All Saints’ Day Year A: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; I John 3:1-3; Mt 5:1-12
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, November 5, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
I’m not a big fan of religion. That probably sounds a little crazy coming from a priest. But I’ve seen and experienced a lot of damage because of religion. Too often we use religion to guilt or shame people into being the way we want them to be. Maybe we don’t like a particular direction we think society or an individual is headed toward so we define the behavior in terms of judgment and give God credit for the dissatisfaction. Or maybe we feel we are losing control, so we make laws and call them canons of the church—special names for special God rules. We threaten people with excommunication from the church. (Oh yes, even in the Episcopal Church, we can excommunicate you—refuse you communion if you have a notoriously evil life, are a scandal to your neighbors, or hate another member of the congregation we can refuse you until you are penitent. Of course, Jamie, Robert, and I are way too soft-hearted to ever excommunicate someone, plus there is a lot of paperwork involved and you have to call the bishop and none of us have time for all that.) In religion we also condemn and judge people because they have taken a path different from our own. Religion often exists under the false notion that it knows the mind of God, is following in Jesus’ footsteps, and can offer salvation or judgment of its own accord. We wonder why the church has seen significant decline in numbers in the last fifty years—that’s a big reason.
People don’t want to be judged and condemned by religion, they want to be loved by God. No one wants to be on the end of a weaponized Bible, instead we desire to hear the truth that God chooses us to be his partners to do his work in this world. If all we are hearing is that we are not good enough, why would we ever try. If all we hear is that we are condemned for our sin which is our human nature, who would stay to hear the rest of that message of hope and salvation that God chooses us anyway. If our message to the world is judgment and condemnation, then the world will seek a different religion.
So, I’m not a big fan of religion. I am however a big fan of God. It’s not God’s omnipotence or omniscience that really gets to me—being all-knowing and all-powerful are pretty great—but I am more impressed by God’s empathy. God comes to earth fully human—he takes on human form and does it the right way starting at the beginning, birth, and moving through until death. Jesus knows there is a cross, he knows it all along; everything he does points directly at it. He doesn’t flinch when it is time, he prays. He doesn’t call people out because he condemns them, he calls them out because he loves them—you brood of vipers—don’t you know that in condemning others you are only hurting yourself because you have fallen more in love with religion than with God?
God understands people in a way that you and I cannot. He sees our pain and hurt and how it motivates us or manipulates us into ordering our lives in an attempt to protect ourselves from hurt and suffering but he does not judge us for it. Instead he opens himself to us drawing us to himself in love through the cross.
God freely chooses pain and suffering. He does so because he knows that it is part of every creature’s experience. He embraces pain and suffering as a defining moment of his incarnational presence amongst us. The message of the cross is not that pain and suffering shouldn’t define you or even that it won’t define you. The message of the cross is that pain and suffering will define you and yet, you do not have to be a victim or even a judge or jury. To absorb suffering and find renewal and resurrection is a path toward hope, a path toward salvation. It is not easy but it is who we are called to be if we are to follow Christ. That is one of the reasons we observe All Saints’ Sunday each year—it is a reminder that holiness is not an easy path nor is it the path of perfection.
William Barclay, a theologian, once said, “A saint is not a man who never falls, he is a man who gets up and keeps going every time he falls.” Though most of us only know the saints by their righteous and Godly lives, none of them were perfect—St. Catherine left her groom at the altar; St. Francis stole from his father and wrestled with doubts regarding the legacy of his order; Saint Augustine lived with a concubine and had a child out of wedlock (he even prayed, “Lord give me chastity, but not yet.”); Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, has a police record for nighttime brawling with intent to inflict serious harm. As it turns out, the saints we celebrate today and have given their own feast days were not always so saintly. Instead they were humans who suffered from the same experiences, doubts, and anxieties that you and I suffer from. They were denounced by their families, they had debilitating illnesses, they lost loved ones and possessions and power. Their suffering and the way that they responded to that suffering defined who they were to the world. We remember them because of their good works and faithfulness but the beatitudes might be a better starting point when it comes to understanding what sainthood looks like.
The word we translate as “blessing” in the beatitudes we read today, might better be translated, “finding the right road.” So you are on the right road when you are poor in spirit, or meek, or mourn, or hunger and thirst for righteousness. You are finding the right road when you are merciful, or pure in heart, or a peacemaker, or persecuted. We are hardly happy about these things, but when we center our lives on Jesus, we find some assurance, some sense of rightness because we recognize this description of the beatitudes as a description of discipleship and thus, our faith journey. To understand what sainthood looks like, we must understand it in the light of these blessings. The challenge is that each of these is the exact opposite of how we normally define our blessings.
