“The Annunciation to Mary” from an Illuminated Gospel, Amhara Peoples (Ethiopia), ca. late 14th century.
Mark 13:24-37 24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
There is something truly remarkable about the Christian calendar year. Beginning on the First Sunday in Advent, today, it moves us through our Scriptures in a dramatic fashion. There are times when we can acknowledge our gifts and be thankful. There are times to remember those who have passed on. There are times to celebrate births and resurrections. There are also confessional times when we approach God, acknowledging that all is not right with ourselves and the world.
When we think of Advent, we might remember only the fun, celebratory stuff. It’s a season of hope, joy, love, and peace. It’s a time when we decorate the church and our homes and make our dogs wear little elf costumes. It’s a time when we sing carols like “Joy to the World” and get a bit winded during the “Glorias” in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” And given the way 2020 has gone, who couldn’t use a little light-hearted cheer right about now?
So why does Advent, our Christian New Year, begin with Scripture passages about God not showing up, God showing up angry, and God showing up only after a lot of suffering?
In Isaiah 64, the prophet wishes that God would just show up like he has done in ages past as he did in the stories of the prophet’s ancestors. God arriving with terrible earthquakes or forest fires is preferable to the God the prophet is experiencing, a hidden God, a silent God.
Our Psalmist cries out for God to show up and save everyone, to be present during a time of calamity. “Let your face shine, that we may be saved” is the refrain in this musical Psalm. But the writer of this Psalm asks that God come as an ally, not as a foe, and remember that God and God’s people are meant to be close, like those standing side-by-side.
It gets worse. We’ve been in Jerusalem during the last few days of Jesus’ life on earth for several weeks now in Matthew’s gospel. Week after week, we’ve heard difficult and challenging parables about wealth and privilege, injustice, and fear. You’d think after changing to the gospel of Mark in the New Year and it being Advent, we might be able to move on. Nope. Jesus is still stuck in Jerusalem, talking about the end of the world with his last remaining breaths. Here, he describes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the city’s inhabitants' suffering in cosmic language. After all that suffering and destruction, the divine leader, the “Song of Man,” will return and restore order. But maybe not right away, who knows. Nobody knows, Jesus exclaims, except God.
Why can’t things be like they used to be?
Why does the world feel so harsh?
Where’s God in the midst of all this suffering and chaos?
These questions concerned the ancient writers of today’s Scriptures.
Why can’t things be like they used to be?
Why does the world feel so harsh?
Where’s God in the midst of all this suffering and chaos?
Have we asked these questions in 2020? Why can’t things be like they used to be? Remember what it was like to be around people, anybody really, even someone we didn’t really like being around? Wouldn’t it have been better to share this year’s Thanksgiving with our annoying cousin or smelly uncle than having to cook a Thanksgiving meal for two?
Why does the world feel so harsh? Sure, everything in the US has always been polarized; it’s the heritage we carry in a two-party system with a history of slavery and white privilege. From a divided nation to the constant post-truth narrative, to the realities facing real people on the margins that have lost loved ones, jobs, health, homes, and other basic securities during the pandemic, the world is rough these days. No wonder we might want to skip over the thumping language in our Scriptures for the idyllic angelic announcements and manger scenes.
And where is God in all of this? Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew’s gospel that “where two or three gather in my name, I am there in their midst.” Yet gathering is the most challenging thing to do these days. We do our best to meet by Zoom and Facebook and through emails and on the phone. We might see each other masked up in Lantman’s or at the hardware store, but we cannot gather in-person as the body of Christ. The recent surge in the pandemic has the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ recommending that local churches forgo any in-person gatherings for the rest of 2020. How are we supposed to keep the faith these days when our rituals, practices, and communities of support are so disrupted?
While the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is a novel experience in human history, we’re not the first people to face adversity and wonder how to keep the faith. And the season of Advent doesn’t try to gloss over the difficulties and challenges of this time or any time. In fact, the first two weeks of Advent are penitential times, weeks where the scriptures and hymns and liturgies call on us to frame the issues we are facing.
We cannot be physically close to our families right now. People we know are getting sick. Some are dying. This year has been very isolating and lonely. We have darker thoughts these days, and we struggle to get out of bed. We worry our family members are becoming radicalized because of our nation’s political polarization and false claims of voter fraud. We know that this pandemic is a season and will lift at some point, but it feels like we’re stuck in winter in mid-February, it’s been cold and dreary for a long time, and there’s still plenty more to come.
