A Radical Sermon – “Mourn” (Matthew 5:4)
I begin with a seemingly incoherent digression. My father was one of the most sure-footed individuals I have ever seen. He could scamper over rocks, tree limbs, logs – he loved the out-doors and it really did not matter where he was, he was able to keep his feet under him. I honestly cannot ever remember seeing him fall, and I have seen him in some pretty amazing predicaments. One vision is especially clear, and that is how he ferried me and my sister on his back across numerous rivers and creeks without so much as getting our feet wet. I don’t know how many times I was carried across the Pecos river, it has to be in the hundreds. No matter how strong the current we always made it across safely. When I was old enough to get my own pair of hip boots he taught me very carefully how to wade across a river. After having dunked myself in the same river more times than I really care to admit, my admiration for his sure footedness only grew.
I was especially impressed with my father’s ability to wade across a river when it was murky or even more than murky. It is one thing to cross a river when you can see the rocks beneath your feet. When you cannot see the bottom the challenge is exponentially more difficult. But, somehow he managed to feel his way along the bottom, finding just the right crevice or big rock to brace his foot against.
So, what does my father’s ability to wade across free-flowing trout streams have to do with interpreting the Sermon on the Mount? Interestingly enough, much if I do say so myself.
I have already mentioned the difficulty we as Americans have in understanding the word “Blessed.” This is illustrated in translation of the Greek word makairos that was published in the Common English Bible as “happy.” We in America want our Christianity to be a happy one, full of little smiley emoticons, full volume hip-hop music and stories that end “happily ever after.”
In my last post I discussed an equally difficult problem we have with “poor in spirit.” We as Americans are just so proud of our ability to be self-sufficient, do-it-yourselfers. We rebel against any suggestion that we are or even have been dependent upon anyone. In the words of the Pharisees to Jesus, “We have never been slaves to anyone!” And, just for good measure, we refuse to be slaves to anyone now. Unfortunately, that includes God as well.
So, we are in murky water here. This sermon, which I have labeled as “radical” is profoundly disorienting – especially to a culture such as ours. We are barely a few verses into it and already our head is spinning. That, I am convinced, is its perfect design.
So now we turn to the word “mourn.” And, I must confess right up front, the water under my feet is no more clear than it is for anyone else. There are as many interpretations of what this word means as there have been for “blessed” and for “poor in spirit.” But, using other passages as a guide, I think there is a way to understand what Jesus is teaching.
First, as I so often do, a couple of things I think Jesus is NOT teaching. One, I do not believe Jesus is advocating some kind of histrionic cataract of tears that can be called up on a moment’s notice. I have in mind the paid mourners as is illustrated in the story of the little girl Jesus raised from the dead in Matthew 9. A stout onion and a good crowd is all it takes to get some people weeping and wailing. Second, although I am not 100% sure of what he was talking about, I am not convinced that Jesus is talking about the tears that Ignatius of Loyola was talking about in his Spiritual Exercises. I am not a Jesuit, so I must admit some ignorance here.
Rather, I think what Jesus is referencing here are the tears of the great prophets – Ezra, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel just to name a few. And, because the blessing on those who mourn comes immediately after the blessing on those who are poor in spirit, I believe the two are inextricably linked. When we realize our utter dependence upon God we realize how frail and weak we are as humans. That realization should also reveal our sinfulness and brokenness, and having come to that realization we are driven to our knees in sorrow. In other words, we mourn our human frailty and sinfulness. In his great vision of the throne room of God, Isaiah first comprehends the majesty of God, and then comprehends his own unworthiness. Isaiah’s “woe is me” is not the rambling of some deranged neurotic, but is the honest reflection of a person who has come into the presence of the Holy One. It is the response of EVERY person who comes into the presence of the Holy One as recorded in the pages of Scripture.
Second, and just as important, I believe Jesus is speaking here of our ability to weep over the sins of others. It is not only our own sin that should drive us to our knees, but also the brokenness of humanity. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Ezra wept for his people. Jeremiah has been labeled “the weeping prophet.” Our inability to weep over the sins of others is manifested in countless ways. Every year I hear of calls to march in front of Planned Parenthood offices, but I never hear of services where Christians are called to weep for the women who make use of the doctors inside those facilities. We rant and rail against all kinds of sexual promiscuity and perversity, yet how many of us weep for the young women caught up in the sex trade? How many of us weep for the men and women so broken by the world that they have lost the reality of their own gender? We cheer the death of some “terrorist” whose name we cannot pronounce, never even once stopping to ask ourselves about the manner in which they were killed, or about those who were killed with them whose only offense was that they happened to be in the same vicinity?
We cling to our “rights” as American citizens, never ever even once stopping to consider how those “rights” affect countless millions across this globe, or even how they are a part of the massacre of 26 innocent people whose only “crime” was that they happened to be in an elementary school.
Americans, and disciples of Christ in America, have lost the ability to mourn. And, following the words of Jesus, if we cannot mourn, we will never experience God’s comfort.
As long as we are self-sufficient, as long as we proudly bear the banner of our “inalienable rights,” as long as we are able to look down upon others in self-righteous contempt, as long as we are able to overlook our own brokenness and sinfulness, we may have the comfort of our own pathetic little egotistic shell. But that comfort will be fleeting, and we will have to grasp another “right,” we will have to find someone yet more contemptible, we will have to turn away from our own reflection even more violently in order to shore up our crumbling self-defense.
Or, we can hear the words of this radical sermon, and we can confess our utter and complete dependence upon God, and we can fall upon our knees in the depths of righteous sorrow, and pray that God will see our tears and hear our sighs.
Then, and only then, may we receive the blessing of comfort.
Posted on January 7, 2013, in Confession, Spiritual Formation and tagged Christianity, God, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Self evaluation, Sermon on the Mount, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.