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A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:3 and John 14:1-6

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:1-4 and John 14:1-6a

Matthew 5:1-4  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

John 14:1-6a “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

Elizabeth Jane, E.J. – a daughter, a niece, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, a friend, a flight attendant.  All of these titles belong to E.J.  And all of these titles communicate a relationship of one sort or another.  Born and baptized in Fargo, E.J.’s life was filled with relationship both through what I like to call the accident of family and through the choices of friends and work.

These relationships sustained E.J. through thick and thin.  Her work for the airline fueled and fed her love of travel as well as gave her access to the art that brought her joy.  Her work also brought her enduring friendships that stuck through long hours in the air, on the ground, and over the holidays. Friendships with Marianne and Wendy sustained her through to the end. And her work brought her stories.  Stories that engaged the funny bone and entertained many of you over the years.  Leaving you with the satisfied feeling that only shared laughter with someone who loves to laugh can gift you.

The relationships of family carried E.J. through some tough times, including her last years when her health took a turn.  Some of the organizing and conversations were hard on everybody, including E.J.  But, this case, family sticks together even amid the practical challenges of E.J.’s outer world and the darker effect of E.J.’s inner world.

It was E.J.’s inner world that became her greatest challenge.  Beginning in her teens and lasting through her life, anxiety and depression were regular companions.  Her attempts to quiet the anxiety and mask the depression with alcohol only made matters worse for her and for the people who love her.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This is the verse out of the Matthew reading that came to mind as I listened to stories about E.J.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  There isn’t a lot of agreement about what “blessed” means in this reading.

Because Jesus was Jewish and likely had some rabbinic training, I hang my hat with the rabbis on this one; that a blessing is something that already exists and occasionally we get a glimpse of the blessing that already exists. The rabbinic view is in opposition to the different view that a blessing is something akin to being tapped by a fairy wand and something good happens because of how deserving we are.

The Jewish notion of “blessed” helps us see E.J.’s life in full, revealing what belongs to her even though she herself could not see it as one who was “poor in spirit.”  Hers is the kingdom of heaven.  In the John reading, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

He says this because he knows that your hearts already are troubled.  How could they not be?  Along with the laughter that E.J. shared with you was her struggle with herself.  Also in the reading, Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going…how can we know the way?”  Jesus’ reply? “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  What is Jesus’ way?  Jesus’ way goes through a cross.

And the cross is God speaking in human terms.  The human terms of self-sacrifice to save someone else.  For instance, when we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters themselves, our first thoughts are often respect and awe.  We also honor the soldiers who return again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends and then die in the firefight themselves. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.  In every way that the cross could be offensive, it is.

It’s offensive to think that the cross, and Jesus hanging there, was effective in any way.  That we even need saving is offensive.  That Jesus’ execution can change anything about real life seems a deception at worst and an utter folly at best.  And yet, quite surprisingly, it does.  Jesus’ self-sacrificing death on the cross changes everything.  Time and again in the gospel, we hear that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is God and God is Jesus.  And Jesus focuses on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.

The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [2]  Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” means that he has already opened up whatever we perceive the barrier to be between us and God.  The poor in spirit often experience life as a series of barriers in one form or another.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus calls the poor in spirit blessed because their relationship with God is not dependent on their own mindset and agency.  The poor in spirit are blessed because their relationship with God already exists through no effort of their own.

We do not make a way out of no way on our own.  Like Thomas, we do not know the way.  Jesus makes the way to God through the cross on our behalf.  The way is made by Jesus which means that the movement is from God to us, from God to E.J.  And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to E.J., God gives us a future with hope as God also brings E.J. into a future with God.

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[1] Craig Koester, class notes, Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

[2] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).