A Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014 – Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY
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 for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. So what do we mean by Saints? The word “saint” means “Holy” as in holy people. Popularly that’s sort of understood as meaning that saints are some kind of Christian super-heroes, totally divorced and apart from anything that ordinary people could be, or would want to be. I’ll talk more about that later. But in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, the saints are all of the holy people of God, and every one of them is made holy, not by being some sort of hero, but by the action of God who makes all of us holy through his Son Jesus Christ.
The Gospel lesson today is for and about those saints, ordinary people, living ordinary lives. It is the beginning of Jesus’ teaching called the Sermon on the Mount and this part of it is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.
So why does it start ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit?’ Who are the poor? — They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or might lose.
And yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status or parts of relationships that we like. And adjusting to that is a type of mourning. Sometimes we have real mourning, for people who have meant much to us. This community lost someone very important just yesterday. Paula Roberts informed me that Fr. Allen Newman died yesterday morning. After seven years of faithful service and just a month of retirement Allen died of a severe illness for which he had been in treatment for a year. We mourn and we hurt. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy.
When Jesus says Blessed are the meek, we need to know that that word “meek” has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s kingdom. It’s only the meek and humble that can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of a little more justice in this world.
And as we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.
Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you just do, by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.
Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.
So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.
Jesus invites us all, not to some sort of heroic sainthood, but to a holiness of life that values his kingdom above all else. Many of the saints we remember were martyrs—St. Sebastian is one and, more recently Archbishop Oscar Romero, are a couple who come to mind. Not all saints, however, died for their faith, the word martyrs is a translation of the word “witness” or “confessor.” We often think of them as somehow having religious superpowers. But in reality they were not superheroes—they were Christian people. There are many that you run into each day that are just as good, just as faithful. The real characteristic of saints is that they continue to seek the kingdom with Jesus—even when, to put it in down-to-earth terms—they had a really bad day. And, because of the circumstances of their holding fast to their faith in a time of great trouble, or because they were such eloquent witnesses to the faith—or both—they have been enshrined through the ages.
But what does all this mean to us in our church here in our present-day world?
I often think about the small Episcopal Church I attended when I was a kid in Idaho. This church had no important programs, no fine choir, not much to brag about. But we did sing out of the hymnal, and it was that music, as poorly performed as it might have been, that sustained my spirit through the years. One of my favorite hymns in my childhood was the one we just sang for the gospel hymn. Perhaps the text may seem limited to early twentieth century England, but for me the images emphasize how ordinary people participate in that great cloud of witnesses that is the communion of saints: “for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.”
Among those saints is Allen Newman, our brother and faithful priest.
Let us pray.
Father of all, we pray to you for Allen, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let Light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen
Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of humanity; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. (BCP p. 499, Hymnal 355)