All Saints Day, Year C - November 6, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

 

All Saints’ Day

Year C

November 6, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:

"Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

"Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

"Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.

"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

"But woe to you who are rich,

for you have received your consolation.

"Woe to you who are full now,

for you will be hungry.

"Woe to you who are laughing now,

for you will mourn and weep.

"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:20-3)
 

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Last Tuesday, on the actual Feast of All Saints that takes place on Nov. 1, Pope Francis presided at a Mass in Sweden that was attended by people from different faith traditions throughout Scandinavia.  One thing I admire most about Francis is his willingness to be accessible to all kinds of people, so I was interested in what it meant to him to be a “Saint of God.”  Because, as we sang in our opening hymn “I want to be one too,” and my bet is, so do you! 

“The best description of the saints,” Francis said, “Their ‘identity card,’is found in the Beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount that we just read from Luke which begins, ‘Blessed are the poor.’”[1]

Tradition holds that Jesus preached this sermon in Tiberias on the Mount of Olives, but in the gospel of Luke, we are told that Jesus preached it on the plain.  I’ve always wondered about this, and so I researched the geography, and evidently, the site has a high hill (now the location of the Chapel of the beatitudes) which has a long, sloping side that swoops down to the sea.  The hollow of that hill makes a natural amphitheater – a flat place with hills all around to bounce the sound back:  a mount and a plain all rolled into one.

From what we’ve learned together in our bible studies, each gospel writer views the story of Jesus’ life from a different perspective.  So, by putting Jesus on a mountain, the writer of Matthew wanted us to think of Moses on Mount Sinai. As Moses gave the law to Israel from on high, so Jesus gave the gospel from on high.  But by putting Jesus on the plain instead, Luke wanted us to see how accessible Jesus was – not above but among the people to whom he spoke. 

According to Luke, Jesus had just spent all night on the mountain, praying.  Then he came down and stood on the flat part, surrounded by people from all over the place, who all wanted something from him.  There were sick people, crazy people, others who hadn’t eaten in days.  They’d all heard about Jesus, about how all you had to do was get near him and the demons would fly right out of you. There was nothing Jesus couldn’t do – to make contact with him was the first century equivalent of winning the lottery. 

Which is why it is even more remarkable that in Luke’s version of the story, Jesus remained down there on the plain, where people could get to him, patting him, pulling him, grabbing and poking him.   And like Pope Francis, Jesus didn’t seem to mind at all – no bodyguards, nothing to separate him from all those hungry, hurting people.  He stood among them instead, preaching a silent sermon with his presence before spoke a single word

But when he did, what came out was what we call the Beatitudes, a series of blessings which were a common form of speech in Jesus’ day - short, two-part affirmations of “the good life.”  A modern day example might be “Blessed are those who have good 401-K plans, for their old age shall be comfortable,” or “Blessed are those who floss, for they shall keep their teeth!”

So, the form of these blessings would have been familiar to Jesus’ hearers…but the content is another story.  Blessed are you…who are poor?  Who are Hungry?  Who weep?  Who are hated and excluded and reviled?

Hearing this was like drinking from a glass of what looked like lemonade, and finding out it was bug spray instead!  It was a shocking substitution of bad things for good, in which blessedness was equated with the very things people tried to avoid – poverty, hunger, grief, hatred.  And unlike Matthew, who lists nine of these beatitudes, Luke takes a different tack, adding some “woe-itudes” making some of the “good” things sound bad – Woe to you who are rich, for you’ve received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Since we’re so used to hearing these reversals by now, we’ve lost sight of their original shock value.  So, suppose if I said, “Blessed are you who suffer from cancer, for you shall be made whole,” or, “woe to you who drive new cars, for you shall walk on foot.”

As you might be able to tell from your own reaction to these statements, the impact of the beatitudes has everything to do with who you are.  If you happen to be one of the hungry people, then what Jesus is saying sounds like pretty good news.  But if you are one of the well-fed people, well, that sounds pretty bad.  The words themselves don’t change, but sound different depending on where you stand.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us hearing these words stand in the well-fed end of the spectrum, at least by global standards.  Not many of us walked here today, and if our stomachs are grumbling, it isn’t because our pantries are bare.  What this means, I’m afraid, is that many of us hear the beatitudes and dive into a tank of guilt.  Or else we learn to ignore this passage by putting it into the same file with all the other ‘saintly Christian’ advice that we know personally no one has ever followed!

The catch is, the beatitudes are not advice.  There is nothing about them that remotely suggests Jesus was telling anyone what he thought they should do.  When Jesus is giving advice, it is hard to miss.  He’ll say things like we find in the second half of today’s passage, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, turn the other cheek, pray for those who abuse you.  Love, do, turn, pray – with no distinction of rich or poor, hungry or well fed…same for all.

But in the beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t tell anyone to do anything.  Instead, he describes different kinds of people, hoping that his listeners will recognize themselves as one kind or another, and then he makes the same promise to all of them.  That the way things are is not the way they will always be.  The Ferris wheel goes round and round.  Those who are swaying on the top with the wind in their hair will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers and saw dust, will have their chance to touch the stars. 

This isn’t advice, or judgment.  It’s simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on the wheel. 

Perhaps what trips us up, is that when we hear words like “blessing” and “woe” we think of “rewards” and “punishment.”  The blessing things must be what God wants us to do to be “good saints” and the woe things are those we shouldn’t do, but does that mean doing all we can to ruin our lives so we can be more “saintly?” I don’t think so.  Blessings and woes and God can’t be manipulated like that. Beatitudes don’t tell us what to do, they tell us who we are, and more importantly, they tell us who Jesus is.

And the thing is, there are things we can see and learn at the bottom - from a place of accessibility and closeness and vulnerability - that we just cannot see with our feet so far off the ground. To get a good look, you have to come down, as Jesus did, from the mountain to the plain.  Things may not look as pretty from down there.  You may see some things that make you cry, but your compassion may teach you far more than your good fortune ever did.

Which brings me back to Pope Francis, and what he has to tell us about being saints of God.  “New situations require new energy and a new commitment,” he said last week, and he offered a new list of Beatitudes for modern Christians that I would like to leave with you: 

— Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others and forgive them from their heart.

— Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness.

— Blessed are those who see God in every person and strive to make others also discover him.

— Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.

— Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.

— Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians.

 

To which I’ll ad one of my own. 

- Blessed are you who loose your grip on the way things are, for God shall lead you in the way things shall be.

 

For all the Saints, Thanks be to God,

Amen

 

[1] https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2016/11/01/pope-francis-offers-new-beatitude...

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