Blessed are we who mourn
Sunday, November 14, 2010, MCC South London
Rev. Nancy Wilson
Good evening MCC South London. I did not really imagine that only 6 weeks after I had been here last I would be worshipping with you again. I hope you know that all of your brothers and sisters in MCC worldwide are grieving with you the loss of Rev. Elder Jean White. I bring special greetings from Rev. Elder Diane Fisher, Rev. Elder Darlene Garner, other Elders, and Rev. Elder Troy Perry; and, also, from my partner Paula.
Jean White told me that when I came back preach her funeral to preach a gospel sermon, which I intend to do on Friday and tonight as well!
Our gospel lesson this evening is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s gospel is modeled after the Torah, with Jesus as a new Moses, giving the new law, the new teaching, contrasting it, as he said, “you have heard it said, but I say to you. . .” The particular section we heard tonight it what we call “the Beatitudes,” which means, “the Blessings.. .”
The are Beatitudes, not platitudes. They were meant to be shocking, surprising. As shocking as the command to loved our enemies, to turn the other cheek.
Blessed are the meek? The meek were weak, despised, hapless, to be pitied, but “Blessed?” Surely not. But Jesus says that those who are meek now will “inherit the earth.” Will have power and influence. Blessed are peacemakers, rather than warriors? Aren’t peacemakers weak too, appeasing, not willing to fight? Jesus teaches us that war has to become obsolete, and that the way of peace is the way of strength and hope. War, today, is one of the biggest contributors to poverty. If we could stop war, we could stop a lot of poverty in the world today.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Those who cry out for justice in a world of injustice? Aren’t people like that a pain? They never give up, they are never satisfied, it seems! But, Jesus says, in this new realm of his, that the will be satisfied. No more demonstrations needed, no more protests, no more boycotts. Blessed are the persecuted? What sense does this make? Is it possible that those who endure suffering for the sake of justice and peace, for the gospel of love and hope, that their suffering actually impacts the future, even if they do not see it in their lifetime. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Anything worth doing takes more than a lifetime to achieve. . .”
And, for our purposes tonight, we hear the declaration, “Blessed are those who mourn.”
The loss of loved ones, family, those near and dear, always painful, difficult. In Jesus’ day, if a woman was widowed, she could end up improverished, dependent on others, a liability, and could be very vulnerable. Children who lost parents were terribly vulnerable, as they are today. Israel whole history is a history of loss, of power, resources, exploitation and oppression. This also causes a loss of self-esteem and pride.
In Jesus day, suffering loss was not considered a source of blessing. In fact, some believed it was a sign of a curse. We do not think of it as a means of blessing, either. The loss of relationships, friendships, a partner or pastor to death, is a terrible thing. Our hearts cry out, “why? Why them, why me? Why this? Why now?”
I have a friend who says God doesn’t do “why” questions very well. But, Jesus insisted that those who mourn will be blessed, in a profound reversal. The blessing will come in the form of comfort – which literally means to imbue “with strength.”
One of the many functions of The Holy Spirit, sometimes called the Comforter, is to come along side of us, empowering us with the strength to grieve well. Grieving is a serious task, and it takes courage and strength. And, even if God does not answer all our “why’s”, God will embrace us through all the feelings grief bring. Holy Spirit who animates creation, who inspires, breathes life into us, passionate friend, you are also our great comfort today.
Jesus knew this, and wanted his disciples to know it, as he knew they would one day grieve the loss of him in their day to day earthly life.
I have learned many things as an MCC pastor, and would like to share them tonight, as a way of offering blessings in the midst of this terrible loss: Sorrow and grieving are natural, and good. Sometimes, overwhelming loss, multiple loss, people stop being able to grieve. Everyone grieves at their own pace, in their own way. Some begin early. Some of you began to let go of Jean when she first got sick, preparing yourselves. Others, not until you heard that she had died. Some of you will not grieve for months, or for years. There are three things I would like to share, in honor of Jean White, tonight, with you:
1. Experiencing death and loss, of all kinds, unites us with the world, and with all people. It is perhaps one of the most common human experiences, and one of the most extraordinary. Years ago, during the worst time of losses from HIV/AIDS, when I was pastor of MCC Los Angeles, I was rushing through a hospital lobby, as I often did in those days. A woman stopped me, and asked me what church I was with. I said, “MCC,” and she said, “I thought so, come with me! My brother is dying of AIDS, and needs a pastor, now!” That’s how I met Lloyd. He was a pharmacist, one who cared about his customers. He was very ill, but felt too responsible to die! He was taking care of his mother, his ex-partner, and all his clients. He was tired, but could not let go, because he felt guilty leaving, because they needed him. Lloyd said he had not been able to cry, but then starting crying right then and there! What he did not know was that for more than a year I had not been able to cry either. The multiple losses just overwhelmed me, and I had shut down, in a profound way. As Lloyd cried, I felt so sorry for him, tears started streaming down my face! In that moment, Lloyd and God gave me back my tears, which I have never lost since. What a relief to be able to cry again! Tears are a gift of profound connection and healing. Loss comes to us all, and, eventually, death will come to us all, which is the gateway to eternity. But, grief itself will not kill us! Not grieving, in fact, can cause us to become ill, or shorted our lives – but grieving will not.