Why does our faith do this, make us tell the truth, calling on us to confess the current state of affairs, acknowledging where we hurt most?
Perhaps the story of Christmas with all its hope and light and cheer has to be rewritten every year. We hear the story of Mary and Joseph, of the shepherds and angels and Magi and animals in the stable and the birth of one baby born in a far-off land 2,000 years ago. This story can feel pretty distant and inconsequential, but these early Advent Scriptures remind us of our need to experience God’s presence again, to hope for a world that is a little better, a little lighter, a lot more peaceful. We can resonate with the Isaiah passage that just wants things to be like they used to be. We can internalize the words of our Psalm, that wishes for a more peaceful world. And we can read our gospel message and see ourselves longing for God’s presence and victory during uncertain times of chaos and calamity.
Then, we can imagine that in 2020 Jesus will be born into this world that is undergoing a pandemic. Many have died, and many more have become sick. Most human life on this planet has been affected by the pandemic in negative ways. Generally speaking, people feel more lonely, more on edge, more depressed, and more anxious. Some have lost the basic securities of life, enough food, work, family, health, emotional support, and purpose. We need hope right now. We need a story that reminds us that God is with us, that goodness is coming, that we aren’t experiencing this difficult year on our own.
Do your best in the coming week to consider where you are hurting. Offer these confessions to God through prayer. Share them with others close to you if they are too heavy to manage on your own. Consider also the wider world and the pain others are experiencing. Don’t try to figure out how to fix things yet; just work on understanding.
I imagine that when we do this, we will have a better appreciation of our Christmas story, when, in a few short weeks, Jesus Christ is born again into our world.
If you are struggling during the pandemic and especially now during this holiday season, reach out. Call the church and speak with Andi Lloyd or with me or connect with us through email. Join the Closed Facebook Group that offers folks a safe place to share prayer concerns and interact with one another. Consider joining us for our Advent Vespers every Wednesday at 7 pm beginning December 2nd on Zoom.
May we take an honest account of the world as it is, so we can better appreciate the importance of our Christmas Story. Amen.
Lambs at Duclos & Thompson Farm on Sheep Farm Road, Middlebury VT
Photo Credit: Andy Nagy-Benson
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
To read Pastor Lloyd's sermon, click the button below.
Fan Mount: “The Cabbage Gatherers” by Camille Pissarro ca. 1878-79.
Matthew 25:14-30 14-18 “It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
19-21 “After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
22-23 “The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
24-25 “The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
26-27 “The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’
Harland Sanders came from very little. Born in a four-room house in rural Indiana in 1890, he was the oldest of three children that had to grow up quickly. His father died when Harland was just five, and his mother took a job at a tomato cannery in a nearby town to make ends meet. Harland became the family caregiver for his younger siblings and the family’s cook early on.
When his mother remarried, Harland sought work on local farms, painted horse carriages, and dropped out of the seventh grade to support his family.
When he was old enough, more or less, he entered military service and worked all over the country as a fireman, blacksmith, lawyer, railroad laborer, life insurance salesman, and steamboat operator.
His latest venture kept him in one place longer than any other. He operated a service station and diner in North Corbin, Kentucky.
The business had done alright, and local food critics praised his folksy menu consisting of southern favorites like country ham and biscuits, steaks and greens, and various chicken dishes. After a fire destroyed the gas station and restaurant, Sanders built a motel and 140-seat restaurant based on his reputation as a cook.
But then the interstate was built through Kentucky, and while it went through North Corbin, it changed the flow of traffic, and folks went elsewhere to eat, and stay, and get their gas. Harland Sanders was forced to close the service station, motel, and restaurant essentially broke.
Nearing retirement, he worried that his meager $105 monthly pension would not cover even the most stripped-down life for him and his family.
Then he remembered the praise he received from local food critics all those years back. Specifically, he remembered how they and many locals came to his restaurant for his fried chicken. After perfecting his “Secret Recipe” and special cooking method, Sanders hit the road, hoping to find a few restaurants that would franchise his fried chicken recipe and cooking method. He drove around the country, sleeping in his car, and was rejected more than 1,000 times, as the story goes, before a little restaurant in South Salt Lake, Utah took the offer to pay him .04 cents per piece of chicken sold.
By this time, he was known as Colonel Sanders, an honorary title given to him by Kentucky’s governor and friend, Lawrence Wetherby. When sales at the South Salt Lake restaurant skyrocketed in the first year, Colonel Sanders sought out more restaurants to carry his signature dish. Within a handful of years, Kentucky Fried Chicken had over 600 locations and was one of the first food franchises to expand internationally.
