All Saints Sunday: Bless Your Heart

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Myth: “Bless your heart” is an insult. 
Truth: It can be, but the truth is more complicated. It’s often used affectionately, especially among Southerners. 

Luke 6:20-31

People accuse Southerners of being passive-aggressive compared to people from other places, and I can’t say that that’s exactly wrong. As an example, I’ve had many an argument with those from the North and Midwest about the phrase “bless your heart.” 

“It’s just another way to tell someone to…” … hmmm, there are children present. To tell someone to go… away. People think it’s an insult.

In fact, when I googled a more polite way to express the sentiment “go away,” “bless your heart” even came up in my google search. That translation was posted by a Northerner, of course. I can’t blame them, though. That’s probably the only way a Northerner who thinks they know it all probably ever hears the phrase.

For you Northerners who are humble enough to learn, however, I can tell you that the truth is that “bless your heart” can mean many things, and only one of the options is an insult.*

*I usually explain it this way: it’s not unlike saying “you poor thing.” You can say it sincerely or sarcastically, and the meaning is all in the tone.

Growing up in the South, I think, makes it clearer that the phrase can be used in absolutely genuine love and concern. When you’re a child, after all, and you come to your grandmother with a skinned knee and she says “Bless your heart,” you can safely assume she’s not insulting you.

Another option for “bless your heart” is that you’re being lovingly patted on the head — for many varying reasons. Which, even at its harshest, is still very different than being told to [blank] off.

Today, Jesus moves through a lot of “blessed”s in the Gospel passage, and it’s kinda hard to figure out what he means by “bless your heart,” what his point is, and why we would want to read this passage today, as we remember the saints who have gone before us. 

Bless our hearts. Saints & blesseds, what does it all mean?

People, especially here in Catholic country, often have a bit of a complex when it comes to calling their loved ones “saints.” It’s one of the biggest differences in language that we have as a result of the Reformation; for Roman Catholics, the emphasis is often placed on famous saints who have been canonized by the church. As good Lutherans, however, we emphasize the we are all both saints and sinners.

Still, because of the visibility of icons and our own weird and selective sense of humility, we hesitate to call ourselves or our loved ones saints. What does it even mean to be a saint?

There’s a Reader’s Digest story that Delmer Chilton of Two Bubba’s and a Bible told this week on the podcast that goes like this. 

A little boy was out trick-or-treating in a Superman costume. He came to the door of one of his neighbors with his mother, who was holding his pumpkin for him. The neighbor asked why his mother was holding the boy’s candy. The boy didn’t hesitate to answer: “Because it’s heavy!” 

“Heavy?” the neighbor said. “But you’re Superman!” 

The boy leans in somewhat conspiratorially and whispers to the neighbor: “It’s just pajamas.” (1)

Bless his heart. 

We’re just like him when it comes to calling ourselves or our more imperfect loved ones “saints.” Told of God’s grace, we at best think of ourselves as forgiven sinners, but not saints. Not worthy of recognition as models of faith. Like “bless your heart,” we struggle to define what a saint is, other than that we aren’t saints ourselves.

But it seems to me that if there’s one message in the Gospel passage that’s especially relevant for All Saints’, it’s that Jesus is saying loud and clear that saints aren’t going to look like you’d expect them to (2). We think of passages like this as being about who’s getting in to heaven, but given that Jesus doesn’t make any such claim in the text, we’re free to think of it in bigger terms than who’s going to heaven.

It’s about what God’s reign on earth looks like, and what it looks like to live as if God’s love has made a difference. It’s not just pajamas. 

This whole day is about how we are stepping into this tradition, this stream of faith, that has been flowing for thousands of years before us and will keep flowing when it is our names that will be spoken in November every year (3).

Before an Auburn football game one year, then-head coach Gene Chizik addressed his team in the locker room of Jordan-Hare Stadium. He talked about tradition. 

Coach Chizik’s words were simple: “This place was great way before you got here.” 

He said this not to make the players feel unworthy, but to wake them up to the opportunity they had to carry on a tradition that was far bigger than they were: that they  can be an example of what it means to carry this great tradition forward. They get to wear the uniform no matter what; now it’s their chance to set an example of what makes this tradition great.

This is true of us, too. The church was great way before we got here. 

It’s not just pajamas.

An alb is what we all wear whenever we serve in worship; it’s the garment of all the baptized. When we bury our dead, we put a white pall over the casket, also symbolizing baptism. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever, with everyone who has gone before us and with everyone who will follow us.

That uniform is real, and we get to wear it no matter what. It was great way before we got here. We are saints. And now we carry this tradition forward: to do crazy things like loving our enemies. Being generous. Being joyful. The church’s legacy throughout the centuries isn’t untarnished, but it is ours. No human has been perfect, but we have all been loved. 

Bless our hearts.

It’s a lot to take in, and we probably feel unworthy and will always wonder what, exactly, it means. But I think Luther said it best when he wrote, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.”

So that’s it.

Let’s speak the names of those who went through the waters of baptism before us and who now rest with God. We’ll light candles to remember them, then, surrounded by those candles that remind us of the great cloud of witnesses, we will gather around the table again, just like Christians have for well over 2,000 years now. Then we will leave to continue the legacy of Christ’s church for another day. 

Bless our hearts. Amen. 

1. I listen to “Two Bubbas and a Bible” just about every week. You can find it here.
2. This snippet also comes from Delmer Chilton of “Two Bubbas and a Bible.”
3. The “stream of faith” metaphor is from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who used it at her ELCA Youth Gathering talk in 2012.

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