“I pray that the God of our Lord, Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” Ephesians 1:17-18
During seminary I spent my internship year with a wonderful congregation in Sierra Vista, Arizona. They provided a beautiful community in which to learn how to be a pastor. I’ve often thought how much the folks here and the folks there would enjoy one another. There was an older gentleman in the congregation whose wife had died a few years earlier. He came by the church every Wednesday afternoon to spend time in the Memorial Garden, where her ashes had been placed. He would sit there for a long time visiting with her. Sometimes he would stop by my office on his way out, and one day he told me that he talked to his wife every day throughout the day, as if she were still alive and right there with him. He talked to her while he did household chores, while he drove around town, and while he sat in his favorite chair and watched television. He asked me one day if I thought it was OK that he talked to his dead wife. I said that of course I thought it was OK. It was a way of staying connected to her and keeping her memory with him.
This man’s wife had been the cook and preparer of meals in their household. She had also been a long-time volunteer at the local hospital. Before she died, she made arrangements for her husband to have lunch at the hospital cafeteria each day after she was gone. When she eventually did die, he managed to figure out breakfast, but he went to the hospital at the same time each day for lunch, and then he brought a few leftovers home for supper. If he failed to show up for lunch, someone from the hospital checked on him. That had been part of his wife’s instructions to her colleagues there.
I’m moved every time I think about how they remained connected even after her death. He kept talking to her in the present as if she were still here. She had made sure he would be fed and cared for in a future that she would not be able to share with him. The separation of death was there, and it was painful. But there were also moments that transcended that separation, connecting this life and the next.
When we hear Jesus’ words in the gospel today, it can be tempting to think of them as a list of future rewards or punishments, a distinction between this life and the next. And Jesus does allude to a heavenly reward that awaits people who are persecuted for the faith.
Jesus uses the language of blessings and woes throughout his sermon. Blessed are the poor…blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep. And then there’s the reverse. Woe to you who are rich…woe to you who are full…woe to you who are laughing.
Our culture has trained us to think of being blessed as something we earn for being especially deserving. But the word here for “blessed” can mean something closer to satisfied or unburdened.[i] Feeling unburdened is such a rare experience these days. It sounds like a gift.
And on the flip side, the word for “woe” is meant to be a clear contrast to “blessed,” but it doesn’t really mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” It’s a bit like our word “yikes”; it’s meant to get our attention. So Jesus is promising relief to those who are facing difficulty, and he is saying “look out” to those for whom things are easy or comfortable.[ii]
But time is not always linear, especially time in scripture. These blessings and woes aren’t necessarily just describing some future of rewards and punishments. I think that Jesus is reminding us that life brings it all together – poverty and wealth, hunger and fullness, weeping and laughter. We will have all of these experiences in this life at some point. We will hunger for something that we can’t have. We will feel satisfied by something we didn’t expect to happen. We will feel financially insecure. We will receive a surprise gift to get us through a hard time. We will cry because the grief and the worry are overwhelming. We will smile as we remember that silly thing our loved one used to do.
This life is not neat and tidy. This life is a jumble of joy and pain, tears and laughter. Sometimes all at once. Sometimes with the past, the present, and the future all tangled up together in echoes of memory and longing and hope. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Look out, your life will not always be easy. You will experience difficult, heartbreaking things. But those heartbreaking things will not break you forever.”
In today’s second reading two words are repeated several times. Those words are “inheritance” and “hope.” We have both because of Jesus. We inherit the promise of God’s presence, an unshakeable love that holds us fast in this life and in the next. And like any inheritance, we do nothing to earn it other than being born as children of God. It’s the immeasurable depth of God’s grace that makes that promise true for each and every one of us – and for the loved ones we remember today.
Jesus is the source of our hope. Jesus is the source of our strength when it feels like the grief will pull us under. And it has nothing to do with getting what we deserve or being rewarded or punished. It has everything to do with what Jesus has done for us already.
Listen again to the words of St. Paul in Ephesians: “I pray that the God of our Lord, Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” (1:17-18).
As we kneel around the altar for communion this morning, we experience that hope in a different folding together of time. We are part of the communion of saints, meaning that we are joined with all those who have come before us, all those whom we have loved and lost, all those yet to be born. We are joined to all the people around the world who receive this meal. We are part of a community so profoundly beautiful and interconnected across time and space that we cannot comprehend it. It is holy time and space. Take a moment this morning to savor being part of that body of Christ, that communion that has no end.
We remember so many people this morning. I love what theologian Frederick Buechner writes about remembering. He says:
Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether, where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change…Who knows what “the communion of saints” means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us.[iii]
Jesus is the One who was, who is now, and who is to come. By defying death, he has defied time. And so today and every day to come, we receive the inheritance that only he can give, a blessing that sends us out with hope. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Thank you to Matt Skinner for his helpful commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4256