Here in America's poorest city the flock and I are continuing to get settled in. As I visit our oldest living saints in the parish they share with me the stories of the departed, the history of their time in the parish and wonderful photos of big days and events for them and their loved ones. In a parish that recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, I know that my 94 year old homebound member who grew up here really is a living history of the life of the parish. And they tell me of the day when on Sunday morning the sidewalks were full of people walking to church, of the great confirmation class with 100 confirmands. And there was a building designed to handle it all with German precision.
Of course, time has changed and in the shadow of that experience, other things pale in comparison, and it's easy to become dis-spirited. This is the sense of being "poor in spirit" that Jesus speaks of. To mourn not only loved ones but a way of life.
In my first three months, we will have added six new members, a confirmand and baptized a baby. I count the "yes" not the "no." And we have had a lot of celebrating for these events and our anniversary. We have had opportunities to have breakfast together and lunches together, some of which are the crazy new pastor's idea- let's have a potluck after late service and invite people to come. Because we're all going to eat lunch anyway, because it's budget friendly and it's an easy open thing.
These potlucks look a little out of kilter from structured worship as a couple people off of the street come, or the neighbors whose lifestyle might bother some, join us. Or as an adult child caregiver sits down grateful to feed Mom lunch here. Or the widow knows she doesn't have to eat alone. It's not all precision and polished. We don't need tablecloths or fancy stuff. Or designated servers. Just ourselves, a munchie if we can share one and an appetite. It's OK that everyone doesn't come. It's fine that there is no signup sheet. We don't have to have enormous leftovers to complain about distributing. We just have to have enough. And maybe it means the early ones to eat need to not heap their plate. Or we end up sitting with someone we had no intention of being with. But they are lively get togethers. A moment of chaotic blessing. They look fun.
But recently one of the members told me that maybe we were having too many celebrations. TOO MANY CELEBRATIONS. We should celebrate -less? When I arrived the concern was that maybe they will not make it as a congregation- they fear they will die off. I think it is hard to celebrate an anniversary when you wonder if you really can live up to honoring the legacy of those departed saints.
We need to figure out how to live. But then again, maybe it involves being open-to allow God to bless us even if it looks different. So while this Sunday I will chant the Litany of the Saints and the 20 names for the past year, this sermon is about exploring our faith statement about God and the saints and being blessed not only in the "Great Beyond" but here and now.
As you all know we’ve had a lot of celebrations here since August. Anniversary, new members, confirmation, and on the horizon, baptism and more new members. Lots to be excited by- God’s work in our midst. But someone recently said perhaps we’ve had too many celebrations. Maybe we’re trained to wait for the other shoe to drop. We shouldn’t think too much of ourselves. “Pride comes before the fall.” And we all know that pride is not a saintly quality. We who feel charged with the responsibility of carrying on in the faith are told to seek to live the godly life. To look to the saints. Some of them martyrs or apostles, but also those ordinary beloved we know. They too in death join the saints. Today we remember and celebrate the lives of all those who have lived and died in the faith. I wonder if we don’t sometimes in memory make them more saintly and less human. Forgetting that Saint Peter was quick to put his foot in his mouth and Saint Paul had a wicked temper. That our aunts, uncles, parents, and other loved ones were not cleaned up angelic models, but were saint and sinner all rolled into one when we knew them. Some of the best memories involve the times they were less saintly, in their shortcomings and flaws. The things that make us chuckle or shake our heads- the stories that start with- “remember the time when…?” Yet we this day proclaim in faith that God has blessed them anyway. The same thing happens in our churches- we look upon the saints of days gone by and gloss over the very real struggles and mis-steps. They seemed to get it right, we tell ourselves. And maybe even find ourselves saying- “if only they were here, it would be different.” And we aren’t so sure we can still be blessed.
And then we hear the Beautitudes- our lesson from Matthew. We’ve heard more than our share about these sayings-what could be new? Yet In our longings and doubts, I wonder if we fall into the trap of seeing these sayings like a contract with God-believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing his hearers. As one writer put it- “ when I hear "Blessed are the pure in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," I tend to think, "Am I pure enough in spirit?" or "I should try to be more pure in spirit." Or, when I hear "blessed are the peacemakers...," I think, "Yes, I really should be more committed to making peace." At least with "blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted," I have the assurance of knowing that on those occasions when I am mourning I will be comforted. But, that's relatively small comfort because the truth is I don't want to have additional mourning to get added blessing.” Honestly, if this was the case, no matter how much we love our loved ones, who among us can stand up to the “blessed” test?
Fortunately Jesus doesn’t say, “If you do this- THEN the kingdom will be yours.” Instead, Jesus is acknowledging the reality of the earliest listeners and our world today. We find ourselves DIS-SPIRITED- poor in spirit with nothing left to give. Harboring other feelings in our hearts. Feeling under attack; days we have no peace; facing losses that seem too large. Afraid to celebrate.
To all of these places in our lives, Jesus does not say- “wait for the afterlife, and it’ll be better.” Jesus doesn’t tell us it would be better if we had more faith, if we were more saintly. Jesus doesn’t say- “someday but not today, the kingdom will be.” Jesus says “THE KINGDOM IS. AND BLESSED ARE YOU. THE KINGDOM IS UNDERWAY. LIVE AS THE BLESSED.” God wants to bless us not just as saints in eternity but right now.
Are we as eager to be blessed as God is to bless us? Can we believe God wants to bless us or are we still hanging on to our childhood image of Old Testament God-as a stern, demanding law-giver?Can we imagine God really intends to give the grace we claim in our statements of faith? We all have faults and limitations, insecurities and failings. Would God REALLY unconditionally bless this congregation- knowing who we really are today, knowing that we can’t perfectly hold onto the vision of our ancestors the way we thought?
Is it blessing if we didn’t plan it? Can it really be that God will bless us apart from anything we have done, earned, or deserve?
Can we still really expect celebrations?
David Lose says, “Jesus isn't setting up conditions but rather is just plain blessing people. All kinds of people. All kinds of down-and-out, extremely vulnerable, and at the bottom of the ladder people. Why? To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where you least expect God to be – with the poor not the rich, those who are sad not celebrating, the meek and the peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. This isn’t how the world says it should be.
But because God shows up blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere. Showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing. Unexpected, unsettling, nearly inconceivable, BLESSING.”
This good news means all of those who have gone before, just as imperfect, really ARE saints because in the cross, God loves and adores. This is good news for you and I, fellow saints, because God is STILL blessing as the kingdom continues to unfold. God wants the best and calls us worthy of blessing. Even when we have a hard time believing it.
Today we’ll name each of those saints who departed their earthly life and proclaim them saints.
But now I’d like you to look at the people closest to you and tell them now- “You are a blessed saint of God.”
YOU are blessed by God. Let’s open our ears and hearts to hear it, let it sink in. To be transformed for ourselves and our world. To be open to receiving God’s surprising blessings, and to be God’s blessing.
This is how the kingdom unfolds. Then mercy is shown, the downtrodden are uplifted, and peace breaks forth. Because the blessed begin to believe they really are.
This is the story of God’s will and work in all of the saints across time. This is where we can place our faith. Let us rejoice and be glad that God is a God who delights to create, bless, and redeem.
“Come you that are blessed by God, let’s dare to really live in the kingdom that IS.”