Memorial Service Homily for John Ellis Allen

Matthew 5:1-12     April 20, 2019


These verses, which John’s family chose for this service, are beloved by many.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  The words in this passage are like a formula.  Jesus speaks the words, “Blessed are” nine times.  They are beautiful words.  However, do you notice this: They are beautiful words that upend every one of our assumptions about the way the world works?

When you and I speak of a “blessing,” aren’t we giving thanks for something that we perceive to be good that has happened to us?  Notice: good things are not happening for the nine categories of people that Jesus is speaking to!  Noticing that is what opens us up to the good news in this passage.  And here’s something else: when we see ourselves in these beatitudes, we receive the good news of these words.

John O’Donohue writes, “A blessing evokes a privileged intimacy.  It touches that tender membrane where the human heart cries out to its divine ground….A blessing is not a sentiment or a question; it is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart….The language of blessing is invocation, a calling forth.”[1]

“[T]hat tender membrane where the human heart cries out to its divine ground.”  This room is filled with tender hearts, as we mourn the loss of John Ellis Allen.  But here is the blessing in this: In our weakness, in our grief, in the face of our own mortality, when it is obvious that we are not in control, isn’t it easier to be open to God?  At this time, in this place, perhaps you perceive that this is a “thin place,”[2] with the sense that only a tender membrane separates us from the God of compassion and love.

It is the God of compassion and love who is offering the blessings in these words from the gospel of Matthew.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  In these beatitudes, Jesus declares blessed those who are struggling in particular ways: those who are suffering, those who are approaching God in humility and poverty of spirit, those who are “disturbed and bereft.”[3]  It is as if, with each blessing, Jesus is declaring “a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal, and strengthen.”[4]

And, it seems to me, that it is only when we acknowledge that we are suffering, when we are approaching God in conscious humility and poverty of spirit, and when we are disturbed and bereft; that it is only then that we can be open to the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[5]  Our default is to hope in ourselves, in our own ability to manage and to stay in control!  But that breaks down, doesn’t it?  In fact, our sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ is our only hope!

Today we “are gathered to worship, to proclaim Christ crucified and risen,…and to comfort one another in our grief.”[6]  We gather around the table of our risen Lord, to share the bread and the wine, the body and blood of the risen Christ.  We gather to hear again words of resurrection.  We gather to remind each other that our human deaths are not the last word.  Resurrection to eternal life is God’s last word!

And, on this day, we are gathered “to remember before God our brother John Ellis Allen, to give thanks for his life” well lived; his life that witnessed to his own sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.  With  that faith, we commend John to our merciful redeemer.

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us (Doubleday, 2008), pp. xiv, xvi.

[2] To use a phrase from the Celtic tradition of Christianity.

[3] O’Donahue, page 155.

[4] O’Donahue, page 198.

[5] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 284.

[6] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 279.

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine retired in July 2019 after 40 years of ordained ministry. He loved serving as a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!