When I was in seminary, Luke was my favorite gospel. It’s probably, however, important to note that, at the time, I could fit nearly all of my worldly possessions into the hatch of my Pontiac T-1000. Luke has long been dubbed the gospel of “the least, the last, and the lost.” This morning’s gospel verses are from what’s known as The Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s take on Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Both contain beatitudes, but most of us are more familiar with Matthew’s beatitudes. Beatitudes are a particular rhetorical form or device. They are words that solicit, distribute, or celebrate the favor or grace of God. Furthermore, when we celebrate God’s grace, it is a form of worship. Put in simpler terms, it’s kind of like we’re thanking God and congratulating a person simultaneously. The Greek word most frequently translated as “blessed” is closely connected to the Greek word for praise. So blessing involves praising God. Blessing is something we do out loud to identify and name the presence of God’s grace or favor in someone’s life. All of which sounds really good. So why is it that the none of the things Jesus identifies as blessed in this morning’s verses from Luke sound very good; I mean poverty, hunger, sorrow, people maligning you?
Furthermore, today is a special day in the life of the church. It is All Saints Sunday; that day when we name and remember the saints of God who have passed from this life to life eternal over the past year… a day that, let’s be honest, can carry a certain level of grief and sorrow. So, a gospel reading focused on things like poverty, hunger, sorrow and disrespect sounds – on the surface – like a double dose of negativity… and who wants that when they come to church? However, this morning’s gospel verses are one of the assigned scriptures for All Saints[i] and, as a good Methodist, I feel obliged at times to trust in the wisdom of my faith tradition.[ii] People wiser than me determined after careful prayer and study that these gospel words were a good choice for this occasion.
So how did they come to this peculiar decision? Well, blessings or beatitudes come in two forms. Beatitudes in the wisdom form or tradition, declare the blessing of those who are currently in fortunate circumstances. A beatitude such as this form might celebrate the blessed state of a new parent whose baby is healthy and strong. Even if mom did her best with prenatal care, we still know there is much we cannot control and so a healthy baby is truly a blessing. Likewise a beatitude of this form might celebrate the bumper crop of a soybean farmer. Even if the farmer worked hard and applied their best knowledge to the process from planting to harvest, once again, we know there is much beyond our control and so a bumper crop is truly a blessing. But there is a second kind of beatitude or blessing known as eschatological blessings or beatitudes. Now there’s a big word. You can use it in a Scrabble game. Eschatology is simply that which refers to the end of time; that time when Jesus will return as he promised to and all the things in this world right now which challenge or threaten the good and gracious will of God will be fully and finally defeated. In other words, it will be that time when God’s Kingdom comes in all its fullness and nothing will be left to thwart God’s good purposes. This morning’s beatitudes from Luke are eschatological beatitudes. The Jesus of Luke’s gospel knows full well that those who are poor and hungry and sad and despised right here and now aren’t having a very easy time of it right here and now. But Jesus has come to proclaim that here and now are not the end of the story… or even the end of our stories. And that is what makes this morning’s gospel verses appropriate to All Saints Sunday. All Saints Sunday is about celebrating that, no matter what those whose names we will speak aloud and silently had to endure during their lives in this world, if they placed their trust in Jesus, all that they had to endure and suffer has ended. They have entered in to their eternal glory where the hungry feast at a heavenly banquet; where the homeless have that room that Jesus promised in his heavenly Father’s house.
Today is a day to remember the saints and to celebrate the blessings that await all those who place their trust in Jesus.
One of the unique experiences of being in ministry is that one can find themselves in various extremes of social and economic contexts. Britt and I experienced such extremes early in our ministry. While Britt was pursuing his Ph.D. I pastored two congregations. One was an extremely wealthy congregation in the Chicago suburbs. The other was my very modest congregation in Gary, Indiana. That move was economic whiplash. But I am tremendously thankful for the experience because of what it revealed to me spiritually; that has forever changed my relationship with God and my generosity or giving. At both congregations I experienced some minor health issues; but the responses of the congregations were dramatically different. At the wealthy congregation, no one came to my aid; but I don’t think it was because they didn’t care. Rather, their extensive financial resources had desensitized them to vulnerability. If I was sick, from their perspective, that’s why there was take-out and caterers, dry cleaners, and cleaning services. It honestly wouldn’t have occurred to them that, at that time in my life, I couldn’t afford to pay for any of those things. Conversely, at my congregation in Gary, when I was ill, people brought me food, picked up groceries, ran errands, drove me to appointments; whatever I needed. Most of them knew from personal experience what it felt like to be in need and vulnerable and reliant on someone’s help. So here is what that experience taught me spiritually. It taught me that the blessing in being poor and hungry is that it can allow us the opportunity to really trust in God’s provision. When I am strong and able to take care of myself, it becomes easy to forget what trust really means. Bible scholar Elizabeth Johnson puts it like this: “…when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. It is not only greed that jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God, but the simple – and subtle – temptation to think that we can take care of ourselves.”[iii] To succumb to the temptation of deluding ourselves into thinking our own accomplishments and accumulations secure our future endangers our everlasting souls.
My friends, trust and belief aren’t the same thing and the word used in our scriptures for faith is more accurately translated “trust” than “belief.” To trust in Jesus doesn’t mean simply to believe in his existence or even his divinity or his death and resurrection. It means more than that. It means that, because of his existence, his divinity, his human death and resurrection, we trust Jesus and his gracious disposition to care for us and provide for us. Now, I don’t want to sound simplistic or judgmental. There are wealthy people who live from a place of deep trust in Jesus and there are poor people who are simply bitter and rail against God. But the point of Jesus’ beatitudes, I think, is the reminder that, when we place our trust not in the things of this world; when we believe not only in here and now; but when we recognize that all good gifts come from God and that there is a life everlasting, then we can be truly blessed. When we find ourselves in positions of vulnerability (whether they be hunger or sorrow or sickness), they are also opportunities for blessing if – but only if – we trust, we rely on God in those times of need. God does not make us suffer and suffering in and of itself should never be glorified. But, so long as we live in this fragile, broken world, there will – inevitably – be suffering and every moment of suffering presents the choice, the opportunity to ask ourselves where, in what or in whom, will we place our trust in those times of vulnerability and need?
Friends, today we celebrate the saints. It is an eschatological occasion in that we celebrate the end of their journey; that they have entered into their final, eternal reward. Even if now we grieve and suffer, we know this is not the end. We trust in Jesus who will, one day, return as he promised to and all the things in this world right now which challenge the good and gracious will of God will be fully and finally defeated. Blessed are we if we trust and live in that reality even here and now.
[i] All Saints Day is November 1 and this gospel is the reading for All Saints Day. However, since Methodists don’t generally worship together on All Saints Day – but observe this holy day the subsequent Sunday – I chose to use the All Saints gospel for All Saints Sunday.
[ii] Primarily scripture, along with tradition, reason and experience, are the four criteria John Wesley (founder of the Methodists) identified as being essential when interpreting issues of faith.
[iii] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol 4; editors Bartlett and Taylor; Westminster John Knox Press; 2010; p. 241.
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