THE TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
November 12, 2017
The Rev. Dr. John H. Eastwood
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-14
Our lessons today are about the Advent theme of Christ’s final coming in judgment, the so-called second coming at the end of time. We hear a portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica which is dominated by the expectation of Christ’s return in glory. Christ had promised to return and gather up the faithful, living and dead, and bring a new era of God’s reign. A life of living fully in God’s eternal joy was what they were waiting for. But as the days and weeks progressed, the church folk were getting restless and beginning to wonder when this was going to happen. As time passed, their hope began to wane. Some had stopped working and were just waiting. They were grieving, as Paul writes, as a people without hope. They were left only with their sadness, a people without hope.
Sometimes mourning can be like that. Darkness all around, everything seems overwhelming for a time. I know what that is like. In those first days after Judy died in mid-January, I could not break into a smile. Life alone without her seemed grim. I was entering into a dark, uncharted territory in my life. After 46 years together, I was alone, without my partner to love and to support, and to feel her warmth and loving care in return. The future seemed bleak.
And so it was for the Thessalonians. But, Paul had a tip-off from Timothy, who had recently visited, about how the people were feeling, and so Paul put on his pastoral hat. He wrote words of comfort and encouragement, placing the strengthening meaning of Christ into their grieving. He reminded them that God had been through what they were going through. In the death and resurrection of his Son, those who believed could find the basis for their hope, a “steadfastness of hope” as Paul puts it earlier in his letter. Here the Thessalonians could find the source from which to draw comfort, encouragement, and faith in the face of their loss.
“Blessed are they who mourn.” Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant by these words? In my experience, I have had to find the meaning of those words, too. One day, in passing, my daughter asked me the question I am asked frequently by friends. “Are you okay?” I don’t like that question. I don’t feel okay sometimes, and I didn’t then. She wondered what was going on. Later, when we had time to talk, I explained that sometimes I feel like I am walking down a road in a fog. As the road goes downhill, the fog darkens. As the road goes uphill, it lightens. That’s the sadness, and that’s how some parts of my days are, but, there is something else about this fog. I see light coming through down the road, sometimes there are glimmers of light, at other times there are times of peace and serenity. After traveling this road for some months, I now see that while the fog remains, it is lighter, and the light is stronger. There is sadness as well as joy, a meaningful life we lived and a new life yet to come. In the end, as the wise ones say, joy follows sadness.
I think for us, in our day, it is important to understand the importance of mourning, and, unlike the people in that long-ago time, have a sense that good news can follow sadness. I was reminded of this by a doctor I see regularly. In our office visits, he is usually quiet, says very little. In March, I saw him and I disclosed to him that my wife, also a patient of his, had died. He asked how I was doing. After I shared with him how I was trying to manage this new life, he said “Pay attention to your grief. Take it seriously. Too many people today don’t do that. Denial is the way people handle it often. It is not healthy. It won’t go away. It will come back and haunt you!” I left his office with that sobering message feeling encouraged.
Mourning is not simply a personal experience. We mourn as a society, don’t we? The headline in a New York Times article recently read “In Places of Worship Scarred by Bullets, Long Memories, and Shared Pain”. The article chronicles the places of worship where we mourn the losses due to gun violence in our culture – a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, Sutherland Springs, Texas and other houses of worship. “Every time this happens we feel the pain again”, said a priest of one of the congregations. Grief remembers other griefs. Violence in all its forms – guns, racial hatred, hatred of gays, and other forms – cause us to mourn for safety and peacefulness on our streets, in houses of worship and all public places.
But do we mourn in hope, or simply grieve like the people in our scripture today who are sad but have given up that anything can be done? That is a question that confronts us all. And our answer, here at St. John’s, is in being a place of safety, sanctuary, and in our providing for ministries like the Gubbio project for the homeless and Night Walks in protest of street violence. That is what it means to grieve as a people with hope!
Clarence Jordan offered an interesting reflection on “Blessed are those who mourn.” He said, “real mourners grieve over injustice in God’s world. There are ‘fake mourners’ who say ‘Sure, the world’s in a mess, and I guess maybe I’m a bit guilty like everybody else, but what can I do about it?’ What they’re really saying is that they are not concerned enough about themselves or the world to look for anything to do.” His point is that mourning elicits courageous, hopeful engagement. When we, at St John’s join with other congregations and walk the streets of the Mission on our regular Night Walks, we do so not simply in sadness for those who have been killed or wounded on our streets. We do so in hope that awareness of the problem is raised and that we witness to the fact that there is plenty to be done with our policing and community support for reforms in justice about gun violence and its root causes. Jordan, clearly not a fake mourner, warned:
You’d better watch out when a fellow gets that certain gleam in his eye and a certain set to his jaw. He’s getting ready to ‘mourn.’ And he’ll be awfully hard to stop because he will be receiving tremendous strength and power and encouragement from seeing his mourning become deeds.
We grieve as those with hope.
Similarly, that is the way Henri Nouwen ended his little book entitled “In Memoriam.” He went to the side of his dying mother as a son and as a priest in the last days of his mother’s life. He read psalms to her, gave her the last rites, celebrated the Eucharist at her funeral, and prayed over her grave. It was a time of safety until he could discover the “strange joy” as he put it, of becoming a “man alone in a new way.”
In closing, Henri wrote these words, about the way losses can bring hope, and hope can bring important new deeds. They are very important to me as I hope they are to you.
Mother’s death is God’s way of converting me, of letting his Spirit set me free. It is all still very new. A great deal has happened in these weeks, but what will happen in the months and years ahead will be far more than I can now understand. I am still waiting, yet already receiving; still hoping, yet already possessing; still wondering, yet already knowing. . . I know that I must be patient and allow her who taught me so much by her life to teach me even more by her death.