(Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3)
5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Today we celebrate the lives of loved ones that have gone on before us to our heavenly home. It is a day that we look back on all the memories and remember the times that we shared before they left us. For some, there are only good memories. For others, there are only bad memories. But for most us, there is a nice mix of both good and bad memories. And memory can be a funny thing. As time goes on, we can find that some memories can change. Did so and so really say what I remember him saying? Did so and so really do what I remember him doing? Memories can get fuzzy over time.
There are some among us today who have lost loved ones in the last year. They are still very much in the ongoing process of grief and mourning. Their world has been turned upside down. They are likely confused and deeply saddened in their loss. Their world has taken on a heaviness they neither asked for nor wanted. All we can do is pray for them and assure them of our love and support, assure them they we love them and are grateful to continue having them in our lives. The grieving process involves learning to cope with a hole in our lives, a hole created by the absence of a loved one. It takes time and patience to learn how to cope with the holes in our lives. Grief is a process. Coping with holes doesn’t happen overnight. It takes times.
To ease the process of grieving, we can take comfort in the readings we have lifted up this morning. First, John provides great imagery of what we can expect in our heavenly home in the book of Revelation. He tells us that in heaven there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” What awesome imagery of a gathered multitude! Our differences will no longer matter. Men and women, young and old, of all colors and nationalities, will be clothed in radiant white robes, praising our heavenly Father. We will no longer be defined by the bodies and situations we were born into. We will no longer worry about our needs or the needs of others. Everything will be provided for us. John states we “will hunger no more, thirst no more, the sun will not strike us, nor any scorching heat.” The Lamb “will guide us to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.” Oh, what a blessing to hear these words of revelation from John! We will struggle no more! We will want no more! We will need no more! Oh, what a glorious life we have waiting for us! Not only that, but what a glorious life our deceased loved ones are experiencing now! There is great blessing in John’s words for both the grieving and non-grieving among us.
In his psalm of thanksgiving, David mimics the praise and thanksgiving of all the angels in heaven. “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” proclaims David. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be shamed.” David teaches us that we don’t need to wait until we get to heaven to lift up praise and thanksgiving to our good and gracious God. God provides for us each and every day of our lives. God is with us each and every day of our lives. Our bodies and earthly existence haven’t removed us from being in the presence of God. Our sin keeps us from being aware of God but even that doesn’t send God away. God continues to be with us in spite of our sin. God loves us unconditionally. Nothing we do can make God not want to be in relationship with us. God wants to deliver us from our fears, save us from every trouble, just as He did for David. David was no more special than you or I. David simply had the guts to stay true to his relationship with God and cling to it in the good times and the bad times. David knew that God never left him just as God never leaves you or me. And David did some pretty stupid things in his life that should have made God leave him, if not love him less. Yet God loved David…God loves you and me. Oh, what a blessing to hear David’s song of thanksgiving!
The apostle John reminds us that because of God’s love, we can claim to be children of God. He writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” As God’s beloved children, we have come to know God through Jesus Christ, also a beloved child of the Father. Knowing Jesus is what justifies us as being God’s beloved children. If we know Jesus, then we know God. If we know God, then we know we are loved. On occasion, I like to test kids on what it means to be a “saint.” All Saints Day, today, is one of those occasions. So, kids, what does it mean to be a saint? Better yet, how does one become a saint? Is there a rigorous training regimen to go through to become a saint? Is there a spiritual “boot camp” to endure to become a saint? What qualifies a person for being a saint? Over the years, I’ve gotten some pretty creative responses…some involving tires…some involving ropes. Some have claimed sainthood is the result of healing so many people while others claim it’s the result of performing so many miracles. At the heart of all these responses is the real answer. Becoming a saint simply involves coming to know Jesus Christ. The saints among us are simply those who have come to know Jesus Christ. Once you know Jesus, your actions will reflect this. We’d say your actions will become saintly. It’s that simple. As we celebrate All Saints Day, we celebrate all of those who have known Jesus. Oh, what a blessing to have saints among us!
