Anglican Church of Canada
All Saints October 30, 2016
Sometimes a Bible passage can speak to what is going on in our lives in a particularly direct way. Fifteen years ago I was beginning a new job, teaching at the seminary in Montreal. I was scheduled to preach for the first time in the college chapel. The date was September 12th, 2001. And suddenly, the day before, I found myself, with the rest of the world, reeling in shock at an act of unspeakable senseless violence. I think many of us were speechless that day, unable to find the words to name what had happened to all of us. So how was I to find words to preach, words that would speak of God’s kingdom in a situation that seemed to scream the very opposite at us?
So I looked, as I always do, to the lectionary, the schedule of Scripture readings for the day, to see what “chance” had thrown my way. The text was the gospel passage we have just heard, the Beatitudes of Jesus in St. Luke’s version. And suddenly, there were the words I could never have found for myself: Jesus himself was speaking to us, directly into our situation, words of comfort and affirmation, words of judgement and strict warning, healing words, honest words, powerful words. I have never been able to hear this passage again without thinking of that day.
On that horrible day when the world seemed to have been turned upside down in chaos and hatred, Jesus spoke of an upside down world, but a world turned upside down in love and compassion. He spoke of a world where the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted were blessed; whereas the rich and smug and powerful and violent were cursed. And those words rang true. The great and powerful United States had been dealt a mortal blow; yet never in my lifetime do I remember such love and solidarity with America as was poured out that day. We were all Americans that day. And when was it ever so clear that, as terrible as it was to suffer violence, it was infinitely preferable to inflicting it on others: we felt solidarity with the victims, and nothing but contempt for the broken shells of human beings who could willingly inflict so much violence on others. There was a moral clarity that day in which Jesus’s words rang true. And those words showed us the way forward, in compassion and humility and peace-making.
How completely we failed the promise and the summons of that day; how quickly we turned from the wisdom of Jesus to the blind violence of revenge; how tragic have been the consequences of that moral failure for so many.
The passage is what is called the Beatitudes of Jesus, the “Blessèd ares” of Jesus. But it is the Beatitudes with a twist: we are much more familiar with the version in Matthew’s gospel: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Luke’s version is unfamiliar; it sounds off. It is starker, a much shorter list. It is more concrete: Luke doesn’t talk about the poor in spirit, he speaks quite simply about the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted. And finally, Luke gives us both sides; not just the blessings, but also the curses. But for all the differences, it is the same ethos that breathes through both lists.
They speak of a basic orientation towards life, a series of attitudes. It is an orientation very different from the general orientation of the world; it is like Jesus is giving us a new compass that guides us in completely different directions.
Or, to use another metaphor: most of you here are old enough to remember the old 45’s of the 50’s and 60’s. You remember how it worked: whenever a band had a hit, they released a single record with the hit song. But the record had two sides, so on the B-side they would put another song. Most of the time the B-side songs were just filler. But every now and then, the B-side song was a keeper; the A-side might still be the more popular hit, but for those with ears to hear it, the B-side was the real gem.
In the same way, the dominant values and attitudes and beliefs of our society are like the A-side, the popular assumptions about how to live our life. Jesus’s teaching completely turns these values on their head; his is the B-side teaching, for those with ears to hear, he gives us (pardon the pun) the B-attitudes, the flip side of the attitudes that are so prevalent in this world.
Blessed are the poor. Well, that certainly isn’t the way of the world. The A-attitude, throughout human history, is that the poor are to be despised: they are losers, they are freeloaders, they are failures at the business of life, which is to accumulate all the wealth and power you can. There is an illustration making the rounds on social media, an old Sunday school painting of Jesus teaching the crowds with the words “Blessed are the poor” – and in the crowd, a figure with the photoshopped head of Donald Trump shouts “WRONG!”. Well, that’s the A-attitude right there. Jesus flips it over: the poor are blessed, they are cherished and particularly beloved by God. They offer great gifts to all of us: the gift of freedom from the empty drive to succeed, to accumulate more wealth and power; freedom to care for others, not putting ourselves first; freedom to empathize with one another in our weaknesses.
Blessed are the hungry. Again, the A-attitude is the opposite: the thing is to be full and satisfied all the time. Jesus offers us a B-attitude: hunger teaches us something we forget when we have it all. It teaches us to long for a better world, to care for others who go without, to hunger and thirst for justice, as Matthew says.
Blessed are you who weep. The A-attitude, of course, is that grief and sorrow are unpleasant, so we should just ignore them, pretend they are not there. Jesus teaches us to embrace and befriend our sorrow. Sorrow is, after all, part of love: we can only avoid grieving if we have never loved anyone. Where the world teaches us to turn away from those in pain, Jesus gives us the courage to reach out to them in compassion.
Blessed are you when you are persecuted. Not, as the world teaches, when we strike back, and strike back hard, but when we turn the other cheek. Not because suffering is good in itself; God’s kingdom, the hope we hold onto, is of a world without suffering. But for the moment, suffering and wrongdoing are part of this world. Jesus’s B-attitude teaches us to break through the cycle of violence and counterviolence, to absorb the wrongs that are thrown at us rather than throwing them back, to put them to rest in forgiveness.
Today is All Saints Sunday. It is a day to reflect on the saints of the church, on the attitudes and behaviour they exhibit. It is a day to reflect on holiness, and what it looks like when lived in this world. It is a day to reflect on our own calling to be saints, our own true identity as those who orient their lives and attitudes on Jesus, who seek true holiness.
And, really, what a perfect choice today’s gospel reading is, when you think of it like that. The Beatitudes, the B-attitudes, the alternative attitudes that Jesus teaches us that are the root of true holiness. Because there is no passage in all of Scripture that names so clearly and uncompromisingly who we are called to be.
We are called to be saints in the practice of poverty: to share in God’s love for the poor, to practice restraint and modesty and generosity, to let ourselves be set free from the drive to accumulate wealth and power.
We are called to be saints, to cultivate hunger, that holy restlessness and discontent with a world that is not as it should be; to keep our eyes and hearts open for injustice, and to pray and work and strive for justice in this world.
We are called to be saints who are not afraid to weep, not afraid to embrace the pain of others and our own pain, to refuse the temptation to turn our backs on those in need, to continue to love, even when we feel helpless and hurting – to practice compassion.
We are called to be saints who are willing to suffer wrong from time to time, to turn the other cheek, to forgive, to refrain from lashing back; saints who are dedicated to ending the cycle of violence that plagues our world.
How moved I am this week by the witness of the protesters at Standing Rock in North Dakota. I don’t know how closely you are following this story, but what I see in everything I read about this inspires me. I see people who are standing up for the belief that there are more important things in life than profit, who have found some freedom from the drive for acquisition that controls our governments and oil companies. I see people who are not afraid to mourn, who are in touch with the deep pain of their heritage as First Nations peoples, and are determined to draw strength from that pain for a better future. I see people with a burning hunger for justice for the land, the water, the air, and the people who depend on them. I see people committed to the cause of non-violence, determined to resist the brutal methods employed against them with prayer, truth-telling, and solidarity. I see people living the B-attitudes of Jesus; I see saints.
So, please remember the people of Standing Rock in your prayers. Pray that they be protected from harm; that they may be strengthened to remain true to their principles of non-violence; pray that they may be effective in their witness. And pray with thanksgiving, that there are people in the world, in many unexpected places, who show us how to live the B-attitudes of Jesus. May they inspire us to live ourselves more faithfully as saints of God.