Lectionary Texts: Luke 6:20-31, Ephesians 1: 11-23
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, November 6, 2016
- The Saints in our Lives
What is your story? How much of your story do you tell? With whom do you share your story? See, we all have stories. We are a storied people. We are a storied world. We have a storied history. We have a storied faith. Think about it. Most of the Bible is people telling stories, sharing themselves with each other. Jesus was the quintessential storyteller. Because, when it’s all said and done, our story has little meaning until it intersects with others. So, as people of faith, we are called to tell our story.
All-Saints is always a reminder of that for me. As United Methodists, this day is not just about honoring those that the collective church has designated as official saints of the church. We go a little bit farther. For us, this day is a reminder that we are all a part of that incredible Communion of Saints—all of us saints AND sinners and all interconnected. Each of our stories is connected to others’ stories and becomes a part of the larger story that we know. This is our story.
My first pastoral appointment was as an Associate Pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist in the museum district in Houston. When I first went there, I met John and Bobbie Fellers. John had at one time been the Senior Pastor of St. Paul’s, had left, and then returned as a Retired Clergy there. He also served as President of Lon Morris College, President of the Institute for Religion and Health in the medical center, and he taught seminary. John was extremely well-learned and a great preacher and he soon sort of became my mentor. We were so much alike in so many ways that Bobbie, his wife, used to just sort of roll her eyes at us. I had the gift of working with John for three years. We talked, he mentored my preaching, and we taught together. John contributed to my love of liturgy and worship.
One of my favorite stories was when we were leading a Christian Believer class (which, of course, John and I rewrote!). He was one of these that you assumed he knew just about everything about theology and the Bible. So, one day, in class, we were supposed to read a passage from one of the minor prophets—Nahum or Habakkuk or Zephaniah or something. John was fumbling with the Bible and looked up and said. “Oh, this is one of those books that they keep moving around.”
So, John died pretty suddenly of a stroke in the summer of 2007. It was hard. I lost a mentor and a friend that July. Bobbie and their children and I became very close—almost like family. We just sort of walked through it together. Well, a few months after John’s death, I mentioned in a Bible Study that I’d been playing around with Ancestry.com and had gotten on my mother’s side of the family and had discovered that apparently I was related to the whole town of Brenham. Bobbie looked up and said, “you know, John discovered his birth family right before he died, and they were from Brenham. You ought to look them up.” I took the name and did a little digging and, lo and behold, John’s grandmother was my great-grandmother. When I told Bobbie, she didn’t even flinch. She just answered, “oh, that explains so much.” What does THAT mean?
The point is that sometimes we don’t realize how connected we really are. This was one of John’s favorite services and he’s always on my mind on this day. What about you? Who do you think about on this day? Who are the saints in your life? Who are those people that are your story? Who are those people that have had a part in making you who you are? Now this is a long-winded way of saying that our stories are important. They are who we are. And the way our stories intersect with each other’s stories is how we become the people of God, how we become those who are blessed.
- Blessed are…
So, what does that mean to you—to be “blessed”? Our Gospel passage that we read uses it about five times. We usually think of it as reaping good things, as things going the way we want, as coming out on top. For most of us, a “blessed” life is a good life, perhaps even an easy life. But then we read, “Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…blessed are you who weep and grieve…and blessed are you who are hated or excluded or shunned.” Really? You have got to be kidding! We want to be blessed. But who wants to be poor or hungry or sad or shut away from everyone else? That doesn’t make sense. In fact, it’s completely contradictory to what we know to be true. That’s the whole point.
The truth is, we like the Beatitudes that are in Matthew better. They are a little friendlier. Remember, rather than being blessed because one is poor, blessing is given to those who are poor in spirit, which is probably most of us at one time or another. And there are no corresponding woes. The writer of Matthew just sort of makes us feel good. There are no watchful eyes for the ways that we might get a little too comfortable with ourselves.
So, maybe Jesus was just trying to get our attention. But, more than likely, he was trying to get us to look at things in a completely new way. After all, what is blessedness exactly? Is it having lots of money? Is it not wanting for anything? Is it never experiencing loss? Is it living a life of ease where everyone agrees with you? You know, all that would be fine if we lived in some sort of perfect Stepford world. But we don’t. We live a full life with ups and downs and gains and losses and highs and lows and births and deaths. We live a life of exile and freedom, of clarity and paradox, of surety and doubt, of death and resurrection. Thanks be to God! Our blessedness does not come from things or security but from the realization that the conversation will continue, that there is always more to the story. Blessedness is not perfection. Blessedness is experiencing the Holy, the very presence of God, in every aspect of life. That’s what God has shown us and that’s what Jesus was trying to remind us. Don’t get so wrapped up in way things are that you miss the way things will be. And don’t become so allured by the voices of this world that you miss the conversation that is already going deep inside you. Don’t miss out on the story!
