It’s been used so much now that it’s become a joke on social media. Hashtags, of course, began as a way to separate posts about different topics, but also quickly evolved into a way of making a statement. #Blessed is like that; people will often use it in posts about vacations, family, possessions, or any number of other things, and many more of us have been realizing how ridiculous it’s gotten and have started using it ironically: “Got new ramen mix from the Big Y. Hashtag blessed.”
Like most social media trends, though, it’s a window into life beyond our phones and laptops. It makes a statement about how most people — specifically, most Christians — think about what it means to be blessed. After all, long before there was social media, there were vanity license plates and bumper stickers for your car that said things like “Too blessed to be stressed.”
Give me a break.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’ve known some incredible, kind, intelligent people who use “blessed” this way. Some of them have the aforementioned license plates and use the hashtags.
It is, however, a little window into how we as a culture think of being “blessed” — it has, for a while now, become less about divine favor and more about happiness, money, possessions, family — basically, to say, “I’m blessed” has come to mean, to borrow a phrase from a certain prosperity Gospel preacher, “I’m living my best life now.”
Part of it is our history. The “Protestant ethic” is even more of a thing than Protestant-ism these days — it’s the idea that your morality and your blessings are based solely on how hard you work, and that if you’re poor, it’s because God’s cursing you for not working hard enough and being frugal enough.
Of course, we also have the Bible to blame, since those pesky Protestant work ethic folk got those ideas from their interpretation of the Bible. Often, especially in books like Genesis, we’re told that someone, usually a dude, was “blessed by God,” and then said dude’s riches and possessions and children are described. But it’s still pretty clear that those things don’t necessarily go together — nobody’s more blessed than Jesus, but he ended up being executed after living as a poor traveling rabbi in an occupied land.
Yes, he rose again, but he didn’t exactly have a boat and a lake house.
So what does it mean to be blessed? And what does that have to do with saints?
To answer the first question, I consulted the dictionary, or as Demetri Martin calls it, the Nerd Bible.
Here’s what I found out.
To be “blessed” is “to be consecrated for a religious rite; to be made holy.”
Not one mention of the Hamptons in the whole definition.
So how is something, or someone, made holy?
A professor early in my college career remarked at how churches feel holy to her because she imagines the prayers offered in them by the saints over the years. She images the people who came here just to rest. Just to pray. Just to cry.
Many of you have been in this space to do just that. And many more people have offered prayers and love and tears here who have now died. This place is holy.
Holiness in our lives, more often that not, has skin on. It’s the point where humanity meets the divine.
It’s that human holiness, those prayers offered here, that makes even my skeptical mind wonder, “Maybe there is something to all of this, after all.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber describes coming back to her congregation from vacation and remarking how difficult it was to be spiritual without them, because the gathered assembly helps her believe that there is something to all of this Jesus stuff.
I feel the same way about you. I hope that you feel the same way about this community, too — that it helps you to remember that there’s some hope out there beyond what we can see. That, despite terror attacks and shootings and death, maybe there is a glimmer of hope, somewhere, just beyond what we can see — and that whatever it is, it lives here, in this place, with these people.
As usual, God has a way of turning our expectations upside down. We think that being blessed means being rich and happy, all while Jesus says,
“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.” (Matthew 5:3-5)
Which immediately reminds me of Monty Python’s depiction of the sermon on the mount in the movie Life of Brian: “Oh, the meek! I’m glad they’re getting something; they have a helluva time.”
Those who are poor in spirit, in mourning, meek, and persecuted are all mentioned by Jesus as people who are #blessed.
And we’ve all known saints like that. In our tradition, saints are all of us — we are all sinners, and we are all saints, and on all saints day, we remember all of those who have lived and died in varying circumstances, each one of them loved, each one of them blessed, each one of them real.
Thomas G. Long, storied preacher and preaching scholar, puts it this way in his book on funerals: “Christians do not live in the abstract. They are real people who live real lives, and they die real and very different deaths. They die young, and they die old and full of days. The die in the flames of martyrdom, and they die cowering in fear. They die as saintly sinners; they die as sinful saints. They die of crib death, of cancer, of old age, and by their own hand. They die full of joy, and they die despairing. They die in Hartford and Buenos Aires, Karachi and Toronto, Nairobi and rural Nebraska-in the places where they have lived and loved and in places where they are strangers and exiles. They die in hospitals and nursing homes, along highways, at sea, and at work. They die surrounded by those who love them, and they die alone….”
Dr. Long goes on to say that Christian funerals can also be radically different, but they have one unifying theme: the Gospel. He writes, “All Christian funerals — formal or informal, high church or low, small or large, urban or rural — say… ‘Look! Can you perceive this? The life and death of this one who has died can be seen, if you know how to look, shaped after the pattern of the life and death of Jesus.’” (1)
In Jesus, our stories are redeemed. In Jesus, the world is turned upside down.
And in Jesus, we look at each other and at the lives of all those who came before — from St. Augustine of Hippo to St. Howie of Our Savior’s — and we dare to believe that just maybe, there’s hope. That just maybe, the one they believed in and talked about and prayed to is the one who can redeem all of this.
Because of them, and because of each other, we can believe that someday, there really will be no more death or crying or pain. That maybe someday you won’t get those news updates on your phone about yet another bloodthirsty person who murdered innocent people.
That maybe someday all of this will be redeemed.
Until then, we lift each other and we pray together in this place and we continue to make this place feel holy. We sing things together like the hymn we’ll sing in just a few minutes: “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.” (2)
It’s a completely illogical claim. And I could not believe it without you.
Holiness often comes with skin on.
So let us give thanks for each other and for every saint who has blessed us — with love or with service or by building the church we know today — and now rests with God. Because of them, we aren’t blessed as in rich — we are blessed as in holy.
We are blessed as in saints. Amen.
1. Excerpt from Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, Westminster John Knox Publishers, 2013.
2. The hymn of the day at OSLC on All Saints 2017 was “What Wondrous Love Is This.”