Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 2:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Good morning, and welcome to St. Paul’s for our observance of the Feast of All Saints. Today we remember the faithful departed, the great cloud of witnesses no longer walking among us on the earth. We celebrate both the saints known to the whole world, and those saints who may remain only in our own memories.
Some friends on Facebook this week were talking about their love of that hymn we just sang, “I sing a song of the saints of God.” They were also talking about how it is a little dusty, and needs some updating. One suggested the following additional verse:
I sing of those who loved the Lord
by serving the lost and least,
of Sojourner, Harriet, Jonathan,
and Absalom, freedom’s priest.
Of great brother Martin who dreamed a dream,
and all workers of mercy in Jesus’ name.
They let justice flow like a mighty stream,
and I mean to be one too![i]
Maybe we need to add that verse to the hymnal.
Of course, All Saints is especially poignant for us this year, when we have lost two of the Saints of St. Paul’s Church in the last two weeks. Susan Merrill was a part of the fabric of this church and this town, her grandfather being a past rector of St. Paul’s and she a longtime resident. And Linda Day was equally invested in St. Paul’s and Stockbridge, having been the school superintendent and a leader of this congregation. I am grieving, as I imagine you are, at their passing—but today is the occasion to remember the ways they, and all the cloud of witnesses illumined our path and made the world better, smarter, and more colorful.
Among the readings designated for this day is the one we just heard from the gospel of Matthew, the Beatitudes. These are beautiful, familiar words. But they are also confusing. To me they feel illogical and out of sync for our time, when the strongest among us seem to be the ones who get blessing.
Theologian Charles James Cook, Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology at Seminary of the Southwest, the Episcopal Seminary in Austin, Texas, say this about the Beatitudes: “We often approach them as an impossible challenge for ordinary living. Only the greatest of saints are up to the task. Therefore we wait for the occasional figures like Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Desmond Tutu to show us the way. In the meantime, the world does not get any better, and we remain unfulfilled in our pale expression of Christian discipleship.”[ii]
I realized that, for me, that’s what it’s all about. Yes, our discipleship is often pale – and often we don’t quite know how to jumpstart it.
Cook says that we go wrong with the Beatitudes when we look at each statement individually, rather than seeing it as a whole. He believes the Beatitudes build on one another— and together they illustrate the path to becoming more like Christ.[iii] What if we thought of the Beatitudes as a map to true Christian discipleship?
First, to be poor in spirit is to be at that place where we most often find ourselves as humans—full of self-doubt, unsure about our own worth. It is in our human nature to be in this place of insecurity. But we must instead see ourselves as we really are—as humble creatures in need of the gift of God’s grace. That vision of who we really are, warts and all, is the first step toward understanding our need for God’s warming embrace.
And then, just like in Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, we must accept and own our brokenness, our need for God. That reality can be depressing; it can lead us to great sorrow as we realize that the stories we have told ourselves about ourselves might not be true. But God is there to comfort and reassure us as we mourn the loss of that false self. We are moving along the “Beatitude Road” as we let go of the facades we put up to protect our wounded selves, and really accept who we are.
Without those facades, we may feel naked to the world. “Are we good enough?” is the question we will ask. And here in the Beatitudes we see that being brave enough to launch into the world as our real selves is the next step toward the promised Kingdom of God.
Living into that meekness is an important part of what makes it possible for us to begin to really seeing others in our world – the blinders come off, and we are able to see beyond ourselves, because we are no longer so concerned about how we look, what others are thinking of us. And as we build that awareness of others, we will indeed begin to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” for all. God promises here in the Beatitudes that if we will dare to really feel a longing for justice, God will help us to fill that empty space.
That longing for justice for all makes us merciful – or maybe compassionate is a better word. We begin to really feel something that goes beyond mere pity or even sympathy. Theologian Henri Nouwen says that compassion “grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls [that] might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined for the same end.”[iv]
This ability to be compassionate is at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching. If we can build that kind of love into ourselves—if we can begin to really see that we are one with everyone, that we are all brothers and sisters, and to feel as one with the least and the lost of our world—this way of being will burn away all the things in us that would tear us down. We will indeed begin to become more pure.