This type of story is the one we often associate with the parable of the talents, our gospel reading today.
A wealthy landowner goes on a trip and leaves his three servants with property to manage. The one who was given five talents, or $5,000 in our translation, quickly goes out, does some trading, and doubles the investment. The second one, who was given $2,000, goes off and doubles his investment as well. The third servant receives $1,000, and digs a hole and hides it.
When the master returns, the first two are praised for their financial aptitude and are invited into the land owner’s house to celebrate. Meanwhile, the third servant is reproved for burying his money instead of making an income. The servant is fired from the landowner's employment and, as Matthew does to most of Jesus’ parables, is thrown out into a hell-like scene with darkness and gnashing of teeth.
Historically, Christians in the west have read this parable and reflected on the importance of production. Those that are praised in this story are the two servants that took a little and made something of it, by whatever means. Likewise, God gives us gifts and talents in our lives, and we ought to use them. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says something similar when he tells his disciples that,
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
In this reading, God’s people are given gifts, talents, and graces, and the faithful response of those blessings is to use those gifts, talents, and graces to produce good in the world.
We can then imagine stories like Colonel Sanders as our modern-day parables. These are folks that were given little, but through hard work, ingenuity, and a little luck, that made big gains with what they had.
This is a common Stewardship Sunday passage because it talks about being faithful with what’s been given and making a strong return on God’s investment in us.
I’ve also heard this passage as a call for folks not to be shy about their gifts. We might like to sing, but worry that we aren’t good enough for the choir. We think we might be helpful by working in the church in this or that way, but feel we aren’t faithful enough, or know our Bible enough, or pray enough, or been at the church long enough to take on a leadership role. Don’t let fear guide your actions to the point that you hide your talents, a pastor might proclaim. But be courageous and share the gifts you have with others.
In many ways, I enjoy this reading, and it fits well within the stories of our Christian faith and our current situation. Today, during this pandemic, it is so easy to hide our gifts, talents, and graces because we cannot exercise them in the same ways we’ve always done. Singers cannot sing together, those that give generously may be furloughed, and folks that care for others cannot work in usual ways because of social distancing.
We might notice, then, that the master in our story does not micromanage or even give instructions, just resources. And while we do not have an instruction manual on how to pandemic correctly, likely we’ve been given all we need to continue to show love, worship, and work for a more just world today.
More recently, however, Biblical scholars have come back to this parable and other master/servant parables in Matthew. They wonder if the traditional reading of God or Jesus as Master and good Christ-followers as servants is the correct one, or if Jesus was trying to do something else.
By looking at economic practices during Jesus’ time, these scholars have pointed out that a 100 fold gain made so quickly would likely be made through the exploitation of workers, like hiring day laborers and then refusing to pay them at the end of the day. A more literal translation of the third servant’s conversation with the master goes like this:
24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return, I would have received what was my own with interest.
Here the servant accuses the master of theft by reaping where he did not sow, and the master remarks that he should have lent the money away so he could at least receive interest. Lending money at interest or usury when against the Laws of Moses.
By not using the money to exploit workers or collect interest, the third servant chooses not to participate in an economic system that hurts the poorest of the poor. In this reading, the master is not God, but earthly leaders that bestow opportunities capaciously and reward only the highest earners, regardless of the ways their money was made. When the third servant is thrown out into the cold, he joins all the other people that have been thrown out, thrown away, and disregarded by a wealthy few any their minions. Through this series of parables, Jesus describes the way his audience is oppressed by the unethical practices of the ruling elite and identifies with those that are thrown out, kept out, or let down by a broken economic system that values profit over people.
Today, we might consider how we participate in economic oppression systems and what we might do as people of faith.
On election day, November 2nd, the US Department of Labor announced a new regulation under the H-2A agricultural guest worker program that freezes wages for farmworkers for at least the next two years. These workers are folks from many other parts of the world, but mostly Central and South America, people who do not hold citizenship but are here legally, and who are primarily brown and black-skinned. Especially during this pandemic, these workers are essential in keeping food in the grocery stores. They cannot plant, weed, grow and harvest fields of tomatoes, avocados, olives, and lettuce by making phone calls or through ZOOM. Instead, their work is hard and physical, and a combination of low pay and working conditions makes visiting farmworkers more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and most other professions.
