Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
I am sure you noticed that our church yard is a little barer this week. We had to take down the magnificent maple tree that has stood in our church yard for a many, many years. I have worried about that tree since I arrived here, and many of you have worried much longer. It already had a lot of cabling in it, and was showing many signs of impinging death—huge sections of trunk halfway up the tree turned out to be largely hollowed out with decay. That confirmed for me that our hard decision to take it down was correct. But it didn’t take away the sense of loss.
I think about all that tree witnessed over the years. The folks who passed under that tree were both the luminaries and the ordinary people of Stockbridge. Every person coming through our town, whether fam
ous or just ordinary, was able to see the beauty of that tree and breath the oxygen it created. On this day of all days, I give thanks for that tree, and all of the beautiful flora and fauna in this slice of heaven we call the Berkshires, that stands as witness to the glory of our creator.
So it is fitting as we celebrate today the Feast of All Saints, which the Prayer Book instructs us we may transfer from its actual day, November 1, to the Sunday following. Our liturgical calendar actually has two feast days: All Saints, on November 1, when we remember the saints of the church, and All Soul’s Day on November 2, when we remember all of the faithful departed. In the early Church of England these two days were rolled into one, but our church’s calendar has held them distinct.
But in practice, most Episcopalians really do put these two together; today we remember not only those extraordinary people of faith who made their mark on Christendom in some collectively memorable way, but also those who are saints for us—those persons who made a mark on our lives, whom we remember today with thanksgiving for the gifts they gave us. This is the time we are mindful of what we received from those who have gone before us, and give special thanks to God for these beacons of light in our lives.
Today’s Gospel gives us Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Interestingly, Luke goes at this differently than Matthew, whose gospel has the more familiar version of these words. If we do a quick comparison, we see some key differences. For example, Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God
.” Luke says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” I see two big variances: First, Matthew refers to those lacking in spirit, while Luke refers to those who have very little of anything; and second, that Matthew uses the 3rd person (theirs is the kingdom), while Luke uses 2nd person (yours is the kingdom).
This pattern is repeated—Several times Matthew refers to those who don’t have the gifts of God (with no reference to social or economic status), while Luke is much more general. Likewise, Luke’s Jesus speaks directly to us.
All of this fits Luke’s point of view, right? Luke’s is the gospel of the downtrodden. Remember in Luke’s first chapter Mary’s song of the Magnificat, which speaks of God’s favor for the least, lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. This is followed shortly by the stories of Jesus’ ministry, where over and over again he heals those in need. Then all those parables we have been discussing all summer and fall, which over and over again tell of God’s love for those whom the world does not love.
In the telling of these stories I believe we are to hear God’s love for us – for each of us. These are not impersonal stories; they reach into our hearts, and are meant to include all, including you and me.
Another important difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s Beatitudes is that Matthew has eight groups of folks that Jesus pronounces blessed, while Luke’s Jesus has four groups that are blessed, and then four who are opposite – Blessed are you who are poor, and then Woe to you are rich, Blessed are you who are hungry, and then Woe to you who are full, etc. It is not enough for Luke to point out that God favors the oppressed; he also tells us that those whom the world has favored should not plan to have this status in the Kingdom.
Now about this Woe business – These are certainly sobering pronouncemen
ts for all of us who have had very fortunate lives. There are many places we could go with this; what I’m thinking about today is how we who have much are too often preoccupied with keeping the riches we have, or with getting more. Perhaps having so much, and pursuing more, doesn’t leave much room for God. We may believe that we have these riches only because of ourselves, our own actions, and that elevation of self may leave very little space to see how God is at work in our lives.
So then, what does all this have to do with the Feast of All Saints? I think first, Luke’s Beatitudes help us remember all of God’s people – and that blessings and woes come to all of us. Further, we who have been blessed by God must remember that those blessings are indeed a gift, and not ours simply because we deserve it. Finally, all of us have moments of being blessed, and moments of woe. In these words, we see the hope of God: Should we despair of some difficulty, Jesus promises there will be blessings; And lest we get too comfortable when all is going well, we are reminded that part of the human condition is to have setbacks – to feel that woe.
