Today is a sacred day in the life of our church. This has been a hard year of losses in the congregation. It seems like we named nearly a whole generation of women and men who shaped this place. It’s a day to remember, to reflect, to cherish, to celebrate the lives of our loved ones. This is an act of a congregation – it is a community celebration, one that affects us whether we individually have a person to name today or not. That’s because loss – your personal loss – is also a loss to the whole, a loss to all of us, whether we knew the person named today or not. Those we hold as Saints individually shape us collectively. That’s what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. That’s what we mean by a Communion of Saints. We all take a share in the loss, and in the blessings of the lives we celebrate.
Our gospel lesson today is Luke’s rendering of the Beatitudes – the Blessings. They also appear in Matthew’s gospel, and though each writer takes a different approach, they share the key elements: an example of Jesus’ teaching where Jesus flips expectations upside down. Blessed – that means happy. You could read each of these statements as “Happy are you” – and so Jesus is found here saying that you are happy when you are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, defamed. Our culture values happiness to a high degree – it’s written into our very foundational documents as country. Our Declaration of Independence even names it as a goal, an inalienable right: we have the right to pursue the American Dream – happiness.
J. Ellsworth Kalas is a seminary professor whose series of Bible studies, “from the backside,” I really enjoy. He has “Christmas from the Backside,” “Parables from the Backside,” and of course, “Beatitudes from the Backside,” to name just a few. He aims to look at some well known biblical texts from different, unusual angles, to reread familiar stories with new approaches. He said of his volume on the Beatitudes that they’re really already from the backside – Jesus is already looking at the familiar from a new point of view. Kalas says that in Jesus’ view, happiness is “not something we get by pursuing it; indeed, almost the contrary.” We’re told we’ll experience happiness in states that appear quite the opposite. Beatitudes are a “declaration of dependence” on God.
The word “happy” comes from the root hap, as in “happen” or “happenstance,” like happiness has a degree of luck, gambling, with odds. But what Jesus says is real happiness, blessedness, is different. William Barclay once wrote about a Greek island called Markarios. That’s the Greek word for “happy” – the Happy Isle. He said that it was “the Happy Isle” because everything you needed was on the island. You never had to go outside the island to find happiness. It was all right there. Whatever was going on in the outside world didn’t affect the happiness of Happy Isle. He said that true happiness then, to be blessed, is really “that joy which has its secret within itself . . . completely independent of all chances and changes of life.” “When we say that the Beatitudes describe the happy life . . . it has little or nothing to do with chance or circumstances, and it doesn’t depend on health or wealth or even achievements. It is . . . complete within itself. One doesn’t need to go beyond its borders to fulfill the quest.” (Kalas, 4-5) That’s what Jesus is talking about. He offers blessings, a happiness that is complete within itself. True joy comes from God within us, not what happens to us.
Some years ago, a pastor friend shared an email forward with me that I have saved since, finding it to really make a clear point. It contains a short quiz that goes like this: "Take a few moments to think about your answers to the following questions. Question 1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world. 2. Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest. 3. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize. 4. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Actress. 5. Name the last decade's worth of World Series Winners. How did you do? If you are like most people, you can only fill in a few names here and there, but usually can't remember who did what and who won what. The point is most of us don't remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They're the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.
Now, here's another quiz. See how you do on this one: 1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school. 2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time. 3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile. 4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special. 5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with. 6. Name a half dozen non-celebrity heroes whose stories have inspired you. Easier? Of course. We have no problem remembering the people who have helped to shape us. We remember those who have inspired us and encouraged us. These are the people we tell our friends about. These are the people that hold a place in our heart. These are the people we truly value."
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. We celebrate people who were blessed, and who were and are a blessing to us. They were blessed not because of good things that happened to them, but because of the goodness, the light of Christ, the love of God, that was within them. May you discover that these blessings fill your own life too. May you know the happiness that comes from letting the love of God inside you shape the world around you, and may your life be a blessing to others. Amen.