The Beatitudes and Barriers, All Saints’ Day – November 1, 2017

[RCL] Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

When we hear Jesus’ beatitudes, what do we think? Maybe, we think, “Wow, these are the most beautiful words I have ever heard.” We may think, “Wow, these are beautiful words, but like so many beautiful words, they’re fanciful, and they can’t really be followed in the real world.” We may think, “Wow, these are beautiful words, and, oh my, they are another reminder of all the ways I fail to live up to the high calling of being a disciple of Christ.”

Well, if you have ever thought any of these, you are not alone. The Beatitudes have been a source of inspiration and challenge throughout the history of the church. Today, I want to mention a few major approaches to them.

During the Middle Ages, many people saw the Beatitudes as “Counsels of Perfection”. That is, they were things that applied to a spiritual elite made up of priests, monks, and nuns, but not to ordinary folks. Monks and nuns took extraordinary vows of poverty and obedience, so these things about blessings of the poor, the meek, the hungry, the merciful were about folks seeking perfection, but for other people, keeping the Ten Commandments and loving God and our neighbor is enough. This approach recognizes the real challenge these sayings put upon believers, but it limits the full force of them by saying that, in this life, they are only for a spiritual elite.

During the Reformation, Martin Luther took issue with the whole notion of a spiritual elite. The idea that there were higher and lower levels of Christians was repugnant to him. Luther famously proclaimed the priesthood of all believers, that is, that we are all on the same level—no higher, no lower—all called to share in the priestly ministries of the Church. So, Luther saw the beatitudes as applying to all Christians, not just to the few.

But Luther also had a pretty interesting take on the Beatitudes. He saw them as commands of God. And for Luther, while commandments were things that were given by God, and, therefore holy and binding on all people, Luther also felt that human beings, given our fallen nature, can never really fulfill the commandments. Rather, what the commandments do for Luther is point out very clearly that there is no way that human beings will ever be able to earn their salvation by perfectly following God’s will. The upshot is that what the commandments end up doing is pointing out our need for the forgiveness and mercy of God and drive us into the arms of Christ. This approach sees the Beatitudes as so challenging that we will never be able to fulfill them on our own. We need to turn to the grace and mercy offered in Christ if we are ever to be made right with God.

Most New Testament scholars these days don’t find these approaches helpful. Rather, they see the Beatitudes—and indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount—as something that Jesus saw as applying to all his disciples, not just an elite few, and he probably thought that they were, in fact, doable. Certainly not easy, after all, he says, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Still, most scholars think that he probably meant for his followers to live this way. That’s probably why they stress that these were things that need to be lived out in the context of Christian community. These are not things for spiritual superheroes, but for communities to live out. And that’s probably also why Jesus stressed the need and reality of forgiveness and reconciliation in our communities. These things are going to take practice.

So, one of the reasons why we have this Gospel lesson on All Saints’ Day is because they are practices for all the saints. And by all the saints, we mean everybody who has been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are practices for all of us ordinary saints of God.

Today, I want to focus on just one beatitude and explore how we might try to live that out in our ordinary lives. We will have other All Saints’ Days to deal with other beatitudes. So, let’s focus on, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” Most of us probably will not be Nobel Peace Prize winners. But that doesn’t mean we are not called in our own ways to be peacemakers. How may we go about this in our lives? Paul Wadell gives us some practical guidance on how we all can be peacemakers. He reminds us that in Ephesians, Paul speaks of Christ and his cross breaking down the walls that divide us, removing all the barriers that keep us apart, and overcoming the hostilities that so often leave us living more in enmity with one another than in peace.

Wadell says, “There is no shortage of barriers that need to be dismantled if God’s dream of peace is to become a reality. We create barriers through our attitudes toward others. We create barriers when we freeze people out or simply ignore them. We create barriers when we refuse to talk to certain people. We create barriers when we refuse to deal with problems that weaken relationships. We create barriers when we refuse to give ourselves to others. We create barriers when we hold on to grudges and refuse to forgive. We create barriers when we nurture cynicism, bitterness, and resentment instead of seeking peace.”[1]

In Ephesians, Paul tells us to get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. Paul says leave all that behind, get away from it, and refuse to be ruled by it, because all those things put walls and barriers between ourselves and others. Instead, Paul says be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ. These are the practices of peace. We nurture peace among ourselves and others when we are people marked by kindness, compassion, healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Happy All Saints’ Day to all you saints of God. The Beatitudes are for you!

The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, Maryland.  Dr. Pagano’s ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. Dr. Pagano’s gifts for preaching, teaching, and care are all grounded in joyful and grateful service to God, to the Church, and to the world. Dr. Pagano received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.

