Sunday, November 20, 2011

Four Habits of Highly-Effective Christians (Acts 2:42-47)

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I’ve got some bad news for you – you showed up on Commitment Sunday. Every church has one and you can call it what you want – Stewardship Sunday, Generosity Sunday, Faithful Response Sunday, but you know what this is – it’s the Sunday we’re going to talk openly and honestly about money. I just want to say at the outset that I’ll make a deal with you – today is the only Sunday we’ll talk this much about money until somewhere around this time next year, unless, through your giving habits, you tell me that we need to talk about it more.

Now, I realize that pastors pull all sorts of tricks to bribe people to show up on this Sunday. 8% is singing today – that’s no coincidence! If you knew we’d have great music today, well, there was at least a fighting chance you’d show up.

You may not realize that the past few weeks of messages have been a stewardship series. If you didn’t realize that, you’re likely having one of two reactions: you could be saying, “He tricked us!” OR, you could be saying, “Wait a minute, how is this a stewardship series? There was that one sermon about discovering and using the gifts God has given us. Then, there was All Saints Sunday; he didn’t talk about stewardship there, either, just about the lives of the saints who have let God’s light shine through them and how we, also as saints, are called to let God’s light shine through us. And then, he talked about Jesus’ call on all Christians to be his witnesses – to let the Holy Spirit into our lives and transform us, and then to share the good news of that transformation from the very depths of our being, and that God intends to use everything we have and everything we are for God’s purposes – how God intends to work through our hands and feet and hearts and minds and words and deeds and how we need to surrender ourselves to God constantly and offer everything we have to God, but I didn’t hear him say anything about stewardship!”

Ah hah – have you figured it out yet? Here’s a hint – stewardship isn’t about money. Did everyone hear that? Let me say it again, just in case you weren’t paying attention – stewardship isn’t about money. Well, if it’s not about money, let’s find out, together, what it is about. May we pray.

What is a steward? In a large household, a steward is one or more persons who manage the affairs of the household on behalf of the owners. Or, on cruise ship, a steward is one or more persons who manage the baggage, arrangements, or meals on behalf of the passengers. So basically, a steward is someone who manages something that belongs to someone else. Fair enough? That's the first thing I want you to remember today - stewardship isn't about money. Stewardship is about managing something that belongs to someone else.

Going to summer camp as a kid, our parents wrote our name on the tag of every article of clothing we took. This, of course, was to keep our things separate if the clothes got all mixed up, and sure enough, my Mom wrote “Andrew Jeremy Thomas” on the tags in my underwear, and shirts, and shorts, and even on the inside of my socks. It was a way to know what belonged to whom.

The Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him” (Psalm 24:1). Don’t let that one slip by too easily – this is pretty important! The earth and everything in it belong to whom? To God. The world and all its people belong to whom? To God.

And so, as Christians, we are stewards. We manage things that belong to someone else, we manage the things that belong to God. And what belongs to God? Everything. Everything and everyone belongs to God.

You may as well have "Property of God" stamped in bold letters across your backside. Your hands and feet, your intellect and skills and all the things you have used to make a living, those belong to God as well. The title to your car should really be in God's name, the deed to your house should have God listed as owner, and your bank statement should have God listed as the account holder, and you as the custodian of the account. It all belongs to God - everything we own, everything we have, everything we are - it all belongs to God.

Now, here is the fun part - God loves to share. So yes, it all belongs to God, but God freely shares everything with us that we might enjoy it. God is irresponsibly generous, radical in grace, reckless in blessing, and conspicuously abundant in love. God just can't help but to give and give and give, because that's who God is, even giving his Son for our salvation and to show us the way of life. Further, if we've all got "Property of God" stamped on us, then we are created to reflect that same generosity. Somewhere deep down in our DNA, we are hard-wired to be generous as God as generous, that our lives may reflect the glory of the God in whose image we are created, and to whom we belong.

It's like that experiment we used to do back in elementary school science class, where we would take white carnations and soak the stems in colored water, and after a day or two, the color of the water would show through the petals of the carnation. If our lives are planted in the generosity and blessing and abundance of God, eventually those same characteristics are going to start showing up in our lives, as well.

