Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, March 8, 2015

The Path of Blessing: Blessed Are You That Hunger
[Psalm 63; Luke 6: 21, 25; Matthew 5:6]

Let us pray.  God who loves us like a mother, we thank you for the gift of life & for our own mothers who gave us birth. They have embodied values that remain with us forever.  We also thank you for our “other mothers” who have been present when our own mothers were absent or unavailable. We thank you for fathers and grandparents who have “mothered us” with tender and firm guidance. We thank you for all who mourn, shedding tears of love. God, you promise that each and every one will be comforted.  We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
            Today is a full day. We are celebrating the Gifts of Women and also welcoming the Girl Scouts who meet in our church. We are remembering the lives of Naomi and Ruth, two wise women of the Bible. We are also remembering those who mourn, one of the characteristics of citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven, described in Jesus’ Beatitudes.  Today is International Women’s Day.  Everyone here is invited to the Fellowship Hall for lunch after church, because our Presbyterian Women have prepared a meal for you – baked spaghetti, salad, bread and dessert, in hopes that you will make a small or large donation to the on-going ministry and mission of our women throughout the year.  We thank you in advance for sharing this meal. Everyone worshiping today is part of our FAMILY.

            On this International Women’s Day, I call to your attention some of the women who have made a “mark” in our world in the past year.  On Jan. 6 Janet Yellen, an economist, became the first woman head of the Federal Reserve, taking charge of the country's monetary policy—and working hard for everyone's money.  On July 1 Michelle Howard was promoted to four-star admiral, a rank never held by a woman.  On August 13, the prestigious Fields Medal was awarded to Stanford mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first calcu-lady to win the 78-year-old honor, for her mind-expanding contributions to geometry and dynamical systems. On August 15, Mo'ne Davis was the first girl to pitch a winning game in the Little League Baseball World Series—and the only Little Leaguer ever to land on the national cover of Sports Illustrated.  On Nov. 4, former Saratoga Springs, Utah, mayor, Mia Love, was elected to the House, becoming the first black female Republican to join the ranks of the congressional GOP. On Nov. 21, Susan Morrison became the first woman to serve as executive pastry chef in the White House kitchen.  On Dec. 11, Ava Duvernay earned a Golden Globe nomination for Selma, breaking down barriers as the first black woman director to be honored. I celebrate these named women and many others who continue to break into professions where women were once excluded.  I have to confess, I never met a woman preacher as a child, and as a high school student I was “told” by some of my pastors and fellow Christians that women should not be ordained to the office I now hold.

            The national organization of Presbyterian Women every year prepares a worship service to celebrate the Gifts of Women. This year the focus is on the partnerships between senior women and younger women:  mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, grandmothers and granddaughters, mentors and their mentees.  The seniors offer their wisdom and life experience to younger women. Younger women offer new ideas, energy, technological expertise, thinking outside the box and respect for their elders.  These partnerships between older and younger women are priceless, more precious than gold.  Having healthy relationships of love and mutual respect can mean the difference between life and death.          Who has mentored you to be the woman or man you have become? Who has offered wisdom, forgiveness, a fresh start, a boost or a hand-up when you were down?  Who has held you accountable to the calling God has given you?  Who has loved you unconditionally?

            In our Old Testament Lesson, because of a famine in Bethlehem, Elimelech moves to Moab, a foreign country, with his wife, Naomi, and her two sons, who married Moabite wives: Orpah and Ruth.  Sadly, Naomi’s husband dies.  Ten years later both of Naomi’s sons die. For a woman in that generation and culture, hers was an unbearable loss, because women’s lives were dependent on men. Without a father, husband or son to support her, a woman was destitute. Naomi decides to return to her homeland.  She releases her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and find other husbands. Orpah kisses her mother-in-law good bye, but Ruth refuses, saying:  “Please don’t ask me to leave you, for where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God.”

            This Scripture is often quoted in weddings; however, the original context is a time of grief & mourning.  The words express the love of a daughter-in-law for her mother-in-law. Ruth is committing herself to love, follow and care for an aging parent-in-law who was not biologically related to her.  This was not expected or required, but was a gift she freely gave.

