It’s November 3 and we’ve just had Halloween or All Hallow’s Evening, All Saint’s Day on the first and All Souls Day yesterday. Most churches will combine All Saints and All Souls Day celebrations today with baptism or the renewal of baptismal vows along with a litany of those who have died and are known and remembered in the community. Dia de Muertos or “Day of the Dead” brings together all these Christian feast days over a three-day holiday in Mexico that has links to an Aztec Festival.
Recently I learned about a movement called “Death over Dinner,” where guests are invited to dine together and have a guided conversation about planning and preparing for their own death, including end of life care, legacy and last wishes.
It’s been surprising to hear all this talk about “death” recently since over the past 10-20 years we’ve unofficially stopped referring to death and instead use the euphemism “passed” or “passed away” to describe this universal aspect of the human experience. Although, it doesn’t quite work to refer to the “Day of the Passed Away” or “A Day of Remembrance for the Faithful Passed.”
Episcopalians are a protestant denomination with catholic heritage and practice. Practically this means that we don’t pray to the saints but we honor them, especially the ones we particularly like including, St. Francis, St. Clare, the apostles and St. Dunstan, the first Christian King in England. We like to name our churches after saints and we continue to recognize new saints like Martin Luther King Jr., although they don’t have to have any miracles attributed to them. There’s even a popular online contest, ‘Lent Madness,’ with brackets for choosing the most popular saint for the year.
We also honor All Souls, those who are not official saints, but ones who have died and are part of the community. Some have been people of faith, others not so much but we entrust their souls to God and remember them. We also recognize that they, like us and even all the big name saints are a mixture of both saint and sinner. Each serve as an example but not a perfect one.
Greater awareness of death and attention to the departed is a powerful impetus to look at how we are living now. None of us know how many years we have but it’s certain that each of us will die. Denial of death by euphemism or the worship of eternal youthfulness can rob us of the reflection and changes necessary to make life matter now. If, for today, for just a few short minutes we step back from our striving, planning, working for the future and contemplate the finiteness of our earthly lives, we will make space for the larger questions of what truly matters.
That great wisdom teacher Jesus offered his perspective on the life of blessedness and it is still blowing us away. It turns upside down all the common wisdom of what makes for meaning, purpose and happiness. Luke’s Sermon on the Plain or Beatitudes are short and direct. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted. And then he follows it by the woes. Woe are the the rich, the full, the laughing and the popular.
He’s talking to a mixed crowd. There are his disciples and other followers, along with the curious and the desperate. Nervous religious leaders are there to check him out or trip him up. There are certainly lots of poor people, but also the rich. There are those who are grieving and suffering along with the satisfied. His words are for everyone, including all of us who listen to him these many years later in this mixed crowd.
In classic Jesus fashion, things are not as simple as they seem. His beatitudes are not a clear judgement, Rich = bad, Poor = good. Instead Jesus is proclaiming his truth, God’s truth, and it goes against all conventional wisdom. He describes an upside down kingdom where the poor and lowly are valued, honored and comforted and the rich, powerful and esteemed will no longer be able to trust in their exterior marks of success. The comfortable and complacent will be afflicted.
The wisdom in this is not that there is one permanent class of the blessed and another of the oppressed, but just as each of us is a mixture of saint and sinner, so in our lifetimes we will both mourn and laugh, be rich and poor, be full and hungry and be admired and persecuted. Circumstances change. Our lives are upended. We get surprised. Our ship comes in. The stock market crashes. The diagnosis is terrible. A new drug is discovered. Many of us in a lifetime will oscillate between happiness and despair, comfort and want, acclaim and criticism. Some of that is in our control, but for the most part we are reacting to circumstances that seem arbitrary. The part we choose is our response.
Which brings me to my two grandmothers. In my family we have the narrative of the good and loving grandmother, Mama Tay and the stingy and difficult grandma Lilly. Both were born poor, one in Ohio and the other in Hamburg Germany. Both had difficult childhoods, Mama Tay because her father died early and Lilly because she was sent to live in America at age 16. Neither were able to afford college. They married, raised children and were ultimately widowed. Lilly remarried to a wealthy man and she lived the rich life she had always wanted in a beautiful condo overlooking the Willamette River. Mama Tay lived in a room in an assisted living facility until her death at age 98.
Mama Tay had a tough life, and a blessed one. She blessed the people around her. As she was dying I came out to visit and bring her communion along with my Aunt, cousin and mother. She couldn’t speak but she wrote on a white board. I love you. Thank you. I’m grateful. The staff and attendants at the Assisted Living Center loved her so much that they volunteered to take on the extra shifts and care she needed at the end so that she didn’t have to be moved to a more highly skilled nursing facility. She died at peace, well cared for and loved.
Lilly had a tough life and even when she got what she thought she wanted, it wasn’t enough. She was difficult to care for. She fired attendants or they quit. She was demanding and ungrateful. She threatened to cut people out of her will if they didn’t do her bidding. My father and Uncle finally had to physically put her in a wheelchair and take her to a nursing home since she refused to leave her condo. She died that very night of an unexpected heart attack. She was not at peace.
What makes for a blessed life? How do we prepare for death so that it might be holy and, if we’re fortunate, peaceful? Most of us will experience both joy and sorrow in life, success and failure, times of plenty and times of want. What does it mean to live a good life in the midst of changing circumstances, much of which is not under our control?
The poor blame the rich as selfish, uncaring, corrupt and greedy. The rich blame the poor, labeling them lazy, addicted, dirty and stupid. We abuse one another. We hate those who are different from us. We curse those who disagree with us. Grandma Lilly was a good example of this. Her entire lifetime she remembered and admired the strength and success of Nazi Germany. In the U.S. she was distrusted and rejected because of her German accent. She was bitter and jealous. When she finally got the riches she longed for she hoarded them and used them to try and manipulate her family. She died angry and alone.
Mama Tay wasn’t perfect, but she chose another path. She practiced forgiveness. She gave generously. She remained curious and connected to others. Both grandmothers had times of wealth and poverty, suffering and happiness, hunger and security. What differed in the end was their response.
Jesus knows that we are a mixed crowd. He also knows our tendency towards blame and shame. We compare our positions and blame the other and feel ashamed ourselves. It leads to anger and bitterness. So he gives us another way to consider, the Way of Love. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Regardless of circumstances, these are practices we can adopt. When we experience our fellow citizens as enemies, when we undergo the cursing and abuse of neighbors, we can choose to love and pray for them. We can practice forgiveness that sets us free. We can receive and give grace. No matter our financial status, we can give to another. We can walk in gratitude. And we can treat others as we would like to be treated.
Jesus himself was both poor and rich in his lifetime, born as a carpenter’s child but dining at the tables of the wealthy and powerful. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, but also one who laughed and loved and experienced deep joy. At the end he loved and prayed for the enemies who killed him. He poured out his gifts for all who asked of him. He didn’t hold back. He is the ultimate example of a blessed and meaningful life. We who have been baptized into his death have also been given new life, blessed life, graced life. Amen.