Maybe now you can see why stewardship isn't primarily about money, though it certainly includes money, and we are going to talk pretty specifically about money before it's all said and done today. But, I hope you see that stewardship is really about discipleship - about being the best possible followers of Jesus we can be, and living our lives in such a way and using everything we have in such a way that God is glorified and God's will is done through us.

When I think about the goodness of God, the blessings of God, the generosity of God, I want to use what I have been given in a way that honors God and expresses the depth of my gratitude. And so, in response to all that God has already done and already given, we practice the habits that will help us grow in our faith, and show our desire to be the people and the church God desires for us to be.

In today's Scripture reading from the book of Acts, we see the early church's commitment to practicing the habits of highly-effective Christians. In Acts 2:42, it says, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers." What I have always found interesting about these particular practices is that they were the natural result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the early church. Because, when the Holy Spirit moves into our lives and realigns our priorities, these become the kinds of things we want to do.

And what happened when they did these things – nothing all that spectacular, right? They just sat around in a circle and not much changed and they generally felt pretty good about themselves, right? Not quite. The text says, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). Filled with the Holy Spirit, they committed themselves to certain practices, and those practices helped them fulfill their mission. Everyone was part of it – it took the whole community, everyone pulling their own weight and contributing according to their own means.

Or, if you are a member of this church, you took certain vows when you joined. Unlike joining a country club or most other organizations in our society, joining a church carries with it more responsibilities than it does privileges. If you have joined this church, you made certain promises and committed yourself to certain practices, and the commitment you made is no small matter. First and foremost, of course, is your confession of Jesus Christ as your Savior and your commitment to serve him as your Lord. But then, you also made a commitment to practicing certain habits, promising before God and to the rest of this congregation that you would participate in and support the ministries of St. Paul United Methodist Church through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. These things together represent your witness as a follower of Jesus Christ who is committed to growing in God's grace.

And it's not about what the church needs from you, it's about what you, as a follower of Jesus Christ, need to do for yourself. It's about what a person who has committed themselves to a lifetime of Christian discipleship needs to do to stay on that path and participate in a lifelong growth in God's grace.

When we support and participate in the ministries of our church through our prayers, presence, gifts, and service as the simple and natural response to God's abundant generosity and extravagant grace, we find greater generosity and a deeper experience of grace. We respond with praise in gratitude for all God has done for us and God's blessings that have flowed into our lives. We praise God from whom all blessings flow, and as we praise God with everything we have, blessings seem to flow all the more.

Friends, God is good! (All the time!) All the time (God is good!). God has been exceedingly generous toward each of us. God gives and gives and gives because that's just who God is. Are you grateful for the blessings of God in your life? Are you grateful for the goodness of the Lord? Are you grateful for the gift of grace? Do you want to respond to God's generosity in ways that truly reflect the depth of gratitude?

Today, on this Commitment Sunday, I am asking you to commit to some practices and habits that will both express your gratitude, and continue to help you grow as a follower of Jesus Christ. In a few minutes, we're going to make our commitments for the coming year. Go ahead and pull out your commitment cards - I want us to spend a few minutes looking over these. If you don't have your card, don't worry, you've probably already noticed that we've got plenty here.

You may also notice that the card asks you to commit to certain practices in the coming year, and that they correspond to the vows you made when you became a member of this church, to support it and participate in its ministries through your prayers, presence, gifts, and service. Don't fill out your card just yet - let's go through what's on them.

How many times a month are you willing to say, "Yes, I will attend worship!"? You and I are made to worship, to proclaim our devotion to God, to be encouraged and challenged in our discipleship, and to enjoy the fellowship of our brothers and sisters. The Bible tells us not to neglect worship but to be present every available opportunity; accordingly, I am asking the most-committed among you to attend worship every week unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.

How many times a week are you willing to pray for the ministries of St. Paul to work for God's purposes? To pray for your pastor? Your church staff and leaders? For programs and ministries that will meet the deepest spiritual needs of our members and surrounding community? For the Holy Spirit to fill the heart of every person who considers St. Paul their church? I am asking the most-committed among you to pray for St. Paul daily.