We can imagine the outcry if wages for other essential workers like nurses and doctors, or teachers and truckers, folks that must risk exposure to keep us all safe and healthy, were frozen for the next two years.
A faithful response to this unjust regulation might be to write our congressional delegation. Another might be to thank our local farmers or leave extra money in the till at local farms stands with a note that earmarks the money for the farm’s migrant farmworkers. We might also get involved in a national organization like Farmworker Justice or a local one like Vermont’s own Migrant Justice.
I guess we land with a pick you adventure ending with this troubling and challenging parable from Matthew. In it, we might be encouraged and challenged to find new ways to use our gifts, even though the pandemic makes this a little more challenging. Or we might find a way that our faith speaks to unjust economic practices and chose to spend some time or money on making life better for our fellow human beings, visiting farmworkers, who serve on the front lines as essential workers right now and are getting the short end of the stick.
Regardless, may you find something encouraging and challenging in these words of Jesus. And may you consider how this gospel story provokes you into action. Amen.
“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” William Blake ca. 1800. Public Domain.
Matthew 25:1-13 1‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
In general, humans are not very good at waiting. If you have had children or been around children, you’ve noticed that we do not come preloaded with patience or calmness when we need something.
Some of us have been taught or learned to be more patient over the years, and some of us have not. Regardless, the idea of waiting probably makes us feel a little squeamish and evokes images of standing in a line at the DMV or watching the coffee maker take it’s good old time as it slowly percolates this morning’s coffee.
The great theologian Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers tell us that:
The waiting is the hardest part Every day you see one more card You take it on faith, you take it to the heart The waiting is the hardest part
In many ways, 2020 has been a lesson or ordeal on waiting, as we’ve longed for better news about the pandemic, have waited to see family and friends, or have waited to return to work. We’ve entered the bonus round this last week as the election took place, but several states are still counting ballots. And even when all the votes are counted, there is a strong chance that we will endure recounts, and court hearings before it’s all sorted.
What makes waiting so tricky is that it can make us feel powerless. We wait for the results of a medical test and can’t do anything to ensure a positive outcome. We wait as the mechanic diagnoses the problem with our car, knowing that the fix could be expensive. We wait for the healing of a relationship, knowing that such things are not in our control.
Our gospel passage for this Sunday is another of Jesus’ parables. This one deals with waiting.
If you remember, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employed parables or stories to teach an important lesson about the Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s new way. The early readers of this gospel believed that Jesus Christ would return soon once and for all, overthrowing the foreign occupation and righting all wrongs. But now, near the end of the first century, the gospel’s earliest audience has begun questioning that belief. It’s been a generation or more since these stories took place, and the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better. What is Jesus waiting for? Why are people still suffering? Were we wrong about Jesus altogether?
So, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding. The bridegroom is set to arrive at some time in the evening, but the exact time is unknown. Friends of the bride have been commissioned to keep watch and keep their lamps on so they can both recognize the bridegroom and his party when they arrive and so they can bring the bridegroom to the place of celebration.
Some of the bridesmaids come prepared with extra oil for their lamps in the event the groom doesn’t arrive until early in the morning. Others do not bring extra oil, so when the wedding party comes at midnight, they have to run out to buy more fuel for their lamps. In doing so, they miss the arrival and the festivities altogether.
Waiting on Jesus was a serious issue among the early Christ-followers all over the Mediterranean world in the mid to late first century. Several of Paul’s letters address this issue, and it is apparent in the book of Acts that this issue divided some of the church’s early leaders.
It appears that some of these early followers were so convinced that Jesus would return and fix the world soon and very soon, that they sold all they had, and simply waited, in ideal. As time wore on, and Jesus did not return in the way they imagined, communities of faith were stretched thin to support their brothers and sisters who were now destitute. Those that were so sure of Jesus’ return had become a financial burden to their communities.
Matthew still believes that Jesus will return triumphantly, but he sees waiting as an activity, something that does more than standing around, waiting for Jesus to return and fix a broken world. Jesus’ message in this parable, then, is to remain prepared by doing those things that you’ve been commissioned to do. Just as the wise bridesmaids prepared for the possibility of a long night and then got to participate in the festivities, early Christians were to prepare themselves for a late-arriving savior, knowing that their work would be essential and allow them to participate in a better world.
I wonder if this parable gives us some insight into our hopes and desires as we wait for a better world. Are we wasting time, holding on to the hope that the pandemic will simply lift, and everything will be back to normal soon and very soon? Or are we finding ways to remain healthy and still connected, busy by caring for ourselves and others in gracious and hard-working ways? Because what we do now matters, and it is essential to be good to yourself and gracious with others right now.
