Blessed are you...woe to you": A Sermon for All Saints'-Luke 6:20-31
I often think on All Saints’ Day and the Sunday that follows when we typically celebrate All Saints’ of a story about a friend who when, as a child, asked her mother what a saint of God is…or who a saint of God is. And her mother went on to describe a saint as one who lives their faith and love of God in heroic ways. She said something like, “A saint is someone who gives everything they got to God…their whole lives…sometimes literally losing their lives…becoming martyrs for the faith. Saints are people who endure suffering, share and live their faith boldly, and give everything they have for people in need.” Well indeed this is a tall order…or certainly sounds like one…in my opinion…so my little friend said to her mom, “Well if this is who a saint is…I don’t want to be one…no thanks!” And again…I get her point…sharing everything we have…and at least for my two little girls…sharing is indeed hard…maybe it is for adults too if honest…and of course the idea of martyrdom…losing one’s life for their faith…sounds, at least, slightly unappealing and perhaps entirely unattainable
And our gospel reading from Luke, assigned for All Saints’ Day, what we call Jesus’ Sermon on the Plains…sort of doubles down on this deeply sacrificial and heavily burden filled idea of sainthood. For Jesus says…blessed are the poor…blessed are those who are hungry…blessed are those who weep…blessed are you when people hate you…well none of this sounds much like a blessing to me. And Jesus takes this a step further even. Unlike in Matthew’s version of this sermon…which is entirely focused on those who are blessed…in Luke Jesus adds a whole bunch of woes…woe to those who are rich…woe to those who are full…who to those who laugh…who to you when all speak well of you. Now speaking only for myself…I like having a roof over my head, food on the table, laughter all around…and generally speaking like it when people like me…even speak well of me. The “woe list” if you will…seems to be what most of us are after in life, and likely better describes the life of most of us, or at least many of us, actually live in the western world today. So what are we to do with this teaching…and how might it help us understand and further live into the life of one who is indeed a saint of God…for indeed we are all saints of God.
So let me begin with the good news…our sainthood is bestowed on us by grace…and grace alone. We are saints…by grace. As John Newton writes, “Amazing grace…how sweet the sound…that saved a wretch like me.” In other words…though wretch is an awfully strong word…we, though saints by grace, are indeed broken, imperfect, we live in ways that run contrary to the image we have been created in…God’s own image…the image of love perfected. Thus the choices we make, some of the time, don’t always, and I want to emphasize some of the time, our choices don’t always look very saintly. The ways we react to difficult situations and challenging people…the ways we spend our money…the ways we treat family and co-workers…the ways we spend our spare time and the places, people and entertainment we give our focus to…don’t always, again at least some of the time, look like walking in the path and way of Jesus…like the saints of God. But you see our sainthood lives underneath all of this…it transcends individual moments and choices. It is not defined only by what we do…but perhaps primarily by who we are. And like at Jesus’ own baptism…when each and every one of us was marked as Christ’s own forever…as the waters of baptism were parted over our own heads…God claimed us by grace, for his loves sake, a saint…and God does so with the most wonderful words of blessing…showered on Jesus at his own baptism…and us at our own baptism…you are my child…I love you…I am pleased with you. These are the words of institution, the words of commissioning, the words that both name and make us the saints of God. Thus I am confident in making the claim that we are saints’…made such by the love of God…through God’s forgiveness and grace…in spite of all the imperfections and poor choices I have already mentioned…and even before all the good choices we have made and all the loving wonders we have worked…for surely there are as many or even many more of those…for we are indeed capable of tremendous love and courage…all for good and for God.