[1] Paul Wadell, Becoming Friends (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002) p. 36.

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The saints beside you, All Saints’ Day (A) – 2014

November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

“Glory to God and praise and love / be now and ever given / by saints below and saints above, / the Church in earth and heaven.”

So concludes Charles Wesley’s venerable hymn, “O for a thousand tongues to sing.” The hallowed vision of saints robed in white, genuflecting and joining together in a chorus of praise around a resplendent heavenly throne is as powerful as it is alluring.

Although many, if not most Christians shy away from reading and studying Revelation, the apocalyptic vision of the enigmatic John of Patmos helps develop our vision of what that “glorious company of the Saints in light” might look like. We’re told that angels are gathered around the throne with four living creatures, falling on their faces worshipping God day and night, singing a song of praise. We’re told that they hunger and thirst no more, and that sun and heat will not strike them because the Lamb is their shepherd, guiding them to the springs of the water of life, as God wipes away every tear from their eyes.

And yet, as idyllic and unspoiled as this image is, it’s incomplete.

John’s description doesn’t stop there. He goes on to write that the “great multitude” gathered around the throne are those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Although literal readings of Revelation that condone violence are theologically problematic at best and downright dangerous at worst, we cannot deny that those who enjoy the place of honor in John’s apocalyptic vision have undergone suffering, and given the tone of apocalyptic literature in general and Revelation in particular, we can surmise that some have even endured physical violence.

What might this mean for a church that commits itself to striving for justice, freedom and peace? Or perhaps a more pressing question as we celebrate All Saints’ Day is, what might it mean for John’s “great multitude,” complete with their blood-stained robes, to be identified in the storied history of the church as saints?

The quick, albeit half-hearted answer is to do as countless others have done, and re-shelve Revelation as an indecipherable apocalyptic dream sequence written by an unknown disciple of the fledgling first-century Jesus movement.

But as wars rage on with ever-increasing frequency, as diseases and disasters continue to strike with indiscriminate and unrelenting cruelty, and as the unreliability of the global economy continues to provoke fear and anxiety, we may know more than we think about these “great ordeals” and blood-stained robes that John identifies so provocatively. And on this day in particular, perhaps the Spirit is calling the church to reconsider John’s apocalyptic witness – complete with all its harshness and unanswered questions.

In the midst of the violent imagery and occluded visions lays this powerful word of hope: After all is said and done, after the plagues of war and famine and disaster have done their worst, salvation belongs, not to the generals and the dictators and the power mongers of this world, but to God alone.

This is the great and enduring truth of the gospel, and it comes alive on this All Saints’ Day, reminding the faithful that the powers and principalities of this world will not have the last word. In fact, not only is this Good News, we hear from the lips of Jesus himself that it is a blessing.

In a dramatic reversal of the customs of this world, Jesus foretells the truth of the Kingdom of God:

Unsure of your direction in life? You’re blessed.

Caught under the weight of grief and loss? Joy comes in the morning.

Undervalued and not heard by those around you? God hears you.

Groaning with hunger pangs and longing for a moment of respite? The comforter has come.

Sojourning for peace and righteousness, only to be trampled down by war and revilement, and those spreading lies to discredit you? God is travailing right alongside you.

The saints, Jesus reminds us, aren’t simply those who seem to have it all figured out, whose prayer life is perfect, whose service to church and community alike are irreproachable, and who have left a legacy that the rest of us will spend a lifetime aspiring to realize for ourselves.

On the contrary: The saints, Jesus tells us and John reminds us, are those who have suffered greatly – and some who suffer still, even in our midst – and yet praise God all the more. The saints are those who have known the pain of grief and the sting of death, and still manage to find a way to sing, “Alleluia!” The saints are those who have been excluded and ignored by every corner of society and yet still find ways to seek and serve Christ, loving their neighbor as themselves.

And so when we celebrate all saints, we commemorate those worshipping in our pews who are suffering silently. We work to include those in our community who love God and neighbor, and yet find themselves on the margins. And we remember those whose worship of God is unceasing, even now that they have passed into light perpetual.

Our worship on this day, then, bears both the potential for difficult news that is hard to hear as well as the great and powerful news of a gospel that continually confounds even our best efforts to contain it. For if we approach this day, looking to the saints as nothing more than long-gone exemplars of moral and theological perfection, the witness of Jesus in the Matthew’s gospel and of John’s Revelation falls flat and bears little possibility for transformation.

But if we allow the Spirit to move in our midst, then we might be surprised by what we see when we look across the aisle of the church or down the street or into the parts of town that have a checkered reputation. We might be surprised to find saints there who, even in the most unimaginable circumstances, find ways to lift up their hearts in prayer and praise to God.

