All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the popular imagination, saints are especially holy people. People who are righteous and good beyond what ordinary people can hope to be, or who do some great miraculous thing. In this view of things, saintliness is a quality some people possess and others don’t. In this view of things, being a saint is something you do, or something you achieve through your own merit.
But the thing is, that’s not how the Bible talks about being a saint. For example, when Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,” he’s not talking about how the Ephesians love a few especially holy people. To Paul, a “saint” is anyone who has received the grace of God. Being a saint is not something you do or achieve, it’s a gift from God. No human being can ever be truly holy or truly righteous on our own merit alone; we are all, even the best of us, sinners who fall short of God’s call for us. And yet God saves us anyway. God calls us, forgives us, renews us, claims us as God’s own, and makes us holy; and that is what it means to be a saint. We are all, every single one of us, sinners who fall short of the glory of God and hurt ourselves and other people; we are all, every single one of us, saints made holy by God. Sainthood is not about any internal resources or abilities we have; sainthood is about being forgiven, redeemed and made holy by God.
When we remember the saints who have gone before us, we’re not just remembering the really nice ones that everyone loved. And we’re not just remembering the good parts of people and sweeping the bad parts under the rug. So often when people die, we feel we have to pretend they were perfect even if we still bear the scars and wounds and grudges they gave us. But acknowledging the saints doesn’t mean pretending they were perfect, because they weren’t. Even the best of them were still sinners. And when we call them saints, we aren’t forgetting the truth of their behavior and choices. We are lifting up the work of God to save and redeem and make holy, even in this broken, sinful world. We remember the saints, all of them, the good parts and the bad alike, and remembering that they are in the hands of Jesus Christ, just as we ourselves will some day be. For those who helped us grow in the faith and loved us, we give thanks. For those we had quarrels with, for those who hurt us, we pray that our wounds and scars will heal, and we pray that they will receive the forgiveness we ourselves hope to receive. No one is holy on their own merits. But God does not measure out grace and forgiveness by the teaspoon. God pours out forgiveness and grace and mercy and salvation and blessing in overflowing cups for all who will receive it.
But blessing is another one of those words that is very different in the popular imagination than it is in the Bible. The most common thing people use “blessed” to mean is lucky. Christians on social media will point out something good that happened to them, and tag it #Blessed along with a picture of themselves looking happy and perfect. And if that’s what blessing truly means, then our Gospel reading makes absolutely no sense. Jesus says the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the despised are blessed. All the people whose lives are terrible, the people that society alternately ignores, exploits, pities, shames, and abuses—Jesus says they’re blessed.
You see, blessing in Biblical days didn’t just mean lucky or happy. It could mean that good things had happened to you, and certainly if you blessed someone you wished for good things to happen to them, but that was only part of what it meant. On a larger level, to be blessed was to be satisfied, at peace, unburdened. To be blessed was to be respected and given honor. Jesus pronounces blessing upon the poor and despised because they are the ones who need it, and because God doesn’t just want to save the nice happy comfortable people. God is at work in even the darkest places, among the people we would rather forget about.
Blessed are the poor and the hungry, because God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to give them the resources they need to survive and thrive. God’s will is for all people to share in the abundance of God’s creation, and God is at work to see that it happens. If human inaction and callousness prevent them from sharing God’s abundance in this world, they will certainly share in God’s abundance in the world to come. If human sinfulness—both their own and other peoples’—works to prevent them from experiencing peace and satisfaction in this life, they will certainly receive it in the world to come. Blessed are those who weep, for God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to provide them the support they need as they grieve. And if human sinfulness and indifference work to isolate them so they don’t receive the support they need here and now, they will certainly receive that support in the world to come. Blessed are the people society despises, because God sees them and God cares about them and God loves them, and God is at work in them and among them to help them heal from all the hurt they have received in this life. And if their wounds are too deep to heal in this life, they shall certainly be healed in the next.
And note that this isn’t just the deserving poor, the ones who have done everything right their entire lives and never made any mistakes. This isn’t just the people who are persecuted or hated for something they can’t change and are otherwise perfect and innocent. This is all the poor, all the hungry, all the people who are despised, and that includes the ones who are poor or hungry or despised because of their own sinfulness and brokenness and bad choices. Because God sees with the eyes of a loving parent. God knows all their potential, all the wounds and illness that twist them, all the terrible things in their life that have made them who they are, and God knows that healing for them and the world can only come from a place of compassion. And God’s desire is that all people and all of creation be healed and saved and made knew. So God blesses those who don’t deserve it.
But if that’s not enough to convince you that what God sees as blessing is not what human society sees is blessing, Jesus pronounces woe on those whom society thinks are blessed. Woe to the rich and those who eat their fill, Jesus says. And it’s not that wealth is evil or wrong, but God created a world of abundance with more than enough resources for everyone to have enough. If some people are hungry and poor, that’s not because God hasn’t provided enough, it’s because we humans haven’t used God’s gifts for the good of all, only the good of some. And if we can sit and enjoy God’s good gifts while others are being denied those same gifts, and do nothing to help them, well, that says a lot about us and none of it good. If we can ignore and dismiss the suffering of others because things are going well for us, that’s pretty callous. And sometimes when everyone speaks well of someone it’s because they’re really that good and deserve all the praise … but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s flattery, sometimes it’s because the only people we’ve hurt are the ones nobody cares about. Sometimes it’s just because we’re really good at playing the social game and putting on a good face—how often does someone commit a horrible crime, and the people around them are shocked because he was such a nice guy? The eyes of the world see only the surface of things. Our view of blessings and woes isn’t the same as God’s view. And as Christians, we are called to conform our hearts and minds to Christ, not to the world.
As we remember those saints who have gone before us, let us