            Jesus cares for those who mourn and weep, because tears are precious in God’s sight.  God comes alongside us at times of loss, as Ruth came alongside Naomi, when the two traveled back to Bethlehem.   Ruth became the stranger in a foreign land, but God blessed Ruth with another husband, Boaz, who loved her and provided for both her and her mother-in-law.

            Women have come alongside one another at times of grief and loss since the beginning of time.  It’s not good for one who mourns to be alone.  Many rituals surrounding death provide comfort and fellowship for people who grieve.  When someone dies, we instinctively prepare food for the family, though they often have no appetite, because it gives us a reason to show up, hug the family and be present when words fail.
Duncan and I have offered Grief Support Groups, because we know that when grieving people come together to share their experiences, they discover they are not alone. In mysterious & divine ways – people who grieve together also find moments to laugh and support each other. There was a time when I believed my strong feelings and tears were a sign of weakness, but there is now strong scientific and medical documentation, demonstrating the strength of tears and the power of shared grieving.

            I took an intensive course on “Emotional Intelligence” at Louisville Seminary and had a profound revelation about myself.  The workshop put people in groups which met for extended periods of time. The only agenda was to be honest about one’s emotions. People were randomly selected and discussions were kept confidential.  My group contained more men than women. Some had been “mandated” to take the workshop by their employers or by religious superiors.
I expressed how I was feeling naturally; however, one man in the group verbalized a strong negative reaction to me.  My “ease of expression” was disconcerting and he wanted me to be quiet.  I did become quiet, while the two group facilitators worked hard to help that man and others become freer in talking about their emotions.

            On the last day we were asked to evaluate the week. I shared these thoughts:  “I have remained quiet for the last half of this workshop, because I realized my ease in expressing feelings made someone uncomfortable. I held myself back hoping he would grow in his ability to express himself, but if I had to work with that individual on a daily basis, I would not be silent just to make him happy.  I learned here that emotional intelligence is my strength, not a weakness.”

            Stoically holding back our tears and emotions can be damaging to our health. Tears cleanse us when our hearts are broken. They flow naturally when we experience profound losses. Jesus understood that.  When his best friend Lazarus died, even though he intended to raise him from the dead, he wept.  Matthew writes:  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Luke writes: “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”

            In times of immediate grief, people don’t want words of explanation, but rather the quiet presence of someone who weeps with them and says nothing. Grief strips us and leaves us vulnerable.  Marjorie Thompson reminds us:  “Loss stretches, sobers, shapes and strengthens us. The blessing comes in growth we often see only in hindsight,” not in the moment of weeping.
            Not all grieving is about death or loss.  We also grieve our sins and failures with tears of regret.  Some biblical scholars believe Matthew was talking about this kind of sorrow.  During Lent, we are called to develop self-awareness about our sins and the ways we hurt people.  When we show humble remorse, God comforts us. If we arrogantly pretend to have done no harm, we are sadly mistaken.  All of us are complicit when evil prospers. It’s heart-breaking to hear the daily news about wars, Islamic extremists beheading Christians and kidnapping young women and children. However, it’s not all “out there.” We are not being honest if we don’t see the root of evil in our own hearts: our egotistical need to be more right than everyone else and to punish those who disagree with us.  What is writ large in the world around us… is lurking in our own hearts.

            Jesus wept over Jerusalem, which means city of peace in Hebrew, because of their hard-heartedness.  He said:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Mt. 23:37) 

            When we mourn the bloodshed in our world and our own complicity in it, we are taking a first step on the Way of Blessing with Jesus.  Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” However, the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, like a mother who gives her own life for her children, brings reconciliation to a broken world.  Let’s choose the path Jesus marks for us. I choose to be part of HEALING the world God loves.  Let us pray.

Marjorie Thompson, “Tears as Anguish, Tears as Gift,” The Way of Blessedness, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003), p. 37.