All Saints Day A
November 5, 2017
The Beatitudes, our Gospel lesson today, is one of those texts in the Bible that is so well known, that I usually approach it thinking, “Oh, I know just what to say about this one,” and yet every time, I find I am surprised by something new. It always speaks to me differently depending on what is going on in my world at the time.
Maybe I am in the midst of a conflict with friends, and so that line, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” is what speaks to me. Maybe I am watching on the news as people protest and cry for justice for some group or another, and I think, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled!” Maybe I have just met with a parishioner who is in the hospital, yet demonstrating such deep faith in the midst of struggle, that my prayer becomes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Or maybe, like several here today, I am mourning a loss of a loved one, and am comforted by those words, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Yes, there seems to be something in there for everyone!
Yet even as one can find comforting words here for various situations, I’m not always sure how to read the text as a whole. Our first inclination might be to read it as sort of, instructions for a life of faith. Especially today, on All Saints Day, as we not only remember those who have died in the faith, and those who have served as models for us, but also recognize that all of us were promised sainthood in our baptism (yes, we are ALL saints!), it becomes tempting to see this text as something to aspire to. Like, this is what the life of a saint looks like: to hunger for righteousness, to speak boldly on Christ’s account even in the face of persecution, to be peace-seekers.
However, we can’t really say, “Be like these people Jesus is saying are blessed!” and call it a day. The cases I just mentioned make sense, but it doesn’t make much sense to say, “Hey, you should find more opportunity to mourn!” or, “Do something to get yourself persecuted now and then, would ya?” So seeing these as “rules for a life of faith” isn’t entirely helpful.
So if they aren’t instructions, then perhaps they are meant to be read more as words of comfort. That’s why they are assigned for this All Saints Day, a day when we remember the dead, when we may count ourselves among “those who mourn.” Though we don’t likely find ourselves in all of these categories at once, we likely find ourselves in some of them sometimes. Like I was saying at the beginning of this sermon: we all grieve at some point; we all pursue righteousness; we all desire peace. Some of us have probably felt at some point like living a life of faith made us feel, if not outright persecuted, at least like we were trying to live a way that is counter-cultural, a way others in the world might not understand. And in those times, it is gratifying to read these words from Jesus saying, “I know you are struggling right now. My promise to you is that this will not last forever. You will get what you need! You will be blessed!” This is a very helpful way to read the Beatitudes, especially in a world with so much pain and fear.
But I’d like to suggest a third way to read this beloved text. Because you see, Jesus doesn’t say to those struggling, “They will be blessed.” He says they already are. So, what if we read the Beatitudes not as words speaking to us wherever we are, assuring us that our circumstances will change sometime in the future but doesn’t imply any current or eventual change in us, but rather, as a way to shift the way we see the world right now and going forward?
Let me explain. If I were to ask you, “When do you feel blessed?” I doubt you would say, “When I’m lacking, or grieving, or experiencing injustice, or being persecuted,” right? We feel blessed when things go well, not when we are suffering! No one says, “You should have heard this guy today who was screaming all kinds of evil threats against me. Ah, I felt so blessed!” No! And yet, Jesus says that there, in those places, is blessing. How can that be?
You see, in saying this, Jesus is turning upside down everything we thought we knew about suffering. But that’s sort of Jesus’ M.O., isn’t it? Jesus is always turning everything on its head. We see it right away, when the King of Kings is born to peasants in a smelly stable. We see it when he is raised in Nowheresville Nazareth. We see it when he surrounds himself with lowlifes and sinners. And we see it most profoundly on the cross. Nothing about Jesus is how we would expect God to be.
And so maybe, just maybe, God is using these unlikely blessings to show us that God continually moves and acts where we least expect it. Not in the glorious places we’d think to look for God – in success and wealth and notoriety, in places we normally associate with blessing – but rather, in the broken, in the aching, in the grieving. It goes back to the theology of the cross we talked about a couple weeks ago – that God has shown us that God’s love is made most profoundly known to us on the cross, and so we can be sure that in our own suffering, God will be there with us, too, kneeling beside us in our despair. And because God is there, with those who suffer, those who suffer are indeed blessed.
It can be hard to believe, can’t it? I know when I have been in my lowest places, it can feel not like God is with me, but the opposite – that God has abandoned me. Well even then, we’re in good company – that’s how Jesus felt on the cross when he cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet, we know that God was there on the cross, and we know that God then descended into hell to be present even there, and then that God broke the bonds of death and, bringing all of the saints with him, entered into new life, a life where we “will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike [us], nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
So what does all this mean for a life of faith? It doesn’t mean that we should make ourselves suffer so that God will come to us. It does mean that if we want to see God, we must go to where we know God is: in suffering.
Today at St. Martin, we will witness a young woman affirm her baptismal faith in the rite of confirmation. One of the things I asked Lydia to do in preparation for this day, was fill out a little bio. One of the questions was, “What do you want to do someday?” I imagined this as a sort of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, but I like Lydia’s answer better. She said that she’d like to go to a children’s hospital and hang out with the kids all day, adding that this would be great. You see, Lydia is already living into the saintly life she inherited in baptism – she knows, in her heart if not in her mind, that in these children, she would see God. Or perhaps, they would experience God’s love in her. Because God is with us, in many and various and sometimes unexpected forms, when we suffer.
As we celebrate Lydia’s confirmation, we give thanks for the ways she has and will continue to live into her saintly nature, even as we give thanks for the ways God calls us to do the same – by hearing the good and comforting words of Christ when we are the ones who are suffering, and by witnessing God by being present in others’ suffering. You know, some Bible scholars believe that a better way to translate that word, “blessed,” is actually, “Congratulations!” Because being so close to God is a celebration. You have experienced God’s mercy – congratulations! You have seen God’s work among the poor – congratulations! You have fought for justice in Christ’s name – congratulations! You have experienced a true life of faith – not one in which God promises you will never face hardship, but rather, that when you do, God will be deeply and profoundly present with you in it. Blessed are you! To Lydia, and to all your saints out there – Congratulations!
Let us pray… Blessed Jesus, we know that you know and understand the pain we feel, because you have felt it, too. Bless us with many opportunities to see your love at work in the world, by emboldening us to be with the suffering in their pain, just as you are with us in ours. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.