Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Markers on the Path

All Saints' Day, Year A - November 1, 2017

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

How do you know whether you're on the right path if you've never been to your destination before?

When was the last time your were lost? I don't mean a time when you took a wrong turn or had to wait for your GPS to recalculate. I mean a time when you didn't even know where you were. A kid who gets separated from his mom in the department store. A hiker who lost the trail and can't even find it by going back. A tourist in a foreign city where everything looks the same and none of the signs make any sense. Do you know what it feels like to be totally and completely lost? Do you know what it's like to hunt desperately for even the slightest sign of something familiar--that moment when all you need is one landmark, one point of reference, so that you can find the path again?

All of God's people are on journey toward God. We are marching and striving and clamoring and waltzing toward the kingdom that awaits us. Some of us don't realize the journey that we are on, and others of us have lost all evidence of the path, but still we go, closer and closer to God. But, in this life, we've never been there before. And the journey is long and, at times, perilous. How do we know that we're moving in the right direction? How do we trust that we are on a path that leads to our salvation in those moments where we cannot tell where we are or where we are going?

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful...Blessed are the pure in heart...Blessed are the peacemakers...Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you...Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

Jesus begins his public ministry with a correction. At the end of Matthew 4, we read that Jesus has become famous as news of his powerful teachings, urgent proclamations, and miraculous healings have spread throughout the region. Great crowds are following him all over the Levant, from Syria to Galilee to the Decapolis to Jerusalem and to the regions beyond the Jordan. Matthew doesn't tell us exactly what they were looking for, but we know that his ministry had both religious and political components. Everyone loves a winner, and Jesus seems to be the sort of leader who can deliver the kind of lives that these Palestinian residents had been dreaming about. Then, as the crowds press in upon him, Jesus withdrew to a mountain and said to his disciples, "Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are the meek..." In other words, the path that I am on leads to blessedness, but it is marked by struggle, suffering, and loss.

How do we know that we are on the path that leads to true blessings? How do we know that we are on the road to God's kingdom? How do we know that we are following Jesus and not some false prophet? We know it when we see the signposts of meekness and the landmarks of poverty and the markers of hunger and the milestones of mourning that are characteristic of the path that leads to God. But how can that be? The world tells us that the road to salvation is paved with riches and comfort and ease, but that is not the way of Jesus. We know the road he travelled. We know the way that leads to life.

The saints we remember today are the "holy ones" whose holiness was given to them by God and whose lives remind us what it means to walk the path of true blessedness that leads to God. They were the ones who knew that the meek are the blessed ones, that the mournful are the blessed ones, that the poor in spirit are the blessed ones. They reveal to us what worldly eyes cannot see--that those who are persecuted for Jesus' sake are on the path that leads to God and God's kingdom.

What does that mean for us? Does it mean we are to seek out persecution? Are we supposed to give up the pleasures of this life, the comforts that we enjoy, the blessings that God has given us, in order to follow Jesus? Maybe. But don't forget that you can't get to heaven by doing all of those things. We get to heaven by following the path that God has placed us on, the path that leads where Jesus has gone before us. Sometimes that path leads us through difficult places and incredible hardship. Our calling is to see those moments through the eyes of faith, with the vision that God has given us. We are called to follow Jesus, and we are to recognize that moments of meekness, hunger, and persecution are signs that we are, indeed, following Jesus. They are not signs that we have wondered away from God but that God is with us. Stay on the path. Remember that the way of Jesus leads through difficult places not as signs that we are apart from God but we are drawing ever closer to God's kingdom. Ask God to give you eyes to see and recognize the path that leads to blessedness.

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