Those Who Mourn
After the horror of the Orlando shootings last week and the anniversary of the Charleston killings, how appropriate that we come today to the second Beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

How many of us can recite all eight beatitudes? The Beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which has been called the very core of the Christian message, the core of the gospel. Why has the Church over the generations not memorized the Beatitudes along with the Lord’s Prayer or the 10 Commandments?

At first glance, the beatitudes are as shocking to us as they were to the first hearers. The form of the blessings was common in Hebrew Scriptures – examples…
The psalms begin “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…” (Psalm 1)
“Blessed are those in whose spirit there is no deceit…” (Psalm 32)
In Proverbs, “Blessed are those who gain wisdom…”

But Jesus turns the old news upside down.

What the world considers terrible – poverty, hunger, sorrow, persecution – Jesus calls blessed.
What the world often calls weak – mercy, peacemaking, seeking righteousness – Jesus calls blessed.
The beatitudes force the Church into a grown-up faith, a more adult spirituality. The Beatitudes turn us toward more costly discipleship. Along with other core teachings of Jesus, the Beatitudes make it clear that belonging to Jesus demands solidarity with other people – people who are poor, people who are marginalized, people who are different from ourselves, people who are suffering, people who are crying out for peace and justice.

Last week in Nicaragua, several of our mission team visited with Armando Castro. Now in his mid-40’s, Armando spends his days in a simple bed in the corner of a mostly concrete room. Armando is a paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down due to a degenerative disease. Armando has been paralyzed for over 11 years. When he was a young man in his late teens and twenties, he worked very hard. He spent his days outdoors, like many rural Nicaraguans. He worked various agricultural and construction jobs from sun up to sun down. Armando had much pride in himself and his physical abilities in his younger days, but he admits that he was not at all close to God. Though he played guitar in a small band with some other men at the local church, he confesses that physically, he was very strong but spiritually, he was very weak.

When the disease took hold of his body and shut down the use of his legs, he became angry for a long time. He grumbled often at his wife and children. He deeply mourned the loss of his abilities, the loss of his way of life. He grieved over his loss of independence. When visitors would come, he would not welcome them. Family members would plead with him to be easier to help.

Eleven years later, Armando has become a new man. He is not strong physically. He is still utterly dependent on family members to care for him and provide for him. But he has become spiritually strong. He finds great comfort in reading his devotional books and praying every day. In his long days in the bed, he spends much time with his grandchildren and has grown much closer to God, he says. Lately, he has even begun to play his guitar again. His children and grandchildren love to visit him now. Local villagers often stop by to visit. Armando is an inspiration.

Armando told us that all the difficulties he had experienced had ultimately become a blessing; a blessing for him and his family. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

As we have already mentioned, all the other beatitudes begin with and build upon the first one. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Only by poverty in in spirit do we recognize our total inadequacy and helplessness, then do we turn to the mighty power of God to save us, to help us find the door into the kingdom of heaven.

Blessedness was originally linked with financial prosperity, but most of us have realized that the two do not always go together. Sometimes the latter, financial prosperity, can cause all kinds of problems – just read the studies on what happens to lottery winners. Later, blessedness was linked with knowledge. To be blessed was to know, to have understanding. But we have all known a church or a family whose most blessed member seems to be the one with Down’s syndrome. Blessedness is broader than knowledge or understanding.

In the New Testament, blessedness came to be associated with the spirit, with the interior condition of a person. To be blessed means that it matters more who you are rather than what you have or what you know. To be blessed is to receive an inward quality that no one can take away and that no circumstances can ultimately destroy.

Today is Father’s Day and many of us will celebrate with family. Many are grateful for the wonderful parents they have had in their lives,
or grateful for their relationships with their children. But for others, Father’s Day or Mother’s Day can be filled with grief, sorrow, even pain.
Some mourn over the death of their parent or child. Others mourn over the quality of the relationships they have had with family, or the fact that they don’t have much family at all. Times of mourning can be lonely times. Some will feel abandoned by God or others on a day like today. Many will admit their anger with God and the Church, and confess to serious doubts about their faith.

Vernon Gramling has reminded us that, ironically, doubt and grief and pain sometimes become “the only way we can learn the breadth and depths of God’s capacity to hold us…

God wants our whole selves and often we can only learn that when we cannot contain our grief…
(when we are beyond consolation, but) If an earthly parent can love and hold a defiant ‘terrible two’ or a rebellious adolescent,” Vernon writes, “(then) God can certainly hold us in our adult grief, confusion and pain. Mourning is the emotional acknowledgement of helplessness in the face of death and loss… But helplessness leads to humility and humility leads to God.”

