November 1, 2020, 2020 All Saints Day, Blessed, Pastor David Tatgenhorst 

Matthew 5: 1-12: 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.

Please take a moment after having heard the words of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, and the music of the Act of Praise to breathe and to settle into the truth of God’s love for all souls, all God’s children, today, this week, this year, always.

November 1, 2020 2020 Hindsight: Blessed St. Luke UMC

Blessed are the poor; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are the hungry. These are the counter-intuitive teachings that we hear from Jesus every year. The church reads the beatitudes, these beautiful, wise, confounding teachings every year on All Saints day - the day we remember the saints of the church, and the great cloud of witnesses in our own lives. 

Have you ever seen a video of an elephant mourning the death of a member of their community? It’s kind of amazing to see an animal of another species go through rituals of grief and mourning. One of the videos I saw this week showed a group of elephants doing a kind of ritual for the matriarch of their clan months or years after she died as they came across her bones.

The 4 or 5 elephants on the video who are identified as her relatives, gather around the bones facing out as though protecting the bones. Then each of them touch the bones with their trunks, picking them up and smelling and touching every part of the bones. You can see the video on YouTube. Elephants who have been companions with other elephants or even with humans who die, seem to go into a kind of mourning for hours or days. And as we see in that video, maybe months or years.

We tend to think about our knowledge of death to be a particularly human trait, and we certainly have far more understanding of death than any other animal - but death is still something that is ultimately mysterious to us. Maybe hat’s what’s unique to humans, is seeing the mystery. Rituals help us to honor and to express that mystery, to comfort each other and to recognize the loss. I consider the process of celebrating the lives of those who have died to be one of the most important things I do as a pastor - if not the most important thing. 

When someone in our congregation or our community dies, I want to be there for them. The pandemic has made our process of mourning and coming together so much more difficult. When Donna Boswell died in April, we had a service with her family at the grave site in Valley Forge cemetery - with masks and distance, outside. It just didn’t seem fair to not be able to hug each other and have a full service with the organ in the church that she loved so much. We dedicate the organ and singing of “For all the Saints” to her memory today!

Tammy Stephens had three people die in her life during this crazy time - her dear friend Marianne Hamilton, her sister Mildred “Milch’ Caryer, and her nephew Jerry Caryer. I got to go sit with her outside her house as part of a ritual of remembering Marianne this year. 

With the increase in deaths and distance because of the pandemic, we are finding new important and powerful ways to partake in ritual of remembrance and celebration. 

The reading for this morning is the beloved words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount - the Beatitudes.  Jesus is not referring specifically to people who have become part of that great cloud of witnesses, but the reading sounds just right on a Sunday when we are missing those people and recognizing that they are now a blessing to us all. 

We think of the Beatitudes as being sweet and almost sentimental words from Jesus. When we read them more carefully, as we did in Bible study last week, we recognize that the Beatitudes have some odd twists in them. We have to wonder if Jesus really meant that the poor are blessed - the hungry, those who mourn, the persecuted. How are these people understood to be blessed? 

Jesus says that they are blessed now in a special way and that they will receive blessings in the future. I do not think that Jesus meant this originally to mean they will be blessed only when they die, but that God cares for them particularly and powerfully in their brokenness and in their need.

The writer of the gospel of Matthew broadened and softened what we think were Jesus original words. We think Jesus probably originally said, “Blessed are the poor” as Luke records it. Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” helps us all to realize that we are included in Jesus’ blessing. We all are blessed by God precisely in the ways we are in need, the ways we have been broken, persecuted, or the ways we stand for those who are hurting. 

Listen to the way Forrest Church paraphrases the Beatitudes in this way:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they know the unutterable beauty of simple things.
Blessed are those who mourn, 
for they have dared to risk their hearts by giving of their love.
Blessed are the meek, 
for the gentle earth shall embrace them and hallow them as its own.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall know the taste of noble thoughts and deeds.
Blessed are the merciful, for in return theirs is the gift of giving.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall be at one with themselves and the universe.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is a kinship with everything that is holy.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for the truth will set them free.
F. Forrester Church, Peace Prayers, Harper, p.95

I find that funerals and memorial services are most powerful when we can tell a complicated and complete truth about the person who died. We remember all the ways our loved ones were beautiful and lovable even in the places they drove us crazy, even and especially in the ways they were a little bit cracked or broken, even in the places that God’s forgiveness and grace is necessary.

Our rituals at the time of death are often difficult times of grief and mourning. They also contain a real celebration of their life and a remembering of all that they are and were to us. Familiar words of scripture and familiar songs provide comfort and continuity, a promise that love is stronger than death and that in and through God’s love and the love of their community death has no victory, death has no sting (or at least less sting than it seems initially). 

The ritual of All Saints Day extends the funeral or memorial service. With a little more distance from the initial sting, we are like the elephants coming back around, facing the world in our circle, gathering the community to notice that we are still intact, and the one we lost has become part of the bones of our bones, and the heart of our hearts. In our communion service we break bread for the ones we thought we had lost and declare that they and all the great cloud of witnesses, our mothers and fathers and grandparents are with us in the breaking of bread and in the presence of Christ.
Worship Through Giving (Communion Off will go to Mary Jane Enrichment Center)  
*Communion Hymn  2155 Blest Are They