Sermon – November 3, 2013 All Saint’s Day

All Saints Sunday

The Beatitudes

It is hard not to step back from the Beatitudes and just observe them in wonder at their beauty and depth. The Sermon on the Mount, in which the Beatitudes are contained, is often called the greatest sermon in the world. Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian spiritual leader, called them, “the greatest thing ever written.” He, unabashedly, try to live his life by its tenets.

They are indeed beautiful, and challenging, and mysterious. Some try to proscribe our behavior by them, others fear them. CS Lewis said this about the Beatitudes, “As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount, if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledgehammer?”

Others are happy to point out the difficulty that we have in observing them. Here’s what the writer Kurt Vonnegut had to say. “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes . But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”

So compelling are these wonderful words that either in awe or admiration or wonder, we may be tempted to enclose them behind glass and treat them as an artifact or a treasured thing of the past.

As difficult as they are to understand, I am quite sure that Jesus did not mean them to be viewed from a distance. On the contrary, he was teaching the disciples and all of us what the kingdom of God looks like, and to some it is most troubling, and to some it is the best of all news.

I have read some who say that the only way to approach the Beatitudes is from a position of obedience. We will drive ourselves to distraction, I fear, if we take up the Beatitudes as our daily to-do list, for if we fail to meet that challenge, as we surely would, we may be left in despair. Luther thought that we couldn’t even begin to approach the Beatitudes without the precursor of complete faith in Christ. He is onto something there, but never did he demand that obedience to the Beatitudes become evidence of that faithfulness. Such formulas were foreign to him.

Instead, I think that the Beatitudes are meant to be encountered. By that I mean, we approach such teaching from the perspective of our faith, and then let that Word perform its transforming purpose. Because finally and utterly, such reversals, such new pathways, such hope, can only come from God.

Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth,” seems less to me to be treating the poor is a sacrament, then as an observation from Jesus that those unbound by the material in this world are open to the hope expressed in the coming kingdom of God. And this is God’s doing. The same for the hungry, Jesus seems to be suggesting, who have not filled themselves on the fare of the world; they may be more tuned, more receptive to the promises of the kingdom. These are places where God will work, and may even reflect, the kingdom. The new order.

And for those who are satisfied with the status quo, like the Pharisees Jesus described as having already received their reward, they will discover that their riches, and their laughter, and the flattering of the community will all be fleeting.

The kingdom of God beckons and reorients our present so that God in Christ, and not we, with all of our self-made righteousness, holds the center. Whether Scripture speaks of the material poverty and sorrow of our passage in Luke, or the poverty of spirit and acclaim to which Matthew’s Beatitudes witness, the central truth remains the same. In Christ, the kingdom is unfolding, and the status quo will be undone. And this will be done by the hand, the word, and finally by the people of Christ. And as I said, this will be great news to some and frightening to others.

I get a little anxious when we take up the Beatitudes on a Sunday when we celebrate the Saints. It is too easy of a leap to decide that Jesus must have been speaking about someone other than you and me, that the Saints are some sort of superheroes who, by their own faithfulness, power, wisdom, or suffering have achieved some vaunted status before God. The problem with that is that we turn Saints into secular heroes. By that I mean we admire their superhuman gifts and accomplishments, and conclude that their beatification is akin to the $20 million a year contract for the shooting guard. T hat is not the case at all. That is not the pattern of the kingdom. That is a characterization taken from the rewards and punishment formulas that are frankly, undone by grace.

Those of you who have taken the Lutheran class, or have sat through some of the classes I have taught, have heard me lift up this illustration for how grace works and how the law works.

The system of rewards and punishments, the systems defined by the law, function in this way. If – then. If . . . . . You do your homework, you say all the right things, you do all the right things, then….. You will receive thus and such. If you mess up, if you fail, if you do not live up to these expectations then….. You are really in trouble, you’re going to get it, you’re in for it.

Grace, however, functions in the following way. Because – therefore. Because God has promised, because Christ has died and risen, because this is God’s idea, therefore….. Your life is in his hands, you need not worry about keeping God’s promises, you need not perform in order for God to love.

Might not this be the message of the Beatitudes? Because Christ is ushering in the kingdom of God therefore you who are poor will not be overlooked, but will be filled with the grace of the kingdom. Because Christ has come to bear into the kingdom the deep, powerful love of God, your tears will be transformed into laughter. Because God has claimed you in baptism and confirmed your new identity as God’s beloved, you unmask the failure of this culture, this world, these systems to know true humanity, yours or any others. The same goes for the following verses called the woes. Because you are satisfied with the status quo, with the world as it is, then you will live under its receding power and shallow understanding of life.

But it is not God’s intention in Christ that the world would remain as it is. This is good news for the poor and for the persecutor. This is good news for the hater and the hated. Encountering these words, absorbing and reflecting their grace, we are emboldened and commissioned to speak this grace in the most unlikely places. This is what is reflected in those whom we call the saints, those whose lives lived under grace bore witness to the power and purpose of the love of God in Christ.

We remember the Saints who remind us that the kingdom of God has come, and it continues to come in our time. And, in its midst Jesus is still declaring that things are not yet as they should be, he is still upending the status quo. He is still lifting up the lowly, as his mother promised, filling the hungry with good things. Everyone is invited. No one is left out. Enemies will be transformed by love. The abusers will not be beyond the reach of God’s transforming grace. The violent will be undone by the failure of their work to produce servile victims. Hate will not prevail, sorrow will not endure. Because God is true, therefore, love wins. No one is without hope. Christ wants to touch every heart.

These beautiful, compelling words, have no business being left behind glass. They speak of the wideness of God’s mercy and the urgency of God’s grace, and they are meant for this day just as they were meant for the day they were first uttered. And they were meant for those disciples, just as they are meant for you and me today. Love wins. There are words to be encountered, and in that encounter we, and all the world will be transformed.

Blessed are we who have lived to behold such beauty. Blessed are we who are embraced by such grace. Blessed are we who are able to share such love. Blessed are we to receive such a life-giving commission. Blessed are we.

Thanks be to God.