"Times of Mourning, Times of Blessing"#91-10
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 5, 2023
By Rev. Dr. John Nunes, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Matthew 5:4
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. From Matthew 5:4, Jesus speaks, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Or as the New Testament scholar Jeff Gibbs translates these words of Jesus: "The people who are mourning are blessed, because they will be comforted."
The people who are mourning, we know them, we are them. Because there is no life that has not tasted some bitterness of grief, no heart that hasn't been wounded by some sort of loss, something toxic that someone said or did that poisoned your sense of innocence, and left you limping through life. Someone special to you whose death, no matter how much in advance you knew was coming, you still find hard to accept: that aching, gaping, unfillable space in your soul called grief.
Perhaps your soul is at attention today, not for yourself, but for someone you know and care about, and you're hoping that this promise of comfort from the lips of Jesus will not only reach their ears, but may lift up their hearts with blessings for their shattered situation, with comfort for their complex predicament, and with hope for their hurt. I believe that Jesus lifts up the hearts here of the people who are mourning. Because Jesus knows that their pain, our pain, my own inner pain reveals a spiritual sensitivity about the way life should really be, the way God intended it to be. The people who are mourning grieve because they know that they are meant for so much more. That something isn't quite right with the way this world turns, the way people turn against one another, the way our best-laid plans turn to dust in the palm of our hands, the way death seemingly lurks around every corner we turn, uninvited, unscheduled, unannounced, unanticipatable. The way the diagnosis we thought we beat returns.
No, this is not just some run-of-the-mill quotidian sadness. In fact, there are nine different words to describe sadness in the New Testament, and Jesus here chooses the saddest of the sad here, because He knows that not every death is a biological or physical death. This word is not just about one or two minor matters that didn't turn out quite right in life. This word is about those with a gift to see that beneath even death is a deeper, broken state of things, in a world that has catastrophically fallen away from what the Creator created us to be. Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, takes a levelheaded look at the rhythm of how this world turns, and he concludes that there is a "time for everything under the sun." A time not only to dance, that healthy souls, holy souls, will also mourn. The people who are mourning possess that deep-down sense that the world is simply way off kilter.
Nikki Porter is a registered nurse in a hospital ER in a tough neighborhood of Chicago. Her words on Facebook caught my attention. Quote, "Grief is about more than death. When you are blatantly destroying your relationships, please ask yourself, is it worth the loss you're about to experience? You may be doing more damage than you can see when relationships are assassinated, when respect is wrecked, when trust is cut completely apart, when marriages are gutted by gutless and gut-wrenching betrayals." She goes on to say that "our culture has it backwards. Even celebrating breakups as a kind of newfound freedom. It's disgusting and destructive," she wrote. "We even have divorce parties with cakes topped by figurines of dead grooms." End quote.
So I reached out to Nikki via direct message. I DMed her to learn more about what motivated her to post these strong words. You know what? I was 100 percent sure she would respond because Nikki is my daughter, and I just officiated at her wedding to Marcus. And so I've edited her reply when I asked her what motivated her to write this, taking out way too many emojis for me, you know, sad faces and broken hearts and stuff like that. And here are the actual English language words that she used to explain her post.
"In the emergency room, we treat patients who, most of the time, are in an acute situation. It's serious and urgent. And among my psych evaluation patients, it's like a revolving door to the emergency room, not only due to the lack of a continuity of care, but due to a critical lack of support networks, actually, a lack of family." She's speaking here of the kinds of communities that are supposed to provide comfort, which God has designed into the human experience to support us. And so she continues, "So we see the self-harm: drugs, suicidal ideation, homicidal ideation, auditory hallucinations, battery, and overall abuse. And based on my experience," she says, "once you dig through the rubble, most of these dear folks have grief at the ground-zero level of their mental status. A sense of loss, mourning, maybe in an abnormally evil world like this, their sadness is more normal than we think."
What my daughter Nikki sees in the ER, Pastor Reed Lessing sees in another sort of hospital, a place designated for the healing of souls, a place designed to offer the medicine of eternity, a place with the healing words of good news, the healing bread of the Eucharist, the healing waters of Baptism, the healing forgiveness for sin that is confessed. The people who are mourning are blessed because they have found this place of healing. Or let me say it better. They have been found, or as my British or Canadian friends say, they have been found, by the Comforter who comes to them with healing for their grief. Pastor Lessing puts it bluntly, quote, "Unresolved, un-mourned grief causes a boatload of problems, and so many are stuck in all kinds of bad behavior, because they never grieved over an alcoholic dad, or an unloving mother, or mistreatment, or prejudice, or bigotry. Rather than actually feeling it, actually grieving over it, actually going through the season of mourning, it's so easy to just put our head down and ignore it." End quote.
