Faith Presbyterian Church
November 1, 2020
My favorite community event in Birmingham was initially a surprise to us. Our first year there, we stumbled upon what seemed at the time to be a magical day of the dead celebration, tucked away in a bricked courtyard under the stars. I remember walking through a winding display of candlelit altars, each one paying tribute to a friend or loved ones who had died, their photos surrounded by flowers and their favorite foods, tables piled high with fruits and sugar skulls and twinkle lights, incense wafting through the air. Mariachis wandered through the crowds of people who came to be part of the celebration, their trumpets blasting out familiar tunes as we gathered around fires to warm our hands as night fell. As the celebration grew, year by year, it changed venues to accommodate the growing crowds, but the culmination of the evening is always the roll call of the dead – a single voice naming those who have died, one by one, and the crowd responding by crying out “presente” – collectively claiming the person’s memory, proclaiming together, they are not forgotten.
I do not know what this celebration will look like this year. I imagine those who build altars will do so anyway, in their own homes as is tradition. Many will visit the graves of those who have died. But the festivities will not happen at least not in the same way. The crowds will likely not gather, incense will not hang in the air like the fog of grief, the collective cry of presente will not ring out.
It’s too bad, because this is a year when we need that kind of celebration, we need to give voice to our grief, to name and claim the memory of all that we’ve lost, to bear witness together to the promise of life despite death.
This morning’s passage from the sermon on the mount in the gospel of Matthew is called, as you may know, the beatitudes. Beatitudes because in the Latin translation, the word beatus means blessed, happy, or fortunate– happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Another way to understand the original Greek word is: a reversal of fortunes. To read these blessings as a promise of the future that God is making possible.
When Jesus describes who is blessed, it’s not who we’d expect. In fact, Jesus’s description of who is blessed and why is the opposite of how we typically think and talk about blessings. Our culture tends to see successful people: strong, healthy, wealthy people as blessed. We feel blessed when things are good, when life is going our way. Right?
But Jesus turns our understanding of blessing upside down.
He’s preaching to a crowd of people, and a lot of them were sick. Scripture tells us the crowds that followed him were people “afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.”
These are not the people the world would call blessed, certainly not happy or fortunate.
These people are poor. They’re hurting. They are crying out for justice. They need a reversal of fortune.
These are the people the world might call meek, people who really were persecuted.
And these people: the poor, the grieving, those longing for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted – these are the people God blesses!
Jesus looks out at the crowd gathered around him, a crowd of the poor and destitute, the sick and suffering, and says, you who are poor in spirit – so down and out that you’ve lost the will to keep going – God sees you. You are blessed.
You who are meek, and merciful – the world does not reward these things. But God sees you. And you can be happy with the knowledge that you will be rewarded with the goodness of creation; you will receive the mercy you deserve in the kingdom of God.
You who mourn are blessed, because you will be comforted, for God is making all things new, building a city where no one will hunger or thirst, and every tear will be wiped away.
Today is All Saints Sunday, when we remember and give thanks for those who we love who have died. And on this day, in this year, some of us might not feel very blessed. This has been a year of tremendous loss for our nation and the world. More than 4,000 in Maryland, more than 230,000 in the US, more than a million worldwide dead from the virus. It’s incomprehensible. That loss of life is compounded by a thousand other losses – that add up in many ways to the loss of our way of life. We’ve lost the happy chaos of classrooms, the easy banter of the office kitchen, the soaring joy of congregational song. Restaurants, concerts, sports events, air travel, public transit – none of them are the same. Layer on top of that the other losses brought just by life … lost jobs. Separation from community and family. Lost pregnancies. Lost health. Lost love. The non-Covid deaths of loved ones. Lost hope.
This year, I think we are all finding our way through the fog of grief. God’s promise of comfort is a far cry from actually feeling comforted. But we are people called into community. The good news is that God gives us each other so that we are not alone in our grief, to bring casseroles and to tell stories so that even shrouded in sadness we find love and sometimes even laughter. God gives us each other to remind each other of the promises of the resurrection: grief and death do not have the last word. Together, we can give voice to our grief, name and claim the memory of all that we’ve lost, and bear witness together to the promise of life despite death. That is a blessing. There is comfort in that.
Over the past week, a tree has grown in the chapel, bearing names of people who have died who we, collectively, proclaim are not forgotten. People for whom we give thanks. Those whose lives have blessed us, and for whom our grief is in fact an act of resistance against the death-dealing power of this world, a testament to the truth that blessed are we who grieve for we will be comforted.
By proclaiming all of these unexpected blessings, Jesus is urging all of us who mourn the world’s suffering to look towards the world that is to come. To see the Spirit present in our struggle, bringing about the reign of God on earth. Christ is promising the comfort that comes when our rage and grief at the way things are moves us to act to change things for the better. Think of the moment of relief that comes when you’ve overcome your anxiety and picked up the phone to encourage someone else to remember to vote, or the blessing that comes when we are able to offer help to someone who needs it – things we’re able to do because God is at work within us, transforming the world around us into something better.
The promise of the beatitudes that we remember and claim today is that the pain and suffering of this world does not escape God’s notice. And God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize. Those who are marginalized and dismissed by the powers of this world will be uplifted and valued in the kingdom of God.
And so we name names. We light candles. We say, “presente.” We raise our voices in prayer, giving thanks for those whom we love who have died, and we promise to remember them, giving voice to the truth that love is stronger than death. Thanks be to God.