Sunday, November 29, 2020

My Lord, What A Morning!


November 29, 2020 – Advent 1B

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:20 and the choral anthem beginning around 46:15.

How long has it been? How long have you been waiting? How long will you have to wait? There are 26 days until Christmas and 33 days until the end of the year. There are eight weeks until January 20, and there are 47 months until November 2024. How long have you been waiting? How long will you have to wait? How long until you graduate? How long until you retire? How long until your wedding day? How long until your baby is born? How long until you conceive? How long until the adoption is complete? How long until your child or spouse returns from their deployment? How long until the doctor calls with the test results?

This week, our children received their yearly Advent calendars in the mail from their grandmother. Behind each number is a small piece of chocolate, and you can be sure that all four of them will faithfully mark each day of the season as Christmas approaches. I miss the days when Christmas was the most important thing I waited and watched for. 

This year more than any I can remember, it feels like the whole world is waiting and watching for something else. For nine months, we’ve been cooped up, laid off, and hunkered down, and now, even though things will get worse before they get better, it feels like the end is in sight. How long until a vaccine will be released? How long until it becomes available to the general public? How long until all of us can be vaccinated? How long until it is safe for us to come back together again? How long until we can hug each other? How long until we can live without fear?

Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, preachers like me try to convince their congregations that this season is not just about waiting for Christmas. Even though the streets are decorated and the stores are playing holiday music, Advent sermons attempt to remind us that this is a time to prepare ourselves—our homes, our families, our lives, our souls—for the coming of the Son of Man on that great and glorious day. In the worship of this season, our prayers, our music, and our readings all point to the final day of judgment. Traditionally during Advent, the church focuses on the “four last things” of death, judgment, heaven, and hell—not the pageant or the parties or the presents. In most years, that feels like a losing battle. Who cares about the end of the world when there is so much good to celebrate between now and the end of the year?

There is still so much good to celebrate, but it seems like something else is on our minds this year. This year we’re all hoping and waiting and watching and yearning for something different—a change of direction, a new start, a total do-over. This year, it feels like the faithful thing for a preacher to do is to remind folks that this struggle won’t last forever—that the hardship we face will give way to a new and brighter day—and that is exactly what Advent is all about in the first place.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” the prophet Isaiah wrote. Have you ever yearned for God so deeply that you called out and begged for God to come down? Have you ever wept the desperate tears of one who aches for God to come and turn everything around? Have you ever stayed awake all night, watching for the miracle that you would willingly trade your life for if it would only make it happen? 

In every generation, God’s people have waited and watched and hoped for God to come and set the world right. They wait not for the kind of salvation that can be accomplished in a laboratory or in a stimulus package. They yearn for something that is not made possible through politics or won in the courts. They hope for a deliverance that is not guaranteed by the military or defended by the police. They pray and watch and hope for that day when “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, [when] the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” O that God would tear open the heavens and come down like that! O that God would come and turn the world upside down and give us the new beginning that we are all desperate for! 

If we are scared of judgment, we either don’t understand what it’s about, or there’s a part of us that recognizes that we’re on the wrong side of it. Advent is a time for us to take a look deep inside ourselves and deep inside the world around us and identify the ways in which we need God to come and turn us upside down and make us new.

At the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus’ disciples beg him to tell them when all of these scary-sounding things will be accomplished. “When will everything come crashing down?” they ask. They didn’t ask because they were afraid. They asked because they didn’t want to have to wait any longer. For generations, God’s people had been subjected to the tyrannical rule of one dictatorial power after another—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans. When will it ever end? Sure, there had been fleeting moments of relative independence, rebellions that had provided the illusion of self-determination. But they had always given way to another despotic ruler. When would God’s people finally be secure? When would God come once and for all and take over on behalf of God’s people? When, indeed.

