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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!

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