III. It’s About Communion
Now, don’t mistake this for some sort of call to empty martyrdom. I don’t think that Jesus was proclaiming that the Christian community was limited to those who are down on their luck. I think he was just trying to help the disciples and us realize that the quality of our earthbound life has little to do with our life with God.
Rather, blessedness is an affirmation of our oneness with God and our connectedness with others. It has nothing to do with individual reward; it has to do, rather, with realizing that we are part of a glorious conversation. It, in fact, comes with responsibility. Being a “blessing” calls one to shower blessings upon the world, to be part of that bigger vision that God holds for all of Creation by stepping away from what one knows, by letting go of what this world has convinced you that you need to hold onto. Blessedness is not about winning; it’s about communion.
So, rather than trying to figure out where we fit in this passage or how we can earn God’s favor, perhaps we need to look at it in a different way. Jesus is describing God, not us. The Beatitudes are not prescriptions of what we need to try; they are instead descriptions of God’s Kingdom. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that “it’s easy to hear it like we should all wear buttons that say, “I’m meeker than your honor student” or “The weepy and reviled make better Christians.” But it doesn’t work like that. This is a proclamation that God is there in the abandoned places of our lives, in the deepest parts of human despair. God is not only about glory and triumph. God is also about blessing us and making holy even that which in our minds and in our world are not where we desire to be at all,
These sayings are not about us and they are everything about us. They remind us that blessing comes to broken saints and forgiven sinners alike. They speak to a God who will hang out with any of us not because we’re righteous or perfect, but because God loves us that much. How blessed are we!
- Living Paradox
I’m sure you remember all of the accounts and the press coverage of the 2006 shooting in the Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. After the community lost five young girls and had five more that were seriously wounded at the hand of a shooter, the world expected the usual—grief, anger, vengeance, and, most of all, justice. And while the rest of the country, prompted by the press, responded with shock and anger, the Amish community responded with graciousness, patience, and love. Instead of being consumed with revenge, this community lavished forgiveness on the killer’s widow, her parents, and the killer’s parents. In subsequent interviews, the Amish community made it clear that it was not a mandate from their church; it was an expression of their faith. In their understanding, they could only receive what they could give, for that was the only way that they could grasp what they had been given.
In her column in the “National Catholic Reporter”, Sister Joan Chittister suggested that “it was the Christianity we all profess but which the Amish practiced that left us all stunned.” She concluded that the Nickel Mines Amish surprised our world the same way the earliest Christians astounded the Roman world: “simply by being Christian”.
“Being Christian”—perhaps that in and of itself is sort of a paradox. Perhaps rather than being good, we’re meant to be faithful; rather than being godly, we’re meant to show people who God is; and rather than making sure that the world is filled with justice, perhaps we’re meant to fill it with love, and grace, and hope, and forgiveness, and a vision of something that it’s never seen before. And instead of our lives being filled with good things, our lives are blessed and holy. Maybe THAT’S our story.
- Living Into Our Story
It’s a story that connects us all—those that have gone before, that are so much a part of who our church is and who we as children of God are, those of us who sit here today showered in blessings from the past, and those that will follow us. See, the Beatitudes that we read today do not let us rest where we are. We cannot simply rejoice in the lives and witnesses of these saints that we remember today and then go on.
Instead we have to do what those that came before us did. We have to dare to be Christian; we have to dare to be blessed. We are truly part of a great cloud of witnesses. Do you feel it today? Do you feel those that handed you the story? Do you feel those that made you who you are? We’re all here together—the saints and the sinners, the past and the present, and the future yet to be.
On this All-Saints Sunday, let us remember those in our lives who gave us that story, who, rather than going with the flow of the world, dared to be Christian, dared to see beyond themselves, dared to continue the conversation of faith for you and for me. “Blessed are the poor for they already know that God is all they need and are open to receive what God offers; blessed are the hungry for they know where to look for sustenance and they are thankful for small but glorious abundance; blessed are those who weep for they know where to look for comfort and they know how to comfort others; and blessed are those who are hated or excluded or shunned for they truly know what it means to be Christian and to reach out in love. And to all of us, just keep watch, that don’t get too comfortable, that you don’t become so sure of yourself that you quit searching for something more, that you forget to pay attention to the holiness that is in even those desperate parts of your life and our world.
- Robert Keck said that “it is better to have a heart that makes love than a mind that makes sense.” We are called not to right the world but to turn it upside down. So, go and write your chapter in this great story the way God calls you to write it. Maybe in the scheme of this society, it won’t make sense. Maybe John was right. Sometimes what we know gets moved around a little bit. And what a great story that makes.
Diana Butler Bass said that “the past takes us forward”. We are truly part of a great cloud of witnesses. What matters in our lives is not our possessions we gathered or our jobs we held. What mattered is how we in this communion linger with one another, tend the bonds between us, walk upon the earth, and savor the wondrous gift we’ve been given. What matters is how we find ourselves blessed. So, gather your story and go out and bless the world. Amen.