Matthew 5:1-12 November 1, 2020 (All Saints’)
The pandemic has complicated the standard greeting, “How are you?” I can’t say, “I’m great!” I don’t readily admit if I’m not doing well. “Fine, thanks,” sounds like a total evasion. I’ve opted for “Hanging in there…” which is generally accurate. On days I don’t know how to answer, I can run down a list of possible emoticons on Facebook and post one as my status. Fortunately, there are so many options – sad, grateful, stressed, crazy, blissful, amused, dazed. It annoys me that Facebook will only allow me to post one emotion at a time because that is seldom my reality. Why do they have a relationship status of “it’s complicated,” but not one for my emotional status?
At the top of the list is “feeling blessed.” I don’t like this status and never use it. It is a theological issue for me because I have a healthy regard for the Beatitudes. I memorized them right after the ten commandments in 4th grade. The standard practice is to say “I’m blessed” when things are going well, but that is not what is happening with the Beatitudes. Feeling blessed often gets the Beatitudes backward.
Instead of blessed are the poor in spirit, conventional wisdom says, “Put on a happy face.” There are hundreds of books out there telling us to be positive, that there are laws of attraction in the universe that will bring the things we want when we think positively. Only a small handful of books council us to pay attention when we feel poor in spirit, times when we can explore our inner world and face our existential challenges.
Conventional wisdom does not tell us to take time to mourn our losses. Move on, get over it! We pay lip service to stages of grief, lining them up like a nice row of hurdles that we jump over in logical progression so we can get back to normal. Sure, you should grieve a little bit, but people act as if you have pathology if it goes on too long.
We don’t lift the meek and merciful as blessed in our culture. Instead, we are told things like, “Nice guys finish last.” How could we possibly think the meek will inherit the earth? We all know the race goes to the swift. You have to seize the day. Don’t retreat, reload. Don’t get too caught up in mercy because what goes around comes around. People get what they deserve.
Peacemakers may get holidays named after them – after they are shot. But if you want to know who is blessed, take a look at the Defense budget, not the school budget.
So, what is so blessed about the Beatitudes? We think we are closest to God when everything is going well when we are happy, successful, and in charge. But Jesus says that we are closer to God when we experience vulnerability – when are spirits are poor, when we mourn, feel powerless, when we hunger and thirst for meaning when we try to be pure in heart, but find out how impure we really can be, when we take on the difficult work of peacemaking or get persecuted. Truly in these difficult moments, we come closer to knowing the real presence of God.
I think this is true. Striving for success is in my DNA. I’m a “three” on the Enneagram. I can put a long list of accomplishments on my resume, college awards, grade points. I think I still hold my high school’s record for the mile run (since it closed.). But none of this has brought me closer to God. It might lead me to think I can manage pretty well on my own.
Through my struggles, I have come to know God through tragic losses, health crises, huge mistakes, and heartbreak. I learned of God’s love for me while undergoing several surgeries and the pain of divorce. God became more real to me as I realized that I could not control things, and I have to let go. I have come to know God in my trials, failures, tragedies, and hubris.
Through the Beatitudes, Jesus reminds us to keep our eyes open at the most unlikely times because that is when we might find the true reality of God’s love. Maybe that is what makes someone a saint. This morning, as we remember people who have died in the past year, we have room to feel blessed by their memories and give room for our grief.
An important book I started during COVID is “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” by David Kessler. There are so many grief triggers during this pandemic, not just because of death, but all the things we have lost and delayed indefinitely. Kessler was a colleague who worked with Elizabeth Kubler Ross on her pioneering work, Five Stages of grief – denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. Kessler continues this work, and his 21-year-old son’s sudden death hammered him due to a drug overdose. The book is about his journey towards finding meaning in grief, which he believes is the sixth stage.
Here is what I appreciate about Kessler’s stories. He is trying to show us that meaning is not a complicated philosophy to penetrate by intensive reading. Meaning often brushes up against us, like the moment when we first notice the leaves changing colors. How long was that beauty there? Did I walk past it before, or did a slight change in routine put me in new territory? Meaning often comes to us like Moses approaching the burning bush. He didn’t know what he was seeing. He had to get closer first, and even when God spoke, he didn’t know he was on Holy Ground. God had to tell him to take off his shoes. The blessing takes some time to sink in.
This story is one of my favorites. Linda was nine-years-old when her mother died of cancer. She felt robbed of everyday life, jealous of her classmates who had perfect mom-and-dad families. When she was 12, she was on a walk with her Dad in an old town cemetery where she saw an engraved tombstone, “William Berkley, March 15, 1802-March 18, 1802.” She remarked, “This baby only got three days.”
Her father explained that babies often died young in that time due to a lack of medical understanding, but Linda was startled to realize she had never thought other people had grief and loss. She said, “I never realized I could have Mom for even less time.” It was the beginning of a sense of gratitude for the time she did have for her mother.
After a few days, this changed to fear. “What if you died too?” she asked her father. “Honey, let’s hope that doesn’t happen for a long time.” Linda had seen a commercial on television about life insurance. For $1 a month, you could buy a policy that could help pay for funeral costs so you don’t burden your family. When she mentioned this to her father, he asked if she would feel better if he got the policy. Linda answered, “Yes, but don’t die.”
Years later, Linda appreciated this honest and real discussion of death and her father taking her needs seriously. Fortunately, her father did live a good, long life and died at home at the age of 84. Linda gave her father a wonderful send-off and buried her father next to her mother in the cemetery.
A few weeks later, Linda and her husband were rushing to a charity fundraiser for cancer. She grabbed her mail and found an envelope from Freedom Mutual Life Insurance, with a check for $600. It was from the policy her father bought after Linda had seen the baby’s tombstone. She remembered her father’s gesture with gratitude, and though she no longer needed the money, its emotional value greatly exceeded $600.
Later at the Fundraiser, she sat with her husband, watching the presentation, and it came to the time of the big reveal. If they reached the goal of $500,000, a big donor would match with a grant of another $500,000. The MC pulled at the envelope and said they currently tallied $499,400, yes, just $600 from their goal.
Linda felt electrified. She raised her hand and shouted, “$600 here!” Her father’s $600 exactly matched the goal. Looking back, Linda realized that a child who had lived for only three days in 1802 had not only had a powerful effect on her twelve-year-old self, helping her to value her mother for nine years she had but would now be able to touch countless others. It brought home to her that no life, however brief, is without meaning.
The story brings home to me that blessings come in the moments of grief and challenge. So I wonder what that means for 2020. I don’t hear many people saying this is the year we are truly blessed. But what will we think of looking back ten years from now? Maybe we will say 2020 was so hard, but it was the year that ushered in significant change. The year we finally shifted from our illusions, we became less materialistic and selfish, more compassionate, and just. I don’t know. But I do know what the Gospel proclaims; God is near to us even when our spirits are low when we are grieving and crying out for justice when we are fearful and anxious about the future. Blessed are you, tired and broken as you may feel, for you are still the good soil where God plants a seed of hope; you are a bearer of the light of truth. Blessed, are you. Blessed may be all be as God has more light and truth to show us.