Year C, All Saints Day
The summer after I graduated from college, I got an internship in a small Methodist Church in a town of 1000. The down side was that I did not know anyone in the town and since it was such a small town, there was really no one my age. My closest friend was about two hours away. They had me living alone in the big rectory next to the church. Not only was there no TV, but there was no internet. This was before cell phones became so accessible, so all I had was a phone card that charged me about a dollar a minute. However, I was in a good place. I had finished college and had a wonderful boyfriend who I absolutely adored. He was only about 2 hours away, so I figured I could see him every week and in the meantime I could catch up on my reading, learn how to cook, exercise, and get a taste of ministry. Two weeks after I started, my perfect boyfriend broke up with me. All of a sudden the town felt like a death trap as opposed to an opportunity to fine tune my cooking skills and read the classics. I couldn’t sleep and I cried all the time when I was not around the parishioners. I was going to a Catholic Church on the weekdays and I just sat in the back and cried during the service. I cannot begin to imagine what the priest thought of me. I also started attending their weekly Bible study. I do not recall what we were studying, but at one point the priest said, “Being blessed is not the same thing as being happy.”
I found that flabbergasting. It just never occurred to me. I was used to people telling me that they were blessed when good things were happening. People tend to equate blessings with successes. I am sure you have all heard the word blessing used the same way. People will talk about their lovely family and then say, “I’m just so blessed.” Or they will talk about something good that just happened and describe it as a blessing. I have actually had Christians correct me when I described something as lucky. They will say, “I don’t believe in luck. I believe everything good is a blessing.”
Well ok, but that really doesn’t mesh with the Gospel for today. “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry….Blessed are you who weep…Blessed are you when people hate you…” If that is what it is to be blessed, how many of you want to be blessed? I have never heard the following, “I have no money. My family has disowned me. I’m so depressed I can’t get out of bed. I’m just so blessed.” It would sound crazy if someone said that. And I bet that people thought Jesus was a little crazy when he made those statements. Many of the people who he was talking to were poor and hungry. Many of them knew what it was to be ostracized, on the margins of society. I doubt they were feeling particularly blessed by God.
But wait, I did not finish the blessings did I? “Blessed are you who are poor now, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…” There is debate about what Jesus meant with those statements. Did he mean that the people would be filled in this lifetime or in the life to come, the heavenly realm? It’s hard to say. Either way, it is meant to give people hope when they are going through trying times. Whatever you are experiencing now, it will pass.
If the blessing part was not hard enough, Jesus then started on the woes. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” That just sounds mean. Why would Jesus want to punish people who were well fed or happy? It’s a hard text to reconcile, especially when you do have money and are well fed. If we are in that situation, are we not loved by God?
Sometimes blessings and woes are best seen in retrospect. When I look back on that summer after college, I don’t see it through rose colored glasses. I was extraordinarily depressed. It wasn’t just the guy…he was just the final push that sent me spiraling. I would never want to go through that summer again. I remember at one particular low point I was driving by a pasture and saw some cows grazing and thought to myself, “I wish I was a cow.” If you asked me on any given day during that summer if I was blessed or woeful, I would definitely have told you it was summer of woe. Yet that summer was a time that I was extraordinarily close to God. It was then when I learned what it was to truly have God as a companion, to really depend on God. Even though I was miserable, I felt like God was hovering over me, making sure that the spiral did not go totally out of control. I felt his presence as much as I felt the suffocating weight of the depression. That was not a happy summer for me. But it was a blessed summer.
I had my first finance meeting about a week after I arrived at St. John’s. It was a rather anxiety provoking meeting. St. John’s is in a very challenging place financially, possibly the most difficult place we have been in recent memory. My instinct was to panic after the finance meeting. Instead I went home and I prayed. I haven’t stopped praying since that meeting. Every time I want to go into fix it mode or start stressing about the numbers, I try to pray instead. It hasn’t been easy. It was really not until I was writing this sermon when I realized that perhaps this is actually a magnificent opportunity for us. St. John’s is in a place of need. We can’t necessarily rely on one or two very generous people this time around. We certainly cannot rely just on the rector. This time, we rely on God. Right now, we might not be blessed in the worldly sense of the word, but my friends, we are blessed in the Gospel sense of the word. Because of that, I believe that Jesus is closer to us now than ever. So we persevere, not just for the sake of surviving, but because we are blessed by God. It is my fervent hope that in ten years we will look back on this time as a time when we felt God’s presence in our own need. And once we have felt that, I pray that no matter how much we grow, how secure we become, we will never let go of God’s presence….we will never forget what it is to be blessed.