Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
Do you remember when you were a child how fascinating it was to stand on your head? Trees grew down, not up and your house looked like it was going to fall off the yard. It was a fun thing to do because it allowed us to see things we took for granted in a new way. It introduced us to a world where trees grew down and birds flew under our feet and where anything seemed possible.
We just heard a famous passage from the Gospel that contains a set of expressions called the Beatitudes. In the time of Jesus, these kinds of everyday sayings were quite common. People lived by truisms like “Blessed are the wise, for they shall not be fooled. Blessed are the strong, for their enemies will fear them.”
What is so shocking about the list Jesus presents is their content. Why in the world would we consider the meek or the mournful or the poor to be blessed? What’s so good about hunger or thirst or scorn and persecution? Let’s be honest, modern society commonly labels those who fall into categories such as “poor” or “meek” or “pure in heart” as “losers.”
We’ve probably grown up with another set of expressions, the product of that kind of society. Some of these go like this: “Don’t let anyone walk over you. Real men don’t cry. You’re entitled to everything you get.. Get ahead of the other guy. He who dies with the most toys wins.” I suspect that most of us don’t know what to do with the Beatitudes of Jesus. They seem so out of touch with the reality of the world we know. Note, however, that there are no “shalts” or “shalt nots” in this list. These are not commandments.
The language of the Beatitudes does not say “do this” and you will get this in return. It is language that describes who these people are now—meek, mournful, poor, hungry and thirsty, working for peace—and what the future holds for them. It is the language of hope and promise—that the way things are now is not the way they will be forever. It’s like when you were a child and stood o your head to see the world in a new dimension. Everything seemed different. Jesus might just as well have asked us to stand on our head when he gave us the Beatitudes because he was turning the values of the world upside down.
There is good reason why these sayings about the good life Jesus promises us are showcased in the liturgy today. It is the feast of All Saints, the day when we remember those who have gone before us, our ancestors who have led the way of believing through the centuries as well as all of us who are still making the journey together here on earth.
When we profess our faith today in the Creed (in the baptismal covenant), we will say “I/We believe in the communion of saints.” What we are talking about is much more than a loose relationship or connection between the living and departed. We are talking about that communion of holy persons from whom we have inherited a faith strong enough, flexible enough, and deep enough to shape our lives and guide our choices. We celebrate today the unity of strangers that forms around the image of the Christ who calls us beyond our past into what can be an exciting but demanding future.
On our way to that future we gather here in the present around a table in memory of the one who fills us with all good things and in whose name we are bound to a life that can lead us to unexpected places. In the Eucharist we are bound to the unfinished work of turning the world upside down—bringing that world to the beatitudes. And we are bound to those who have modeled that life before us teaching us by the way they lived and letting us see in their struggle that, even though it may be a trek, it is fully attainable.
The (Creed) baptismal covenant we will renew today, and which their parents and godparents will make on behalf of Lucas, Liliana and Hunter, is not a call to believe in the church. It is a call to follow Christ. To believe in a church that makes us feel holy because we are committed to a list of “dos” and “don’ts” and public and private devotions is easy. To believe in the Christ who requires that saintliness be measured by our relationships to the rest of God’s children— the entire human race—is the real measure of holiness. Religion has substituted the word church for the word community and, although they should be one and the same, too often they are not. In the end, it is our behavior in the human community, not our religious affiliation that will measure the quality of our lives.
If we are going to take seriously our vocation to be saints, we must recognize that nothing is more important than our ability to live and work with the people around us, loving those whom God puts in our way. It is the realization that we can only approach God in the midst of the vast and diverse and mixed-up crowd of God’s children trusting that there is a gift to be discovered under every grumpy or distrustful or obnoxious exterior. Author Andrew Mason says that “Sainthood emerges when you can listen to someone’s tale of woe and not respond with a description of your own.”
We celebrate this festival of saints today because we are bound to one another, each generation a link to the next, each generation a model for the one to come. The faith that brings us open-armed to one another is a faith that will make us holy. The communion of saints is here today in the sacraments we share and in the sacramental lives we take out into the world when we leave this place each week. The challenge is that this world often breeds a culture of greed, privilege and individualism where the Beatitudes appear to be meaningless, even folly.
What we need is a new sense of the saints before us, the saints around us, the saint within us and the saints yet to come—Lucas, Liliana, and Hunter among them—who will look to us for proof that the world is wrong about who are the weak and who are the losers; proof that there is power in kindness and gentleness; there is power in raising up the down trodden; there is power in bringing those on the margins to the center; there is power in eradicating poverty for children; power in making peace, power in feeding the hungry, power in living as the children of God we are—living in hopeful expectation that all we can be is yet to be revealed.
The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection on the Beatitudes says it really well: “I guess you can do anything you want with the Beatitudes. Some have ignored them, some have admired them and walked away, some have used them as a yardstick to measure their own blessedness, and some have used them to declare revolution. The simplest thing to do with them, perhaps, is to let them stand you on your head so that you cannot see the world again in the same way but rather the way God sees it—turned upside down by the only one who really knows which way is up.”