Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Saints of God”
Rev. Art Ritter
November 1, 2020
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This morning the Christian world observes All Saints Sunday. This year the Sunday actually falls on All Saints Day, November 1. Early Christians created the celebration over 1600 years ago and picked the date in the same manner by which the dates for the celebration of Easter and Christmas were placed. Early Christians stole the date from pagans and replaced the focus of the party with Christian principles and tradition. The pagans celebrated November 1 with bonfires, with animal and crop sacrifice, and with devout prayers for those who had died during the previous year. These pagans believed that the souls of their departed friends spent October 31 being judged as to what form they should take in the next year. If they were good, they entered into other human beings at birth. If they were bad, they entered into animals.
The early Christians changed this celebration for their own benefit. They transformed it into All Saints Day and All Hallow’s Eve. Thus November 1 became a date to commemorate the lives of all the individual Christians within the congregation who had no special calendar date of their own for recognition. All Hallow’s Eve was shortened to Halloween, a day that now seems to lean closer to its pagan roots with an emphasis on witches and darkness and fear.
The gospel lesson that is assigned to All Saints Day is the familiar reading from the gospel of Matthew, part of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. When we hear these words, it is easy for us to understand them as Jesus’ command for us to try harder to be meeker and purer, perhaps even sadder and poorer, in order that we might earn a blessing from God. We view them as a list of conditions that we should try and meet in order to receive an all-star holy rating. These are teachings which ask for behaviors and attitudes that are next to impossible to achieve. And that tends to fit into our perception of people we call saints. Saints are uncommonly good people who make the rest of us feel unworthy. Lance Pape of Brite Divinity School writes, “If we are honest, we must admit that the world Jesus asserts as fact, is not the world we have made for ourselves.”
Josh Harris, a Maryland pastor, offered a more realistic Beatitudes for our world today:
Blessed are the self-confident because they rule the world.
Blessed are the positive thinkers because they don’t need anybody’s comfort.
Blessed are the cocky and assertive because they get what they want.
Blessed are those who hunger for fame because they get reality TV shows.
Blessed are the vengeful because they get respect.
Blessed are the impure, pleasure seekers because they see a good time.
Blessed are those who beat their opponents because winners write history.
Blessed are the popular because everybody loves them.
But God sees things differently than the wisdom of the world. In the face of those who might have been hoping he would bring God’s favor upon earthly standards and be the bold political leader they wanted him to be, Jesus pronounced blessing upon people who didn’t seem to accomplish anything of merit. Jesus blessed those on the fringe. He pronounced God’s blessing upon those whose situations which don’t match the logic of the world.
The problem for us is that we still tend to think that the instructions of the Beatitudes are so far beyond our ordinary lives, that only those whom we celebrate as “saints” can fulfill them. And in doing so we miss their promise and fail to embrace their blessings.
In his commentary on the Beatitudes, Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee, with tongue in cheek, writes about what “Mr. Beatitude” might look like. “He would be consistently kind and yet also a bit shy, shunning the limelight. He would always downplay his own actions by claiming they were never enough to achieve what he really wants, so we might conclude he has a bad self image. This would be a person quick to lend a hand to anyone in need but also quick to get a bit depressed every time he hears a news story about an oil spill or sees pictures of children gassed to death in Syria- this would be a person as often as not who looked distressed and seemed often to be on the verge of tears; someone who could never shrug off anything….This would be a person who was transparently religious, someone whose heart seemed so centered on the God of his faith that everything he did would come off looking like an offering. This would be a man who would seem perpetually restless and dissatisfied with lots of life’s facets. He’d be someone who consistently gave money to environmental groups, who volunteered to clean up highways, who pitched in on programs to aid the homeless, who talked at dinner parties about the need to do something to help those who live in poverty or who are gripped by addictions to drugs or pornography. In short, Mr. Beatitude might not always be a barrel of laughs.”
Yet most scholars believe that Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes was not a list of conditions that we should try and meet to be blessed. If that were true, there would be only a few select people who might possess the strength of faith and the gift of spirit necessary to live a blessed life. But the rest of us, the flawed and confused, those who simply do our best to serve in ordinary acts of love, would miss out on blessings. But the Beatitudes are not instructions to achieve standards to which we should drop everything to aspire. Rather they are the pronouncement of God’s blessing upon people in conditions that don’t seem to be the target of our goals and aspirations. Jesus teaches us that God blesses people who don’t seem to get much blessing in the eyes of the world. He points out God’s blessing in time and places where it is not obvious or celebrated. God’s blessings reaches out to people in pain, to those who prefer compassion to greatness, to those who work for peace instead of riches, for those who act with mercy instead of revenge, for those who doubt instead of acting with certainty, for those who know what the pain of loss feels like, for those who are forgotten and no one else seems to notice, for those who do not have a voice, and for those who offer grace instead of anger. These teachings are a way of affirming God’s presence in times that we perceive as weakness and in others that we might deem as failures or powerless. We might admire strength and power. God blesses weakness. That is the lesson of All Saints Sunday.
David Lose writes of a scene in the movie Schindler’s List in which the commandant of a German death camp, believes that the very essence of power is found in his ability to kill prisoners indiscriminately. Oskar Schindler has somehow worked his way into the commandant’s good graces and one night during a conversation he challenges the commandant’s beliefs about power. He says that the ability to kill isn’t real power; the ability to have mercy is. Schindler argues that the Emperor was the most powerful person in Rome because anyone could kill but only the Emperor could pardon a convicted criminal out of mercy. The commandant listens and tries to be merciful. He pardons a few people who have annoyed him. But he can’t continue the behavior for long. He eventually returns to his brutal ways. Exercising mercy is harder than it looks and he finds no blessing in it. He fails because he does not find the presence of God in what he is attempting to do.
All Saints Day may be a good day to recognize that none of us have the faith and the strength and the virtue it would take to qualify for sainthood, as we might define it. But it is also a good day to be aware that the real saints are those who acknowledge a need for God and who seek the presence of God in their everyday situation and routine. Jesus pronounced blessings not as rewards for people who live perfect lives but as the promise of God to be found upon people who live out the Kingdom of God in the midst of the darkness and power of the world. The Christian life is not a magic shield to protect us. Rather it is an assurance that no matter where we are on the journey, we are blessed and loved and claimed by God.