How many times a month are you willing to give of your own time to support the ministries and missions of St. Paul? That could be teaching a class, leading a Bible study or other small group, serving at the men's shelter, mentoring, working in children's ministry, singing in the choir, or any number of other opportunities where you actually make a real difference in the lives of others. I am asking the most-committed among you to serve at least one hour a week, that's four hours a month, in ministry and mission.

OK, back to the financial piece. Oooh, it's time to talk about money. So, the Bible teaches us to tithe - to give the first 10% of our income to God as an expression of worship and gratitude for God's blessing in our lives. The Bible says, "'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,' says the Lord God Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there won't be room enough to store it" (Malachi 3:10). The storehouse is our local church, and God promises that when we faithfully bring the first 10%, God will pour out so much blessing that we won't have room enough to contain it. Though God has told us elsewhere in Scripture not to put God to the test, this is one place God says, "Go ahead, try me."

God asks us to give 10% of our income, and God promises to bless the tithe. Sometimes people ask, "Is that 10% pre-tax or 10% post-tax?" and I usually just say, "That depends if you want a pre-tax blessing or a post-tax blessing!" God promises to bless us when we tithe, and I'll confirm that it works.

Thankfully, Ashley is a tither too - it's something we were both practicing long before we met each other or got married and we didn't have to convince the other of the benefits of tithing. And so, in 2012, we'll be giving about $9,000, or $170/week, to God through Davidson and St. Paul; we split between the two based on our salaries. And while we know and have experienced God's blessing in this kind of faithful giving, we also have been blessed to know something of the joy that comes from generosity.

You can put God to the test on this, and God will come through. God makes good on God's promises, and God will bless your giving. Now, it's not always monetary - many times the blessings of God come back in other ways. I'll be honest, I don't know how it works, I can't make it balance on a spreadsheet, I can't explain the ratio of our giving to God's blessing - all I know is this, it works! I have felt God bless my giving, and not once have I regretted giving to the church. Try it yourself, and you'll see, it works! You can't out-give God, no matter how hard you try!

This morning, I am asking the most-committed among you to give 10% of your income to God through St. Paul United Methodist Church in 2012. I am asking not for the church's benefit, but for yours. Generosity is something that produces joy, and the more extravagant our generosity, the more extravagant our joy. I want you to know and experience that joy first-hand!

Now, maybe you’re looking at that 10% figure, and you’re thinking, “There’s no way I can do that.” All I will say is that God will bless it if you do it, but I get that may be a big chunk to bite off. But, if it’s just not possible but you want to take a step in the right direction, you can do one of two things. If you’re already giving, figure out what percentage of your income you’re currently giving – maybe it’s 3%. Next year, commit to giving 4%, the year after that 5%, and so on until you hit the goal. Or, if you don’t have any real habit of giving, think of a weekly amount that seems reasonable and attainable for you, and then add $5 a week to it. I say add $5 because if you’re going to grow in this area, you’ve got to stretch at least a little bit. There’s got to be some faith and leaning on God to provide all you need. Giving is more of a faith matter than a financial one, and as we grow in our faith, we grow in our capacity for generosity.

Even so, many within our congregation know the joy of generosity, and they want to help you experience that joy, as well. These people, who have asked to remain nameless, are making an additional gift of $100 above and beyond their own personal commitment for anyone who makes a first-time financial commitment in any amount, OR who increases their commitment by 10% or more. They know the joy of generosity, and they want everyone in our church to know that joy, as well, and they're certainly putting their money where their mouth is!

I also want you to know that your acceptance in this church is not tied to your ability to give. I know what the economy is like, I know about the difficulties people are going through, and I realize that it really may not be possible for everyone to give in the way they wish they could. I get that. Know that we're praying for you, we love you, and we support you. We're your church family, and if there's anything we can do for you, please let us know. Even if financial hardships prevent you from being able to make a commitment at this time, don't stay away from worship or keep from getting involved in other ways.

Before you write anything on your card, the first thing I want you to do is pray. Consider the goodness of God, the blessings in your life, and thank God for them. Then, think about how you want to show your gratitude to God. Ask for God's guidance on how and what you should give in the coming year. When you're ready, fill out your estimate of giving card, and remember to fill out the back of it and keep the top portion for your personal records. Bring the completed lower portion and place it with everyone's commitment in the basket up front.

