November 6, 2016, Sermon for All Saints – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Two more days until the national elections, and on Tuesday (for all those of us who haven’t already done early voting) each of us will have the privilege and the solemn responsibility to decide which of the candidates for each office comes closest to having the qualities we feel they ought to have, to serve as senator, or congressman, or president – or whatever office it is they are running for. That’s what campaigns are for, ideally: they’re a forum for each candidate to let the voters know who they are, what their strengths are, what their abilities are. And no matter what your party affiliation is, I think we all have certain qualities we look for in a leader. We want the people representing us and governing us to be honest, and confident, and friendly, and intelligent, and strong. And charismatic. We want them to have good judgment, and to keep calm under pressure. Those are pretty good basic leadership qualities, and a reasonable campaign is about proving to the voting public that this particular candidate has those qualities.
And actually, those same qualities – honesty, confidence, intelligence, friendliness, strength, attractiveness – those are qualities that the world looks for in anyone who wants to get ahead. It’s what dating is often all about; it’s what applications for grad school are all about; it’s what job interviews are all about. Life is full of campaigns of one sort or another; life is full of having to prove our worth, having to market ourselves on a very competitive market. And that becomes so much a part of how we think about ourselves that it finds its way into the church, where we spend more time on leadership training than on self-sacrifice, and where prominent Christian leaders often look and talk and act more like politicians and corporate CEO’s than servants.
But Jesus had a very different set of criteria for his followers.
The gospel reading from Luke today comes from a long sermon we call the “Sermon on the Plain”, like the “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew. On that day, Jesus was preaching to a huge crowd. Luke says Jesus “stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon – literally, from one end of Israel to the other – who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” People had come to hear Jesus from miles and miles around, thousands and thousands of people. They were desperate people, people with sicknesses that had no cure, people who had been oppressed by evil spirits for years – which may have been real spiritual oppression, or it may have been mental illnesses that no one understood. These were the multitudes of those who had fallen through the cracks in Jewish society: the unwashed, the unwanted, the unwelcome. When Jesus looked out over the multitudes who came to him, the gospels tell us, his heart went out to them. He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, confused and helpless. He loved and pitied them in their need, and he reached out and healed them.
Jesus begins his great sermon with these words: “Blessed are you who are poor.” “Blessed are you who are hungry.” “Blessed are you who weep.” “Blessed are you when people hate you.” And we might think – it seems perfectly logical – that he is speaking in pity, words of comfort for all those thousands of people who were certainly poor and hungry and sad and despised. But if we read carefully, we notice that these words are not addressed to the desperate multitudes. Luke says Jesus lifted up his eyes on his disciples and then he began to speak those words. These particular words, what we call the Beatitudes, are not words of comfort for those whose lives on this earth are so terrible that they can only put their hope in the world to come. The Beatitudes aren’t words of sympathy at all. They are words that describe what it means to be a disciple. And that means, these words don’t only describe the people in that crowd two thousand years ago who were faithful followers of Jesus of Nazareth. These words are here to describe us. On this day as we celebrate the feast of All Saints, the Beatitudes stand as a standard for sainthood, the measure of what it is to be a true follower of Jesus, because a saint is any person who belongs to God the Father, by faith in Jesus the Son, through the power of his Spirit. We’re all saints here.
The word for the Beatitudes is translated blessed in the version we just read: we read “Blessed are you who are poor.” “Blessed are you who are hungry.” The problem with that translation is that we so often over-use the word blessed or blessing until it just seems like a kind of spiritual word with a vaguely nice meaning. So it might be helpful to know that it also means happy. We could just as well translate it like this: Jesus fixed his loving gaze on the faithful followers who stood nearby to hear him and he said this to them: “Happy are you who are poor.” “Happy are you who are hungry.” And “Happy are you who weep.” And “Happy are you when people hate you.” In fact, not only “Happy are you when people hate you and say terrible things about you and shun you because of me,” but more: “Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!,” he said. “Because that’s how it was for the prophets of old.”
The first thing to clarify here is that Jesus never, ever came to lead people into a religion of self-harm and self-loathing, where pain and suffering are glorified and where the worse things get the happier we’re supposed to be. That is not a sane kind of religion, and that is certainly not Christianity. When Jesus met people who were suffering he healed them, and he comforted them, and he wept with them. Not once do the gospels tell us that Jesus looked on someone’s suffering and told them to suck it up. There have been times in the history of the Church when people tried to prove how righteous they were by inflicting pain on themselves, but that was never part of the teaching of Jesus.