The answer Jesus offers is good news for God’s people: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates.” Jesus invites us to reinterpret the signs of struggle that surround us. They are not an indication that God is abandoning God’s people, Jesus tells us. Instead, they are a sign that God’s salvation is near, even at the very gates. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called not to wait and watch for a salvation that is foreign to this world—for a victory that will only come after human history has run its course. We are called to anticipate a salvation that breaks through into this world, into this life, and to orient our whole lives around that promise, trusting that it will come at any minute.

Advent is a season of encouragement, a time to rekindle our confidence that God is coming and is coming soon. Despite what slick corporate marketers would try to convince us, we do not need any help believing that Christmas will come again this year. Even if it comes without its usual full dose of festive cheer, we know that the Christ child will be born again at Christmas. Even in 2020, we can count down those days. But the coming of our savior so long ago, which we celebrate again each year, is not merely an opportunity to reminisce, a chance to reenact what took place in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. It is a reminder to us that God’s salvation is not encapsulated in a heavenly vault, a gift that belongs to another place and time, but something that God gives to us here in this life. 

Jesus describes God’s great salvation as a moment when God will gather again to Godself those who have been scattered by the four winds even to the ends of the earth, and he reminds us that that salvation is very near to us. It is right around the corner. It is as close as the dawn. It will come at any moment, even here and now. So do not lose hope. Do not give up. Do not forget that he is coming to make all things new. Watch for him, and wait for him. Stay alert. Keep awake.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Difficult Gratitude Is Rewarding Gratitude


November 26, 2020 – Thanksgiving Day, Year A

 © 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:40.

You have heard that Samaritans and Jews hated each other. There was more than a rivalry or sectarian conflict between them. They were divided by layer after layer of history, ethnicity, culture, religious practice, and all the resentment that comes from such division. 

You will remember that shortly after King Solomon died, the nation of God’s people was divided into two: the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah, which was centered on Jerusalem. If a civil war were not enough grounds for hatred, when the Babylonians came and destroyed the southern kingdom and took its people captive, many of the people from the north, who a generation earlier had been ransacked by the Assyrians, were left behind. They continued to read their holy text, the Torah. They continued to worship on their holy mountain, Mt. Gerizim. They struggled to survive, but, a generation or two later, when the residents of Jerusalem were permitted to return, they found new reasons to resent their Judean counterparts.

During the Babylonian captivity, much had changed. One people had lost its holy city and its temple, but the other had remained at home. Without the central apparatus of its religion, the people of Judah had developed new sacred practices—new ways to stay connected to God while in exile—but the people of the northern kingdom did not recognize these perverse new practices. Even the central stories of their shared ancestry had been reshaped by the experience of devastation and exile and return, but these new sacred texts were rejected by the Samaritans as a bastardization of God’s word. But, for the Judeans, to reject the scripture and practices of the exiles was to deny their experience of pain, grief, and loss. You can imagine, then, why such hatred persisted between these two peoples—ancient siblings separated by political conflict, sectarian separation, and divergent experience.

In Jesus’ time, that hatred wasn’t just a chapter from history. It was a lived experience. Josephus, the Jewish historian, recalls that, when Jesus was about seven years old, Samaritans snuck into Jerusalem during the Passover festival. At midnight, when the temple was open for pilgrims to enter and pray, this group of Samaritans came and threw parts of dead bodies into the temple in order to defile the sacred spot during the holy festival. Like ransacking a synagogue and spray-painting anti-Semitic graffiti on its walls, this act was designed to strike at the very core of who their embittered foes were. Samaritans and Jews were known to attack each other, especially in the territory in which today’s gospel lesson takes place—that no-man’s land between Samaria and Galilee. They would capture their enemies and, if they could find any Egyptian traders nearby, they would sell them into slavery. That hatred was the basis for the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story Jesus used to question everything we know about who is our neighbor. And it’s the background for today’s story about a miraculous healing.

