For Whom the Bell Tolls

There are moments that stand out…that catch our attention.  These are moments that make us pause, look and take it all in.  These are moments that change us.  I’ve experienced those moments; you have too.  Some of mine include:

  • Al Michaels proclaiming that “The Twins have won the World Series” at the end of game 7 in 1987.   Magical.
  • On March 25, 1995, hearing Lori say “I do.”  Amazing. 
  • Watching the towers in New York come down on 9/11.  Horrifying
  • That moment at the end of the Christmas Eve service, when the organ stops, and we hear the congregation sing the last verse of “Silent Night” acapella.  It’s so beautiful.
  • And, hearing the bell toll as the names of Trinity’s members who have died are read in prayers…as we will do in just a few minutes.  It is breathtaking.

The tradition of ringing the bell is old.  I don’t know its origins, but I still remember hearing it in my childhood as the church celebrated “All Saints Sunday.”

As Lutherans, we have an unusual relationship with the word “Saint.”  In the Catholic tradition, where we find our roots, there is this process of beatification, where someone who has been chosen by God, and has led some sort of an exemplary life has been set aside and “blessed” in a way that they are identified as “saints.” 

In the Catholic tradition, there are saints that are well known like St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Peter, St. Francis and St. Nicholas.  There are also the lesser-known saints like St. Ambrose, St. Stanislaus and St. Walburga.  All of these saints were lifted up…beatified by the Catholic church.  According to them, God somehow worked within these people to make them more holy; to make them closer to God.  In some cases, Catholics pray to the saints, hoping that the saint will intercede with God on their behalf…putting in a “spiritual good word,” so to speak.

And then along came a pesky little monk named Martin Luther.  As Luther studied the scriptures, he came to a realization:  While being a faithful disciple of Christ is always the goal, it is never the reality, as long as we live in this world.  We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  We are, at the same time, he realized, both sinners and saints.

Luther says that as a Christian, he fought the battle against sin, day in and day out.  Aspects of his life didn’t align with God’s desire. Try as he might, Luther wasn’t capable of loving God with his whole heart, mind and soul, and he didn’t love his neighbor as himself.  Martin Luther knew he was a sinner.

But Luther also recognized, day in and day out, that God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ was more than enough to overcome his guilt.  In the scriptures, he discovered that because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he is redeemed and made new, every single day.   Martin Luther knew that despite his sinfulness, Jesus made him a saint.

This is what Luther taught:  That we are all, saint and sinner, at the same time.

Luther describes the saints, us, as having received the blessings of God.  And our Gospel text today talks about what this means.  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.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • Blessed are the merciful…
  • Blessed are the pure in heart…
  • Blessed are the peacemakers…
  • And blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed.  Blessed. 

In our culture, when we hear the word “blessed,” we most often think of what we have, or what we have been given.  We say we are blessed with a great family, a nice home, or with financial resources. 

We hear professional athletes who sign a $400 million-dollar contract say, “I have been so blessed!”  Well sure, if that is how you define blessed.  But that’s a pretty limited and narrow understanding of that word.

Jesus defines it differently:  It’s not about what you own, or what you have earned or received.  To be blessed is simply to be a loved child of God.  And Jesus is reminding us that his definition of blessed is broad, inclusive and maybe even unexpected: Blessed are the poor, the meek, the hungry. 

For Jesus, to be blessed is not an accomplishment, it is an identity…it is a gift…it is what God does, not what we do.

And this short little section of the scriptures is called “the beatitudes,” which shares the same Latin root word as the word “beatification,” which is what happens when one is sainted.

So to be blessed, is to be sainted…and Jesus says we are all blessed….which means that we are all saints.

And today is “All Saints Sunday.”  Today is the day that we remember not only what God has done for us, but what God has done for all of those who have gone before us.  Those who have died have been blessed, even beyond the ways we have been blessed. 

For while we have been given the promises of God.  Those who have died and gone on before us have seen their promises fulfilled.

A few years ago, I was visiting one of our members who was in hospice care.  His name was Richard, and I had been called because this gentleman, probably in his late 80’s, was in his final hours.  He was still awake and communicative, and he wanted to receive communion. 

Richard was pretty weak and needed help with the bread and the wine.  I carefully placed just a small piece of the bread wafer on his tongue, and then a small amount of the wine on his lips; just a few drops.  He received it.  And he closed his eyes for a moment.  And then his eyes opened, and he looked right at me, and he said “that’s so good.”  I replied by joking that not too many people compliment church communion wine.  He smiled and said “it’s not the wine that tastes good.  It’s just the taste of what I know is coming.”   

In that moment, I understood.  Richard knew that he was blessed.  He knew that he had been chosen to be a recipient of the promises of God.  And a few hours later, I received the call, that Richard had joined the saints in heaven, and that what had been just a taste, was now a feast.

We often just pay attention to the first half of each of the beatitudes…to who is blessed.  But I think the second half of each of Jesus’ phrases is even more powerful.  They tell us what the blessings are:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

And continue down that list of promises:

  • for they will inherit the earth.
  • for they will be filled.
  • for they will receive mercy.
  • for they will see God.
  • for they will be called children of God.
  • for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For those saints who have gone before us, these are the things they are experiencing.  For those of us saints who remain behind, who have been blessed by Jesus, these are the things that Jesus promises. 

Hearing the names of those who have died, and hearing the bell, is so powerful.  Yes, it’s a reminder of our loss.  But even more, it is a reminder of what God has done in the lives of those we love.  And that brings a sense of peace and even joy.  It can take our breath away.

And it’s a reminder of our own mortality, and a reminder that God continues to work within our lives.  Because every year when I hear the names, and I hear the bell, I am reminded that one day, my name will be read…and one day the bell will toll for me.  Someday, the bell will toll for you too.

And while there is all sorts of baggage that goes with that knowledge, ultimately you are reminded that you are a child of God.  And you can be confident that God loves you beyond measure.  You are reminded that though you are a sinner, you are also a saint, and you are reminded that because of Jesus, you are blessed, and that his promises are for you. 

Today when you hear the names and the bell, pause and soak in that moment.  Let it remind you that God’s promises are for the loved ones that you have lost, and believe that those promises are for you…saint and sinner; beloved and blessed child of God and follower of Jesus. 

Amen.

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