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When Less is More
All Saints Sunday 2017
Leonard was a wealthy man. I remember talking with him about that in the last days of his life. His children would not be inheriting great sums of money or land. His children were his wealth. Leonard and Elsie barely scraped by on their small farm all of their lives, but theirs was a happy home. Their children were devoted to them, and they still spend as much time together as possible. Leonard was truly wealthy in love and joy, despite what he lacked otherwise.
I have known many people who embody the Beatitudes we read today, including Leonard. Poor in spirit, meek, merciful. Blessed are they, Jesus said.
In Jesus’ time, blessing was understood to be material wealth. Way back in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses was told that those who obeyed God would be blessed. Their lives would reflect God’s favor. Somehow that got turned around to mean that if someone was wealthy, they sure look like they were blessed, so they must be pleasing God. So wealth equaled blessing, and blessing was the same as wealth among the people Jesus encountered every day.
Jesus had a habit of challenging the ideas that people took for granted. He said that blessing had nothing to do with wealth. In fact, it was more about what people lacked than what they possessed.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Is it to lack confidence, or to be discouraged? Are they actually poor, lacking material goods? Either way, these blessed ones don’t have what they need to thrive. They know what it is to ask for help, and to turn around and help others in the same way. They understand why the kingdom of heaven—God’s ideal—is about everyone having enough. Do you know anybody who is poor?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I guess that covers everyone, because we all suffer from loss. Those who mourn feel empty, deserted, adrift, having lost someone they love. They are able to receive comfort because their sadness is real. They can walk alongside others who are mourning, sharing the burden together. Know anyone who is mourning? Are you grieving right now?
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Blessed are those who lack arrogance. Because they are humble, they are able to embrace God’s values. They are not busy putting themselves ahead of everyone else. Sound like someone you know?
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” They hunger for God’s ways, letting go of their own self-righteousness, their own ideas of what God wants. Living in God’s reign means freedom to love and grow and bless the world. When you get a taste of it, you are hungry for more. When you live into the life God created you for, you will be filled with joy and peace. Are any of your friends longing for a life free of drama and striving, aching to love and be loved?
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” The merciful let go of resentment and revenge. They refuse to hold a grudge. They understand that we are all broken, all in need of forgiveness. Their hands are empty, open to love and not clenched to fight back. Because they offer mercy so freely, they are apt to receive it in return. I know a few people like that.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The psalmist said it centuries before Jesus did:
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-4)
These pure hearted folks do not cultivate sinful habits like cheating or lying. Their hearts are not filled with hatred. They are not preoccupied with covering their tracks or being suspicious. Instead, when they look around, they can see God shining through nature and people and experiences. I just had lunch with someone like that last week.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” They lack cynicism, because they live in hope. Peacemakers choose to trust that the goodness of God has been wired into every person. They look exactly like they were meant to look, like children of the God who loves all people. Got anybody like that in your family?
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These do not let fear run their lives. They know that there are those who may be able to harm their bodies, but their souls are safe in the love and promise of God. I never knew someone like that personally until the last ten years of my life. These friends inspire me.
It is always tempting to read the Beatitudes like a checklist, to see them as a kind of Lenten discipline to humble ourselves so we can be considered good Christians. I suppose you can use them that way.
But I don’t think they were meant to be used. They are observations that Jesus makes of the people around him. Remember that the people with power in his time were mostly either Roman soldiers or temple authorities. Jesus was talking to common people who struggled for survival, for dignity, for joy in the midst of their suffering. They worked hard, with their hands. They were meek, poor in spirit, mourning. They longed for peace, for God’s righteousness to prevail over their oppressors.
So what Jesus was doing was honoring people who never got to be honored otherwise. You are God’s beloved, Jesus told them. God sees you, and blesses you. You are the most able to glimpse and grasp the kingdom of God even if you wish for a better life. You are God’s people right now, while you struggle. While you think you lack so much, your lack leaves you open to God’s grace.
Isn’t that what we all need to hear? That we don’t have to strive so hard to be worthy, to keep up, to be respected? Perhaps we are too busy filling up what we think we lack. We think our lives need more activity, more possessions, more status. Maybe we need to slow down and read the Beatitudes again, to realize that our emptiness is exactly what God needs in order to fill us with divine love and goodness.
What do we usually think about God’s blessing? Somehow we get it all tangled up with whether or not you are going to heaven after you die, which is a narrow definition of what it means to be saved. In the New Testament, salvation is not about going to heaven when you die, even though there is talk of that in a few places. Salvation is about being made whole, being called a child of God.
Jesus proclaimed people saved when there was no such thing as an Apostles Creed, no theories about his death and resurrection, no confirmation classes. Christ-ordained baptism like ours today didn’t happen until the early church got going. But Jesus told people they were God’s own, God’s blessed, regardless of what they believed or did to appear worthy as we would measure it. He looked at the beggars, the lepers, tax collectors, widows forced into prostitution as the only way to make a living, and called them blessed! That is what our Lord Jesus clearly stated, and we need to pay attention.
Today we celebrate All Saints, when we proclaim our hope in Jesus Christ. We trust that our loved ones who have died are fully experiencing God’s presence. They are the saints!
But we are also saints. Simultaneously sinners and saints, we say, habitually straying from God’s commands but nevertheless redeemed through the cross of Jesus Christ. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us,” Paul writes (Romans 5.8). He calls us beloved, God’s children, blessed, forgiven, able to do even greater things than the works that he did himself.
His beatitudes are for us too. Blessed are you when you feel downhearted, Jesus tells you. You are ready for the comfort that is real and true, the promise of my presence and love. Blessed are you when you miss your spouse or your child who has died. You understand what love is; you are experiencing the deepest dimensions of the love I gave you when you were together.
We are just ordinary people. My friend Leonard was an ordinary man. He loved his family. He was a pilot of a small plane he used to take his family on trips. He was disabled, and he had friends all over the world through his ham radio hobby. He took videos of historic events in his community. He ate his wife’s delicious cooking, food grown on their own farm.
Jesus looks at our ordinariness and calls it blessed. He invites us into the circle of the divine with the Father and the Spirit. He calls us family.
What makes us saints? Jesus does. Thanks be to God.