Sunday, October 30, 2005

All Saints

Matthew 5

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

In the spirit of the day I have decided to test your knowledge in the area of patron saints. Before I begin, however, I need to let you off the hook with regard to saints, insofar as that within the United Church in particular and the Reform branch of Christianity in general, saints have faded into the background.

Today's celebration of All Saint's Day (November 1) is a vestige of something that once held great currency and is only now being recaptured in our tradition. What little saintliness we have left comes from the Presbyterian stream in church names such as St. Paul's or St. Andrew's. The Methodists tended to put greater emphasis on the saintliness of its current members and less on the saints of the past. For this reason we have a tradition to either recapture or ignore, the choice is ours.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, saints and saint making is alive and well. As well, the tradition of naming patron saints, saints with a unique affinity for a group or occupation remains central to Catholic practice.

I'll start you with an easy one: Who is the patron saint of Ireland? Scotland? England? Wales? Canada? Quebec? (Patrick, Andrew, George, David, Joseph, John) You may remember the patron saint of travelers from a couple of weeks ago (now de-listed, Christopher). Some are obvious, such as the patron saint of Popes (Peter) or carpenters (Joseph). Others have remained in the popular imagination, such as the patron saint of animals (Francis) or children (Nicolas).

Saints are made and not born (the same argument Tertullian made with regard to all believers). Saints display "heroic virtue" and a particular holiness to inspire others and reveal the ways of God. At first only martyrs to the faith were considered saints. This group included all the apostles and many of the early leaders of the Christian movement. This, however, posed two problems for the church. The first was the question of those who survived persecution and lived to old age. Remarkable believers who died peacefully in their beds were surely deserving of sainthood, but the practice did not allow for such a designation. The second problem was the confusion caused when someone not particularly deserving of the designation met a violent end. An early example was a priest who died in a bar fight. His drinking buddies (also priests) pressed to have him recognized as a saint and martyr and the church resisted. This led to the important clarification that a martyr must die for the faith.

So, you are quietly thinking to yourself, what are the chances that I could become a saint? Slim to none, I'm afraid. Unless you are willing to become Roman Catholic, you will need to satisfy yourself with the informal approach of the United Church. In the aftermath of the Second World War the Lutheran Church in Germany asked the Roman Catholic Church to consider making Dietrich Bonhoeffer a saint, considering his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis. While not being rude, the response was negative. After 450 years on their own, they were told, surely they could come up with their own mechanism for making saints.


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.

Within the scope of the Bible there are several types of literature. From the Old Testament we have the Law of Moses, history and prophecy and important sub-texts such as Proverbs and Psalms. I call them sub-texts because they fall outside the main thrust of the Bible which is to recount the story of Israel and interpret the law. Proverbs and Psalms form part of what is called wisdom literature, books that teach virtue and form the most practical or "popular" part of the canon. The best summary is from the book of Proverbs itself:

2The purpose of these proverbs is to teach people wisdom and discipline, and to help them understand wise sayings. 3Through these proverbs, people will receive instruction in discipline, good conduct, and doing what is right, just, and fair. 4These proverbs will make the simpleminded clever. They will give knowledge and purpose to young people.

If I were to try to sum up wisdom literature in a sentence it would be something like this: The righteous prosper while the wicked suffer and fail. In this type of literature, the emphasis is on the peace and order of the household as a means to achieve blessing. Having a good wife, obedient children, helpful servants and so on will be the crowning mark of faithfulness and virtue.

One need only think of the Book of Job and his so-called "comforters" who make it their self-appointed task to help Job realize that his suffering must reflect some sin committed, if he can only remember. Job, as the book tells us, is blameless, and so the debate rages until God himself sees fit to intervene.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" is not wisdom literature. "Blessed are the meek" is a Kingdom teaching, which in the realm of biblical literature is a whole different animal. The first question we need to ask is who are these people that Jesus speaks of, the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the persecuted? Where do they fit into the scheme of a life with God?

Those who love me inherit wealth, for I fill their treasuries.

The wealth of the rich is their fortress; the poverty of the poor is their calamity.

Wealth is a crown for the wise; the effort of fools yields only folly.

The wise have wealth and luxury, but fools spend whatever they get.

It is quite a leap from "Blessed are the poor" to "the poverty of the poor is their calamity." Clearly Jesus is casting a new vision, a vision quite unlike the vision that dominated his (and every) age. 2"Teacher," his disciples asked him, "why was this man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?" Neither, was the answer, because in the Kingdom the link of cause and effect has been broken by wisdom turned on its head.

Part of the revolution of this new thinking is that we already know that it is true. We already know that the link between righteousness and prosperity is broken, as is the link between wickedness and ruin. We already know that life is not that simple, that the simple linkages have been disproven time and time again. Rather than become frustrated, however, we need to alter the way we think. Whenever are tempted to ask, "what did I do to deserve this?" we need to resist this line of thinking. This, of course, is a tall order, because the impulse to assign blame, especially self-blame is so strong.


Who are these people: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the persecuted? These people are you and me. Jesus spoke to his friends and knew that they were not destined to be rich or powerful or widely embraced by popular society. He spoke to his disciples and friends and imagined what they would experience and what they would endure and tried to prepare them by casting an alternate vision to the one that they had been marinating in all their lives.

They were labourers. They were on the margins, from a marginal place where little hope existed for prosperity or long life or the other marks of having favour with God. But they did find favour, they found favour through the power of a relationship and the power of a new vision.

If you read the Beatitudes and imagine the attentive faces of those closest to Jesus you begin to sense the immediate relevance of the words. They would follow Christ's path and experience all the things described: receiving mercy, seeing God, begin filled, being called children of God. This is not a call to greatness is the world's eyes, this is greatest in God's eyes. This is living out another path that favours mercy and purity, making peace and accepting that the world won't always understand why we do what we do.

So, you are quietly thinking to yourself, what are the chances that I could become a saint? Pretty good, actually. Good in the sense that the practice of sainthood is outlined in Matthew 5 and very likely reflected in the kinds of things you are doing already. Whenever you comfort those that mourn, support the meek, embrace the pure at heart or seek peace you are walking the walk and talking the talk. You are among the saints.

Now you're getting all humble on me. Surely I can't be a saint, you're beginning to think. I'm no Francis or Peter or Tutu or Rosa Parks. I'm not among the great ones of God, whose lives shout faithfulness and praise. But you are. The moment you were baptized you began a personal relationship with God, a relationship based on the alternative vision Jesus set out and not on the values of this world.

When you were marked as God's own, you became one of the humble listeners that day on Sermon Mount. You became "blessed" because you were forever linked to the Kingdom vision of Jesus. You became an heir to the promise of forgiveness and grace that allow for living amid the contradictions that the good do not always prosper or the wicked fail. You became a saint. Amen


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