Editors note: This is the second in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We meet at 10 a.m. on Sunday (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service) through mid-December. Join us in the Great Room for the class and check out the text on our website if you miss any sessions.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
We began last Sunday at the foot of a mountain. I truly believe that thinking of the Beatitudes as a hike up and back down a mountain is the best way to experience and understand them. We started out naked, bared not so much in body as in soul, as Jesus invited: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven.” We must shed ourselves of all our spiritual baggage for no one can ascend a mountain so encumbered. We began spiritually impoverished in order to become spiritually enriched.
We are now at the first plateau. We have not come very far yet. The steepest part is still ahead. One might expect a minimum of wear and tear and some remnant of the excitement and challenge that accompanied having made the decision to come along.
The scene, however, is quietly ominous. The hikers are depressed, despairing, dulled in mind and spirit. The tears from much weeping form a waterfall rolling down the mountain. If we are typically human, you and I are not looking up and ahead, but down and back. Already there is a sense of “Hey Jesus, what have you gotten us into?” And Jesus says: “Blessed are those who mourn….” Everywhere up and back WE WILL NOT be dealing with life as we normally would. Jesus is calling us to faith.
We need to discover what the mourning is all about, how the premise and the promise of Jesus differ so dramatically from what we are used to.
In Matthew 7:24-27, a little later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us to build our house on a rock and not sand. He suggests that there will be wind and rain threatening us, but shares how to withstand those forces. Jesus is Himself the rock. On Jesus we build our relationships with family, friends, job, career, economics, politics, and all else. If any of those things comes tumbling down, the house stands because it was built on THE ROCK. If lives have been built on family, fun, or finance, then a bad cardiogram, a shift in the stock or job market could bring down the whole life. This is why I mentioned last Sunday that if you believe yourself to be spiritually adequate or abundant, you would not make it to this week. Today’s Beatitude could pull the rug out from under a false sense of spiritual security really quickly.
The scene is sad with a profound sense of loss looming over everyone and everything. Mourning is the natural response to death or loss. The people with you on this journey are mourning and in their mourning are blessed/happy? Hard to believe? Absolutely!
For some years now, our world has been referring to death simply as a part of life. Human beings have developed practices, especially in recent times, to soften the blow: Funeral parlors with posh appointments and subtle lights. The old pine box has given way to shiny metal or expensive woods with crushed velour upholstery. Embalmers became cosmetologists and bodies get to look like someone out of Esquire or Cosmopolitan magazines so that family can feel better and friends can observe how well so-and-so looks. This all has gotten terribly expensive even if cremation lowers the financial blow for some. In either case, ashes to ashes….
Jesus’ message is different on the matter. On the one hand, death is NOT a part of human life, but the “wages of sin,” (Romans 6:23). It is a painful disruption, an unnatural end. We, too, play the cultural game, however, and preserve some fluff to go with the faith.
On the other hand, the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures makes some odd claims. I re-read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes this past week because so much of the Sermon on the Mount is rooted there. “A good name is better than precious ointment.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1a). We can agree with that one. “And the day of death than the day of birth.” (7:1b) That’s tougher! “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting….” (7:2a) Tougher still! “Sorrow is better than laughter” (7:3a) Ah, come on now! “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (7:4) “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (7:8a). Now that is totally absurd! “Blessed are those who mourn!” There would seem to be in all this a celebration of death, a morbid festivity. Not quite!
Much of the world, though verbally referring to death as a natural end, in practice seeks to cover it up. Experts believe when done appropriately grieving will take six months. During that time friends will tell you to keep your mind off things (wrong!); keep busy; (“wronger!”); take the trip you always wanted to take (“wrongest!”) The doctor will prescribe whatever it takes to keep you calm and the insurance agent will assure you that you were prudent in increasing the life insurance policy a few years back.
In Jesus’ day, everything came to a grinding halt and for six to 30 days people took to the streets, whined, wailed, threw dust on their heads, ripped off their sackcloth not because of discomfort but disgust, defeat, and despair. That is blessed! It neither runs from nor covers up the truth of it, but neither is that truth the last word. The blessing is in facing the terrors head on!
By implication, Jesus is speaking of all losses: job, dignity, freedom, our dream of what we thought life was supposed to have been. If this hike is going to be holy, then we are bound to grieve the loss of the less than holy we left behind at the foot of the mountain: the nice soft bed; economic security, if there is such a thing anymore; family life even if it was dreadfully imperfect or possibly dysfunctional; availability of various forms of entertainment; the challenge of the more typical human responsibilities. When we look up at the trip ahead, we are tempted to look back and to go back, back to the way it was, imperfect, wrong, even unhappy but predictable, comfortable, typical. Enough!
Jesus knows well that it would be silly to go on if all we did was wish we hadn’t. There is blessing/happiness in attending honestly with our grief over losses taken in following Him. Mourn that stuff, miss it and then dismiss it, get it out of your system and bury it. If you are not grieving and mourning, you have probably not given up much yet, still committed to and saturated with what was and not actually open to what is and what will be. There are risks on the mountain too, by the way. People die along the way, fall by the wayside, fall into the precipice. Listen to Jesus in Luke for a moment: “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn.” (6:25b) We need to mourn what was left behind, all of it, and move on. What is to be is far better, if not yet!
You may remember Lot’s wife! What did she do? She looked back and became a pillar of salt. She was rendered paralyzed, useless. Are you in the paralysis of analysis, wanting to go on but wishing to go back, wanting to have your cake and eat it too, and really getting neither?
Remember at this point that you are not alone! “Blessed ARE THOSE who mourn….” This holy hike, an image of the Christian walk, is communal. We clearly need Jesus, as personal Savior, an utterly essential matter about which we will deal more intensively later in the series. We need Jesus, also as Lord, our collective leader, whose purpose, especially in this Sermon on the Mount, is to draw us together with Him and each other. This is also what makes this holy hike so very important for Christian people right now… You need to mourn the past, righteous though it truly was in large part, and move on into your future, together with Jesus and each other.
In almost every cultural and religious context, death or some other loss tends to draw the support of one’s family, friends, and neighbors, like nothing else can or does. That is a blessing to be sure. Here, however, the blessing is assured because of ultimate comfort. “They shall be comforted.” The blessing is in the mutual circumstance shared and the mutual promise heard. God, in God’s time, will offer ultimate hope fulfilled to the group. In the meantime, we cry together, embrace together, and share together what God will do.
In the first, eighth and ninth Beatitudes, which offer the “kingdom of heaven,” the tense is present: “for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Beginning with the second Beatitude today, including the next five, the tense changes to future: “for they will….” Some of the promises of God are experienced immediately; many are future. Just wait and see!
I sense a slight breeze blowing up here already, a holy breeze, holy wind, the Holy Spirit. My hunch is that we can anticipate more of the Holy Wind, not wind which batters us but Wind who blows to make faith happen in us.
In faith, push on, live on and do so together. We will experience, if we have not already, how a truly festive spirit develops among those making this holy hike. Looking up and on becomes not an escape from the present painful grieving moment, but a moving beyond and through it. Blessings to all of you as you mourn! As Jesus, in Luke, puts it in effect, “The last laugh will be yours.” In the name of Jesus.