One of the actual classes I took in seminary was a pastoral care course called “Caring for the Dying and Bereaved.” That was a whole class. And as you can probably imagine, it was often pretty intense. One of the very first assignments that we had in the class was to write our own living wills. We had to put down in writing our wishes for what we wanted at the end of our own lives – things like what kind of medical treatments we did or didn’t want, who would make decisions for us if we couldn’t do it ourselves, what to do with the stuff we’d leave behind, even plans for our own funerals.
That on its own was already hard enough to do. But on top of that, we had to write our living wills as a letter to the person or the people in our lives who we would want to actually carry these instructions out. And then we had to let them read it and actually have a conversation with them about it. That was really, really hard.
I wrote my letter to my dad. We had a good, long conversation about the things I wanted and about the deeply held beliefs that shaped what I had written. My dad is a lifelong faithful Christian, and he’s been an EMT and a volunteer firefighter for longer than I can remember, so he was actually pretty comfortable talking with me about the logistical details of dying.
But then the conversation turned to my mom. To my surprise, my dad really opened up about Mom’s battle with cancer. It was something we had never really talked much about before. And I could not believe how much there was about her illness and her death that I did not know. It was awful to go through as a 9-year-old, but I had no idea how hard it was for my dad. It’s been 25 years since she died, and it’s still something my family just doesn’t really talk about.
To be fair, I don’t think my family is all that unusual in this respect. Humans in general don’t tend to be very eager to talk about death. But we are all touched by it. Many of us carry grief over the deaths of people we have known and loved. And all of us live haunted by the knowledge that one day we too will die. But it’s not something that we like to think about. It’s painful. So most of us do our best to just kind of ignore it and move on from the subject as quickly as we can.
And all of that makes a day like All Saints Day really pretty weird, when you think about it. We set aside an entire day to talk and pray and sing about the thing that we usually don’t even want to think about. It’s profoundly countercultural. For one whole day, we sit with the painful knowledge that, even though we are awaiting and expecting a future in which death itself has been defeated, we are not there yet. We remember together and out loud all the people we have loved who have died before us. And from this place of grief and expectation, we remind ourselves of where our hope for the future truly lies.
And that’s something that I think is at the heart of our gospel reading for this morning from Luke. The beatitudes in and of themselves are pretty weird and countercultural. They subvert our ideas of who is really well off. We don’t usually think of the people who are poor or hungry or grieving or outcast as being blessed, like Jesus says in our reading. In our society, it’s usually the people who have wealth and plenty and pleasure and a good reputation who are thought of as being blessed. But Jesus’ words turn those ideas on their head.
Living with poverty or hunger or grief often actually makes it easier to recognize what a deep need we all have for God. It’s not that God thinks it’s good for anyone to be poor or hungry or sad. But we are often better at seeing how much we depend on God in times of scarcity than we are in times of plenty. When we are already full of good material things, we often leave less room to be fed by the bread of God’s goodness. And that makes us vulnerable to the temptation to invest our hope in our worldly wealth instead of in the future that God has planned for us. And as Jesus says, woe to us then, because we will be disappointed.
This is why a day like All Saints Day is so important. It’s a day for us to get clear on what really, truly matters most. It’s a day to remember that our hope for the future is founded on God.
Earlier this month, I actually revisited the living will that I wrote in seminary to read it and update it – and I found myself thinking about all of these things. I thought about how I spend so much time in my daily life trying to make the most of the money and resources that I have. I make careful plans, years into the future, about how much money I will save up and how I will pay down my student loans and credit card debt. But rereading my living will is a good reminder that none of that planning, nothing that I have saved up for a rainy day, can ever save me from dying. I could still die tomorrow – or even today, for that matter. Yet even so, I am blessed, even in times of grief and scarcity – because I have had people that I loved, and because I know that my future and their future is in the hands of a power much, much greater than money.
Blessed are those of us who carry the grief of loss with us today as we remember those who have gone before us. Because we also remember with hope that even death does not have the final word. As our reading from Ephesians reminds us, we have an inheritance with Christ. We were bound to Christ in our baptism, and sealed by the Holy Spirit, just like all the generations of saints who came before us.
And just as God raised Christ from the dead, we have faith that one day God will raise us to new life too. This is the hope and faith that we profess every single Sunday that we gather: We believe in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. We believe that those who have gone before us are still present with us now. We believe that we will join them again someday. And we believe in God’s promise of unending life together.
It’s still hard for us to stare at the reality of death without blinking. And if we’re honest, most of us will probably gladly go back to not thinking about it as soon as this service is over – or even maybe as soon as this sermon is over! But we don’t need to be afraid, even when we face times of grief or hunger or poverty or woe – even when we are faced with the truth of our own mortality. Our hope is set on Christ – and in him, we are truly blessed.
Some resources for writing a living will and other advance directives: