When the Bible Sounds Different

Matthew 5:4
David A. Davis
February 9, 2020
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I had been a pastor for all of two weeks when the call came. A church member had taken ill and died while on a July vacation in New England. He was in his 80’s. He was the president of the Board of Trustees. No one referred to him as a saint of the church, he was too gruff for that. He had been a member of the church for more than fifty years. The first time I met his wife just about two weeks earlier, she told me she had the longest membership in the congregation. I guessed then it was about 138 years. They lived two blocks from the church. Yes, it was my first funeral. I then had six funerals in the next two months; all of them were church members. All of them were buried in the church cemetery followed by a potluck reception in the fellowship hall. The cemetery was the back yard to the manse where we lived right next to the church. The cemetery was where our kids learned at a very young age to dribble a soccer ball around the tomb stones. The potluck lunch each time included jello salads, tea sandwiches (most of them on white bread with the crust cut off), baked ham, macaroni and cheese, and Mame’s iced tea and a selection of Alma’s pies. No one else dare make the pie or the iced tea. I was 24 years old. That summer I began to learn about Matthew 5:4; the second beatitude.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” And somewhere and everywhere a reader of Matthew’s gospel can be heard saying out loud: “Really?” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Really? In his book on the Sermon on the Mount Professor Dale Allison writes what so many must think. “‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ is obviously false as a statement about this life, many sad people die without consolation.” True. True. Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it this way, “Blessing to those who mourn, cheers to those who weep, hail to those whose eyes are filled with tears, hats off to those who suffer, bottoms up to the grieving. How strange, how incredibly strange!” He concludes with a big old exclamation point and his reader can almost see the philosopher/theologian/writer/father/mourner throwing up his hands as he shares his own wounded heart. Throwing up his hands and shouting, “Seriously?!”
Sometimes the bible just sounds out of touch, different than life, doesn’t match the human experience. Sometimes the bible just sounds different. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” come the words of Jesus with such…. certainty. Dr. Allison does offer an approach to the seemingly false promise of Jesus. He offers his readers an understanding. He suggests that Matthew’s Jesus draws upon Isaiah’s promise of the year of the Lord’s favor and God’s comfort to all who mourn. The prophet’s audience are the people of Israel, the people of God oppressed at the hands of captors. “So God’s own righteous suffer” he writes, “the wicked prosper, and God has not yet righted the situation. It is the same in the Sermon on the Mount. The kingdom has not yet fully come. The saints are reviled and persecuted. The meek have not yet inherited the earth. The righteous still have enemies who misuse them. In short, God’s will is not yet done on earth as it in heaven and that can only mean mourning for God’s people.” It is Professor Allison pointing to the timeless, existential groan of grief coming from the people of God in Babylon, in Galilee, and indeed in the here and now. For God’s kingdom has not yet fully come.

I find such a pathway to understanding helpful and compelling when I am trying to wrap my head around this promise of Jesus that just sounds different from the human experience. When I look near and far this week I crave to understand the promises of Jesus for the present. For the kingdom has not yet fully come. In The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “By mourning, Jesus, of course means doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity. He means refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to [the worlds] standards. Such people mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate, its fortune.” For Bonhoeffer, Christ’s blessing is for those who mourn the state of the world and the state of the nation, both so far, so very far from the kingdom. “The disciples are strangers in the world, unwelcome guests and disturbers of the peace” according to Bonhoeffer. Thus, a great, collective, kind of “macro” mourn for the followers of Jesus. The timeless, existential groan of the people of God. For the kingdom has not yet come. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

But all of that on the second beatitude, as helpful as it is to ponder in February of 2020 when it was 65 degrees in Antarctica this week. And this week there was the jarring juxtaposition of the 68th Annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington held the morning after the State of the Union. I went to that Prayer Breakfast when I was in college. The purpose of the prayer breakfast has always been to bring college students from around the country to experience how officials in Washington live their faith in fellowship with one another and how faith informs leadership. And this week, public health leaders around world continue to scramble to respond to a new virus as the death toll continues to rise. And this week a report was released that estimates that 1.5 million public school children in this country experienced homelessness in the last school year. 1.5 million, more than double the number of homeless children in the school year 2004-2005. So, yes, that promise of Jesus in response to the “macro-mourn” from those who follow him today is comforting. The kingdom has not come…yet.