Despite all that separated Samaritans and Jews, as the story of the ten lepers begins, there is nothing left to distinguish one leper from another. All ten are united in their shared ostracization from society. Leprosy was any number of stigmatizing skin ailments that required complete separation from other people. You could not worship with the community. You could not stay in your own home. You could not eat with your own family. You could not embrace those you loved in times of joy or loss. You lived completely and totally apart. “Unclean, unclean!” you would yell in public places in order to make sure that people knew to stay away from you. And, if you dared to get close enough to touch someone, you could be put to death. You were no longer rich or poor, male or female, Samaritan or Jew. You were simply defined by the illness that held you prisoner.

These ten lepers, united in their condition, were united in their plea for mercy: “Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” And, from a distance, Jesus answered their request: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And, as they went, they were healed. The miraculous healing itself is overshadowed by what follows. There was no dramatic prayer, no intimate touch, no incantation or prescription, just Jesus working his power from a safe distance. But as soon as they were healed, something powerful happened: the ethnic distinction, which had been hidden by their leprosy, suddenly recrystallized. 

Jesus told them all to go and show themselves to the priests at the temple, but the Samaritan did not have access to that religious option. He did not have a place among God’s people at the holy mount. Being examined by a priest was a necessary step in the process of being readmitted to Jewish society. What was this Samaritan supposed to do? Presumably, he had his own separate religious rites for rejoining his people. But, instead of walking toward Mt. Gerizim, he turned around and came back to Jesus. Praising God with a loud voice and falling at the Jewish rabbi’s feet, he thanked him. 

“Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus asked. It’s easy to hear those words as a criticism of the other nine, but they were simply doing the right thing, the very thing that Jesus had asked them to do. It seems unlikely if not unreasonable for Jesus to be upset with them. Perhaps a better translation would be, “Of the ten, how remarkable that this stranger was the only one who came back to give praise to God!” Jesus marvels on our behalf that a Samaritan, separated from all that Jesus represented by generations of sectarian conflict and violence and hatred, was moved to return and offer thanks. And that faith, Jesus tells us, is what made that man well.

Sometimes gratitude is harder to show than others. Last week, I was getting my haircut when the conversation turned to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. “There isn’t much to be thankful for this year,” one of the other customers remarked from behind his mask, giving voice to the struggle that all of us are feeling. But one of the barbers immediately piped up, “Sure there is! It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to see it.” We are all untied in our struggle and in our suffering. There is no one among us—friend or foe, sibling or rival—who has not been hurt by the pandemic. We all have good reason to shake our fist at God and grumble about how difficult these last nine months have been. And God would receive our grumbling graciously and lovingly, as a parent receives the pain and struggle of a child.

But this is also a remarkable opportunity to be thankful and to express our gratitude. It takes a little more work this year than usual to name those things for which we are thankful, but there is restorative power in doing so. Practicing thanksgiving allows us to stay connected with one another and with God not only in our struggle but also in our restoration. It reminds us that we are not alone even when we are isolated from one another. And it brings forward into our conscious lives that truth that lives within us even when it is hidden by our struggles—that we are beloved by God, that we are saved by God’s love, and that God will forever hold us in God’s loving arms.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Criteria for Judgment


November 22, 2020 – Proper 29A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 20:20.

Have you seen the meme that depicts a ladle of soup being poured into a bowl held by outstretched arms? The picture is accompanied by the words, “Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized. He cares about how you treat people.” It’s been popular on social media this week, and I can’t tell if that’s because we’re getting close to Thanksgiving or because my friends who are socially-conscious Episcopalians want to wave this Sunday’s gospel lesson in the faces of their more scripturally-conscious counterparts from other traditions. Well, today I want to start this sermon by saying something controversial, which I hope I will be able to clear up by the time I’m finished. While it’s true that Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized, it’s also true that he doesn’t care how you treat people. What do I mean by that?

