All Saints/November 3 2019
Matthew 5: 1-12
Meg Peery McLaughlin
Prayer for Illumination
God of generations past and generations to come, great is your faithfulness. You do not fail to make yourself known to us time and time again. As we turn now to your Word, draw us together, and draw us to you. In Christ we pray, Amen.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then 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. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
On All Hallows Eve,
we McLaughlins dressed up as Harry Potter characters.
We traipsed the neighborhood,
Hedwig with her letter,
Professor Lockhart with his vain ego,
Jenny and Hermoine with their wands.
It is too bad we did not have any potions with us.
Felix Felicis[i] would have warded off the storm–
It’s a magical potion from the mind of JK Rowling
that insures the drinker will have everything go their way.
“Liquid Luck” it’s called.
Storybook characters and the people who read stories—both–
are yearning for what can keep the storms at bay, are they not?
Luck may be a word we are comfortable with in that regard,
but blessing, that’s a little more tricky, I think.
Duke Professor Kate Bowler wrote a book called Blessed about the prosperity gospel which proclaims that we have the power to bring blessings on ourselves. With the right faith, we can keep the storms to a minimum. #Blessed has become shorthand for this kind of theology. Kate writes:
Over the last 10 years, “being blessed” has become a full-fledged American phenomenon. When Americans boast on Twitter about how well they’re doing, #blessed is the standard hashtag. It’s the only caption suitable for viral images of alpine vacations and family yachting in barely-there bikinis. It says: “I totally get it. I am down-to-earth enough to know that this is crazy.” But it also says: “Thank you, me. For being the kind of person who gets it right.” It is a perfect word for the society that believes the American dream is based on hard work[ii].
When you see a happy-feel-good-glowy post on social media with the #blessed do you wonder if the picture were not so happy,
would that mean God’s blessing has vanished?
Is blessing about reward or gift? Is God’s blessing about deserving it. . . . or is blessing more like receiving grace…unexpected, unearned?
Being a Presbyterian and a theology nerd, I, of course, trust that blessing is about gift and grace. Period.
But our culture and even our church has gotten it so muddied,
that I confess in one of the storms of my own life I got it turned upside down.
Jarrett and I went through years of infertility
and though I knew it wasn’t true:
I plagued myself with questions of whether I was someone who was undeserving of the blessing of children.
I was functioning from the wrong script, albeit the one we are most used to hearing, the script that says “if we work hard enough or pray with enough faith, only then will we receive blessing.”
Thanks be to God, Jesus rips that script into pieces.
Jesus radically challenges what culture assumes God’s blessing looks like[iii].
Strength shows up in those who are far from fit,
healing abides in bodies that don’t work the way yours does,
abundance appears even apart from wealth.
Jesus said: Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the hungry.
Blessed are the meek, the mocked, the merciful.
And notice the language, of course,
it isn’t blessed will be the peacemakers, once all the strife is over, once all their work pays off.
No, in the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks into existence what is already true.
Blessing is a present tense reality.
Scholars love to talk about the language being “performative.”
In this sermon on the mount, Jesus confers the blessing in his speaking,
And he gives it to those whose lives may not look so #blessed on social media.
Nadia Bolz Weber says,
It can be easy to view the beatitudes – the “blessed ares”– as Jesus’ command for us to try real hard to be meeker, poorer and mournier in order that we might be blessed in the eyes of God.
It can be easy to look at a someone like Mother Teresa and think – well, she was meek and so if I too want to be blessed I should try and be meek like her. Don’t get me wrong, we could use a few more people trying to be like Mother Teresa, I just don’t think that her virtue of meekness is what made her considered blessed by Jesus.
I think Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?[iv]
It most certainly does sound like what Jesus would do.
Jesus blesses. Extravagantly. Surprisingly.
And if I understand it
that blessing is all gift
and it’s not like liquid luck, it doesn’t prevent the storms of life,
no, the blessing is that which announces the nearness of God
—even amid the storms.
To be blessed by God is to be near to the heart of God, that heart that enfolds the one who is blessed in undeniable and inescapable love.
