Sermon: Happy are Those Who Mourn

Matthew 5:1-12 (All Saints Day)

Last year, as Patrick and I were driving into San Francisco on All Saints Sunday, he asked me what we were doing in worship, and I told him we’d be lighting candles and naming those we have loved who have died. He said, “Oh, you mean the service where everyone cries?” and his tone of voice made it clear that he was not happy that he would have to sit through another “crying Sunday” this year.

And lest you think I’m telling tales on my son without him being OK with it… Patrick stands up and say: “I”m Patrick Baggett and I approve this message.”

I think a 12-year-old boy — or is it young man?  — can be forgiven for not looking forward to a crying service. But I’m struck by how many adults avoid pain and grief. I know adults who have not held memorial services for their loved ones because they didn’t want to have a “crying” event. They just wanted everything to be happy.

What does it mean to be happy? You ask almost any parent what they hope for for their child, and they will say, “I just want her to be happy.” But what does that mean? Does it mean a life of never crying? Of avoiding suffering as much as possible? For centuries, the meaning of happiness and the way to attain it has been a key question in philosophical debates about the meaning of human life, and of course the ancient Greek philosophers were right in on that debate. They felt the key to happiness was aligning one’s own will or being with that of the created order. If one could do that, then you would be makarios (mak-ar’-ee-os), a Greek word which means happy. That same Greek word, makarios, begins every sentence of the Beatitudes we just heard, where it usually gets translated, in most versions, as blessed.

The problem with the word blessed, however — as scripture scholar Susan Hylen notes — is that “blessed” sounds sort of unreal, like a quality only true saints have, only those especially awesome people whose lives of moral clarity and calling are inspiring but unattainable. Hylen suggests, instead, that we consider translating makarios as “happy” in this famous passage.  As in: “Happy are the poor in spirit. Happy are the merciful. Happy are those who mourn.” Now, “happy” is kind of a thin word in our culture. What’s that bumper sticker say? “If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention?” There could just as easily be one that says, “If you’re happy, you’re not paying attention.” “Happy” denotes someone who’s skimming along on the surface of life, unaware of the unhappiness going on around them or in them.

But, of course, that’s not what the ancient Greek philosophers meant when they used the term makarios, for they were well aware of the human condition, of the suffering we experience. And that kind of surface happiness is obviously not what Jesus meant either, or else he could never have said “Happy are those who mourn.” “He is describing a deeper happiness, the kind of happiness that only comes from aligning one’s own will or being with God’s” (from the Hylen article linked above). This is the way the psalmist uses the word “happy,” which appears many times in the Psalms. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread” (Psalm 1:1); “happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times” (Psalm 106:3). As Hylen says, both the Psalmist and Matthew tie happiness to living our lives in a way that is oriented toward God’s will. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that we are happy when our being — when who we are, those qualities we embody — are aligned with who God is.

And the God of the Bible is not a God who doesn’t want to cry, who doesn’t want to feel, who doesn’t suffer, who doesn’t cry out.  Yesterday, the Worship Committee met to plan Advent. We’re going to be exploring the “divine feminine” within our own tradition to see how our ideas of God and of how God comes into our world open up when we use different metaphors and ways of thinking about the divine. Yesterday, I told folks that the Hebrew word for a woman’s womb and for compassion are related — and both are linked to the verb “to show mercy” and to “merciful.” So, when God is spoken of as compassionate and merciful, which God is spoken of all the time, the feeling texture of the word (in the original language) is that of the kind of fierce and vulnerable love that a woman has for her child (from Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse). As Johnson says,”When God is spoken of as merciful, the tenor of the word indicates that the womb is trembling, yearning for the child, grieved at the pain.” So, when we grieve for others, when we grieve for the loss of those we love, then we are like God. When our hearts are soft and spongey, well-watered by our tears, then we aligned with God’s will. When we feel our insides trembling because of grief, then we embody God’s compassion and mercy. And we are happy.

“We can never be happy in the sense Matthew means by ignoring or downplaying suffering” (Hylen).  The paradox of happiness is that it holds hands with suffering and sadness. As the poet Mary Oliver says, “My heart dresses in black and dances.” To be truly happy we have to open our hearts to love. And if we love, we will suffer because we are fragile, mortal beings, and suffering and death will come to those we love.

Years before I had Patrick a parent told me that having a child is like having your heart walking around in the world, unprotected. I never forgot that, and I wonder sometimes if that’s why I delayed having a child for so long, because I wasn’t sure if my heart could take it, if I was ready to be so vulnerable. That’s a question for all of us when it comes to opening our hearts to love. But, if we do open our hearts to love and its attendant griefs, we are assured of true happiness. Listen to the way Mary Oliver says it, again, in her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.


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