Blessed Are Those Who Weep
Preaching on this passage in one of the richest nations in the world often leads to a lot of handwringing. Far too many of us hear Jesus’ words of woe to the rich and well fed and find ourselves squirming.
Many of us have worked hard, and rightly so, to not be counted among the poor, the hungry, the despised; and the truth is, we’re not about to stop. So it’s quite disconcerting to have Jesus, of all people, calling all of our efforts into question.
If you’ve been around First Churches for awhile then you know I’ve preached many a sermon on how to wend our way through Jesus’ blessings and woes, and if that’s where your mind and heart are stuck this morning, I can send you an alternate sermon that makes some sense of these challenging words.
But as today is All Saints, there is really only one verse I want to focus in on with you this morning: vs. 21b “Blessed are you who weep…” because Church, I know that is where so many of you are right now. And as for the rest of you, you might want to pay attention because even if you are laughing now, your time will come.
Some of us may get through this life with our reputation intact. Many of us will never know what it is to go without or go hungry. But I don’t think it is possible for any one of us to get through this life without grief, without loss, without tears…and yet as hard as that is, I think Jesus is telling us the truth when he says that we are blessed even and especially in our grief, because our tears are a testament to our love.
“To mourn,” says Amy-Jill Levine, “is to say, ‘I loved this person, and I desperately miss this person.’ ……. a heart that knows how to grieve is a heart that knows how to love” (“Sermon on The Mount” p 12).
And friends I think there is a way - without minimizing the pain or saying that the love is worth the grief or the grief is worth the growth - to find some blessing in our sorrow.
But only - and this is the whole point of my sermon, so listen close - only if we remember that this peculiar blessing was never one we were meant to hold alone.
In Jesus’ day - in his faith and ours - grief was not something you were ever expected to have to navigate on your own. Within the ancient wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a deep understanding that grieving is best done in community, in communion, in the company of God and the saints, the living and the dead.
Candles and casseroles, sitting shiva and attending wakes, memorial services and masses, poetry and song, spreading ashes and burying our dead: over centuries we have built up rituals and traditions to carry us through those times when we are too devastated to think straight or know what to do next, precisely so we wouldn’t have to think straight or know what to do next.
It would all just happen whether you wanted it to or not. Whether you felt ready for it or not. And your people would come, whether they wanted to or not. The community would show up for you because the need to follow the traditions and observe the rituals around death trumped all other expectations.
It was never a question of negotiating a day off with your boss or finding childcare for the kids, because everyone was expected to be there. Including the deceased! And I’ll get back to that in a moment. My point is that the rituals and traditions ensured that it would all happen automatically so that when you lost someone dear, you could simply do what you needed to do most…mourn … weep … break down and grieve.
But times have changed and so much has been lost. Even before Covid, as our society has become more transient and secular, I have watched how much harder it is for people to find the space and permission and support to mourn. Grief has become increasingly personal and private - a familial burden to bear rather than a communal one.
And I understand why. I understand that it’s rare now for people to remain in the communities where they grew up. And even more rare for people to afford to retire in the same place where they worked and raised their children.
Combine that with the fact that fewer and fewer people go to church or synagogue, and you find yourself in a nation full of people who not only lack community but also lack familiarity with the rituals and traditions that automatically bring the community together to find comfort in times of grief.
And that’s to say nothing of the deceased. I told you I’d come back to them. Realizing how far they are from the church and the place they once called home and how far flung their friends have family have become, more and more I hear about people who feel like a funeral is too much to ask. And so they tell their loved ones to just have them cremated and not make a fuss.
But friends, hear me, right now, because I cannot overstate this: the fuss is so important. The fuss is so important for it is often in the fuss where we begin to find the blessing.
And I am so sorry that life and covid have robbed so many of you of that opportunity. Funerals aren’t just for the dead. Funerals are for the living. And I think it is terribly sad that they’ve become optional, in some cases even impossible, because death has not.
Prayer cards and eulogies, memory boards and gravestones, even the coffee and casseroles, are not just a way to love and honor the dead, they are a way to love and honor the living; to bless them in their time of need.
Someone once told me that it’s really important to have a reception after a funeral, not only because people have traveled and will need food, but because eating reminds us that we are still alive even when our grief is so severe that we want to die. Eating reminds us that our hearts may be broken but they are still beating, that life goes on and we have the opportunity and obligation to carry on with it.