Friends, God has indeed been good and generous toward us. What a joy that is, and what joy we receive when we are generous as God is generous!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Witnesses (Acts 6:1-11)

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I have a confession to make this morning: I rarely read instructions. I know there are people who buy a new car and before they leave the dealer, they read the owner’s manual cover-to-cover, or buy a new kitchen appliance and read the English, Spanish, and Korean instructions before brewing a pot of coffee. I am not one of those people. Am I the only one, or does anyone else want to own up to that?

I think it has to do with how absurd instructions and warnings have become lately. We live in a society that is litigation-happy and people will sue you at the drop of a hat. McDonald’s now has to put a warning on its coffee cups that says, “Warning! Contents may be hot!” because some lady was awarded $2 million when she burned herself on a cup of hot coffee. Or, start walking around your house and read the instructions and warnings on every day consumer products. Here are a few of the more absurd I’ve come across/

On Swann frozen dinners: “Serving Suggestion: Defrost.” Printed on the bottom of a box for a Tiramisu dessert: “Do not turn upside-down.” On Boot’s children’s Cough Syrup: “Do not drive car or operate heavy machinery.” On a kitchen knife: “Warning: Keep out of children.” On a packet of Sainsbury’s peanuts: “Warning: contains nuts.” On a packet of American Airlines peanuts: “Instructions: Open packet. Eat nuts.” You know the really sad part – somebody got paid to write those!

Perhaps that’s why I don’t read instructions – very often, they don’t tell me anything I didn’t already or could figure out on my own, and quite honestly, I question the where-with-all of the people who came up with those instructions! But, what is the instructions dealt with something really important, or you unquestionably trust the person who gave them?

In today’s text, Jesus is providing instructions to his disciples, including us. They are the last words he spoke before ascending into heaven. These instructions clearly tell us what Jesus wants us to do in his absence, as we, his followers, continue to carry out his ministry on the earth. Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus had to say, and what he wants us to do. May we pray.

It would be a mistake for us to read Jesus’ instructions in today’s text in isolation, for they are connected to another set of instructions he made elsewhere in Scripture. Both are given by the post-Easter, resurrected Jesus to his disciples, and they function like two sides of the same coin. We cannot read this passage from the first chapter of Acts without also thinking of the 28th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

In Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples what he wants them to do: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [Jesus] commanded (Matthew 28:19). Then, in Acts 1, Jesus tells his disciples how he wants them to do it – “To receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon [them], and to be [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)

I want you to pat attention to that distinction. In Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples what to do, in Acts 1, Jesus tells his disciples how to do it. To put it in organizational terms, Matthew 28 describes the mission, and Acts 1 describes the strategy.

Let’s unpack that a little further. The mission always describes what an organization exists to do, its primary purpose and function, its reason for being. And so Jesus has given the church its mission. He told his disciples what their purpose was – to make disciples of Jesus. Fundamentally, that’s it! That’s what they – and we – are to do! When you boil it down, that’s the reason the Church exists – to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s our mission, and everything we do needs to be focused around that mission.

But we don’t stop with just the mission. Yes, it’s important, fundamentally important to know what your mission is. Until you are clear about why you exist, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to do much of anything. But, just because you know your purpose, that still doesn’t mean you know what to do next. Fortunately, Jesus seems to have anticipated this, as well; in addition to providing us with our mission, he has also provided us with our strategic plan for accomplishing our mission in today’s text from Acts 1.

He tells his disciples they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of earth. Jesus’ promise associates the power accompanying the Holy Spirit’s coming with their role as witnesses to the ends of the earth. This one verse outlines what will happen in the rest of the book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit will empower the fledgling church’s witness in increasingly wider circles. Keep reading the story, and you’ll see the Christian faith being taken to the ends of the earth, keeping with God’s desire that disciples be made of all nations, underlining God’s purposes to bring reconciliation and salvation to all humanity. Like ripples in a pond, the love of God in Christ is to spread from us in ever-widening circles.

At the start of this conversation, a fascinating assumption underlies the question posed to Jesus by his disciples. They say, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). In other words, Lord, when will God set things right? Lord, when will suffering and abuse end? Lord, when will hunger be abolished and tragedy be no more and wars end? When, Lord, when?