Today’s gospel lesson isn’t about caring for the poor, the sick, the stranger, and the imprisoned. It’s about judgment. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” In this passage, Jesus isn’t evaluating candidates for the Rotary Four-Way Test award or the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s sitting in ultimate judgment of all the nations, and he’s separating one from another as easily as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. We can’t rightly understand what he’s telling us about how we’re supposed to treat each other until we hear what he’s saying about judgment.

For two long chapters of Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus has been on a tear about judgment. One day soon, he declares, everything will change. The Jerusalem temple will be destroyed. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give out its light. Suffering will befall all people, including the beloved children of God. And that day of judgment is coming when no one expects it—like a thief in the night, like a bridegroom who arrives at midnight, like a master who returns and demands an accounting from his servants. When it came to judgment, back in Jesus’ day, everyone wanted to know the same thing we still want to know today—when will God finally come and set all things right? When will God at last separate the wicked from the righteous, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares? And today’s gospel lesson is Jesus’ answer to that persistent question, and his answer caught everyone by surprise.

As Jesus begins this description of judgment, at first everything sounds just as we would expect it to. The Son of Man is to be seated on his glorious throne, surrounded by angels. He is to gather all the nations and separate them once and for all. So far that sounds right. What else would we expect from God’s ultimate judgment besides a clear and decisive vindication for God’s people and a rejection of God’s enemies? No problem there. But, when Jesus begins to describe the criteria for that judgment, everything that the world has always expected gets turned on its head. 

Jesus explains that those who are gathered at his right hand will be the ones who gave him food when he was hungry and drink when he was thirsty. They were the ones who welcomed him when he was a stranger and clothed him when he was naked. They were the ones who took care of him when he was sick and visited him when he was in prison. Even the righteous themselves are surprised to hear what the King is saying. After learning that they are to be welcomed into God’s eternal habitations, they respond in utter disbelief. “When was it that we saw you in need and helped you?” they ask. And Jesus delivers to them and to us the crucial teaching of this passage: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.”

The surprising truth of God’s judgment is that God’s ultimate ordering of the universe manifests itself not in broad strokes that divide humanity along national, ethnic, or macroscopic lines, but according to the microscopic minutiae of everyday life. For all of salvation history, God’s people had understood that one day God would separate them from their enemies, but now Jesus was inviting them to see that, when God sets the world in its ultimate order, the distinction between those who belong at God’s right hand and those who are to be cast into eternal punishment is clearest when we look at how we have lived each day. The way we care for others or ignore the needs of those around us is, in fact, the clearest indication of whether we belong to God.

But don’t mistake the sign for the thing that it is pointing to. Jesus does not simply reward those who gave food to the hungry and drink to those who thirst, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who ministered to the sick and visited those in prison. He welcomes to his right hand those who did those things to him—those who cared for Jesus, their Lord and Savior, by caring for the least of the members of his family. How they cared for those in need is a sign—an indication—of their deeper identity, their fundamental belonging to God. And it is that identity, that allegiance, that belonging that distinguishes those at the right hand and those at the left.  

Neither the righteous nor the unrighteous recognized the significance of what they were doing or neglecting to do. But Jesus, the Son of Man, recognized it within them. If the point of this passage was that only those who care for the needy will receive a heavenly reward, we would all be in serious trouble. Sure, we’re mostly kind and generous and, at times, even selfless. But what about that one time when we don’t give $20 to the panhandler on the street? What about the extra jacket hanging in our closet? What about the sick and imprisoned whom we have never even thought about visiting? What if one of them is Jesus? What happens if we fail him when it really counts?

Thanks be to God that God’s judgment does not work like that. The question for us is not how many poor and needy individuals we will help in this lifetime, nor is it how many Bible verses we will commit to memory. The question is whether we will give ourselves over completely to the one who cares for the poor and the needy, who rescues the lost and the broken, who embraces the outcast and the unloved. The question for us is whether we will belong to God and thus allow the way of Jesus to transform our lives. 