And eating together at the reception or a restaurant or even in your kitchen at midnight, the remains of a cold casserole in your hands, reminds you that you are not alone in the life that remains. Someone loved you enough to do something unspeakable with Campbell’s condensed soup and for that you can be grateful.
We need funerals and memorials and burials. We need these rituals and rites because we need a place to acknowledge that an important presence has been taken from our midst. We need people to shore us up so we can completely breakdown. We need people who love us and who loved them to show up and share stories of what our loved one meant to them, so we know we’re not crazy or overreacting in the midst of our pain.
The community affirms for us that our loved one was important. Our loved one made a difference. Our loved one mattered; not just to us, but to them. Just as our grief matters, not just to us, but to them. Our community holds the grief with us, an immensity we cannot possibly hold alone… and our community holds out hope for us - a hope we can barely hold at all - the hope that death is not the end of our story.
Stay with me here…
Whether or not you believe in a literal afterlife, there is a sense in which people live on, and we need the community to hold that paradox with us: the paradox that our loved one is not here and yet they are still with us, our loved one may no longer walk beside us and yet they live on within us and all around us.
Even in death our loved ones find us or we find them, over and over and over again. They find us in the appearance of a bird or the turn of a phrase, a photo falling out of an old book or a song on the radio.
They find us at holidays, on anniversaries, in the reappearance of the exact blue of their eyes in the face of a new grandchild. And we need people to share that with. People who can recognize them in those precious moments as clearly as we do.
For some of us those we love will live on so long as we remember them. For others there is the hope that we will one day be reunited in heaven, and the very real sense that we live our lives, even now, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who inspired us with their living and taught us in their dying.
Either way, they are with us, even though they are gone, and we need people to hold that paradox with us because it is too big to hold alone.
In Judaism, it is customary to console those who mourn with the phrase: “May their memory be for a blessing.”
Amy-Jill Levine writes: My father died when I was thirteen; I was devastated. (Full stop). I was able, however, to find comfort in that greeting, since it reminded me that I carried his legacy with me. We bless the memories of the dead when we tell the stories: your Dad made this crib for my baby, your mom knitted this afghan, your dad taught me how to bake, your mom taught me how to drive.”
And we bless the memories of the dead when we allow the best in them to live on in us.
Levine goes on to say: “…How we act has repercussions for the memory. How I acted could bring honor to the memory of my parents…What we do, in the memory of those who are no longer with us in the body keeps that memory alive, honors the dead, and in the very actions we preform, we receive comfort” (p 16-17 “Sermon on the mount” Amy-Jill Levine).
I have seen how a person’s spirit lives on in the lives of the people they love - just as I trust that our spirits will live on in the lives of those who love us. Their life mattered and so does yours. Their time here is over. Yours is not.
There is still time for you to honor your loved one by doing good, knowing that when you do you are planting seeds in the hearts of those around you, seeds of blessing your memory may one day inspire to bloom. There is blessing in that, but it is a blessing that can only be found in company with others.
“An old Hasidic tale tells of a disciple who asked his rabbi the meaning of community one evening, when they were all sitting around the fire. The rabbi sat in silence while the fire died down to a pile of glowing coals. Then he got up and took one coal out from the pile and set it apart on the stone hearth. Its fire and warmth soon died out”(p 234-235, FOW Robert Dunham).
Covid. Work. Life. Moves. So much has conspired in these days to rob us of the warmth and connection we have needed to experience the peculiar blessings of grief. And friends, I am sorry for that, because I have seen the toll it has taken on us all.
And although I know one church service cannot make up for all that has been lost, I do pray that on a day like today: when the names of those you have loved and lost have been spoken aloud, on a day like today when we join together with saints and angels around God’s table, when we sing beloved hymns and gather in Lyman Hall to eat and drink together, that you will know you are not alone in your grief.
In one of my commentaries it says: “To be blessed is to have a special place in God’s heart” (P 239 FOW E. Elizabeth Johnson). When we grieve God is with us, grieving right alongside us. And anyone who has the courage to walk with us will find that God is with them too. God is with you in this valley and so is your pastor and so is your church.
I invite you now to say once more the name of the one you love.
“May their memory be for a blessing”…a blessing you need not hold alone, a blessing we are here now to hold together. Amen.