These are all noble aims, but underneath each lies the assumption that Jesus is going to do it all. Jesus seems to say, “Hold on, my brothers and sisters, don’t you realize that this is a partnership? God has God’s job to do, but you also have yours.”

I’ve often heard it said that organizations work best when everyone clearly knows what their job is, and then does their own job. In the Church, God has God’s job to do, and we have ours. God’s job is to give the Holy Spirit and to empower us through the Holy Spirit. And our job? It’s to be witnesses.

What’s a witness? Simply put, it’s someone who sees something, who knows something, who experiences something, and shares it. If you have seen a crime take place, you may be called to court to testify as a witness. If someone you know is applying for college or a job, you may be asked to write a letter or make a statement of reference, to be a witness to their character or qualifications. If you attend a wedding, you may be asked to sign the marriage certificate as one of the two witnesses required to make the thing legal.

Jesus has called us, each and every one of us, to be his witnesses. That’s our job, but remember, God has a job to do in this partnership, as well. God gives us the Holy Spirit, who comes with power and touches us at the core of our being and transforms us. And from that changed place at the very center of who we are, where the Holy Spirit has touched us and transformed our lives, we are called to witness. As changed people, we are called to share what we have seen, what we know, and what we have experienced in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, to the ends that the kingdom of God may come upon the earth as it is in heaven, to the end that God’s love be shared to the ends of the earth, to the end that disciples are made of all nations.

Jesus needs us to be partners in this work. Jesus needs us to witness to the ways the Holy Spirit has moved into our hearts and changed us. Jesus needs us to witness to the transformation that has taken place within our own lives, in order that others might be transformed through us.

Friends, do not underestimate the power of your witness. Through you – what you say, how you act, the attitudes you hold – Jesus desires for his light to shine. He needs you! It is no coincidence that, immediately before he ascended into heaven and would no longer be among us physically on the earth, he called us to be his witnesses. Though Jesus may have left the building, his love and presence continues living on, so long as we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit and then witness to what God has done and is doing within us.

The old preachers, after some point of life-changing import had been made in their sermon, would pause and ask, “Can I get a witness?” To be sure, this was a rhetorical device to underline an important point, a moment to call for a response from the congregation, but on a deeper level, they were asking not for someone to shout out a witness in the safe confines of worship, but they were asking for a daring, bold, courageous witness lived outside these walls, where our witness really matters most, in a world that knows too much of its own ways and too little of God’s kingdom.

Can I get a witness? Not for me, not to make this sermon a little more exciting – can I get a witness for Jesus and his kingdom? Anybody here filled with the Holy Spirit and doesn’t mind if somebody finds out about it? Can I get a witness? Anybody here who has tried it their own way and is now living God’s way? Can I get a witness? Anybody here willing to say, “Yes, Jesus is my Lord – I’m done living for myself and from today on I’m going to live for Jesus!”? Can I get a witness?

Friends, Jesus is looking for a witness. He has called us to be his witnesses. He’s called you, he’s called me, he’s called all of us. Friends, Jesus needs us to be his witnesses – not to opt out, not to leave up to someone else, not leaving it just up to Jesus and hoping and praying it all works out in the end. I’ve heard it said many times – I’m sure you have, too – “Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when he could do something about it, but I’m afraid he might just ask me the same question.”

We are called to be Christ’s witnesses – to testify to the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, to live as Christ’s continuing presence in the world. St. Teresa of Avila, in Spain in the 16th Century, put it this way:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

No body now on earth but yours and mine, because after he had promised the Holy Spirit and instructed us to be his witnesses, he ascended into heaven. We – his followers on earth – we are his body now.

If you visit the Holy Land today, tour guides will take you to a rock upon a mountain, supposedly the rock from which Jesus ascended into heaven, and they will even show you two impressions in the rock they claim were left by his feet at that moment. There’s not much evidence to support this claim, but I suppose it makes a nice story for the tourists, nonetheless.

However, Jesus’ footprints are not permanently pressed into a rock – his muddy footprints are all over the Bible, and the hearts of those who call upon him as Lord and are trying to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps that is why the disciples are asked in this text, “Why do you stand gazing into heaven?” Why are you gathered around this rock, mouths hanging open, staring into heaven, when Jesus, the one whose prints are all over your lives, needs you as his witness, making some muddy footprints of your own out there in the world? The Spirit that anointed Jesus now anoints you and me for the task of witnessing to the ends of the earth, this earth upon which Jesus left his footprints and now calls us to make some footprints that look like his.