And I think this is the connecting point to which we can apply Jesus’ teaching today in the sermon on the plain to our lives…specifically to our lives as the saints of God. Jesus, as a human himself, who likely struggled with his own choices…even if his track record might have been a bit better than ours…certainly he knows and even experienced the paradox of human life…that is our brokenness and blessedness. Moreover, he loved and lived with real humans…the first saints of God in the life of the Church…Peter, James, and John…Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene…and all the rest…he knew and experienced intimately their own struggles…the demons and angels that struggled for a foothold in their own lives. Thus the blessings and the woes are not directed at different sorts of people…some applying to one sort of person and others applying to other sorts of people…for instance the woes are all directed at Miles and the blessings all directed at Kelly. Instead, both blessing and woes are directed at each and every person…individually, personally, and intimately. You see a woe is more of a warning sign than a condemnation…it is like the shofar, the rams horn, blown in synagogues or temples just this past month at the Jewish New Year…which is a call to wake up…it’s time to wake up…be aware of the life you are living and the choices you are making…so that who we are…and the actions that then flow from who we are…birth into our world and the lives of others God’s great and immeasurable love in beautiful and life-affirming ways…indeed lives that look like something of what we might describe as saintly.
Thus I hear Jesus say to us even now: Blessed are you when you are poor…when you are in want or need…feeling isolated or cut off…when the budget is tight…the job is lost…the debt collector is calling…I and those you love are with you…you are not alone…this is not the end…I am with you always…so there is always hope. And blessed are you when you weep…when you are grieving…when you have been passed over…torn down rather than built up…when you feel like you have lost someone you can’t live without…the sadness won’t be forever…your tears will turn to joy…for life and love have won and are made eternal in my resurrection…you will see those you love again…death has been defeated. And blessed are those who are hungry…when there is literally not enough to eat…when your spiritual life feels barren and empty…when there is no one to break bread with…when the food you have is tasteless because of depression or sadness…remember that people do not live on bread alone and that I am the bread of life…I want to fill your whole life all the way up with some left over…let me in…let me fill you. And blessed are you when people revile you for my sake…remember there is a great cloud of witnesses…the communion of saints that stand with you…who cheer you on and promise to pick you up and remind you who you are and to whom you belong…being an expression of love and standing up for those without a voice is always worth the cost…indeed you are a blessing to me and those I love. These are the words of blessing I hear Jesus so powerfully speak to all the saints of God, even you, even me, wherever you find yourself in any particular moment…Jesus says you have my blessing…my love…my presence. I love you…you are my child…I am pleased with you.
And I also hear Jesus saying to us even now: Wake up…be aware…if you are rich that comes with real responsibility…many have little to nothing and that should weigh on you…it should motivate you to share…to share generously of your abundance…and I say this to you to be a blessing to those in need and also because I love you…if you aren’t careful your wealth will eat you alive…it can be a root of great evil…I don’t want this for you. And wake up…be aware…I revel in the joy in your life…laughter is a great gift…but please don’t forget that there are those suffering even as you are filled with joy…naming that does not have to rob you of your joy…instead it becomes richer…realer…more honest…for you will be sad one day to…and then it will be good if someone whose life is going very well…stops and notices you…cares for you…helps you find your own joy again. And wake up…be aware…your plate and belly may indeed be full…but others are not…remember that food always tastes better when you share it…sharing reminds us of what is indeed enough…so that you might avoid gluttony and revel in simplicity…remember that the material things in your own life requires the toil of others…be food for those who are hungry in body and spirit. And wake up…be aware when people flatter you and speak well of you…being appreciated is good…but your worth and value are rooted in my love…being created in my image…not the estimation of others…for humans will let you down…they have to let you down…their good graces are so often about getting what they want…often the unpopular thing to say is the right thing to say…particularly on behalf of those without a voice…even if the consequences are real…your reward is living in the deep stream of God’s love and truth. By my grace, I have made you my saints…so indeed may your life reflect such a gift.
So these are the words I hear Jesus speaking to the saints of God gathered here today…remember you are blessed, always and everywhere…but also wake up and remember, as a saint I have called you to a particular sort of life that reflects my love in my world.
So back to the story with which I began…the life of a saint is indeed not always easy…my little friend was right to be wary…it requires diligence, sacrifice, courage…and lots and lots of love…and lots and lots of forgiveness…of others, of ourselves…but I think embracing our sainthood is so very worth it…worth saying thanks for…not…no thank you to. For I believe as the lives of the saints who have gone before profess and witness to us…this is very much a life worth living…saying yes to. Amen.