And when we hear those soft, but faithful notes of “Alleluia!” emanating from deep within the souls of the saints among us, we will know that salvation does indeed belong to our God, who is seated upon the throne, now and for evermore.

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

We carry on Jesus’ mission, All Saints’ Day (A) – 2011

November 1, 2011

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

In North Carolina, there is a parish called the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion: the Churches of the Frescoes. The parish has two worship spaces: St. Mary’s in West Jefferson, and Holy Trinity in Glendale Springs. The North Carolina artist, Ben Long, painted several frescoes between the two churches depicting an expectant Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus crucified, and the Last Supper. Long-time parishioners give lectures to groups that come to learn about the frescoes at the two churches.

One of the interesting anecdotes that a guide will tell you is that at the time Ben Long painted the first fresco, which was of Mary, he had used his pregnant wife as the model of the body and then used a waitress they met in Hickory as the model for the face. Furthermore, in his fresco of the Last Supper at Holy Trinity, he used people he knew as the models, including the priest who was there at the time. The priest requested to be painted as one of the servants who was carrying plates out of the room, so he is forever seen in the right-hand corner of that fresco, unobtrusively carrying his precious pottery away.

The fact that Mr. Long used real people to paint well-known saints encourages us to pause and think about what it must have been like for the models to pose, knowing that they were being painted as a saint – a person who was considered holy and benevolent – when they may have not felt that way themselves.

The experience of the Churches of the Frescoes puts in mind an even more recent project that has been done about saints. There is a church in downtown Los Angeles called the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The Cathedral has very tall walls in the sanctuary on which the design team wanted to hang particular works of art. They hired artist John Nava, who developed what they now call the “Communion of Saints” tapestries. The tapestries have 135 saints and blesséd from throughout the ages on them, as well as 12 untitled figures, including children of all ages, to represent the many anonymous holy people in our midst.

The curious thing about the process of developing these tapestries was that the artist did not have many depictions of earlier saints in order to know what they looked like. He used death masks and early artwork to assist his images, but then he gathered people at random off the streets who looked like the particular saints he was trying to paint – people he saw at coffee shops and restaurants, people at the beach, people walking the dog, people like you and me.

Most people were flattered to be models. Some were believers, others were not, but when they were interviewed about the process, they almost all said the same thing: being a saint, being dressed in the clothes and learning about their saint’s story, made them want to act like the saint they were modeling. They felt better about life and felt connected to the world in a deeper way than ever before. And the fact is, they are. They are connected to the saints they modeled and they are connected to us and to Christ, as is seen when you enter the Cathedral’s sanctuary. The saints line the walls and they are all gazing toward the cross above the altar, marching toward it, just as the real saints did before them, and as we continue to do each week, including today, when we come to the altar at Eucharist, and as the next generations will do in the future. It is a powerful vision.

Now, we may not know each saint’s story, but we do know Jesus’ story, just as they did, and that is a powerful connector. It is a connection that is never lost or weakened, even though they are not present on earth with us. The gospel accounts tell us about Jesus, so we know of him in the historic sense, but our faith is what connects us with the mystery of life in Jesus. We hear the gospel stories about Him and stories of the saints’ encounters of Him and know our own stories, all of which are part of this greater story of life. We remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection each week at the Eucharist, and in turn, are “re-membered,” brought together, united in the Body of Christ. United in our common faith and story. And this re-membering, this unity, transforms us, so that we may go out renewed and strengthened by the knowledge of our belonging to God and of those who came before us and will come after us, belonging to God, too.

As Christians, we carry on Jesus’ mission of transforming the world by spreading the kingdom of God in our daily lives. And in a way, isn’t that what we do with any loved one not among us? Many times, we carry on their vision and make it ours so it will continue to be carried into the future. By living out the Christian mission, we honor God, we honor each other, and we honor the lives of those who came before us, who also held that same mission. Like them, once we have come to Jesus Christ, we are His own and remain that way, and will join the great multitude that was talked about in our scripture from Revelation, worshiping God and singing: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”
— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minn., and was formerly in Diocese of Western North Carolina.

Looking for good examples, All Saints’ Day – 2008

[RCL] Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Another Halloween has come and gone, and how well did we do in making it All Saints’ Eve? What did we notice as the little ones with smiley faces gave cheery “Trick or Treat” greetings? Beyond the joy of giving out candy, how many of us kept track of the costumes the children wore?
It depends on the fads of the year, of course, but you can count on scary, dark characters: murderers from horror movies, Grim Reapers, Draculas, vampires, skeletons, ghosts, monsters, headless horsemen, and mummies.

There are bound to be warriors of one sort or another: Power Rangers, ninjas, superheroes such as Batman and Spiderman, as well as matadors, football players, professional wrestlers, soldiers, and pirates.