But that is not what I began to learn about Matthew 5:4 in July of 1986 standing next to an open grave in the backyard cemetery. That is not what I learn over and over again about the second beatitude when I hear myself saying it over from this pulpit while I look to the broken-hearted souls sitting here in the first pew. That is not what I learn about “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted” as I find myself driving to meet a family to plan a memorial service and all of my pastoral training and peer review and the classroom work in preparing funerals falls silent and I drive around the block a second time looking for strength and hoping for wisdom and yearning for God’s presence, all the while knowing the only words, the only prayer may just be “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted”. That is not what I learn when this promise of Jesus that can just sound so different from real life when it is paired again and again with Psalm 23 and John 14. When “the Lord is my shepherd” and “in my Father’s house are many mansions” and “Blessed are those who mourn” are read and etched in the heart of the faithful like a kind of faith filled triptych of assurance that stares into the face of death and offers a witness to resurrection life.

Matthew 5:4, the second beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn”; it has been set a part by our liturgical use, by our yearning to cling to it for strength. It has been set a part by the context in we hear it and live. This beatitude has been set apart, ordained for a unique purpose. It is the church’s breath prayer for when we walk through that valley again. It is a witness to God’s promise when we can’t find another words. Last week I quoted another preacher saying that the beatitudes were “performative”. That they just don’t say something, they do something. In the philosophy of communication, it’s called “performative utterance”. Expressions like “I love you” and “I do” and “I’m sorry” and “I promise”. Those expressions just don’t say something, they do something. “Blessed are those who mourn….”; when we speak it, or pray it, or heart it, we dare to believe that some part of the Blessed Savior enters the room, sits at the table, cradles your heart, wipes a tear. When you and I find ourselves wanting to, having to hear it again, it is so beyond words. It’s not an explanation. It’s not a timetable. It’s not even a guarantee. It’s the means by which the followers of Jesus remind one another that our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to him. And more than that, in reminding one another, we dare to believe that Christ himself is present. These words etched so deep. The comfort really comes from The Comforter. “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted”

The first movement of Brahms’ German Requiem is a setting of Matthew 5:4 and a few verses of Psalm 126. The first words of the choir are selig sind, blessed they. Sung very quietly, but with intensity. Before the choir begins, however, the orchestra starts with these low notes. There is a quarter note beat that begins with the basses and moves through the cellos and violas. Boom. Boom. Boom. The rest of the orchestra comes in eventually to be joined by the choir. “Blessed they” comes amid that steady, ever present, almost heart beat like march of those quarter notes. For Brahms, it is as if the promise of comfort comes quietly, expressively, intensely, amid the steady march….amid the steady march of life and of death. God’s comfort, so far beyond words.

What I have learned about Matthew 5:4, the second beatitude, is that when I hear the words, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted”, I see faces. The more I hear the words, even if I am hearing them come from my own mouth, the more I hear them over time, year after year, the more I hear them, the more meaningful they become. Mostly, I think, because I see faces. It’s not like some power point flashing still shots in my imagination like at the Oscars when they show the faces of those who have died in the last year. No, I see faces at those potluck receptions. I see faces gathered around kitchen tables. I see faces in this room and faces huddled on a bitter cold morning in a circle a few blocks down the street across from the library. I see faces of those whose hurt is shockingly fresh and those who have carried it for 35 years. I see the now countless numbers of faces yearning to have these words from the lips of Jesus wash over them. I see the faces of the church gathered for worship week after week where there are, in fact, always those who mourn. When I hear the words, I see faces.

And at the end of the day, when the scholarly books are closed, and when I find I can’t do any better that this with words, any better than I have tried to do here this morning with words, when the words written or spoken don’t seem to work, I want to show you the faces! Those faces in my life and ministry, the stream of faces it is as steady and sure as the march of life and death. Streams of faces, like quarter notes that start somewhere in string bass section. It is the march of the faithful who have found comfort. I can’t explain it. I can’t put it into words. But for goodness sake, for God’s sake, I’ve seen it. It is the march of the faithful who mourn; who have found comfort in and from the One who said “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted”

I have seen it. Thanks be to God. I have seen it.