So what did Jesus mean when he said his disciples should be happy when they were poor, and hungry, and all those things that sound so not-happy to us? The best way always to understand what Jesus is teaching us is to see how he lived it out, because as the very best teacher of all times Jesus always practiced what he preached. If we look at what it meant that Jesus was poor, we can see first of all that he chose to live a life of real simplicity and poverty. When one man asked to become his disciple, Jesus warned him, “Birds have nests and foxes have holes to sleep in, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Discipleship never got anybody onto the Fortune 500 list.
The secret, though, is what Jesus says next: “Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Why would Jesus worry about having a roof over his head or an extra set of robes when he knew that he was the beloved Son of the Father? Jesus was happy to be a true servant because he always remembered that he was a true Son of the King. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Poverty that is imposed on people through oppression and neglect, or through cruelty or indifference, that is an evil thing, and something to be opposed. But poverty that is taken on willingly, out of love, and with the knowledge that we are loved in return, that kind of poverty sets us free the way it set Jesus free – free to serve, free to forgive, free to have compassion, even free to turn the other cheek when someone does us harm. That is the happy poverty of a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Tomorrow I have called for a voluntary day of fasting, giving up food for all or part of the day as part of our prayer for the national and local elections on the following day. It’s an opportunity for us to experience hunger in a way we don’t usually get to, or have to, since most of us have ready access to snacks of some kind at any time of the day or night. And besides giving us time and space for prayer, fasting helps us to understand what Jesus understood about hunger. One day, when his disciples had forgotten to go shopping and were worried that Jesus was going to be mad at them for running out of bread, he told them, “I’ve got bread you don’t even know about. My food and drink are to do the will of my Father in heaven.” Jesus knew that the purpose of hunger was not just to fill these bellies of ours that just get hungry over and over again. The true purpose of hunger is to long for God’s way to be done – which is just what we pray in the Lord’s prayer “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Happy is the disciple who hungers for justice and kindness and health in a world of injustice and cruelty and sickness, Jesus says, because that hunger will surely be satisfied. And happy are you when you weep now, as Jesus himself wept at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, because you know that the way the world is now, full of war and pain and hatred and fear as it is – is not the way it was created to be. Happy are you even as you weep, because you know that the healing of all things will surely come, and then you will laugh for joy.
But maybe the hardest Beatitude to really understand is the last one, “Happy are you when people hate you and say terrible things about you and shun you, because of the Son of Man.” It is a very hard thing, because above all things we human beings like to be liked; we need to be accepted and appreciated and valued. Abused children and battered wives defend their parents or husbands because they seek their love and because they are so terrified of rejection; people of all ages say and do things they know are wrong just to fit in with the people around them; religious leaders compromise their theology and morals out of a desperate need to be loved and admired.
If we follow Jesus, though, we will inevitably find ourselves at odds with the ways of the world sooner or later. Eventually, if we are citizens of the kingdom of God, our loyalties to that kingdom will bring us into conflict with this world whose priorities are entirely unlike the priorities of Jesus and his Father. Sometimes Christians bring shame and ridicule on themselves by acting like jerks – then we deserve the disgrace we get from the world. What Jesus is talking about is not a people who are too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good. He’s talking about what it means to be gracious and merciful and loving in a world that doesn’t understand grace or mercy or love. Jesus travelled that road before us: he valued people over human tradition and mercy over human justice and love over human religion. And the end of his road was the rejection and betrayal of the Cross. But his ministry began and ended with the assurance of the Father, who proclaimed, “This is my Son, my beloved.”
Happy are you when you share the loneliness and disgrace of the Cross, for you also share the unfailing love and delight of the Father.
Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. We offer this Eucharist in thanksgiving for the saints that God has graciously put into our lives to share the way of discipleship with us: our parents and our family and our friends, those who have passed on and those who are still with us. These special people in our lives have been poor in the eyes of the world but are rich in the love of the Father; they have known hunger in life even as they trusted in his goodness; they have wept for the pain and suffering in this world even as they hoped for the joy of the world to come. And they have endured the rejection of the world, secure in the love of God. Not a single one of these saints that we remember today has followed in the way of Jesus Christ perfectly, and yet, we have seen and loved the face of God in each and every one. Happy are we who have been given these blessed companions to share the road with us.