And don’t forget animals: gorillas, leopards, lions, tigers, and black widow spiders.

There are always happy characters, too: fairies, Cinderellas, princesses, cheerleaders, prom queens, clowns, ladybugs, flowers, pumpkins, ballerinas, and brides.

And there are sometimes costumes of actual people: Queen Elizabeth, Davy Crockett, Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, and the like.

But think about it. How many children come dressed as something we would identify as religious? Angels, maybe, but that’s about it. Is this likely to disappoint us, if not totally disillusion us? How naive or idiotic is it to expect to get Sunday school children to dress as saints when they go trick-or-treating? That’s about as realistic as trying to get adults to come to a costume party dressed as their favorite saints. Besides, it’s totally impractical: where would you buy a saint costume?

But what about making costumes depicting saints? How many of us would resort to designing flowing robes and halos or something that looks like the way we think people dressed in Jesus’ day?

Can’t we get more creative than that? How about dressing as an old worn-down woman with scars from beatings by cruel overseers? This would be Sojourner Truth, a saint who gained freedom from slavery and preached the gospel of liberation to a prejudiced generation.

How about wearing a plain white shirt with a stethoscope and a big white handlebar mustache? This would be Albert Schweitzer, a saint who gave his life as a missionary and doctor in Africa, even though he could have remained in Europe, living in luxury and fame.

Why not dress in a black suit and simple tie, with a dark mustache, carrying a Bible? This would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a saint who gave his life trying to end racial discrimination in America.

How about going out wearing rags with stuffed animals and toy birds attached to them? This would be St. Francis of Assisi, who loved all God’s creatures as brothers and sisters.

Or how about dressing as a woman with dark circles under her eyes and rough hands from being up nights caring for a sick child and working days at some arduous labor to put food the table? This would be a single, working mother, giving herself away to make a better life for her family.

Maybe a trick-or-treater could just go dressed as a regular child, such as the boy who went to a scouting contest for homemade racing cars. It was one of those events where the contestants are supposed to do their own work but most of the fathers help too much. At one such event, a youngster with no dad showed up with a racer he had obviously made with his own unskilled hands. The contest pitted boys in pairs, one against another with the winner advancing to the next round in a series of eliminations. Somehow this one kid’s funny-looking car won again and again, until, defying all odds, he was in the finals against another scout with a slick-looking, well-made racer.

Before the championship race, the boy asked the director to wait a moment so he could pray. The crowd, now enthralled by the unlikely story unfolding before them, stood in silence, loving the boy and secretly praying with him that he might win; he seemed so deserving.

After the boy won the race and was given a trophy, the director said, “Well, I guess it is a good thing you prayed, so you could win.”

“Oh, no!” the boy protested, horrified to have been misunderstood. “I didn’t pray to win. That would have been wrong. The other scout had as much right to win as I did. I couldn’t pray that God would make him lose. I just prayed that God would help me keep from crying if I lost.”

There is, of course, something more important than how children or adults costume themselves on Halloween. It is understanding that we can emulate the saints, that we can become saints too, that we can become faithful disciples of Christ, following the saints who show us the way.

Isn’t that why we remember the saints, some of whom are publicly known and recognized in the light of history, and others, like the Boy Scout, whom we come across in the obscurity of ordinary struggles?

All Saints’ Day celebrates those whose good examples remind us of what we can be at our best. The stories of their lives remind us of who we are, what we believe, and what we can become. They remind us how closely a human being can follow the example of Jesus. They draw us forward, give us courage, strengthen us to do God’s will, and lead the way. Their good examples remind us that God reaches out to us with grace and love and care.

All Saints’ Day helps us reestablish, in faith and prayer, our links with these Christians and with the people in our lives they may represent. They have gone on before us to the nearer presence of God, but they are also connected to us. Those who know rest from their labors help keep us from growing weary on our often difficult Christian pilgrimages.

The saints inspire us not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: Jesus’ imperative to love God with all our hearts and minds and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Remembering the witness of the saints allows us to continue to hold them close and can give us strength whenever and wherever we stand. Remembering their witnesses can help us feel God’s comforting touch when we are discouraged or sorrowful and can help raise us up when we fall.

The saints call us to an awareness of God’s peace that surpasses human knowing. They help keep us from presuming too much about our own strength. They teach us to trust in the one who has loved us beyond all measure.

All Saints’ Day is a time when looking at the good examples of those who have come before us can enable us to think beyond our limitations and to believe that we have the potential to respond to God’s gracious love with active love for others and with commitment and caring and giving. The saints lead us into the fullness of life that God intends for us all.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas. Email: Kesselus@juno.com.