You can’t pay me to do a funeral. There is not enough money in the world. It was never the thing I looked forward to doing when I was training to be a Pastor. Part of me wanted a younger church for the simple fact that I didn’t want to bury my sheep and my friends. I will always remember Carla Freel, my first funeral, and the weight I felt performing that sacred service, though I didn’t really know Carla. It took a lot out of me.
Perhaps on the outside, it doesn’t seem that hard – saying a few things to honor the dead, letting people speak so they can have closure, saying a prayer by the graveside. But in effect, it is you taking on the grief of dozens of people, trying to find in a senseless situation some semblance of meaning, some reason to hope. I think part of the reason we pay pastors is to be a type of “spiritual punching bag,” to mourn with those who mourn, to speak when everyone else is speechless. It takes something from you when you bury someone. Something you can’t get back. It doesn’t matter whether you knew the person or not. And you can’t pay me to do that. I do that because I am called to do that. Because we are called to do that. I do that because Jesus says, “Blessed [or happy] are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”
The Greek word here for “mourn” is Penthos. To quote Richard Foster, author of Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, “There simply is no good English equivalent. It is a frequent experience for those who walked across the pages of the Bible, and a recurring theme in the works of the great devotional writers. Penthos means a broken and contrite heart. Penthos means blessed, holy mourning. Penthos means deep, heartfelt compunction. Above all Penthos means the Prayer of Tears” (Foster, pg 37).
This is what Job’s friends do for him in Job 2:11-14. The scriptures record, “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” At least, that is how it started. That is how his friends were before they started to apply meaning to Job’s suffering, before they started blaming Job for his own suffering. This is not to say that sometimes we are not to blame for our own suffering. Surely most of us can think of bad decisions we made or circumstances that we were responsible for that lead to our suffering or to the suffering for those we love. But unless a person gives us permission to speak Truth into their lives, telling them “I told you so” usually doesn’t do any good. And indeed, there is a type of suffering that is simply senseless, at least to us anyway. The proper response when someone is grieving is not first to make sense of it all, but simply to be present to them. To quote Erik Kolbell, author of What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life:
“Turning our hearts toward those in pain is all they really ask of us. They don’t want platitudes about how suffering is meant to wizen us or humble us or strengthen our character. They don’t want to know that it is God’s mysterious will behind the loss of the family farm or the family pet, or that the scales of justice will somehow, at some time in the illimitable future, tip in our favor with riches equal to what we have lost. Like the thief on the cross who, moments before death found him, found paradise in the person of the man who was hung alongside him, healing is most deeply felt when vulnerability is met in kind. As a friend of mine said some months after her husband died, ‘In the depths of my grief when people came to visit, I appreciated the ones with the good casseroles far more than the ones with the bad theologies.’ Or, as Bill Coffin observed, we are better for having mourned in the presence of those who comfort us than not to have mourned at all, because the entire experience reinforces our interdependence, the gift that we are for one another. Shared mourning is a thing without which we could not live” (Kolbell, pg 53).
I have been here long enough to know that this church knows a thing or two about mourning. Some of you have endured your fair share of tragedy over the past few years, and I am sure others have endured tragedies they are hesitant to share with anyone. It is the tragedy of the modern church that we divide our churches so much by age and musical taste that many young adults simply do not come in contact with saints who know a thing are two about loss, whose lives have been seasoned by the blessing of mourning by the prayer of tears. Only God knows why we have endured some of the things we have endured, but perhaps one reason that those who mourn are blessed, why they will be comforted, is because it is through our own mourning that we learn to have compassion for others. And compassion is the key to healing, the key to allowing God’s power to work through us.
Isaiah 53:3 prophesizes that the Messiah, the Christ, would be “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief.” It is interesting to me that in the Gospels, before Jesus heals people, the scriptures note that he had compassion on them. The Greek word here translates literally into a movement of the bowels, a deep inward emotion, a gut feeling, a stirring of the Spirit that affects the body. In Matthew 9:36, when Jesus saw the hurting and afflicted masses, the scriptures record, “He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” One of the greatest miracles in the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus’ friend Lazarus was preceded by one of the shortest verses in the Bible. On hearing the news of the death of his friend, the scriptures record that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). To quote Kolbell, if the story of the raising of Lazarus teaches us anything, “it is that the seeds of healing (derived from the Old Saxon helian, meaning wholeness, or life) lie in the deep, rich soil of compassion. When we are so humble as to get down on our knees, run our fingers through that soil, tend and feed it, water it with our tears, feel it cool and moist between our fingers, we too realize that we all tread upon this same earth, live with the same fears, hopes, losses, and loves, and in this commonality have the power to keep one another whole” (Kolbell, 54).
Loss can jade us, can’t it? It can imprison us in fear. It can make us vow in our hearts never to love that much again, never to hope that much again, never to dream that much again, never to trust that much again. But if we only we had the ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us today, “Blessed are those who mourn for you shall be comforted,” then we would see the great power that we have as a people, the great power we have as a church, and we would open our hearts once again.