We all have dark nights of the soul. In a world like this, how could we not? To not grieve over the suffering we see, over the natural disasters and floods and earthquakes that sweep away thousands to a sudden death, over the unnatural deaths of street violence, the premature deaths of the unborn, or the stubborn unbelief that is a sickness unto death? Of course we grieve. But when grief seeks to engulf our souls, when it prowls around like a roaring lion seeking to overwhelm our lives, we must resist it by throwing all of our cares on God in prayer, the One who hears and cares for us. There are times when it might also be helpful to find a mental health professional, someone to talk to.
Hundreds of millions of Christians this week are celebrating a festival called All Saints Day. It's a day in which we pause and give thanks for those people of faith, both in our lives and in the history of the church, who paved a foundation for us to walk the journey of faith with Jesus. I once asked a congregation of people to raise their hands if they had a parent or grandparent or family member who passed on to them the Christian faith that they now believe. And I was surprised to see the number, about 75 percent, three quarters of those present raised their hands. How about you? I then asked them whether they had people in their lineage, children, grandchildren, their progeny, their offspring, with whom they themselves could share the story of Jesus. And I won't ask us to raise our hands for that one. But All Saints Sunday is an intergenerational experience.
But it also opens us up to pathways of pain called grief, acknowledging and remembering the heroes of the faith who went before us, on whose shoulders we stand, and when we stand on their tall shoulders, we ourselves can see further down the road. We can see the blessing of the comfort that comes to us from the eternal future of God. And we can also see backward, to the history of the saints in the Bible and in the church, and how they kept the faith, and overcame their tests and trials, and were blessed in the stresses of their time. There is healing power in remembering.
In the particular Christian tradition to which I belong, we believe that God is the Giver of all gifts, including the gift of the family of faith—those others, who maybe aren't genetically related to us, but are our sisters and brothers and fathers and mothers in faith, those through whom God provides comfort, encouragement, and support along life's way. We say it this way in our doctrinal documents, that we, quote, "approve giving honor to the saints." And quote, "We ought to praise the saints themselves for using these gifts of God."
As important as all the saints are, the people who are mourning reserve their highest praise to the ultimate Gift-giver, the Blesser, the Provider, the Comforter, Jesus Christ, whose once-and-for-all death on a cross is for all the saints, is for all the people who mourn, for all humanity, for all who sing and no one hears them. Or worse, for all who have a song but cannot find their voice to sing. Or even worse, for all those whose song has all but died. For you today, there is Good News. His Name is Jesus: your hope, your help, and your healing. Come to Jesus, as He comes to you.
Martin Luther, as he meditated on the blessed Sacrament, offers this comfort to those who receive the real presence of Jesus, the medicine of eternity. They receive so much more than just bread and wine. Luther writes, "Do not doubt that you have what the Sacrament signifies. That is, be certain that Christ and all His saints are coming to you, with all their virtues, sufferings, and mercies to live, work, suffer, and die with you. And that they desire to be wholly yours, having all things in common with you." Do not doubt, dear sister, dear brother, in the midst of your piercing grief, that you are not alone. Jesus stands with you and the whole company of His heaven stands with you, God's gang, you might say. So stand firm with God as your mighty fortress, you are not alone. But the "same kinds of suffering you are experiencing are being experienced by your sisters and brothers throughout the world," 1 Peter tells us. Yes, the people who are mourning are blessed because they will be comforted.
Listen to these words, almost like a benediction, from 1 Peter 5:10. "And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace will come to you, with power and glory and healing and comfort." And here Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, piles on one verb on top of another verb to drive home that point, that God will not stop acting on your behalf until He saves you. For the people who are mourning, God will restore. Which means to return you to the original state of perfection that God had in mind for you.
And then he adds, "confirm," which means to punctuate your perfection within an "Amen"! And if you're unable to perceive of that, he adds "strengthen," which means to make you strong; strong against sin so that we may not be damned by it; strong against death so that it may not devour us; strong against the devil so that he may not keep us captive. And if that doesn't help you, he adds another verb, "establish," which means to root you in a state of blessing for your shattered situation, a state of comfort for your complex predicament, and a state of hope for your hurt, undeserved, unmerited, unwarranted, unconditional, and unbreakable. And yes, unto us who mourn, but are counted as blessed. In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
No Reflections for November 5, 2023
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Sing with All the Saints in Glory" by William J. Irons and William B. Roberts. (Tune © 1995 Augsburg Fortress) Used by permission.
"For All the Saints" by William How and Ralph Vaughan Williams, arr. John A. Behnke. From Hymns for All Saints: Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs (© 2008 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.
"Behold a Host, Arrayed in White" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.