So how do we get to know Jesus? Why, from Scripture, of course! In particular, from key teachings of his like the one found in today’s passage from Matthew. This teaching is commonly referred to as the “Sermon of the Beatitudes” or “Blessings.” It is Jesus’ first noteworthy teaching according to Matthew. Prior to this sermon, Jesus was similar to John the Baptist in teaching repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” proclaims Jesus a few verses earlier. But Jesus has called his first disciples, brought them to the mountaintop, sat them down, and begun to teach them the ways of the kingdom.
And what a radical teaching he started his ministry on!! Jesus had built a solid reputation by curing the sick all throughout Galilee. His fame had grown for being able to rid diseases. But any good doctor could build a similar reputation. What makes Jesus truly special, unlike any doctor of his time and since, is his radical teaching. The Beatitudes are arguably his most radical teaching and rightly so! They’ve become famous and well-known over the years but imagine hearing them for the first time. To help understand just how radical his teaching is, it might help to quickly define what is meant by the word “blessed.” To be blessed is having the quality “of or enjoying happiness” or “of bringing pleasure, contentment, or good fortune.” To say one is blessed is similar to saying one is happy or contented. Now then, how happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, or the persecuted?! How HAPPY are we when we struggle or choose to take the high road in certain situations?! Awfully bold of Jesus to assert happiness in such situations! And yet boldly he asserts just this…that our suffering and misery will either be reversed or rewarded when we realize the kingdom of heaven. Our misfortune will eventually turn into fortune or we will eventually be rewarded for enduring our misfortune. What a radical teaching indeed!
At the same time it is exactly what we want to hear in our times of suffering. We want to be told there is a purpose to our suffering. We want to be told that some good will come out of our suffering. Otherwise what’s the point of suffering? Why even bother trying to endure through suffering? It is a great blessing being told in our suffering that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, and be called children of God. In our sorrow, we can cling to hope and promised restoration and happiness. Our teacher teaches us to be happy in and through our suffering. Oh, what a blessing it is to hear Jesus’ words!
Or are they? Happiness or blessedness is such a fleeting state of being. Suffering is a fleeting state of being. There are times of suffering and there are times of non-suffering. Even those who claim to suffer ALL the time eventually learn to cope with the suffer enough to regard their situation as no longer suffering. Likewise, one can’t ALWAYS be in a state of happiness. It is absurd that so many people in our culture are on a never-ending pursuit of happiness. Life wasn’t meant to be ALL suffering nor ALL happiness but rather a little of each. To those on the quest for never-ending happiness, I often offer the wisdom of the great American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne who once remarked, “Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us on a wild-goose chase, and is never attained. Follow some other object and very possibly we may find that we have caught happiness without dreaming of it.” It is so true that more often than not we stumble upon happiness. Blessedness comes upon us without our working for it. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a gift, born from God’s abundant mercy.
At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the blessing found in relationships. All nine of the beatitudes describe qualities and situations found in relationships; relationships between people and relationships between God and people. Blessedness, happiness, occurs in relationships. Too often we read these Beatitudes as outsiders, as people in broken relationships. They help to restore our broken relationships with each other and with God. Oh, what a blessing it is to be in relationships!
In my reflections on happiness, I came across a helpful list of ten rules for happier living from some wise anonymous source. I’ll read them to you but take notice of how most of them occur in some type of relationship, either with yourself or someone else.
- Give something away (no strings attached)
- Do a kindness (and forget it)
- Spend a few minutes with the aged (their experience is a priceless guidance)
- Look intently into the face of a baby (and marvel)
- Laugh often (it’s life’s lubricant)
- Give thanks (a thousand times a day is not enough)
- Pray (or you will lose the way)
- Work (with vim and vigor)
- Plan as though you’ll live forever (because you will)
- Live as though you’ll die tomorrow (because you will on some tomorrow)
I read that list and was amazed at the importance of relationships and maintaining right relationships with each other and God in order to be happy. Blessedness comes to us in relationships.
As we reflect on our relationships with loved ones called home to our Father, on our relationships with loved ones who are still among us, let us give thanks for being blessed with having them in our lives. Blessedness and happiness comes to us unexpectedly, perhaps undeservedly, through these relationships. Let us praise God for letting us be in relationship with Jesus. Oh, what a blessing!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.