Sermon of the Week:
Jesus’ Teaching and the Saints of God
Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Keywords: Halloween, Allhallowtide, Saints, St Patrick Breastplate. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
So, Halloween was yesterday,
and, at least for our family, it felt so subdued,
another casualty of the COVID pandemic.
I know the kids love Halloween, and quite a few of my adult friends love it too.
Candy. Costumes and cosplay.
An excuse to dress your puppy up in a matching epidemiologist outfit.
I saw it all over my social media.
And I get it. It’s a good excuse to escape all the actual horror going on in our world
if only for an evening of pumpkin carving and
a little neighborhood get-together on your block
and setting up a socially-distanced candy table
outside by the street.
For some reason, I’ve never fully gotten into Halloween.
It’s never really been my thing.
Don’t get me wrong: I like all those things,
and I LOVE seeing kids fall in love with it,
for instance, taking little steps of bravery towards a spooky skeleton, to see if its real or not.
Our three-year-old neighbor, who dressed up as a rocket-ship-to-the-moon this year
came over every single day for a few weeks
just to check out the witch hat and her witch feet
which were really just some old shoes and socks stuffed with leaves
that we kept in our yard…
and he was just enthralled by it.
I love all of that. Still, I don’t seem to get as engrossed in all of it as others do.
That’s ok. To each their own.
I’ll work on a costume from time to time.
One year I was a dreaded oak mite.
I think I was voted scariest costume that year.
Halloween in America evolved from All Hallows Eve,
which has many parallels with la dia de los Muertos, or the day of the dead
in many Latin American countries,
a day of celebrating and remembering ancestors.
For most Americans, our observance of the holiday has become separated from all of that.
It has become a day for fun size candy and Styrofoam tombstones in the front yard
but traditionally All Hallows Eve
is the beginning of three days of this recognition of the dearly departed,
along with All Saints Day and all Souls Day.
Together, those three days are called Allhallowtide,
a Christian observance established way back in the eighth century.
While some years I feel a bit disconnected from Halloween,
I have come to really love All Saints Day every time it comes around.
It can sometimes be quite sweet, a time of celebration and joy
where we remember loved ones who have gone before with happy hearts.
It might also be a day where we shed tears,
which can be a good thing,
because those tears express a range of feelings
that can’t quite be captured in words,
awe, gratitude, grief, regret, loneliness, responsibility.
It is really important for us to honor all of our memories as well as these sorts of feelings.
In the business of our everyday life, it is easy to forget that we are part of a lineage of love.
And it is so personal, for each of us.
These people we remember might be parents, or partners, or children sometimes,
friends, teachers, neighbors, respected rivals…
People who have nurtured, taught, comforted, inspired us,
people who are now a part of who we are…
and naming that, remembering that, helps us claim an important part of ourselves.
No man is an Island, wrote John Donne.
We are, all of us, interconnected with the people who shaped us,
just as we have a hand in shaping the lives of those around us.
Over time, here in the Presbyterian corner of the Christian church,
we have tended to focus our attention on All Saints Day, November First,
as a day for us to do all of this,
to lift up the everyday people who were instrumental in making us who we are.
Other parts of the church reserve this All Saints Day for Saint saints, particular Christians
formally recognized by the church as being a super awesome Christian,
or at least quite above average.
They reserve that other day, All Souls Day, for a more general observance.
We Presbyterians don’t tend to focus on Saint saints,
lifting up an “upper tier” group of people like that,
but I know that many of those people have facilitated moments of personal inspiration and support
during times of stress or trial or growth.
Saint Christopher, patron saint of travel, helps many people bravely step onto an airplane
or to venture that first step in a journey they need to undertake…
Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and animal lovers,
inspires many to care for their companion pets and creatures.
Saint Patrick is famous for his breastplate, and the prayer of humble piety it contained:
I bind myself today to the power of God to guide me
the might of God to uphold me
the wisdom of God to teach me
The eye of God to watch over me
the ear of God to hear me…
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ beneath me, Christ within me…
Christ in the heart of every[one] who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of every[one] who speaks to me…
You can see how these examples can be quite moving,
and even though our tradition doesn’t observe these saints as Saint saints,
there’s nothing wrong in being grateful for them too.
It’s just that, in our way of thinking about it,
we ALL have the opportunity to be saints to one another,
to share God’s love and God’s light in this world.
Saints are not just people through whom some supernatural miracle happens.
They’re not people who live unrealistically pure lives,
not even sneaking a fun size Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from the candy stash
when their kid is done trick-or-treating for the night.
Instead, we believe that saints are regular people
who show us the miraculous that happens everyday…
like those moments when genuine compassion triumphs over petty tribalism,
when people choose hope over fear and division,
when people dare to stand up to injustice
and take steps toward ending the root causes of brokenness in our world.
Saints embody God’s welcome for all.
They are people who show us that we are loved,
that we are worthy of love,
because they themselves love us.
And actually, this happens all the time,
Everyday saints, ordinary people, through whom we see a bit of the love and compassion of God,
in whom we experience God’s welcome and God’s affirmation that we matter, that we belong.
It is interesting to me that people who plan these things recommend that we turn to the beatitudes
when we observe All Saints Sunday.
That’s what we call this section in Matthew that we read this morning.