Friends, Jesus needs your hands, your feet, your eyes. He needs your words, your actions and your attitudes. He needs your mind, your might and your heart. He needs all of you. Jesus needs a witness.

And here’s the good news – you already know what this looks like! You already know the power of witness! You already know the power of stories of transformed lives, how powerful it is to share firsthand stories of what God has done in the depths of the human heart.

For the last several weeks, we have heard the testimonies of various people within our congregation about what God has been doing in them – often through the ministries of this church – and how their lives are transformed as a result. Those stories are a witness! The witnesses we have heard from Tam Thompson, and Frank Fields, and Ginnie Hinkle ; the witness we will hear next Sunday from Terry Blackwell; the witness in the lives of the saints we celebrated last Sunday – these stories are powerful expression of what God can do in the depths of the human heart.

Here at St. Paul, witnessing isn’t anything new – you already know how to do this! Where God has already transformed your life, let that shine as brightly as you possibly can.

Why? Because Jesus needs a witness. In fact, he’s counting on it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What Saints Do (Matthew 5:1-12)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

On this All Saints’ Sunday, the twelve verses we have just read from St. Matthew’s Gospel are the introductory words to Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, which was preached, as you might guess, upon a mountain.

Two hours from here, in the mountains of Ashe County, Jesus is still preaching in two small, unassuming, Episcopal churches out in the country: St. Mary’s outside West Jefferson, and Holy Trinity near Glendale Springs. Between these two churches, Statesville native Ben Long painted several frescoes – an expectant Mary, John the Baptist, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion. For the Last Supper, residents of Ashe County posed for the figures, and the faces of the saints resemble the ordinary people of that community.

I have sat for hours in those two churches – studying the paintings, praying, writing, contemplating. Sitting before the depiction of the Last Supper, I have often wondered what it was like to sit in for a saint. What is it like to depict a holy person on the outside, when on the inside, we may not feel that way ourselves?

Included in that painting was the church’s priest at that time. Who do you think the priest requested to be depicted as? Peter? James? John? Did he want a spot on Jesus’ right hand or his left? Would the priest, the one who represents God to the people and the people to God, request to be painted as Jesus himself? No. He said, “Let me be depicted as one of the servants clearing the table.” And so there, in the lower corner of the painting, he is forever removing the precious vessels from that sacred table – quietly, unobtrusively, faithfully.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The saints have been less concerned with trying to get into heaven than in trying to bring heaven to earth, that God’s kingdom may come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In their lives, we have seen the values of God’s love-filled kingdom lived out in a world that knows too much of violence and injustice.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

In the saints, God is reflected in the depths of their being; blessed are they, blessed are we because of them.

Our text is commonly referred to as “The Beatitudes” from the Latin beatitudo meaning “happy, blessed, fulfilled, complete.” The idea is that if you live the way Jesus lays it out, you’ll be blessed, happy, fulfilled. We celebrate the lives of the saints as those who are blessed, those who have lived their lives in the best way Jesus describes in this text. However , the best things in life always demand the best we can be and the greatest effort we can put forth. The blessed life of the beatitude to which Jesus invites us demands no less.

If you translated the Latin beatitudo into Spanish, it would be bienaventuranza, literally, “good adventure to you.” The Christian life is often described as a journey; let us realize that it is a good adventure. Any adventure worth having always has risk and uncertainty in it, and the Christian life is the greatest adventure there is. The Christian life is the last place to play it safe, for we are called to have a “good adventure” with God, to take some risks for God and God’s kingdom, as saints below and saints above have always done.

The saints are those who are bold and courageous enough to speak truth to power, even when doing so will have unpleasant consequences. Do you know the story of Oscar Romero? From 1977 to 1980, he was archbishop of San Salvador, the tiny capital city of El Salvador in Central America. He publicly opposed his country’s repressive government which slaughtered 75,000 of its own people, mostly noncombatants.

