Feb. 2, 2020
1 Cor. 1:18-31
A nun from the Buddhist monastery that the Confirmation class and I are going to sent me an intro to Buddhism video the other day. As I was watching I was reminded that at the very core of Buddhism – the central problem that Buddhism seeks to address – is the conviction that life is suffering. Salvation, or Nirvana, is simply the process of escaping the cycle of suffering that is life, which it turns out is not so simple.
I’ve never been able to accept this as life’s basic premise. It’s not affirming enough or hopeful enough as I see it. It goes against our great Judeo-Christian claim that when God created God called it good. That to be, to be called into existence, is essentially good.
But, I have to say that of late I’ve been feeling the Buddhists’ point. Certainly, there is no shortage of suffering going on all around us and especially within our church family now.
I am thinking here of the suffering that Mike and Andrea Burke are feeling, but I am thinking also of the suffering that many others in our church are feeling deeply at this moment as well. And, interestingly, today at this time, we come upon Christ’s famous “beatitudes,” the “blessings” he shared with his disciples, and we hear him say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
I’ve been reminded lately of just how much there is to mourn.
There is the mourning of loved one’s lost.
There is the mourning of plans and dreams interrupted by tragic changes.
There is the mourning of stability stripped from us.
There’s the mourning of relationships broken.
There’s the mourning of our own fragility and vulnerability in an unpredictable world.
There’s the mourning of decline.
There’s the mourning of beautiful histories coming to an end.
There’s the mourning we do when we lose the control we thought we had, when we lose those things that gave us meaning, when we lose our sense that God is both present and powerful.
I know people who are in pain right now with all of this mourning. And Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Does he mean, in the end, in the afterlife, when we’re in heaven, or when God’s plan for creation comes to its great culmination? I believe he does. I believe in part that God’s comfort is a future reality. It is a promise that all will one day know. But, I believe that this is only part of it. I believe also that we are called to seek, and able to find, God’s comfort in the present. I believe that life, lived life, is of value to God not for some future time after we’ve spent our time here on earth, but for the now. Life is a gift, meant to be experienced as a gift, and God’s comfort is meant to be now as well.
Here’s how Eugene Peterson translates Christ’s words in his lovely version of the Bible called, “The Message.” Jesus says, “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
It’s hard to tell a grieving person that they are blessed. In fact, I don’t think we should. I don’t think that God is in the business of doling out grief. But, what I hear from Peterson is that loss does have a way of awakening our desire for God. And, God has a way of using that desire to meet us where we need God. Often it takes time; I wish I knew why, but what I’ve found is that God arrives. God arrives in moments of peace, moments of clarity, moments of prayer, moments of conversation, moments of fellowship, moments with beauty, moments of worship, moments with the sacrament, and even moments of service. Sometimes the moments are a temporary respite from grief, and sometimes – maybe it’s when we’re ready – these moments change our lives.
What I believe and what I’ve seen is that God comes. It is never predictable and it is always according to God’s unique way of love, but God comes. And, what I also believe is that at some point, God comes to those who grieve by coming through those who grieve. Again, this is not the reason we grieve, but instead it is part of how God works to redeem our grief, to bring from it something new and something that feels like a kind of healing.
When I was first entering ministry I had a mentor who said to me, “When you are sad and feeling lonely, go out and visit someone who may be feeling sad and lonely too.” I may not have used these words at the time, but my first years of ministry were definitely and partly a time of mourning. My schedule – working many evenings and weekends – didn’t make it easy to cultivate friendships. My salary didn’t make it easy to afford entertainment. And believe it or not, my title didn’t make it easy to date. Dating a minister wasn’t what many women in their 20’s had in mind for themselves. So, in a way, I was mourning a kind of loneliness. I was mourning a loss that I felt by heeding a call that I felt. So, I followed my mentor’s advice. My primary job was youth, but I made the rounds visiting the shut-ins too and as I did I gave them someone who would honor their stories and they gave me kindness, generosity of spirit, and pictures of what matters most in life.
I hope I never forget Kay. Kay was elderly and lived alone in a small home that bordered one of the New Canaan elementary schools. She was there when New Canaan was a simple town and she watched it transform into the remarkable affluence that colors it today. But Kay stayed simple. Every day for over 30 years she walked across her yard and the ball fields of that school to read to the children. This was her vocation. Toward the end of her life Kay had quietly become a something of a celebrity. Grown children all over town smiled when they saw her. “You taught me to read,” they would say. Everyone remembered Kay’s storytime, and when they remembered they loved her. It occurs to me that of all the powerful and important people living in that town, of all its many power brokers, Kay may have had more influence than any of them. I’m not sure that I’m totally on point here with our theme of grief and mourning, but it seems to me that when the Apostle Paul speaks of the foolishness of the gospel and of using what is weak in the world to shame the strong, this is what he means. Plus, I’ll say that as I struggled with the losses that I felt as part of my own vocation and sought comfort by offering comfort to Kay, I found in the richness of her life a kind of encouragement that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. And this is what I mean that sometimes God comforts us by comforting though us.
It is not always the case that we are in a place to find comfort by being comfort. Sometimes, we need to be lifted to Christ by others who will love us and hope for us on our behalf. That’s legitimate and if you are there I’ll say, let us – let the church – do that for you, please. Sometimes the blessing of God’s comfort comes as we seek to be blessings to others. We’re gathered as church also to make space for that possibility. We’re gathered as church to make space for the God who comes.