I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me * and saved me from all my troubles.
The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, * and he will deliver them. (Psalm 34:4-7)
Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. It is a special day in the church when we celebrate those whose lives have shown forth the love of God through their dedication, their example, and their service and as a result have transformed lives.
These saints may live among us now or they may have gone on before us to live with God. Today is a day when we remember them with prayers of gratitude.
We know that without these people, our lives would be diminished. We would not be who we are or who we are becoming. They continue to live on in us through their love and their inspiration as we too strive to be instruments of God’s grace and mercy in the world. Through them we are able to glimpse what it means to be God’s beloved children because they showed us love and faithfulness.
Frederick Buechner says that “to be a saint is to live not with hands clinched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and to receive with gladness.” The people in our lives who we see as being saints are people who have learned to trust in a greater reality—that in love there is a depth that can renew and restore.
I know that each of us has a story of someone who gave of themselves in both small and large ways so that our lives and the lives of others were made better, kinder, stronger.
On this All Saints Day we remember, grieve, celebrate, and honor, our saints and try to live lives that are worthy of all they gave us. I am wondering what they would say to those of us who are living in these heartbreaking times.
I recently had a conversation with a person I see as someone who tries to follow the path of a saint. She said to me with deep sadness, “I feel that my life may have been fruitless. I have done everything I know to work for justice, to help others find safety and stability, and as I look around it seems that the world just gets worse and worse.” This is a feeling that resonates with me and it may with you as well.
Every day we try to give our best to our families, to our work, to our friends, to our churches, to our communities, to the work being done on our behalf here and around the world, and yet we can look out and we see the continued cycle of humans’ unending cruelty toward other humans. Daily we hear and sometimes see the relentless death raining down on God’s children—the children of Gaza, the children of Israel, the children of Ukraine, the children of Yemen, the children of the United States—all our children—all God’s children. Inside we feel heartbreak, anger, and helplessness. And we may ask, what we can do and also we may feel that nothing we can do will be enough.
We can feel helpless and hopeless in the face of tragedy that continues unabated. Is there anything possible to bring about peace and justice—to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
I believe Jesus is speaking into this question, into this pain, into this longing as I listen to his words on that mountain. The Gospel reading we have this morning is from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ most famous sermon, often called the “Sermon on the Mount.” Having just launched his public ministry, declaring that the “reign of heaven” has come near, he now begins to color in what this “reign of heaven” look like. Listening to him on this mountain were people just like you and me. People trying to do their best. People who struggled in life.
People who had lost those they loved. People who worked hard. People who tried to care for their families. People who were sick. People who may have felt the injustices of the world. And I would imagine that they were listening for Jesus to tell them how to receive divine blessing, how to bring it into their lives and the lives of those they loved. These Beatitudes, as they have come to be known, must have come as a confounding surprise. In the first place, Jesus paints an utterly counterintuitive picture of blessedness.
Looking around the world, then and now, it’s easy to conclude that the “blessed” are the rich, happy, beautiful, strong, satisfied, ruthless, aggressive, safe, and well-liked — and yet here’s Jesus, saying that despite appearances, the truly “blessed” are the empty, those who mourn, the gentle, the hungry, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted.
Second, Jesus’ list of blessings frustrates any attempt to turn it into a manual on “how to achieve blessings.” The Beatitudes are not a list of religious requirements for how to be blessed, but about how God is always blessing us. It is about how God who is always near, can be trusted. God blesses us when we are empty, when we have nothing left to give. The Beatitudes tell us that wherever we are, God meets us there. Rather than anything we can do to earn blessings, Jesus delivers the good news of presence, consolation, and assurance.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who feel they have nothing to give, They are empty, they are impoverished, they are exhausted. And Jesus says, Blessed are you, all that I have is yours.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are those whose lives seems to “lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.” like the fathers digging with their bare hands trying to find their children crushed under the rubble of their former homes in Gaza. Gone like the Jewish mother cradling the lifeless body of her beloved child. Gone, like your beloved who just yesterday filled your life with joy, gone. Jesus says Blessed are you for you will be held close and cared for. You are never alone. I am always beside you to hold you in love. And I will hold the one you love alongside you. As the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church of Bethlehem said recently in a sermon,
“God is under the rubble in Gaza. God is with the frightened and the refugee. God is in the operating room. This is our consolation. God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, those who are targeted, those who lose jobs, lose friends, suffer physical attack when they speak out for what they believe is justice, speak truth to incredible power to stop the violence and the destruction. Jesus says Blessed are you for you are bringing about the kingdom of heaven.
Into the pain of the world, into the horror of continuous violence, into the places where we feel lost, abandoned, separated from love, God steps in and says “I am with you always.”
The experience of those who received Jesus’ words on the mountain are similar to us in many ways. Like them we live in a time of uncertainty, violence, and fear. But Jesus’s words remind us that even when things seem to be without hope, without possibility, that God blesses us and gives us the courage and the creativity to become what we receive, to become a blessing for others and to help the world move closer to the kingdom God has in mind.
I want to offer you two stories, one from the Jewish tradition, and one from the experience of the daughter of a Palestinian refugee.
Rachel Naomi Remen (author of My Grandfather’s Blessings) tells a story of creation that was told to her by her grandfather.
“In the beginning there was only the holy darkness—the Ein sof—the source of life. And then in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world—the world of a thousand thousand things emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light and then—(because it’s a Jewish story)–there was an accident.
And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world– broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light and they fell into all events and all people where they remain deeply hidden until this day.
The whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born to find the hidden capacity in all events and in all people—to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.”
This is a very important task for our times. This task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world and it is a task we are all called to be involved in. (this is a collective task.) It involves all people who have ever been born, all people who currently live, and all people who are yet to be born. We are all the healers of the world and this story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference—it’s about healing the world that touches you.
“Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal” by Naomi Shahib Nye
After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.
Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her
Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu do-aa, shu- biduck habibte, stenni stenni schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?
(Translation: “Duaa (girl’s name) what do you want honey , wait, wait a second , please , what are you doing?”)
The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
Would ride next to her—Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and
Found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—
And was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
The lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
Powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—
Non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice
And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.
And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped
—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.
To my dear friend in her time of doubt and deep grief, though our efforts may seem inconsequential in the face of the gravity of the world’s suffering, what we do, what we say, how we show up is what is required of us . Praying for peace, reaching out in love and compassion to those who mourn, writing letters to our leaders to stop the violence, volunteering to support those in need, these are our first steps in reorganizing the world that God has in mind. To be sure it is the step we must take again and again to make this a world where all God’s children can experience God’s reign of love. For it is in steps, both vast and seemingly unimportant, that we can be a part of healing the world, tikkun olam, a salaamu alaykum.
May blessings accompany us as we try, with God’s help, to follow the path of the saints.
 Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye
 Remen, Rachel Naomi, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. Riverhead Hardcover, 2000.
 “Wandering Around An Albuquerque Airport Terminal” by Naomi Shihab Nye https://wordsfortheyear.com/2014/03/24/wandering-around-an-albuquerque-airport-terminal-by-naomi-shihab-nye/