On Sunday, March 23, 1980, over the national Catholic radio station, Archbishop Romero made a plea to the Salvadorian soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and stop carrying out the government’s repression. He said, “Soldiers, do not obey your superiors when they order you to kill. You are killing your brothers and sisters. In the name of God, in the name of these suffering people whose laments rise to heaven, each day more tumultuous, I beg of you, I ask of you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

The Christian faithful in the cathedral cheered. The Christian generals listening in their clubs were incensed; they denounced him as a traitor, because he sided with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

The next afternoon, Monday, March 24, Archbishop Romero celebrated a memorial mass for Dona Sarita Pinto, a woman known to thousands as a saint. Despite the persistent threats on his life, he insisted that the mass would proceed as scheduled, and even allowed it to be published in newspapers, television, and radio.

He took as his text the familiar Scripture from John 12 that we often use at funerals and graveside services, where Jesus said that much fruit is borne out of a single grain of wheat that dies. The parallels were obvious. Like Jesus, Dona Sarita had given of herself generously, so that others might know life and know it abundantly. Encouraging everyone to follow her example, he pointed to the bread and cup, and said, “We receive here the body of the Lord who offered himself for the redemption of the world. May his body and blood given for us nourish us in such a way that we, too, may give our body and blood as Christ did, so we may bring justice and peace to our people. That's what Dona Sarita did. Let us, then, join ourselves to her in prayer, in the same hope and faith by which she lived.”

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

A shot rang out in that small chapel, and Archbishop Romero, who had been standing behind the table facing the congregation, collapsed at the base of a large crucifix. His vestments turned into a sea of red, and through the blood that poured from his nose and mouth, he was mumbling words of forgiveness.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Archbishop Romero was rushed to a local hospital, but it was too late. He had lost too much blood. His veins had collapsed. And there, in the arms of a nurse, he died.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). On this All Saints’ Sunday, we remember that while our days on earth are numbered, every day we are given an opportunity to make those days count. Every day Jesus invites us to preach the beatitudes in how we live, and the saints are those who have. Every day, we are given an opportunity to write our own eulogy, to etch a few words on our own tombstone. A life of love lives on beyond our death.

On this All Saints’ Sunday, we celebrate lives of love that live on beyond death. The candles that now surround us represent the light of their love that lives on. Death is not the end of the story. We affirm our belief in the communion of saints, a great cloud of witnesses who are constantly with us, supporting us, cheering us on in our good adventure of faith. To be sure, they are always with us, but on this day, when the light of their love fills this room and warms our hearts, I can’t help but wonder if their presence isn’t a little more concentrated today, or if we’re simply a little more aware of their presence and enduring love.

Yes, they are always with us, but there are thin places where the veil between this world and the world to come seems to lift a little easier, and we realize that even the seeming finality of death is not final enough to separate us from God, nor is it final enough to separate us from each other.

There is yet one more place where this reality is realized – around our Lord’s table. We call our connection with all Christians of all times and places, whether they are dead or alive, the communion of the saints. There’s a reason for that! At our Lord’s table, the connection we have with the risen Christ is made real, as is our connection with all others who ever have or ever will take their place around this table.

Belton Joyner, a retired United Methodist pastor from the eastern part of our state, tells of a friendship he and his wife had with another pastor and his wife. For decades, these two couples had been close friends, doing the things that friends do – trips, activities, time in each other’s homes, meals around the table. The wife in the other couple died a few years ago, and at the following annual conference, at the opening worship service that would include Holy Communion, Belton leaned over to his now-widowed friend and said, “I sure am looking forward to having supper again with you and your wife.” With that, they went, together, to the Lord’s table.

Today, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we celebrate the communion of the saints. Today, I am looking forward to having supper again with Betty Ferebee, and Lenora Stephenson, and Buddy Warren, and George Byrum. Today, I am looking forward to having supper again with Thelma Elkin and Jo Gurganus and Clint Maxey and Wayne Brewer. Today, I am looking forward to having supper again with Ellie Stratton, and John Jarrell, and Wylene Hinkle, and Bob Kinnett. Today, I am looking forward to having supper again with my mom and my grandparents and all the saints of light whose love shines around us in this room.

Supper’s on the table, and our friends are waiting. Come, let us keep the feast!