Each life we remember today has a story. A story made up of many stories. Stories of being born, taking first steps, learning to ride a bike. Going to school. First crushes and lasting love. Broken arms and broken hearts. Inside jokes with friends. Halloween candy and Christmas ornaments. Favorite foods and favorite songs turned up on the radio.
Each life filled with what we might call ordinary blessings – conversations and moments that don’t seem all that special, but as they accumulate over time, they make up a life we might dare to call blessed.
“Blessed” is such a tricky word. A scroll through social media nudges us to believe that those who are blessed are the perfect families with the perfect teeth and the coordinating Halloween costumes and an endless supply of funny anecdotes. Except there are no perfect families. And perfect smiles often hide deep pain.
Jesus gives us a different understanding of being blessed today. Blessed are those who mourn, he says. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – for justice. Blessed are the reviled and persecuted. Not the arrogant, but the meek, the humble, the kind. Not the warmongers, but the peacemakers. Not the vengeful, but the merciful. Jesus flips everything upside down. Jesus sees blessing as something other than how we see it. Maybe, he tells us, blessing isn’t about the fruits of our striving or about being lucky or accomplished. Maybe blessing is a source of hope in the midst of struggle.
This year more than ever I need to hear that those who mourn will be comforted. The numbers are too easy to blur into something abstract – the 1.2 million deaths worldwide or the 230,000 deaths here in the U.S. But each number is a person, a life now missing in the lives of those who loved them. Each number is an epicenter of new grief.
And in a larger sense we are all mourning, mourning the people who have died this year, whether from COVID or something else, mourning the loss of so many routines and plans and hopes, mourning the thousands of disruptions in these long, anxious months. If you are feeling overwhelmed by grief these days, you are not alone. It’s one of many reasons that we have these days built into the church year, so that we remind ourselves that grief is a part of life. There is nothing shameful about naming it and feeling it. It helps know that we are not alone.
I recently heard an interview by Kate Bowler with Jan Richardson, an author who is known for writing beautiful blessings for all kinds of circumstances.[i] Jan and her husband Gary got married in the spring of 2010 after a long time of being together and building a life together. Three years later Gary died following complications from surgery to remove a brain aneurysm. The grief consumed Jan for a long while. It’s still with her, though it has taken different forms over time.
In this interview Jan acknowledges that we too often think of blessings as a way of counting up how much Jesus likes us. Because, in our way of thinking, if Jesus likes us, then surely we will experience good and happy things. Except that’s not really how blessings work in scripture, where they more often come as the result of difficulty or wrestling or even despair. Blessings in the Bible have both a beauty and a toughness, Jan points out. She says: “There is no kind of situation, there is nothing in the circle of…our lived human experience that lies outside God’s desire for blessing for us, which translates to God’s desire…for us to have whole hearts, even when they’re shattered.” Jan goes on to say that a good blessing invites us into a space that doesn’t try to make sense of what has happened but to know that God is somehow present there.
As we hear the words of Jesus this morning…Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…we also hear the promises that Jesus offers. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They will be comforted. They will be filled. For every struggle there is a promise of hope. For every wound there is a promise of healing.
The beautiful thing about this notion of blessing is that it makes for authentic community. It means that we don’t have to come together as perfect, posturing people in order to be the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, we are bound together in one holy community, not just in spite of our struggles, but because of them. It’s what we mean when we say that we are a part of the communion of saints – that we are part of a community that brings together the hopes and heartaches of every generation. In that kind of community we can provide mutual support and consolation. And we can also provide mutual accountability for living the way that Jesus calls us to live – as people of humility, people of mercy, people of peace.
I recently stumbled across a video of a speech by Mr. Rogers.[ii] He was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Emmys, and he offered words that seem fitting for today’s observance of All Saints. Let’s listen to those words and accept his invitation. He said:
All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take along with me ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time. [Pauses while looking at his watch] Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.
As you hold in your heart and in your memory those people who have loved you into being, let’s close today with words from Jan Richardson:
For Those Who Walked With Us
who walked with us,
this is a prayer.
who have gone ahead,
this is a blessing.
who touched and tended us,
who lingered with us
while they lived,
this is a thanksgiving.
who journey still with us
in the shadows of awareness,
in the crevices of memory,
in the landscape of our dreams,
this is a benediction. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