The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
Celebration of the Feast of All Saints
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31.
Last year, I was in Mexico for the Dia de los Muertos. I found the celebrations for the Day of the Dead to be very interesting. One significant figure is the Katrina, the Death, a skeleton. She is dressed as an elegant, wealthy woman. Katrina is not a scary boogeyman who scoops you away to misery and separation, but a gracious lady who comes to call. On the first Day of the Dead following the death of the loved one, the family makes an elaborate altar, full of colors and flowers. An effigy of the deceased is created, with a seed skull or sometimes a sugar skull at the head, and new, clean clothes put out. The effigy is surrounded with the deceased’s favorite foods, hobbies, and treats. Hundreds of people come to pay their respects to the family, often passing under arches proclaiming “Welcome home”. A trail of marigolds marks the path from the street to the altar, so that the souls can find their way home. You see, the belief is that the souls are able to return home to be with their families, at their own home. The next day, everyone goes to the cemetery for a celebration that truly boggled my mind. It is true that by that time, I was in the thrall of food poisoning thanks to having drunk some unfiltered punch the night before, but imagine a crowded street festival. Now add in hundreds of fireworks cracking off every few minutes, and flowers and candles and decorations, and now put it all into a graveyard about the size of St. Mary’s. Now, add thousands of family members, a couple dozen mangy dogs, and picnics of the favorite foods. Add a memorial mass in the middle of that, and you have an idea of the chaos that is the graveyard celebration on the Day of the Dead. It is a day of reunion, joy, and thankfulness.
By contrast, our All Saints’ Day looks a little dry, doesn’t it? No Katrinas here, but lovely yet very proper flowers, and simple, extra prayers. On All Saints, we acknowledge that we have loved people who are no longer here, and we touch on one of the great pains of humanity. In celebrating the saints, we can’t help but face the fact that our world is a painful world. We lose each other in death. And in my world, remembering or suffering one pain seems to amplify all the other pains in the world. Job loss, underemployment, lost savings, broken families, moving away from a favorite town, bad news from the doctor, bad news from the mechanic…We face the pain of a world that does not measure up to our dreams. These feelings are exactly why All Saints’ Day is good news: because it proclaims to the world the blessing of a God who blesses us when all else seems lost.
We hear the Beatitudes today. This is an interesting piece of the scripture. Generally, scholars accept that Jesus didn’t actually sit down and say all these things all at once. Rather, this is a dramatic rendering of a number of sayings that Jesus either likely said, or that people widely believed were Jesus-like enough to have been the Teacher’s words. Today, we do not tell you a story as much as a collection of ideas which followers of Christ have found useful to ponder. What do they say to us on a day like All Saints?
The Beatitudes don’t just tell us about God’s behavior to us, but they call us to a sort of behavior as well. This is a difficult gospel to read because the translations can come off so frequently as sing-songy. So I started changing up the translations I was reading. Dorothy Sayers wrote a marvelous translation in The Man Born to Be King. Most recently, I read it in The Voice and The Message, two newer bibles that we use frequently in the Tuesday Brown Bag Bible Study. In The Message, Eugene Peterson adds several editorial remarks, such as rendering the opening lines as “Blessed are you when all is lost, for you are ready for God’s Kingdom.” This is not an actual translation from the Greek, but it’s Peterson’s ideas of what the text is actually trying to say. It is easy to feel as though we are worthless when we are in pain. It’s easy to feel as though we are discarded. We wonder what we have to give when we are so barely getting by ourselves. In the fall, during Stewardship season, it can so often feel like everyone wants a piece of us and everything we have to give. Can we possibly live up to this radical giving? I think we can when we hold our own thanks and blessings up first. The Good News of the gospel today is that resounding reassurance that we are at all times blessed. There is never a moment when you are too far gone to be worthy of God’s blessings. That is always Good News.
And in addition to the “blessed are you statements”, Jesus also spends time on the “woe to you” statements. I find that interesting, because to me, those statements address the problem of a lack of compassion towards the other. Have you noticed this throughout our society? The “woe to you” statements should remind us that even when we are lucky enough for things to be going well, we are still called to be compassionate and gracious to the other. Indeed, this community has been one of the most generous and compassionate ones I have ever been a part of. It is an attitude cultivated by our ancestors who built the bones of this place. In stewardship, we have a chance to live out our compassion. Jesus calls us to compassion, because we are never too beyond God’s blessings.
This is important, for Jesus follows it up with statements about giving. Jesus calls us to be a giving people. He uses the examples-give your cloak and your shirt- which are appropriate to his society, where debit cards and bank accounts did not exist. He calls his follows to be compassionate, to give as they are able, and to not be resentful of the giving. We all at some point will need the care and compassion of our community, whether it is having meals delivered, or being on the prayer list, or receiving a prayer shawl, or any of the many ministries this church is able to be part of. When we are able, it is a good thing to be able to give. And when we are in need, it is a blessed thing to receive from our compassionate friends. And we are never too far away to be worthy of God’s blessings.
The beatitudes call out to those in pain to reassure us that we are always blessed. They call out to those who have much to remember compassion. They remind us that we are always God’s beloved people. In our stewardship campaign, we worked to tell the story of a community which uses finances as one way in which we enable our community to be compassionate. We celebrate it today in the pledge ingathering, as you can see from our celebratory balloons and streamers. But we are doing this today for a much greater reason. We are celebrating today because we celebrate all God’s children, created to be blessed, wherever they are, whoever they are.
Blessed are you in your best and in your worst days. God hungers to find you and to give you comfort. Blessed are when we face adversity. Let it bring out the very best of you. Blessed are you in the dark hours before the dawn, because the sun is rising to bring hope to a starving world. Blessed are you, even the most downtrodden here, because you are a part of the community called to be healing agents in a hurting world. And blessed are you, when you are filled with compassion, for you know the Kingdom come.