I saw it over and over as I have had the privilege of traveling around the Diocese of New York in my work with Episcopal Charities in that diocese. I witnessed in those engaged in mission a lightness, a wholeness that radiated through them as they actively engaged in walking with those in need. These are the peacemakers – those who have as their real life’s work being agents of transformation (even if they still need to do other things to pay the bills). The gifts they have received can come to each of us, if only we will take the time to allow ourselves to be transformed through service to others.
As we continue down this path of the Beatitudes, Jesus reminds us that not everything will be sunshine and light. The “principalities and powers of this world” as Paul calls them, have made a great investment in the status quo—in the systems of the world just as they are—because they usually keep the power at the top. As we begin to serve the lost and the least, and demand that the status quo change in order to give everyone a chance to thrive, we can count on the fact that those in power will try to halt change, and stop us from demanding change.
Now, persecution seems like a scary word. I don’t know about you, but I find myself a little reluctant to go down that road. But again, Jesus assures us that it is OK to step into that fight—that to do so, is, again, to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God. Do you remember the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years back? I had some ambivalence about that movement, mostly because I was not sure what they are really seeking. But I was profoundly moved by their willingness to stand up against the injustice they saw in the world, seemingly at any cost.
And finally, in the last statement of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “blessed are you when people revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” In this statement, Jesus describes the place that he will find himself at the end of his life on earth. He calls us to follow him, just as he himself will suffer for his faithfulness to God. For is it with the words and work of Jesus that the kingdom of heaven breaks into the world. [v] In this closing of the Beatitudes, Jesus invites us to join him on the journey to discipleship; to take up his cross, to stand in the shoes of the lost and the least.
The path to wholeness in God is illustrated through this remarkable teaching of Christ. We are invited to join in the journey. And one way we do so is by the investment of our own gifts. Our stewardship theme this year is “Sharing God’s Gifts.” We are focused on the bounty we have received, and how we share that bounty with others.
And that, in the end, is what church is really about. We are about sharing with one another. Sharing our lives; our understanding of who God is and who we are as God’s beloved; our work on behalf of the Kingdom of God; our joys and our sorrow; and yes, also sharing our money.
We need members of this congregation to make commitments for giving because we need those funds to keep this place going—we need to pay the utility bills, and keep things in good repair, and print bulletins, and buy candles and wine for services, and all the rest. But we also ask for your commitment because it is an important spiritual discipline: A vital part of our own spiritual development.
We all have a relationship to money—some an easy one, and most of us less so. We talk about money in church not just because we need to fund the work of the church. We talk about money because most of us need to learn how to deal with it. We need to move beyond worries about whether we have enough money so that we can put our energy into what really matters: ourselves and our communities. Money and stuff so often become our focus; and as long as we are focused on things, we will find it hard to focus on the things that really matter.
As a faith community, we are called to hold ourselves and each other accountable to the ways of Christ—to learning what it means to reorient our lives toward Christ, and away from the things that are temporal. We do this through relationship—we share our lives with one another and learn from one another what it means to walk the way of love. And through all of the stages of growth in discipleship, the Beatitudes continually make one thing clear: we are blessed wherever we are on the journey. That’s the promise of grace: God loves us just as we are, whoever we are, whatever we have become. Even if we are still only at the first stage of discipleship – poor in spirit – empty and searching – God loves us still. That blessing from God is constant, and it is ours, always.
Wherever you are in your relationship with money, and with giving to the church, you are also blessed. But I hope you will consider how you need to grow in relationship to money to become less focused on stuff and more focused on the things that really matter. And I hope you will be very generous as you estimate your giving to St. Paul’s for 2018.
Finally, we can rest in the knowledge that those we love were, and are, also blessed by God. Even as the Beatitudes remind us about the path to discipleship, and the riches of a life lived after the example of Christ, they assure us that those departed who we still love also rest in the blessedness of God.
Blessed are you – and you – and you – and even me. We are the beloved of God. May this gift of grace move us all to generosity in gratitude and in trust. Amen.
[ii] Cook, Charles James. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, edited by David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor. pp. 308, 310
[iii] Ibid, p. 210
[iv] Ibid, p. 212
[v] Shively, Elizabeth,Visiting Professor, Wheaton College http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=1/30/2011&tab=4, accessed 11/3/11.