after his baptism and before he began his ministry. Jesus fed a multitude of people in the wilderness with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. The wilderness is a place of trial and temptation. But it is also where God is revealed: commandments for the people of Israel; comfort and hope for the exiles; a mission for Jesus; a miraculous feeding for the multitude.
If you want to know God’s presence and strength, and be fed, and discover God’s calling for you, there is no better place to go than into the wilderness – even when you don’t want to go there.
In her book “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the spiritual Practice of Getting Lost. One can get lost intentionally – by going a different, unknown way, or by traveling to a strange place. Or one can get lost inadvertently – when one’s world suddenly falls apart. It is when we are lost that we must depend on God, and on others, to help us. It is a humbling and enriching experience. Rev. Taylor writes, “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.”
A time of mourning is a time of being lost. It can be a time of discovery and new direction from God.
And Jesus tells us some of the ways that a church in mourning might find comfort and blessing:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This is a time to recommit to doing what is right, and to working for justice for the poor in spirit and the meek. Who is not finding any blessings in our dog-eat-dog, trickle-down world? The poor, the immigrant, the refugees from violence and abuse, the strangers, the sick. People who are regarded as defective or deficient in some way. We have a hurting world that needs what the church is uniquely capable of offering.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” We live in tough times. As a nation we seem to have little patience for folks who have made mistakes, or had some bad breaks, or who have not managed to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Mercy is not a popular political program. But as a church, we do second chances. We do forgiveness. We do mercy. Or at least we should. Why? Because by being merciful, we will receive mercy. And even more fundamentally, because we have already received God’s mercy. We have all messed up at one time or another in our lives. We don’t deserve God’s love, or even God’s tolerance. But we have received mercy. We are children of God and ministers in Christ’s name.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” We can work for peace. Not many other people are. We can begin by making peace with God. And then peace with ourselves. Peace with our past and our present. We can work towards peace with our families, and peace with fellow church members and fellow Christians. Even that is hard to do! It takes a willingness to understand what is strange, and to grow in compassion. It requires forgiveness, and a willingness to risk even getting hurt. It is hard work – clearly not possible if we rely on human nature and abilities alone. But it is possible because in Christ, God has made peace with us. The cross is the reminder of the cost of that peace-making gesture.
We are in mourning. This church, and me as well. Even though I made the choice to leave in order to follow what I believe is God’s calling into a new ministry, I leave behind many deep friendships, and the privilege of guiding a great church. There is pain now; but I pray that someday in the future, when the pain has started to subside, we might see the fruits of our time together, and rejoice, and dance at what God has done!
Amen. Robert J. von Trebra