#blessed rarely equates to poverty of any sort—economically or spiritually. We are rarely grateful for those times of grief that weigh so heavy upon our hearts. I have never known anyone to utter the words “thankful” and “that’s not fair” in the same sentence. Yet, this is exactly how Jesus defines discipleship—to be blessed is to be defined by the beatitudes. To be defined by the beatitudes is to follow the call of Jesus—the call of discovering who we are, the call of accepting our shortcomings, the call of transformation.
Each of the nine beatitudes leads to a promise, a promise that we will be re-formed and renewed through our challenges and sufferings. Maybe we are poor in spirit, at least in this earthly life, but that will not always be so—we will know eternal life in the kingdom of God. Peacemaking is difficult work, but by rejecting the path of violence, we embrace our nature as God’s children. Practicing mercy, brings mercy. Purity of heart helps you to see Christ in others. Those who mourn are those who love. The burdens of their heart are directly correlated to the love and honor they hold for others—they grieve for those who suffer or die and Jesus calls this a “right road”. We are to care that much. And because we love, we are loved. Love is our only comfort. The last beatitude is given to us twice—blessed are those who are persecuted. Their promise is eternal life. The translation we read this morning points to “people” as the ones who would persecute you, but the Greek is a little more ambiguous. The persecutors are not “people” but unnamed enemies and sometimes, we are our own worst enemy. I think Jesus knows that.
He knows we desire to do what is right and good in this world and yet, because of our human nature and brokenness, we fall over and over again. We beat ourselves up for our mistakes and in our own insecurities we persecute ourselves and one another. Here again, even in persecuting ourselves, we follow a right road—a road that will lead us to the kingdom of Heaven.
My brother-in-law’s step-sister, a bright, young woman, wrote this poem in high school:
Have You Thought About Your Soul?
Have you ever stopped to wonder what this life is all about?
Why you’re here and where you’re going when this lease on time runs out?
Maybe you’ve been far too busy, trying hard to reach your goal;
Would you let me ask you kindly? Have you thought about your soul?
You may reach the highest portals, and your dreams may all come true;
Wealth and fame may be your portion, and success may shine on you.
All your friends may sing your praises, not a care on you may roll;
What about the great tomorrow? Have you thought about your soul?
Don’t forget your days are numbered, though you may be riding high;
But like all of us poor mortals, someday you’ll just up and die.
Your success and fame and glory, won’t be worth the bell they toll;
Let me ask you just one question, have you thought about your soul?
If you’ve never thought it over, spend a little time today;
There is nothing more important that will ever come your way
Than the joys of sins forgiven, and to know you’ve been made whole
In the name of Christ the Savior, have you thought about your soul?
Ashley was 16 when she wrote that poem. She was 21 when she took her life. She believed in God and loved her family but the demons of self-doubt and sickness plagued her and she could not endure in her struggle against them. I remember her mother’s fear and sorrow wrapped up in the religious attitude that those who committed suicide would go to hell; the whispered answer, “suicide”, to the question of how did it happen; the judgment and condemnation of my own religious upbringing and how I resisted it and those who favored their own piety. I remembered a favorite quote from the movie, The Kingdom of Heaven, when Orlando Bloom’s character is burying his wife who has committed suicide, “How can you be in hell when you are in my heart.”
I was the crucifer at Ashley’s funeral and as the priest lowered her ashes into the niche of the columbarium, I looked up and saw a brightly colored monarch butterfly flitting around the cross. It landed on her mother and step-father and fluttered around our heads for the rest of the service. Maybe it wasn’t Ashley, but it was a sign of God’s presence amongst us, a symbol of renewal and transformation and the assurance of the promise that though Ashley had suffered her own persecutions in this earthly life, her reward was great in the heavenly one.
I’m not a fan of religion because the path of the religious is often not the path of the beatitudes. We desire success and fulfillment, power and control in this earthly life where we judge and condemn to the detriment of our heavenly life. But not Jesus. Jesus walks the path and invites us to find the right road by walking with him. He is not simply God made flesh, but the beatitudes made flesh. He does not promise us an easy road and instead defines how difficult it will be. And yet, the rewards that road will lead too are those that save your soul.