What about the election? Did we were doing our part simply by casting our vote? Did we drive ourselves a little crazy this week pressing the refresh button over and over on the CNN website, or have Fox News on 24 hours a day? Or did we go about our lives, offering prayers and kindness, love, and goodness, as we brought a little light to those in our grasp?
Are we waiting on the world to change, to be more loving and just, more peaceful and civil, more sustainable and inclusive, or are we actually participants in the changing of a world that cries out for something better?
As we wait, for the end of a pandemic, for election results, for a better world, may we wait actively. There’s work to do, essential work, and no reason to be ideal. For the love of God and all of God’s creation. Amen.
“The Supper at Emmaus” Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1622-23). Public Domain.
5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Beatitudes “Everyone sometime has somebody close die,” writes my favorite poet, Wisława Szymborska. Between to be or not to be He’s forced to choose the latter.
We can’t admit that it’s a mundane fact, Subsumed in the course of events, In accordance with procedure:
Sooner or later on the daily docket, The evening, late night, or first dawn docket;
And explicit as an entry in an index, As a statute in a codex, As any hance date on a calendar.
But such is the right and left of nature. Such, willy-nilly, is her omen and her amen. Such are her instruments and omnipotence.
And only on occasion A small favor on her part-- She tosses our dead loved ones Into dreams.
There are some whose memory lives on well beyond their passing. By invention, military conquest, power, fame, wealth, monuments, and mausoleums are erected to only a select few in human history.
Two famous buildings, the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Taj Mahal in India, were built centuries ago as places of remembrance to important people. The second pharaoh of Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, Khufu, commissioned the great pyramid while still alive so he could be worshiped after his death. The Taj Mahal was commissioned in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to memorialize his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to the couple’s 14th child.
We also remember those whose inventions carry their name: Samuel Colt’s Colt revolver, Rudolph Diesel’s Diesel engine, George Washington Gale Ferris’s Ferris wheel, and Hans Geiger’s Geiger Counter. But what about the rest of us, the rest of humanity? What about all those people who lived and died through the centuries that did not discover some distant land, invent some new contraption, or have the wealth to donate to an institution and receive a hall named after them?
What about the people, those who we loved and were good to us, whose only lasting memory is the one we hold, when, as Szymborska puts it, “[nature] tosses our dead loved ones into dreams.”
All Saint’s Day is a Christian feast day celebrated by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant churches worldwide. The day commemorates all the saints, known and unknown, and is part of a Christian season that includes Halloween, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day.
This short season calls on the faithful to remember those that have gone before them, specifically those this world might forget.
In this way, our gospel reading from the Beatitudes makes sense. Here Jesus describes an alternative reality, one in which those that are most harmed by human evils are comforted and vindicated by God. Jesus does not count the wealthy, privileged, powerful, violent, conquering, and corrupt as receiving God’s favor. Instead, God’s blessing resides with the humans who are at the end of their rope, who are grieving, and who do not have enough, not because of their difficult circumstances, but because God prefers to show up during difficult circumstances. God can also be found in those that have searched for the good in this world and been severely let down, and in the caretakers of those that are forgotten. God abides in those that set their hearts and minds on good and noble things and in those who show people how to work differences out peacefully.
These are not special people, as our world measures specialness. Likely, these folks do not have a great wonder of the world to mark their burial place, a lasting invention that bears their name, or a place in our children’s textbooks.
But we know them. Those faces from our past that show up in our good dreams because they were good people. They can be mothers and fathers, or not. Siblings and other family members sometimes. A teacher, professor, or coach or maybe a really good friend or mentor. And despite not being wealthy, or powerful, forceful, or connected, you remember them as blessed. Because they persisted. Because they were truthful. Because they were kind and sincere and filled with a loving grace. They were not perfect, but no saint is. And even after they are gone, they still give us power and strength today. Because God was with them, was present in their lives in some explicit way or otherwise.
How we are to other people matters. All Saint’s Day reminds us of that because we are asked to remember those blessed people in our lives that graced us with their good presence and have since moved on. So, remember the good ones, and consider what part of them lives on in you.
And remember, you too, are blessed by God. Reflect that. Live as a blessing to those around you. Measure success the way Jesus measured success. If you do, you will need no monument, mausoleum, or hall named after you. You will be remembered when it matters by those that matter most. Amen.