You cannot get to heaven by feeding or clothing or otherwise caring for those in need. You get there by belonging to God in Jesus Christ. But you cannot belong to God in Jesus without feeding and clothing and caring for those in need. Those are the indispensable characteristics of the divine life. Those are the clearest descriptions of what a life that belongs to God looks like. When the Son of Man comes and sits upon his throne in judgment, he will not ask you what Bible verses you have memorized or how many times you cared for those in need. He won’t have to ask. Those are not the criteria for God’s judgment. They are the fruit of the lives of the people who belong to God.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Honest Worship Changes Us


November 8, 2020 – Proper 27A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 20:10.)

What do you miss most about worship at St. Paul’s? It has been exactly eight months since a congregation bigger than ten gathered for Sunday-morning worship here in the nave. What do you miss? What do your heart and soul ache for? Over the last few weeks, I have bumped into several members of our congregation who have discovered that the building is open every weekday for private prayer, and I’ve heard several of you say how much you have missed just stepping into this holy space. Many of us miss the people—both the familiar individuals we see when we gather together but also the whole congregation—the mass of people filling the pews, lifting their voice toward God as one. Some of us miss the music—feeling our bodies resonate with the powerful organ or the congregation’s full-throated signing of a favorite hymn. Several have told me how much they long for Communion—the consecrated body and blood of our savior and the unity between us that that sacrament both reflects and inspires. 

For many of us it is the liturgy itself that we miss most—not only receiving Communion but standing and sitting and kneeling and singing and listening and praying together the familiar and comforting words of our worship. What we do here in church every Sunday is an anchor for the rest of our week. This place and the prayers we offer within these walls provide steadiness in a chaotic time, reassurance in the midst of anxiety, access to God when God feels so far away. No wonder we miss it so much. We need it now as much as ever, and yet we must remain apart, at least for now. We all miss worshipping at St. Paul’s, but I wonder what God misses most about our worship.

Hopefully, God thinks more highly of our solemn assembly than the worship that took place back in Amos’ day. “I hate, I despise your festivals,” God declared, using two verbs of rejection in order to intensify God’s sense of displeasure, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Actually, the word the prophet uses to pronounce God’s judgment against Israel’s worship is the word for smell—God refuses to smell the fragrance of their convocations. Then, the attack on the senses continues. “The offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harp.” The prophet wants the people to know that there is absolutely nothing about their worship that God will accept—not the sight or sound or smell of anything that they offer to God. Everything they do in worship is abhorrent to the Lord. 

But why? Are the harps out of tune? Are the cantors under-rehearsed? Are the burnt offerings undercooked? Are the sacrifices less than perfect? In some chapters of Israel’s history, the prophets take exception with the content of the people’s worship. Out of laziness or greed, the people stop giving back to God their very best and instead bring whatever is left over—the lame and diseased livestock and the grain that has already spoiled. But not this time. This time, as far as we can tell, the music and offerings and incense were of the highest quality—a reflection of the people’s economic prosperity. In Amos’ day, God rejected the people’s worship because it was all show and no substance—because it went through all of the motions but didn’t make a difference in the people’s lives.

In the last verse of today’s lesson, God named for God’s people what was missing: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” We know that verse out of context because the prophets of our own day have used it to name God’s vision for our society. But, for Amos, it was the distillation of everything that was missing from among God’s people.

When Amos travelled from the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel, he brought a challenging message to a people that didn’t want to hear it. This was a time of great prosperity and security. The markets were up. The borders were secure. Trade routes and trade deals kept goods flowing in and out of the country and profits flowing into the coffers of business executives and government officials. People enjoyed both summer and winter houses (3:15). Their furniture was plush and opulent (6:4). They drank and ate and adorned themselves without limit (4:1; 6:6). 

