Many years ago now, back when I was at Sojourners in Washington, D.C. , there was a small, frail white woman who played gospel music like no one I had heard before—or ever since. Patty knew something about struggle and depression, and her playing came from her heart, her soul, and her gut. She could wring blood, sweat and tears, comfort, hope, and salvation out of even the cheapest, most out-of-tune piano.
Whenever Patty played, I felt the presence of the Holy. Whenever Patty played, I knew that Christ, the suffering servant, was near.
So rooted was Patty in the pain of the inner city and the oppression of her black neighbors that this white woman was hired to be a musician for the Saturday night gospel Mass at an African American Catholic parish. So steeped was Patty in the gospel tradition that she could turn any hymn into a soulful tour de force.
And so it was that, for the longest time, I thought the hymn “Come, Ye Disconsolate” was African American gospel. So sure was I that it must have come out of the Thomas Dorsey school of gospel music that I never even looked it up. It turns out that the hymn tune, written in 1792, has its roots in German folk songs, and the words were written by an Irishman in 1816.
Which is to say: No race, class, nationality, era, generation, gender, sexuality, or gender identity has a corner on suffering and sorrow. The poor, oppressed, and marginalized are more likely to subsist on what the prophet Isaiah calls the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, but not even the wealthy and privileged can escape the pain of heartache and the grief of loss.
All of us, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey (to quote a phrase), will, sooner or later, know some manner of affliction. And all of us, whether we are the oppressed or the oppressor, the hammer or the nail, will someday need comfort. Every single one of us, whether we were born on third base and have sailed through life thinking we hit a triple, or we have been held down so long we no longer believe in up, is a beloved child of God, and all our lives matter to God.
But when the Word became flesh, when the Great Mystery who is Love put on skin and limitation and vulnerability, God walked among us as a particular human being with brown skin and Jewish heritage. Jesus lived among an oppressed people whose lives couldn’t have mattered less to Israel’s Roman military occupiers. He lived and breathed the air of a culture that taught that anyone who was poor or sick or struggling was being punished for their sins against God.
And yet when Jesus began his public ministry, he said it was to those lives he was called.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he preached in his hometown backwater of Nazareth, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Poor lives matter, he was saying. Captive lives matter. Blind lives matter. Oppressed lives matter. Black lives matter.
The religious leaders heard about it and were enraged. All lives matter, they said. The Roman authorities heard about it and fell over laughing. Only Roman lives matter, they said.
But Jesus knew what he was doing. He could feel the desperation of the poor, he could see the despair of the sick. He could see how others treated the taxpayers and sinners, and so it was with them that he hung out. Jesus knew that the people of God would never be made whole until the lives of the poor and oppressed and desperate mattered just as much as every other life. He knew the realm of God would not flourish until the lives of the poor and marginalized were just as cherished as the lives of the rich and powerful.
And so he kept lifting up the lowly and recognizing the overlooked. He continued to bless the afflicted and despised.
Blessed are the poor, he said. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for their commitment to justice. Blessed are you when your family and friends get mad at you when you talk about racism. Rejoice and be glad, because your lives matter. Rejoice and be glad, because God loves you.
The Beatitudes are a template for the realm of God. They are meant to be a comforting word in a harsh world—but Jesus wasn’t executed for being kind. He was crucified by the state because anytime anyone gets serious about loving and empowering the marginalized, there’s going to be trouble. The powerful few and the masses of folks just trying to keep their heads above water are going to feel threatened. The people who like things just the way they are don’t appreciate it when other folks start demanding change.
Some of you have noticed that over the past several weeks I have rarely preached on the lectionary texts for a given Sunday. That’s not because I didn’t like those particular scripture passages but because I had another goal in mind. I knew we were all going through an unsettling, scary, and uncertain time—separated from family and friends and church, stripped of our normal routines, robbed of long-awaited celebrations and much-needed memorials—and so I chose scripture readings that I hoped would ground us and comfort us.
And then George Floyd was murdered by a police officer—which came after Ahmaud Arbery had been killed while jogging by racist vigilantes and Breonna Taylor had been shot eight times by police while she slept in her own bed. And then, on Friday night, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by police in Atlanta. Friends, time will not permit me to examine the details of that killing—say his name—but suffice it to say for now that when someone falls asleep in a fast-food drive-thru, there should be someone to call other than police who are armed to the teeth.
And so, as ridiculous as it is in the year 2020, we’ve had to spend the last couple of weeks talking about the fact that black lives matter. We’ve had to, again, confront our nation’s original sin, acknowledge our privilege, and repent for our part in white supremacy. We’ve had to focus on police brutality and consider the possibility that there will be no racial justice until we completely rethink and reorder how we do public safety, social service, and law enforcement—and that makes a lot of us uncomfortable.
And, with all that conflict and grief, discomfort and anxious hope coming on top of our pandemic weariness—well, it seemed to me we could all use a blessing. And so I turned to the Beatitudes. I was looking forward to sharing with you portions of the First Nation’s Version, which speaks of how Creator’s blessing rests on the ones with broken spirits and the ones who walk a trail of tears. The Beatitudes according to Native Americans also speak of Creator’s blessings on those who hunger and thirst for wrongs to be made right again and those who are merciful and kind.
But our hunger and thirst for wrongs to be made right again will not be satisfied by shutting down and moving on. Comfort comes to those who mourn, and mourning means sitting with the discomfort of long-overdue and messy change, walking the trail of tears with the ones our privilege has left out, left behind and, yes, sometimes left to die. Creator’s blessing rests on those who make real peace, not those who, as we discussed last week, say “peace, peace” when there is no peace.
Some of you probably know the expression “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” You may not know where it came from; it was a statement made by a fictional character in a late 19th-century newspaper column, and he was speaking of the job of newspapers.
As a former newspaper journalist, I’ve always taken that charge seriously and somewhat proudly, but the truth is that is also a good description of a prophet’s calling, a mission statement for a church, and Jesus of Nazareth’s calling card.
But here’s the thing: While we usually think of the afflicted and the comfortable as two different groups of people, Jesus knows that we are all bound up together. Those of us who seem comfortable will never know true peace and blessing until we come to terms with the injustice we have inflicted on the afflicted and dedicate ourselves to making their lives matter. Those who are marginalized and killed and otherwise afflicted will never know healing and peace until the supposedly comfortable join them in upholding their lives and working for justice.
And this, my friends, is where the disconsolate come in. Technically, a disconsolate person is someone who is beyond consolation and comfort; spiritually, it refers to someone who is deeply sorry—almost to the point of being inconsolable—for the pain they have caused by their personal sins and systemic injustices. The hymn reminds us that is when we are at our lowest, our most uncomfortable, our most guilty and afflicted, we can open ourselves to God’s healing and blessing.
So let us continue to sit with the weight of our privilege and the discomfort of knowing all the suffering and injustice white supremacy has wrought and continues to inflict. Let us repent of our racism and actively work against racism. Let us be blessed by this holy invitation:
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come, at the mercy seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts,
Here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure;
Here speaks the comforter,
“Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot cure.”
Here see the bread of life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above;
Come to the feast of love;
come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.