Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sermon: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, All Saints Day 2014

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 2, 2014
All Saints Day

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 3: Gifts
“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn”

Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV
            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.
            4Blessed 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.

Here we are on week 3 of our Stewardship Sermon series. Our focus this week is on “Gifts.” On a day like this, when our entire worship service is structured around our invitation to the communion table, as we remember and celebrate the Saints who have gone before us, it is easy to consider the gifts we have received. In this very congregation, we have lifted up to God eight of our own members, who we have loved and cared for in their lives of faith. Edythe Handy, John Slover, Evelin Alleman, Anne Price, Dee Jensen, Don Beaver, Darrin Reed and Pam Conroy were beloved friends. They were parents and grandparents. They were the people who shared with us in our study, who sat by us in worship, who made things happen, who welcomed the newcomers and who poured us drinks without even asking. These eight members are more than we could ever capture in a single moment, because they were, for us, the body of Christ. And today, we give thanks to God for these people who have gone before us, in life and in death. They are saints, they are witnesses, they are beloved children of God, who have been welcomed home.
As we approach our scripture today, we do so as people who are desperate to hear good news. We do not come to the table today without the burden of grief or longing; this is not a normal invitation. Because, like so many other occasions we have had, we are accepting an invitation to a supper that feels as though it is missing a guest. Our grief comes, not just in death, or in the memory of a loss, but in the fading away of dreams and hopes. Perhaps you have lost a career, perhaps a diagnosis has sent your family spinning into chaos, perhaps you long for restoration in a relationship that can never be made whole. It is with all of these losses and griefs that we come to our Gospel reading with the hope that it will provide us with some sort of guide as we cope with the empty feeling we have in the wake of these absences.
            Shortly after Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, he also invites 12 men to come and be his disciples. “Follow me,” Jesus tells them as they are raising their nets, “and I will make you fish for people.”  The news of Jesus’ fame spread throughout the land, as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and healed the sick. Great numbers of people flocked to hear him, and when Jesus saw that the crowds had gathered, he went up on the mountain and begins to preach.
What Jesus preaches to them is the sort of sermon all preachers hope to give. Jesus knows his audience intuitively, and speaks directly to each of their concerns, because he knows that “loss comes in leave-takings, in slowly losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s or cancer. It comes in the loss of employment or dignity. It comes from struggles with illness both of body and mind. It comes from the exhaustion of caring for those with special needs. It comes from disappointment at home or work or school, of dreams deferred or hopes dashed.” “Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to all who can hear. These are his first words to the assembled congregation.  
No one has ever called the broken in spirit “Blessed.” Rather they are typically asked who it was that sinned, their mother or their father. No, this is not the crowd that is blessed. This is the crowd that has no other hope than to listen to an off-beat rabbi teach something altogether new about their scriptures, as he heals demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics. They are not blessed because they are broken-spirited, but they also haven’t given up hope, and hope points to a place in the future where our prayers are answered.
Now, consider the crowd that might be gathered. Nadia Boltz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor in Denver, CO, who founded a Lutheran Church called House forAll Sinners and Saints (HFASS, which is a fantastically subversive acronym for a church). She was a woman who came to her faith after living through addiction and illness, but realized that the often sordid company she kept always sought her out as the one to share pastoral care. She answered a call to ministry and now she serves a congregation that is filled with the least of these. It is packed with former and current drug addicts, drag queens, artists, musicians and every faithful person in Denver who’d ever thought there wouldn’t be a true church home for them. Nadia writes that she was very comfortable with this, until she was asked to preach at Red Rocks on Easter Sunday. The next week, the congregation started morphing into a crazy hybrid of her own people and the folks who looked a lot more like their straight-laced parents. She sat back and looked at the congregation and thought, “Who are these people? Why are they here? This is not a church for them.” Until she witnessed the folks who had been long-time members gravitating to the new visitors. They became, in fact, the straight-laced foster parents of the children who had been abandoned by their own families of origin. She watched as the people she never expected to arrive, showed up and started sharing their love.
            This sort of congregation must have been what Jesus was observing as he looked out over the masses. Here, were not the crowds of fisherman or dutiful women. Rather, there were the aged and withering, the cynics and skeptics, the outcasts and the lonely, the tax-collectors to keep an eye on things, the curious and the desperate, the Pharisees and scribes. “You can see them looking back at him. They're not what you'd call a high-class crowd—It doesn't look as if there's a hero among them. They have their jaws set. Their brows are furrowed with concentration. … It is not his hard times to come but theirs he is concerned with, speaking out of his own meekness and mercy, the purity of his own heart.”[1] With this bizarre collection of people from all over Galilee, Jesus begins to speak, starting with a message that will fall on the ears who are most desperate to hear it, “Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
            If we’re being honest, Jesus could have stopped right there and gone home. There is enough wisdom and hope in the opening lines of this sermon that we don’t need much more than that. But, Jesus is kind. So he continues, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
            In each of these statements from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers promises that are unconditional. This means that these are not future-looking promises. They are already true. So, when Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” there is no condition under which our mourning isn’t blessed, and no condition under which we shall not be comforted when we grieve. It seems impossible to imagine, in the thick of our grief, that there will ever be a time when the loss before us doesn’t define our lives or ways of living. It seems impossible, even selfish, to move forward in the wake of such grief. It is important to remember that our futures are never determined by the realities of our past. Jesus reminds the hearers in that sermon, just as Jesus reminds us today, that we shall be comforted when we mourn, because when we struggle, we are not being faithless. “Struggle, doubt, feeling overwhelmed, wondering if God is out there – these aren’t signs of failure or lack of faith, but are actually a testament to profound faith as we wrestle with such deep questions and thereby take God seriously. And so when we feel at our most low, and wonder if we have lost our faith, God names us among the most faithful. Blessed are those who struggle[2] because “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
            Jesus continues his sermon to include the blessing of the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and for the Jesus’ sake. Again, these are not the citizens that society rewards or blesses. These are the people who are outcast or forgotten, scorned and mocked. Jesus speaks directly to those of us who are struggling, who seek to be the Gospel, to live as people transformed by our faith. But, it is so challenging when the world speaks back to us. Why be generous when we could save our resources and build up our own empires? The world calls us to be self-serving, but the world does not bless us as Christ does. Christ says, “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
            In one of the stewardship resources I’ve been reading, author urges us to “move from being a consumer of church to being a contributor.” On a day like this one, when we celebrate and lift up the gifts we have been given, it is a blessing to consider how we can give back to the church (which is never just a building) that has shaped and formed us. Consider the ways in which our Saints were contributors to our life of faith, and to our shared ministry of transforming the world for the sake of the Gospel.
            Yesterday, I was talking with Sloan about what happens when we die; at least to the extent that I know everyone does so. She asked astonishingly pointed questions upon the revelation that we both age and will come to a mortal end. “Will someone bring us all back together again?” Yes, Sloan. It is God who will bring us back together again. “Will someone make us not old? And alive again?” I’ve never before had a grounded understanding of the resurrection that is promised to all of us, but when my beloved daughter asked this question, I had no trouble answering her with an assurance that came from beyond my own understanding, “Yes, Sloan. Jesus will restore us to the people we were, in the company of all who we know and love.” What an incredible gift to be the recipients of this promise of eternal life. Let us celebrate that promise, here at the table, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be filled. Rejoice and be glad, sisters and brothers, for your reward shall be great in heaven.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.