All the while, as the rich got richer, the poor sank deeper into poverty. They lost their homes to unchecked gentrification (2:6-7). They were denied justice by judges and politicians who accepted bribes (5:10, 12). They were cheated in the marketplace by dishonest merchants and left to starve by those who cared only about making money (8:5). And what did all of that have to do with worship? Why was the prophet so intent on declaring God’s rejection of the people’s offerings and prayers? Because religion that is only practiced in temples and synagogues and churches and not in streets and marketplaces and housing developments is not religion at all. Because worship that pretends to ascribe honor and glory and praise to God without shaping its people in the ways of God is nothing more than self-congratulatory entertainment.

In Amos’ day, people flocked to sacred shrines in order to celebrate their prosperity. At Bethel, God had revealed Godself to the people’s namesake, Jacob, whom God had renamed Israel. At Beer-Sheba, God had met each of the patriarchs in order to reassure them with the promise that God would always be with them. At Gilgal, Joshua had built an altar of twelve stones where the people had crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land. It was at Gilgal where Saul had been crowned Israel’s first king. At these three centers of ancestral power, God’s people celebrated God’s limitless favor and endless blessing, but, back in the cities and towns, people were hungry and homeless, helpless and hopeless. And God wasn’t going to put up with it any more. God wasn’t going to receive the prayers and offerings of a people who ignored the very ones God cared about most, no matter how beautiful their worship was.

You cannot worship our God in a place of splendor while God’s people live in squalor. You cannot give glory to the Most High and ignore the depths of the people’s suffering. You cannot preach a message of salvation when there are people who need rescuing right on the other side of the church’s doors. Real worship—God-centered worship—is not merely a sacred performance or an offering to the Almighty of our Sunday best. It is a transformative encounter with the one who welcomes the stranger, lifts up the downtrodden, speaks good news to the poor, and binds up the brokenhearted. It is a moment when sinful, selfish human beings like us are met by the one who loves them and whose love has the power to make them holy. And real worship does just that—it shapes us into a reflection of our holy God so that we might take the truth of who God is with us back into the world for the rest of the week.

That kind of transformation happens whenever worship is honest. We must be honest about who God is and what God demands and about ourselves and our inability to meet those demands without God’s help. When we come to worship, we bring to God our very best because God is the one to whom only our best can be given. But we also acknowledge before God our very worst because we recognize our brokenness and our sinfulness and because we know that we need God’s help if we are going to be a part of making justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. That’s why we come back to this place every week—in order to remember who God is and who we are and to be transformed by an encounter with God’s perfecting love. 

If our worship is going to be honest—if we are going to be honest before God—we must know and trust and believe that God’s love is bigger than our failures, that God’s capacity to forgive is more powerful than our capacity to sin. That’s what makes worship at St. Paul’s truly special. This is a safe place to be a sinner because we believe that God’s love has no limits. But it’s also a place that believes that God calls us out of our sinfulness and into new lives of holiness. And, most important of all, it’s a place that believes that God will meet us here in order to make that transformation possible.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Seeing the World through Jesus' Eyes


November 1, 2020 – All Saints’ Day

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 23:50.)

“One was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green: they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” Today is All Saints’ Day, the day when the church celebrates all of her saints—those who lived “not only in ages past” but also the “hundreds of thousands still” here on the earth. Saints of God are the holy men and women and children who live among us and in every generation who, as the hymn declares, love to do Jesus’ will. But what does that really mean? What does it take to be a saint? How much do you really have to love doing Jesus’ will?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus describes a way of life that we often associate with sainthood: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those who are persecuted.” Isn’t that what sainthood looks like and sounds like—meekness and mercy, persecution and poverty of spirit? But how will even our best intentions get us to that vision of holiness? What could ever make the hymn we sing about wanting to be saints of God and meaning to be saints of God something more than a Sunday-school pipe dream?

We can take heart in knowing that Jesus’ words aren’t a prescription for holiness. They aren’t a recipe for sainthood. They are a description of blessedness. These are the characteristics of God’s favor. These words describe the people and places where God and God’s salvation are to be found. The only imperative Jesus offers comes at the very end, when he tells his hearers to rejoice and be glad. As strange as it may sound for a preacher to say it, those of us who wish to be numbered among the saints of God aren’t supposed to go out and pursue a mournful countenance or purity of heart. In fact, as Christians we believe exactly the opposite—that saints of God aren’t holy people whom God claims for his own but ordinary, flawed, sinful people like you and me whom God claims for his own in order that they might be made holy.

