Blessed are the Different: A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2014

Matthew 5:1-12
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.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

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…

What the Saints We Knew Taught Us – Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2012

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Mark 12:28-34
12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

12:29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;

12:30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

12:31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

12:32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;

12:33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

12:34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Being a saint is hard work. I’m not speaking from experience here, but rather from observation. This is what I’ve learned: You have to be perfect. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t have a bad day when you lose your temper, or get frustrated at your neighbor. You have to give away everything you own. You have to spend every night cooking in a soup kitchen, or reading to people in hospital beds, or toiling away at a second job so you can give every penny you make to the poor. You also can never enjoy yourself. If you find happiness even for a moment, you’re probably sinning, and you should immediately confess to God and go do some more volunteer work. Also, you need to pray. A lot. Like ten hours straight each day. Minimum.

And if you do all this, maybe, just maybe, after you die (and you will likely die a torturous, slow, martyr’s death) you will be immortalized with a stone statue or a stained glass window in a church somewhere. And you will be called “Saint So-and-so”. But, really, you shouldn’t even hope for that, because hoping to be a saint is probably a sin too.

When you think about saints, maybe you think about something similar. Perfect people who lead lives of exemplary holiness. People who lead often joyless lives, and have horrific deaths. People who we look at as being extraordinary. People we can never be. Most of us, we believe, are not cut out for sainthood.

But maybe that conventional definition, that idea of the holy, untouchable saint, isn’t what being a saint is really all about? Maybe there’s an everyday sainthood that we might know more about than we think? And maybe today, on All Saint’s Sunday, it’s the perfect time to think about those everyday saints whom we have known.

The Scripture passage today tells the story of a man who came to Jesus asking what the greatest commandment, the greatest rule for life, was. And Jesus gives him an answer that tells us a lot about what true sainthood looks like: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The man answers him, “you’re right, teacher. And, you know what, doing what you just said matters more than all the burnt offerings and temple sacrifices and everyday rituals we’ve been taught to do.” Now, you have to remember, that was blasphemy. The man was rejecting the common religious knowledge of the time. So Jesus was faced with a choice about how to respond to the man. And yet, he doesn’t tell him he was wrong. He tells them this: you are not far from the kingdom of God. In other words, you’re getting it right. You understand what true faith looks like.

It’s a good reminder for those of us who want to know what true sainthood looks like. Being a saint isn’t about religious rituals or leading joyless lives. Instead, being a saint is about living a life of joy. A life in which you love God with all that is in you, heart and soul, mind and strength. And then loving your neighbor with that same kind of love. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about loving perfectly. It’s not about following the letter of the law. It’s about believing in the spirit of the law. Believing in the law of loving God and loving others. And it’s about acting out that belief in all you do.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a day where we remember all of the saints who have come before us. And from the outset, we might think it’s a day where we are supposed to look to the example of all the saints we’ve heard about: St. Christopher, St. Francis, St. Patrick, St. Peter, St. Paul. Maybe we’ll even acknowledge some soon-to-be venerated saints like Mother Teresa.

But that’s not the real meaning of All Saints day. Because sainthood is not about some list somewhere of the most extraordinary people ever. Sainthood is about the everyday people who have used their lives to love God, and to love others. In our religious tradition, All Saints day is about all of those we have loved, and lost, who loved us and who by their love taught us to love God.

You’ve known some saints. Maybe they were parents, or grandparents. Maybe they were teachers, or coaches. Maybe they were neighbors or friends. Maybe they were spouses, or children. You loved them, and you learned from them. You learned by example about loving God and loving your neighbor. And you miss them. That’s what today is about.

It’s no coincidence that today, All Saints’ Sunday, is also our fourth Sunday in our sermon series on giving. Because today we are asking who in our taught us how to give. Who showed us what it meant to love by giving? Who was always there when we needed them? Who was generous with their love and their time and their compassion? Who rose to the occasion when you needed them the most, and gave selflessly of all they had? My guess is that if all of us take a minute to think about who the saints of our lives really were, we will think of the most generous people, in every sense of that word, that we have ever known.

We are continuously blessed by the generosity of others. Both people we have loved in our own lives, and people who loved God, and loved us, even though they knew they would never meet us.

This church is an example of that. This building was built in 1858 by people none of us ever met. 150 years ago they gave of the little that they had to build this meeting house for our community. If you look at these pews, you’ll see small plaques with names engraved on them. Those are the names of people who bought these pews as a way of sponsoring the building of the church. They bought the glass in these windows too. You can see the way the glass waves a little, because glass does that over 150 years. That glass was their offering to their neighbors, and to you. You can look at this communion table which sat in the Wilmington church for decades, perhaps over a century, and you can see their care for their house of worship. It’s a legacy we now remember here as well.

But not all of the gifts to this church came 150 years ago. People who are still members of this congregation made the decision decades ago to add a back room to the church. They lifted the church up and added a basement. They put heat in the church because the old stove that used to sit right up here threw out so much smoke that, one member from decades ago told me, you couldn’t see the pastor when he preached.

This is what the saints of this church and the Wilmington Church did for us. They gave us these gifts because they wanted a community of faith to prosper here. And I’m not just talking about the building. The building is just one physical example. What they did spiritually, what they did to build this church up into a community of believers, is far more important. They loved God, and they loved their neighbor. Even their neighbor they would never live to meet.

It’s an incredible testament to what it means to be a saint. And it’s only one very small corner of the world. Because if I asked you to tell me about the saints in your life, you would tell me equally incredible stories of people who gave freely, and who changed your life. And the really extraordinary thing is, one day, if we are lucky, people will share the same sorts of stories about us. Because the choices we make today, the love and generosity we exhibit to the world, can touch not just those who surround us now, but those who will remain long after we are gone. We are not yet saints. But one day, we, like all others who leave this world for God’s, will be. And maybe people will be remembering us on some All Saints’ Sunday. But for now, we remember others.

This morning I set up some tea light candles around the communion table, and around the communion table that we brought up from the Wilmington Church. In just a moment I’m going to give you all a chance to remember, by lighting a candle, the saints in your own life. We will then have this physical reminder of them when we celebrate communion today. Communion is a time when we are connected not just to one another, but to God, and to the saints of all times and places. Today we remember that more than ever. May the candles be a physical reminder that the saints are still with us, and that we have not forgotten them, and that death is not the final word.

Now I’ll invite you, as you’re so moved, to come forward and light a candle, or two, for those you have loved and lost who were saints to you…