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The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is a writer, conference speaker, the author of Reframing Hope and Tribal Churchand the cohost of God Complex Radio.  

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)


Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Matthew 5:1-12

4th Sunday of Epiphany - Year A

January 30, 2011

I'm sitting on the couch with my laptop open, holding my phone in my hand, when I read Jesus' words. I'm waiting for my mom to text me, as I scanned through this list of all who are blessed. Some of them are the most unlikely characters: the poor in spirit, the meek, the contrite, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst to be good and upright people. Those who are abused.

It's strange how the words of Scripture can travel. And these blessings in particular have made an incredible voyage. Jesus spoke the words, while sitting on a mountain. He left the crowd of people and gathered with his closest friends, and these pronouncements poured out of him. Many people have looked at this sermon, and they've seen it as a complete restructuring of how we ought to think as Christians. It's amazing how these bits of wisdom, echoed from that rocky crag to be passed down from generation to generation. These words--they were rolled into brittle parchment scrolls and archived in caves. The letters have been etched into animal hide so that they mingle with the pungent smell of leather as men and women read them. The syllables have been bound in heavy books, stored in monasteries, placed gingerly into a holder. They have been passed out in small tracts, left fluttering on street corners, and trampled by pedestrians. The words--they come in red and green fonts or on onion paper. They have been covered in colored plastic. Sometimes, you can still find them in the drawers of hotel rooms. And now they have come up on my computer screen, and I scroll through them in an entirely different manner.

These holy messages have been translated and passed down, as the lips of small children chant them, over and over, in the hopes of getting a gold star in Sunday school. They are handed over from one language to the next as scholars debate the interpretation of each syllable. Those echoes of what Jesus said have been whispered and shouted, copied and hidden. And they have moved to us, from that sermon thousands of years ago, to here and now. These words travel to me, these "Be-attitudes" that I was taught as a small child, this meditation that I carried around in my tiny pink Bible, and these grammatical constructs I read in the Greek as a seminary student. Although they have been an intimate part of my life, I hear them differently now, as I grasp the phone tightly in my hand.

"Blessed are those who mourn." These six simple syllables seem to stand up straight off the page and the letters--they have their hands raised--and they are begging for my attention.

I'm in mourning, and for the first time in my life, these are not benign words of hope that should be written in pastel letters on a religious bereavement card. But they're alive, they're active, they're audacious and bold.

Blessed are those who mourn.

My blood begins to boil at the outrage of these words. I think of war-torn streets or a mother burying her child. I think of parents dying and leaving their babies too early. How could Jesus say that there is any sort of blessing in this emotional upheaval? How could Jesus call that person who has aching grief seeping into her joints until she's paralyzed with exhaustion, blessed? 

I know my reaction comes from my particular circumstance, as I stare at these words on my laptop screen. Even though I have been a pastor for a dozen years and even though I have preached these very words at funerals, they sound differently today.

My father's in hospice care. And as I read, he's about to go into surgery. He fell and broke his hip. He's disabled, and his whole body is so worn that there's a serious question about whether he will survive this whole ordeal. But he's in so much pain that there is no way that he could avoid the operation. And so I'm here, pacing the floors, obsessively checking the phone in my hand. I'm waiting to hear if the doctors will go through with the surgery, even with all the risks involved, and I'm feeling that painful, paralyzing sorrow--that mixture of anger and frustration--that becomes so acute when we feel powerless. That's when these words travel to me.

Blessed are those who mourn.

Why would Jesus say this? Some scholars say that "those who mourn" mean those who mourn from their sins. They connect Jesus' words with something in Isaiah, but I don't really follow their logic. Especially not right now. I'm not sure that the disciples made the leap that they've mapped out from these words to Isaiah, and I feel like they've taken something from me.

I am having a difficult time sitting up straight. My body longs for sleep, almost around the clock. I do drift off, for long hours, and yet I wake up needing even more. I'm ready for my father's eventual death. I'm sure that I am, but the sadness, grief, and mourning--they're just so complicated--and on this day when the cacophony of feelings arise, I'm sorting through them and reading how Jesus seems to be saying to me, "You are blessed."

Why would Jesus have the audacity to say this? Where is the blessing in this raw, open wound? Is the blessing upon those who mourn simply hinged upon this future hope that they will be comforted? Or is there, somehow, a blessing in the midst of it? Is there some blessing in the grief and the sadness that washes over me?

Of course, Jesus knew about grief. Even in this small account, Jesus had come from healing. The crowds surrounded him, they pulled upon him, and he saw the broken and the wounded. He saw the mothers with dying children and the children who had been left parentless. We know some things about how Jesus felt in these circumstances. We know that when Jesus healed, he could feel a bit of power leaving him. And when we read that Jesus bore the sins of the world, I imagine they weighed heavily upon him--the crushing burden of our cruelty toward one another. And in this moment when this teaching rises up from him, I wondered, did it emerge from his powerless, burdened mourning? Did he feel that exhaustion and that bit of pain creeping into his joints? Is that why he left the crowds and sat down? Did he just need to gather with his friends and reflect on how upside down the world seemed to him at that moment? It is as if in these words, he sees the needs--the hunger, the thirst, the longing--and, somehow, he sees blessing in all of it.

Perhaps we can't even understand these words until we become poor or meek or contrite. Perhaps we don't know what they mean until our stomachs ache with a roaring hunger and our tongues stick to the roof of our mouths with thirst. Maybe, maybe we cannot understand the words when we feel the most blest. Perhaps they only make sense to us when we hit rock-bottom. When we're so ashamed of what we did the night before that our lips tremble. When we are about to lose the home we are raising our children in. When we finally realize that we have no control over our addiction. When we are in such mourning, that we stare at the ground as we walk and we cannot look up.

Could it be that there is some sort of favor, some sort of protection that comes, even in this loss? Could it be that there is something good in the anguish and grief in the valley of the shadow of death? The problem with a person's death is that you don't just lose the flesh and the bones, but it's also all of the hopes and dreams that you have for that person, that you have for your relationship.

Yet, in the absence of a loved one, there is love there. When we are facing a chasm of great magnitude, there is the possibility of a different sort of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace.           

We don't like this. We don't walk through the valley of the shadow of death in our culture. We like to run through it quickly. We use Kubler Ross' steps of grief as hurdles that we can bound over if we run fast enough, and people ask us why we haven't "gotten over it yet." I don't think we've take the time to stop, to appreciate the blessings of our mourning.

But they are there. They are there with the widow who sits in the Lazyboy where her husband used to relax, just so she can remember the sweetness of his presence. The blessings are there, when we are sorting through clothes, and we suddenly are enveloped with a waft of perfume that reminds us of Christmas with our mom. When the walls of our home seem to be haunted with our lover and we don't ever want to leave. The blessings are there in the facts that the ways in which we hurt each other seem to fade, and the resentment is replaced with understanding. The blessings are there, as we defrost the homemade casseroles that the church-ladies delivered. And they are there, as we eat fried chicken and tell each other stories until our sides ache with laughter as well as pain.

These words. They have traveled a long a way to greet me today, in my bitter, angry grief. And yet, somehow, they have never been so comforting. And I know that I am blessed.           

Let us pray. O God, our Creator, surround us in our blessedness, in our grief, and in our sorrow. By the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.


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