Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
The first time I met Joyce, one of the true elders and pillars of this community, was when I came to meet all of you at Lyndale for a weekend of interviews, preaching, worship and meetings almost four years ago. It was at the congregational meeting after worship that we were all sitting in a circle doing a round of introductions that included some kind of “what do you love about Lyndale” check-in. You all earnestly obliged the exercise. Until we got to Joyce. Joyce said, “I love Lyndale, but I hate it when we go around in a circle talking about our feelings.” She punctured whatever bubble of nerves had been hovering and we all laughed and finally exhaled.
For the next six months or so, Joyce continued to live as a beacon of realness, of laughter, of the kind of wisdom that reminds us to exhale. She had lived with MS and cancer for many years by the time I arrived at Lyndale. And it was in my first few months with you that her body let go. There is an adage among those who work with the dying that humans, in the natural course of illness, tend to die as they have lived. Knowing Joyce as she died made me so wish I had known her longer as she lived. First and foremost, Doug, her husband of many years, accompanied her every single moment he could, a living blessing at her side. Her Lyndale beloved community orbited around her like she was the sun, in and out to sing her favorite hymns around her, wash her windows so she could see the birds in her yard, delivering the communion of a home-cooked meal. And then there was her family, her grandbabies and daughters and many other beloveds. She breathed love and she received love as she released her spirit to the communion of Saints we honor on this day of the year, All Saints or All Souls Sunday.
These last few years, her beloved Doug has grieved the loss of her physical presence, communed with her soul still so present, and worked to continue her legacy in the world and in this community. There is proof just outside the doors of SpringHouse – the Memorial Garden is starting to come to life. All of this has been a spiritual work-out, complete with spiritual sweat, aka many tears. It has been a time filled with what the Celtic Christians call “thin spaces,” where the distance between our day-to-day lives and the spirit realm feels thin. And the most extended, contiguous time of “thin space” just happened. Doug just returned from a month on the Camino pilgrimage through Spain and France where he walked a 300 mile section of trail.
Over the course of that month Doug now calls the hardest and one of the best of his life, Doug had a kind of extended All Souls/Saints Celebration. He made real connections, the kind Joyce inspired, with people from all over the world. He walked his body into deep exhaustion and exhilaration in a kind of walking prayer. And he learned to get lost well, without panic. It was one of these times of getting lost when Joyce showed up most profoundly. He had finally arrived at a little house in the middle of nowhere that had taken much getting lost to find when he felt her. In Doug’s words,
“I had a room with a balcony that overlooked the whole place. I immediately felt like going out and explore the place. It was a very quiet, beautiful setting. The lawn extended back to the RR tracks, and to the Camino walking path!
“It seemed like a sanctuary, and I hadn’t gotten very far when I felt Joyce’s presence! It was so incredibly peaceful and I don’t know the right words, maybe reverent! It felt like she was saying it was OK that I used taxies, and needed lots of rest. I even felt I could stop my Camino trek and go home and it would be OK! I had the whole peaceful place to myself and Joyce, and let myself have some tears! I spread some of Joyce’s ashes close to the Camino path and around the creek that ran through! I was able to enjoy the solitude for a couple more hours until my friends started arriving.
“The next morning, I started my walk again right from the country setting.”
What you cannot see is that almost every sentence in that paragraph ended with an exclamation point.
Our scripture this morning is one of those that has become a favorite for many of us. It turns the world of our expectations on its head. It reminds us, for example, that Doug in his mourning, that all of us in our mourning, are blessed and we will be divinely comforted just like Doug was by Joyce’s presence that afternoon.
But what does it mean to be blessed? Let’s just be real. There is a LOT of bad theology about that word, “blessed.” There are lot of preachers who talk about wealth and health and happiness as a measure of God’s blessing, as though those who are economically exploited, or those whose bodies or minds fall ill, are somehow not held close by God. This was a problem in Jesus’ day too. That’s part of WHY we get this sermon from Jesus naming these unexpected blessings.
One commentary I read this week taught me something new about this word “blessing” that links it more closely than I ever expected to Doug’s stories of the thin places he found along the path of the ancient Camino pilgrimage. The author of this commentary went back not to the Greek word, but another Hebrew word for blessing associated with Psalm 1, a psalm that is often read in parallel to this text from the Gospel of Matthew. That word for blessing is ‘ashar,’ which means literally, “to find the right road.” To be blessed is to find the right road, the road that is the way toward God, the holy, the divine, the spirit. What does that mean? It means:
“You are on the road toward God when you mourn, for you will be comforted.”
“You are on the road toward the Holy when you are merciful, for you will receive mercy.”
“You are on the road toward God when you are a peacemaker, for you will be called a child of God.”
“You are on road toward the Divine when you are persecuted for righteousness sake, for yours is the Realm of Divine here and now.”
In other words, being blessed is an orientation toward holiness. But how do we know we are on the right road? How do we know this one leads towards God’s possibility? We are a culture that is lately obsessed with innovation and progress, and yet today is All Saints or All Souls Sunday. And if Joyce and Doug are teaching us anything, it is about how to find your way to the roads of blessing. Before he found his way to that special thin place where he felt Joyce’s presence, Doug had been on the trails of the Camino pilgrimage long enough to learn not to panic when he got lost on the ancient, less than well-marked paths. Instead, he learned to ask for help – from his fellow pilgrims, local taxi drivers, and from Joyce’s spirit with him. Blessed are the gentle, the humble, the ones who ask for directions from those who have been traveling towards the Holy, from the souls of wisdom that commune around us as Saints, no?
My friend Susan Raffo is a body worker and a long time justice-maker in the Twin Cities. In her family, she carries both the Catholic and Ojibwe traditions of honoring the spirit world this time of year. She wrote this reminder on her blog this week for All Souls that I just love:
“The bones are the infrastructure of the body. Without them, we couldn’t do anything except be a fluid-filled bag lying on the ground. But with the bones, we can move. The bones help us push off against gravity. They are the constant around which our fluid body organizes itself. On this [All Saints/Souls] day I think of our ancestors as the same kind of infrastructure, the constant thread that comes forward from a dizzying number of generations. Knowing them, staying in relationship to them, we can move. Without them, we flop around in our present time, tilting back and forth in response to earthquakes and other external movement, but not carrying our own guide rope back to gravity.”
The saints, the ancestors, are like the bones in our bodies. They allow us to move. And I would add, allow us to find the paths to the holy blessing when we listen well. What are you ancestors, what are your saints, speaking to you this morning? What longings ripple through the dizzying number of generations before you? What grief still sticks to the bones? What resilience has been passed down that keeps you from flopping around? What love lingers as strong as gravity within you, holding you close in blessing?
 Palmer, Earl F. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, page 238.