After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” ~ Revelation 7:9-17
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ~ Matthew 5:1-12
We have two scripture passages this morning, and they speak to us of two worlds.
In our passage from the Revelation to John, we are shown an eerie, otherworldly vision of heaven. The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, is on his throne. He is surrounded by multitudes of the faithful in white robes—so many, they cannot even be counted. They are from every nation and every tribe; every culture is represented, and every language. They have emerged from a time of suffering, a terrible ordeal, but they sing words of praise to God, because now they are sheltered and protected. No more hunger and thirst. No more sorrow and suffering. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Peace at last. It is a glorious, heavenly vision.
And then, we have our passage from the gospel of Matthew, and this passage is earthy, grounded in reality. It takes place on a mountainside, where Jesus has climbed in an effort to let as many people see and hear him as possible. Then and now, the people who follow Jesus around tend to fall into two groups: those who find incredible hope and comfort in what he says; and those who are provoked to anger and hostility by what he says (and want to correct him, and show him up). In our passage Jesus is very much speaking to that first group. Jesus is speaking to people who are struggling, and who have come to him for words of healing and comfort.
His words are a little puzzling:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
At first glance, these words might not exactly sit right. Is Jesus promising something? Or, is Jesus seeing something that is not evident to most? What do people hear, when Jesus says, “Blessed”?
It’s good to remember that early on in each gospel, we hear that Jesus taught with authority. That’s one of the reasons people found themselves so engaged, so amazed… and probably, in some cases, so riled up. Jesus spoke with authority.
So, when Jesus says, “You are blessed,” people don’t hear him making some pie-in-the-sky promises. They hear Jesus sharing his deep insight. They hear Jesus revealing what he understands to be true of the ways of God.
They hear Jesus saying, “I see you.”
I see you, dangling there at the end of your rope.
I see you, and your broken heart.
I see you, and your quiet hesitancy.
I see you, and your longing for justice that seems like it will never come.
And I say to you, you are blessed. You will be blessed. You are already a blessing.
And now I remember another thing about blessing: Way back in Jesus’ tradition, in the words of his (and our) ancestors in faith, God promises to bless us, not so that we can sit there, suddenly all better, or new-and-improved, or even, more holy. No. God blesses us, so that we will be a blessing for others. We are blessed, to be a blessing.
When Jesus says, “blessed,” he is also saying: Be a blessing. You are a blessing.
Jan Richardson is a United Methodist minister, artist, and writer, and several of us here today had the great blessing of hearing her preach at the Presbyterian Women Church-Wide Gathering in Florida several years ago. Later that very same year, Jan lost her husband Gary, very unexpectedly, only a few short years into their marriage. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus says, and Jan blessed the world by sharing the journey of her grief in her writing and painting. This week, she shared these words:
One of the things I quickly learned after Gary died was that death has a way of tearing open our hearts toward eternity. We are no longer residents of this world only; we no longer move only in this time. It is one of the strange and beautiful effects of intense loss. Even as I continue to make a new life in this world, I am keenly aware that my heart is held by one who lives beyond this world. And that means my heart lives both within and beyond the borders of what I can see and know in this world.
It is All Saints’ Day, and I am thinking about how this is a day to name this—how we live in these two worlds. Except that it’s not really two worlds. Somehow, now and eternity are bound together in a deep mystery. This is a day to remember that even in the pain of sharpest loss, somehow we all live in one world, and death does not release us from being in relationship with one another.
This is a blessing about that. On this All Saints’ Day, as we both grieve and celebrate our beloved dead, may we know how they endure with us, holding our hearts and encompassing us with a fierce and stubborn love that persists across time and distance.
What I really want to tell you
is to just lay this blessing
on your forehead,
on your heart;
let it rest
in the palm of your hand,
because there is hardly anything
this blessing could say,
any word it could offer
to fill the hollow.
Let this blessing
work its way
with its lines
that hold nearly
Let this blessing
settle into you
with its hope
Hear how this blessing
has not come alone—
how it echoes with
the voices of those
who accompany you,
who attend you in every moment,
who continually whisper
this blessing to you.
Hear how they
do not cease
to walk with you,
even when the dark
Hear how they
encompass you always—
breathing this blessing to you,
bearing this blessing to you
When Jesus says, “Blessed,” it is not a mere observation. It is an action. It is a calling forth of what is already deeply present. It’s a call to recognition… that all of us, even at our most fragmented, are the bearer of God’s blessing to a world badly in need of it. The things that break our hearts break us open, creating a longing in us for eternity. And that longing blesses the world.
Blessed are you who mourn. You whose hearts are in shards: your love spans both time and eternity, and it is a blessing.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Jan Richardson, The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.