5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
When I was in middle school my Catholic friends began this process of choosing saints’ names. They were all about to be confirmed, and they had to pick one saint, whose life they respected, and take their name for their confirmation. I only knew a few saints like Patrick and Francis, so it was really fascinating for me to here about all these different saints because we in the Protestant traditions don’t really talk about them much.
We don’t discount saints, but we tend to see sainthood as something that happened to people a long time ago. The saints are people like Peter, Paul, the disciples, the early first believers. We don’t keep looking for saints among us and canonizing them the way our Catholic brothers and sisters do. Even now Mother Theresa and John Paul II are becoming official saints in the Catholic Church, but we don’t have anything similar.
In a way, that’s okay with me. And here’s why: I tried to be a saint once. I was in elementary school and I figured sainthood was a sure-fire ticket into heaven, so I’d give it a try. I was very holy. For about all of five minutes. Then I gave it up.
Sainthood, I decided, was just too hard. So, whenever All Saints’ Sunday comes up on the church calendar, which is today, I always approach it with this knowledge in the back of my head that sainthood was a failed vocation for me, and we are talking about other people.
And every year on All Saints’ we read this same passage from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s the Beatitudes, which is basically a list Jesus gives of the people who are “blessed”: the poor, the mourning, the meek, the ones who hunger for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. And for each of these, a sort of blessing is given, like seeing God or inheriting the earth.
So, at first glance we might think, “that’s why we read it on All Saints’…it’s about people who can do no wrong. It’s about saints who have no reward in this life, but God’s blessing in the next.” And, maybe that’s true for some, but I think it all goes a little deeper than that.
One of you told me a story recently about the beatitudes. A storyteller told a story of a parent who was asked if they had a favorite child. Surprisingly the parent said “oh yes, I do”. The person who asked was appalled but the parent explained, “whichever of my children is going through the hardest time on any given day is my favorite, because that is the time when I am favoring them by giving them most of my thoughts, and my prayers, and my attention.
As it turns out, the word “blessed” can also be understood as meaning “favored”. And, the storyteller said, if we think of God as a divine parent who loves all of God’s children, perhaps the beatitudes are less about God loving the holy and perfect ones more, and more about God favoring us by drawing closer when we are in the hardest of times.
I think there’s something to that. And I think there’s good news there for those of us who are not saints. These words are not about being a reminder to us of how far off the mark we are. If anything, they are a reminder that God is present and loving us in our hardest, perhaps even least saintly, hours.
So, again, why do we read it today?
For me, it all comes down to an idea that a man named Martin Luther summarized in a Latin phrase nearly 500 years ago: Simul Iustus et Peccator. To translate that, “simultaneously saint and sinner”. Luther was talking about all of us there. He was saying that all of us occupy this space of being both. We mess up. A lot. We sin. A lot. We get it wrong. A lot. And yet, somehow we are still saints too.
Now, I told you my feelings on sainthood and how it didn’t sound like a sustainable career option for me. So, you can understand my suspicion here. And yet, I think Martin Luther was right. But before I came to believe that, I had to give up some of my old assumptions of what saints were like.
Now, when you think about a saint, what do you think of? Someone on a stained glass window? A figure on a prayer card or pendant? A statue? Mother Theresa in Calcutta? I’m not saying that some saints aren’t like that, but I think that’s a shortsighted view of sainthood.
Because in our tradition, we understand sainthood a little differently. Saints are not perfect people. Saints, instead, are simply everyday people who have died in the hopes of Christ’s Resurrection.
I talked about this yesterday at Gary’s memorial service. Gary is now a saint. And though he was a wonderful person, and his life shined as an example of God’s love, he’s not a saint because of that. Gary is a saint simply because when he left this life he joined the great Communion of Saints, the community of all who have lived and believed and somehow been found by Christ’s love.
But you and I, we are not saints. At least not yet. We are still wrestling it out in that space where Luther called us both “saints and sinners”. And, as hard as sainthood is, sometimes this feels even harder.
And here’s why I think that is. In the New Testament, when the word for “saint” is used, it doesn’t just mean “good person” or “holy person” or anything like that. Instead, the original word, “hagios”, isn’t even a noun at all. It’s an adjective, a description. And what it means is perhaps that most challenging part of all of becoming a saint. It means “different”, or “set apart”.
In other words, if you want to get ready to be a saint, then you have to be different. Different is not just okay, it’s good according to the Bible. Being different is what you and I are called to be. And the only thing that’s wrong with that, is this: being different is hard.
Don’t believe me? Ask any fourth grader you know what it means to be different. They’ll tell you it’s not such a great thing to be. In fact, we spend so much of our life trying not to be different, and trying not to stand out. Being set-apart is not something that makes most of us feel good. Instead it’s something that terrifies us.
And yet, it’s what God asks of us. God asks us to live our lives in a way that often goes against what is easy, accepted, or well-understood. We are called on constantly to choose the right over the easy, the good over the popular, and the meaningful over the mindless. In short, we are being called not just to be set-apart, but to voluntarily set ourselves apart. This is not for the faint of heart.
And yet, there are some days when we see it so clearly. There are some days when we understand at a gut level that this is what we have chosen and that we would never be happy choosing another way. And those are the days when, despite our stumbles and our wrong turns, we are closer to sainthood than ever.
And those are the days that we too are blessed. Those are the days when we are favored by God. Because, just like children can tell us that being different isn’t easy, their parents will tell you that watching them go through that is pretty hard too. And I’d imagine that in those times those children who are feeling the strain of being different in some way become “favored” by their parents. And if God if our divine parent, I’d imagine that on those days when we are struggling the most with this whole Christian life thing, and the ways in which we are called to be different, God is drawing a little closer to us too.
Listen again to the ones Jesus calls blessed: the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. In other words, the different. The ones who choose another way. The ones who, for all their imperfections, might just be becoming saints after all. At least one day, hopefully a long time from now.
But while we are not yet saints, others are. And we have known them. And so on this All Saints’ Sunday, I have this question for you: Who are the saints who you have known?
Who in your life is no longer with us, but taught you that maybe being different wasn’t just okay, but that it was the way to being blessed? Who lived their life in a way that taught you that God was with you, and that you were blessed? Who built something with their lives that remains as blessing to you still?
We all have these people. And on this All Saints, they deserve a moment to be lifted up, and so I invite you to do that now…