How have you dealt with personal loss, grief, sorrow and pain? Have you denied it, buried your head in the sand and tried to act as if it’s not there? Or have you sought to ignore it by shutting down emotionally or numbing yourself with pills or potions or even excessive work?
Or, like some, have you viewed your suffering and grief as the result of the will of God and submitted yourself to it?

Some see the Orlando tragedy and surmise, “This too must have been God’s will.” Personally, I do not believe that the Orlando shootings, or any other shootings for that matter, are the will of God. I do not believe that a two year old being attacked by an alligator, or the horrors of the war in Syria, are the result of the will of God. I believe that these human tragedies are against the will of God. I believe that God’s heart is the first to break when human beings suffer so.

Another option is to accept grief and death and loss as an inevitable part of human life. We endure pain and face suffering as an inevitable part of being creature and not creator. But we do not deny or ignore it. We do not have to numb ourselves from it. We do not have to chalk it up to God’s inscrutable plan for our lives.

In John 16:33, Jesus claims, “In this world you will have tribulation.” Trouble is not necessarily a punishment, as Old Testament theology sometimes asserted. Trouble, pain, grief can become an opportunity. This is the truth that Jesus claims when he says that those who mourn shall be comforted. “In all things, God works for good, for those who love him,” writes Paul in Romans 8. When we accept our pain and suffering as part of living human life, we can begin to look for, even yearn for, the comfort that God has promised.

In the New Testament, comfort literally means “with strength”. It means “to be made strong” by being with another who is strong when we are not. To be comforted is to be fortified by being in the presence of the One who makes all things new. To know this comfort is to claim with the Apostle Paul, who had been beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked, that “I can do all things (I can endure all things) through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Comfort may come directly from God, or it may come through others. Comforting others has to do with ministry of presence. What we say is often not very important and sometimes gets in the way. Our presence is what brings comfort because that’s what God did for us with the incarnation of Jesus. A kind smile, a warm hug, and a casserole are a good start in comforting those who mourn. As Paul writes in Romans, as the family of faith, we “rejoice with those who rejoice, and we weep with those who weep.”

I will never forget coming home from the hospital years ago when our oldest child was in ICU. I went to the message machine, remember those things? I pushed the button and they were over a dozen messages from variety of people from throughout my life. They expressed genuine concern and sympathy, and I found great comfort in listening to those messages.

In one sense, “Blessed are they who mourn for they discover how many people care, and they find strength in those expressions of concern.”
Ralph Sockman wrote “It is against dark velvet that diamonds are displayed to show their luster. “It is in the hours of darkness that you discover the hidden riches of friendship.”

Mother Theresa was one who sought to comfort others. In all her ways, she sought to follow the way of Jesus through her life of service.
Her way of finding comfort in a time of morning and sorrow was to give comfort to others. Mother Teresa once wrote to her co-workers who were suffering over the human conditions they dealt with every day: “Suffering is nothing by itself, but suffering that is shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift and a sign of love. God is very good to give you so much suffering and so much love. All this becomes for me a real joy, and it gives me great strength because of you. It is your life of sacrifice that gives me so much strength.” Mother Theresa was “comforted”, given strength, by the love and sacrifice of her co-workers. It was the only way that she could continue, year after year, to serve the poor of the world.

Over the past few weeks, our friend and church member, Eugene Wilson, has been called to the bedside of three of his closest friends. They all needed comfort, strength, in their dying days, so Gene has been called to sit with them, to share in their days of suffering, to encourage them in the face of death. I told Mary and Eugene the other day that if I were on my deathbed, I would want someone like Gene, with his faith and strength, at my side, to bring comfort in the midst of challenging days.

Today, Gordon Rose gathers with his family in New York for his father’s funeral.
Of course, Susan, Margaret and Sam will be by his side, sharing comfort in the midst of grief.
This is what we do, not only for family members but for friends and neighbors, even strangers.
Churches in Orlando have opened their doors to the victims’ families for memorial services.
People of all faiths have shown up for candlelight vigils for victims of senseless violence.
Britons today mourn together the murder of one of their bright young politicians.

Blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are those who come alongside those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
They shall know the strength of God’s love and presence.
God will not leave you orphaned.
Nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God.
This is the truth of the gospel that Jesus came alongside to teach.
This is the promise of the coming kingdom of God.
For all who mourn, for all who grieve, for all who suffer,
you shall know the truth and, ultimately, this truth shall set you free.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
June 19, 2016