2. Remembering is a key to inviting comfort and healing. We must talk about those we have lost. This church has to talk about Jean, remember her voice, her laughter, her preaching, her loving, her affection and her passions.
Today is Remembrance Day – its history is rooted in the unbearable losses of the First World War in the early 20th century. In the face of that horrific loss, people had to express their grief, and remember in order to survive. That original outpouring of grief and love and remembrance still touches a national, and even trans-national chord, does it not? As I flew into London this am, the cab driver and I listened reverently to the Remembrance Day presided over by your Queen. We must remember those who have shaped, loved us, given us life, hope, love. I remember the first Father’s day after my father died. I preached, but I did not mention him. I was afraid to – that I might break down. At communion, a man from our bereavement group came to my communion station with his family. He said it was the first Father’s day since he lost his father, and they were there to remember together. In spite of myself, I blurted out, “Me too, I lost my Dad this year.” I felt a little shocked and embarrassed that I had blurted out my own personal loss, and prayed for them. When I finished, he said, “Now can I pray for you?” I could not think of a way to refuse him, and he grabbed on to me and prayed for me, until my own tears came. What a gift, to remember my father there, in the midst of all that was going on. Thank you God for not letting me get away with denying my loss or forgetting my father that first Father’s Day without him.
3. Comfort comes in rituals and traditions we make for ourselves. My mother and I always say hello to my Dad when a helicopter passes us overhead (which it does amazingly often) – he was a helicopter mechanic, and loved anything that flew. . . Maybe for you it is a meal with friends, checking out the tribute pages for Jean on the MCC website; maybe it is visiting a certain place, lighting a candle. Before my friend Norm died, he gave me this little windup toy of a boy on a bicycle, telling any time I needed him to wind him up and he would be there. I have kept it all these years, and wind it up from time to time when I think of him, and miss him. We must take time and space for those spiritual practices that can connect us with our loved ones and with the God who holds us all together.
God’s comfort means that you and I can get through this loss. It will not overwhelm us. It will not always be this intense, sad or painful. That seems impossible to believe today, but it is true. And it is a blessing.
God’s comfort means that you and I can trust God for the world to continue to go on, even when I don’t know what to do, or how to deal with the loss we am experiencing. I can lean on the faith of others, I can trust God with things I cannot understand. It is OK for the world to go on without me for a little bit, to let go, to let the river of grief just sweep us along for a while. It means we are human. That is a blessing.
Our Rev. Jean White has died, and though death is natural and normal, it hurts. And, it will come to call of us one day, as hard as that is to really comprehend. Jean has left us in this earthly plane, but God has not left us. God is here, and where God is, Jean is, and so are all the communion of saints. And that’s a blessing.
To be comforted is to be strengthened, to our core. To know that God spared Jean White early in her young life, so that we could know her, love her, experience something of God through her. That was an incredible gift, and not even death can take that gift away from us.
Jesus knew his disciples would mourn him – but, mourning was not the end of the story. His death was not the end, but a beginning, of new challenges and incredible adventures for that early church, struggling to live a life of pure love.
That same Holy Spirit, that Jesus preached about, is here today, at MCC South London. We are here, tonight, to offer each other divine comfort, love, connection. A whole world of people, in and out of MCC, are sending prayers and messages of love and comfort to this church, to you, Mary, to Jean’s friends and family. Take in that comfort today as the gift of a God of love, mercy and peace, as the presence of the Holy Spirit in your midst.
Blessed are we, today, as we mourn, for we shall be comforted.