All Saints Day. It happens every year, but this year I really didn’t expect to be lighting so many new candles. The usual tradition around this day is to just light the candles from last year, but seeing as how we’re such a small congregation we’ve always honoured all the dead from any year that we wish to lift up. And this year, we’ve lost a lot.
You all know this, I’ve preached about the death in and around our congregation just a couple weeks ago, but now it seems it’s all become real. The rubber has hit the road and we’re feeling the loss of our dear loved ones that have affected us so deeply. Death hurts.
But isn’t it to be expected? More often than not, I hear about how we just aren’t ready for death. We aren’t ready to say goodbye, we aren’t ready for the pain, we are ready for the suffering. But we know everyone will die, we know that we’ll have to go through this, we know that we’ll all one day… end. Because as they say, all good things will come to an end. And not to toot our own horns, but we are pretty good things, aren’t we?
But it’s not just our lives that will end, but all good things. Good things like trips to new places, holidays, and weekends. Things like relationships, communities, and congregations. Things like prosperity, happiness, and again our lives. All the good things that we aspire to have, aspire to be, and aspire to bring us joy. When we’re there and have those things, great. We’re content, we’ve accomplished our goal, we’re good. And to that Jesus says, woe.
Not like, whoa good job man, you did it. But woe is you for having these good things.
Sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it? I mean isn’t the whole point of life for us really to just find happiness, wealth, and friends? Isn’t the whole point of life for us to gain, to accomplish, and to exceed? Isn’t the whole point of life to get what is good? But Jesus sounds pretty clear here, woe to you, rich, happy, and full people with lots of friends, because you are about to get yours.
So what are we to strive for? Those things that we normally do everything in our power to avoid? Like being poor, sad, hungry, or hated? No one has any of those as goals in life because all of those things kinda suck. Instead we make goals to be the exact opposite of all that.
But Jesus calls those blessed.
This is one of the confusing things of Jesus’ beatitudes as we call them, especially as we have them in Luke because that is where the “woes” are included, as Jesus seemingly turns everything that we know about life upside down. But our hang-up here is on the words used, “blessed” and “woe”.
Polar opposites, we’d say. You want to be blessed, but you don’t want the woe. One is good, and the other is infinitely bad. One is lucky, the other is a curse. One makes you happy, the other makes you wish you were happy.
But is that what they actually mean?
Again, our English language could only do so much. Sometimes it does a pretty good job, other times not so much. And unfortunately sometimes the limits of our language can leave us more confused rather than clearing things up.
The thing is that blessing and woe don’t really mean what we would initially think. Rather, they are much more mild than our assumptions would lead us to believe. Blessed, in this context, is more about take heart, be at peace, God is with you kind of thing. In a sense it does mean lucky, in that you’re lucky that you have a higher power watching over you and with you, accompanying you on your journey of ups and in this case, downs. So when Jesus is saying the poor, hungry, sad, and hated are blessed, he is saying take heart, for even in these tough times God is present with you and will deliver you from your hardship with the peace that surpasses all understanding.
And with the woes, well in this context is just means be aware, be careful, be cautious in not putting all your eggs in that basket because like all good things, this too, will end. So instead of relying on your current situation to define you and your internal joy, learn to see that the good things in your life are temporary bonuses to enjoy and be thankful for, so you won’t be completely devastated when they end.
This is why these woes are paired with the blessings in Luke, to provide the contrast of the two. Everyone has good and bad times, and neither of them last forever. The bad times sometimes seem like they do, but they don’t. It might seem like we need to rely on ourselves and our own strength for joy and peace, but we can’t. It might seem like we are only defined by our current conditions and emotions, but we so very much aren’t.
For God promises us all value and worth in Jesus, in that we are created to love and to be loved, and to be part of the eternal body of Christ, in which we all play a crucial and integral role for the sake of our community and family. So instead of being defined by what we are going through, by how we are feeling, by the fleeting things in this world that everyone might wish would define them, we are defined by God’s love and grace, calling us beloved children and bringing us together in this congregation, in this church, and in the world living with all the saints of all times and places.
This is why I love that very popular text often used for funerals out of Romans 8, where Paul tells the Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Not hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or even death can do that, so you who are going through those things are blessed because even when it very much doesn’t feel like it, you are loved. Blessed are you who face the hardships of the world and beyond, because God holds you through it all and will deliver you from the pain. Blessed are you who have suffered, who have tasted poverty, who have felt broken and lost, and even who have died, for none of those things define you as much as God’s most gracious invitation to live as saints with God, through the work of Christ by the power of the Spirit, welcoming us into God’s kingdom forever.
This is the point of All Saints Day, that we recognise that even death doesn’t diminish our identity or position in God’s love. Rather we are, by God’s grace, always and eternally considered to be saints no matter what life might throw our way. So this translates into our everyday life and relationships, in that while we might want to dislike and be angry at others for their wrongdoings, we can see how they too aren’t defined by the evil they might be able to do, but defined by God’s eternal and everlasting love, just as we are. Thus we can treat others and be treated with respect, care, and the love of God.
This All Saints day, one where we’ve suffered great loss this whole year, may we hold fast onto God’s promises of love, grace, and mercy, that we might be consoled by the peace that surpasses all understanding. Peace be to all of you who have lost someone this year, and may God’s healing and compassion shower upon you surrounded by all the saints through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.