At 11am you see the young ones leave for Godly Play. In the language of Godly Play, you may hear something like this about a character like Abraham. “God came so close to Abraham and Abraham came so close to God.” And when that language is spoken, the storyteller holds their hand out over the figure in the story.
I have a photograph that someone snapped of our daughter Naomi “playing in the story” one Sunday back in Virginia. And she’d obviously experienced the Godly Play language so often that she was repeating it: sitting with her hand outstretched over a little wooden character—it was a posture of blessing and it makes me weep with gratitude that she knows that that is what blessing is: the closeness and nearness of a loving God.
Today is All Saints,
And the way I see it,
it is the day we hold out our hands over those who have come so close to God,
and we say thank you, thank you, thank you,
bless you, yes, indeed bless you.
One of the saints of this church is Thelma Boyd[v].
I lived in a room in Thelma’s home the summer of 2002
while I was doing my chaplaincy work at UNC Hospital.
I will never forget her kindness to me. If you open the pew bible in front of you, you’ll likely see her last name in the cover, her husband Bunny Boyd was head of the Religion Dept across the street for years. Thelma was a gentle gracious woman with a strong-as-steel backbone who had an encyclopedic mind for the larger church and was ever devoted to this one.
I’ve heard tell of the full hill of azaleas she tended in the home she and Bunny shared. She did love to garden. For over 25 years Thelma cared for the Anne McClammrock Memorial Garden that is just to your left. And here’s the thing, I don’t think she did that work because she loved plants, though I know she did. I think she tended that garden because she knew how close God is to the grieving. And she wanted to be close to them too.
Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.
When we gather around this table today,
I know I will be giving thanks for Thelma, who is one among the great cloud of witnesses that surround the table each time we come to it.
I imagine many of you will be thinking of Nancy Robinson[vi], too, especially when we share bread and cup.
Nancy is another saint of this church, who for more than two decades prepared the elements—alongside Laura Piver—to make sure each one of you had a foretaste of the very kingdom of God. Back then the more typical way of serving was passing trays filled with small cups and Nancy would stay for hours and hours to restock the trays. She never said a word about the amount of time she labored. She stayed here for both morning services on Communion Sunday and calmly and quietly went about the work of feeding the people.
Nancy had been a teacher, so maybe it’s just the teacher’s work ethic, but I think it was because Nancy knew that we in this church are we are hungry for God and she knew that God was especially close to those who crave a different kind of world—the world as it should be, rather than the one that is. And she wanted to be close to them too.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
We will sing of the saints like these today. Somehow I think singing pulls us nearer to God and to them: Tom Brown could explain the “musical why” of that, but I just know what it feels like to have song crack the heart open a bit wider. And I think that’s why Ronnie Mann, Sr[vii]. sang too.
Ronnie had a big heart already of course. I asked around about him this week and Jim Baxley called him a Sweetheart; people said “oh, Lord, I LOVED Ronnie. . . he was the friendliest happiest person we ever knew.” The summer he and Kristi got married was when this church had burned down. Ronnie may not have spoken his vows in this room, but this was a special place to him: and he served it in every way possible. Kristi said he loved every committee and every job but when it came down to it Ronnie said what he loved most was “baptizing babies and singing in the choir.”
Maybe he sang because he had a great voice, or maybe he did it because singing opens you wider to love. And Ronnie knew that God was close to those who loved others fully, purely, joyfully.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
if you grieving this morning, fiercely missing one of our saints
if you are weathering a storm, your life is not all cleaned up for social media,
if you are restless today, seeking ways to steward your lives for the poor and hungry, the peacemakers and persecuted.
if you have wandered in here for the first time and have some big questions:
know this: Jesus is unequivocally for you,
and he extravagantly announces the good news.
God has come so close to you.
And you are so close to God.
Thanks be to God for this blessing. Alleluia. Amen.
[i] Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
[iii] Keith Errickson, Feasting on the Word
[v] Many thanks to Coolie and Thad Monroe for telling me more stories about Thelma Boyd.
[vi] Thanks to Laura Piver, Nancy’s longtime partner in this work, as well as Lee Ann Buck, who is currently doing it, for their reflections.
[vii] Thanks to Kim McNeill, Jim Baxley and Kristi Mann for their reflections about Ronnie.