Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at St. Paul’s, K Street on November 1, 2020.
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.”
Good morning friends of St. Paul’s K, Street–what a gift to worship God with you!
First let me thank your good rector, Fr. Richard Wall, the staff, and your lay leaders for their steady, faithful leadership. I’m aware of the prayerful and strategic work your leaders have undertaken in the last year and I’m grateful for it, especially in a year when we’ve all had to adapt and respond to crisis and change.
I’d also like to acknowledge the impact of the pandemic and its repercussions on your personal lives, on top of everything else that you hold in your hearts. This hasn’t been an easy time and we’re all feeling the weight of it. For some, the burden has been especially heavy, and if that’s been the case for you, I am sorry. I pray you can hold the image of Jesus looking into the eyes of those gathered on the mountain to hear him speak, see him look into your eyes, and hear his words of blessing for you. Blessed are you.
This is a sermon about blessing in hard things and hard times. On this feast of All Saints, we pause to remember the blessed ones upon whose lives and witness our faith rests. Some of the blessed ones are historical figures; others we knew personally, and from whom we received, as Scripture says, grace upon grace.
Those who stand out in our memory generally aren’t the ones who had an easy life. What inspires us was their courage in the face of adversity, their perseverance in love when love was hard, or their joyful spirit when joy was hard to find. What inspires us wasn’t their perfection, because they weren’t perfect, but how Jesus’ love shone through their imperfections, which made them all the more real.
I’d like to explore what blessing in hard things and hard times look like for us.
First let’s consider the capacity, and indeed, the spiritual practice of seeking blessing in the midst of hardship. This isn’t pretending that things aren’t hard when they are, or avoiding pain, or embracing the understandable but problematic notion that God causes bad things to happen in order to teach us a lesson. Rather, to seek and receive blessing is simply an openness on our part to take in whatever bits of goodness come our way.
So it is that someone who is dealing with illness or grief can experience the blessing of their families’ love and care; and another struggling with unemployment who receives blessing in the neighbors who stop by with a fresh loaf of bread, or another feeling lonely and afraid who is moved by the blessing of a beautiful sunrise. The other day as I was sitting at my desk, I looked out the window and saw a squirrel jump from tree to tree in our backyard with the Y of a trapeze artist, and I burst out laughing. I hadn’t laughed all day, and it felt so good. Who knew? Blessing in the form of a squirrel.
In hard times, these bits of goodness, kindness, and unexpected joy are our lifelines. If we’re offering what doesn’t seem like very much to someone else, the response can be overwhelming: Thank you, people will say, I really needed to hear that today. Or I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Then you realize that what small offering you made was amplified by grace, that God was speaking through that person. In moments like these, we can’t help but wonder: What keeps us from offering blessing to one another more often?
So let’s dwell a bit longer, first to underscore the importance of seeking out and being open to such blessings, for without them, the world is a harsher place than it needs to be. It’s painful to be in the company of those who can’t receive such blessing, so trained are they in seeing only what’s wrong, so wounded by life that all goodness is suspect. A spiritual practice of seeking and receiving blessing keeps our hearts soft even when times are hard.
A few years ago I spoke to the girls and young women of National Cathedral School around Thanksgiving, and I invited them to take up a 30-day experiment of gratitude. At night before they went to bed, I suggested that they write down in a notebook three things for which they were grateful about the day. I assured them that they didn’t have to give thanks for things they weren’t grateful for, but simply encouraged them to see if they could find three things each day. If invited, I would come back in a month to discuss what they had learned.
The 4th grade class invited me back. We talked for an hour–about what they had experienced and learned. They also wrote me letters, which I cherish. “I found that writing my 3 gratefuls helped me calm down,” one wrote. “I found myself writing people on my list who were very busy right now and working really hard.” “I learned that writing positive things gave me a more positive attitude.” “I liked writing my gratitudes because I learned that even if you are in hard times you should try to find joy.”
Equally important are efforts to offer blessing. Daily kindnesses are simply blessings by another name. Our words matter here, more than we know. The late poet/priest John O’Donohue defined this form of blessing as “words that create a circle of light drawn around a person to protect and strengthen.”1 The Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister goes further to say that those who bless don’t take the easy path of speaking destructively about other people–even those with whom they strongly disagree. “They can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world. The ecology of humankind is safe with them.”2
Consider, in the midst of all that’s happening now, an intentional practice of gratitude–lifting up three blessings in the course of a day for which to give thanks. But why not commit as well to the practice of offering blessing? Make an effort to affirm the people in your life, to extend yourself in kindness and generosity, to refrain from the easy critique or cynical remark and express understanding instead.
Now I’d like to speak of another form of blessing in hard things and hard times. This blessing is for when we are in the midst of something really hard–like a pandemic, or economic hardship, or social unrest or political polarization, or any other truly challenging circumstances that we face. For in these times, like the ones we are in now, the only way out, as they say, is through. Or maybe there is another, less difficult way out, but you choose–you feel called–to stay for the sake of someone else. It’s really hard, but you don’t look away. You don’t run.
Hear again Jesus’ litany of blessing: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted. There’s nothing easy about any of these things, and the blessing isn’t easy either, in the sense that it’s not a bandage or a means of escape. Rather it is grace that gives us hope for a better future, a better way, and resolve to transform that hope into reality.
This is a gritty, messy blessing. And we are not perfect vessels of it. Part of what we learn is to accept the imperfection of it all, the imperfection of our lives and our ways of coping, the ups and downs of our moods and responses, and those of others. We even come to accept that we may be the ones to see the better day for which we hope but we carry on, because the only way out is through. And for reasons we will never know, we are the ones to see this through.
I don’t know about you, but this is what I feel called to now–to accept the fact that I am among those called to live through this time, and to see others through. I don’t like it; I’m not always good at it; it doesn’t always bring out the best in me, but here I am. I’m not going anywhere. And the blessing is and will be as we make it through.
Making it through involves continual improvisation, adaptation, and trying new things. Sometimes we succeed; often we fail, and then we try again. We mess up, and so we ask for forgiveness. We fall down, ask for strength, get back up, and keep going. This is, my dear friends, the path of life, the path of sainthood–not the sanitized version of purity, but the real one of grace shining through broken glass.
We will get through this. We will because we must. It won’t always be pretty. We won’t always get things right, but perfection is never what God asks or expects of us. And as the poet Marianne Moore once wrote about roses, may we remember that our thorns are the best part of us.3 They are what make us real. When blessings shine through our thorns, others can see the power and the love of God. Incredibly enough, we may be their saints of blessed memory because we persevered and saw one another through.
1 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 186.
2 Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Triumph, 1999), 24.
3 Marianne Mooore, “Roses Only,” found on the website poets.org.