Text: Matthew 5:1-12
It is our custom on this first Sunday of November to remember those who have died in the last year as well as those saints from years past that we hold so close in our hearts. To borrow the old words found in the liturgies of our faith, this practice is “meet and just and right.” All Saints Sunday gives us space to grieve and remember those we have lost; and it also offers us a way to give thanks for our loved ones’ lives and for the place they still hold in our hearts and world. But here is the other thing this day gives us space to do: it allows us to grieve other losses. The kind of loss that deserves notice and demands comfort and comes from many places, not only death. Loss that comes in the form of leave-takings, or as we slowly lose a loved one to Alzheimer’s. It comes in the loss of employment or dignity and from struggles with illness both of body and mind. It comes from exhaustion of caring for a special needs child or an elderly parent and the occasional recognition of all the things given up in order to offer that care. It comes from disappointment at home or work or school, of dreams deferred and hopes dashed. Such loss comes at us from so many sources. And today, we are invited to remember those losses and somehow find a way to bless them.
In some ways, our text this morning offers the same invitation but from a different perspective and with different words. Out of our remembrance of what has been and what is, we are invited to think about a way forward—a new way of living in the world. And out of our gratitude for what has been and what is, we are invited to consider some world-changing blessings.
One theologian writes: “If you were raised Christian, you are probably familiar with the beatitudes. They’re one of the ‘top three’ texts that you get to memorize in Sunday school along with the Ten Commandments and the Twenty-third Psalm.” These eight short sayings lay out Jesus’ core teachings in a wonderfully concentrated and compelling format. Curiously, though, these teachings of Jesus are also the least commentated upon by our church fathers and mothers and theologians. They are not so easily understood and possibly more difficult to live.
Matthew begins, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:” Of these disciples, Clarence Jordan writes:
They were young, and life pressed on their hearts like steam in an unpopped kernel of popcorn just before it explodes. They wanted action, adventure, achievement, and happiness. To be sure, they lived nearly two thousand years ago, but that does not alter the fact that they desired to make their lives count significantly. Like all Jewish young people of that day, they grew up with a keen sense of responsibility toward God and toward their nation. They believed that they were prepared to pay whatever price they would be called upon to make to serve both God and county. But there were problems—big problems. In their personal lives these twelve men had not begun to face their inner fears…inwardly they were as uncertain as swamp muck—and they knew it. Just to look at them, you’d think they had never had a care in the world and had never given much real thought to the big issues of life. That’s because with the physical eye you cannot see anxiety and greed and selfishness and lust and hate. But you sense these things and know that they are real. Yes, these men had thought a lot about God and prayer and faith and sincerity and loyalty, yet they were far from any clear understanding of these things.
There was also another set of problems, caused by the world situation. Their country was occupied by the tyrannical military government of Rome, so there was the ever-present question of the right attitude toward these enemies. Race prejudice was so prevalent that a [person] hardly knew who [their] neighbor was. The staggering taxes, already about a third of one’s paycheck, kept alive the problem of what one would eat or drink or wear. The middle class of people had almost disappeared; there were only the very rich and the very poor…It was a dark hour indeed.
Does the context sound familiar at all? Can you see yourself as one of those disciples lost in your fears and uncertainty about your life and the world? But more than that can you imagine being in such a place and hearing someone you respect and trust say to you:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely—these are God’s people!
Imagine what you would have thought or felt sitting there listening to Jesus say these words. Would you have thought this is nonsense—has he lost his mind? Or maybe, like some folks in lectionary this week, you would have thought there is no way I can live up to that. Forget it, I’m out of here. For certain, these teachings of Jesus are hard to understand and even harder to follow. But if you begin to break them down as Clarence Jordan does on the front of your worship guide they actually become possible. Consider:
- Maybe, just maybe, we can work on being spiritually humble and open our hearts to receiving something new from God. Maybe we can empty ourselves just enough to hear the Spirit’s stirrings above our own stirrings.
- And maybe, just maybe, we can open our souls to being vulnerable enough to be deeply concerned about our neighbors and world. Maybe we can be strong enough to mourn, to cry real tears, when we hear the cries of the world.
- Maybe, just maybe, we can learn to be gentle with ourselves and others—taming our fears and compulsions that lead to hurtful and harmful words and actions.
- And maybe, just maybe, we can deepen the yearning within ours hearts to do right—to see as God sees, to love as God loves, to forgive as God forgives.
- Maybe, just maybe, we can learn to be more generous; and as a result experience life and the world as being more generous with us. Maybe we can come to know that mercy and generosity is not something that God has but rather is something that God is.
- And maybe, just maybe, we can work on our motives and learn to center all that we do in one thing and one thing only—justice love.
- And if we can work on all of those things bit by bit, then maybe, just maybe, we can be a people of peace and good will;
- And that peace and good will will give us the strength we need to not worry so much about what other people think about us or say about us.
What do you think? Can we practice these life-changing, world-changing blessings in our own lives: staying spiritually open to a force greater than ourselves; vulnerable to ourselves and others with deep concern; gentle and generous with a heart focused solely on love; spreading peace and good will no matter what others might say about us? Can these things be our moral compass and our spiritual guide?
I want to illustrate how these beatitudes can be real in our lives with a story—a real experience I had recently. A woman walked up to me at conference I was attending and asked if she could speak with me privately. (I should be used to that request but it always makes me a little nervous.) “Of course,” I said. She began, “I need to ask for your forgiveness.” Not knowing what she meant, I said, “I don’t understand.” she continued, “Some years ago my son came to talk with you. He was having trouble and struggling with his sexuality and I was really struggling with it from a faith perspective. Our church was not a place he could go to for help. After his visit with you I called you. And after a few minutes of listening you said, I think the best thing you can do is focus on your love and care for your son and simply love him.” Then she said, “After that brief conversation I was so angry with you. I said all kinds of mean things about you. But I need for you to know that I have been on a journey. It’s been rough but I’ve learned a lot about what people go through who are struggling with their sexual identity. I can see now things I couldn’t see before. I know now that God is in it all and that we can’t control people but we can control how we love. Can you forgive me for all the anger I directed your way? You know there’s a lot of people out there who don’t like you but I don’t want to be one of those people.” Blessed are those who have a heart open for something new from God. Blessed are those who open their lives to being vulnerable. Blessed are those who are gentle and generous; whose motive are centered in love.
The world says hate. The world says we know it all, we don’t need God. The world says live your fears and your compulsions. The world says hold on to grievances. The world says there’s not enough, you can’t afford to be generous and gentle. But Jesus says, “Blessed are…”
I chose this text for All Saints Sunday specifically because I believe it is through our own personal saints that we see glimmers of these beatitudes. When we love deeply, and are deeply loved, we see through and beyond the way the world says things “should be” and into the heart of God. Think back to the saints that you hold dear. Did they teach you to let your heart break for the pain of others? Did they lead by example a life of humility? Did they show you and others in their lives mercy? I believe these are the gifts of saints, and the reason it is so important to hold them dear, to remember them, and to invoke their names and memories in this sacred place.
Today we recognize our losses, and we bless them, for it is in the very pain of their absence that we know their value. We bless them, because we carry them in us, as us. We bless them, because loss is one of the doors through which we enter the kingdom.