I was reminded yesterday, as I was thinking about Halloween
and the whole spooky, scary apparatus that we build up around that holiday
I was reminded of something kinda spooky that happened to me back in April
when I was in my office grabbing all sorts of books to bring home at the start of this pandemic
not really understanding at that time how long we’d be dealing with all of this…
and so I was grabbing this book and that book and another book, right,
and I was going a bit too fast,
and as I was moving around
I knocked several books off of an upper shelf onto the floor…
and I sighed, because I was going too fast,
and put down the eight or nine books in my arms
and went down to pick up the mess I had made,
when I noticed:
in this jumble of books that were now on my office floor,
two of the bibles that fell
and one of the commentaries,
three different books,
had all opened up to this chapter of the Bible: Matthew 5
this list of blessings that we call the beatitudes.
How’s that for an idea of a scary movie?
I didn’t think much of it at the time
but when I sat down to write this sermon on Halloween,
it quickly came to mind. Spooky!
There’s an easy explanation for it, though.
In my Bible, Matthew 5 is one of those well-worn chapters, you know,
a place where the pages are a bit more creased and wrinkled than the others,
where the spine of the book is cracked, because I come back here over and over again.
It is a natural place for one of my bibles to open, among a few other well-travelled sections.
The Beatitudes are the opening verses of what we call
the Sermon on the Mount,
and we call it that because, as we saw in our reading today,
Jesus is said to go up a mountain when he saw the crowds of people who are there to be near him
and he sat down, with his disciples, and started to teach them.
In this way, Jesus adopts the classical posture
of an authoritative lecturer.
All the good teachers did this sort of thing,
gather a group on a hillside
where they’d deliver a learned message.
And Jesus doesn’t fail to deliver.
In fact, the Sermon on the Mount, which spans three whole chapters in Matthew,
is one of the places that so many faithful people particularly turn to for wisdom and guidance.
The creased pages in this section of the New Testament is not unique to me and my bibles.
For generations, people of faith have found both deep insight and a fair amount of challenge here:
This is where you’ll find the Lord’s prayer.
Pray in secret, give alms in secret,
rather than to let others see and admire you for your piety, that’s in here too.
Turn the other cheek.
Go the extra mile.
When they ask for your cloak, give your coat also.
Love your enemies.
Do not worry.
Be careful about storing up riches on Earth,
because you can’t love both God and mammon…
There’s so much here that exemplifies what we might call Jesus’ moral code,
the way he is teaching his disciples to understand
what life looks like in the Realm of God
that he has come to fulfill.
I used to read this section, and wonder about how anyone could really do these things.
Love your enemies?
Go the extra mile?
Pray in Secret, rather than for some petty accolades?
Have you seen what goes on in our world these days, Jesus?
Do not worry?
There’s an election Tuesday, Jesus. Some of us are worried about the stability of our nation.
Anxiety and stress have rarely been this high, Jesus,
with coronavirus and tension borne of systemic racism in our world.
And I think that if we read this sermon on the mount, if we put it side by side our life
next to our culture or our world
it is easy to be dismissive,
to think that we will never ever ever be able to live up to the vision Jesus offers here.
And in some way, that’s true.
We are not Jesus.
We are not perfect.
None of us are.
Not even those so-called Saint Saints, the Christophers and the Francises and the Patricks.
And that might be part of the point.
These lessons are not meant to show us how far away from that standard we are.
Instead, they’re meant to show how God intends a different reality for us,
a world where generosity, rather than scarcity, is the foundation of how we interact with each other,
a world where we put love at the center of our relationships,
where prayer is meant for God, and alms for those who need it,
where trust replaces worry
and where our money is seen as a gift
meant to help enable all of God’s people to have what they need.
A world where it is Jesus who helps us do these things in our lives.
And, when I think about it,
I know all of that, and I believe that God is bringing it about,
because of the examples of ordinary, everyday people who show me
that these things are indeed possible, even if not yet fully realized.
And those who help me see that
and even those who help me feel it, feel that I am loved and worthy of love,
those are the saints in my life. They are saints in my book.
And thanks be to God for each one of them.
You better believe I shed a tear for them, particularly on All Saints’ Day.
The beatitudes include several expressions of blessing,
affirmations that in God’s world, people who struggle with the world as it is,
people who long for a better world,
people who are hurting and hungry and suffering,
they have God’s attention.
It is sometimes hard for me to imagine, given how comfortable I often am,
what a gift this sort of proclamation truly is to people on the margins,
those who have been told by society that they don’t matter,
people left out.
But that’s who Jesus is speaking to:
the poor, the meek, the mournful.
God will comfort them. They will inherit the earth. Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
The people who yearn for, who hunger and thirst for justice,
even people who are persecuted for it!
Those who practice mercy.
The pure in heart.
Those who make peace, who make shalom—
God will be fully with them, in the realm of God Jesus is building.
People who dream of a better world, a different world, a more hopeful, loving, peaceful, whole world.
What a beautiful dream.
Today is All Saints Sunday.
Who are the people in your life that taught you that dream?
Who showed you a glimpse of it, however imperfect?
Who told you not to let yourself get down when you realized that we all fall short,
but instead to lean on others to help you make things just a little bit better
than things were yesterday?
Who were the people who showed you what friendship, honor, compassion,
justice and forgiveness looks like?
Who helped you brave scary, spooky times
with a trust and a confidence that love will win,
that hope and faith will inspire people to do the right thing
that we can indeed make a difference in this broken and hurting world?
Those are our everyday Saints,
people through whom we experience a bit of God’s love,
people who inspire us to share these very same things with everyone, everyone we meet,
as we keep on living, keep on working, keep on praying, keep on marching, keep on voting.
may we give God thanks for those who came before us
those saints in our lives who showed us what true love is all about
and may we seek to shape our lives so that we can give that love back in return.
May it be so.
Cover Image: St Ignatius of Loyola, co-founder of the Jesuits, as imagined and painted by Gracie at https://www.themodernsaints.com/ignatius-of-loyola