Texts: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
It might seem a bit out of place, at first, to hear this reading of the Beatitudes on All Saints Sunday. It says nothing about saints, nothing about people whose lives point to God; but it does have a message of encouragement. To the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the rejected, Jesus’ message is one of hope: keep it up, justice is coming. While this message may still warm our hearts, its full impact is likely lost on us.
The Greek word that gets translated “blessed” is a hard word to pin down. It can mean “blessed,” or “happy” or “fortunate” or even “lucky.” It’s quite the range of meaning; but to be fair, the same is true for the English word “blessed.” We frequently use “blessed” as a synonym for “lucky;” we most often talk about being “blessed” when good things happen to us. “I’ve been blessed with a loving family,” or “I’ve been blessed with a good job.” We may talk about the blessing of children or of good health or even of finding a good parking spot at the mall.
Jesus takes the “blessing” imagery and flips it around: “Blessed are you who are poor. Oh, you happy, hungry people. Lucky are you who weep. Aren’t you fortunate that people reject and revile you.” It doesn’t make sense. What I really like about Luke’s gospel is that, just in case we don’t get it the first time, he repeats it for us: “Woe to you who are rich. Beware, those of you who are full. Alas, alas for the laughing. You poor sods who everyone likes.”
What Jesus is saying here is that blessing doesn’t look like we think it does. What we call “blessed” is not actually “blessed;” more often than not, it is the result of where and when and to whom we happen to be born, with whom we associate, or the choices we make. In other words, it has nothing to do with God, but everything to do with human politics, human prejudice, or flat-out dumb luck. For those of us who benefit from those human things—who have the benefit of the wealth or privilege accumulated by our parents or our society, often at the expense of someone else—when God’s justice comes flowing down, we may find ourselves soaking wet. Alas, alas for us.
It’s tempting to think that Jesus’ words mean that suffering is godly; that it is better for us to be hungry or poor or sad than otherwise. Maybe sometimes it can be, but that’s not what Jesus is saying. Instead, he is pointing out that these suffering people are under no illusion that they can take care of themselves. Their only hope remains in God. Their faith is based completely on the hope of God’s deliverance.
As for the others, their faith is based mostly on their material blessing. Will they, like Job, continue to bless God if all that they have is taken away? Perhaps not. If my picture of God’s goodness is the fact that I have a great job and a wonderful spouse and a beautiful place to live, woe to me; for my job is the product of a good education that I got from growing up in a good school district and being accepted to a good college that my family could afford. I probably met my spouse within my own little circle of people who look and think like me. The quality of my neighborhood and the condition of my house is as much a product of redlining and segregation as the wealth I have accumulated to purchase it. If that is my blessing, woe to me. It wasn’t God who gave these blessings: it was the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the rejected. It is not a blessing that was given, but one that was stolen and hoarded.
On this day, we celebrate those people who point us most clearly to God; what Jesus is saying to us in these Beatitudes is that the ones who point us most clearly to God are the ones we neglect, reject and mistrust. Today we remember our dear loved ones who have died and their witness to God’s goodness; people like St. Don Clinton, St. Dick Latimer, St. Jim Wilson, St. Steve Carlson, and St. Dave Beert. We celebrate those who have joined our family through baptism, St. J. and St. W. Rodgers* and St. G. Ortenzo,* for reminding us that God is still at work and pointing us to the hope of God’s future.
Even as we give thanks to God for the gift of these people, we might take time this All Saints Sunday to remember those paradoxically blessed people, the saints among us who point us to the power and sufficiency of God’s grace: people like St. Donald Trump, or St. Richard Spencer, or St. Anne Coulter. No one would call them blessed, much less saints. Yet these are the ones who remind us that there is no limit to the power of God to redeem and save people. If God’s love is for all, it is for them as well as us; they remind us of the totality of God’s reign.
That is what a saint is: not a person who does good things or who has a good heart, but a person who shows us what God is capable of, what God is doing. The Beatitudes are an example of God’s power to take the cursed and make it blessed, to redeem anything—even sin, suffering and death on a cross—and make those things tools of God’s salvation. We worship a God who chooses to be present among us as one enthroned on a cross, a God who suffers with us. Only this God can make a saint out of a sinner, or a blessing out of a curse. Only this God can make redemption out of rejection and eternal life out of death.
The god who blesses me with good health and a stable life and who helps me find my car keys is suddenly gone when the hard times inevitably come. That god is helpless in the face of suffering and despair. But the God who walks to the cross walks with me regardless of whether I am rich or poor, hungry or fed, laughing or weeping. The God who has been crucified promises that no matter what happens next, there is always an empty tomb waiting ahead. The poor will inherit the kingdom, the hungry will be filled, the weeping will laugh, and the sinners will be remade into saints.
In a moment, we will give thanks to God for our siblings who have died this year and for those whom God has added to our family. As we remember and bless those names, many other names will be rising in our hearts, all of them beloved. In this time, let’s maybe take a moment to also give thanks for those enemies, those persecutors, those beggars and cheats and swindlers with whom God has blessed us, and to bless God for giving us the opportunity to understand how deep and wide is God’s love for us by extending that same love to them.