We see in this passage all of humanity – all souls, which we celebrate today. Luke’s beatitudes particularly put me in mind of those who are saints to me that the world may not see as holy—those people I loved who were downtrodden and lost.
I think particularly about my Aunt, Judy, whom I have told you abou
t before. She died in her thirties. Judy was not a successful person in the world’s eyes. She never did very well in school; she smoked and drank more than she should have, and as I later found out, she had a deadly addiction to drugs. When she died suddenly, she left behind four children aged five to fifteen whose father had died before she did. My cousins only had a stable home when another aunt and uncle took them in. Judy was always a lost soul.
But I loved her. She was my Aunt Judy—she was fun. She took time to talk to me when I was young. She had a great laugh. She is one of my beloved; not someone the world valued, but someone value
d by us, her family. And in today’s reading I am reminded again that she was and is still the beloved of God. God loves all of us, no matter who we are, no matter what mistakes we’ve made. And God has a special place for those whom the world has not valued.
On this day filled with symbols and remembrances, we are reminded of God’s unfathomable love for us. It is a fitting prelude to our stewardship ingathering in two weeks, when we will think about the abundance we have been given by God and what we might give back. I hope that we all give in gratitude for all that God has given us—not only in thanks for the material things, but perhaps most especially for the relationships that have been ours, for all the people that God has put in our lives.
As you have heard, our focus for this stewardship campaign, and in fact for the coming year, is on our community—our stories. Today is a day set aside to think about the people that are part of your story; the people who are your own saints. I hope that some of those are the saints of St. Paul’s Church. A vital part of what we do as a church community is weave our nets together: We become part of the fabric of each other’s lives. We give at least in part in gratitude for this community that sustains us and helps us grow.
And I hope we also give in anticipation of the great work that is ahead—the wonderful things we can do for each other and for the world, to help fulfill God’s dreams. St. Paul’s church, we have so much potential! God dreams of great things for us. I am so grateful for your support; I value each of you as part of my net. You are my beloved community and give thanks to God for all you do and give to this community.
I’d like to end with a poem by Amy Gerstler that came across my desk this past Friday—All Saints’ Day.
The holiday arrives
quietly like phrases
of faint praise
in Braille. Famous
saints bow at the waist,
then step back, making
room for scores
of unknown saints,
to whom this day
also belongs. Not
a glamorous bunch,
unsung ones, shading
their eyes shyly
in the backs of the minds
of the few who knew them.
Hung-over, mute, confused,
hunched, clumsy, blue,
pinched, rigid or fidgety,
unable to look the radioactive,
well-dressed major saints
in the eye, they wonder
terrified: What (the fuck)
Am I Doing Here? Still
drenched, the tobacco
spitting fisherman who dove
after a dog swept downriver
looks in vain for a towel,
too timid to ask. (His dog
now sports a halo, too.)
Robed in volcanic ash,
a brave Pompeii matron
is mistaken by St. Catherine
for a sooty statue. An old
coot who serenaded
his dying wife with her
favorite ukulele tunes
is still trying to find her,
as his map of the afterlife
proved unreliable. What can
we offer these reticent saints
who lacked press agents?
Flowers? Lit candles? Floating
lanterns? The nerdy
fat whistle-blower from
the chemical plant
whose plaid slacks
made his coworkers
laugh behind his back
nervously jokes sotto
voce that he’d give
his soul for a Coke,
but no one can hear him.[i]
My friends, we are all beloved, even as we love and cherish many others, regardless of whether they are valued by the world. And we have been the recipients of God’s love through those who have loved us. God’s blesses us through relationship: Relationship to one another, relationship to our inmost self, relationship to the creation, and relationship to God. Today we especially remember the gift of saints in our lives—both the saints of the church, and the saints of our own hearts. Praise God from whom all these blessings flow. Amen.
[i] Gerstler, Amy. “All Saints Day. https://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2008/11/all-saints-day.html, accessed 11/1/2019.