Today we honor All Saints Sunday, one of the major feasts of the Episcopal Church. We recall this day all the faithful departed who lives were marked by heroic sanctity and whose deeds have been recalled and emulated from one generation to the next. The celebration of these saints began as early as the late 200s, as churches began to honor those who gave up their lives for their faith, as well as those who lives were particularly exemplary. Later, in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, sainthood became reserved for a select few who meet a certain set of requirements, which could include the performance of miracles or a particularly virtuous life.
On such a day of reverence for those whose virtuous lives remind us of God, our gospel lesson from Matthew is an intriguing choice. Today’s gospel lesson is the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, that ministry-defining sermon by Jesus that tells us what we can expect from the Messiah. He begins his long sermon with what we call The Beatitudes: the famous listing of those whom we define as blessed. The last two beatitudes make a lot of sense for today’s celebration: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Certainly martyrs fall into the category of sainthood. But what about the other beatitudes? What about those who mourn, who are poor in spirit, are meek? Those characteristics seem much more passive than martyrdom, or even the actions I associate with most saints.
I think what has always challenged me about honoring the saints or even reading The Beatitudes is that they feel unattainable. If Jesus is associating being blessed with grief, meekness, poverty, purity, peacemaking, and mercy, I am not sure I can attain those things. In my mission travels, I have visited with a couple of L’Arche communities. Founded by Jean Vanier, L’Arche communities are communities for people with developmental disabilities. Some of those disabilities are quite severe, and others are so mild that the individuals are highly functional. Rooted in The Beatitudes, L’Arche communities flip the notion of most group homes. Those with developmental disabilities are called “core members.” They are the center of the community, the most elevated and honored members of the community. The people who are there to help them are called “assistants,” and they live among the core members. Though society labels abled-bodied people as more valuable, in L’Arche communities, the able-bodied members are seen as mere helpers for the more revered members.
The use of The Beatitudes in shaping L’Arche communities only heightened my sense of inadequacy when reading those beautiful words. Reading those words have often made me feel like an outsider – that unless I suffer grief, pain, persecution, I will never come close to God. Unless I give up my life in the ways that many assistants do at L’Arche, or unless I give up my life as the martyrs do, my life will only be one of mediocrity. I will never be able to achieve the checklist of virtues that The Beatitudes provide.
Luckily, I found some relief from the scholars this week. Stanley Hauerwas says about Jesus’ words today, “The sermon, therefore is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon – precisely because they are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek.”[i] N.T. Wright concurs. He says, “These ‘blessings,’ the ‘wonderful news’ that [Jesus is] announcing, are not saying ‘try hard to live like this.’ They are saying that people who already are like that are in good shape.”[ii]
Taking the pressure off a sense that I need to work harder to be like the saints or that I need to seek out ways to be mournful or meek, I found the text opened up something else this week. Another scholar suggests we look at the beatitudes in this way, “Perhaps [Jesus is] challenging who we imagine being blessed in the first place. Who is worthy of God’s attention. Who deserves our attention, respect, and honor. And by doing that, he’s also challenging our very understanding of blessedness itself and, by extension, challenging our culture’s view of, well, pretty much everything. Blessing. Power. Success. The good life. Righteousness. What is noble and admirable. What is worth striving for and sacrificing for. You name it. Jesus seems to invite us to call into question our culturally-born and very much this-worldly view of all the categories with which we structure our life, navigate our decisions, and judge those around us.”[iii]
At our worship service on Wednesday night of this week, we shared who the saints are in our lives – the everyday people who taught us something about God. There were all sorts of people named – mothers, fathers, grandparents. One that struck me the most was the description of one such mother. “She simply did her duty every day: being a wife, being a mom, structuring the home.” Though I have come to use saints in my prayer life as vehicles for deeper prayer and connection with God, more often, the people whose lives motivate me are just like that mom: everyday people whose everyday lives point to the sacred – who reveal God to me in the basic ways they live their lives.
In the Episcopal Church, the day after All Saints’ Day is called All Souls’ Day. This day was established in the tenth century as an extension of All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day is the day the Church remembers the vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church. All Souls’ Day is a day for particular remembrance of family members and friends who, though no icon has ever been painted, showed us the beautiful life of holiness and righteousness.
The honoring of these lesser known saints seems to go much more richly with The Beatitudes to me. If we know those who are meek, grieving, and poor in spirit are just as righteous as those who thirst and hunger for righteousness, we get to the heart of Jesus’ sermon today. I imagine you all have a story. Our family has been following a family whose ten-year old daughter had an awful case of cancer. She has been fighting and fighting, and just last week Hospice was finally called in for support. At dinner on Tuesday night, our eldest, just two years younger than our friend, said, unprompted, “I feel bad for kids with cancer who cannot trick-or-treat.” The next morning, we found out that our little friend had passed that very night. Lord knows, my child is not often a saint. But that confluence of grief, suffering, and loss, brought us a little closer to blessedness.
Today, we will tie ribbons on our altar for all the saints and souls who have gone before us. Maybe you will be tying your ribbon for a canonized saint, whose religious fervor has motivated you in your spiritual journey. Maybe you will be tying your ribbon for a family saint, whose small, everyday witness taught you about the vastness of God’s love and grace. Maybe you will be tying your ribbon for the random person you encountered who said something so profound you knew God was speaking right through them to you. The saints we honor today are exemplary and ordinary. The saints we honor today are people marked by action and advocacy, and people marked by everyday suffering. The saints we honor today are people completely unlike us and just like us. God has certainly inspired us by a host of other witnesses. But God is also using each of you to inspire others in their journey. Amen.
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 61.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 36.
[iii] David Lose, “All Saints A: Preaching a Beatitudes Inversion,” November 1, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/11/all-saints-a-preaching-a-beatitudes-inversion/ on November 3, 2017.