The way that Matthew sets up this gospel episode is important. Right before this passage starts, at the end of Matthew 4, we see that Jesus’ popularity has undergone a meteoric rise. Starting with the villages near his home town, Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people.” And the people noticed. His fame spread quickly throughout the region, and, before long, crowds from all over were flocking to him so that he might heal the sick, diseased, lame, and demon possessed among them. Soon he was unable to go anywhere without a great crowd following his every move. And that’s where today’s gospel lesson starts—with Jesus surveying the crowd around him and deciding to go up on the mountain to sit down.

Matthew doesn’t tell us that Jesus left the crowd or that he went away from them. Nor does he mention that the crowd dispersed and went home. No, all he tells us is that Jesus saw the crowd and then went up on the mountain and sat down and began to speak to the disciples and teach them about the kingdom of God. But where did the crowd go? Where did the unrelenting mass of people who were desperate to see and hear and touch Jesus go? I don’t think that they went anywhere. I think that, as Jesus began to teach his disciples the strange truth about where God’s blessedness is to be found, the crowd was standing close enough to hear him—close enough to overhear what Jesus was teaching the disciples. And I like to imagine that the crowd, who had been impressed by Jesus’ ministry but hadn’t quite understood what he was all about, heard these strange words as an invitation to a new way of seeing the world. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit? Blessed are those who mourn? Blessed are the meek and merciful? Those who yearn for righteousness and who suffer persecution? In what bizarro world is that true? In this world, Jesus tells us, when we finally see the world as God sees it. Jesus did not come to the earth to win any political campaigns or to build a new religious institution. He came in order that we might be saved from our sins and reconciled to God and to each other. And that doesn’t happen in places where people already have everything figured out, in communities where everyone has all of their needs met, in households where prosperity insulates people from the brokenness of the world. No, God’s salvation—God’s blessing and favor—come to those who are desperate for it. And Jesus came to show us that truth.  

He is the one who reveals strength in weakness and salvation through sacrifice. He is the one who welcomes the outcast and lifts up the downtrodden. He is the one who shows God’s love for the unlovable and God’s blessing among those whom the world holds in scorn. He is the one who dies a shameful death so that sinners like you and me might have everlasting life. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—to see the world through those eyes. That’s what it means to be a saint of God—not to be an example of holiness for all the world to admire but to give our lives over to the one who came to proclaim God’s blessedness among the poor, the hungry, the meek, and the mournful. And those of us who believe that—who believe that that’s where God’s blessedness is to be found—are the ones who are made holy by God in Jesus Christ. That’s what makes us saints.

If that sounds strange to you, don’t worry: it is strange. It’s strange to think of the poor in spirit as the ones who display the riches of faith. It’s strange to see those who mourn as the ones who have a claim on true joy. In fact, it is so strange that, as Jesus warns his disciples, the world will push back against those who inhabit that strange approach to life. “Blessed are you,” he tells them, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” And what are his disciples to do in the face of such rejection? “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” If Jesus isn’t speaking these strange words directly to you, don’t worry. You’re still close enough to hear them, and the invitation is yours if you want it. 

In every generation, there are saints among us who have caught a glimpse of what the world looks like through Jesus’ eyes. They are the strange sort of people who have devoted their lives to the belief that the way of poverty, struggle, emptiness, and loss is the way that leads to abundant, overflowing life. They are the ones who know what it means to be saved not by the goodness of their own making but by the blessedness given to them by Jesus. They are, in fact, disciples of Jesus—sinners made holy by the grace of God, chosen and beloved to become God’s saints, “and there’s not any reason, no not the least, why [we] shouldn’t be one too.”