Then he 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.”
Sermons are strange things.
Someone spends a week in prayer, pouring over the text, hoping against hope for something to say. Meanwhile, everyone else sits in the pews on a Sunday morning, waiting on a Word from the Lord.
It’s a bit odd that this is one of the ways God’s speaks to us. Most of us can understand, or at the very least appreciate, God speaking through scripture. Many of us are indeed moved by God speaking through music.
The theologian Karl Barth famously noted that “preachers dare to talk about God.” Barth told his students that preaching is meant to be risky in order to ensure that it hasn’t lost its nerve. He dared his students to get out of the way so God could use their sermons to speak.
For, it’s not a sermon until God shows up.
Sermons come and go, some inspire and others bore, some give life while others kill. Preachers must be mindful of the words they use whenever they dare to talk about God.
Which is made all the more confounding when we jump into the strange new world of the Bible only to discover a sermon that God dares to preach about God!
Listen – shortly after choosing the 12 apostles, after word spread about his teachings and healings, Jesus stood on a level place among a great crowd and offered a Word:
“Blessed are those whose lives are an absolute mess, for God does God’s best with broken pieces.
Blessed are the humiliated, for they have been relieved from the burden of self-righteousness.
Blessed are the broken-hearted, for grace falls through the cracks.
Blessed are those who grieve, for what is grief if not love persevering?
Blessed are the last, least, lost, little, and dead, for to them the kingdom has been prepared.
Blessed are the forgivers, for, at the end of the day, what else is there?
And blessed are the forgiven, for they have nothing left to hide.”
“But woe to you who think salvation is yours to earn through power, wealth, and pride, you will be disappointed.
Woe to the fat cats and the hedonists, there will come a time when you are empty.
Woe to those who think life goes on forever and ever, for you will die.”
“Therefore, live wild and reckless lives, for in so doing you will inherit the kingdom of God. Love the unlovable. Forgive the unforgivable. If someone asks for food, invite them to your table. If someone is in need of clothing, give them the jacket off your back. None of it was ever yours in the first place.”
“Love others the way you would like to be loved.”
In the name of the Father, myself, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Upon first inspection, it might not seem like Jesus’ sermon dares to speak about God. In fact, it sounds a lot like it only deals with us. Blessed are you, woe to you, do this, do that, and so on.
And yet, the blessings, woes, do’s and don’ts are only made possible and intelligible by God in the flesh who proclaims these words.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday – the blessed occasion to name and remember the saints in worship, to give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and to praise God for raising them up into the great cloud of witnesses. And yet, in so doing, we often paint pictures of the saints as being holy and perfect people.
The saints of God’s church are and were anything but perfect.
It’s all nice and fine to elevate biblical characters from the New Testament, but it’s important to remember that people like Peter and Paul were perjurers and murderers. And, for some strange reason, we can’t stop naming churches after them!
Or, to leave the Bible for a moment, do you know the story of St. Nicholas? Yes, that St. Nicholas, the one who famously provided gifts for children in the middle of the night. Well, the story goes that during the Council of Nicea in 325 a certain Christian named Arius was arguing that Jesus was not co-equal to the Father but was instead created by God. And, unable to restrain his disdain for such a theological back-step, St. Nicholas marched across the floor, and punched Arius in the face!
The saints, contrary to how we might like to imagine them, or hide them away in museum-like churches, are far more complicated, and therefore faithful, than our limited perspectives of perfection.
To put it another way, as Oscar Wilde said it, “The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
Sermons, strange and daring as they are, give us the language to express the difference Jesus makes. For, we Christians are a threatening bunch to the order of things.
Just think about what Jesus preached! Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you? Turn the other cheek? Those proclamations run against everything we’re taught about what it means to exist in the world.
And yet, Jesus proclaims this strange and even bizarre sermon not because these things work. Loving your enemies doesn’t make them disappear, just as turning the other cheek doesn’t stop us from getting hit. In fact, it usually guarantees it.
Saints exists because of a community we call church that nurtures and shapes people who, while often unfaithful, learn the story of God through Jesus’ preaching.
Jesus preaches this sermon not because it works, but because it tells us who God is.
And God changes everything.
In the book of Acts, those outside the church called the earliest followers of Jesus “world-turners” because they kept flipping things upside down. The first will be last, resurrection out of death, etc. But by the 2nd century, those outside the church described those who followed Jesus as a burial society.
Of course, the church is more than just a burial society, but we are also exactly that!
We are a burial society because we gather to mourn the dead, and yet we do so with hope because we know death is not the end! All of us experience death prior to our deaths because we are baptized. In baptism we are buried with Christ that we might rise with Christ.
How strange it is to be a Christian.
Week after week, we pull out this old book and find that it is alive and speaks into our existence here and now. We baptize the young and the old alike knowing that it incorporates us into something we might now have ever discovered on our own. We gather at the table and we are made participants in the communion of the saints. We hold fast to the truth of the gospel that only God can tell us who we are.
I remember coming forward for communion once when I was a kid. My hands were outstretched in line with everyone else. Right in front of me was an older man, and I could hear him crying as he walked forward. As soon as he stood in front of the table, our pastor looked on his tears and said, “Why are you crying?!”
And I heard him say, “I’ve been a bad man.”
And without missing a beat our preacher said, “As have we all! But take heart! You belong to God.”
Hear the Good News of the Gospel: God does not make anyone a saint who is not first a sinner, nor does God provide love to any but the wretched. God has mercy on none but the bad, and gives grace only to those who are in disgrace.
Which is why we can do the strange things we do in church. Whether its preaching, or baptizing, or serving. Whether its crying or laughing. We can even happily remember the saints, not as a denial of their deaths, but as a recognition that their deaths are not their ends.
Jesus does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.”
Instead, Jesus says, “Bring to me your burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates.
Instead, Jesus says, “I have come to save sinners and only sinners.”
Jesus does not write us off for our faults and failures.
Instead, Jesus says, “You are mine, and I am thine.”
On All Saints, we remember the Saints, all of them.
Notably, the “all” in “All Saints” is the acknowledgment by the church that we do not know the names of all who have lived and died to make possible what we are about to do: gather at the table of God.
If sermons are strange, communion is even stranger. For, when we gather at the table, we commune not just with God, but we commune with all the saints who have come before us, those who surround us now, and those who will be here long after we’re gone.
This feast stretches across time and is a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb when we will gather with those we have lost.
Today, we bring all of our emotions to the table. The joy and gratitude for the saints, the grief and the pain that they are no longer here. And we can bring all of our feelings because Jesus says “Heaven belongs to those who cry, those who grieve and ache and wish that it wasn’t so, those who know not all is as it should be.”
In short, heaven belongs to the saints, and to us.
Thanks be to God.