Saturday, November 6, 2010

"To Be Blessed" -- All Saints' Sermon

I have only ever known one person named “Beatta.” – have you?
It’s sort of an old-fashioned name, but unlike some of the old-fashioned names, it’s not experiencing a great come-back of popularity.
I know quite a few “Emmas” these days, and all of them are little girls, but before that the only “Emma” I knew was my grandmother “Emma.”
But Beatta – I haven’t heard so much
– and this particular “Beatta” was an older woman at one of my churches, a woman that I went to visit, and to give communion often.
And, I’m not proud to admit, either, that it took me awhile before I realized the significance of her name – what “Beatta” means.

Beatta means “Blessed.” So this woman was named “Blessed,” which I think is very wonderful thing to call a child. “Blessed.”
But of course, this also got me to thinking about two things this week and one is our gospel reading, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are you poor. Blessed are you who are weeping, blessed are you who are hungry.”
Then again I also considered the day – All Saints Sunday – and I realized that the word “Beata” also means to be a saint.
So today we gather to hear Jesus words of blessing to us, and to hear the names of the saints, the blessed ones, from among us who have died.

But Jesus’ words to us today, on All Saints Sunday, are not just comforting, are they?
They are also challenging.
Jesus blesses the poor, but then he goes on to say, “Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are laughing. Woe to you who are full.”
What could he possibly mean?
Jesus gives a promise, a blessing to the down and out, to the poor, to the suffering – but why does he say those words of woe?

It’s tempting to read the beatitudes, and to consider them as a job description, or a litmus test, for saints.
If you want to be a saint, here’s what to do, and here’s what not to do
– just like in our world today, there is certainly no lack of advise for those who want to be rich, for those who want to be successful, for those who want to be happy.
“Here is what you should do,” the lists say. “Here is what a successful, happy, prosperous person looks like.”
And certainly, read this way, the Blessings and Woes of Jesus can’t be anything but puzzling.
And I can tell you this as well: based on these particular blessings, there would be very few people standing in line to be saints.
Blessed are you when people persecute you and speak falsely about you. What’s going on here?

But what if Jesus is doing something much different in his sermon?
What if he is not saying, “this is a job description for saints,”
but instead what if he is assuring people that their status before God is not based on appearances, not based on what their life looks like right now, whether good or bad.
So, if you are mourning, if you are hungry, if you are poor, that is not the final verdict that God is against you.
And if you are rich, if you are doing well right now – that is also not the final verdict of your status before God.
In Jesus’ day it would have been assumed that if someone was rich, they were blessed by God, they were righteous.
If someone was not, that was evidence that they did not have God’s favor.
In other words, you could tell by looking at someone, you could tell by looking at someone’s life whether they were righteous, whether they were “blessed,” whether they were saints, or not.

A colleague of mine recently told me that one of his parish members invited him to go a rally with him.
The rally featured a very famous preacher who I won’t name, but who says, among other things,
that if we are in God’s favor, we WILL have material abundance.
So my colleague went to the rally.
Afterwards, the man from his parish looked at him and said,
“Well, God must really hate me, because my business went bankrupt and my daughter died.”.

And Jesus looks straight into the eyes of this man, and every one of us who grieves,
every one of us who struggles,
every one of us who is down and out, every one of us who is weak,
everyone who has nowhere else to go and says, “Blessed are you... blessed are you....”
do not judge by what you see.
Judge by my word, my promises to you. Do not judge by your failure, and don’t judge by your success either.
“Blessed are you....not because you are happy now, or just because your circumstances happen to be good.
That is temporary.
Know that you are blessed because God has claimed you and holds your life, and has called you by name.
“Blessed are you....”

Recently I heard a story about Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.
On All Saints Day they too had the tradition of naming those in their community who had died during the past year.
They named both those who had died, and also they started to name those who had disappeared, the people whose fate they didn’t know.
And they had one more tradition: After each name was spoken, the community would say, “Presente.” “Present.”
We do not see them, but we believe that they are present among us, we are united in the Love of Christ.
We do not see them, but we trust and believe that we are united by God’s promise to us.
We cannot see it, but we believe that they are now worshiping at the throne of the Lamb of God, just as we are worshiping here this morning.
And we cannot see it, but we trust and believe that we too are called “blessed,” called “saints”– for Jesus’ sake called righteous
– and that someday we will worship together in the new world that God is creating
– the new world where the poor will have enough, and the hungry will be filled, and where the grieving will laugh, because we will be reunited, and we will see the faces of those we name today
– and we will see our Savior’s face.

“Nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ,” Paul writes in Romans 8.
Not life or death, not powers nor principalities, not poverty or hunger.
Nothing can separate us.

We are called blessed – and our faith is not based on something we can see, but on God’s word, God’s promise to us.
You can’t tell if someone is a “saint” or not by looking at them.
Only God knows, and our God is merciful.
Some of the saints we name today are well known to us, and some of the saints are not as well known,
but we place all of them in God’s hand, trusting his word, the mystery of his love.

I want to tell you a little more about Beatta, the blessed one, the saint that I used to visit.
She lived with her elderly father, and they took care of each other.
I’m not sure though, who took care of whom. She had a chronic disease, and he needed to care for her as much as she needed to take care of him.
She had never married, never had children, and I’m not sure that she ever held down a job.
So many of the things that we consider are a part of a “blessed” life, she never had.

And yet she was called, “Beatta”: “blessed.” St. Beatta.
And so she was blessed, not because of any specific accomplishment in her life, but simply because her parents named her, and loved her and believed in her.
And, brothers and sisters in Christ, it is the same with us.
Blessed are you who are poor, who trust not what you see, but the promise of Christ, the riches of Christ, the love of Christ – for now and for eternity.


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